Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sense and Sentimentality


Somehow, Deep Down Inside, we all knew that it was going to end in divorce between the 2 of them.

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When Florentino Perez became the President of Real Madrid for a second time, many probably felt that here we were again, right back on the pattern of hiring and firing at least one coach per season till the silverware came along. Our suspicions were validated when Manuel Pellegrini, was only given a 2 year contract. And those suspicions came true when he lost his job at the end of the season. Once again, Madridisimo were left to lament the lack of continuity and strategic thinking within the club.
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We’ve now moved into the world of the corporatized football club where varying business models are employed. And in this day in age, it is interesting to see how English Clubs, are starting to take on the continental organizational model in their structuring. The days where an all-encompassing manager ala Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger who essentially run the club himself and is answerable only to the club Chairman and Board of Directors – seems to be fading away. Enter the organizational model that seems to be more prevalent in Europe where a Sporting Director makes decisions like transfer and youth team policy while the coach is merely there to ‘coach’ literally in Spanish: Entrenador – a ‘trainer’.
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Florentino’s Real Madrid v1.0 was a mangled version of this latter model. As we all know, transfer policy wasn’t decided on the basis of filling in the key positional needs of the team on the pitch, but was instead decided by France Football’s Balon D’ Or selection committee. It was also said that he tried to be the coach too: strongly influencing coaching decisions that included the distribution of playing time among players. This was why Florentino v1.0 model failed: because while Calderon was a crook, Perez was a megalomaniac.
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Florentino’s Real Madrid v2.0 sought to correct these ‘errors’ – by choosing to APPEAR to take a more hands-off role and more of just a figurehead presence. To APPEAR to run the club on a day-to-day basis, he then decided to employ the silver-tongued Jorge Valdano as a ‘CEO’ as the Director General (fancy-sounding title) to APPEAR as the man to run the day-to-day affairs of the club. He also employed Miguel Pardeza to the role of Sporting Director, while the coach continued to be ‘merely a coach’. Under normal circumstances, having a Chairman-CEO-Sporting Director-Coach system actually isn’t fundamentally wrong: but if the first 3 men in this chain were all pretending to be football managers (where in fact it’s the job only of the Sporting Director and Coach), then we’re in for quite a messy sporting direction – even when you have a gentlemanly coach like Manuel Pellegrini who will not remonstrate when not heard. Substitute Jose Mourinho, having been given the role of a Ferguson-esque Manager in the Premier League to play the role of this ‘meek coach’ and expected to be dictated upon by this ‘Director General’ and ‘Sporting Director’ – then you’re surely be in for an explosion. And that’s what happened.
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Sid Lowe in one of his appearances in the Guardian’s podcast has assessed the situation perfectly: “Real Madrid have made a faustian pact with Jose Mourinho” he once said.
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Valdano was merely the lamb we sacrificed on his altar.
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The fact that it is Valdano who is the lamb that is being sacrificed is the reason why large parts of Madridisimo lament, or perhaps are even indignant over what has happened. Valdano by all accounts, was a gentleman of the game: eloquent, well-mannered and possessing of the values of Real Madrid which he has absorbed in his years as a player coach, and an officer of the club in various front office functions. This is why it hurts – because it was Valdano… and not because Real Madrid had undergone a re-structuring. If it was Pedja Mijatovic, no one would care – many in fact, would have celebrated. So while we are all free to understandably be sad at what has happened, let us acknowledge that it is out of sentimentality that we feel this way. But let us not let sentimentality cloud how we perceive the situation.
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It is true that Real Madrid have made a faustian pact with Jose Mourinho. It is also true that the only reason why Perez has decided to abandon the organizational system that we’ve employed for so long (the Chairman-CEO-Sporting Director-Coach system) in favor of the British-style Manager system is Jose Mourinho. Accepting this organizational change however could only mean redundancies in the roles of Valdano and Pardeza: it effectively reduces them to mere window dressing functions: roles they too know is beneath them. There are only a few men on earth who have a fully developed set of skill capable of such an enormous task and Mourinho is one of them. His accomplishments in Porto, Chelsea and Inter are proof. And though we are not yet able to include Real Madrid in his honor roll of accomplishments, there are plenty of signs from this past season that give merit to the argument in his favor.
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With Mourinho as the Manager-God on top of the heap, answerable only to Perez, Jose Angel Sanchez and the board of directors, this may actually be the opportunity for the club to make the necessary sweeping structural changes across all areas of the club to re-work its playing philosophy and identity for the longer term: something that has become impossible in our years of hire-and-fire-till-we-win policy towards coaches. So at the end of the day, I invite all Real Madrid fans not to see this as being about the sacking of Valdano, but more about the decision to make a structural change in the organizational setup of the club.
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Mourinho has signed a 4 year contract. Perez is up for re-election at the end of next season.  There is reason to believe that Florentino will win a second term and Mourinho can finish his contract or, perhaps even extend his stay at Real Madrid… and we will all see for ourselves if this decision to shift to a British Manager system  works out for Madrid.
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I can only imagine that for Florentino, it does make a lot of sense…
-He’s tried to be ‘the manager himself’ and failed
-He’s tried to let a group of men be the manager and failed.
-Now he’s about to try if a single man can do it.
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Let’s all hope not just for his sake, but for ours and Real Madrid’s sake too… that this single man is truly a Special One.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Just Smiles

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So that was how the season ended for Real Madrid. Sadly, it’s another bridesmaid finish for us with the eternal rival taking all the plaudits and the bigger one, among the 2 domestic titles that were up for grabs at the start of the season. Nevermind that the Copa Del Rey trophy pre-Sergio Ramos looks far more elegant to the gangly and grotesque-looking La Liga trophy (complete with studs) – winning La Liga is still the ultimate proof that Barcelona this season were the better team. I will admit to that much.
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We will of course look back to the points we had dropped to La Liga’s relegation battlers (e.g. Sporting, Zaragoza, Levante, etc.) as the culprit to our 2nd place league finish yet again. And yet again for us, the season ends at 2nd place, many weeks before the referee blows the whistle on the final game of the season. The difference between this season and that of those from seasons past where we:
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- Went on a losing streak to end the season after the 2-6 hammering at the hands of Barca during Juande Ramos’ short spell with us,

