Monday, September 3, 2012

(Not So) Routine Win (Real Madrid 3 - Granada 0)

It was only by the time Cristiano Ronaldo managed to score his second goal for the night, to make it 2-0 for Real Madrid that I finally managed a sigh of relief. ‘This wasn’t going to end up like those matches’ – I thought, recalling our slip-ups against Valencia and Getafe. There would be no freakish, frantic comeback for the opponent and no moments of panic for our boys – just absolute control of the match and further questions if we can manage a 3rd , 4th, 5th goal and so on… Who knew that getting 3 points in the bag at home against a team that will fight for survival once again (Granada) would elicit such a sigh of relief from Madridistas such as myself?
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Sort of Getting into Gear
I'm really looking forward to the variety of playing styles that we will have because of Luka Modric

Make no mistake about it, despite the win, Real Madrid are not YET in full gear. Despite the fact that we looked far less vulnerable than in the last 2 league games protecting a 1-goal lead, our team’s still level dropped noticeably in the latter parts of the first half. The drop in level did not result in threats to conceding a goal as per Valencia or especially Getafe, yet it was still an alarming and disturbing sign.
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There were some really big and bright signs that marked the beginning of the game though: particularly Luka Modric – who got the strongest indication of Mourinho’s trust in him by getting a start. On the back of his 10 minute cameo during the 2nd leg of the Super Cup, I’d have to say it was fully deserved. I’ve differentiated Modric and Ozil previously, and perhaps the advantages and the disadvantages of Modric were plain to see in last night’s game. In the early exchanges, Modric was a menace to the Granada defense: spraying dangerous passes to Madrid players in the final 3rd of the pitch from his ‘10’ position. Having Modric in that position with Xabi Alonso sitting deeper and Khedira seamlessly shuttling back and forth from deeper positions and forward into more advanced points of the pitch solidifies Real Madrid’s midfield considerably and makes us a far more effective possession-based team.
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When pressed at midfield, Modric’s countermove is to skip away or turn and make a pass to another player (even if he’s in the final third of the pitch and surrounded by opponents). He’s not necessarily out to make the killer pass – just wanting to have his team retain possession in that part of the pitch - an underrated yet potent quality. His ability to do this is a constant danger to the opponent. Ozil, on the other hand has a bigger bag of tricks: using his relatively good pace, agility, ball tricks, etc. to wiggle out of tight situations. The result of this is that while playing the ‘10’ with Modric, Real Madrid is a bit more ‘static’ in the middle of the pitch but with a stronger midfield presence (great for a possession game). While with Ozil at the ‘10’, Real Madrid are more fluid, and thus constantly more ‘on the move’ – great for our fast-paced ‘formula 1 football’.
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At the start of the match, having Modric at such advanced parts of the pitch enabled Madrid to have a passing platform ala Xabi Alonso at the final third of the pitch – endlessly spraying passes to our forward players to create danger. It must be noted however that Granada would later on manage minimize the passing angles (taking advantage of his lack of mobility) to Modric as the game wore on. Modric would compensate for this by dropping slightly deeper to collect the ball or rely on Khedira to shuttle it forward for him.
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‘Routine Win’ from ‘Routine Goals’
Despite Modric’s performance (which earned him a well-deserved ovation from the Bernabeu), it must be noted that our goals were created by our usual means: through quick ‘blitzkrieg’ transitions (both via Ronaldo). I will also concede that Higuain’s goal was a definite case of the linesman asleep (offside!). Despite that however, it is heartening to see Real Madrid develop another means of playing – particularly against those teams who choose to park the bus.
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Perhaps it’s worthwhile to note that Modric’s signing though viewed correctly as a ‘replacement’ for Sahin (who looked mediocre last night vs. Arsenal), it should not escape us that his game is (to me at least) very similar to Granero (we didn’t get to see him do enough vs. City last Saturday as Mark Hughes decided to play defensively against City). Time will tell if we can successfully incorporate this ‘other way of playing’ into our game – if the boys can learn to affix ‘playing mode 2’ in their heads if ‘mode 1’ isn’t working. We did after all, see plenty of long ball attempts last night despite Modric’s effective presence on the pitch to facilitate a more patient, possession-based game.
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I raise this point also at the sight of seeing Kaka on the bench. It seems clear to me that his exclusions from the bench in the previous encounters was not out of some sinister plan to ostracize him from the squad – but to merely put him on the shopping window. Now that the shopping window is closed (until January that is), perhaps Mourinho can look into other positions where Kaka’s characteristics at age 30 can fit in. Apart from being a ‘10’, I also see his height, and finishing ability worthy of a shot as a striker. And bereft of the jets that his legs used to have, I also believe that there’s merit to the theory that he might also function well as a pivot – reports from Italy had after all indicated that Milan's Allegri would have tried him as a ‘regista’ had a return to Milan materialized.
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Several Years Late (but better than never)
If Michael Essien regains his form from Mourinho's Chelsea days, then we'll have ourselves an absolute midfield monster
Several years ago, as Mourinho’s Chelsea took the world by storm, many also marveled at the players of that team: Lampard, Drogba, Terry, etc. As a Real Madrid fan however, there was only one player from that team whom I wish played for my Real Madrid: Michael ‘The Bison’ Essien. He is in my opinion – the embodiment of a Mourinho-rules footballer: Athletic, Powerful, All-Action, No-Fuss, Multi-Dimensional (attacks AND defends) and Multi-Functional. He arrives several years late and ravaged by a couple of injury-plagued seasons – but what the heck.
