Wednesday, September 28, 2011

2011-09-28: La Liga Not-So-Weekly Podcast.

Kevin and I spoke about our win vs. Rayo Vallecano last Sunday Morning (Singapore time) after the game. I think he managed to speak and find out what Corey's thoughts are as well. Anyway, enjoy listening...
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Kevin and I spoke about our win vs. Rayo Vallecano last Sunday Morning (Singapore time) after the game. I think he managed to get some time to speak to Corey about the game too... listen here:
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Podcast Powered By LaLigaWeekly.com
. Since I haven't been feeling too good these past few days, I've happily taken Kaushik's offer to write the review on last night's Ajax game on RMFB. I'll update this site and link it to his article once he's got it up there :)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday Morning Joke Time

Someone's Agent has been smoking pot on the job. If you're going to jack up your boy's price by circulating  rumors about other clubs' interest.. you should AT LEAST make them SEMI-realistic.

The English Press are reporting that Real Madrid are interested in signing Bolton's Gary Cahill... And I thought it was going to be hard to make me smile (morel like laugh) on a Monday morning at work.
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Clearly the English press have forgotten that to even qualify as a Centerback signing for Real Madrid these days, you need to be under 20, at least 190cm and capable of scoring goals off corners with your heel. 
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That, or you must be as ugly as Pepe.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Assumptions and Risks


