Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Relief and Belief (Barcelona 2 – Real Madrid 2)


The World's 2 Best Players Putting on Great Displays made Last night's Clasico a real Classic
Last night's Clasico started with a demonstration of the Catalan 'Nation's' desire for independence. Being neither Catalan, nor Spanish, nor both, i was of course far more interested in the footballing demonstrations that took place at the Camp Nou last night. It was a treat for the neutral fan surely – with 2 of the best club sides in the world, featuring the 2 best players in the world trading blows with 2-goal performances. The match ended as a 2-2 draw just as how (I suppose) many had predicted. And though many Cules will be harping endlessly about how all 3 points could have been theirs (over a supposed Iniesta penalty) and that Madrid appeared to be holding on for the final whistle, it’s also easy for Madridistas to come back and make their own penalty claims too (Ozil). I will admit though that I have mixed feelings because though I am relieved at not seeing Barca’s lead swell to 11 points, it’s also difficult for me not to kick myself for thinking that it was more than possible to wake up this morning to see Barca’s lead whittled down to only 5.
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The Big Bad Barca No More
I will surely stoke the ire of many cules when I say this: but on the back of last night’s performance (and the memory of the Supercopa): Barca are absolutely no longer a team to be feared (at least not for Madridistas). Maybe Puyol and Pique might change that… or maybe more time for Tito to put his ideas in – but on the evidence of the Supercup and last night, there is no longer a bone in my body that believes that Barcelona are better than Real Madrid. At this moment, there is absolutely NO DOUBT in me that Real Madrid are better than Barcelona.
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Certain pundits point to the dramatic ‘death’ of the monster Pep Guardiola built. But maybe it’s just familiarity? Maybe it’s just the plain and simple fact that since Mourinho took over, Real Madrid has gradually progressed upwards to match and surpass Barcelona’s level. We must remember that except for Ricardo Carvalho, Mourinho fielded EXACTLY the same lineup last night as he did that fateful night where we were on the receiving end of a 5-0 massacre at the Camp Nou just 2 seasons ago. There was no need for an extra ball-winner, no need for a trivote, no need for extra physicality, no need to play defensively – heck, there wasn’t even a need to play Modric in a bid to keep more possession.
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Last night’s performance was the display of a Real Madrid side who showed the world that they seem to have finally figured Barcelona out. Barca’s 2 goals were not scored out of their brilliance as a team (apparently, I’m not the only one who holds this opinion): the first was off a defensive error (by Pepe). The second was purely from Messi’s individual brilliance – I don’t watch Barcelona regularly so I’m unable to trace when Messi has all of a sudden learned to shoot free kicks as brilliantly as that (I only know that now, Madrid has fallen victim to this weapon of his twice).
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In contrast, Madrid’s goals on the other hand, were a showcase on how Jose Mourinho designed his team to function: intelligent aggressive pressure applied during selected situations in the game, speed of player movement, speed of ball movement, verticality and relentlessness. Where Barca tortured you with the thought that they could score on you at an unappointed time while in one of their seemingly endless spells of ball possession, Madrid on the other hand, made you feel that relinquishing possession of the ball, even if it was just for a few half-moments, could spell instant death.
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Familiarity & Preparation: Madrid Progress, Barca Regress
After once boasting that he doesn't remember being scored on by Cristiano, Valdes has been made accustomed to watching the ball go into his net from a Ronaldo strike


