Thursday, March 22, 2012

Uh-Oh (Villarreal 1, Real Madrid 1)

Lightning  Strikes Twice in the space place in 3 days. This had Madridisimo collectively groaning: "Oh Shit - Not Again!" 
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Just a week after we started to fancy our Champions League odds by drawing APOEL Nicosia last Friday while enjoying our 10 point lead in La Liga, we have all of a sudden decided to expose our soft underbelly. It is no surprise that most of the back chatter about Mourinho’s criticism of the Bernabeu’s version of the Prawn Sandwich Brigade and his applause of the Fondo Sur’s Ultras have been outed by some journalists as a means to mask what looks to be his team showing the alarming signs of fatigue.
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Co-Relations
So here we are: 2 consecutive games, 2 consecutive draws. 4 points dropped from goals scored off direct free kicks conceded near our goal towards the end of a match. If we’re looking for more interesting coincidental relationships: both goals were scored by players from Spain’s Euro 2008 who were both Villarreal players at the time… both also didn’t make the 2010 World Cup team. Another interesting co-relation: Malaga are a team desperate to call themselves a La Liga Champions League Representatives as that 4th Spanish team (the 3rd  team is usually Valencia) while Villarreal once owned that ‘title.’
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Referees
Yes, Paradas Romero is as capable of refereeing a professional football match as my 10-month-old son is at flying a 747. Paradas had zero communication skills with players and managed the match very poorly. Sergio Ramos’ foul was worthy of a card and was a blatant display of a lack of maturity (especially for aReal Madrid Vice-Captain) and given Rui Faria’s predictable tendency to get sent off, there is little credibility lost to sending him off. Mourinho’s dismissal as well as Ozil’s however was a clear product of Romero's clear failure to control the match and his own emotions. Were Mourinho’s reactions to the calls against Real Madrid out of the ordinary? Was Ozil’s sarcastic applause THAT bad?. Romero’s report would later confirm that Mourinho's dismissal started on 53’ when he was booked for 'making comments on one of my decisions' then on 82 minutes he was sent off for 'leaving the technical area making comments on one of my decisions'. Faria's straight red on the other hand was on 49 minutes for "clapping one of my decisions from the bench." I mean seriously, WTF!?!?!
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It’s the troublemaker Pepe who will be in hotwater again though as he blasted Romero: “That was a Robbery MotherF%cker!” in the tunnel – yet another brain explosion that can cost him between 4-12 games.
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If there’s one thing I’ve realized about La Liga referees, it’s that many of them have this tendency to go into a ‘red zone’ where everything big and small becomes a booking… most likely done out of a desperate attempt to regain control of a match that they’ve lost already: creating further chaos and sending the match into a horrific tailspin. This was what happened last night.
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It must be clear though to Madridistas and especially to the players that the 2 points weren’t lost because of the refereeing: in fact it would have probably been THREE points lost if the refereeing was good given Arbeloa’s shirt pulling antics in the first half. As such, we should get off the subject matter
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Rotations and Formations
Mourinho’s opting to start with a Trivote has also come under the spotlight – and I won’t criticize that either. The need to rotate the squad in this period of having a match every 3 days has been discussed to no end. In an away game, I don’t find anything wrong with opting to play a trivote to allow the fit-again Lass to play in place of Kaka (who was probably rested for the Sociedad match this weekend at the Bernabeu). With the trivote ‘malfunctioning’ however, Mourinho decided to revert to our usual 4-2-3-1 with Callejon – a sign to me that he was quick to recognize a fault and corrected it immediately. Altintop playing on the right side of midfield to replace what I can only conclude as an injured Callejon  was also in my opinion a valid move if the objective is to rest Kaka for this weekend’s game (I’d have sent Granero in instead though). So in my opinion, just because we didn’t score a bucket-load of goals, doesn’t mean that Mourinho screwed this one up tactically.
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In fact, of we didn’t concede that late goal, I don’t think we’d hear all this grumbling about Mourinho getting it wrong – we would instead be all gushing about how sublime Ozil’s backheel pass was to assist Ronaldo, whose equally brilliant maneuvering through the Villarreal penalty box gave us the 0-1 lead.
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It has to be said though that last night’s Villarreal team was Miguel Angel Lotina’s first game in charge. The former Depor coach who has turned defensive football into an art and science with his 5-man defenses / midfields that actually resemble a 10-0 (all defender) formation got his team well-organized last night as they managed to break forward a number of times behind our defense to counter attack in the instances they managed to win the ball back from us with their compact defensive alignment.
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In Search for the Stuff of Champions
Over the span of 3 days, the 10 point lead that Real Madrid had managed to build early this year has been cut down by nearly half: and in both instances to goals conceded at the end of a match from free kick conceded too close for comfort. This is the hallmark of a team that is not only tired but is in dire need of composure, poise and the ability to withstand pressure… in other words: the Stuff of Champions. The fact that all this is happening in this period where we play a game every 3 days is even more alarming – because while we shake our heads at the use of the likes of Altintop and Lass as substitutes (and rail against the decision not to use Sahin, Granero and Callejon), Barcelona whose squad we snickered at for lacking in depth have seamlessly tapped into their youth reserves where the likes of Isaac Cuenca and Christian Tello have done well in filling in the gaps.
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Pep Guardiola’s declarations of Barca’s chances in winning the league reek of mind games as his memory as a player back in the day of seeing Madrid lose a title on the last day of the league to Tenerife for 2 consecutive years is coming to the fore. Mourinho must now call upon his own past experiences to reinforce the fact that a Mourinho team leading the table in the final stretch never relinquishes it as he has done in Chelsea and Inter – or he risks being compared to his ill-fated compatriot Carlos Queroz, who managed to squander a sizeable point lead in the table to lose the league title to Valencia during the galactico era.
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For Real Madrid, if there was ever a time to summon the Champion in them, this is the time to do so.
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Expectations
Upon deeper reflection, it has to be said that a big part of where this disappointment on my part is coming from was my idiotic fantasy of prematurely predicting a paseo of sorts to Cibeles to celebrate the league title – to the point of having the nerve to daydream about a pasillo in the Camp Nou. Though Mourinho warned against such daydreaming and building up of expectations: even saying that we might just win the league by a mere point, I doubt he imagined that our dropping of points would come so early (before April)…
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As the MERE possibility of home comforts await us this weekend (will it be a supportive crowd or the snobbish Prawn Sandwich brigade?), Barca travel to Mallorca for a potentially tricky match. This weekend will no longer be about merely taking the opportunity to return to winning ways, but the critical need to do so.

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