Pipita Scored and Kaka had another good game. Great Signs
‘Assumptions are the mother of all Fuckups!’ – I once heard my brother (who’s an associate Regional Director of a Fortune 500 Company) scold one of his subordinates. Filipinos have a similar adage: ‘Maraming Namatay sa Maling Akala’ (Many have died from the wrong assumptions), I was often told when I was young. Last night, the wrong assumptions nearly created the Fuck-up that nearly killed us.
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Last night, Real Madrid looked like it was about to turn its slump into the beginnings of a crisis when seconds into the match, we had carelessly allowed Rayo Vallecano’s Michu to score the opening goal. The goal was the culmination of a move which started from a bad pass by Lass – shades of Roberto Carlos’ error that gifted Roy Makaay and Bayern Munich a place in the Champions League Quarter Finals some years ago (during THAT epic Capello season). But while both goals were borne of poor concentration… (sleep walking to start the match again?) The bigger issue at hand for me was how we seemed to start last night’s match with what in my opinion was the wrong understanding (or assumption) of/about Rayo Vallecano.
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Rayo are a newly promoted side and therefore, like those bottom teams who come to the Bernabeu, they would line themselves up in 2 neat banks for 4, sit deep, park the bus and wait for us… That seemed to be the assumption that the team started the game with which led to the spectacular fuck-up that was their first goal: instead of quickly running back to their side to protect their goal (as what many may have thought), they instead blitzed us – intercepting Lass’ lazy pass and turning it into a goal. Sigh, if only they read Guillem Balague’s match preview (who said “Rayo are very brave. I don`t think they`ll drop deep. I think they`ll pressure high and see what happens.).
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The team continued to look like a deer caught in the headlights as Rayo continued their pressing game on our defense: several times choking the outlet to our midfield: something made worse by the absence of Ricardo Carvalho, our ball-playing Centerback (all of a sudden, I was missing him!). It was to be like this for the first 20-30 minutes of the match – and as the boos and whistles began to come down from the stands of the Bernabeu, that sinking feeling … and that 6-letter ‘C-Word’ started to creep into my head: Crisis.
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And as many have spoken about Marcelo being Real Madrid’s weakest defender (despite his clear improvements), no team thus far has been able to exploit this despite the idea seemingly a solid one on paper. There are 2 reasons for this: 1.) Madrid’s attacks come mostly from the left side (using the Marcelo + CR combo), prompting teams to perceive Madrid’s left flank as a defensive concern rather than an attacking target and 2.) Marcelo’s ‘Dad’: Ricardo Carvalho. Our Portuguese grand-daddy defender has always looked out for Marcelo either by covering for the Brazilian himself or marshalling the defense or defensive midfield to provide him with cover. Last night, with guts and without Carvalho, Rayo Vallecano became the first team that capitalized on Marcelo’s defensive frailties: attacking Madrid through Marcelo’s flank and managing to find inroads into our defense.
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Rotations
I do not come from the school of thinking that criticizes squad rotation. In fact, given the depth of our squad, I’m all for it. Squad rotation keeps the morale of the players for the entire squad up and it also equally distributes the fatigue factor amongst the players. For this reason, I am not inclined to jump onto the shortcut conclusion that the reason for our early struggles was Mourinho’s decision to rotate his squad. The defense, though missing Carvalho, looked ok to me: I though Albiol (who finally got a game!) and Varane looked good. Ditto for Ramos at RB too. Lass played instead of Khedira as Alonso’s midfield partner, presumably to rest the German for Tuesday’s Ajax game while Kaka, who is beginning to show signs of life got the nod to start. This might actually be the season where Mourinho finally gets to recover Kaka. The Brazilian’s confidence is starting to come back: the hesitation to ‘turn the jets on’ is no longer there and the performances are becoming more and more consistently positive. Mourinho has after all, revealed to the press about speaking to Ozil about our google-eyed playmaker’s dip in form the last 2 games. We’re up for a healthy dose of in-squad competition for places here: and with both men being generally nice guys, I genuinely think this competition should remain healthy.
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Mourinho’s Move: Realization or Risk?
Mourinho's Response to going down 0-1 while being put on the back foot was to play a 4-1-4-1 with Kaka and Ozil as 'twin playmakers'. With the 2 on the pitch both playing their favored positions, our counter attacks became murderous.
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It was on the 28th minute when Mourinho made his bold move: replacing Lass with Ozil: and converting team shape from a 4-2-3-1 with 2 pivots (Xabi Alonso + Lass) and a single ‘10’ (Kaka) into a 4-1-4-1 with a single pivot (Alonso) and 2 ‘10s’ (Kaka and Ozil). I have 2 theories as to what Mourinho was thinking here:
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1.) ‘Fuck it! I NEED to win, let’s attack, gain the lead, then ‘close shop’ later on to kill the match’ or…
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2.)‘These guys (Rayo) are actually attacking us! Hey! That’s a good thing! Let’s provoke them into coming more at us and murder them with our favorite weapon: our blitzkrieg counter-atttack!’
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Whatever it was the prompted Mourinho to make his first half gamble. It worked out brilliantly for us. His post-match statements would reveal he was probably thinking the former (1. above) when he made his decision to play with a  4-1-4-1:
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“It hurt to replace Lass, but the team needed it…. Things get even harder when you're losing 1-0 as soon as the game starts, but character shines through in difficult situations and the team reacted. We had 20 to 25 difficult minutes on the pitch, but we changed, took risks, reacted well and took the lead by half-time.
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A tale of 2 10s
Benzema's Goal was Vintage Ozil. 
"Kaka and Ozil played closer to the goal…We didn't have a true number '10' on the pitch, but there were three excellent playmakers out there… We started pulling off more efforts. It's a shame I had to replace Kaka when we were down to ten men because he was giving a very good performance… Kaka and Ozil have to be prepared both physically and mentally to adapt to play closer to midfield. It isn't easy for them to do this for 90 minutes. It's risky… They have to be fit and aware that Xabi Alonso can't play alone in midfield for 90 minutes. They both responded very well. They created ball movement and covered Rayo's exits. They played well. It was a situation of risk but they transformed it into a positive scenario for the team."
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Mourinho’s statements above pretty much explains every clearly the on-the-fly adjustments he made to fit his 2 10s, Kaka and Ozil onto the pitch while:
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1.) Ensuring that they didn’t get into each other’s way
2.) Ensuring that Xabi Alonso wouldn’t be shipwrecked on his own at the CM position. (Apart from the help given to him by Kaka and Ozil, the defenders also did superbly to help Xabi Alonso out).
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Kaka and Ozil are both 10s – just different types. Though both are technically impeccable players, they represent 2 contrasting types of ‘fantasistas’. Kaka’s primary weapon is his verticality: a deadly dose of acceleration directness. In Milan, he murdered defenses regularly with these 2 weapons as their explosive counter attacks caught opposing defenses back-pedaling. His final ball wasn’t bad, but Kaka also had a nasty long range curling shot that killed many a goalkeeper. These qualities were best demonstrated in 2 instances: first when he switched his afterburners on and found Ronaldo with a great pass to make it 1-1 and another in the second half where his run into the box forced a Rayo defender into conceding a penalty.
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Ozil on the other hand, while gifted with a good dose of pace, isn’t blessed with Kaka’s ability to explode and accelerate. What Ozil lacks in explosive vertical foot speed with or without the ball (compared to Kaka) however, he makes up with his close-quarter dribbling and ball-control abilities that can allow him to maneuver out of tight spaces when swarmed with defenders (moreso than Kaka) – he’s made quite a few players look like idiots with this skill too. And while he too can fire a nasty shot from distance, they also aren’t quite like the heat-seeking missiles we’ve seen the best Kaka fire. This of course is not his primary weapon, his weapon of choice of course is his Guti-esque ability to pick out lethal defense-piercing passes to his teammates (as we saw in his exquisite pass for Benzema’s goal). Ozil also has more qualities of an all-around midfielder as his passing game isn’t just for the final ball but also for build-up play.
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I suppose that the best analogy I can think of is for Basketball: where Kaka is more like a player suited to a fast-breaking run-and-gun style with his burst of pace, passing skills on the break and finishing, Ozil is more adaptable to a slower game where his knack for providing the killer pass in a crowd. In that sense – the 2 men are capable of complementing each other. It is merely a matter of selecting an overall tactical scheme that can allow for their respective abilities to thrive and safeguard the overall solidity of the team. We’ve seen Mourinho try them both out in a 4-2-3-1 system with 1 of the 2 playing in the wings: suitable to neither to the 2. Last night was the first time we saw them working together AT THE CENTER – the result however was wonderful to watch. Before we get euphoric over this possibility however, we must all remind ourselves that it’s unlikely Mourinho will play with this system from start to finish given the risks that  he himself has talked about.
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Scoring from Deadball Situations
I've seen forwards make heel flicks to score goals but not 191cm. 18 Year Old CBs... until last night!
Since Cristiano arrived at Real Madrid, we’ve only learned to score from Free Kicks one way: from his Free Kicks. It was thus refreshing to see Ronaldo finally relent to Xabi Alonso to do things differently, allowing our Basque Pass Master to deliver a tasty ball for Ramos to knock into the goal. It was Pipita who managed to poach the goal as Ramos was barely allowed to make contact with the ball by his Marker. The set piece goal of the night had to come from Raphael Varane though: who executed a heel flick from an Ozil corner to put it past Gimenez. What a goal! Impressive with his defensive duties vs. Racing, he showed us another dimension to his game last night: becoming a constant aerial threat in set pieces even before his goal. At age 18, and with his projected growth level: Did Real Madrid manage to finally manage find a CB that can be a fixture for us for more than a decade?
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Before last night’s victory, we’ve only managed 1 goal from our last 3 games (Dinamo, Levante & Racing) and a total for 4 points. Last night was 3 points and 6 goals on the board for us.
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Let’s hope that last night’s victory has allowed the team to finally re-discover their mojo: because the season is young and there are many more assumptions to make and risks to take.

