Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Worrying and Encouraging Signs (Real Madrid 3 – Sporting Gijon 1)

Euphoria / Relief / Self-Belief: EVERYONE in the team knew what Ronaldo did last Saturday - he scored THE critical goal for us once again
Well, we didn’t exactly wipe the floor with Sporting Gijon as I wished. We beat them nonetheless in an unglamorous remontada of sorts: the kind of remontada one dislikes watching because we went down 0-1 not really because Sporting sucker punched us or put our backs to the wall – but because we shot ourselves in the foot. Nevertheless, 3 points is 3 points and if there was ever a time in the season where we ought to display our ability to win despite the mitigating circumstances, it would be now. This is crunch time, time for the team to show how truly enormous their cojones are, time to show that they have the stomach for a full-on trench war if necessary – and the boys showed it last Saturday night.
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Worrying Sign #1 – Xabi-dependencia
As we faced Atleti in ther derby mid-week, many fans and probably the coaching staff as well were worried at the prospect of losing Xabi Alonso to suspension in the clasico. Those worries were washed away as Xabi got his booking in the derby, missing last Saturday night’s match and allowing him to start the clasico with a clean slate. Who knew however how badly we would miss Xabi Alonso last Saturday? Maybe Mou should have gone with the Sahin-Granero partnership that was suggested by some Madridistas last week?
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Nuri Sahin is clearly not yet ready to fill in for Xabi Alonso. While we’ve seen him provide countless tasty ‘exit balls’ to start an attack from deep positions while he was at Dortmund, a combination of lacking match fitness, familiarity with his teammates and the nature of the Spanish Game has seen him fall short in playing the Alonso role when needed. That is not to say however that it was a mistake to start him last Saturday. Needless to say, Real Madrid were a step slower, less coherent and clearly lacking in rhythm without Alonso. We look at Nuri Sahin and we see characteristics that make him similar to Alonso: the affinity to play deeper as a central midfielder, the fantastic ‘exit balls’, the willingness to track back and tackle, etc.
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By making that quick-fire conclusion however, we underestimate one of Alonso’s best qualities: his ability to read the game’s subtleties in terms of the positioning of players, the space around them and between them, their movement and the momentum of the game and his use of that information to inform his use his seemingly unmatchable passing skills. Alonso was never as good as he is today when we compare his Real Sociedad or even his (dare I say) Champions League-winning Liverpool version – he has reached this point in his game where his physical skills and his on-the-pitch intelligence are BOTH at their peak.
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Granted that we’ve seen him struggle as of late – a fact I will attribute to fatigue and also teams revolving their tactics in containing him. Having said that, on the back of last Saturday’s match, it’s very clear that we’re still a FAR better team with a tired and pressurized Xabi Alonso rather than without him. I know for a fact that the 2 duels vs. Bayern and the Clasico will have a far greater chance of seeing a more coherent Madrid with him in the team.
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Against Sporting over the weekend, with Clemente falling out with their David Barral, their leading scorer with 9 goals, it wasn’t going to take a genius to know that we were essentially going to have to bash through a parked bus (or a regular race car instead of a formula 1 car for La Liga -as he described his team). It also didn’t help that we made our lives more difficult with that silly penalty we conceded early in the game. It’s in times like that where the balls from deep become just as important to the attack as the passing in the final 3rd: as such passes have the potential to provoke their men forward to open up their defense even more. Without Alonso, we had to do it the hard way.
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Worrying Sign #2 – Defending the Flanks
Arbeloa was terrible last Saturday. I know for a fact that I’ve been defending him from many critics who fault him for ‘giving nothing / little to the attack’ with my insistence that he’s a defensive right back. His defensive performance last Saturday however was poor. With Lass injured, Coentrao is uncomfortable there while the Ramos + Pepe partnership in the middle is best left undisturbed, I fear the prospect of facing Bayern Munich, whose attacking power comes from the flanks.
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Mourinho appears to have no choice but to go with Arbeloa at RB to face Ribery on Wednesday. Sending Khedira / Xabi Alonso to support him when in danger will only give space for the dangerous Muller to do his thing while getting Pepe or Ramos to help him on the other hand will give the powerful Mario Gomez to do his. On the other flank, Mourinho will then have to decide whether he will play the more defensively-sound Coentrao to face Robben (who will not bother to track back even with Ronaldo’s presence on his flank) or go with Marcelo to multiply our effectiveness in attack as Ronaldo’s sidekick. Jupp Heynckes (Bayern’s coach who won a CL as our coach) also has another ace in his sleeve with Philip Lahm, who combines attacking potency and defensive discipline and can play on either flank (where Henckeyes can place him where he finds suitable to counter our attacks from the flanks). I do not mind conceding an attacking advantage to an opponent on the flank if we are defensively solid: on his current form however, Alvaro Arbeloa is the reason I can’t sleep at night these days – his positioning, ball-winning, concentration and passing all need drastic improvements.
