Friday, April 27, 2012

Heart Ache, Heart Break (Real Madrid 2 – Bayern Munich 1, Bayern advance after penalties)

Holy Fuck! - was probably what El Pipita was saying to himself when Cristiano's shot was saved. Pepe's shock and the pain in Xabi Alonso's grimace is there for all to see.
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There are a few lessons in life that I as a father will have the pleasure of teaching my son. There will be the basics: “Be honest, Be humble, etc.”… there are the hilarious but nonetheless important things: “Don’t fart in public…” and then of course are certain seemingly unalienable truths about the game of football. One of them goes like this:
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“In the game of football, when dealing with the possibility of a penalty shootout, Don’t fuck around with Germans.”
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Germans Sides and the German National team (which is normally loaded with Bayern Munich Players) have a well-earned reputation as murderous, cold-blooded killers in penalty shootouts. Last night, Real Madrid became the latest victim and in many ways, it’s difficult not to look into the events that transpired over the 2 legs and not come to the conclusion that Jose Mourinho lost his chess match against Jupp Heynckes. With the final to be held in Bayern’s own backyard against what will be a decimated Chelsea side… instead of seeing Mourinho become the first manager to win 3 Champions League title with 3 different clubs, Jupp Heynckes now has a chance join Mourinho and Mou’s mentor Van Gaal in the exclusive club of coaches who have won the Champions League with 2 different teams – with the German having won his first with us.
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Strategy in 2-legged Cup Ties – Learning from the Jedi
As the penalties were taken, Mourinho was on his knees on the Bernabeu pitch, likely praying to the Football Gods for luck. It was not to be… thanks to my overpriced TV subscription to see the Champions league on HD, it was very apparent to me that tears had welled into Mourinho’s eyes as Schweinsteiger hammered the final penalty… errr… nail… into our Champions League coffin. The tears didn’t flow but Mourinho was clearly emotionally broken by last night’s defeat. There was no UEFA conspiracy to blame, no ghost goal, just a shortage of luck as he probably chooses to see it. In fact, it was refreshing to hear him honor Bayern, saying that his Inter had beaten them by Fair Play, and that this time, Bayern had beaten his Real Madrid by Fair Play too.
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In my humble opinion however, a penalty shootout, while in many cases being a case of luck – isn’t so when you’re dealing with Germans. Even with the best goalkeeper in the world and with home advantage, call me superstitious, but I wouldn’t fancy a penalty shootout with a German side – which to me, is where I take issue with Mou: that he seemed totally prepared to enter this situation, or rather tried to avert it too late
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“Fear is the way of the Dark Side” were the wise words of Yoda, the greatest Jedi of them all – and over the 2 legs, it’s hard not to look back and admit to ourselves that our team played with fear. We sat back to defend a draw after making things even in Munich even after we put them on the backfoot. Last night, we did the same after our 2 early goals: we sat back to play on the counter because we FEARED their counter attack. In the end, it was this fear that had us surrendering the initiative to them: allowing Mario Gomez his share of touches in the box with all those crosses in from the wings, resulting in our late conceded goal during the first leg and forcing Iker into have to save our skins in the second leg. We would have lost last night’s match if we had a lesser keeper than Iker between the sticks. I can only guess that Mourinho believed that the winning goal would eventually come for us despite what looks like his instruction to his team to slow the game down and remove the ‘sting’ from it – it didn’t. As the match teetered closer and closer towards penalties, the advantage began tilting in favor of the Germans.
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Tactics
Staring down Bayern’s team is in many ways like looking at the mirror tactically for Real Madrid. The similarities are striking:
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Threats on the Flanks using primarily inverted Attacking Wingers (who interchange wings at times) backed up by an attacking fullback on one wing– Ronaldo & Di Maria + Marcelo mirroring Robben & Ribery + Lahm. Both teams use them as the primary offensive threat making both teams remarkably explosive when countering. Mourinho knows how dangerous his wingmen are to his opposite number and this explains his wariness when faced with a similar threat. Quality-wise, Ronaldo & Di Maria trump Robben and Ribery while Lahm trumps Marcelo defensively by a mile.
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A Passer / Engine + A Destroyer as 2 pivots. Xabi Alonso and Schweini are the team’s engines. Schweini doesn’t have Alonso’s passing range, but Alonso doesn’t have the German’s mobility. Starting his career as a right-sided midfielder – Schwein-whatever used his mobility with some destabilizing runs on the flanks. On the flipside, Khedira isn’t really a full-fledged hard man – he’s a utility player who does the dirty work – a contrast to Gustavo, who has a striking similarity to the disgusting ex-Barca and Bayern player Mark Van Bommel. Gustavo must’ve committed 2,000,000 fouls last night before getting his yellow card.
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A Creative midfielder in Front of the Pivots. Bayern for large parts of the season had been using Thomas Muller in this role. Muller however has the instincts of a forward and not a midfielder – resulting in a shortage of link play between their midfield and front mean. Toni Kroos however is a midfielder who is comfortable BOTH in a creative pivot role and as an advanced playmaker – a contrast to Ozil who thrives as a full fledge ‘10’ but offers little when deep. If we compared the 2 based on quality, Ozil is a far better player. But if we compare the 2 based on their tactical contributions (flexibility-wise), Kroos, gives more to his team – as he allows Bayern to go from a double pivot to a trivote in a snap. Bayern used this to great effect across both legs.
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A Lone Man Up Front
One of the big differences between us and them however would be on how our Front Men function. Mario Gomez is a classic target man. Opta stats show that his movement in attacking plays hardly have variety with him mostly moving around the same parts: around the penalty and 6-yard box. But then again, why would he need to do otherwise? He’s big, strong, dominant in the air and can swing a nasty kick of the ball on target even from a tough angle with no problems. In contrast to Madrid, we use our lone striker more to make runs in the hopes of dragging the opposing CBs out of position. Both Pipita and Benzema perform this function but with the latter also seems to have developed the ability to hold the ball and allows his teammates to join the attacking fray.
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Bayern, like us are a team that thrives on playing football at 200 mph. It is now wonder why Mourinho seemed to have had his team slow the game down after scoring the 2 opening goals: to take the sting out of the game and prevent Bayern from using the frenetic momentum the match had started with to score their own goals – something that happened for them to win their first half penalty BEFORE the match slowed down. The problem with that however was that this slower game favored their midfield whose personnel (with Kroos) allowed them to control possession and chance-creation in the game, because of Kroos’ ability to function both as a ‘10’ and a pivot. In contrast, the players we had who could make a difference (Ronaldo, Di Maria and Ozil) were more cut off and this was lamentable given how decisive the showed they can be in the early stages. This of course carried on to the second half where it seemed like both teams were looking to provoke each other to open themselves up to a counter. Neither flinched but Bayern had control of the ball and possession and as things wore on, they created more chances than us with Mario Gomez’s physical power ever present. Things only seemed to come more alive consistently for us during extra time as penalties loomed: with Mourinho upping the tempo again late in the game and in extra time. Perhaps turning up the heat at an earlier part of the game to make it 3-1 would have made a difference?