2011-09-25: Real Madrid 6 - Rayo Vallecano 2


Sleepwalking Too Rarly and Sleep-Waking Too Late



No, Real Madrid is NOT in Crisis. We are merely in a slump. 5 dropped points over 2 games against La Liga teams whose objective is to stave off relegation is proof of that. Maybe Jose Mourinho’s sarcastic remarks prior to the Levante game about just wanting to stay up were taken seriously by the team: prompting them to play as if we were a team battling relegation.
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On a more serious note: I can only speculate that perhaps the team is tired. The team did have an intensive preseason and looked supremely fit for the Super Copa and the opening of La Liga. Since the international break however, the team has looked flat, out of ideas and mentally and physically tired. Is this a case of the team peaking at the wrong time? Or maybe Mourinho’s fitness regimen really designed things this way given the lack of top-level opposition at this point in time in our calendar? (But he didn’t anticipate we’d be bad enough to drop points)
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Team Selection
On the back of my hypothesis that the team might be mentally and physically fatigued, I will not criticize the rotations instituted by Mourinho for last night’s game. Vanilla Joe (Callejon) did indeed deserve a start while Di Maria clearly deserved some form of punishment for demonstrating his credentials to join Argentina’s Diving Team for the London 2012 games. Arbeloa’s entry into the starting XI is also logical to me – as I’ve always pined for him to start. Ramos going to the bench might have been a bit curious, but I’m willing to chalk it up to rotation: after all, it would be 7 games of football every 3 days for the boys (Getafe-Zagreb-Levante-Racing-Rayo-Ajax-Espanyol). It was however the decision to start Varane as opposed to Albiol to be Carvalho’s partner that gave credence to the internal Portuguese-vs.-Spanish clique warthat some reporters / conspiracy theorists have been abuzz about. At midfield, the selection of Lass also seemed to be the logical choice given Khedira’s suspension and Coentrao + Pepe’s injuries.
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Having said the above, let me be the first to say that in my opinion, Varane had a good game and found his performance to be shockingly impressive for a teenager who was playing in the reserves of a relegation-battling Ligue 1 team at this same time last season. My clamors to see Arbeloa start were also rightly justified as well. All in all, I thought we did well in the defensive department. Even the recently-oft-criticized Carvalho wasn’t bad – nevermind Iker Casillas who had a signature reflexes were on show for all of us last night. And speaking of the Captain, I would also like to point out that his ball distribution out of his penalty box has improved immensely as we have seen his tendency to make pointless hoofing kicks out of his box less and less and more intelligent throws to streaking players to start plays instead.
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Sadly, that’s about as positive as I can get re: what I have to say from last night’s performances.
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The First Half – Sleepwalking
Our first half performance could essentially be described as the Team Sleepwalking. The team was sluggish, unimaginative and lacking in assertion to seize control of the game and take the game to Racing Santander. Every Real Madrid supported on twitter also pretty much noticed how little the off-the-ball movement was from Real’s players: an ultimate sign of ‘Sleepwalking.’
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And apart from being a big bleh in terms of performance, Real Madrid played a very unusual game tactically in the first half  as well. Mesut Ozil, was frequenoziltly on the flanks while Ronaldo would be in the ‘10’ position – it is a positional arrangement that benefits / maximizes the capabilities of neither Cristiano nor Ozil.
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Apart from the already-mentioned positive performances from Arbeloa + Varane, perhaps only Xabi Alonso deserves a mention. His midfield partner Lass however did try… to match Xabi’s passing numbers… but in fouls (uff!). This game was no longer just about the popular criticism of Real Madrid for not finishing their chances created – because in the first half there were hardly any scoring chances created by our Men in Black-and-White.
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Real Madrid did find some measure of control of the game late in the first half, but there would be no goal… or even good scoring opportunities created.
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The Second Half – Waking From Sleep Too Late.
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Mourinho did try to change things up for Real Madrid: initiating 2 bold moves meant to intensify Real Madrid’s attack on the Racing goal. His first move was to convert his 4-2-3-1 into a more conventional 4-4-2 with Pipita coming on to join Benzema in attack in place of Ozil. The switch to a classic 4-4-2 also involved placing Ronaldo and Di Maria (who had come on for Callejon) in the Right and Left side of the midfield respectivel while Xabi Alonso and Lass remained as the pivots of the match.
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The second tactical change Mourinho put late in the second half was the conversion of this 4-4-2 into a diamond 4-4-2 with a single pivot (not the narrow CM-centric version you see in Serie A nowadays): with Xabi Alonso playing the single pivot at the base of the diamond while Kaka, who came on for Lass played at the tip of the diamond. Once again, I thought Kaka looked bright but still lacking in the ‘final product’ for Real Madrid that it so badly needed but never managed to get in the game.
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The Truly Worrisome Thing
On the back of what was visibly an improvement in terms of the team’s performance, I personally cannot find fault with the IN-GAME adjustments Mourinho made to his team to get the win – because both ‘degrees’ of tactical modification appeared to me like they worked in terms of tightening the screw around the neck of Racing. The truly worrisome thing about was that at the end of the day, the ultimate objective of scoring a winning goal (nevermind creating adequate scoring chances), was not achieved. All the signs are now clearly pointing towards the possibility that Real Madrid have in fact had a massive drop in terms mental and physical fitness.
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3 Games. 1 Win, 1 Loss, 1 Draw. 1 Goal Scored. These are definitely not the numbers of a title-contending team. At this point, then perhaps only  the comfort / consolation we can get from last night was Barca’s lost points (we have Unai Emery to thank for that).
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Injuries and Experiments
Rayo Vallecano visit us at the Bernabeu this weekend and it’s looking like Ricardo Carvalho will not be available amidst reports that he may not want to make the match because of a head injury. With a slew of other injuries and a lengthening list of players whose forms are dropping off, Perhaps Mourinho should re-think the tactical options available to him as his 3 options of varying tactical systems all failed to secure us the win.
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Maybe Jose should give a couple of other tactical systems a try too…
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A voice inside of me at this time however is just offering up a much simpler solution: That the team stops Sleep Walking and instead Wakes from their Sleep. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Domino Effect


