Thursday, December 20, 2012

How NOT to be a Champion (Real Madrid 2 – Espanyol 2)


If my memory serves me correctly, this is the first time I’ve seen my beloved Real Madrid pretty much lose La Liga in December (or even before that). There have been worse Real Madrid sides in the past – that’s for sure… but there hasn’t been a better Barca side than this one. And when you put the 2 side-by-side each other in a league competition, the chasm between the 2 just grows larger and larger. This is not just because of Barca’s greatness (see how they replied ‘tsss… come on’ to those who asked if Tiger Falcao’s Atleti could even put a dent on them), but also because of Real Madrid’s hemorrhaging. Real Madrid are not just hemorrhaging points and goals, more importantly, our beloved team’s championship material is also bleeding out.
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Sure, there were plenty of bright spots last night:
-Ronaldo scored playing as a pseudo-striker. Though he was listed on paper as the striker for the night, he interchanged positions to with Callejon and Ozil to play as a winger for many stretches of the match. Real Madrid, ended up shifting back and forth from a 4-2-3-1, to a 4-4-2, to a 4-2-2-2 because of this.  He was wrestled Greco-Roman Style during pretty much every corner, had his shirt tugged every time he tried to run with the ball but still managed a goal and an assist. He now ties Puksas’ Real Madrid goalscoring record.
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-Callejon was listed as a winger at the start of the game but played a lot of minutes up front as a striker and as mentioned in discussing Ronaldo above, often found himself playing alongside the Portuguese winger upfront as a striker duo. The stints of Callejon up front however reveal that he's really not suited for this position. His pace is useful when attempting to play off the shoulder of the last defender but that's pretty much the only trick in his book when playing that position. Vanilla Joe can finish, he's got pace and he's unselfish, but I just find that he's incapable of providing that all-important reference point which a striker needs to do.
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-Coentrao played quite well in my opinion. It was for me, the first time that Coentrao has managed to bring his play for his national team into his club. Last Sunday, he showcased his acceleration and aggressiveness on attack almost to a Marcelo level (which we don't normally see when he plays for Madrid) and his efforts were duly rewarded with a goal.
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Xabi Alonso and Khedira had plenty of good moments in the game too. Khedira looks to be showing more and more of the role he plays for the National Team into Madrid (just like Coentrao): he takes the ball forward more comfortably when receiving those 'exit balls' from teammates in a bind and links play forward. For Xabi, I found myself speaking to the television frequently last Sunday: "Wow!" "Nice Pass!" "What a pass" at Xabi's lovely raking vertical passes which seamlessly travel through the tiniest gaps between opposing players and onto our front 4.
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Ozil and Modric played well too if you  think about it. Ozil was his usual tricky, wily self: his crouching posture with that slightly lowered head (like a viper about to strike) with the ball is now very familiar - but still unreadable, as to whether he'll go left, right and as to where to who he will thread the ball to.  The Croatian on the other hand reminds me of Bayern's Toni Kroos in many ways: playing between the pivots and behind the striker but many times, sitting deeper than your usual #10, giving the midfield a stronger presence and often drawing one of the opposing pivots with him. Modric doesn't hesitate to go forward though and just like Ozil, he's an assist (or a shot) waiting to happen when between the lines.
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Mourinho's decision to sub Modric for the out-of-form Di Maria baffled me at first initially (I thought Modric was playing well and deserved his place on the pitch). But DI Maria's performance (he wasn't bad) and his added tactical function (width) clearly improved the team in the second half and was instrumental in creating many chances.
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It is here where I find myself puzzled. The tactics were ok, The player performances were generally good. But here we are needlessly dropping points again. It is because of this that I find the simplistic tendency of pointing fingers at specific players or at the manager's tactics to be a very superficial way of perceiving the situation, nevermind mindlessly calling for the signing / sale of certain players. It's a team problem.  It is a problem with the team's mental / psychological mindset that has, as mentioned above, resulted in the hemorrhaging of the team's championship character: the team has forgotten how to be a champion. Last Sunday's performance was a display of all the symptoms that the team had UNLEARNED the necessary lessons on being a Champion.
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SYMPTOM #1 - Fail to win at home vs. an out-of-form bottom side
Imperfection is a human quality. As such, it's understandable to see hiccups. Football teams are no different... even champion football sides. As such, though it's disappointing to drop points to places like the Ciutat De Valencia (Levante), Sanchez Pizjuan (Sevilla) or the Reyno De Navarre (Osasuna), there remains an iota of 'understandable-ness' to it. Certain grounds are really tough places to play in. Heck, even the pre-relegation Riazor (Depor) was deemed to be a cursed ground for Real Madrid. Playing at home however against such sides is a totally different thing altogether. Espanyol are a struggling team: they sell their best players every year and rely on loan opportunities and are now starting to prematurely promote youth teamers just to make up squad numbers.  They are struggling to the point where they have had to sack their coach and are now just learning the ropes under ex-Atleti coach Aguirre. We didn't play them at their home base at the heart of Catalunya (Barcelona) - we played them on our turf. Champion teams will occasionally struggle against spirited bottom sides when playing away in front of their voracious crowd support... but Champion teams are supposed to beat such teams when playing at home, if not wipe the floor with these bottom teams.
