Monday, January 30, 2012

Auspicious Beginnings



It’s been 7 days since the beginning of the Dragon Year – and here we are 7 points ahead of Barca in the league table. Our 3-1 over Zaragoza and Barca’s 0-0 (their first scoreless game in 15 matches) made sure of that. In a league where the margins of error between a league title or a bridesmaid finish is a hairline, 7 points is gold – it gives us that all-important precious margin for error: to account for that somewhat inevitable match that will see us drop points against a Levante, Sporting or… a Real Zaragoza!
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The last time Real Madrid ‘recovered’ the league title from a Barca hegemony (led by their ‘10’ who at that point was the undisputed best player on the planet - Ronaldinho), Real Madrid were coached by a ‘defensive coach’ too (Capello). It also looked like things were going to turn to shit for us until a series of heart-stopping remontadas put us back on course: allowing the team to win the needed points on the league table, but more importantly, galvanizing the team’s chemistry, psychology and self belief.
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Since that infamous 1-2 against Barca in the home leg of the Copa Del Rey (and since the beginning of the new Lunar New Year): 4-1 against Bilbao, 2-2 against Barca, 3-1 against Zaragoza. All remontadas.
No, I’m not saying that history is or should repeat itself – I am merely highlighting the stark similarities of both situations. I’m also not saying that remontadas are good (they’re entertaining, yes) – who wants to win by digging a hole for themselves first? Either way, wins are wins… either way, we celebrate.
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With regards to last Saturday’s match however, it’s perhaps pertinent to note a few notable points – particularly ones that seem to be recent ‘trends’ in the way Real Madrid have been playing / being aligned. Against Saturday, many of these caught our attention again.
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1.) Ronaldo playing ‘D’. Ronaldo playing Defense has been one of the shockingly pleasant surprises that have greeted me from the beginning of the New Lunar New Year. He didn’t have his usual electricity against Bilbao but it was not lost on many Madridistas (and Mourinho too) that Real Madrid’s very own thong boy / bitch fit master is learning the value of putting in a shift of blue collar work on the pitch. His willingness to drop deep, watch out for balls to intercept, pressing and drastically-improved involvement on defense was one of the absolute critical ingredients to last Wednesday’s clasico. His work allowed Madrid to turn the pressure up in that favored zone of play that Barca like to play in that negated the natural man advantage they had in a 4-3-3 vs. 4-2-3-1 battle. Last Saturday, his goal was offside. But more importantly, he’s winning back the boo-boys who criticized him so ferociously (including yours truly) for choking during last December’s clasico.
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2.) Nursing Ricardo Carvalho Back – Jose Mourinho looks to be trying to blood him back into the squad. A capable and experienced defender during an injury crisis will always be helpful. I can’t help asking and wondering however, if such game time might be better for the building up of Raphael Varane’s experience and confidence.
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3.) Hamit Altintop a Right Back? – Jose Mourinho looks to have decided that Ramos is a CB. He’ll be left with one natural right back on the back of that decision though. Lass can play there but isn’t a natural: he doesn’t have the natural ability of a real fullback (regardless if he’s an attacking or a defensive one) to open space for his team by stretching the pitch wide. Coentrao doesn’t look a good fit there either. Perhaps to find a place for Turk, Mourinho is trying him out at RB. I didn’t see him play during the first leg of the Copa Del Rey clasico: there were praises and criticisms for him then, but on the back of last Saturday Night’s meh performance, I think someone should remind Mourinho that there’s a bright kid in Castilla named Carvajal who deserves to have a go at that substitute RB spot for the first team.
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I really enjoyed watching Granero's work last Saturday
3.) Granero: learning / re-defining the pivot role – From a ‘decent’ performance against Bilbao, to a ‘pretty good’ performance against Barca to a ‘very good’ performance last Saturday: El Pirata’s surge in playing time has also been marked by a progressive increase on the quality of his performances… and he’s doing it from the ‘pivot’ position. Mourinho has once described his ideal position as being the tip of a diamond midfield a position that puts him 3rd in line behind Ozil and Kaka. As a pivot though, what he lacks in skills as a ball winner is compensated by his ability to relieve Xabi Alonso of pressure by not only being that second passing outlet from deep but also with his driving runs and dribbles forward: allowing him to change the team’s formation from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-1-4-1 at the drop of a hat. He might truly be an ideal guy to sit beside Xabi against weaker teams who will prefer to sit tight and play defensively.
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Is this appearance of the old Kaka here to stay?
4.) Kaka: Using Spaces? Or Making Spaces? – I described Kaka as an ideal pick for the Bilbao game because its open-ended tempo suited his ‘fast break’ skills. Then he does it again against Barca’s hard-pressing game… and then he does it against Zaragoza yet again last Saturday. Interchanging roles between that ‘10’ spot and the right side of Madrid’s attacking midfield with Ozil, Kaka seems to have found a groove: where his sound technical skills, his mobility and his knack for making runs has helped open and create spaces for the Madrid attack. Maybe he’s not the just-for-fastbreaks kind of player I adjudged him to be…
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Ozil's been on fire and I'm lovin' it
5.) Ozil: Finding his Magic Wand – In my opinion, he was Real Madrid’s Man of the Match last Saturday and against Barca last Wednesday. He seems to have that extra boost when he runs and somehow moves, passes and runs with a much-improved sense of fluidity and crisp-ness. He’s also somehow started figuring out how to play on the right. I remember very clearly now why he’s my favorite player on the team.
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The Copa Del Rey was the 3rd Objective of the season and now it’s gone: who knew that our meaningful ‘last charge’ for that competition just might be the antidote we need to carry us through for that elusive La Liga title. Getafe’s next. I say more of the same please.  
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p.s. Apologies for not writing a review of THAT El Clasico match – I’ve been down with a nasty throat infection these last few days.

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