Angel DI(VE) Maria. He earned his nickname last Sunday. The Olympics are next year you Jackass

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1.0  What have we done?
It just HAD to be the absence of Khedira once again that made the difference. Only this time, we weren’t talking about the difference between winning by 4-0 or 4-2. This time, we are talking about actually winning or losing: 3 points, 1 point or nothing. And as was the case last night, we ended with zilch: putting to waste the points dropped by Barca vs. Sociedad and the ones we gained vs. Getafe last week. Now, Barca’s 8-0 massacre of Osasuna feels that much more orgasmic to the cules thanks to the freakshow we put out last night.
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Losing points like this regardless of what Mourinho says (“we’re better of losing 1 than drawing 2”) hurts – because believe it or not, the La Liga Title is NOT won during the clasicos but in games like this. Last season we dropped points to teams like Levante, Sporting and Zaragoza: points that would’ve allowed us that tiny advantage to win La Liga: lost clasicos or not.
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I’ve always imagined / hoped that our squad, considerably larger than Barca’s and whose fitness has reached peak levels can rattle off win after win going into early December for the first clasico. On the other hand, many in the know, among them cules, anticipate Barca to drop points here and there till they reach full fitness and go about their annual weekly massacres by end November-early December heading into the Clasico. I was hoping our early season fitness advantage would see us 4 – 5 points ahead of Barca heading into the December clasico: meaning that not even a loss then would cost us League Leadership. But it was not to be.
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I would have accepted dropping points to La Liga’s other top-level sides too: the rejuvenated Diego+Falcao-led Atleti (who hammered Racing last night), the Soldado-inspired Valencia, the Negredo-spearheaded Sevilla or even the Millionaires at Malaga… all are legitimate Madrid upsetters. But Levante? Come on!
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… And none of that Levante-is-a-bogey-team-crap please! I’m not interested in constructing a reincarnation of the Riazor.
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2.0  Di(ve) Maria
His Thank-You-Speech: "I would like to thank Sami Khedira for taking a Red Card for me... I will never forget this!"

