Thursday, March 1, 2012

Diamonds in the Dirt (Rayo Vallecano 0 – Real Madrid 1)

Ronaldo's goal last night will be one of the most memorable goals I will ever see in my life.
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Last night’s match against Rayo was always going to be a tough one. Sure, they’re a newly promoted side relying on an Atletico Madrid loanee (Diego Costa), but bloody hell – they’re Rayo Vallecano: one of Real Madrid’s old ‘mortal enemies’ in the city of Madrid. If Real Madrid are the rich and uber-polished blue-eyed boys from the city of Madrid and Atleti are the boys from the other side of the tracks – then I suppose that Rayo are tunnel rats from the city’s underworld. They like being that way too: with a small stadium where the first row of seats is within spitting distance of the pitch, and a fan base of loud, vocal diehards, it’s no wonder why there were so few travelling Real Madrid fans that Mourinho had to make a fuss about it postgame. So while I had no doubts that Real Madrid were gonna win last night, I also had no doubts that it wasn’t going to be easy.
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Control… or the Lack of It
Pepe was involved in yet another stamping incident last night. Seriously, this guy needs to double his appointments with the shrink
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Jose Mourinho’s lineup was a predictable one: with the absence of Benzema making Pipita the automatic choice and the brawny Khedira sitting beside Xabi Alonso. The attacking 3 behind Higuain consisted of Ronaldo-Kaka-Ozil: something we’ve seen before too… what we didn’t expect was how a midfield comprised of 2 ‘10’s and 2 pivots would have absolutely no control of the game. It was amateur night for the most part as the ball essentially seemed to genuinely dislike being at midfield – or rather, like the midfield didn’t exist last night.
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Perhaps it was the sort of game that Rayo wanted to play: smash-mouth, physical, frenetic, end-to-end, no control and no rhythm – the sort of game that I imagine Rayo Vallecano’s crest (which to me resembles a Special Forces Marine Brigade of some sort) wanted to embody. All of a sudden, watching Spanish Football at 11pm Singapore Time (thanks to the early kickoff) has started to resemble English Football with the match turning into long ball city. Alonso seemed like he was trying to (but failing) establish control, but the rest just wasn’t working: once again the Kaka (in the middle) and Ozil (on the right) combination didn’t work. I would actually like to say that Kaka was terrible last night, but I find it impossible to say because how could he be terrible if he wasn’t even in the game (i.e. invisible)? Ozil in the meantime looked just a little bit better once Kaka was off and he was sent to his preferred role in the middle later in the 2nd half.
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Last night, Rayo gave us a taste of our own medicine: by having their guys right our throats and refusing to give us time on the ball, they denied us control of the game and forced us to make mistakes. I suppose this is where the criticism of the players comes in: because a team Real Madrid who are supposedly so good at creating attacking chances with lightning speed should in fact thrive at the space left behind by the swarming hoardes of opposing players. It isn’t supposed to be frazzled by such pressing – unless of course they were still in siesta mode: a thought that I’m sure is not lost on a lot of Madridistas.
I'm UNDECIDED if Ramos intentionally smashed his elbow onto Costa's throat. Either way, I'm very disturbed by it
The effectiveness of their methods explains why Mourinho had only words of praise to describe Rayo Vallecano last night. The (non)-rhythm of the game brought out the worst in us and completely threw our guys off their game. It also brought back my initial fears about the Pepe-Ramos Central Defensive Partnership: with both men ending the match counting themselves lucky not to see red as the tackles, wrestling moves, kicks and elbows were flying out thick and fast.
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It should also be noted that to add to the ugliness, Rui Faria was sent off last night – AGAIN. If he is genuinely not saying anything untoward at the officials, I can only surmise that he probably has the most irritating voice it football… perhaps that’s why it’s Aitor who does the press interviews and not him (let me declare that I say this tongue-in-cheek as a joke lest someone is outraged by it).
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Beauty in Madness
I never ever thought however that such an ugly game would be decided by such a beauty of a goal. While there will be those who might brand Ronaldo’s winning goal last night as being borne of audacity and cheekiness (even arrogance), I insist that it was a product of guile and cleverness: that his audacity to attempt it merely goes hand in hand with his ability and uncanny awareness. With the ball running away from him and with 3 defenders chasing him down, the only way he was going to score in that play was with a backheel. Any move which mere mortals like us would think of (e.g. to control it, or even to control it and turn in one move) would have resulted in allowing his THREE markers to catch up with him. The beauty of Ronaldo's backheeled goal wasn't just from the fact that it was showed his quality, but from the fact that it was not done out of some cheap, contrived attempt to be a fancy showman. It was a goal attempt created by his assessment of his positioning, the space he had and the positioning of his opponents.
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We’ve already seen a number of backheeled goals (the last one at Madridwas Van Der Vaart’s if I remember correctly), but most of them had the scorer still at an angle where he could see his target. Most of the backheeled goals we’ve seen also had the player very close to the goal. Last night’s goal however, had Ronaldo with his back COMPLETELY turned away from the goal and his markers, relying only on his SENSE of the goal to score from a distance almost near the penalty spot.
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If he had controlled the ball, then turned, the 2 Rayo defenders running towards him would've stopped him. The backheel was his only option. How did he even manage to see the goal? There were SEVEN Rayo Players including the keeper with that tiny sliver of space between them to aim at with his back to the goal. Amazing. Just bloody Amazing

In a game where Rayo who played so well, completely negating our capabilities as a team, our only chance to win would be to win on the back of the quality of our players (where we had plenty to spare). But with our boys playing well below their true abilities, it had to take one of Ronaldo’s absolute best moments to decide the game. It was an astounding display of quality that could only match the cruelty of Rayo’s defeat.
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The Second Diamond in the Dirt
While the most of us will be spending the week replaying Ronaldo’s goal in our heads over and over again (I know I will), it is perhaps worthy to note that his gem  of a goal wasn’t the only thing we can take from last night’s mostly-shitty game. Very much like our dour midweek game in Russia, as the clocked ticked down to 90 minutes and our opponents who had home field advantage in an intimidating ground frantically piled on the pressure for that last hurrah, our boys had to batten down the hatches as the enemy laid siege to Iker’s goal. And just like last Tuesday, they made their runs, sent their crosses in and won free kicks in dangerous positions. Unlike last Tuesday though, there was no late equalizer, no fatal defensive error and no bitter / sour taste in the mouth to end the game. So while on an individual level we revel in Ronaldo’s gem of  a goal and on a team level, we rail at our bad performance... let’s not forget that despite all that, our boys still managed to hold on for the win.
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And in the greater scheme of things, that just might turn out to be the bigger, brighter and most precious of the 2 diamonds we found in the dirt last night.

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