Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Stuttering Start (Real Madrid 1 – Valencia 1)

Football At Last
Ah… the Football Begins at last! It’s been a long wait for top level football since after the Euros and what a weekend for it to begin for me (with today – Monday,  being a public holiday)! I spent my Satuday night watching West Brom shock Liverpool to a 3-0 win (unlucky with the refereeing, their football wasn’t bad but their finishing was still atrocious) while flicking through the channels seeing how Arsenal would do with Santi Cazorla and without Van Persie (a scoreless dud). Then last night, the appetizer for me was Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Wigan (where Hazard impressed but Chelsea disappointed when they took their foot off the pedal after gaining the 2-0 lead) and Man City’s rollercoaster 3-2 win against newly-promoted Southampton (no good for a defending champion to concede to late goals and risk loss like that to a newly-promoted side). In that sense, the appetizer for the night was building up to a Real Madrid crescendo: a so-so Wigan-Chelsea match, followed up by the rollercoaster Man City-Southampton match.
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Fitness Blues creating an Anti-Climax?
I find myself thinking however that last night’s 1-1 draw was a bit of an anti-climax. Though clearly deserving a win for their efforts (especially for that 2nd half ‘seige’ on Valencia’s goal), Real Madrid were lacking the extra spark, that bit of magic or ‘the special juice’ to win. Playing in a supposed sauna at 38 degrees celcius and with Cristiano Ronaldo himself admitting that the team still wasn’t at 100% fitness, Real Madrid still looked like they were in pre-season mode. Valencia however, are not exactly the best team to face when you’re in ‘preseason mode.’
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Mourinho started the match with a few interesting deviations from the usual Madrid lineup: Lass Diarra, credited with having completed an impressive pre-season, got the nod started ahead of Sami Khedira next to Xabi Alonso (the German having played a significant number of minutes in the ill-timed friendly midweek). At left back, Coentrao started ahead of Marcelo at Left Back: the Portuguese Left Back having had more preseason time over his Olympic Silver-medalist ‘rival’. It should also be noted that Coentrao was wearing what was Nuri Sahin’s ‘5’ jersey – the clearest indication that Sahin was on his way out (hopefully just on loan).
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But while Fabio Coentrao carried on with his Euro 2012 form – showing an impressive streak of aggressiveness in bombing forward and rattling Valencia with his runs, Lass’ performance was did not repay Mourinho’s faith in him. The Frenchman though clearly fit and is very much as fierce as he used to be in playing that ‘midfield terrier’ role, did not offer the intelligence of movement, passing and intuitive understanding of the team’s needs that we all have gotten used to seeing from Khedira. I can only blame this as part of the reason why the team resorted to ugly ‘hoof-it-up’ tactics in their mostly frustrating attempt to send the ball to the front 4.
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The Front 4
Madridisimo is darn happy you decided to stick around and to stick in the goals for us El Pipa! 
The members of Madrid’s usually-vaunted front 4 should also not be excused from criticism: while the Argentine duo of Higuain and Di Maria (the latter in particular) looked very much to to the challenge, neither Ozil nor Ronaldo looked right last night. Both gave off-color performances – particularly the latter. Ronaldo was not the menacing presence on the left wing we all looked forward to seeing: a sad fact considering how his compatriot Coentrao (who used to pale in comparison to Marcelo when going forward to link up with CR) was clearly in attack mode for the game. Ozil on the other hand, though clearly putting in the effort with his runs and wily maneuvers to dodge opponents out to swipe the ball from his feet, lacked that the incisiveness that made him so lethal last season.
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Among the few bright spots of the game were the 2 Argentines up front. Di Maria looked very sharp: his passes were on the money, his runs rattled Valencia’s defenders and even his long balls seemed to land perfectly onto his teammates’ feet. He would of course be the creator of Pipita’s goal and his ‘long range 1-2’ with El Pipa would almost produce the winner (if it weren’t for the crossbar). I can also distinctly remember how Real Madrid’s incisiveness in attack during their 2nd half siege of Valencia’s goal dropped considerably following El Fideo’s substitution. As for Higuain, I actually wondered constantly whether Mourinho would opt for either him or Benzema to start this match. The decision to go with Pipita proved to be an inspired choice after seeing him score on 3 attempts in what looked like some form of goal keeping / ball control exercise in training, albeit with the opposing goalkeeper.
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Losing Your Head Over Set Pieces
The carnage left by Pepe and Iker's mid-air collision. Nevermind the goal conceded - I'm just happy that the 2 are ok
Conceding 2 points off a set piece seems to be a disease that Real Madrid suffer from on an annual basis as I can distinctly recall how frustrated it felt to watch our team do so numerous times, especially in the early stages of last season. This disease actually comes and goes in ‘streaks’ – and disturbingly, it may look like the streak has just re-started again. I will however refrain from being all upset about in light of the events that transpired leading up to that conceded headed goal by Jonas. No Real Madrid player was guilty of ball-watching (they were all up there going for the ball) – and worst of all, the collision between Casillas, Pepe and Xabi Alonso was enough to let anyone’s spine’s tingle: nevermind a football fan or a Real Madrid fan. As of this writing, Pepe is still in the hospital – and though tests have not shown anything disturbing thus far, he will remain there for further tests and might actually miss the Supercup first leg this Thursday. Casillas appeared to have been shaken badly by the collision while Xabi Alonso, who would be involved in another nasty aerial collision later on in the game, appeared to be ok.
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It was in reflecting of over the collision where I find myself thinking that while the boys clearly lacked sharpness out there – their effort cannot be questioned.
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Valencia’s ‘Force Field’
My thoughts on the game itself of course would be impossible to complete without mentioning last night’s player of the game: Valencia’s Diego Alves. Last season saw the ex-Almeria goalkeeper in a dogfight with Vicente Guaita to secure the place as Valencia’s #1. Last night’s performance might have settled the debate. Alves was Valencia’s force field in goal and was the culprit as to why many Madridistas (including this one) failed to sleep well last night.
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My night tonight would also not be complete without a criticism of the Bernabeu’s treatment of Valencia’s ex-Real Madrid players. Roberto Soldado, Fernando Gago and Dani Parejo are all wearing the Valencia shirt today not because they turned their backs on the club, but beause they couldn’t manage to find a place in Real Madrid. I do not understand why they deserve to be whistled and booed they way they were last night. I switched the TV of with a bad taste on my mouth because of it.
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In a couple of days, the boys will head off to Camp Nou, site of Barca’s most recent massacre of Real Sociedad for the first leg of the Supercopa. With doubts hanging over the team in terms of Pepe’s availability, the team’s fitness and sharpness, the boundless optimism that I had at the beginning of the season has now been tainted with large doses of doubt and trepidation. Real Madrid’s machine is not yet fully prepped and tuned in and Valencia have reminded us all very clearly about it. Hopefully – that reminder is exactly what we need heading into the Camp Nou on Thursday.
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p.s. To All The Muslim Madridistas Out There: Eid Mubarak!

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