The subject of much conversation / irritation / hatred of course had to be the man who started the Domino effect that led to all this: Mr. Angel Di(ve) Maria. Was he trying to ‘fit in’ because he mistakenly thought that he was playing in the Camp Nou because of Levante’s ‘Blaugrana Colors’?  In a world where Madridistas rebelliously stand in disgust at Barca and their Biscuit Boy divers and whiners, Di Maria robbed us of all of the credibility to do so.
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Although I do partly agree with Mourinho’s statement that Khedira ‘walked right into the trap’ when he pushed Ballesteros aside to defend his teammate, I’m having a very difficult time imagining anyone else except for Di Maria who set that trap. Di Maria owes Khedira and his teammates an apology for this stunt that cost us the game, Khedira for at least another game, his other teammates for yellow cards accumulated because of the tempestuous affair the match had become and of course, the fans given how terrible the game turned out to be for Madrid after Khedira’s sending off.
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The sending off of Khedira thanks to Di Maria’s moments of childish mindlessness triggered the Domino Effect that completely sucked Real Madrid’s momentum out of the game.
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3.0  Tactics & Personnel
3.1  Pre-Khedira Expulsion
While Madrid press were salivating about what a rich, handsome, great AND brave footballer (the latter adjective used to describe his insistence to play) Ronaldo was, I was just happy to see Sami Khedira back. I also didn’t mind seeing Kaka in place of Ozil.
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Until Di Maria’s childish antics got the better of the team, the German panzer made the Real Madrid Midfield robust, and much more effective and ‘enveloping’ Levante’s goal. His ability to ‘fade away’ from attention but always be there for a ball recovery, a simple pass, or tackle, gave Xabi Alonso the perfect platform to do his thing. On the other hand, I totally didn’t mind seeing Coentrao in Ronaldo’s role. As for Kaka, his starting XI place seemed a just reward for his standout cameos off the bench in place of Ozil who seems to need to adjust to life as a player-against-whom-defenses-are-designed-to-stop. Kaka looked refreshing last night during the first half: confidently using his acceleration to knife through Levante’s defense and showing us glimpses of the confidence-applied-to-his-directness qualities that made many a Madridista dream of seeing him in white during his days with the Rossoneri.
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While it is true that Levante played reasonably well (I thought Ballesteros was very good for them) to repel us and ensure that they weren’t going to get a hiding ala Osasuna, I was pretty confident that we would’ve walked away with at least a 2-0 on the back of our first 40-mins. performance.
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3.2  Post-Khedira Tactics
Apart from Di Maria explosion of immaturity last night, what really drove me up the wall was how the team played post-Khedira. The team came out in the second half sending Ronaldo in for Benzema, pushing Coentrao to partner with Xabi Alonso: give us a headless 4-2-3 shape (without the 1). It is still a fundamentally sound tactic, playing with 10 men: sending in a hybrid winger-cum-striker (Ronaldo) in for a pure striker (Benzema).
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Once again however, my problem with the team lay with Coentrao playing as a CM. Forced by the urgency to score a goal, Coentrao failed to give us a presence at midfield that we so badly needed without Khedira. Xabi Alonso played his role heroically – but it wasn’t enough. With the presence of Lass on the bench as a direct replacement and Arbeloa as well (to push Ramos to CB and give Pepe the DM role), Mourinho instead opted for his compatriot to play a role unsuitable for the ‘15’. Kaka got no service (neither did Ozil when he came on) and the attack went stale. To top it all off, Real Madrid shockingly began to play long ball soccer in the second half too: with Pepe, Carvalho and Coentrao hoofing up speculative balls for Ronaldo and Di Maria to chase. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Route 1 football: I do have a problem with us playing it, without a proper ‘9’.
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It was as awful as it was ineffective and ultimately, dangerous: CBs and DMs hoofing up long balls for Cristiano, Di Maria and the Fullbacks to chase – leaving space for Levante to strike and threaten with counters. The cycle repeated itself over and over again – it wouldn’t be long before they had more chances on goal during the second half than us. Soon enough, a dagger would find itself into our chests with Kone’s goal.
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And while Mourinho is predictably ‘protecting his team’: talking about the state of the pitch, penalties not given, etc. I’m pretty sure (or hoping at least) that once he watches the DVD of last night’s game, he will be asking the same question: Why the hell were we playing long ball football to get back into the game?
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Somehow we all saw it coming. bit by bit: Di Maria’s little tumble knocks over one domino piece after another…
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… A nasty tackle that earns him a yellow.
… A little poke in the face that gives him the opportunity to do a Sergio Busquets
… A telling off from Ballesteros that provokes Khedira’s protective instinct for a teammage
… A second yellow for Khedira. Expulsion
… The game turns ugly for Madrid, they lose the momentum
… Levante find the opportunity to turn the tide and score.
… Real Madrid lose 1-0.
… And Just like that, a not-yet-fully-fit Barca are now a point ahead of us
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How far does this domino effect go? And when does it stop?
The answer is quite simple: when we choose to grow up, stop fucking around and play some bloody football.
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originally posted in Real Madrid Football Blog here

Friday, September 16, 2011

Rich (Expensive) but Ugly and Not Great…


There was Benze-cat, and now there's Cris Charming. Yuck.

