Monday, April 2, 2012

Creatures of Habit (APOEL Nicosia 0 - Real Madrid 3)


APOEL-Real Madrid in pictures
Mr. Champions League does it again: Karim Benzema broke APOEL's dam last night
What is that smell?.. or rather, that scent? That my friends is the smell of the Champions League Semi-Final.
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Short of a catastrophe that would be far greater than Alcorconzo, Mourinho and his men would likely be arranging early travel plans to Munich  – not for the Final, but to likely to meet Bayern in the Semi-Finals (unless Marseille would have something to say about it). And if all goes well, that early trip to Munich might just be the ‘bedding-in’ period we need to get comfy with the surroundings for the final.
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Real Madrid struck like lighting thrice late last night to win 0-3 against a stubborn APOEL Nicosia side who managed to keep us at bay for the greater part of 90 minutes. Outside of Karim Benzema’s scuffed shot in the first half (that was harder to miss than score), APOEL’s well-organized defense managed very well to keep us (and our 3-headed monster) at bay… until Mourinho rang the changes that allowed us to slip back into our more familiar habits.
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Breaking from our Usual Tactical Habits
It was in last night’s match where I realized that Real Madrid had 2 ‘pillars’ in the way they play. And last night, we started the match with the idea that we would deprive ourselves with both ‘pillars’.
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Habit #1: Xabi Alonso
APOEL-Real Madrid in pictures
The Nuricorn: Sahin looked really good in the first half but appeared tired in the 2nd. Mourinho should let him play the second leg again
The habit is the obvious need for Xabi Alonso. Everybody almost universally acknowledges that Xabi Alonso is, tactically speaking, the most important player for Real Madrid. It’s easy to simplify his importance by merely speaking about what a good passer he is – and that’s exactly where the issue is. Because despite the fact that there are many fantastic passers of the ball in the world, none of them can do what Xabi Alonso does.
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Xabi Alonso does not merely pass the ball (and do it well) – he actually controls the ebb and flow of the game through it. Just as Barca will never be the same without Xavi, so will Real Madrid never be the same without XaBi – both ‘X’ midfielders not just circulate the ball, but they do so in a manner that dictates both the flow of the match AND the space on which it operates. This is specifically why it drives me absolutely nuts when idiots talk about ‘buying a substitute for Xabi Alonso’. The idea of ‘buying a substitute’ for Xabi Alonso is to me as idiotic as saying that babies should be allowed to keep and play with live adult crocodiles as pets. There is no such thing as a ‘Substitute’ for Xabi Alonso. He’s the only man on the planet who can do what he does. To not have him around means that the entire team will need to play differently, full stop.
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Last night, with Alonso’s suspension, his absence was imposed on us. This was probably one of the big reasons why Madridisimo had a collective sigh of relief when we drew APOEL as any of Bayern, Marseille, Benfica, Chelsea, Milan or Barcelona would be that much harder without our X-Man. Mourinho then chose to deal with the situation by his inspired choice of allowing the Nuricorn to re-appear last night. Sahin looked pretty good last night especially in the first half where his arsenal of passing was on show. His positioning still lacks improvement as he needs to develop the knack for making himself available to his teammates to pass back to when they’re in a bind. The fact that APOEL also had absolutely no interest in possession also helped greatly – the Cypriots pressed very little and were far more keen on retaining their shape defensively as we advanced: giving room for Sahin to settle in and do his thing. It must be noted though that Sahin looked tired during the second half and was mostly anonymous.
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Habit #2: Attacking on the Left
APOEL-Real Madrid en imágenes
Let's all admit it: Marcelo is CRITICAL for us
Real Madrid’s left flank is usually the point from where we tear our opponents’ skin open that starts the ‘kill.’ The reason is simple: Ronaldo + Marcelo. Opposing teams have seen this happen 10,000 times and they still don’t know how to stop it (well, except Barca). The moment Ronaldo begins to knife through the left with Marcelo motoring alongside him, opposing defenses practically have no choice but to lose their shape to cope with this. Once you add Kaka to the mix, the impact becomes stronger still.
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Mourinho however notes the basic fact that Marcelo is a weak defender and thus opts for the use of Coentrao in the Champions League and tricky La Liga fixtures… and last night was no different. Apart from his telepathic understanding with Ronaldo, Marcelo’s superior pace, dribbling (and cheekiness) makes him comfortable BOTH right alongside the touchline in an offensive winger’s position and on an ‘inside left’ position, depending on where Ronaldo wishes to go. Coentrao on the other hand, seems to be only comfortable drifting to the middle, often forcing Ronaldo to 2 vs. 1 battles along the touchline without a sidekick (this tendency to drift to the middle and ‘hold his position’ is also what makes Coentrao a viable midfield presence).
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With no Xabi Alonso by circumstance and with a considerably limited attacking arsenal on the left, Real Madrid’s attack lacked sharpness and dynamism.
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It was Mourinho’s substitutions of Kaka and Marcelo that clearly turned the tide. The 4-2-3-1-cum-4-3-3 (tridente) that we started out with became a 4-2-3-1-cum-4-2-2-2: with Ronaldo at times looking like a left-sided striker alongside Benzema (on the right) while Kaka and Ozil played as ‘inside left and right’ midfielders respectively with the fullbacks further providing width. The first 2 goals were direct outcomes of the substitution with the opening goal starting with Marcelo feeding Kaka who crosses in for Benzema. Then of course, there was Kaka’s goal which came from what is now a ‘classic’ Real Madrid move of attacking from the left.
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We head back to the Bernabeu with 3 away goals against zero scored against us. Perhaps Mourinho should let Xabi Alonso sit out the entire tie and let Granero and Sahin take up the midfield passing role next Wednesday. We should aim to score 1 or 2 first half goals then let the likes of Jesse and Morata see some action.
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Getting Started AGAIN
After our 2 disappointing draws were replied to with our 5-1 win against Real Sociedad last Saturday, we now begin our tricky April La Liga schedule with a trip to Osasuna who are extremely difficult to play against in their home ground (they’re in good form too, home court advantage aside). With a rested Xabi Alonso and an in-form Varane, and 2 wins on the trot, maybe it’s a good time to begin upping the degree of difficulty for our matches heading into the clasico. It’s time to start winning consistently once again. And as we all know: Winning is a Habit too.

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