Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Sweet Taste of Victory (Barcelona 1 – Real Madrid 2)


‘Your Pessimism Disgusts Me’ – was my reply to a post in the comments section in one of the previous articles at RMFB as the comment essentially said that last night’s game at the Camp Nou was a guaranteed loss (or something to that effect). It turned out, that the non-believers of Real Madrid’s ability to beat Barca were not only among the Cules (something that was logical), but scandalously, they were from the Madridista camp as well. I was shocked at this because as a proud Madridista, I had assumed that Madridistas never surrender, and never stop believing that victory is possible. There’s been a lot of shit talk lately about the ‘Barca DNA’ (about how a Barca player is mentally programmed to play differently from the rest because how they read the game, etc.) – well in case the ignorant glory hunters out there don’t know: there’s a Real Madrid DNA too. The DNA of a Madridista shows a much simpler but far more potent characteristic: the pathological desire for excellence and victory. A true Madridista never believes that victory is unachievable.
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Last night, our boys showed the world that. They also showed the world, that they weren’t onboard with the notion that many Madridistas were disturbingly enough, starting to accept – that it was ok to win La Liga without beating Barcelona. Mourinho of course was the first to raise his hand to say that this was ok. I, however, subscribe to the Corey Fiske school of thinking on the matter: to be the best, you got to beat the best – and that’s exactly what our boys did last night.
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Tactics Part 1: Dual-Mode Tactics with the Objective of Winning
The last thought I wanted to raise re: the Bayern Game was that what I was afraid of was the idea of Real Madrid playing with fear: playing for a draw, playing to just hold on. This of course is not the club philosophy and nor is the team built for this function – and this was what kept me uneasy heading into last night’s game: that Mourinho knew that a draw would be enough to see us with just enough of a lead to secure La Liga and that he’d play for it conservatively at Camp Nou and pay dearly for it. The opposite instead happened last night. Graham Hunter, in his post for ESPN summed it beautifully:
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Barcelona has gone to the Bernabeu and imposed such pain, such humiliation, that it's a chore for Madrid to host them there at the moment. At the Camp Nou, however, Madrid's players have felt that relaxed, "nothing to lose" sensation for some games now… The last three Camp Nou Clasicos have resulted in a draw, a narrow win and a draw in Barcelona's favor. But honestly, Madrid did so well in each that it could have won…”
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Mourinho was wise to look back at our RECENT history (i.e. post-manita) in terms of results and find that we’ve actually played some good football and put their backs up against the wall in doing so – nevermind the absence of a win. I would like to believe that it was on the back of those performances that Mourinho decided that we’d go for the win in this one as seen in his decision to opt for what we now pretty much know is his preferred XI and formation for a tough game – a 4-2-3-1 with Coentrao at LB and Ronaldo-Ozil-Di Maria behind what we probably now know as his preferred starting striker, Karim Benzema.
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Real Madrid started the game looking to score, but didn’t play with the mindless obsession to dominate Barca with 5th gear football for 90 minutes – something that would have seen us drop our energy levels soon enough and allow Barca to get back into the game or even win it. Instead, Real Madrid looked to score early on (Mode 1) and then neatly organized themselves to absorb Barca’s tiki-taka assault while looking to exploit their weakness at the channels (Mode 2). Hunter describes our team’s performance eloquently:
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“…This was yet another type of display from Mourinho's side in a Clasico. It bore little resemblance to almost any of the previous 10. As few fouls as possible, as much athletic pressing as possible, clinical with every pass, clinical with every tackle – smart… If your team wasn't Barca, if you were simply somebody in love with football and its red-letter occasions, Saturday's El Clasico was a display that smacked of maturity and intelligence, something Madrid has only achieved in glimpses against Barcelona while under Mourinho's control.”