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“He’s NOT handsome!” was my wife’s instant reply when I read Cristiano’s post-game comments to her. I can only suppose that this is what happens when you read out comments that epitomize the arrogance of an ex-Manchester United Player to a Liverpool fan.
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"It's surely because I'm good-looking, rich and a great footballer. They're jealous of me. I don't have any other explanation," he said after the game, in quotes published by Marca.
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Last Wednesday, Real Madrid was the opposite of Cristiano’s self-description: Rich (or rather, expensive), Ugly and Not Great.
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Putting things into perspective, the game per se, and the outcome, wasn’t that bad. We always knew that this trip to Croatia was going to be a tricky one. Dinamo was a physical and solid tough nut of a team to crack. They also had a giant (who had a monster game) in goal. Considering the fact that Champions League day 1 was largely a letdown for the favorites (The 2 Manchester Clubs and Barca dropped points while Inter lost), one can say that perhaps say that Real Madrid managing to eek out a win isn’t a bad outcome at all.
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And this is why Ronaldo’s explosion of arrogance is just disgusting: because it robs us of the merits of last Wednesday Night’s outcome.
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Tactics
Tactically, I thought we were ok. Fabio Coentrao started again and played a much more restrained game: his energy and active-ness was instead used to give Real Madrid a much stronger presence at midfield. It was much-needed too: with Dinamo’s Robust midfield game largely backed up by the appropriately named JERK-o Leko patrolling their midfield, trying to pull off a Mark Van Bommel performance.
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Coentrao did, however interchange positions with Marcelo frequently – drifting to the left wing, while the Brazilian put in shifts at the Center of Midfield (where he took the opportunity of feeding Di Maria to score). For Coentrao, playing in Marcelo-mode however, he will need to develop his understanding of overlapping with Ronaldo when Mr. Prince Charming is attacking on the left. Without Marcelo’s overlapping runs, Ronaldo was constantly left having to face 2 or 3 defenders rather than just the 1 or 2 when Marcelo overlaps to drag at least one defender away.

The big problem however was as Bassam of RMFB had pointed out: our front 4 didn’t do enough to press the opposing defense. I can distinctly recall that all our periods of dominance in the game were when our front 4 did this. And this is there we get to…
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Player Performances
Like Bassam, I was stunned by how much vitriol is being spewed towards Higuain who only played 10 minutes in the game. I also feel that Carvalho and Di Maria’s poor performances in the Getafe game has tainted the opinions of many Madridistas about their performance last Wednesday. They weren’t great but they certainly didn’t have bad games. In my opinion, the most off-color performance last Wednesday was from my current favorite Real Madrid player: Mesut Ozil. And in case Andres is reading this: No, I have not yet purchased his jersey and jinxed him :P. Maybe it’s because Ozil is now being singled out by opposing defenses as a man-to-watch for Real Madrid or maybe it was just one of those nights.
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After all, a player who usually supplies the final ball that leads to a goal tends to go through these ‘phases’ (Ronaldo and Benzema, the team’s 2 primarly goal threats are the chief benefactors from this). Sometimes it’s due to opposing teams designing their entire defensive scheme to stop such a player, sometimes it’s just one of those days when things aren’t clicking and those passes aren’t quite as inch-perfect on the night… or sometimes it’s just that slight (but almost fatal) dip in concentration for the night. I can only suppose that this is the next step for Ozil: taking his performances and his ability to influence a game to a consistent level. At his age, this is a crossroads period for him: to learn to assert himself and potentially reach ‘legend-level’ ala Zidane, or ‘could’ve-been-legend-level’ ala Guti. To end up in between isn’t so bad, but then again, it’s hard not to be one or the other if you have such talents.
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In this sense, Bassam was also right in his questioning of why Granero wasn’t sent into the game. Granero would have been a great possible ‘cure’ to an off color performance from Ozil. With no Kaka on the bench to stabilize control of the game when in possession, Granero could have lubricated the team’s creaky passing gears last Wednesday.
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Finally, there is once again, the issue of finishing. A stat came out recently: Real Madrid had a mind-numbing  65 shot attempts in their first 2 La Liga games. 10 goals in 65 shots = 15.38% - worse than a bad baseball batting average!
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This weekend, we’re off to play Levante. We wiped the floor with them in the Copa Del Rey last season, but also dropped points there in La Liga. With a 2 point lead over Barca, it’s now time for the team to get their shooting boots on and re-introduce Levante to the floor.
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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Football Lost Again (as Some Might Say)

