Thursday, March 22, 2012

Uh-Oh (Villarreal 1, Real Madrid 1)

Lightning  Strikes Twice in the space place in 3 days. This had Madridisimo collectively groaning: "Oh Shit - Not Again!" 
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Just a week after we started to fancy our Champions League odds by drawing APOEL Nicosia last Friday while enjoying our 10 point lead in La Liga, we have all of a sudden decided to expose our soft underbelly. It is no surprise that most of the back chatter about Mourinho’s criticism of the Bernabeu’s version of the Prawn Sandwich Brigade and his applause of the Fondo Sur’s Ultras have been outed by some journalists as a means to mask what looks to be his team showing the alarming signs of fatigue.
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Co-Relations
So here we are: 2 consecutive games, 2 consecutive draws. 4 points dropped from goals scored off direct free kicks conceded near our goal towards the end of a match. If we’re looking for more interesting coincidental relationships: both goals were scored by players from Spain’s Euro 2008 who were both Villarreal players at the time… both also didn’t make the 2010 World Cup team. Another interesting co-relation: Malaga are a team desperate to call themselves a La Liga Champions League Representatives as that 4th Spanish team (the 3rd  team is usually Valencia) while Villarreal once owned that ‘title.’
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Referees
Yes, Paradas Romero is as capable of refereeing a professional football match as my 10-month-old son is at flying a 747. Paradas had zero communication skills with players and managed the match very poorly. Sergio Ramos’ foul was worthy of a card and was a blatant display of a lack of maturity (especially for aReal Madrid Vice-Captain) and given Rui Faria’s predictable tendency to get sent off, there is little credibility lost to sending him off. Mourinho’s dismissal as well as Ozil’s however was a clear product of Romero's clear failure to control the match and his own emotions. Were Mourinho’s reactions to the calls against Real Madrid out of the ordinary? Was Ozil’s sarcastic applause THAT bad?. Romero’s report would later confirm that Mourinho's dismissal started on 53’ when he was booked for 'making comments on one of my decisions' then on 82 minutes he was sent off for 'leaving the technical area making comments on one of my decisions'. Faria's straight red on the other hand was on 49 minutes for "clapping one of my decisions from the bench." I mean seriously, WTF!?!?!
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It’s the troublemaker Pepe who will be in hotwater again though as he blasted Romero: “That was a Robbery MotherF%cker!” in the tunnel – yet another brain explosion that can cost him between 4-12 games.
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If there’s one thing I’ve realized about La Liga referees, it’s that many of them have this tendency to go into a ‘red zone’ where everything big and small becomes a booking… most likely done out of a desperate attempt to regain control of a match that they’ve lost already: creating further chaos and sending the match into a horrific tailspin. This was what happened last night.
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It must be clear though to Madridistas and especially to the players that the 2 points weren’t lost because of the refereeing: in fact it would have probably been THREE points lost if the refereeing was good given Arbeloa’s shirt pulling antics in the first half. As such, we should get off the subject matter
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Rotations and Formations
Mourinho’s opting to start with a Trivote has also come under the spotlight – and I won’t criticize that either. The need to rotate the squad in this period of having a match every 3 days has been discussed to no end. In an away game, I don’t find anything wrong with opting to play a trivote to allow the fit-again Lass to play in place of Kaka (who was probably rested for the Sociedad match this weekend at the Bernabeu). With the trivote ‘malfunctioning’ however, Mourinho decided to revert to our usual 4-2-3-1 with Callejon – a sign to me that he was quick to recognize a fault and corrected it immediately. Altintop playing on the right side of midfield to replace what I can only conclude as an injured Callejon  was also in my opinion a valid move if the objective is to rest Kaka for this weekend’s game (I’d have sent Granero in instead though). So in my opinion, just because we didn’t score a bucket-load of goals, doesn’t mean that Mourinho screwed this one up tactically.
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In fact, of we didn’t concede that late goal, I don’t think we’d hear all this grumbling about Mourinho getting it wrong – we would instead be all gushing about how sublime Ozil’s backheel pass was to assist Ronaldo, whose equally brilliant maneuvering through the Villarreal penalty box gave us the 0-1 lead.