- Ended the season with a fuck-it-we’ve-lost-the-title-anyway draw during our last match last season with Pellegrini
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This season, as the referee blew the whistle during the last match – there were at least a few reasons to smile about. A few humble goals to fight for.
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-Cristiano Ronaldo was on the hunt for the goal/s that would break the La Liga goal-scoring record set by Hugo Sanchez and Telmo Zarra. And he wanted to be recognized as a record-breaker NOT ONLY by the delusional idiots at Marca.
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-Kaka and Karim Benzema were still out to prove that Florentino Perez was not wrong to use them as part his second coming’s ‘flagship galacticos’. Perhaps this was more so with Kaka, who seems to have all but lost his place as the team’s preferred ‘10’ to steal-of-the-summer Mesut Ozil. For Benzema, last Saturday Night’s game was merely for him to show us that his 2011 explosion into form had not been abruptly cut short by the niggles he’s gone through these last few weeks.
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-There’s also Emmanuel Adebayor: now facing the reality of waking up from the dream that has been his 2011 so far. The 2010-11 season had started out as a nightmare for him: warming the bench for Noveau-Rich pretenders Manchester City. In 2011, he then found himself in a dream: scoring goals in the Champions League Quarterfinal and lifting silverware for Real Madrid: a club whose pedigree is the subject of the insecurities of all Noveau-Rich Clubs like Man City – the source of most of his 2010 nightmares.
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-And finally, there’s 38-year-old Jerzy Dudek – playing his last game with the club and perhaps as a professional footballer. A Champions League winner (and a hero in a final-for-the-ages match that turned me into a Liverpool fan), and a great teammate. It was his farewell game with the club and with the Bernabeu.
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Tactics – Built-to-Attack-and-Entertain
A Formation fit for a friendly Exhibition:
It was a trivote... sort of... a 4-3-3 basically with 3 basic objectives: ATTACK, SCORE, ATTACK.
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In games like last Saturday’s, tactics are generally irrelevant. All we wanted to do was to score goals and entertain the crowd and all Almeria wanted to do was get out of there. Mourinho lined up our team exhibition-game style: a 4-3-3 with a single pivot (Xabi Alonso) with Kaka and Ozil as carilleros / interiores. The Brazilian and the German, while both comfortable as attacking midfielders are also generally allergic to tracking back when we don’t have possession – but clearly this was not a game for that. Up front, Ronaldo took up his preferred Left-sided attacking role (winger-cum-forward), Adebayor took on his assigned role as the target man, while Benzema started on the right side of the 3-pronged attack where his tendency to drift inwards offered Ramos the option to move forward. The same did not hold true however on the other side as the conservative Arbeloa was more a stay-put-on-my-side kind of guy: which explains the switching between Benzema and Ronaldo along both wings.
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Just a thought: imagine Sahin in the place of Kaka or Ozil and I can totally imagine this lineup working even during a real ‘competitive’ match.
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Consolation Closure for Ronaldo: 40 Goals.
Cristiano Ronaldo. 2 Goals, 2 Assists. 40 La Liga Goals. 53 Goals this season. I hate praising him, but he leaves us all with no choice.
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I finished off my last writing saying that 40 would be a nice round number for Ronaldo to get to in terms of his goalscoring exploits. Though there were nerves as to whether or not he’d actually be able to break the record, it took no more than 121 seconds to put those worries to bed. It seemed to me however that Ronaldo had already become happy with 39 as he shockingly opted for passes instead of shooting in a number of situations. That was until his missile with just under 80 minutes into the game gave him his 40th La Liga Goal. I was in Real Madrid Football Blog’s liveblog during the game: and we had started talking about how unbefitting a 40th goal would be if it was a penalty. It seemed that Cristiano heard our thoughts and replied with a heat-seeking, ground skimming missile seconds later. It was his 53rd overall goal of the season. Amazing.