Some Quick Thoughts on Last Night's Champions League Results:
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Borussia Dortmund 1 - Arsenal 1
It's hard to recall the glory days of Thierry Henry and Patrick Viera's Arsenal: wonderful to watch but with a strong, rock-solid core. Today's Arsenal strike me as little wimpy boys. Won by a goal thanks to an error fit for a second-division side last weekend... no spine, no character, no poise to secure a lead. This is getting pitifully boring for the Gunners.
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Chelsea 2 - Bayer Leverkusen 0
Fernando Torres assisted both goals for David Luiz and Juan Mata. "Is that all he's good for now? Just assisting?" was my Liverpool-supporting (and Chelsea-hating) wife's retort when I told her what happened last night. It's obvious that the resentment is still palpable amongst Liverpool fans re: 'Nando. But what the heck, signs of life, right?
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Barcelona 2 - AC Milan 2
Andres Iniesta got hurt and is out for a month, following Alexis Sanchez to the injury ward. With Iniesta gone, in steps Cesc right into the midfield. Thiago's waiting on the bench too... 
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70%-30% Ball Possession in favor of the Cules. 22 shots to 6 in favor of the Cules. But a 2-2 scoreline. Call it fatigue / lack of fitness / whatever. Somehow I still sense that a few idiots Catalunya are now are saying / thinking: Football has Lost. Tss..!
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Just wondering aloud: had Barca chosen to spend some of that summer moolah on a Central Defender (e.g. Thiago Silva, who scored last night's equalizer), rather than on striker/wingers (Sanchez) and CM (Fabregas) - both of whom are generally 'bonus additions' to their squad, then perhaps they wouldn't need to have a Biscuit and Masch Potato to play on defense... and very likely - they probably might have won. 
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Valencia also turned out to be a dud last night.
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Villarreal play Bayern tonight while we head to Croatia to play Dinamo Zagreb in our far-from-traditional Red Kits tonight. Being of Chinese descent, I consider red to be an auspicious color - and I very much prefer to perceive our Red Kit as an equally auspicious omen to this season's Champions League Campaign.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Myopia for Breakfast

I had the TV on this morning over breakfast. They had one of those XFL (Xenophobe Football League) a.k.a. English Premier League talk shows.
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The presenters / pundits had a question of the day (for callers / viewers / etc. to answer to reply to them via e-mail, twitter and on facebook):
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"Is Wayne Rooney now as Good as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?"
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One of them then went on to say: "I think Chicharito is just as good as Sergio Aguero..."
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I nearly choked on by Breakfast. I'm having a really stressful day at work now and I'm furious due to work related stuff: the only thing that's cheering me up right now is the thought of what I saw on TV this morning during breakfast and how hilariously and idiotic + myopic people can be.
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Seriously!?!? Rooney = Messi? Rooney = Ronaldo? Chicharito = Kun Aguero?
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Some people really are way TOO DRUNK on delusion these days.
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What did you have for breakfast today?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Winning despite a Broken Midfield but with a Broken Ketchup Bottle