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It has to be said though that last night’s Villarreal team was Miguel Angel Lotina’s first game in charge. The former Depor coach who has turned defensive football into an art and science with his 5-man defenses / midfields that actually resemble a 10-0 (all defender) formation got his team well-organized last night as they managed to break forward a number of times behind our defense to counter attack in the instances they managed to win the ball back from us with their compact defensive alignment.
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In Search for the Stuff of Champions
Over the span of 3 days, the 10 point lead that Real Madrid had managed to build early this year has been cut down by nearly half: and in both instances to goals conceded at the end of a match from free kick conceded too close for comfort. This is the hallmark of a team that is not only tired but is in dire need of composure, poise and the ability to withstand pressure… in other words: the Stuff of Champions. The fact that all this is happening in this period where we play a game every 3 days is even more alarming – because while we shake our heads at the use of the likes of Altintop and Lass as substitutes (and rail against the decision not to use Sahin, Granero and Callejon), Barcelona whose squad we snickered at for lacking in depth have seamlessly tapped into their youth reserves where the likes of Isaac Cuenca and Christian Tello have done well in filling in the gaps.
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Pep Guardiola’s declarations of Barca’s chances in winning the league reek of mind games as his memory as a player back in the day of seeing Madrid lose a title on the last day of the league to Tenerife for 2 consecutive years is coming to the fore. Mourinho must now call upon his own past experiences to reinforce the fact that a Mourinho team leading the table in the final stretch never relinquishes it as he has done in Chelsea and Inter – or he risks being compared to his ill-fated compatriot Carlos Queroz, who managed to squander a sizeable point lead in the table to lose the league title to Valencia during the galactico era.
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For Real Madrid, if there was ever a time to summon the Champion in them, this is the time to do so.
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Expectations
Upon deeper reflection, it has to be said that a big part of where this disappointment on my part is coming from was my idiotic fantasy of prematurely predicting a paseo of sorts to Cibeles to celebrate the league title – to the point of having the nerve to daydream about a pasillo in the Camp Nou. Though Mourinho warned against such daydreaming and building up of expectations: even saying that we might just win the league by a mere point, I doubt he imagined that our dropping of points would come so early (before April)…
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As the MERE possibility of home comforts await us this weekend (will it be a supportive crowd or the snobbish Prawn Sandwich brigade?), Barca travel to Mallorca for a potentially tricky match. This weekend will no longer be about merely taking the opportunity to return to winning ways, but the critical need to do so.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Law of the Averages (Real Madrid 1, Malaga 1)

Cazorla Magic - There was no way Casillas would have reached that Free Kick by Cazorla. Not even penalities are taken that well 
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This morning, Real Madrid dropped points, drawing 1-1 against Malaga at the Santiago Bernabeu. Well it was bound to happen – the law of the averages finally catching up to us. I honestly didn’t expect us to drop points till our trip to Osasuna’s Reyno De Navarre, but in a way, I’m still not fully surprised. Malaga after all are starting to grow as one of La Liga’s heavyweights desperate to cement their place in the top 4. Recent results also suggest that dropping points was on the cards for us, considering the following:
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1.)    Our dour performance against CSKA atMoscowwhich featured a conceded goal late in the game off a free kick (familiar eh?)
2.)    Our smash-and-grab performance at Vallecas, winning 0-1 in a match where Mourinho himself admits that Rayo deserved more than what they got (which was nothing)
3.)    A win by the skins of our teeth against Real Betis where Mourinho again admits at the end of the game that our opponents deserved more than 0 points.
4.)    A 6-7/10 performance against CSKA at the Bernabeu which is masked by the 4-1 scoreline that once again, Mourinho admits did not reflect the proceedings on the pitch. It also features a late goal conceded.
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Animos to Abidal and Muamba. Football is a game, no one should have to risk his life while playing it. Get well soon guys .
