Monday, August 27, 2012

2012-08-23: Barcelona 3 - Real Madrid 2


Gracias Valdes (Barcelona 3 – Real Madrid 2)

Guti thanks Valdes for his act of 'generosity' on Twitter

It was the second consecutive Super Copa Espana featuring Real Madrid and Barcelona as the combatants. This time however, it would be Real Madrid coming in as La Liga Champions and Barca as the Copa Del Rey Cup Holders (a reverse from last year). And while many Madridistas started the season looking forward to giving Barca a beating in the tie, many (including me) found their sense of anticipation watered down after our sobering draw to Valencia and Barca’s triumphant 5-1 over Sociedad last weekend.
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Barca also celebrated emotional return of Carles Puyol and David Villa from injuries as well as new signings Jordi Alba and Alex Song. Real Madrid in contrast, are still embroiled in the 200-year old pursuit for Luka Modric while still reeling from the effects of Pepe’s collision last weekend (for those who may not know, he actually thought that his name was ‘Pablo’ and had no idea where he was when doctors were speaking to him after he ‘regained consciousness’ from the collision).
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It was these conditions that had all of a sudden tilted towards Barca becoming the Supercup favorites.
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Phase One of the Two-fold Game Plan – Sit Tight and Watch Out for Opportunities
Apart from the predictable starts given to Khedira, Albiol and Benzema to replace Lass, Pepe and Higuain as changes from the Valencia game, Mourinho made another change that surely disturbed many Madrid fans: Callejon starting for Di Maria. While many began hypothesizing that Mou had been drinking or smoking weed before the match, I developed a theory that I thought Mourinho had devised (he later on denied it and insisted that he wanted the team to play well going forward during both halves of the match).
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I find that teams who plan to attack Barca and those who opt to defend when facing the Catalans will suffer a loss if they choose to do it naively for 90 minutes. Teams who PLAN only to attack Barca eventually get out-possessed and tired out by Messi and Co. and eventually find their defensive lines sagging and dropping deeper to render their game plans useless or get caught out (just like what happened to us in the SuperCopa last year, scoring an early goal by attacking them immediately but eventually getting tired and allowing them to settle in and get back at us). Teams who plan only to defend, eventually concede a goal and with little ambition to strike back, find themselves in the middle of a 90-minute siege.
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What I thought was Mourinho’s plan last night was to have the team sit deeper in the first half to absorb Barca’s attack and relied on long outlet balls to the front 4 to counter. It wasn’t about battling for possession (thus the 73% possession for Barca) or have his guys to out dribble or out pass when in possession. This is why, I thought he opted for Callejon. Vanilla Joe offered the same defensive effort that Di Maria does, but going forward, Callejon was more about directness with little elaboration.
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Real Madrid accumulated 3 yellow cards during this ‘phase’ of the match – all of them on fouls to Busquets (I think), none of them being anywhere close to being deemed a red card. The boys held on to a 0-0 draw at halftime playing in this manner. ‘What if they managed to score???’ some might have asked – well, that’s what ‘phase 2’ of the plan was for…
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Phase Two of the Two-fold Game Plan – Hit ‘Em!
Ronaldo scores at the Camp Nou yet again

Real Madrid looked a different side in the second half. The defensive line that had been sitting deep and pushed up midway between their penalty box and the halfway line at the most, moved up even higher. In the 2nd half, Real Madrid kept the ball more and sought out more passing moves too – pushing Barcelona back, gaining territory and best of all, winning set piece situations in dangerous areas. It was from here where Ronaldo managed to score his 4th consecutive goal in the Camp Nou.
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Pedro's goal was offside - but he was just off by very little. It's only human for the linesman to miss it 
Going out to Hit ‘Em however comes at a price: it opens up the game for them too. Yes: Pedro’s goal was offside. But let’s all get real – it would be unreasonable to crucify the linesman for that mistake given that Pedro was offside by only a very slight margin. The effect of Madrid’s move to attack them clearly stunned Barcelona, but it didn’t take them long to figure out that the game had also opened up for them.
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Andres Iniesta was imperious throughout the game. He was of course involved in the 2 following goals that followed Pedro’s opener: winning a penalty from Ramos’ poorly judged lunge and being key to the buildup to Xavi’s goal. Barca took full advantage of the game opening up thanks to Madrid’s being on attack mode in the first half – it was a condition that Madridistas who simplistically insist that we should attack Barca should keep in mind.
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Gracias Valdes
Gracias Valdes!