Hi other highlights of course include the nice and tasty pass served on a platter for Benzema’s second goal, his attempt at a Raul-esque move to turn the goal keeper before poking into an empty net: he hit the post of course for Adebayor to tap-in. And lastly was the peach of a cross for debutante Joselu – allowing the Canterano’s first ever touch of the ball in his first ever appearance as a Real Madrid first-teamer to be a goalscoring one. Who knew that it was to be the supposedly selfish and sulky-when-he-doesn’t-score Ronaldo who would perform this beautiful, selfless act.
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A Last Hurrah Hat Trick for Adebayor?
It was Adebayor however who truly enjoyed Almeria’s we’re-already-dead-anyway attitude to the game. His first took full advantage of the most pathetic display of defending to latch onto a lovely Ozil pass to score. What was significant with his performance however was his fulfillment of the ‘battering ram #9’ role which Mourinho envisioned for him. It was his hold up play that set Ronaldo free to Ronaldo to make the assist for Benzema’s second goal. His other goals were also scored in line with his target man role: poaching the loose ball from Ronaldo’s missed attempt off the post for his second and getting a leg in to score after being targeted in a deadball situation.
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His place in the team for next season however will continue to be a question mark. 16m Euros is a lot of money for a squad player (I’m assuming of course that our first choice striker will be shared by Higuain and Benzema). And if we were to fork out cash for a target man, then I’d have to say that Sevilla’s Alvaro Negredo, scorer of 20 goals this season (2 better than 40m David Villa who gets his service from the Barca passing machine) at 18m is a much better deal, sentimentality included (as he played for RM Castilla). I can only agree with his signing if a substantial discount is given for not just for his transfer (in the region of 5-6m) and his wages.
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Benzema Shows How Cats Hunt
On the back of a supposed lunch date between Florentino Perez and a pack of Juventus bigwigs in search of French players, Benzema had to spend the days prior to the match insisting how that he wanted to stay in Madrid to fight for his place. And with Pipita already joining his national side for the Copa America – it was his chance to show off a bit to remind us that he wasn’t starting merely because Pipita wasn’t around but because he deserved it. Last Saturday’s performance was a marked improvement from his sluggish showing against Villarreal. His first goal was a display of tenacity and insistence to keep the ball as Almeria’s defenders tried to get to him 3-stooges-style. The finish however, just like his second goal was executed with the delicateness and finesse that only a Frenchman can pull off. Let’s not forget as well that there were moments in the match, when our no.9, ran so menacingly at the Almeria defenders that we were all reminded of another bald-headed Real Madrid #9 (the Brazilian striker Benzema adored as an idol).
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Just a couple of years ago, I was saddened to hear that Real Madrid had signed Klass-Jan Huntelaar because I had mistakenly thought that meant the end of my dream for us to sign Benzema. Part of last season’s big excitement for me was to see him part of our team – but it ended in disappointment for obvious reason. This season, with the help of Mourinho, his whip and his affinity for metaphors, Benzema has come along: 26 goals this season. So while its true that dogs make better hunting partners for hunters, Benzema has reminded us that in the wild: it’s the cats (not the housecats) who are the real, feared hunters.
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Showing Class
Many have left who are far greater than him as a player, but few can say that they were able to bid farewell to the Bernabeu the way Dudek did. Absolute Class from his teammates and the fans to send him off the way they did
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What I will remember from this match however, will not be Ronaldo’s 40th goal. It won’t Adebayor’s Hat trick, Benzema’s brace or even Joselu’s magical debut and goal. I will remember it however by the team’s classy act of forming a pasillo to honor their teammate Jerzy Dudek. Dudek was with us for 4 years (?) and hardly played a significant game – he won’t be remembered for any magical saves he made in big matches, he won’t be remembered by any of us for titles which he willed the team to win. In fact it was he who was between the sticks in many of our ill-fated Copa Del Rey exits at the hands of 3rd division clubs.
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To his teammates however, he was the elder statesman – the veteran who gave sound advice, and who set the example of being a professional. A hero who has held aloft the Champions League trophy as one of the key players from the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’, I’m pretty sure that his credibility was never in question. In a dressing room filled with men barely out of their teens, a man of his stature would surely be of great presence, importance and value to the coaching staff and his fellow players. That he would be greatly honored by his teammates for his 4 years with the club is no surprise – but that he would be given a Pasillo as a tribute while he made his way off the pitch to a standing ovation from the Bernabeu chanting his name is an act of class that truly befits Real Madrid.
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It was a truly refreshing moment to remind us all that despite the ugliness that we were apart of during those 2 weeks of clasico madness, what the essence of Madridisimo is all about.
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In the end there was only 1 title to celebrate.
No La Decima, No La Liga.
It was a season of consolation prizes in many ways.
But in the end, despite all that, there are reasons to be optimistic and look forward to the future. There is a great coach.
There is a great squad that whose core will be retained.
There is a great spirit in the team and in the club.
There will be continuity.
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And as the referee blew the whistle for our last match of the season, there was no jubilation.
Just Smiles.
And for now, that may just be good enough.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Por Que…? Pero… (Why…? But…)