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It is of course easy for me to say this NOW, hindsight being 20-20 vision: that Mourinho’s ‘gamble’ to take the sting off the game didn’t come off. A late goal from us however would’ve changed everything completely and would have sentenced Bayern for good with little time remaining. If such a thing did happen, I would be calling Mourinho the king of calculated risks by now. So at the end of the day, though I agree that Mourinho could have had his team play more courageously, I also cannot entirely fault him for his decision to have the team play the way they did.
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Performances & Reactions
There are a few things that stand out in the game which to me need to be looked at again with a level head perhaps in the offseason.
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Benzema’s Evolution
Ask me how many times Benzema lost the ball last night: ONCE. Karim Benzema has not only earned the right to wear the Real Madrid shirt, he is also now earning the ‘9’ jersey number. He holds the ball up superbly, is unselfish, and has developed a deeper intelligence in his decision-making and understanding his teammates in knowing when to pass, to dribble with the ball and to shoot. Our little Kitten turns out to be a Lion-cub. I won’t call him a Lion just yet: I’d rather wait and see him continue his development – where we will likely see him mangle a few defenders / goalkeepers and teams in ways we probably never thought he could in the coming years.
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Our Defense
Ramos and Pepe were OWNED by Mario Gomez. We need to learn how to deal with Physically Powerful strikers like him in the future
Sergio Ramos and Pepe were a disaster in the first half. They looked like a comedy version of a number from ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ with both men unable to command their box and organize themselves against the mirror image of our attack. They waded into each others’ territory, opened up spaces and looked very vulnerable. Ditto for Marcelo. The backline improved greatly as the game wore on though. It must also be noted that neither Ramos nor Pepe (no one from Real Madrid basically) managed to deal with Mario Gomez. Gomez physically dominated our players and once again got his fair share of touches, headers, knock downs, flicks and shots on goal that could’ve cost us a few goals. Iker saved their skins last night. Maybe it’s because there are so few powerful players in La Liga (I can only count Fernando Llorente and not even he is as physically commanding as Gomez)? Either way, this is something for Mourinho and his technical team to have a look at.
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The last point on defense: Mourinho should study game tape of how Bayern defend Dead Balls. The Germans were bloody amazing defending them. It didn’t matter if we had Ramos, Pepe and Ronaldo all as dangerous aerial threats: Bayern never allowed me to feel that our boys had a chance in dead ball situations.
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Cristiano Ronaldo
People might choose to remember you for that shootout 'miss' Cristiano, I choose to remember your 2 goals instead
Certain people, especially the haters will call him out for missing his (and Madrid’s first penalty) in the shootout – and would even liken it to Messi’s miss the night before. To that I say: Horseshit! Firstly, Ronaldo scored 2 goals in the first 25 minutes including a penalty. Secondly, a penalty taken during a game vs. one taken in a shootout are very different situations. Thirdly, Ronaldo did NOT miss: his shot was on target and was saved by a guy who is the closest candidate to dispute Iker as the world’s best goalkeeper. Ronaldo did NOT choke. Heck, even his Free Kicks were on Target.
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After the game, Ronaldo’s reaction spoke volumes: “I apologize to the fans, Please don’t forget this, I owe you a Final”. It was a reaction that smacked of the attitude of a leader, taking responsibility and standing up to be counted. To Cristiano Ronaldo from this Madridista (me) who called you a choker last December: you have made me deservedly eat my words and more than a few slices of humble pie. Thank you for making me witness your performance throughout this season – when my son grows up, I will be proud to tell him of the glorious days you played wearing my beloved Real Madrid’s shirt.
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The Team’s Leadership - Jose Mourinho & Iker Casillas
Jose Mourinho - he can be a prick when you're on the opposite side. But when he's on your side, it's impossible not to love him.
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The 2 men’s methods contrast to the point where they reportedly dislike each other. But their reactions to last night’s game speak of 2 men who are probably far more similar than they would care to admit. Mourinho and Iker sounded like father and big brother figures respectively: defending their teammates who stood up to be counted in the penalty shootout. “The ones who missed are also the ones who had the balls to step up and take those penalties” Mourinho said. He was right. Like I said above, a penalty during a game and during a shootout are 2 very different things – so I will call no faults on our boys who missed and whose shots were saved. For Iker, he probably got as close a glimpse as he could ever have at his opposite number (Neuer) who in my opinion is the closest thing to being him: the best goalkeeper in the world. Iker showed it last night too – it might have been a draw or a loss if it weren’t for him. His Karate-chop save on Philip Lahm is also a clear example that while age has taken it’s toll on his hair, his reflexes are as good as ever.
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For Mourinho, it was very clear that the loss had hurt him. It’s worth pointing out that his media silence, likely borne out of a typical Mourinho act of defiance has made him resemble a gentlemanly Real Madrid Manager more than he would probably like to admit. His decision to listen to his players’ wishes to attack Barca (and win in the process) also speaks of a coach who thrives not just with his ability to command a team to do as he wishes, but also has the ability to listen to his team and becomes successful doing so as well. It may be debatable to many, but to me, Real Madrid has clearly benefitted Mourinho just as much as the opposite.
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I would like to end by giving my Congratulations goes to Bayern Munich for a very well-played Semi-Final. You deserve your dream final at home. It’ll be a battle of Cinderella teams on May 19 – between the club who dreamt of playing and winning the cup in front of their own fans… and the club whom nobody believed even had a shot.
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By the time the ball is kicked on the 19th of May for the Final, I hope to take comfort from the fact that though I have to continue to wait for European Cup #10 for my beloved Real Madrid, I would still sleep soundly with the thought that I at least didn’t have to wait for La Liga #32. Let's give our boys the applause they deserve.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Barca Bottles It


Barca bottled it. 
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They needed a 2-0 and they got it.
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Then, If they had to choose one player of Chelsea to send off they would've unanimously chosen Terry - and he got sent off for that idiotic knee to Alexis' back. Chelsea not only played with 10 men, they played without their captain and for Chelsea in particular, that's a big thing. What's the next thing that Barca could have asked for? A Penalty - they got that and they blew it too.
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The fates conspired to give them all the necessary breaks to win but they blew it all. They only have themselves to blame. I am honestly shocked how a multi-title winning team with so many title-winning experiences could bottle it like that.