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At 12 midnight, after watching Liverpool go down 0-1 to Stoke, I decided to take a nap prior to Real Madrid’s match which would be at 2am Singapore time: deciding to give Real Sociedad- Barcelona a miss. Before dozing off though, Barca was already 2-0 up with just over 15 minutes into the game. Not long after, I woke to a kick from my 3-month old son who has just awakened:  it was as if he knew that I needed to be alerted to the fact that Sociedad had gotten a goal back. 3 minutes later, Sociedad had made it 2-2. Late appearances from Messi and Villa didn’t help. Barca are going through their annual early season fitness struggles again it seems – and Real Madrid need to capitalize.
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If anyone needed any validation that Real Madrid had a totally different fitness situation, all that was put to rest with out 8 shots in the first 15 minutes of the game. We’re only talking about fitness thus far though.
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Tactics and Personnel – Midfield Selections
Pressing with a 4-2-3-1
With Sahin and Altintop looking at a long spell in the Valdebebas injury ward, and Khedira still injured, Mourinho still made the choice of not calling up Lass for the game: opting instead for only Coentrao and Granero as Xabi Alonso’s 2 potential partners. Coentrao of course got the nod to start with Xabi Alonso in the 4-2-3-1 system - repeating the starting XI used against Zaragoza.
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The outcome however was different: where Zaragoza seemed to capitulate and accept their fate as cannon fodder to the Real Madrid onslaught after the opening goal, it was a different story last night after Benzema opened the scoring (predictably assisted by Ozil), Getafe fought back. They are after all coached by the man behind Levante’s miracle campaign that saved them from relegation last season. It was during this fightback where I believe the decision to select Coentrao as Xabi Alonso’s midfield partner somehow backfired on us.
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I’ve called Coentrao plenty of things: the ‘Joker’, the Energizer Bunny, etc. One thing that I still cannot bring myself to call him though is: Central Midfielder. Coentrao brings pace and reasonable capabilities as a ball distributor and a ball winner. But what really stands out is his energy: a lot of it. I’m not sure whether this is a result of a license given to him by Mourinho, or even an instruction: but I have to say that I have a huge problem with his tendency to unhinge himself from his ‘pivot’ position. We after all, not longer live in a world where a single ‘Makelele-type’ pivot is sufficient. On top of that, Xabi Alonso is no Makelele.
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What happened last night vs. Getafe
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Coentrao’s constant forays to join Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria while adding ‘spice’ to our attack, becomes a recipe for the opposing team to ‘flood’ our midfield (which by then would be comprised by ONE Xabi Alonso) and overrun it once they win the ball back. This will not be lost on La Liga managers who have been watching game tape and it’s clear from last night that Luis Garcia did his homework… and it wasn’t lost on Mourinho, who said: El partido del Getafe es bueno. Y el nuestro no lo es (The game of Getafe was good, ours, not so). He goes on to say:
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"I'm not happy with my team tonight. We deserved to win and did, but we missed many chances to score. We had too many chances with the little football we actually played. I'm not angry with anyone, but I want to know why the team didn't do well after having such a fantastic start to the season. I want to study this match. I like to try to learn why my team didn't do things right."
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One might be able to argue though on the basis that Coentrao, due to his surging runs from the midfield had a load of wonderful scoring opportunities (including 2 that were easier to score than miss). To which, I would like to point out the difference between making those runs to help build up play and making late runs to latch onto balls to score on ala Frank Lampard in Mourinho’s Chelsea. Coentrao’s goalscoring opportunities were both off rebound opportunities from late runs rather than from his participation in buildup play.
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Getafe looked comfortable getting forward and very stable in the midfield precisely because of Coentrao’s absence next to Xabi Alonso when Getafe had the ball. Last night, Getafe midfielders usually received the ball having to face only the slow-footed Xabi Alonso because his partner Coentrao would be behind, just trying to run back into position after being part of the attack that lost the ball. Their midfielders in turn, had little problems getting the ball to their attackers (among them Sarabia, who I thought looked very good) to put us on the backfoot. This would not happen with Khedira. Until Sami is fit again, perhaps Mourinho needs to consider moving Pepe to midfield as Xabi Alonso’s bodyguard. Ramos at CB and Arbeloa at RB have no impact on the quality levels on the pitch for the team anyway.
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Signs on the Wall
Real Madrid conceded 2 lousy goals last night. Getafe’s equalizer was clearly a result of poor communication between Pepe and Carvalho on who was supposed to track the advancing Getafe attacker and who was supposed stay and sit back for anyone ghosting into the box: both did the former, leaving Miku to ruthlessly punish us with a goal. The second goal was just down to poor defending. While we may have kept a clean sheet during our opening game of the season, it’s important to note that we’ve also let in quite a few silly goals during the pre-season. Is it time for Mourinho to take a more serious look at our defense? Is Carvalho losing concentration (or rather, did he lose it during this whole Paulo Bento feud?)? We have 2 Spanish international defenders sitting on the bench who can help: Arbeloa and Albiol. If there’s a lack of focus, or a drop in level for our defenders, we might want to give some of our bench players some game time.
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Goals, Goals, Goals! (to the tune of Motley Crue’s ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’)
I have of course, saved the best part for last: the goals. Firstly, I find it refreshing that Ronaldo is proving me wrong about my theory which states that Ronaldo only stops playing greedy once he scores. He didn’t give me any ‘pass the f#cking ball you dick!’ moments last night. His penalty, though a weak call in my opinion was still a foul, albeit outside the box.
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The star of the night of course would have to be Karim Benzema. Somehow, the fates have conspired for him to score twice last night to somehow make up for his standout performance on opening day. The Frenchman looks sharp, moves and reacts a split second faster (he wouldn’t have gotten the shot off for his first goal if he got that chance last season) and is clearly brimming with confidence as seen from him first-time shot at meeting Ronaldo’s pass for his second goal. All this wasn’t lost on Mourinho too:
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Benzema had a well-deserved field day on the pitch last night
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"Benzema deserves full credit for his transformation. He had small help from me, from his teammates and from Zizou, but he deserves the credit. He has a fantastic attitude and he always had quality. People see that…”
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And also finally, Pipita gets to score a familiar ‘Pipita-style’ goal: latching onto a pass and using his graft and industry to find an opening to score. He scored for Argentina this past week too. Does Jose Mourinho now have 2 strikers whose ketchup bottles have finally fully opened up?*

(*Note to those who may not follow my Ruud Van Nistelrroy allusion. This was revealed when Pipita spoke about his ‘tutor’s’ advice: "Ruud told me that goals are like ketchup… Sometimes as much as you try, they don't come out, and then they come all of a sudden.'')
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The team travels to Zagreb to open its quest for La Decima on Wednesday. Let’s hope that by then, the midfield would be fixed and the ketchup bottle, still broken.