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With the scoreline at 1-0, Real Madrid assembled themselves neatly in 2 banks of 4 with Ronaldo and Benzema up front – with Ozil having gone to the flank, looking like a counter-attacking 4-4-2 or even a 4-4-1-1 with Ronaldo / Benzema also putting in shifts to help the midfield out. The defensive plan was organized and flaw-less with Alonso and the 2 CBs perfectly communicating with each other in the tracking and marking of Messi as he shifted from the midfield and forward zone back and forth, a Facebook comment I read summed it up nicely: “Messi went from Alonso’s Pocket, to Khedira’s, then to Pepe’s, then Ramos’ and so forth…” Tello was generally well controlled by Arbeloa (save for that shot he seemed to aim at the crowd) while Alves was a non-factor with Mourinho’s decision to opt for Coentrao at LB.
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Any balls won and recovered were then sent to the ‘channels’ (more on that in Tactics Part 2) where we created our scoring chances from. Idiots like Busquets still of course insist on blowing the ‘we played football’ trumpet: someone needs to tell him that football is the sport won by the team that scores the most goals. Barca’s first shot on goal was on the 70th min., leading to Alexis’ goal. We had registered more than 5 (I think by then) – and still he thinks that they played Football. Someone should tell Busquets that Real Madrid played Football last night while Barca for the most part played their self-invented sport, Keep Ball. Some people really need a reality check.
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Last night, we played to win, not by mindless attacking and pressing as a 13-year old would do in a FIFA video game, but with a combination of audacity, cleverness, organization and discipline, frustrating them, stifling and frustrating them and then hitting them at their weak point.
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Tactics Part 2: Exploiting their Back 3
Our 4-2-3-1 vs. their Back 3: Ronaldo and Di Maria threatened them on the channels created by their 'narrow' back 3
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Real Madrid looked comfortable in the early exchanges and displayed no sign of being overwhelmed or being in the brink of being overrun at midfield. It must also be noted that Mourinho’s decision to go with Coentrao at LB meant that he was fully prepared to see Alves in an attacking function should Barca opt to change what is on paper a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 or even a 3-3-4. There wasn’t going to be a repeat of that situation where a marauding Marcelo would become curtailed all of a sudden and eventually overrun by the snap of Guardiola’s finger to push Alves up. Mourinho has had enough time to review game videos of Barca’s seamless ability to convert their paper 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3, 3-5-2 or even a 3-3-4. In all cases, Barca’s weak point would be at the ‘channels’: the space between the touchline and the furthest of their 3 CBs. All of this is made worse for Barca with the bizarre decision of Pep to opt for his ‘Back 3’ to consist of Puyol, Mascherano and Adriano (with Pique on the bench), with the latter of the 3 (Adriano) without any credible capability of playing as a CB and none of the 3 capable of combating Real Madrid’s threats (Ramos, Ronaldo and Pepe). Ronaldo early header (where he towers over Puyol and Thiago) was a warning to Barca early on in the game, while Pepe’s knockdown of the ball (over Adriano) off a corner to allow Khedira’s goal clearly showed how we took advantage of their weakness in the air. Our second goal on the other hand was a classic move to exploit their weakness in the channels on the counter: with poor Adriano’s flank exploited by Mesut ‘Avatar Eyes’ Ozil for Ronaldo to stab home the winner.
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Our 4-3-3 vs. their Back 3: The second goal sees Ozil totally free on that right channel to send his laser guided pass to Ronaldo (who switched positions with Benzema). Mourinho had his men hit Barca in these areas over and over again.
It cannot be emphasized enough that in both Mourinho’s starting (4-2-3-1) and finishing (4-3-3) formations, our attacking threats at the channels between the widest of their 3 CBs sides and the touchline (on both sides) were everpresent: Ronaldo on the Left and Di Maria (1st Part) and Ozil on the Right (2nd Half): with Higuain crossing beautifully from that right-channel which nearly made it 3-1 and another Ronaldo goal late on. Mourinho knew where that weak spot was and he kept his men hitting it over and over again.
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Player Performances
In a way, it’s not fair to be talking about standout performances from a team that performed superbly from I – XI, but some individual performances stick out compellingly.