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Having said that, the match is filled with lessons for Real Madrid. Despite losing the 1st leg, we're still the favorites and we play at home. We should learn from Barca's errors: lack of concentration, vulnerability on the counter, lack of incisiveness and inability to finish off the chances created. A repeat of these errors on our part will cost us dearly.
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In the bigger picture, the fates have given us the chance to face a very imperfect Chelsea in the final who will be playing it without key men Terry, Ivanovic, Ramires & Miereles. The onus is now on our boys to win and not repeat the mistakes of our Catalan rivals of bottling it.
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It's game on for us tonight and beyond. Hala Madrid.

Some Interesting Facts about Last Saturday's Clasico.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Sweet Taste of Victory (Barcelona 1 – Real Madrid 2)


‘Your Pessimism Disgusts Me’ – was my reply to a post in the comments section in one of the previous articles at RMFB as the comment essentially said that last night’s game at the Camp Nou was a guaranteed loss (or something to that effect). It turned out, that the non-believers of Real Madrid’s ability to beat Barca were not only among the Cules (something that was logical), but scandalously, they were from the Madridista camp as well. I was shocked at this because as a proud Madridista, I had assumed that Madridistas never surrender, and never stop believing that victory is possible. There’s been a lot of shit talk lately about the ‘Barca DNA’ (about how a Barca player is mentally programmed to play differently from the rest because how they read the game, etc.) – well in case the ignorant glory hunters out there don’t know: there’s a Real Madrid DNA too. The DNA of a Madridista shows a much simpler but far more potent characteristic: the pathological desire for excellence and victory. A true Madridista never believes that victory is unachievable.
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Last night, our boys showed the world that. They also showed the world, that they weren’t onboard with the notion that many Madridistas were disturbingly enough, starting to accept – that it was ok to win La Liga without beating Barcelona. Mourinho of course was the first to raise his hand to say that this was ok. I, however, subscribe to the Corey Fiske school of thinking on the matter: to be the best, you got to beat the best – and that’s exactly what our boys did last night.
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Tactics Part 1: Dual-Mode Tactics with the Objective of Winning
The last thought I wanted to raise re: the Bayern Game was that what I was afraid of was the idea of Real Madrid playing with fear: playing for a draw, playing to just hold on. This of course is not the club philosophy and nor is the team built for this function – and this was what kept me uneasy heading into last night’s game: that Mourinho knew that a draw would be enough to see us with just enough of a lead to secure La Liga and that he’d play for it conservatively at Camp Nou and pay dearly for it. The opposite instead happened last night. Graham Hunter, in his post for ESPN summed it beautifully:
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Barcelona has gone to the Bernabeu and imposed such pain, such humiliation, that it's a chore for Madrid to host them there at the moment. At the Camp Nou, however, Madrid's players have felt that relaxed, "nothing to lose" sensation for some games now… The last three Camp Nou Clasicos have resulted in a draw, a narrow win and a draw in Barcelona's favor. But honestly, Madrid did so well in each that it could have won…”
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Mourinho was wise to look back at our RECENT history (i.e. post-manita) in terms of results and find that we’ve actually played some good football and put their backs up against the wall in doing so – nevermind the absence of a win. I would like to believe that it was on the back of those performances that Mourinho decided that we’d go for the win in this one as seen in his decision to opt for what we now pretty much know is his preferred XI and formation for a tough game – a 4-2-3-1 with Coentrao at LB and Ronaldo-Ozil-Di Maria behind what we probably now know as his preferred starting striker, Karim Benzema.
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Real Madrid started the game looking to score, but didn’t play with the mindless obsession to dominate Barca with 5th gear football for 90 minutes – something that would have seen us drop our energy levels soon enough and allow Barca to get back into the game or even win it. Instead, Real Madrid looked to score early on (Mode 1) and then neatly organized themselves to absorb Barca’s tiki-taka assault while looking to exploit their weakness at the channels (Mode 2). Hunter describes our team’s performance eloquently:
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“…This was yet another type of display from Mourinho's side in a Clasico. It bore little resemblance to almost any of the previous 10. As few fouls as possible, as much athletic pressing as possible, clinical with every pass, clinical with every tackle – smart… If your team wasn't Barca, if you were simply somebody in love with football and its red-letter occasions, Saturday's El Clasico was a display that smacked of maturity and intelligence, something Madrid has only achieved in glimpses against Barcelona while under Mourinho's control.”
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With the scoreline at 1-0, Real Madrid assembled themselves neatly in 2 banks of 4 with Ronaldo and Benzema up front – with Ozil having gone to the flank, looking like a counter-attacking 4-4-2 or even a 4-4-1-1 with Ronaldo / Benzema also putting in shifts to help the midfield out. The defensive plan was organized and flaw-less with Alonso and the 2 CBs perfectly communicating with each other in the tracking and marking of Messi as he shifted from the midfield and forward zone back and forth, a Facebook comment I read summed it up nicely: “Messi went from Alonso’s Pocket, to Khedira’s, then to Pepe’s, then Ramos’ and so forth…” Tello was generally well controlled by Arbeloa (save for that shot he seemed to aim at the crowd) while Alves was a non-factor with Mourinho’s decision to opt for Coentrao at LB.
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Any balls won and recovered were then sent to the ‘channels’ (more on that in Tactics Part 2) where we created our scoring chances from. Idiots like Busquets still of course insist on blowing the ‘we played football’ trumpet: someone needs to tell him that football is the sport won by the team that scores the most goals. Barca’s first shot on goal was on the 70th min., leading to Alexis’ goal. We had registered more than 5 (I think by then) – and still he thinks that they played Football. Someone should tell Busquets that Real Madrid played Football last night while Barca for the most part played their self-invented sport, Keep Ball. Some people really need a reality check.
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Last night, we played to win, not by mindless attacking and pressing as a 13-year old would do in a FIFA video game, but with a combination of audacity, cleverness, organization and discipline, frustrating them, stifling and frustrating them and then hitting them at their weak point.