Real Madrid’s midfield and defense were perfectly aware of how Barca were going to attack too, and made their seasoned fans (me included) feel the same way: Iniesta and Fabregas’ runs were marvelously tracked by Madrid’s right flank (Di Maria, Arbeloa and the midfield) and thus made to look predictable. Then, somehow the Real midfield and defense were prepared to see Pedro get released on Barca’s right flank -  because though he created what seemed to be danger, there was always a Madrid player ready to put the fire out. The best part of course was that Messi dropping deep at midfield and ‘ghosting’ into the box was no longer a surprise – it was clear that every Real Madrid defender knew the appropriate way to deal with balls sent into the box and preventing a late Messi run from turning into the goal. The plan was simple: clear it off instantly – only this time, with the boys more familiar with each other, the clearances weren’t just mindless punts – but offense-generating passes to our midfielders or even longballs for our attackers to create instant danger. Barca’s lone goal from open play was a result of Pepe’s error in such a clearance. And in dealing with Messi, Barca's little magician often found himself escorted by a Real Madrid defender into a ‘cluster’ of waiting white shirts whenever he received the ball in outside the box before he could attempt a mazy, Maradona-like dribble to attack.
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The same however, could not be said about Barcelona. Their first tactical failure is their irritatingly stubborn insistence to employ 2 only Centerbacks in their squad (I don’t count Bartra in because they don’t trust him enough to play him). This resulted in having NO PLAYER in their team being taller than 1.8m (6ft) – against a team who have no less than FIVE legitimate aerial threats (Ronaldo, Ramos, Pepe, Benzema, Khedira). They were spared by Ramos’ profligacy in the first half, when the Sevillan’s header went wide after a corner where he was left unguarded. Their second blunder is their naïve insistence in ‘converting’ defensive midfielders and fullbacks (Adriano last night) into Center Backs. Ronaldo’s second goal was a result of a diagonal run across the face of the Barca goal which they failed to deal with while Benzema’s flubbed chance in the first half (that hit the post) was a result of pub league defending by Barca's 'Centerbacks'. Then there’s the most obvious tactical flaw of all: with a weakened central defense and with only one ball-winning midfielder (Busquets), they still had 2 attacking fullbacks cluelessly angling all the time to bomb forward. Ronaldo’s first goal would result from this: putting his foot through the ball first-time off Benzema’s intelligent pass. The Frenchman's pass was of course designed to swing the attacking play quickly from Madrid’s right flank to its more lethal left flank. Watch a replay and you will find Alves at this time 'pretending' that he too was a CB. Barca’s right flank would actually become ‘safer’ with Alves coming off for the more ‘conservative’ Montoya. Benzema’s missed sitter in the first half was also off Madrid’s wing play on the right flank. In the second half, Pipita would send 2 uncontested crosses (the first was an epic fail) from the right only to have no Madrid players in the box to receive them. Note to the world: Barca's flanks are where all the action's at (I'd love to see Bayern's Ribery & Robben have a party there).
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Standouts of the Match
Lionel Messi. Apart from being one goal away from matching Di Stefano’s record of 18 goals scored in clasicos, I as a Madridista would like to applaud Lionel Messi. It’s funny how Real Madrid has over the past 10 years, been known more as a team that relied on the individual brilliance of its players more than its ability to function well as a team. Over the past few clasicos however, it’s been the Barcelona #10 who has been papering over the cracks of the Blaugrana. More than ever, Barcelona are over-reliant on him – with their lack of incisiveness in their play masked by their dominance of possession. This is further masked by Messi's superhuman performances and goalscoring. It now appears to me like their Tiki-Taka has become a marketing ornament rather than the dangerous weapon it once was. For Messi, at the risk of committing Madridista blasphemy, I will say that with what seems to be a nearly perfected free kick technique – I concede that I fear his Free Kick Goal more Ronaldo's. The Barca #10's ‘conventional’ technique of striking the ball after all, seems far more reliable and consistent than CR’s ‘knuckle ball’ technique.
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Cristiano Ronaldo. That’s now a record six consecutive clasicos Cristiano has scored in. Not only has Ronaldo completely shed his reputation as a ‘ghost’ in big games, he has also now become a full-fledged ‘Barcelona Boogie Man’: the kind of player that can have Cules stomachs turning the wrong way at the sight of him bearing down on their goal. I will never forget the silence of the Camp Nou after his first goal last night – it was as if a ghost whose existence they refused to acknowledge has fully made its presence felt to them – totally spooking them out. Ronaldo would also end the match playing through the pain barrier after crashing shoulder-first in an attempt to replicate Benzema’s goal midweek vs. Ajax. It’s a relief that there’s an international break coming up that can hopefully allow him to let that shoulder heal heading into the Celta game, which is merely days before that ominous trip to Dortmund. By the way, that’s now 160 goals in 155 games for Madrid. In 3 seasons, he has managed to become Real Madrid’s 9th all time leading scorer. The word ‘awesome’ doesn’t even begin to describe what he has managed to accomplish in a Real Madrid shirt.
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Mesut Ozil & Kaka. I will admit to the fact that before the game, I really felt that Modric would have been the perfect #10 to be used for last night’s match. Modric I felt, gave Madrid a stronger midfield presence and would allow us the ability to seamlessly shift from a 4-2-3-1 to a trivote. The Croatian would have also been much better at allowing Madrid to retain possession. The choice to go with Ozil despite his questionable form however was an inspired one from Mourinho. Ozil’s mobility and his natural tendency to drift wide allowed us to overload Barcelona’s vulnerable flanks during our attacks. Last night, He was also active with the ball and was effectively able to make some neat passes in advanced positions which allowed Madrid to retain the ball and create danger. It must be noted that last night was the second consecutive Camp Nou clasico in La Liga where he has assisted Ronaldo. As for Kaka, seeing him get sent in for the last 10 minutes is the surest indication that he has fully regained the trust of Mourinho following standout performances against Millionarios, Depor and Ajax. In the dying minutes, the Brazilian tracked back repeatedly while offering Madrid a strong physical presence (he’s got a pretty big frame) to accompany the offensive threat everyone knows he has. It looks like Mourinho will now have THREE world-class 10s in his squad this season.
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Cule Relief… and Madridista Belief
Cristiano's 'Calm Down' Goal Celebration at the Camp Nou is the 21st Century Version of Raul's 'Hush' Goal Celebration. The Camp Nou's silence following Ronaldo's first goal was glorious music to my ears.
While the psychological self-defense mechanisms of Cules have had many of them making a lot of chest-puffing statements, I find myself snickering at remembering the sight of Barcelona’s players and their fans last night having that undeniable look of relief after the game. Deep down inside, many of them know that they got out of jail tonight thanks to Benzema, Di Maria and Ramos’ profligacy in front of goal, coupled with the genius of Messi. I can only hope that other La Liga teams have found some help in what we’ve accomplished last night in terms of learning to capitalize on Barca’s weaknesses.
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On the other hand, for Madridistas like myself, surely many are hearing that irritating, nitpicky voice inside – itching to feel disappointed at missing out on winning and cutting down the Barca lead down to 5. When I consider however that that same voice is probably the one calling for us to sell Benzema and buy Falcao for missing that chance (can y’all imagine if it was Pipa who missed that one?) – I find my level-headed sentiment prevailing and perspective coming back to form. For Real Madrid, the outcome of the match can hopefully be used as fuel for the rest of the season. After all, it is now plain to see that the ‘greatest team in the world’ is clearly not greater than our own Real Madrid.
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Pepe asks the Ref: "If I kiss you, can you forgive me and not give me a yellow card?"

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