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Encouraging Sign #1 – The ‘3rd Pivot’
In the absence of Alonso last Saturday, Mourinho built in a couple of ‘coping mechanisms’ – the most notable of which was Sergio Ramos. In a reverse of what Barcelona does (where Busquets drops off to become a 3rd CB), Ramos last Saturday frequently stepped forward higher than the Madrid defensive line to become a ‘3rd Pivot’. In the many instances Sahin seemed to now know where the next pass was to go, he gave it to Sergio Ramos who many times knew where to send the ball to. It was his long ball to Pipita that made it 1-1 – a pass that I find startlingly similar to those long balls Hierro would pump from deep towards the left flank for Roberto Carlos to meet. Ramos will probably finish his career as Real Madrid’s infamous all time leader in yellow cards, red cards and sending offs, I will also remember him however as the raw, physical and technical defensive marvel who has polished his game considerably since joining us: improving passing vision as well has his temper and his poise – qualities that are all becoming of a Real Madrid captain.
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Encouraging Sign #2 – Gambling Successfully with a Single Pivot
I was happy to see Mourinho say ‘Fuck it, let’s win this bloody game NOW’ at halftime: abandoning the safety of playing with 2 midfield pivots and converting his 4-2-3-1 into a diamond 4-4-2 (with Khedira as the lone pivot) to conduct a full-scale siege on Juan Pablo’s goal until that crucial winner was scored. With Marcelo joining the attack and Ramos pushing forward as well to continue his role as the other pivot, there were instances where only Pepe and Arbeloa were left manning the backline. Khedira’s hyper-active all-action game was critical to all of this. The German tank recovered balls, made tackles, made himself available for his teammates in need of a passing outlet and ran his socks off: he was the engine behind our siege. There is not a single player I can think of at the moment who can match Khedira’s abilities as a midfield ‘utility man’ – he may be gangly, awkward and difficult to watch aesthetically: but boy is he effective.
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We’ve often heard and read the irritating debates of about who should have played / started because this and that quality that player X has is more suitable against team Y and so forth. This is due to the limited number of ‘attacking slots’ available on the pitch for Madrid where we have room for Ronaldo + 3 others in attack. Mourinho’s decision to roll the dice allowed the team to enjoy Pipita’s presence in the box, Benzema’s link up play in the final 3rd, Ozil’s vision and Di Maria’s unpredictability to combine with Ronaldo. Simply put, it was too much for Sporting to handle. And just as predictable was that when Rui Faria and Aitor Karanka were going nuts to celebrate the 2-1, Mourinho’s first reaction is for Granero to ‘get his ass in there’ for Pipita to allow us to revert to the safer 4-2-3-1. He only truly celebrated when Benzema made it 3-1. Once again the trivote strikes down a La Liga foe.
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Encouraging Sign #3 – Ronaldo: from Wallpaper to Pillar
"I have the illusion that we are going to win. It doesn’t cross my mind that we are not going to win the championship.” Ronaldo now understands the mentality he must have to deserve that badge on his shirt
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Ronaldo spent the first part of his Manchester United career as a show pony. The next part of his Man U career would be as wallpaper for the team: where his goals, stepovers and show tricks became merely the cherry on the sundae: the real stuff of the team however was the Alex Ferguson-bred core: the Nevilles, Giggses, Scholeses, Van Der Sars and Vidics. It was the core of that Man U team that led them to victories and titles and served as the platform for the young + flamboyant Ronaldo and the young + fiery Rooney to thrive. What is left of that Man U core is the reason why they are 5 points ahead of City in England despite the petro-dollars and the Abramovich-style player-shopping sprees of their neighbors. This explains why Ronaldo has been often perceived to be a big-game choker and cry baby.
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Today however, at 27 years of age, as the most expensive player in the history of the game for the richest club in the world, Ronaldo seems to be showing signs that he is no longer merely the wallpaper but one of the pillars on the team – that go-to guy who will deliver the goods when things have gotten awry… the guy who will find a way to get the goal the team needs, the guy who shows through his play to his team mates ‘come on, let’s keep going – we can win this… or rather, we WILL win this.’ His team mates seem to be responding too: from their spiteful and unproductive whinging after conceding a late goal vs. Villarreal (where Ronaldo tried to win the game on his own as his teammates gave up in the dyng minutes) to our fightbacks in tough circumstances against Atleti and Sporting… Ronaldo has transitioned from being merely the team’s most potent offensive threat to the team’s rallying point. Ronaldo’s clutch performances for his team and his mentality are bringing his teammates to think that they will become champions not because they’re the better team – but that they will become champions, full stop: no ifs, buts, despite or because. And at this point in time during the season, there is nothing better than your team having its best player transmit this mentality and attitude to the entire team.
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Heart Attack Week Awaits
The true test comes this week. First we face ze Germans (Bavarians), then the Catalans then the Germans again. In one week, we face our 2 bitterest rivals in Europe and inSpain. Many have rightly pointed out that we’ve had a pretty easy ride getting to the Champions League Semi-finals – well, now the increase in the quality of the opposition has just gone up very steeply. The tools are all in our hands: there are no key injuries, no suspensions and so far, not even any referee issues (I consider both Howard Webb and Undiano Mallenco for the first leg of CL and El Clasico respectively to be good referees) to whine about. Winning or Losing will be all on our men’s shoulders.
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Let’s take it one game at a time though… starting withMunichon Wednesday. Hopefully, we can enjoy ourselves enough out there to be able to hang around till the final.

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