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Tactics Part 2: Exploiting their Back 3
Our 4-2-3-1 vs. their Back 3: Ronaldo and Di Maria threatened them on the channels created by their 'narrow' back 3
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Real Madrid looked comfortable in the early exchanges and displayed no sign of being overwhelmed or being in the brink of being overrun at midfield. It must also be noted that Mourinho’s decision to go with Coentrao at LB meant that he was fully prepared to see Alves in an attacking function should Barca opt to change what is on paper a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 or even a 3-3-4. There wasn’t going to be a repeat of that situation where a marauding Marcelo would become curtailed all of a sudden and eventually overrun by the snap of Guardiola’s finger to push Alves up. Mourinho has had enough time to review game videos of Barca’s seamless ability to convert their paper 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3, 3-5-2 or even a 3-3-4. In all cases, Barca’s weak point would be at the ‘channels’: the space between the touchline and the furthest of their 3 CBs. All of this is made worse for Barca with the bizarre decision of Pep to opt for his ‘Back 3’ to consist of Puyol, Mascherano and Adriano (with Pique on the bench), with the latter of the 3 (Adriano) without any credible capability of playing as a CB and none of the 3 capable of combating Real Madrid’s threats (Ramos, Ronaldo and Pepe). Ronaldo early header (where he towers over Puyol and Thiago) was a warning to Barca early on in the game, while Pepe’s knockdown of the ball (over Adriano) off a corner to allow Khedira’s goal clearly showed how we took advantage of their weakness in the air. Our second goal on the other hand was a classic move to exploit their weakness in the channels on the counter: with poor Adriano’s flank exploited by Mesut ‘Avatar Eyes’ Ozil for Ronaldo to stab home the winner.
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Our 4-3-3 vs. their Back 3: The second goal sees Ozil totally free on that right channel to send his laser guided pass to Ronaldo (who switched positions with Benzema). Mourinho had his men hit Barca in these areas over and over again.
It cannot be emphasized enough that in both Mourinho’s starting (4-2-3-1) and finishing (4-3-3) formations, our attacking threats at the channels between the widest of their 3 CBs sides and the touchline (on both sides) were everpresent: Ronaldo on the Left and Di Maria (1st Part) and Ozil on the Right (2nd Half): with Higuain crossing beautifully from that right-channel which nearly made it 3-1 and another Ronaldo goal late on. Mourinho knew where that weak spot was and he kept his men hitting it over and over again.
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Player Performances
In a way, it’s not fair to be talking about standout performances from a team that performed superbly from I – XI, but some individual performances stick out compellingly.
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Sami Khedira – The Unsung Hero of Mourinho’s Madrid
Khedira nutmegged Puyol not to get past him, but to score the opening goal - which conditioned the ENTIRE match
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I am sick to death of hearing people say that Khedira doesn’t belong to Madrid’s starting XI over criticisms on his passing ability, creativity and vision. Sami Khedira isn’t there for that. Physically powerful, tactically aware and with a relentless, work ethic: he is the quintessential Mourinho midfielder. He’s there to play the role of being the team’s water carrier. The last time the notion of a water carrier not being needed in the team to make way for a more ‘creative’ midfielder took place, Real Madrid went for it’s longest trophy-less period in half a century. In a game like this, where the finishing quality of the forwards, the precision of playmakers and the heroic performances of the defense usually overshadow the accomplishments of the water carrier, I’m happy to see him score the go ahead, history-making goal (#108 for the season) which sets the tone for the entire match.
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Ramos & Pepe – Titans on Defense
Both men carry reputations as Red Cards waiting to happen, and neither cracked under the weight of the occasion. Both kept their heads, were impeccable with their positioning and marking and precise with their tackling… did I mention that Pepe’s aerial knockdown created our first goal too?
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Karim Benzema - The Evolution of / to a #9 Continues
Jose Mourinho once said that he's prepared to choose if he has to between Benzema and Higuain - and I suppose it's pretty clear now who his first choice striker is. Before I'm roundly castigated by Pipita's fans out there, I will first say that I'm a HUGE fan of El Pipa, one of his most fervent defenders and a true believer that he is Raul's heir to the team. Having said all of that however, thus far, I agree with Mourinho preference of Benzema over Pipita. Because despite the fact that Benzema lacks Pipita's ruthlessness and RVN-esque nose for goal, Benzema is slowly evolving into becoming a very, very well-rounded and multi-functional striker. From being a forward whose potential was based on his elegant technique and finishing ability, Benzema is now slowly evolving into a very complete striker - something even more relevant when you consider the fact that Ronaldo is becoming less and less an attacking winger and more and more a full-blown forward. This season, the primary reason for his preference over Pipita is his ability to help in buildup play - which makes both him and Ronaldo multiply their threat to an opponent. In the last few games however, he has started to perform quite effectively, one of the roles of a #9: to receive the ball, hold it up and get his team mates into play to attack. At Munich last Tuesday and Last night, he performed this role exceptionally. Karim Benzema is developing the ability to become an effective and exceptional striker beyond being a goal scorer. In the modern game, that is priceless.
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Cristiano Ronaldo – MVP
Ronaldo Tells His Team after scoring "Keep Calm, I've got this"
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I called him a choker for missing a sitter in the first La Liga Clasico of the season. Last night, he scored the goal that won the match and possibly the League title too – and THAT was no sitter. If I had to choose an image on which to remember this match by, it would be Ronaldo’s goal-celebration: "keep calm, I’ve got this." he told his teammates. He had scored in his 3rd consecutive Clasico, beat his own record of most goals scored in a single La Liga Season, and extended Real Madrid’s record to 109 goals this season. First he shed his reputation as a diver, then his reputation as being only interested in attacking, then his reputation as a ball hog, then now, finally, his reputation as a big-game choker. His play for Madrid has gone from being a mere ‘weapon that can be activated by passing the ball to him and seeing what happens’ (as seen in Pellegrini’s time) to the centerpiece that is totally integral to Real Madrid’s play. His play and that of his teammates’ show that his trust in them is absolute and vice versa - something made even more pronounced as he insists post-game, that the credit belongs to his teammates. He has become the complete MVP for Real Madrid. A La Liga-winning campaign should rightfully place him neck and neck with Messi as the world’s best player this season. If Real Madrid win the double of La Liga and the Champions League this season, I won’t care what happens in the Euros – but I will consider it an outrage and a scandal if he doesn’t win the Balon D’ Or.
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Back to the Bernabeu
Mourinho’s performance as a coach and his team’s performance individually and collectively last night, points the way to La Cibeles. The Germans visit us on Wednesday and a similar display of ambition to win, tactical brilliance, technical ability and physical excellence should see us dispense of the mentally-fragile Bavarians (who are struggling with their internal Ribery-Robben Civil War) to book our tickets back to the Allianz Arena for the Champions League Final. And based on how we played last night, it no longer matters who awaits us there.
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But for now, until Wednesday at least (where I will be thirsting for Bayern’s blood), I will enjoy this wonderful taste lingering in my mouth… the Sweet Taste of Victory.

Worrying and Encouraging Signs (Real Madrid 3 – Sporting Gijon 1)

Euphoria / Relief / Self-Belief: EVERYONE in the team knew what Ronaldo did last Saturday - he scored THE critical goal for us once again
Well, we didn’t exactly wipe the floor with Sporting Gijon as I wished. We beat them nonetheless in an unglamorous remontada of sorts: the kind of remontada one dislikes watching because we went down 0-1 not really because Sporting sucker punched us or put our backs to the wall – but because we shot ourselves in the foot. Nevertheless, 3 points is 3 points and if there was ever a time in the season where we ought to display our ability to win despite the mitigating circumstances, it would be now. This is crunch time, time for the team to show how truly enormous their cojones are, time to show that they have the stomach for a full-on trench war if necessary – and the boys showed it last Saturday night.