(I posted this article first on Real Madrid Football Blog. The article can be found here):
Marca says it's 39, AS says it's 38 Goals just like the rest of the World. That Marca refuses to correct the number: What idiots and losers
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With 180 minutes of football left in the season and the outcome already decided, there has never been better time to experiment. Barca’s Pep Guardiola did the predictable: by supposedly throwing 6 canteranos in their match against Depor to bore us to a 0-0 scoreline. Mourinho did some experimentation too: not by sending in the neglected players of the season thus far (Canales and Pedro Leon come to mind) but by tinkering with the formation.
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With no Lass Diarra, it seemed sensible enough that a midfield of Pepe, now-proven effective as a pivot would partner Xabi Alonso. The presence of Granero in the starting XI was a pleasant surprise for most Madridistas too: we’re playing a Trivote with only one ‘defensive’ midfielder (Pepe) – yey…. Or so we thought. Once again, my guess as to what the formation looked like on paper vs. its actual application was wrong. What’s new right?
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A 5-3-2 becomes 3-5-2 or 3-2-3-2 or 3-4-3
Mourinho, sporting a new haircut and dressed up like a tourist last night and acted like one too: leisurely watching the game from his spot on the bench. All he really needed was a pair of binoculars hanging from his neck to complete the ensemble. Last night, he opted for what looked to me like a back 5 – employing 3 Central Defenders whose combination ON PAPER was perfect: an experienced and intelligent game-reading centerback (Carvalho), surrounded by 2 fast, powerful and physical defenders (Pepe to his Right and Ramos to his left) – All of them capable passers of the ball and good aerial defenders too. Further alongside them were Marcelo and Arbeloa playing as Wing Backs who were essentially given the entire flank as their personal channels forwards or backwards. With this ‘base’, Real Madrid seemed to be set up into a ‘convertible’ tactical system:
When 5 become 3: This is what Sunday Night's Formation against Villarreal looked like to me. Good Intent,  Bad execution
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It looked to me like a 5-3-2 that becomes a 3-4-3/3-5-2 when on the attack. When defending, Marcelo and Arbeloa would shift backwards to form a solid defensive line of 5. The 3 Central Midfielders were all comprised of creative players: Granero, Kaka and Xabi Alonso with Ronaldo and Benzema in the forward line in front of them. When we had the ball however, Marcelo and Arbeloa would then motor forward as midfielders while Kaka would move into an advanced role just behind or as part of the forward attacking line.
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POR QUE!?! POR QUE!?! POR QUE!?! (WHY? WHY?)
‘Why the F*CK!?!’ was probably what many Madrid fans were asking Mourinho, screaming at the television or their PCs (for those who were streaming) as they saw this tactical experiment. The truth is: I actually think that Mourinho did it to improve the team’s attack. He does after all know that the only thing that the team is playing for is Cristiano’s goalscoring record/s. There are 2 theories that spring to mind:
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1.)    Going with 3 at the back after all, was often Mourinho’s last roll of the dice in games where we needed a goal to tie or win (and we won most of the time). So perhaps to Mourinho’s view, it was more about the team playing with 3 at the back than with 5.
2.)    He wanted to ‘build the attack’ from deeper positions to afford Ronaldo with the space to run to: which is the Portuguese’s supposed preferred approach.
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PERO (But)…
While I do admire and consequently cannot fault the idea of wanting to try out a tactic that is normally employed in end-game situations to score goals, I find that there is a fundamental defect to the logic of it all: playing a 3-at-the-back system from the start of a match is always going to be a risk if:
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3.)    You don’t normally play with this system to start matches (because eventually, you’ll become defensively vulnerable)
4.)    You rob the system of it’s very essence and replace it with its polar opposite: by taking away the balls-to-the-wall attacking potential of the lineup by using ‘conservatively’ defensive players in key attacking roles (read: Arbeloa instead of Di Maria)
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I have a confession to make: I use a 3-5-2 (it’s my favorite among a few) when playing FIFA 2011 in my PSP. And when I started playing the manager mode with Real Madrid, my lineup looked something like this:
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My PSP formation for Real Madrid: defensively unsound but allows me to play the most of  the best attacking players together. What are Video Games for but for fantasy right?
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And while the formation works brilliantly for me IN THE VIDEO GAME, I’m not so sure that it can work in real life – but if there was an opportunity to do such a thing however, it was last night: with both teams’ respective fates in La Liga sealed up. So if we were ever really going to try out the formation from start to finish, why make the wimpy choice of using Arbeloa instead of Di Maria?
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The key thing that was missing in the lineup however was the presence of a ball-winning midfielder: something which could have done with the deployment of Pepe in this position (Albiol or Garay could’ve played as one of the 3 defenders for this formation). And while the use of Arbeloa on the right wing / wingback position would only result in a dull attack, playing without a ball-winning midfielder would result in a porous midfield which meant that our attacks would start from deeper positions, allowing Villarreal ample time to settle their defense before we could even get ourselves into their third when we had the ball. By the second half, Villarreal had essentially penetrated our midfield – having their way with our defense. This condition was also affirmed by the fact that our opening goal was created from counter attack that started from a much deeper position in the field as compared to our usual blitz counters. Having said that, let me just say: what a goal for Marcelo: a striker’s finish!
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Also, while Ronaldo, hungry for goals, thrived being in a position where he had miles of space to run with or without the ball when attacking, Benzema was unusually cumbersome and immobile and had me telling myself ‘Pipita would have done better’.
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All in all, I can say that while the idea to play with 3 or 5 at the back may one day have merits, last night’s incarnation of the system was a spectacular failure when evaluated based on the team’s capability to create goal-scoring chances.
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Ronaldo Saves the Game
Come to think of it, it just had to be Ronaldo to save the match. Last night, Ronaldo’s brace got him to 38 goals in the league and 51 in total this season (and no, I’m not paying any attention to Marca’s proclamation of 39 league goals). None of the tactical machinations that were designed for him to score actually worked. Thus, it was fitting for Ronaldo to have to ‘earn’ the opportunity to score from Free Kicks in fabulous positions. In the end, it was the memory of his Free Kicks that made me forget what our formation looked like during the second half: one that featured 6 defenders and 4 midfielders in a kind of mashed potato 5-5-0 formation (where Albiol played as a CM). Yuck.
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The season finally draws to a close on Saturday with Almeria paying us a visit at the Bernabeu. And with Ronaldo on 38 goals, tied with Hugo Sanchez and Telmo Zarra, he will have the perfect opportunity to break the record and set his own. What do you guys think? I say 40 is a nice round number.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Numerical Motivations

(This article of mine was first posted on Real Madrid Football Blog) - Feel Free to post your thoughts and comments on either site :) )
Ronaldo's Goalscoring Numbers have just been Awesome

