Monday, January 16, 2012

Grinding It Out

I will always remember last night's game for Callejon's Celebration: The Canterano showed the world that a man who wears THAT badge never surrenders. Never.
I was reading Guillem Balague’s pre-match thoughts on last night’s game in Sky sports here and this was what he had to say about Mallorca:
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“Under Joaquin Caparros, Mallorca have changed their way of playing. They have a more solid defence but that means they shoot at goal less and lack creativity. They will struggle until the end of the season…”
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This was of course the same Mallorca team who massacred Real Sociedad 6-1 in the Copa Del Rey earlier last week. Of course the part which didn’t get mentioned in Balague’s preview was that apart from forming a forest of Red-and-Black-clad players in front of their goal, Mallorca was also a team that would break out for some pretty fast and impressive counter attacks once they won the ball back – and this was EXACTLY what the islanders did against us last night. They’ve also been drilled well in set pieces – capitalizing on Real Madrid’s Achilles’ Heel as of late.
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In short, last night’s Mallorca team showed that if Joaquin Caparros was a poker player, he’d have been one of those superbly clever ones who knows how to use a poor hand of cards (quality of players) dealt to him to maximum effect. Using a combination of common sense, mind games and near-perfect execution, he nearly managed to put Jose Mourinho’s back to the wall with his team’s play last night. And just as poker players’ tricks and methods can eventually be broken down and analyzed by their rivals and eventually rendered ineffective, I also suspect that Caparros’ Mallorca, while perhaps capable of steering clear of the danger zone, will still not turn out to become the overachievers that they were with Manzano – but that’s another discussion altogether.
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Ripping Out A Page from Pep’s Playbook
As for Jose Mourinho, while it is alarming that his team has been exposed recently as a side vulnerable to a well-executed set piece, credit must still go to the Portuguese for going ‘all-in’ for attack when the chips were down at halftime. The 4-2-3-1 he started with proved to be useless when confronting Caparros’ superbly organized 11-0 formation (all men behind the ball) when Mallorca didn’t have the ball. And so the question emerged in his mind perhaps sometime in the first half: what was the point in having 2 pivots to control a midfield that Mallorca had no interest in occupying / fighting for anyway? Cue the second half changes.
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Average Position of Real Madrid's Players after all of Mourinho's Substitutions (courtesy of ESPN Gamecast - I - photoshopped off Arbeloa, Marcelo and Lass). It was a 3-1-4-2... just like how Barca beat us last December.
By the time Real Madrid made all 3 substitutions in the second half and were still down 1-0: Mourinho had his team playing a formation which he probably ripped out from Pep Guardiola’s playbook: Real Madrid were playing a 3-1-4-2 against a clearly tiring Mallorca squad.
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Three men at the back, all with pace and awareness to chase after anyMallorcabreakout counter attacks: Ramos, Pepe and Coentrao. Marcelo was dropped because well, he can’t defend. I’m more bothered however, for Arbeloa who last season played in one of Mourinho’s remontadas following a decision to go with 3 at the back as well. Does the fact that he was pulled to the bench once again mean that he still hasn’t satisfied Mourinho?
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A Single Pivot: Xabi Alonso. There was no battle for midfield supremacy –Mallorcawere perfectly happy to cede that piece of footballing Real Estate to us: who better to boss it but Xabi Alonso?
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The attacking midfield line of 4: Ronaldo and Callejon on the flanks with twin playmakers (Ozil and Kaka) between them. Ronaldo was lackluster, Kaka was so-so, Ozil seems to be finding his feet again (or is it a case of me developing a renewed appreciation of him?) while Vanilla Joe Callejon put in his usual all-action performance.
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A double-headed Striking Monster: Pipita and Benzema. Where Benzema offered class, technique and his much loved-quality of dropping deep to help in the buildup of play, Pipita offered effort, persistence and his now-signature “Banzai M%therF#cker!” Attitude.
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Now what defense wouldn’t cave in to that?
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Caparros’ plan, as well-executed as it was, may have worked wonders in the first half, it however seemed to be the only plan. And as the time wore on and the Islanders’ ability to threaten on the break waned with fatigue fromMadrid’s siege – it was only a matter of time before their walls would get breached.
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Banzai M%therf#cker!
Gonzalo Higuain: Real Madrid's Captain Kamikaze
It wasn’t the exquisiteness of Karim Benzema’s technical abilities and finishing (which has been on full show over the last few weeks) that won us this match. Ditto for Ronaldo – who still seems to be on the wrong side of his mood swing / bitch fit. It was the spirit of Capello’s Real Madrid that won us this one: the stubborn refusal to lose - borne by the absolute and sheer self belief that the game was only going to end with one result: with 3 points in the bag.
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It was a game with absolutely no aesthetics, save for Ozil’s assist on the opening goal and the sheer audacity from Callejon’s winning-thunderbolt volley. The rest was a pure war of attrition fought on the trenches. And who else was going to be the posterchild for such a win but for Pipita Higuain? The epitome of this was seen in the second goal: created out of nothing but Pipita’s insistence on chasing after a ball that seemed destined for the hands of the keeper. TheMallorcadefense was there too – but this didn’t stop Pipita from barging in to rattle Dudu Auate and offering Benzema the chance to poke the goal home (deflected) – then in comes Callejon and the rest was history. 3 points in the bag. (I’ll just gloss over the fact that Mourinho had him playing at RB to defend the lead afterwards).
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It’s relief to see that despite the team’s newfound ability to dominate teams, despite the demoralizing loss to Barca, despite the post-winder break funk our players are suffering, despite the good and the bad – that Real Madrid can still fashion a good old win by grinding it out.
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Most of all, I will remember this match by Jose Callejon’s celebration following his winning goal: running to the bench with his hand stretching out to show the world the badge on it. In this time where the shadow of Barca is cast well above us, it’s great to take comfort from the fact that those who wear the white shirt know exactly who their playing for and what that truly means.

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