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SYMPTOM #2 - Amateur Night on Defense
I watched the first half of Liverpool vs. Aston Villa on Saturday Night. Liverpool started the match dominating it, keeping possession on the ball and going forward with dangerous intent only to be sucker punched on the counter against the run of play thanks to the brilliance of Benteke (who score the first and assisted Villa's second). For Real Madrid on Sunday, it was the pony-tailed ex-La Roja striker Sergio Garcia who would torment us, always looking for the slightest drop in concentration or error to exploit. our defenders and midfielders are particularly guilty of this. Liverpool are a side with a new manager learning a brand new system languishing in 12th place in the Premier League. Real Madrid have been under Mourinho for 3 seasons now, won the league title last season and is not a side 'under construction'. It's embarrassing to be comparing ourselves to them but look at us! The comparison (which is an insult) is clearly deserved! Let's not even talk about Espanyol's second goal - sides who concede goals like that normally get relegated.
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SYMPTOM #3 - Fail to Capitalize on Chances Created
Call it luck, call it form. Call it whatever you want. Real Madrid created enough chances to win last Saturday Night but didn't capitalize on enough of them to win. I will insult Real Madrid once again by making yet another comparison to Liverpool: apart from the #7 (Suarez for Liverpool and Ronaldo for us), there aren't enough alternative goal scorers on the team. Part of what made us La Liga champions last season was that our 'tridente' of Ronaldo, Benzema and Higuain were all amongst the top scorers in La Liga (in contrast to Barca's Messi-dependencia).  This season, Barca solved their goalscoring problem by having Messi score even more (at least twice in every game), while on our side, while Ronaldo's scoring numbers are still great, Higuain and Benzema are injured and we are relying on defenders (e,.g. Coentrao) to score. Except if he's Messi, a team with only one legitimate reliable goal-scorer is not going to win you a league title.
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SYMPTOM #4 - Downshift while the Opponent is on the Back Foot
For a while there, I genuinely thought that the team was going to showcase its championship credentials last Saturday night. After getting sucker-punched early in the first half, Real Madrid equalized just at the stroke of halftime, dealing a massive psychological blow to Espanyol. Then at 48' we take the 2-1 lead, completely shattering Espanyol - undoing all the great work they did so far. What followed was an exciting sequence of Real Madrid's brand of Formula 1 football - dazzling wing play, one touch vertical attacking sequences and so forth. For a while, you thought that last season's Real Madrid was going to turn up with their message to the opponent under such circumstances: "So, you dare to score on us!? F%ck You!" Then Bam! 5 goals right down their throat and game over. That wasn't what happened last Saturday though - Real Madrid said their line, threatened Espanyol with a host of goalscoring chances... and then.... they downshifted, allowed the fast pace of the game (that favored them SO MUCH) to ebb away and complacently allowed time to tick away, contented with a one goal lead. Everyone knows what followed.
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SYMPTOM #5 - Put a Remontada to Waste
What followed was that we put a Remontada to waste. There's a sense of inevitability that comes with Championship-winning sides (like how we were last season), that makes opponents feel like there is no way to stop you once you've turned it on and you're going for your opponents' throat. Real Madrid are a team who boasts that 'remontada legacy'. We're supposed to be the team that makes other sides feel powerless once we decide that we want to take something from them... that even after taking a few (or many) hits, it is still never a guarantee for an opponent that they can walk away with what they've taken from us. Last Saturday, we didn't live up to that. Last Real Madrid's performance was that of a poser's: a display of muscle-flexing, posturing, but without the ability to follow through on the threat that we made.
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AS' Alfredo Relano preferred to look at Mourinho's decision to turn up at the post-match press conference as an act of discourtesy. Having read what he said after the match however, I found Mourinho's statements revealing of how deflated he felt ("I have never been in a situation like this, to lose so many points and take the team so far from their objectives"). Let's call it what it is already: Real Madrid's objectives now will be to try to finish 2nd (to avoid having to go through early qualification rounds for CL), and go for the 2 cups: (CDR and CL). Many have mentioned that our last 2 Champions League triumphs came on the back of failed La Liga seasons. Last season's winners Chelsea also had a miserable League campaign last season. I personally consider such matters to be circumstantial: because the key to all of this is the team's mental edge which is clearly bleeding away. I am not keen go into conspiracy theories about the Portuguese vs. Spanish faction soap opera theory, or Ronaldo's sadness or even speculation on Mourinho's future (he after all received a very strong show of public support from Florentino last week). We do all know however (as I'm sure he also knows himself) that an issue such as mental edge is well and truly part of his job scope. Maybe he should sell someone, maybe he should take them for a BBQ again, maybe he needs to take the boys to Vegas, maybe he needs to lock them all into a torture chamber.
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Whatever he does, the key to all this is very simple: to teach the boys individually and collectively what they've clearly all forgotten... how to be Champions again.

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