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Fighting to win games when the outcome of the season for your team is already decided is a very tricky one – and this is exactly the case for Real Madrid version 2010-2011:
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Copa Del Rey – Champions
Champions League – Semi-Finalists
La Liga: 2nd place.
Short of an unprecedented through-the-roof explosion of the Camp Nou’s cagometro – a highly unlikely event: then Barcelona will be this year’s La Liga Champions. And even If we had managed to lose our last 3 matches, 3 straight wins for Valencia would still not be good enough to displace us from second place. So how does this team avoid a Juande Ramos-like collapse for the remaining dead rubbers of the season? By performing a selfless act to feed a selfish pursuit to create what in the bigger scheme of things, is a reflection of an absolutely united team. Confusing? Well that’s what happened last night.
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Having run out of silverware for their team to play for, the entire team last night played for one of their own to get a personal trophy for himself. By time the referee blew the final whistle, ignoring the possibility of adding another 4 minutes of extra time to the game, Cristiano Ronaldo had scored a hat trick and had the following numbers to his name:
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7 goals in 2 games
Owner of 6 out 12 of La Liga’s Hat Tricks for the Season
36 La Liga Goals in total this season
49 Goals Total for the season
He had overtaken Ferenc Puksas’s previous overall goalscoring record (43 I think) and his own personal best at Manchester United (42 if I’m not mistaken)
With 2 games to go, he is 2 goals away from matching Hugo Sanchez and Telmo Zarra’s record of 38 goals in a single season
He has also now scored 62 goals in 61 games for Real Madrid – meaning he has more goals scored than games played.
What numbers. What madness.
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In a world where superstar teammates are more likely to sabotage a pursuit for such an individual record, last night, Real Madrid’s players DELIBERATELY COLLUDED to ensure Ronaldo would have a comfortable margin over Lionel Messi in the race to be Pichichi. In doing so, they’ve also now made the possibility of matching or breaking Zarra and Hugol’s record that much more realistic. This collusion had been very apparent since the beginning of the game as we saw Ronaldo’s 3 other attacking partners (Higuain, Ozil and Di Maria) completely mangle Jose Mourinho’s standard attacking tactical alignment: creating oddball variations that saw Ozil or Pipita on the Right Wing and Di Maria at the ‘10’ position in their attempt to goad Ronaldo to push forward to attack and grab the goals. This whole scheme of course became obvious to everyone when Ozil decided against tapping the ball into an open goal and instead risked a pass to a surrounded Ronaldo to give the Portuguese his 2nd for the night.
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After the match, Higuain himself admitted: “I only wanted to play to regain my match fitness” he revealed (or something to that effect). “The challenge was to make Cristiano the league top scorer” said Pipita: the man who was in a supposedly bitter rivalry for goals with Ronaldo.
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Some Tactical Observations from the Testing of the 9s
Apart from the refreshing start handed to Antonio Adan (who also made way for the debut of Tomas Mejias), the match also seemed to be have been used as a testing ground for our strikers: all 3 of them getting minutes to show off which they probably knew to be some sort of assessment for them and the tactical scenarios where they can fit.
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It seems that in today's football: 2 fixed pivots seem to have become a basic necessity. A variety of strikers (a target man like Adebayor with a more mobile, technical striker who likes to drop deeper and help in the buildup play like Benzema) and the varied use of the wingers true wingers to provide width or inverted wingers to give numbers to the midfield (delegating to fullbacks the role of providing width) give the formation considerable flexibility. Each variant and its respective subvariants created by personnel availability have its own advantages and disadvantages.
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Pipita Higuain, despite not scoring a goal, actually ran around like a madman. The statistics show that he ran 10.2 km in the game – a figure that’s only second to Xabi Alonso who played almost 20 full minutes more than him (given that Pipita was subbed out shortly after the 70 minute mark). Within his role playing within the starting 4-2-3-1 formation, Pipita showed his tactical flexibility as well. He played the lone striker role making runs to drag defenders wide to open up space for Ronaldo or played off the shoulder of the last defender, constantly ready to beat the offside trap (where he was largely unsuccessful because of his lack of rhythm and fitness). One should also note that he played on the right side of midfield frequently as well: where he has in the past shown he can make a contribution.
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Higuain was then replaced by Karim Benzema in a substitution that also saw Ozil subbed out to make way for Adebayor. The outcome to me looked like a very interesting tactical experiment – as it turned our lineup into a more conventional 4-4-2 with:
-2 pivots (1 creative = Xabi Alonso and 1 defensive = Xabi Alonso). The operative term here is ‘pivot’ and not midfielder – i.e. the player being discussed HOLDS his position in midfield and does not dilly dally into the opposing third which is what Xabi Alonso but not Kaka or Ozil in case some might be tempted to perceive them in this role.
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-2 natural wingers that can play on the flanks as true wingers (i.e. the right footed Ronaldo on the right and the left-footed Di Maria on the left) to allow for a more ‘traditional 4-4-2’. But also, this ‘traditional’ configuration could be converted into a more ‘contemporary’ version when the 2 wingers can be inverted at an instant by merely switching wings – allowing both to tuck to an inside position for fullbacks to overlap to provide width while on attack.
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-2 strikers with each one having distinctly different characteristics: Adebayor, who offers strength, aerial power and a presence to knock the ball up to and Benzema who offers a certain degree of pace, a good degree of skill on the ball – but also a tendency to drop deep and participate in buildup play. The Frenchman also showcased his newfound skill developed under the guidance of Mourinho: movement off the ball. Without this, he might not have been there to ghost into the box for Xabi Alonso’s looping pass to find him and allow him to score on his first 2 touches of the game. Mr. ‘I-like-the-ball-played-at-my-feet’ has clearly grown up quite a bit and added this new dimension to his game: one that allows him to make even more use of his obvious talents. The jury is still out on Adebayor though. The numbers don’t seem to favor him so far: he’s made 18 appearances since joining us on January but has only managed 5 goals – good number of them while playing garbage minutes while he has yet to use the characteristics that Mourinho likes in a striker (and in him) to win a permanent place in the side.
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My observations re: the striking combination employed by Mourinho last night however do not necessarily denote that a contrast of characteristics is necessary. Rossi and Nilmar of Villarreal have certainly proven that – as does the few times we’ve had the joy of seeing Pipita and Benzema play together upfront with both being fully fit.
What does strike me about this ‘trial’ formation though is that whilst a huge portion of Madridisimo is perhaps going ‘Alti-WHO!??!’ in reaction to the supposed prospective signing of Bayern’s Hamit Altintop, I find myself rubbing my chin at the coincidence of his prospective arrival with this ‘experiment’. Altintop after all is a player who can play across the entire midfield line (in either wing position or as a pivot) in this system.
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To El Madrigal!
While the nature of the match as a dead rubber has had most of us (including the Bernabeu) look upon it with a certain level of aloofness, I’m very pleased to see that the excitement of the ‘pre-season’ has already begun for us: a new signing and some on-the-pitch tactical experiments as well. What is more exciting however is the ironic nature behind last night’s success: that is was not a case of the individuals making sacrifices for a ‘general collective’, but of the collective working together for individuals – knowing full well that at the end of the day, the beneficiary is also still the collective. Confusing eh? That’s sort of the beauty in it.
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Up next is a trip to El Madrigal. Many have said that our run-in to the season ender would be a tough one because of the away games on our fixture list on the home stretch with trips to Spain’s toughest grounds on the cards: San Mames, the Mestalla, Sanchez Pizjuan and El Madrigal. We haven’t done too badly though: 0-3 at San Mames, 3-6 at the Mestalla and 2-6 at the Sanchez Pizjuan: an aggregate score of 5-15 to our favor for these supposedly difficult road trips – an average of a manita (5 goals) per game. Not too shabby.
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Sounds like a reason to look forward to this Sunday’s game.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Welcome Nuri