Ceding Possession and Control
Malaga surprisingly (or not) controlled possession last night: with 53% possession compared to our 47% - surprising if you insist on the boneheaded contention that ‘we’re Real Madrid and we must be in control of possession!’ and not if you consider 2 simple facts: that Manuel Pellegrini likes his teams to have possession and that Jose Mourinho would happily let someone have control of the ball and play off the counter. To do this, it’s interesting to note that Pellegrini played a formation that in many ways, mirrored ours. Just as we had 2 attacking midfielders (Kaka + Ozil) together with a winger (Ronaldo) playing behind a lone striker, so did Malaga (with the impressive Isco + the brilliant Cazorla as their AMs with Joaquin as the winger). Stats would also tell you that Mourinho had his way in terms of the ebb-and-flow of the game as Real Madrid had a better pass completion rate (84% to Malaga’s 82%) and despite the fact that they controlled possession, they only managed 5 shots: 2 on target, 1 off, and 1 blocked. In contrast, we had 18 shots on goal: 6 on target, 6 off and 6 blocked. Those are the sort of stats that generally yield a Real Madrid win: the sort of win they liked – with plenty of room to run and attack upon regaining possession.
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Isco and Cazorla’s active and neat passing game matched up with Joquin’s brazen dribbling just as nicely as Kaka’s and Ozil’s would with Ronaldo on most nights. This was the type of football that best suited Madrid anyway though as Kaka and Ozil + Marcelo had plenty of space to run to and operate and attack once the ball was won. I did hate the fact that despite not losing possession so many times, Lass at RB insisted too much on dribbling the ball out himself where a simple pass to Xabi Alonso would have been a far more effective way to start the attack. The difference perhaps was how effectively Malaga ‘contracted’ on defense as they ‘expanded’ in attack. Most Real Madrid ‘fast break’ counters were met with just enough resistance to delay the attack and allow the Malaga defense and midfield to re-form their shape (thus allowing them to block a third of our shots). And in the instances where they couldn’t manage to do so, apart from Benzema’s goal, it was goalkeeper Willy Caballero’s excellent performance in goal that got in the way (including a great save on what would have been a Ronaldo goal).
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In short, perhaps all that was missing for Real Madrid to make it 2-0 was for them to just take the next step and raise the game up another gear to a level Malaga couldn’t match: something our boys didn’t manage to do as Malaga’s well-executed expand (in attack) – contract (on defense) routine frustrated us. Call it what you want: a drop in form, a lack of concentration or just plain old fatigue – but whatever it was that couldn’t give us that 2nd was the same thing that led to conceding that ill-fated free kick in such a precarious position. The rest was all Cazorla magic.
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Mourinho’s job, together with the team is to buck this alarming trend of conceding late goals: a signs of fatigue, lack of focus, maturity and ultimately, Championship Material. It will be a relief to know that Coentrao has rejoined training and that Di Maria is expected to do the same this week.
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Getting past the Law of the Averages
Yes, yes, yes my friends, the Law of the Averages is catching up on us and the team only have themselves to blame for it. The writing has been on the wall for sometime: that Real Madrid have not been playing their best and have in fact been showing worrying signs of a dip in form and dropped levels of concentration and fatigue as of late. Injuries to Di Maria and Coentrao maybe partly to blame… but I say that the failure to fully trust in the likes of Callejon and Granero and the decision not to invest minutes in Sahin are also reasons for this. Make no mistake about it: conceding late goals are in many ways the hallmark of a team short of Championship Material. It’s time for Mourinho and the boys to reflect on this and ensure that the La Liga title is secure – because the road ahead doesn’t get easier. Here’s a look ahead to April’s ‘highlights’:
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5.)    A trip to Osasuna’s Reyno De Navarre – one of La Liga’s most difficult grounds. Many expect points to be dropped here.
6.)   Valencia at home with a likely-to-be-in-form Soldado in search of blood.
7.)    A Madrid Derby against Diego Simeone’s Atletico at the Calderon – this is a VERY different Atleti we will face regardless of whether you are a believer that the Simeone-Effect is beginning to die down.
8.)    A Clasico at the Camp Nou
9.)    Here’s a thought to those celebrating our drawing of APOEL in the Champions League Quarters: likely up next in the Semis is Bayern Munich, who will be eager to win this year as the final will be in their house. And for those who don’t know: the aggregate score from their last three games is 20-1. Yup, twenty.