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Worrying Sign #1 – Xabi-dependencia
As we faced Atleti in ther derby mid-week, many fans and probably the coaching staff as well were worried at the prospect of losing Xabi Alonso to suspension in the clasico. Those worries were washed away as Xabi got his booking in the derby, missing last Saturday night’s match and allowing him to start the clasico with a clean slate. Who knew however how badly we would miss Xabi Alonso last Saturday? Maybe Mou should have gone with the Sahin-Granero partnership that was suggested by some Madridistas last week?
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Nuri Sahin is clearly not yet ready to fill in for Xabi Alonso. While we’ve seen him provide countless tasty ‘exit balls’ to start an attack from deep positions while he was at Dortmund, a combination of lacking match fitness, familiarity with his teammates and the nature of the Spanish Game has seen him fall short in playing the Alonso role when needed. That is not to say however that it was a mistake to start him last Saturday. Needless to say, Real Madrid were a step slower, less coherent and clearly lacking in rhythm without Alonso. We look at Nuri Sahin and we see characteristics that make him similar to Alonso: the affinity to play deeper as a central midfielder, the fantastic ‘exit balls’, the willingness to track back and tackle, etc.
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By making that quick-fire conclusion however, we underestimate one of Alonso’s best qualities: his ability to read the game’s subtleties in terms of the positioning of players, the space around them and between them, their movement and the momentum of the game and his use of that information to inform his use his seemingly unmatchable passing skills. Alonso was never as good as he is today when we compare his Real Sociedad or even his (dare I say) Champions League-winning Liverpool version – he has reached this point in his game where his physical skills and his on-the-pitch intelligence are BOTH at their peak.
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Granted that we’ve seen him struggle as of late – a fact I will attribute to fatigue and also teams revolving their tactics in containing him. Having said that, on the back of last Saturday’s match, it’s very clear that we’re still a FAR better team with a tired and pressurized Xabi Alonso rather than without him. I know for a fact that the 2 duels vs. Bayern and the Clasico will have a far greater chance of seeing a more coherent Madrid with him in the team.
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Against Sporting over the weekend, with Clemente falling out with their David Barral, their leading scorer with 9 goals, it wasn’t going to take a genius to know that we were essentially going to have to bash through a parked bus (or a regular race car instead of a formula 1 car for La Liga -as he described his team). It also didn’t help that we made our lives more difficult with that silly penalty we conceded early in the game. It’s in times like that where the balls from deep become just as important to the attack as the passing in the final 3rd: as such passes have the potential to provoke their men forward to open up their defense even more. Without Alonso, we had to do it the hard way.
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Worrying Sign #2 – Defending the Flanks
Arbeloa was terrible last Saturday. I know for a fact that I’ve been defending him from many critics who fault him for ‘giving nothing / little to the attack’ with my insistence that he’s a defensive right back. His defensive performance last Saturday however was poor. With Lass injured, Coentrao is uncomfortable there while the Ramos + Pepe partnership in the middle is best left undisturbed, I fear the prospect of facing Bayern Munich, whose attacking power comes from the flanks.
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Mourinho appears to have no choice but to go with Arbeloa at RB to face Ribery on Wednesday. Sending Khedira / Xabi Alonso to support him when in danger will only give space for the dangerous Muller to do his thing while getting Pepe or Ramos to help him on the other hand will give the powerful Mario Gomez to do his. On the other flank, Mourinho will then have to decide whether he will play the more defensively-sound Coentrao to face Robben (who will not bother to track back even with Ronaldo’s presence on his flank) or go with Marcelo to multiply our effectiveness in attack as Ronaldo’s sidekick. Jupp Heynckes (Bayern’s coach who won a CL as our coach) also has another ace in his sleeve with Philip Lahm, who combines attacking potency and defensive discipline and can play on either flank (where Henckeyes can place him where he finds suitable to counter our attacks from the flanks). I do not mind conceding an attacking advantage to an opponent on the flank if we are defensively solid: on his current form however, Alvaro Arbeloa is the reason I can’t sleep at night these days – his positioning, ball-winning, concentration and passing all need drastic improvements.
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Encouraging Sign #1 – The ‘3rd Pivot’
In the absence of Alonso last Saturday, Mourinho built in a couple of ‘coping mechanisms’ – the most notable of which was Sergio Ramos. In a reverse of what Barcelona does (where Busquets drops off to become a 3rd CB), Ramos last Saturday frequently stepped forward higher than the Madrid defensive line to become a ‘3rd Pivot’. In the many instances Sahin seemed to now know where the next pass was to go, he gave it to Sergio Ramos who many times knew where to send the ball to. It was his long ball to Pipita that made it 1-1 – a pass that I find startlingly similar to those long balls Hierro would pump from deep towards the left flank for Roberto Carlos to meet. Ramos will probably finish his career as Real Madrid’s infamous all time leader in yellow cards, red cards and sending offs, I will also remember him however as the raw, physical and technical defensive marvel who has polished his game considerably since joining us: improving passing vision as well has his temper and his poise – qualities that are all becoming of a Real Madrid captain.
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Encouraging Sign #2 – Gambling Successfully with a Single Pivot
I was happy to see Mourinho say ‘Fuck it, let’s win this bloody game NOW’ at halftime: abandoning the safety of playing with 2 midfield pivots and converting his 4-2-3-1 into a diamond 4-4-2 (with Khedira as the lone pivot) to conduct a full-scale siege on Juan Pablo’s goal until that crucial winner was scored. With Marcelo joining the attack and Ramos pushing forward as well to continue his role as the other pivot, there were instances where only Pepe and Arbeloa were left manning the backline. Khedira’s hyper-active all-action game was critical to all of this. The German tank recovered balls, made tackles, made himself available for his teammates in need of a passing outlet and ran his socks off: he was the engine behind our siege. There is not a single player I can think of at the moment who can match Khedira’s abilities as a midfield ‘utility man’ – he may be gangly, awkward and difficult to watch aesthetically: but boy is he effective.