Nuri Sahin: A Fantastic Signing in my opinion

So it’s official. Nuri Sahin, formerly of Borussia Dortmund is now officially a Real Madrid player.
He is now the 3rd Bundesliga player to join Real Madrid in Florentino’s 2nd stint at the Madrid presidency following Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil. And if it’s true that a move for Bayern Munich’s Hamit Altintop is on the cards, that would make for potentially the 2nd of 3 players of Turkish Descent (based in Germany) to join Real Madrid.
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Quality, Dollars (or in this case, Euros) and Sense
There are plenty of key interesting points to note following Sahin’s arrival at Madrid that reflect a change in the Florentino Perez Version 2.0 transfer policy. Following his opening salvo of mega galacticos that include the 96m Euro Ronaldo, the 65m Euro Kaka and the 35m Euro Benzema and Xabi Alonso, Perez’s most notable signings for his second transfer season were clearly of a different type on many levels. Firstly to note was the fact that the signings were not of the Galactico profile or price (the closest, price-wise was the 25m Angel Di Maria), next was the fact that barring, Ricardo Carvalho, they were essentially young players (Ozil, Di Maria, Khedira, Pedro Leon and Canales) – but most intriguingly, they were very good deals financially. Carvalho, age 32 cost us 8m Euros, and if he plays another year or so like he has this season then I'd say he's dirt cheap. We paid 7m for Cannavaro for the 2 years that exposed the fact that he was on his last legs at the World Cup (to the point that even his beloved Napoli said 'No Thanks' to him when he left us). The 2 Germans (Ozil and Khedira) were heading into the final years of their respective contracts and cost 15m each. Khedira has made 35 appearances and has become a vital cog in Mourinho’s midfield. Ozil on the other hand is starting to get astounding comparisons to the likes of Zidane. Perhaps to put Ozil’s success on the pitch and in terms of how much he cost, consider this: while much of Madridisimo has started to contemplate the possibility that the 65m spent on Kaka has been a waste and that he’s probably at best only worth 30-35m by now, if we add Kaka’s 65m with Ozil’s 15m, that’s 80m = 40m per player (for Kaka and Ozil)… all of a sudden the Kaka money wasn’t so badly spend after all!
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Nuri Sahin arrives under similar circumstances: 22 years old, having been the engine that drove his team to the Bundesliga title and heading into the final year of his contract. He arrives amidst rumblings of other possible acquisitions by the club which also supposedly include: Bayern’s Altintop on a free transfer and Espanyol’s ex-canterano Callejon for 5m. 10m Euros for a 22-year old central midfielder of his talents is ridiculously cheap. To put all of this into context, the total transfer cost of these 3 players is only 15m – the price of Sami Khedira. I have no doubts that we can sell Fernando Gago and Pedro Leon for at least that amount – which technically means, we haven’t spent at all.
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There will be perhaps the sentimentalists who would have continued to fantasize a transfer coup by landing Cesc Fabregas (perhaps inspired by the delusional rumblings of the English media) or the romantics who would have liked to see the return of ex-canterano Borja Valero. 35m pounds is the supposed price tag on Cesc (who’s openly a Cule and would probably only return to Spain wearing Azulgrana) while Valero certainly isn’t as cheap as 10m either. For Madridistas, the absolute dreadful (but potentially realistic) possibility of seeing Barca swoop for the pearls of our cantera like Borja and Juan Mata will have to continue… because however which way one wishes to cut it: this transaction is damn good business for any team, nevermind Real Madrid.
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I would also like to point out the fact that Sahin’s signing alongside the supposed deals for Callejon and Altintop are a pleasant surprise considering the timing of the signings: a refreshing change to the last-gasp purchases which Real Madrid have been infamous for during the past several transfer seasons.
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Where He Fits
I won’t pretend to know all about Nuri Sahin. Given that I’m not a regular follower of the Bundesliga, my knowledge of him and his capabilities are still yet to be firmed up. I only know of him from what I’ve seen on the Bundesliga weekly shows which I catch on occasion as well as from the article here and there to read online.
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I do know for a fact however that he generally plays as one of the team’s 2 ‘pivots’. This is a role that he shares with one of Germany’s Bender twins who plays the ‘Khedira role’ as the midfield utility man to win balls, aerial challenges, make short neat passes and keeping play connected yet simple. It is Sahin apparently who played the ‘Xabi Alonso role’ during this season’s Bundeliga-title-winning campaign. It was his ability to link up with Japanese Dynamo Shinji Kagawa (perhaps a similar relationship between Xabi Alonso and Ozil or Di Maria) that has been crucial to Dortmund’s success this season. And though it is clear that Sahin is no ‘conductor’ of the orchestra as Xabi Alonso is (there is no one in the world that is currently like our Basque Pass Master), the young Turk is more mobile and is more comfortable in a slightly more advanced position (but not to the point of being a ‘10’). A quick review of his highlights shows great vision and the ability to make precise and direct goal-making chances from a variety of positions in midfield: showing that he can be effective in this role whether positioned deep, playing box-to-box or even from advanced positions. Perhaps the compelling statistic about his is that he is the man in the Bundesliga who has created the most scoring chances this season. To be able to do that from a true midfield position (as opposed to a ‘10’ position) – is no joke.

I’ve often heard many complain about the fact that Real Madrid are not quite the same team without Xabi Alonso. I continue to believe that this will be so even despite the arrival of Sahin. I do believe however that Madrid will not be as lost without Xabi Alonso as they have been these past 2 seasons now that Sahin is onboard.
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At this point in time, I can imagine 2 distinct roles for Sahin: either as a substitute / understudy to Xabi Alonso when Mourinho makes use of his Double Pivot system or as Xabi Alonso’s ‘creative partner’ in a trivote, while backed up by a utility midfielder: a role Khedira and Lass fulfills effectively.
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Question Marks
This effectively means in my opinion that Gago will likely be shown the door this summer. The Argentine who has neither mobility, tackling capability or an impressive passing arsenal can hopefully fetch a decent price in the transfer market. Also to watch this summer is if Lassana Diarra will stay or go knowing that he will remain  a squad player (I can only hypothesize that this is the reason why the acquisition of Altintop is being considered alongside the permanent return of Mateos from his loan at AEK Athens).
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The big question marks however will have to loom over the team’s canterano aspirants: Firstly Granero, who will have to accept being pegged back in the pecking order of midfielders. Perhaps there’s a bit of hope for him should Canales go on loan and he plays the role of being the 3rd-choice ‘10’ behind Ozil and Kaka (where Mourinho has said he is well suited for) and also as an option for one of those Central Midfield spots (with Khedira, Lass and Sahin). Followers and fans of Dani Parejo, who perhaps are still hoping to see the return of the canterano will perhaps look at this with a bit of alarm. But let’s be honest here: while Granero and De La Red have won themselves places to the Spanish National Team on the back of their performances for Getafe, Parejo on the other hand has yet to reach this level.
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I’d like to end with a little confession: I first came across Nuri Sahin 5 years ago… playing FIFA 2007 on my PC. Playing Real Madrid in the manager mode, I bought him as a teenager in the video game and saw him turn into an absolutely fantastic player. 5 years later, here he is 22 years old, the best midfielder in Germany and just about to pull the white shirt on. It’s funny how reality follows ‘fiction’.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