10.)  Our first match for the month of May is a trip to San Mames to meet Bielsa’s Bilbao.
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Ruud Van Nistelrooy - Now there's a player who knows all about finishing a season in a flurry to earn Silverware 
If the reaction that you are having as a Madridista is to want to buy [insert name of in-form / in vogue player] – then you clearly have nothing to contribute to the discussion and are in fact a symptom of the buy-a-player-to-buy-your-way-out-of-the-problem mentality that dogged us for many years. For those who have been watching and following football analytically over a long period of time, you will know that a club’s form over the course of a season is about peaks and valleys. Our direct rivals to the title Barcelona, normally start out with so-so form that peaks at about early December and falls again at the start of every year (aided by their participation in the Club World Cup). Real Madrid this season have done very well to pick up the points during their ‘low periods’ in time to have a lead just as they start to peak again (towards April-May). On our end, we’ve been impressively consistent and have been able, to a certain extent, use our larger and deeper squad to bridge dips in form, injuries and suspensions such that our ‘stutters’ (drop in points) have been mostly, ‘regularly spaced out’. There are however only 11 La Liga games separating us from our 32nd La Liga title. If we live up to expectations in the CL, there are 5 matches separating us from La Decima. That’s 16 matches. We must remember however that the remaining 21 matches will be played out every 3 days from now till the penultimate match of the season (a trip to Granada): it will be grueling grind for Mourinho and his men. I won’t even bother to consider how much more difficult it would be for Pep’s threadbare squad (which is to our advantage).
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But here it is: time to run the gauntlet. Time to throwdown. Enough talk about penalties not given, enough talk about conspiracy theories – I shall not pander to them or dignify such pathetic subject matters with my attention. The only thing that it is clear to me now is the road to Cibeles on 2 fronts which are already on the horizon. The pathway has been paved – now we’re off to the hard part: staying true to it.
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We are out of reasons to fail – because even this time, the Law of the Averages is now on our side.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Form and Space, Diamonds and Squares (Real Madrid 5 – Espanyol 0)

Kaka played like a 'Galactico' last Sunday
I am not shocked that Real Madrid won against Espanyol last Sunday. I’m shocked however that Madridmanaged to win so comfortably. This is after all the same Espanyol whose coach has been mooted by some as a possible replacement to Mourinho one day (a thought that was surely in the minds of some with the ‘convenient’ timing of AVB’s sacking at Chelseayesterday plus Mourinho’s house-hunting trip to Londonlast week). Or if you choose not to look through the Mourinho-might-leave angle… this is the same Espanyol that has proved to be a pain in the neck for Barca. In other words, the Periquitos were no slouches – so one has to wonder how it is they can get their asses handed to them in the manner that Real Madrid did. The 2 key factors I wish to point to as the reasons for this are Space and Form: and no, I’m not going to talk about architecture (what I do that for a living), I’m going to talk about Real Madrid (what I do as a hobby)….
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Form
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Higuain
Pipita at age 23 has now managed to tie Juanito's goalscoring record for Real Madrid. That's a surreal thought.
Pipita Higuain’s form has been subject to discussion plenty of times prior to the game: How fitting was it that our very own Kaushik’s wise words had put some perspective back into our perception of him. Despite the compelling analysis however, it was still hard (at least, for me) to ignore the fact that Pipita hadn’t scored since January. To me, his was a drop in form: from a team perspective, this was masked in a way by Benzema’s extraordinary state of grace. So when Benzema went down clutching his groin in Moscow, while Pipita was probably thinking that his chance to shine once again might have come, many of us were probably looking at the situation half-worried: and Pipita’s performance that night didn’t placate those worries either.