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We’ve often heard and read the irritating debates of about who should have played / started because this and that quality that player X has is more suitable against team Y and so forth. This is due to the limited number of ‘attacking slots’ available on the pitch for Madrid where we have room for Ronaldo + 3 others in attack. Mourinho’s decision to roll the dice allowed the team to enjoy Pipita’s presence in the box, Benzema’s link up play in the final 3rd, Ozil’s vision and Di Maria’s unpredictability to combine with Ronaldo. Simply put, it was too much for Sporting to handle. And just as predictable was that when Rui Faria and Aitor Karanka were going nuts to celebrate the 2-1, Mourinho’s first reaction is for Granero to ‘get his ass in there’ for Pipita to allow us to revert to the safer 4-2-3-1. He only truly celebrated when Benzema made it 3-1. Once again the trivote strikes down a La Liga foe.
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Encouraging Sign #3 – Ronaldo: from Wallpaper to Pillar
"I have the illusion that we are going to win. It doesn’t cross my mind that we are not going to win the championship.” Ronaldo now understands the mentality he must have to deserve that badge on his shirt
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Ronaldo spent the first part of his Manchester United career as a show pony. The next part of his Man U career would be as wallpaper for the team: where his goals, stepovers and show tricks became merely the cherry on the sundae: the real stuff of the team however was the Alex Ferguson-bred core: the Nevilles, Giggses, Scholeses, Van Der Sars and Vidics. It was the core of that Man U team that led them to victories and titles and served as the platform for the young + flamboyant Ronaldo and the young + fiery Rooney to thrive. What is left of that Man U core is the reason why they are 5 points ahead of City in England despite the petro-dollars and the Abramovich-style player-shopping sprees of their neighbors. This explains why Ronaldo has been often perceived to be a big-game choker and cry baby.
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Today however, at 27 years of age, as the most expensive player in the history of the game for the richest club in the world, Ronaldo seems to be showing signs that he is no longer merely the wallpaper but one of the pillars on the team – that go-to guy who will deliver the goods when things have gotten awry… the guy who will find a way to get the goal the team needs, the guy who shows through his play to his team mates ‘come on, let’s keep going – we can win this… or rather, we WILL win this.’ His team mates seem to be responding too: from their spiteful and unproductive whinging after conceding a late goal vs. Villarreal (where Ronaldo tried to win the game on his own as his teammates gave up in the dyng minutes) to our fightbacks in tough circumstances against Atleti and Sporting… Ronaldo has transitioned from being merely the team’s most potent offensive threat to the team’s rallying point. Ronaldo’s clutch performances for his team and his mentality are bringing his teammates to think that they will become champions not because they’re the better team – but that they will become champions, full stop: no ifs, buts, despite or because. And at this point in time during the season, there is nothing better than your team having its best player transmit this mentality and attitude to the entire team.
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Heart Attack Week Awaits
The true test comes this week. First we face ze Germans (Bavarians), then the Catalans then the Germans again. In one week, we face our 2 bitterest rivals in Europe and inSpain. Many have rightly pointed out that we’ve had a pretty easy ride getting to the Champions League Semi-finals – well, now the increase in the quality of the opposition has just gone up very steeply. The tools are all in our hands: there are no key injuries, no suspensions and so far, not even any referee issues (I consider both Howard Webb and Undiano Mallenco for the first leg of CL and El Clasico respectively to be good referees) to whine about. Winning or Losing will be all on our men’s shoulders.
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Let’s take it one game at a time though… starting withMunichon Wednesday. Hopefully, we can enjoy ourselves enough out there to be able to hang around till the final.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

D-Words and P-Words (Real Madrid 0 – Valencia 0)


I woke up this morning wanting the ‘D’ Word to stand for ‘Defense’ – as it was in my opinion, the main talking point to last night’s match vs. Valencia. Having read some of the comments from the liveblog at RMFB (and what some Madrid fans are saying), perhaps another ‘D’ Word should be added into the mix: disappointment – Madridisimo’s collective disappointment for the result (an obvious one) and my personal disappointment for their nitpicky reaction to the game. The truth is, I’m more disappointed re: the latter.
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They way forward however, both for fans and the team alike lies in the P-Words: Perspective and Poise – 2 words that can serve us in good stead in resurrecting (‘resurrect’ being an appropriate word for the Easter season) our team’s momentum in the chase for the double.
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D1: Disappointment
Don’t get me wrong, I feel very let down by the draw: why else would I be typing this blog post on a Monday morning like I’m a heartbroken teenager in the office when I’m supposed to be working? We all thought and believed that Valencia were supposed to get beaten last night, I certainly did: physically, they played full throttle to overturn a 2-1 defeat in the Netherlands to beat AZ last Thursday (we on the other hand, had a paseo against APOEL on Wednesday with many second-choice players on the pitch). Mentally, in La Liga at least, they’re at their wits' end because the man who has allowed them to perform consistently as La Liga’s 3rd best team despite losing their best players every season, despite the club almost about to drown in debt, Unai Emery, is being persecuted by their fans – and on the pitch, this has been reflected in the fact that they’ve managed to lose a lead in La Liga for 4 consecutive games (if my stats are correct). They were supposed to be ripe for a beating – or so I thought.
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I seem to have forgotten however, that a team who gets shit from their own fans would probably perform better on the road – and that’s exactly what happened last night. Unai Emery, behind his sharp suits and oily hair is known to be a tactical nerd: a better looking but second-tier version of Marcelo Bielsa, if you will: and last night, he didn’t only manage to conjure up a defensive scheme to stop Madrid from scoring, he also managed to get his team (with the help of Guaita having the game of his life) to pull it off.
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My other source of disappointment comes from many Real Madrid fans – not at their disappointment, but at the manner by which they are trying to rationalize the loss of 2 points and their disappointment.
 1.)    Kaka should have started!...Ozil is no good for big games!’
2.)    No! Pipita should’ve been allowed to finish the points because he’d have finished those 2 chances of Benzema!
3.)    Di Maria should have started!
4.)    We should buy Rooney! Cavani! Van Persie! We should bring Raul back! RVN! Di Stefano, please come back from retirement!
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…And what if we had done all those things and still drew, or worse, lost?
5.)    ‘Mourinho is an idiot! The tridente was doing so well so why did he have to change that???’
6.)    ‘Why Did Di Maria Start??? It doesn’t take a genius to know he’s not yet ready to start such a big game against Valencia!’
7.)    Kaka is an old fart – Ozil is the future: start him!
8.)    Why let Benzema come off instead of Pipita – he’s not even good enough for Real Madrid?
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…And what if we won?
9.)    Wow the tridente was bloody amazing! Wohooo! La Liga is now ours for sure!
10.) CAMPEONES! CAMPEONES! Suck my dick Cules!
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Let me just say, the lack of perspective (more on that below) from some my fellow Madrid fans is just downright depressing. Knee-jerk reactions, mindless glory-hunting, video game understanding of the game, no respect for the club’s history and heritage… It’s idiotic, pathetic and embarrassing. I’m VERY sure that the men who built Real Madrid into the institution that it is today would be ashamed to know of the kind of thinking that some of today’s so-called fans have. Disappointed doesn't even begin to describe the way I feel about all of it.