The key event of the match however would have to be the goal conceded by Barca c/o Victor Valdes. It was the second consecutive Super Cup tie where Valdes would concede such a goal: by literally fucking about with the ball via those backpasses. The first time of course resulted in last year’s Karim Benzema goal. His teammates, particularly Messi, managed to bail him out of that one given that the Frenchman managed to score within seconds of the kickoff and there were still 90+ minutes of football left to play. With less than half an hour to play though, his blunder not only gave Madrid 2 away goals and brought down the Barca lead to 1 goal, but it also effectively terminated the momentum that Barca had gained in the match.
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The beginning of that ‘termination’ of Barca’s momentum, coincidentally began with Iker’s brilliant save/s prior to Madrid’s second goal. It was borne not just out of his athleticism and raw reflexes, but also by his ability to telegraph the opponents’ offensive play as it unfolds in front of him: a fact not lost on Barca-sympathizing ESPN journalist Graham Hunter.
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I also believe that this blunder caps off nicely the ridiculous debate started by members of the Catalan media as well as Blaugrana fans who have hopelessly lost their sense of perspective with their arguments that Valdes ought to be Spain’s #1 with the ridiculous assertion that he (and not Iker) is the best goalkeeper in the world. What horse shit! And how beautifully was that proven in those few seconds last night. Make no mistake about it – Victor Valdes is a good goalkeeper with outstanding abilities with his feet. He is by no means however, a great goalkeeper, nevermind the best. So forget those arguments of whether or not Victor Valdes ought to be Spain’s (or Planet Earth’s) #1 – the real question should in fact be: does he even deserve a place in La Roja’s squad at the expense of youngsters like De Gea?
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Denying Phase 1 and 2
“I did not like our first half, but in the second half, it was a different game.” Said Mourinho after the match – making it easy for us to interpret that the intent, ambition and attacking coherence that the team displayed in the second half was the way he wanted the team to play in the first place. I take that however as a means to appease many Madridista purists who unrealistically expect Real Madrid to attack Barcelona consistently and effectively for 90 minutes. Evidence as reflected in the contrasting levels of attacking aggressiveness as manifested by Madrid’s defensive line however, suggests otherwise. The ultimate proof however is not in the pudding, but in the “noodle”. Angel ‘El Fideo (the ‘noodle’)’ Di Maria did not start the game and was the injection of energy, technical ability and frenetic attacking pace that facilitated the attack of Real Madrid in the second half.
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“…Callejon played well. He prepared the game for Di Maria. This was an important game and I liked his work.” Mourinho went on to say, ultimately revealing that Callejon’s role to ‘prepare’ the game for Di Maria was part of the plan for ‘phase 1’.
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Role Reversal
Apart from who the La Liga and Copa Del Rey holders were in last season’s tie, there is another interesting role reversal in this season’s edition. It is not Real Madrid this time who are looking razor-sharp during the tie coming off a preseason with a slew of players in form. It is Barca this time. And just like last season, the team that dominated the game early on, would go on to leak the fatal goals. This time, it is Real Madrid with the 2 all-important away goals and who have managed to neutralize the form that Barca displayed as they gained momentum.
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And here’s the part that I’m liking the most: last season, it was the not-quite-there-yet-in-terms-of-form team who took the trophy home. This season, that team is Real Madrid.

2012-08-19: Real Madrid 1 - Valencia 1


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Stuttering Start (Real Madrid 1 – Valencia 1)