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Then of course is the undue outside influence: with the likes of Maradona weighing in on the career prospects of his son-in-law ‘Kun’ Aguero and how a move to Madrid would take his career to the next level: statements which I believe are related to the rumors linking Pipita to a part swap with Aguero in the summer. And while I will admit that Aguero is probably a better player talent-wise than Pipita, and that the 40m which teams like Chelsea are supposedly willing to spend for him is tempting, I would rather have Pipita in my team than Aguero or 40m in the bank (it’s not as if I’m going to enjoy that 40m for myself anyway). Maybe I’m being sentimental or maybe I’m just displaying a silly and blind sense of loyalty: the sort of loyalty that gets Athletic Bilbao fans to say that they’d rather have Fernando Llorente (one of their own) leading the line in attack for them rather than Cristiano or Messi – but then again, why should I even be ashamed of such loyalty to a player I consider a canterano?
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This was why I was delighted to read Mourinho’s declaration that ‘only a fool’ would want to sell Higuain. Clearly the boss was out to publicly pat Pipita on his back in a bid to resurrect the blood (goal)-thirsty animal that we all knew resided in him after it seemed that the very public scolding of the Argentine in Vallecas stadium might not do the job – and clearly it worked as we were all duly rewarded. Pipita scored 2 goals last Sunday and looked sharp doing so. It’s hard to imagine that he was that scrawny kid with funny front teeth who tried to imitate Peja Mijatovic’s ridiculous hairstyle once. If you think of the journey that Pipita has gone through with us, it’s hard not to be amazed: 5 years, 150 games. As a rookie, in the Bernabeu, also against Espanyol, he scored the winning goal in a 4-3 victory that had Ruud Van Nistelrooy holding up his jersey to the Bernabeu crowd as if to tell them ‘remember who he is.’ Oh yes I remember – and I’m pretty sure that Espanyol does too.
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Carvalho and Varane
Perhaps the 2 men whom we didn’t expect to be discussing with regards to form were Ricardo Carvalho and Raphael Varane. The performances of the 2 center backs could not have been more opposite. Carvalho had an absolute stinker of a game (which included a yellow card that rules him out of the Betis game) that had him on a receiving end of jeering from the Bernabeu crowd. For a player who turns 34 this May in search of a 2-year contract extension, he did himself absolutely no favors. Ricky was slow and was even the subject of Philippe Coutinho’s successful attempt to juggle the ball in the air to lose him. I totally understand the value placed on him by Mourinho as the trusted, grey-haired (not literally) figure on the pitch, but in lieu of his current state of match fitness (coming from injury), Carvalho is perhaps best introduced off the bench to secure a lead rather than as a starter: it is a fact made worse given that the 2 guys whose place in the starting XI are players Madrid fans have affection for: the Spanish Raul Albiol (whose lack of playing time looks to have cost him his place in the Spanish National Team) and Real Madrid’s Defensive Ace for the future: Raphael Varane.
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In contrast to Carvalho, Varane was absolutely wonderful, the impressiveness of his 90% passing completion rate was also matched by the fact that not a single Espanyol player managed to complete a dribble when faced against him. He was assured in the tackle, displayed great awareness and positioning and proved that he was not to be outpaced by any attacker even as Espanyol introduced the more mobile Sergio Garcia in the 2nd half. His performance last night has sparked quite a few thoughts in my mind re: Real Madrid’s defensive lineups – thoughts that I hope I can more eloquently elaborate on in a future post-season evaluation article of some sort.
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Space
I have no idea what Pochettino’s Perequitos were trying to do last night. Espanyol after all were the team who sought to choke the life out of Barcelona’s passing game: why did they choose not to do that last night? Jose Mourinho once again without Angel Di Maria, chose to play with Ronaldo, Kaka and Ozil behind Higuain: creating a narrow attacking 3 behind the lone striker: with Ronaldo on the left drifting inwards to allow Marcelo to motor forward and the naturally central and left-footed Ozil (double whammy) on the right, it was the perfect opportunity to turn the match into an orgy of bodies at the midfield and choke the life out of Madrid’s game – just as we saw against CSKA and Rayo. I don’t find that we played the ball with dizzyingly fast passes out of the defense, but the outcome was that our boys had plenty of space to operate in the midfield. And anyone who has been watching Real Madrid this season knows what happens to teams to giveMadrid’s MOVING midfield space: instant death.