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D2: Defense
Real Madrid fielded a generally ‘predictable’ lineup: starting with our now-vaunted ‘Tridente’ of Ronaldo, Higuain and Benzema – with the yet-to-be-100% Angel Di Maria starting on the bench likely due for a late introduction. The surprise in the XI turned out to be the selection of Raul Albiol to partner Pepe to form a throwback partnership that was a constant feature during Manuel Pellegrini’s days as coach. Much like many Madrid fans, I trembled at the sight of seeing Raul Albiol’s name in the starting XI as scenes of EPL-style-mindless-ball-hoofing from both him and Pepe came to mind. Was it a sentimental choice from Mourinho (to allow him to face his ex-team)? On the flipside, while the same was true for Dani Parejo, Emery opted to rest Real Madrid Castilla Alumnus Roberto Soldado from the starting XI (he was later on received with a deserved classy applause from the Bernabeu).
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Much to my very pleasant surprise, neither ‘Raul Albi-Own-Goal’ nor ‘Hoof-it-up Albiol’ turned up last night. Albiol, rightly-derided for his slow-footedness made up for his lack of natural footspeed by showing off an much-improved ability to read the game to anticipate and stop many of Valencia’s attacking plays: killing off Los Che’s attacks before they materialize. The old Albiol would have rather sit back be in position to ‘receive’ a full scale Valencia attack rather than kill it off before it even begins. Pepe had a great game too – and only managed to tarnish his game with his disgusting over-acting antics, which nearly injured Arbeloa who was probably trying to tell him to ‘get off your ass, let’s start another attack’ as he was ‘doing a Busquets’.
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The Arbeloa critics also didn’t have much to shout about from last night’s defensive performance. Arbeloa was solid and showed himself to be that experienced, calm head on the pitch that was needed, especially as the game was nearing the end and the nerves of his teammates began to show. I also want to take this opportunity to reply back to his critics who fault him for lacking in attacking presence. To this I say, that for this Real Madrid, though we declare having a ‘back 4’: the truth of it is that we usually only play with a ‘back 3’: because Marcelo practically doesn’t defend. If we expected our Right Back to do what Marcelo does (thus the ridiculous suggestions of buying Man U’s Rafael): that’s tantamount to tactical suicide as it means that we would play with only 2 Defenders (and if one of them is Pepe, you constantly risk ending up with only 1). Arbeloa plays the role of a defensive right back – those who ask/expect him to be a right-sided Marcelo has been playing way too much FIFA12 or PES on EASY mode.
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On the Valencia side of things, Unai Emery’s men were exceptional in their defensive organization. Madrid constantly faced a Valencia side with large masses of Black Shirts grouped around their goal. They also played the match with the clever decision to use Tino Costa to hound Xabi Alonso all over the pitch (which explains his less-than-fluent game): the fact that we managed to create 33 shots on goal tells us that Real Madrid are now developing ways to function offensively without Xabi-dependencia. The biggest talking point for Los Che of course would be Vicente Guaita: Valencia has long struggled in the goalkeeper position since the decline and retirement of Ex-Real Madrid goalkeeper Santi Canizares and now they are finding themselves in a dilemma over having 2 exceptional keepers in their team (Diego Alves being the other one). Last night, Guaita, to put it plainly was Iker-esque – seemingly having developed Iker’s ability to create a forcefield in his goal (he had TEN saves!). To the whiners among the Real Madrid supporters camp saying this and that (that Pipita should have finished the game, that we should have started Kaka, or Di Maria and so forth): let us please give credit where it’s truly due – Unai Emery’s tactics, Valencia’s excellent play and Guaita’s performance was the reason we didn’t manage to score. To say otherwise is just plain disrespectful, myopic and yes, lacking in perspective.
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P1: Perspective
Perhaps one of the things that might be lost on many who were too obsessed with seeing Real Madrid stroll to another goalfest was that the match was an incredibly entertaining one. To celebrate the recently-concluded ‘End of an Era’ match between HHH and the Undertaker in Wrestlemania, I pay tribute to the 2 titans of Pro Wrestling and to another titan of the Pro Wrestling broadcasting world (Jim Ross, who called the match), by recalling JR’s oft-used term “Slobber Knocker” to describe last night’s match. Nevermind the 0-0 scoreline (despite the 50 shots taken: 33 by Madrid, 17 by Valencia): it was a good old slugfest between 2 of La Liga’s mammoth teams both of whom played well. We should give both sides THAT credit that they both deserve.
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For those suffering from bouts of anxiety, we must take a bit of stock and admit that those of us who know our La Liga fully understand that in a way, our win vs. Osasuna was a relief given that many of us feared the possible dropping of points at the Reyno De Navarre. In keeping that in mind, seeing us drop points last night becomes a more bearable thought.
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Criticism should also go to those banging the ‘referee drum’: the ref in my opinion was a non-factor last night. To Aitor Karanka: the 80,000 in the Bernabeu and the millions including me who were watching at 3:25am didn’t see a referee screw the game up. What we saw instead was an entertaining and superbly intense match between 2 really big and strong teams in La Liga. At the end of the game, Valencia celebrated holding off Madrid’s fearsome offensive firepower while Madrid’s players applauded the usually placid Bernabeu crowd for cheering them on despite Valencia and Guaita’s valiant performance. If at the end of the game, all you can talk about was the referee, then clearly you and I saw a different match: and I pity that your lack of perspective has deprived you of witnessing a thoroughly entertaining football match.
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P2: Poise
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Perhaps what pains me the most from many blind fans out there was that they missed out on seeing Real Madrid show signs of something that was very absent in our draw against Villarreal: Poise. At El Madrigal, as many of our players, together with our coaching staff began losing the plot, there was a lone gunslinger still out there trying to score a winning goal for us in the final minutes of the game: the Cry Baby Ronaldo. Last night however, as Valencia began a spell late in the second half to take control of the ball, slow the pace of the game down and take advantage of our lost momentum, our boys reacted differently. They forgot about their tired legs and Kamikaze-d and Banzai Motherf%cker-ed their way over and over at Valencia - relentlessly laying siege on Guaita’s forcefield-protected goal until the referee blew their whistle. The last meaningful kick of the game was a shot on target.
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2 La Liga titles ago, we won La Liga under Capello that many call the title won by the ‘Brotherhood of Clutching Straws’ as we battled relentlessly to the very last kick of the ball for the last 14 matches of the League to win it. Last night, I saw that spirit again – so did the Bernabeu. We may have dropped points last night, but the team never stopped throwing punches – the boys showed out there last night that if you were going to take something from them, it would no longer be because they collapsed and gave it to you.