Football At Last
Ah… the Football Begins at last! It’s been a long wait for top level football since after the Euros and what a weekend for it to begin for me (with today – Monday,  being a public holiday)! I spent my Satuday night watching West Brom shock Liverpool to a 3-0 win (unlucky with the refereeing, their football wasn’t bad but their finishing was still atrocious) while flicking through the channels seeing how Arsenal would do with Santi Cazorla and without Van Persie (a scoreless dud). Then last night, the appetizer for me was Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Wigan (where Hazard impressed but Chelsea disappointed when they took their foot off the pedal after gaining the 2-0 lead) and Man City’s rollercoaster 3-2 win against newly-promoted Southampton (no good for a defending champion to concede to late goals and risk loss like that to a newly-promoted side). In that sense, the appetizer for the night was building up to a Real Madrid crescendo: a so-so Wigan-Chelsea match, followed up by the rollercoaster Man City-Southampton match.
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Fitness Blues creating an Anti-Climax?
I find myself thinking however that last night’s 1-1 draw was a bit of an anti-climax. Though clearly deserving a win for their efforts (especially for that 2nd half ‘seige’ on Valencia’s goal), Real Madrid were lacking the extra spark, that bit of magic or ‘the special juice’ to win. Playing in a supposed sauna at 38 degrees celcius and with Cristiano Ronaldo himself admitting that the team still wasn’t at 100% fitness, Real Madrid still looked like they were in pre-season mode. Valencia however, are not exactly the best team to face when you’re in ‘preseason mode.’
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Mourinho started the match with a few interesting deviations from the usual Madrid lineup: Lass Diarra, credited with having completed an impressive pre-season, got the nod started ahead of Sami Khedira next to Xabi Alonso (the German having played a significant number of minutes in the ill-timed friendly midweek). At left back, Coentrao started ahead of Marcelo at Left Back: the Portuguese Left Back having had more preseason time over his Olympic Silver-medalist ‘rival’. It should also be noted that Coentrao was wearing what was Nuri Sahin’s ‘5’ jersey – the clearest indication that Sahin was on his way out (hopefully just on loan).
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But while Fabio Coentrao carried on with his Euro 2012 form – showing an impressive streak of aggressiveness in bombing forward and rattling Valencia with his runs, Lass’ performance was did not repay Mourinho’s faith in him. The Frenchman though clearly fit and is very much as fierce as he used to be in playing that ‘midfield terrier’ role, did not offer the intelligence of movement, passing and intuitive understanding of the team’s needs that we all have gotten used to seeing from Khedira. I can only blame this as part of the reason why the team resorted to ugly ‘hoof-it-up’ tactics in their mostly frustrating attempt to send the ball to the front 4.
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The Front 4
Madridisimo is darn happy you decided to stick around and to stick in the goals for us El Pipa! 
The members of Madrid’s usually-vaunted front 4 should also not be excused from criticism: while the Argentine duo of Higuain and Di Maria (the latter in particular) looked very much to to the challenge, neither Ozil nor Ronaldo looked right last night. Both gave off-color performances – particularly the latter. Ronaldo was not the menacing presence on the left wing we all looked forward to seeing: a sad fact considering how his compatriot Coentrao (who used to pale in comparison to Marcelo when going forward to link up with CR) was clearly in attack mode for the game. Ozil on the other hand, though clearly putting in the effort with his runs and wily maneuvers to dodge opponents out to swipe the ball from his feet, lacked that the incisiveness that made him so lethal last season.
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Among the few bright spots of the game were the 2 Argentines up front. Di Maria looked very sharp: his passes were on the money, his runs rattled Valencia’s defenders and even his long balls seemed to land perfectly onto his teammates’ feet. He would of course be the creator of Pipita’s goal and his ‘long range 1-2’ with El Pipa would almost produce the winner (if it weren’t for the crossbar). I can also distinctly remember how Real Madrid’s incisiveness in attack during their 2nd half siege of Valencia’s goal dropped considerably following El Fideo’s substitution. As for Higuain, I actually wondered constantly whether Mourinho would opt for either him or Benzema to start this match. The decision to go with Pipita proved to be an inspired choice after seeing him score on 3 attempts in what looked like some form of goal keeping / ball control exercise in training, albeit with the opposing goalkeeper.
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Losing Your Head Over Set Pieces
The carnage left by Pepe and Iker's mid-air collision. Nevermind the goal conceded - I'm just happy that the 2 are ok
Conceding 2 points off a set piece seems to be a disease that Real Madrid suffer from on an annual basis as I can distinctly recall how frustrated it felt to watch our team do so numerous times, especially in the early stages of last season. This disease actually comes and goes in ‘streaks’ – and disturbingly, it may look like the streak has just re-started again. I will however refrain from being all upset about in light of the events that transpired leading up to that conceded headed goal by Jonas. No Real Madrid player was guilty of ball-watching (they were all up there going for the ball) – and worst of all, the collision between Casillas, Pepe and Xabi Alonso was enough to let anyone’s spine’s tingle: nevermind a football fan or a Real Madrid fan. As of this writing, Pepe is still in the hospital – and though tests have not shown anything disturbing thus far, he will remain there for further tests and might actually miss the Supercup first leg this Thursday. Casillas appeared to have been shaken badly by the collision while Xabi Alonso, who would be involved in another nasty aerial collision later on in the game, appeared to be ok.
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It was in reflecting of over the collision where I find myself thinking that while the boys clearly lacked sharpness out there – their effort cannot be questioned.
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Valencia’s ‘Force Field’
My thoughts on the game itself of course would be impossible to complete without mentioning last night’s player of the game: Valencia’s Diego Alves. Last season saw the ex-Almeria goalkeeper in a dogfight with Vicente Guaita to secure the place as Valencia’s #1. Last night’s performance might have settled the debate. Alves was Valencia’s force field in goal and was the culprit as to why many Madridistas (including this one) failed to sleep well last night.
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My night tonight would also not be complete without a criticism of the Bernabeu’s treatment of Valencia’s ex-Real Madrid players. Roberto Soldado, Fernando Gago and Dani Parejo are all wearing the Valencia shirt today not because they turned their backs on the club, but beause they couldn’t manage to find a place in Real Madrid. I do not understand why they deserve to be whistled and booed they way they were last night. I switched the TV of with a bad taste on my mouth because of it.
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In a couple of days, the boys will head off to Camp Nou, site of Barca’s most recent massacre of Real Sociedad for the first leg of the Supercopa. With doubts hanging over the team in terms of Pepe’s availability, the team’s fitness and sharpness, the boundless optimism that I had at the beginning of the season has now been tainted with large doses of doubt and trepidation. Real Madrid’s machine is not yet fully prepped and tuned in and Valencia have reminded us all very clearly about it. Hopefully – that reminder is exactly what we need heading into the Camp Nou on Thursday.
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p.s. To All The Muslim Madridistas Out There: Eid Mubarak!