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Sami Khedira
Sami Khedira has been scoring on AND off the pitch!
Last night also showed us how much we well and truly missed Sami Khedira. Outside of the comedic fact that he actually looks like a slightly-better-looking version of Borat (as my wife noticed - I proceeded to then show her what his girlfriend looked like), Sami Khedira’s display in midfield was a tour de force on the role of ‘Xabi’s Partner’: the Tunisian-German tank ran like a madman, sealed the gaps where they were, made himself available to receive passes when his teammates were in a positional bind and even made some Frank Lampard-esque offensive runs into the box to get himself into goal-scoring positions: one of which yielded a goal. I can only suspect that if he did actually possess Lampard’s finishing ability, that he might actually be capable of averaging 10-15 goals per season. Other than the fact that his high center of gravity makes him look like an awkward, gangly and clumsy, I find him to be a remarkable midfielder: that expands the space of play for the team in attack, and contracts the same space into an intolerable environment for the opposition when they have the ball. There are many who insist that Lass or Granero or Sahin would be best suited to the role of being Xabi Alonso’s partner: I say that the 3 all have plenty to learn from him.
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Kaka turns the ‘attacking diamond’ to a ‘magic square’
Our 'usual' 4-2-3-1 with a 'diamond' attacking 4 with Ozil on the right where he's not at his best (thus the red flag) and Kaka is sandwiched between the the opponents' 2 pivots, denying him the space that he needs to thrive.
There was perhaps no player who epitomized what I thought was the ‘Real Madrid Theme’ for last Sunday’s game (Form and Space) more so than Kaka. While I will always remain suspicious of the fact that Espanyol gave us plenty of room to operate at midfield, I must also give credit where it’s due: Kaka to me was last night’s Real Madrid Man of the Match. I suppose that the question of Kaka thriving in a game will now and forever always be haunted by the ‘was he given space?’ or ‘did he create space?’ debate. It’s difficult not to notice that last Sunday’s performance however was the sort of thing Florentino paid 67m Euros for: his dribbling and ball control was crisp and precise, his passing incisive and his runs completely unsettling across both midfield and defensive lines for Espanyol.
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I watched last Sunday’s match another 2 times just to try to pick apart what Kaka did differently against Espanyol that made him utterly devastating. The answer was simple: his use of space. The space afforded to him by the Espanyol midfield and defense was probably only 1/3 of what made him so effective: the other 2/3s of what made him play so well was his/Mourinho’s decision to allow him (Kaka) to ‘colonize’ the space that Ronaldo left behind once the ‘7’ pushed forward from his typically ‘Left Midfield’ position, to a ‘Left Forward’ position in attack.
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Without the ball, and during large chunks of time with the ball, Real Madrid’s shape would remain as a 4-2-3-1 (where the attacking 4 form a sort of ‘diamond’). But during many instances in the match, Ronaldo would then push forward, nearly aligned to Pipita (see first goal which is a classic interplay between 2 ‘forwards’) to become a second forward – and everytime Ronaldo did this, Kaka would then drift towards the left, but not necessarily to the touchline. By ‘colonizing’ part of this space vacated by Ronaldo, Kaka’s operating space increases and provides him with better passing alternatives with Ronaldo and Pipita in front of him, and Marcelo still motoring forward beside him along the left flank, not to mention Ozil to his right. This also means that he is not necessarily ‘sandwiched’ between the 2 Espanyol pivots who are tasked to ‘kill off’ the player in the ‘10’ role forMadridwith their 2 vs. 1 advantage. The realignment would then allow Ozil to also drift slightly to the center, where he too is more comfortable: turning Real Madrid’s 4-2-3-1 (with the diamond front 4) into the much-derided ‘magic square’: a 4-2-2-2 (with fullbacks, particularly Marcelo, bombing down the flank). Kaka nearly scores a goal in the first half from this position in the first half and duly creates Pipita’s first goal from this position as well, to mention quite some of many attacking sequences for the night.