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Guti was critical of his signing in relation to Granero’s departure. I would argue however that Essien arrives as Lass’ replacement. If healthy and successful in recapturing his form during Mourinho’s days, Essien will more than capably fill in as Lass’ replacement: he will play RB (and will not complain) and when in form, he might just play the Khedira role better than Khedira himself. The Essien of Mourinho’s Chelsea after all was the precursor to the role that Khedira now plays for Madrid. If Essien can re-discover his Mourinho-Chelsea days – it would be a relief to Madridisimo that Chelsea has all but forgotten the importance of the pivot positions (given their current fetish for Hazard / Hulk / Schurrle / Mata – types: the 3 behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1) as it might give us the chance to sign him permanently on the cheap (he’s ‘only 29’ – unlike Carvalho who was 70 when he joined us).
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Life Imitates Art
Apart from suffering an injury, Ronaldo's statement of unhappiness had Madridisimo on Red Alert 
I slept in peace after switching the TV off at 4am this morning following the match. Breakfast however was a totally different story. My laptop screen all of a sudden resembled the command center of Manager Mode in FIFA 12: with one Cristiano Ronaldo ambiguously stating that he is ‘unhappy’ amidst an explosion of stories speculating that he wanted to leave. Life imitates Art (if one would like to call a Video Game ‘art’). As a Madridista who was relieved to tell himself ‘yeah, we won as usual last weekend’ this was a rude awakening.
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Things were of course worse on Twitter with Madridistas flying into angry rants for accusing journalists / pundits / bloggers / trolls / aliens  of twisting the interpretation of Ronaldo’s words, reportedly:
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"I'm sad because of a professional issue and the club know why. That's why I didn't celebrate the goals, because I'm not happy. The people [at the club] know why… The people at the club know about this. I can't say any more."
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And with an international break coming up, the timing of his statement seemed perfect for the rumor mill to go on overdrive (which brings be to the theory that the release of this statement was ‘strategic’). Beyond the creepy suggestions of people supposedly in the know and other hilarious suspicions, below are my thoughts / theories on the matter:
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  • $$$
The easiest and simplest reason behind all of this is money. Cristiano Ronaldo is arguably the best player on the planet at the moment. Despite this however, he is reportedly not the best paid: as the likes of Etoo at Anzhi and Zlatan Ibrahomivic are out-earning him (he supposedly earns the same as Kaka who has not even come close in terms of achievements with the club). At age 27 and with his contract expiring at 2015, his next contract will be at age 30 where he will have less leverage to bargain for a big contract (given his age at that time). Thus, this seems to me like the ‘professional’ issue that he’s referring to: it smells like Ronaldo wants his pay upped to match the biggest earners in the game given that he might not get the same kind of pay packet once the time comes to re-negotiate and he's about to hit the wrong side of 30.
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The timing is says a lot: it is just a year or so after Rooney’s ‘I wanna leave Man U’ episode (that resulted in a new upgraded contract) but merely months after he said ‘I want to retire at Madrid’. Perhaps his ‘I want to retire at Madrid’ after his super season and La Liga title was his ‘nice’ way to winking to the club to ask for a new, upgraded deal. Having this request fall on deaf ears however, we must not forget that Ronaldo’s agent is a shark by the name of Jorge Mendes: and such tactics are not out of bounds for such characters. We might not know that behind the scenes, massive efforts from the CR camp to push the subject matter have already been shoved aside by Madrid’s money minders (who are reeling with the lifting of the "Beckham Law" in Spain in dealing with the club’s payroll). It is said that both Florentino and Jose Angel Sanchez know what the problem is – aren’t those 2 the club’s key money minders?
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  • ‘Institutional Support’
Another theory is one involving ‘institutional support’ from the club. We must also not forget that it wasn’t long ago when we experienced a typhoon of ‘will he leave or will he stay?’ re: Jose Mourinho. His beef with the club was about ‘institutional support’. Might this be a result of what he deems to be a lack of support from the club to fuel his pursuit for individual honors? He denies it to be about losing out to Iniesta in the recent UEFA awards – but might Iniesta winning be a result of elements within Real Madrid not ‘campaigning’ enough on CR’s behalf for such awards?
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We all pretty much accept now that such awards are so subjective that they’re all pretty much a trendy beauty pageant – subject to direct or indirect influence by clubs who wish to campaign for their players. Perhaps Ronaldo who has done pretty much everything for the team, was disappointed about the fact that not enough was done or is being done to support him in this regard (even though he denies it?). Perhaps he’s furious that Real Madrid refuse to let him participate in the WC Qualifiers this international break given his injury? Perhaps he’s upset that the club allowed speculation re: his off-color start to the season rage on in the media (including speculation re: his personal life) without any defense for him? Or did Jose hurt his feelings during Mou’s tongue-lashing of the team following the 2-1 loss to Getafe?
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Of my 2 theories, I find the money angle to be the stronger one. People are free to disagree with me re: this but I for one believe that he deserves a pay rise for what he’s done for us these past few seasons. Besides, if he’s one of the best players on the planet, why shouldn’t he be one of the best paid? By a club who is among the richest on the planet? People are also of course right to criticize Ronaldo for bringing up such a matter in public, but perhaps it’s a case of having no other choice (the club refusing to go to the negotiating table)?
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On a sporting level, there doesn’t seem to be any other place for Ronaldo to go. He is in the biggest club in the world challenging the (arguably) greatest club side of all time – and in this, he has also just about fully turned around the tide of battle too in his favor without fully winning yet. Either way, I can only hope that this sorts itself out as soon as possible.
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Because when Monday rolls along and I get asked about what happened to my football club the weekend before, I REALLY miss answering “We won. We killed them. Routine Win...” with that cheeky Madridista smile.

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