From Fortress Defenders to Road Warriors


Ozil DESTROYED Sevilla Last Night
Last night, Real Madrid made their annual trip to the Sanchez Pizjuan to face Sevilla. It was a match that has been, based on recent history, fraught with plenty of danger: not just danger of dropping points (we’ve lost quite a bit in those parts these past several years), but also the danger of embarrassment. From the Sevilla during the days of Juande Ramos, to the likes of Manolo Jimenez, the trips to Seville’s Art Deco Red-and-White Stadium have normally been a source of trepidation for the players and the fans alike. Well… that was till last night.

Real Madrid seems to be going through some bizarre alteration in terms of their form. We started out the season on the wave of Jose Mourinho’s 2,000-year old unbeaten run at home – turning the Bernabeu into a fortress (100% record in the Bernabeu)… to the ominous sign of losing to Sporting at home… to falling flat on our faces in the last weeks at home (1-1 to Barca in La Liga, the now-infamous 0-2 to Barca in the Champions League and 2-3 to Zaragoza). As we finish the season however, we have now managed to massacre La Liga’s European Football Aspirants with an aggregate scoreline of 12-5. 3-6 at Valencia’s Mestalla some weeks back and 2-6 at the Sanchez Pizjuan last night.
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And before we Madridistas get all gripped by the hype which goalfest massacres tend to do to us, let us be reminded of the simple fact that both in Valencia and last night in Seville, the teams we faced were just absolutely dreadful. Last night’s Sevilla team bore absolutely no resemblance to the wonderful UEFA Cup and Copa Del Rey teams of the past few years. Last night’s Sanchez Pizjuan too, with their limp constant waving of Sevilla flags but unusually subdued atmosphere was no longer the same ground that made every Madridista worry at the thought of their team heading there.
Unai Emery called it ‘A Paseo till the 60th minute…’ at the Mestalla and Gregorio Manzano could only manage to shrug and say ‘We must apologize to our fans…’ Much has been expected from Sevilla this season most especially in lieu of Manzano’s accomplishments last season at Mallorca. This season however, based on the performance of his Sevilla, it’s looking more and more like Gregorio Manzano is the La Liga equivalent of Roy Hodgson (i.e. best suited smaller clubs battling survival or carrying out fairy tale cup campaigns).
Having said that, we should of course still give credit where it’s due. Sevilla were terrible but Madrid was awesome and there were a few key points to note as to why that was so.

Personnel / Team Selection
Real Madrid reverted back to their familiar 4-2-3-1 formation with the match starting out with a few interesting personnel changes. Carvalho was suspended for the match, which essentially resulted in Ramos slotting into that left sided Centerback position while Arbeloa slotted in at Right Back. At midfield, Lass took his place beside Xabi Alonso in place of Khedira. The Frenchman has performed his role superbly thus far in the absence of our German midfield horse – playing as the Madridista of the match during our ill-fated return leg at the Camp Nou midweek. It was up front however where we saw the most interesting of team choices: particularly the use of Kaka in the ‘10’ role that he prefers – pushing Ozil to his less-preferred right sided role at midfield (in place of the suspended Di Maria) – a role which he would interchange with Ronaldo who took up his familiar place on the left side. Up front, Benzema would get the nod over Adebayor and Pipita in the lone striker role.
We’ve seen Mourinho play a variety of systems over the course of the season but it’s clear that perhaps the ‘default setting’ would be the 4-2-3-1: with the 2 pivots combining the functions to direct play (Xabi Alonso) and win the ball (Lass). Last night, this approach was adequate to nullify Sevilla as we saw Madrid cruise through the game with the bulk of possession (60+%). It’s also worth mentioning that as of late, even during the doomed home game vs. Zaragoza that Real Madrid’s buildup play when in possession has improved drastically. Last night was no different.
Kaka’s involvement in the team’s buildup play has improved and his increased confidence level is beginning to show tremendously despite the fact that he’s still not 100% - as confirmed by his early
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Ozil vs. Di Maria ON THE RIGHT SIDE – a Comparison
Ozil’s move from his preferred fantasista position to the right side gave Madrid a slightly different look:

Di Maria on the right, deployed as an ‘inverted winger’ on the right side gives us certain characteristics:
1.)    An additional man to press the opposing team when we don’t have the ball. His presence also helps us when there is a talented winger to watch out for as he also helps track this additional wing threat
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2.)    A more ‘direct’ and vertical player when we have the ball where he uses his pace and trickery to knife through the opposing defense. When this doesn’t come off, Madridistas would then collectively rant at the lack of a ‘final product’ from him as his decision-making can be questionable. When it does come off however , he produces moments of absolute brilliance
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Ozil on the right side on the other hand, offers us something a bit more different:
3.)    When we don’t have the ball, his natural tendency to drift to the middle will gives us a third central midfielder reshaping the team into a sort of trivote that helps give us stronger presence in the middle
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4.)    When in possession, though less vertical compared to Di Maria, does a far better job in keeping the ball even when under pressure without having to resort to dribbling acrobatics to wiggle himself free of anyone pressing him. He also gives Madrid an added passing dimension in the final third of the pitch which benefits the likes of Ronaldo, Kaka and Benzema.
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It is worthwhile to note that last night’s Sevilla did not have Jesus Navas or Perrotti on the wings to stretch our team across the pitch: making the moving of Ozil to Di Maria’s place even more comfortable for us. This was of course affirmed by our staggering numbers of possession: a Barca-like 60+%. Our bug-eyed German playmaker had some pretty sick stats to justify a Man-of-the-Match performance too… He had 3 assists, each one very different: the first from a dead-accurate corner for Ramos to head in, the second was a touch pass on a 1-2 with Kaka for the Brazilian’s signature curling shot from the outside and the last was a Sneijder-like looping pass for Ronaldo. Ozil was also involved in 2 other goals: making him ‘culpable’ for 5/6 of Madrid’s goals. He finished the match with a very compelling stat too: his 8 assists to Ronaldo are the most from one player to another particular player in La Liga this season. Ozil is that player in Real Madrid who either makes that killer assist or makes the pass that leads to the assist. Next season, they should give the man the ’10 ‘ jersey.  
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Other Key / Interesting Points in the Match:
There have been some other key points to the match which I find to be significantly noticeable. And even though these points will not necessarily translate into additional silverware for the season (as the CL and La Liga are both goners), they are however very pleasant premonitions for the future:
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5.)    A Less-Selfish Ronaldo. CR7 seems to trust his teammates more and is far less of a ball hog these days. He seems more pen to participating in the buildup play and somehow no longer plays like he feels that he should be the man to cap off every attacking play with a goal for himself. Notice how he spearheaded a counter attack in the first half and opted to release the ball to Ozil instead of taking the shot himself. It didn’t lead to a goal as Ozil’s return pass didn’t manage to reach him (a pass to the streaking Kaka on the right side might have done the job, I don’t think he saw Kaka though). Karma duly rewarded him with 4 goals then: 1 from Pepe’s knockdown of the ball which he duly scored, another a poacher’s goal from a Sevilla mistake, the 3rd from an Ozil vertical pass and the 4th a tap-in from a Benzema cross: all team goals. None of that me-against-the-world-wannabe-superhero crap. Cristiano has now beaten his previous record for goals in a season (42  during his Manchester United Days) and leapfrogged Messi in the Pichichi charts. We await a response from little Leo tonight.
6.)    A solid Karim Benzema performance. Benzema being a prime signing of Florentino last season meant that people were always gonna expect him to be the French-incarnation of Ronaldo (the Brazilian) and was always  (unfairly) measured by the goals he could or couldn’t score. He eventually turned the corner though with his explosion of goals this 2011 only to be injured. And now that he is starting to inch his way back into the team, the question was always gonna be: would he still be only measured by his goals? Last night he did everything but score: he pressed the midfield, he threw himself into the air at crosses, he played as a lone striker, and a right-sided attacker from midfield. He assisted a goal too. He deserves credit for that.
7.)    What’s up with Adebayor getting minutes (over Pipita no less)? Mourinho trying to find out if he’s worth 16m and his astronomical wages? We all know for a fact that Mourinho wants a target man as one of his strikers and there aren’t many in the market at the moment. And while Morata looks to be up for a promotion to the first team at the moment, I cannot imagine the young canterano being relied upon in that role should we find ourselves under the cosh next season in a critical game. Perhaps this is a talking point for another blog post.
8.)    Albiol as a Defensive Midfielder. When Mourinho pulled Xabi Alonso out of the match, I thought that he had gone bonkers and decided to play with a Diamond midfield (Albiol and Pepe at CB, Ramos at RB, Arbeloa at LB, Lass-Ozil-Ronaldo-Marcelo in the Diamond with Benzema and Adebayor up front). Instead, he deploys Albiol as a Defensive Midfielder. I’ve read that he’s played that role in the past and this was perhaps some kind of experiment. I hated it.
9.)    Finally, Mourinho has decided to continue on with his media snub in light of his UEFA suspension. I have to say that I quite like this ‘media snub’ – Aitor Karanka’s understated-ness has been refreshing and I’m loving the fact that we’re talking about football after football matches and not the crap that tends to come with it.
Next up for us is Getafe. Now that they’ve become ‘Team Dubai’ and will likely become Manchester City-esque noveau-riche wannabes instead of Real Madrid’s de facto farm team, I hope to see Real Madrid break their recent poor form at home with another goalfest. Another 6 goals please…?
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P.s. I'd also like to make a shoutout to all the Filipinos out there today who are celebrating Manny Pacquiao winning yet again in convincing and dominating fashion over 'Sugar' Shane Mosley. 'Sugar' wasn't so sweet today though - running scared from the Pac-Man all match long.
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Also, this post also appears on the newly-launched Real Madrid Football Blog. I'll be participating in the discussions there and in here wherever you guys decide to comment :)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Contributing

Hello everyone, as some of you might already know, I've agreed to join the writing team of the newly-launched: Real Madrid Football Blog - the recently-launched site by the same guys (Corey, Bassam, Kaushik and Jordan) who brought us Real Madrid - The Offside, but know have decided to open their own site.
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Those who read Spanish or who have the patience to read Spanish-written Real Madrid commentary might have also seen my post 'Pretend Coach' turn up in the Monster Spanish Real Madrid Blog: Fans Del Real Madrid. 
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I've been invited plenty of times to have my writing be posted in other people's blogs and sites, and have often politely refused. There are 3 Real Madrid bloggers who I couldn't turn down though: The Real Madrid Offside's Corey Fiske, Fans Del Real Madrid's El Socio and the now-defunct The Real Liga's Lateral Iziquerdo. So now, it'll be 2/3 for me.
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From this point forward, I will be posting at least 1 of my articles at Real Madrid Football Blog and will be diving into the discussions in their 'very active' forum section of course. Every now and then however, I will also be posting in at Fans Del Real Madrid - in english of course... just to confuse the Spanish speaking Real Madrid community just a bit. hahaha. All my posts in those respective blogs however will still be posted in this site including the goal highlights as I anticipate that this blog will now function as the Madridista Mac 'Central Database'.
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It will be quite an interesting experience from this point given the fact that the readers of The Offside / RMFB comprise of essentially the English-Speaking International Community of Real Madrid supporters whereas the followers of Fans Del Real Madrid come more from Real Madrid's geographic epicenter of Spain. The exchanges will be interesting and I am very much looking forward to them. 
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So I guess you guys will be seeing more of me all over the place from this forward then. Here's to some interesting new beginnings...