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As Ronaldo vacates his original position on the left midfield (yellow cone) to push forward, so does Kaka (blue cone) and Ozil (red cone) to reform to a 4-2-2-2. It becomes 2 10s vs 2 pivots at midfield + Khedira's supporting runs from deep and flank support from our fullbacks. Kaka dominated the match thoroughly last Sunday by this decision to 'colonize' the space Ronaldo left behind once the '7' pushed forward
Mourinho seems to have completely abandoned what I generally regard as the silly idea to try to ‘make Ozil, play like Di Maria’ (i.e. force Ozil to play as a winger). This adjustment not only gifted Kaka with the space that he needs to thrive, but also multiplies the effect by giving Ozil opportunity to play his more preferred central role. The numbers game midfield tilts to Real Madrid’s advantage wholly once you consider that it’s our 2 10s (Ozil and Kaka) playing against 2 opposition pivots with Khedira making his supporting runs from deep (leaving Xabi Alonso with the manageable task of dealing with the opposing ‘10’ one on one) while fullbacks Marcelo and Arbeloa (more of the former) motor down the flanks to provide width.
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Last Sunday was the first time I’ve observed it – let’s see if we can see more of it over the coming matches while we await the return of Di Maria back to the side.
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Up Next…
A trip toSevilleis next up for us to face Real Betis before the Russians visit us for the return leg of the Champions League. If our boys keep their heads straight in the following matches, then there’s little doubt that we can keep up to turn what looked like a momentum-generating match from last weekend into Championship form towards season’s end. In the meantime, I’ll look forward to finding a few more interesting spaces and shapes from our men in white.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Diamonds in the Dirt (Rayo Vallecano 0 – Real Madrid 1)

Ronaldo's goal last night will be one of the most memorable goals I will ever see in my life.
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Last night’s match against Rayo was always going to be a tough one. Sure, they’re a newly promoted side relying on an Atletico Madrid loanee (Diego Costa), but bloody hell – they’re Rayo Vallecano: one of Real Madrid’s old ‘mortal enemies’ in the city of Madrid. If Real Madrid are the rich and uber-polished blue-eyed boys from the city of Madrid and Atleti are the boys from the other side of the tracks – then I suppose that Rayo are tunnel rats from the city’s underworld. They like being that way too: with a small stadium where the first row of seats is within spitting distance of the pitch, and a fan base of loud, vocal diehards, it’s no wonder why there were so few travelling Real Madrid fans that Mourinho had to make a fuss about it postgame. So while I had no doubts that Real Madrid were gonna win last night, I also had no doubts that it wasn’t going to be easy.
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Control… or the Lack of It
Pepe was involved in yet another stamping incident last night. Seriously, this guy needs to double his appointments with the shrink
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Jose Mourinho’s lineup was a predictable one: with the absence of Benzema making Pipita the automatic choice and the brawny Khedira sitting beside Xabi Alonso. The attacking 3 behind Higuain consisted of Ronaldo-Kaka-Ozil: something we’ve seen before too… what we didn’t expect was how a midfield comprised of 2 ‘10’s and 2 pivots would have absolutely no control of the game. It was amateur night for the most part as the ball essentially seemed to genuinely dislike being at midfield – or rather, like the midfield didn’t exist last night.
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Perhaps it was the sort of game that Rayo wanted to play: smash-mouth, physical, frenetic, end-to-end, no control and no rhythm – the sort of game that I imagine Rayo Vallecano’s crest (which to me resembles a Special Forces Marine Brigade of some sort) wanted to embody. All of a sudden, watching Spanish Football at 11pm Singapore Time (thanks to the early kickoff) has started to resemble English Football with the match turning into long ball city. Alonso seemed like he was trying to (but failing) establish control, but the rest just wasn’t working: once again the Kaka (in the middle) and Ozil (on the right) combination didn’t work. I would actually like to say that Kaka was terrible last night, but I find it impossible to say because how could he be terrible if he wasn’t even in the game (i.e. invisible)? Ozil in the meantime looked just a little bit better once Kaka was off and he was sent to his preferred role in the middle later in the 2nd half.