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Sami Khedira – The Unsung Hero of Mourinho’s Madrid
Khedira nutmegged Puyol not to get past him, but to score the opening goal - which conditioned the ENTIRE match
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I am sick to death of hearing people say that Khedira doesn’t belong to Madrid’s starting XI over criticisms on his passing ability, creativity and vision. Sami Khedira isn’t there for that. Physically powerful, tactically aware and with a relentless, work ethic: he is the quintessential Mourinho midfielder. He’s there to play the role of being the team’s water carrier. The last time the notion of a water carrier not being needed in the team to make way for a more ‘creative’ midfielder took place, Real Madrid went for it’s longest trophy-less period in half a century. In a game like this, where the finishing quality of the forwards, the precision of playmakers and the heroic performances of the defense usually overshadow the accomplishments of the water carrier, I’m happy to see him score the go ahead, history-making goal (#108 for the season) which sets the tone for the entire match.
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Ramos & Pepe – Titans on Defense
Both men carry reputations as Red Cards waiting to happen, and neither cracked under the weight of the occasion. Both kept their heads, were impeccable with their positioning and marking and precise with their tackling… did I mention that Pepe’s aerial knockdown created our first goal too?
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Karim Benzema - The Evolution of / to a #9 Continues
Jose Mourinho once said that he's prepared to choose if he has to between Benzema and Higuain - and I suppose it's pretty clear now who his first choice striker is. Before I'm roundly castigated by Pipita's fans out there, I will first say that I'm a HUGE fan of El Pipa, one of his most fervent defenders and a true believer that he is Raul's heir to the team. Having said all of that however, thus far, I agree with Mourinho preference of Benzema over Pipita. Because despite the fact that Benzema lacks Pipita's ruthlessness and RVN-esque nose for goal, Benzema is slowly evolving into becoming a very, very well-rounded and multi-functional striker. From being a forward whose potential was based on his elegant technique and finishing ability, Benzema is now slowly evolving into a very complete striker - something even more relevant when you consider the fact that Ronaldo is becoming less and less an attacking winger and more and more a full-blown forward. This season, the primary reason for his preference over Pipita is his ability to help in buildup play - which makes both him and Ronaldo multiply their threat to an opponent. In the last few games however, he has started to perform quite effectively, one of the roles of a #9: to receive the ball, hold it up and get his team mates into play to attack. At Munich last Tuesday and Last night, he performed this role exceptionally. Karim Benzema is developing the ability to become an effective and exceptional striker beyond being a goal scorer. In the modern game, that is priceless.
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Cristiano Ronaldo – MVP
Ronaldo Tells His Team after scoring "Keep Calm, I've got this"
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I called him a choker for missing a sitter in the first La Liga Clasico of the season. Last night, he scored the goal that won the match and possibly the League title too – and THAT was no sitter. If I had to choose an image on which to remember this match by, it would be Ronaldo’s goal-celebration: "keep calm, I’ve got this." he told his teammates. He had scored in his 3rd consecutive Clasico, beat his own record of most goals scored in a single La Liga Season, and extended Real Madrid’s record to 109 goals this season. First he shed his reputation as a diver, then his reputation as being only interested in attacking, then his reputation as a ball hog, then now, finally, his reputation as a big-game choker. His play for Madrid has gone from being a mere ‘weapon that can be activated by passing the ball to him and seeing what happens’ (as seen in Pellegrini’s time) to the centerpiece that is totally integral to Real Madrid’s play. His play and that of his teammates’ show that his trust in them is absolute and vice versa - something made even more pronounced as he insists post-game, that the credit belongs to his teammates. He has become the complete MVP for Real Madrid. A La Liga-winning campaign should rightfully place him neck and neck with Messi as the world’s best player this season. If Real Madrid win the double of La Liga and the Champions League this season, I won’t care what happens in the Euros – but I will consider it an outrage and a scandal if he doesn’t win the Balon D’ Or.
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Back to the Bernabeu
Mourinho’s performance as a coach and his team’s performance individually and collectively last night, points the way to La Cibeles. The Germans visit us on Wednesday and a similar display of ambition to win, tactical brilliance, technical ability and physical excellence should see us dispense of the mentally-fragile Bavarians (who are struggling with their internal Ribery-Robben Civil War) to book our tickets back to the Allianz Arena for the Champions League Final. And based on how we played last night, it no longer matters who awaits us there.
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But for now, until Wednesday at least (where I will be thirsting for Bayern’s blood), I will enjoy this wonderful taste lingering in my mouth… the Sweet Taste of Victory.

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