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Real Madrid must now win the Madrid derby on Wednesday at the Calderon and butcher Sporting (now coached by the disgusting Javier Clemente) at the Bernabeu next weekend before we head to the Camp Nou for the Clasico. Now if our boys truly learned last night how to play 90++ minutes of football without lowering their guard and backing down – then I say the gained more than 1 point last night.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Creatures of Habit (APOEL Nicosia 0 - Real Madrid 3)


APOEL-Real Madrid in pictures
Mr. Champions League does it again: Karim Benzema broke APOEL's dam last night
What is that smell?.. or rather, that scent? That my friends is the smell of the Champions League Semi-Final.
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Short of a catastrophe that would be far greater than Alcorconzo, Mourinho and his men would likely be arranging early travel plans to Munich  – not for the Final, but to likely to meet Bayern in the Semi-Finals (unless Marseille would have something to say about it). And if all goes well, that early trip to Munich might just be the ‘bedding-in’ period we need to get comfy with the surroundings for the final.
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Real Madrid struck like lighting thrice late last night to win 0-3 against a stubborn APOEL Nicosia side who managed to keep us at bay for the greater part of 90 minutes. Outside of Karim Benzema’s scuffed shot in the first half (that was harder to miss than score), APOEL’s well-organized defense managed very well to keep us (and our 3-headed monster) at bay… until Mourinho rang the changes that allowed us to slip back into our more familiar habits.
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Breaking from our Usual Tactical Habits
It was in last night’s match where I realized that Real Madrid had 2 ‘pillars’ in the way they play. And last night, we started the match with the idea that we would deprive ourselves with both ‘pillars’.
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Habit #1: Xabi Alonso
APOEL-Real Madrid in pictures
The Nuricorn: Sahin looked really good in the first half but appeared tired in the 2nd. Mourinho should let him play the second leg again
The habit is the obvious need for Xabi Alonso. Everybody almost universally acknowledges that Xabi Alonso is, tactically speaking, the most important player for Real Madrid. It’s easy to simplify his importance by merely speaking about what a good passer he is – and that’s exactly where the issue is. Because despite the fact that there are many fantastic passers of the ball in the world, none of them can do what Xabi Alonso does.
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Xabi Alonso does not merely pass the ball (and do it well) – he actually controls the ebb and flow of the game through it. Just as Barca will never be the same without Xavi, so will Real Madrid never be the same without XaBi – both ‘X’ midfielders not just circulate the ball, but they do so in a manner that dictates both the flow of the match AND the space on which it operates. This is specifically why it drives me absolutely nuts when idiots talk about ‘buying a substitute for Xabi Alonso’. The idea of ‘buying a substitute’ for Xabi Alonso is to me as idiotic as saying that babies should be allowed to keep and play with live adult crocodiles as pets. There is no such thing as a ‘Substitute’ for Xabi Alonso. He’s the only man on the planet who can do what he does. To not have him around means that the entire team will need to play differently, full stop.
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Last night, with Alonso’s suspension, his absence was imposed on us. This was probably one of the big reasons why Madridisimo had a collective sigh of relief when we drew APOEL as any of Bayern, Marseille, Benfica, Chelsea, Milan or Barcelona would be that much harder without our X-Man. Mourinho then chose to deal with the situation by his inspired choice of allowing the Nuricorn to re-appear last night. Sahin looked pretty good last night especially in the first half where his arsenal of passing was on show. His positioning still lacks improvement as he needs to develop the knack for making himself available to his teammates to pass back to when they’re in a bind. The fact that APOEL also had absolutely no interest in possession also helped greatly – the Cypriots pressed very little and were far more keen on retaining their shape defensively as we advanced: giving room for Sahin to settle in and do his thing. It must be noted though that Sahin looked tired during the second half and was mostly anonymous.
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Habit #2: Attacking on the Left
APOEL-Real Madrid en imágenes
Let's all admit it: Marcelo is CRITICAL for us
Real Madrid’s left flank is usually the point from where we tear our opponents’ skin open that starts the ‘kill.’ The reason is simple: Ronaldo + Marcelo. Opposing teams have seen this happen 10,000 times and they still don’t know how to stop it (well, except Barca). The moment Ronaldo begins to knife through the left with Marcelo motoring alongside him, opposing defenses practically have no choice but to lose their shape to cope with this. Once you add Kaka to the mix, the impact becomes stronger still.
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Mourinho however notes the basic fact that Marcelo is a weak defender and thus opts for the use of Coentrao in the Champions League and tricky La Liga fixtures… and last night was no different. Apart from his telepathic understanding with Ronaldo, Marcelo’s superior pace, dribbling (and cheekiness) makes him comfortable BOTH right alongside the touchline in an offensive winger’s position and on an ‘inside left’ position, depending on where Ronaldo wishes to go. Coentrao on the other hand, seems to be only comfortable drifting to the middle, often forcing Ronaldo to 2 vs. 1 battles along the touchline without a sidekick (this tendency to drift to the middle and ‘hold his position’ is also what makes Coentrao a viable midfield presence).
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With no Xabi Alonso by circumstance and with a considerably limited attacking arsenal on the left, Real Madrid’s attack lacked sharpness and dynamism.
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It was Mourinho’s substitutions of Kaka and Marcelo that clearly turned the tide. The 4-2-3-1-cum-4-3-3 (tridente) that we started out with became a 4-2-3-1-cum-4-2-2-2: with Ronaldo at times looking like a left-sided striker alongside Benzema (on the right) while Kaka and Ozil played as ‘inside left and right’ midfielders respectively with the fullbacks further providing width. The first 2 goals were direct outcomes of the substitution with the opening goal starting with Marcelo feeding Kaka who crosses in for Benzema. Then of course, there was Kaka’s goal which came from what is now a ‘classic’ Real Madrid move of attacking from the left.
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We head back to the Bernabeu with 3 away goals against zero scored against us. Perhaps Mourinho should let Xabi Alonso sit out the entire tie and let Granero and Sahin take up the midfield passing role next Wednesday. We should aim to score 1 or 2 first half goals then let the likes of Jesse and Morata see some action.
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Getting Started AGAIN
After our 2 disappointing draws were replied to with our 5-1 win against Real Sociedad last Saturday, we now begin our tricky April La Liga schedule with a trip to Osasuna who are extremely difficult to play against in their home ground (they’re in good form too, home court advantage aside). With a rested Xabi Alonso and an in-form Varane, and 2 wins on the trot, maybe it’s a good time to begin upping the degree of difficulty for our matches heading into the clasico. It’s time to start winning consistently once again. And as we all know: Winning is a Habit too.