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Last night, Rayo gave us a taste of our own medicine: by having their guys right our throats and refusing to give us time on the ball, they denied us control of the game and forced us to make mistakes. I suppose this is where the criticism of the players comes in: because a team Real Madrid who are supposedly so good at creating attacking chances with lightning speed should in fact thrive at the space left behind by the swarming hoardes of opposing players. It isn’t supposed to be frazzled by such pressing – unless of course they were still in siesta mode: a thought that I’m sure is not lost on a lot of Madridistas.
I'm UNDECIDED if Ramos intentionally smashed his elbow onto Costa's throat. Either way, I'm very disturbed by it
The effectiveness of their methods explains why Mourinho had only words of praise to describe Rayo Vallecano last night. The (non)-rhythm of the game brought out the worst in us and completely threw our guys off their game. It also brought back my initial fears about the Pepe-Ramos Central Defensive Partnership: with both men ending the match counting themselves lucky not to see red as the tackles, wrestling moves, kicks and elbows were flying out thick and fast.
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It should also be noted that to add to the ugliness, Rui Faria was sent off last night – AGAIN. If he is genuinely not saying anything untoward at the officials, I can only surmise that he probably has the most irritating voice it football… perhaps that’s why it’s Aitor who does the press interviews and not him (let me declare that I say this tongue-in-cheek as a joke lest someone is outraged by it).
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Beauty in Madness
I never ever thought however that such an ugly game would be decided by such a beauty of a goal. While there will be those who might brand Ronaldo’s winning goal last night as being borne of audacity and cheekiness (even arrogance), I insist that it was a product of guile and cleverness: that his audacity to attempt it merely goes hand in hand with his ability and uncanny awareness. With the ball running away from him and with 3 defenders chasing him down, the only way he was going to score in that play was with a backheel. Any move which mere mortals like us would think of (e.g. to control it, or even to control it and turn in one move) would have resulted in allowing his THREE markers to catch up with him. The beauty of Ronaldo's backheeled goal wasn't just from the fact that it was showed his quality, but from the fact that it was not done out of some cheap, contrived attempt to be a fancy showman. It was a goal attempt created by his assessment of his positioning, the space he had and the positioning of his opponents.
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We’ve already seen a number of backheeled goals (the last one at Madridwas Van Der Vaart’s if I remember correctly), but most of them had the scorer still at an angle where he could see his target. Most of the backheeled goals we’ve seen also had the player very close to the goal. Last night’s goal however, had Ronaldo with his back COMPLETELY turned away from the goal and his markers, relying only on his SENSE of the goal to score from a distance almost near the penalty spot.
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If he had controlled the ball, then turned, the 2 Rayo defenders running towards him would've stopped him. The backheel was his only option. How did he even manage to see the goal? There were SEVEN Rayo Players including the keeper with that tiny sliver of space between them to aim at with his back to the goal. Amazing. Just bloody Amazing

In a game where Rayo who played so well, completely negating our capabilities as a team, our only chance to win would be to win on the back of the quality of our players (where we had plenty to spare). But with our boys playing well below their true abilities, it had to take one of Ronaldo’s absolute best moments to decide the game. It was an astounding display of quality that could only match the cruelty of Rayo’s defeat.
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The Second Diamond in the Dirt
While the most of us will be spending the week replaying Ronaldo’s goal in our heads over and over again (I know I will), it is perhaps worthy to note that his gem  of a goal wasn’t the only thing we can take from last night’s mostly-shitty game. Very much like our dour midweek game in Russia, as the clocked ticked down to 90 minutes and our opponents who had home field advantage in an intimidating ground frantically piled on the pressure for that last hurrah, our boys had to batten down the hatches as the enemy laid siege to Iker’s goal. And just like last Tuesday, they made their runs, sent their crosses in and won free kicks in dangerous positions. Unlike last Tuesday though, there was no late equalizer, no fatal defensive error and no bitter / sour taste in the mouth to end the game. So while on an individual level we revel in Ronaldo’s gem of  a goal and on a team level, we rail at our bad performance... let’s not forget that despite all that, our boys still managed to hold on for the win.
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And in the greater scheme of things, that just might turn out to be the bigger, brighter and most precious of the 2 diamonds we found in the dirt last night.