Monday, September 24, 2012

Now THAT was Champions League Football! (Real Madrid 3 - Manchester City 2)


It all worked out for Mourinho tonight. Essien and Varane played well, he outcoached Mancini, his players gave him the performance he wanted and of course: he won.
Now THAT was Real Madrid football!
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I normally catch about 2 hours of sleep after waking up to see a Champions League match at 2:45am – but I’m just too amped with adrenaline right now to sleep so I might as well start writing, right?
Real Madrid’s win against Manchester City tonight was just the sort of thing we needed to see from this club, and the sort of performance that the players needed to put on for the fans, their coach and above all, themselves. The match itself was the perfect advertising on what Champions League football is all about: the 2 Champions of the 2 best Leagues in the world going toe to toe, blow by blow in what was an amazing spectacle of football. The match was complete with a tactical chess match, plenty of goals, heart-stopping excitement, stomach-turning emotions and of course, a wonderfully hysterical ending (wonderful for Madridistas at least). .
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First Half Tactics – Mancini Drives his team into Mourinho’s Trivote ‘Wall’
My first attempt at taking notes in the match with an ipad. In the first half, Toure was covered by Essien, Silva had to sandwich through Marcelo and Alonso. Nasri was taken care of by Arbeloa. And even then, both RM fullbacks still managed to bomb forward to pin back Man City's own fullbacks. Javi Garcia would also slip between the 2 CBs to become a 3rd CB when they were in 'park the bus' mode.
We knew Mourinho would ring in the changes to the squad – but who knew that he practically tore apart the team that has played our 4 horrible La Liga matches. Mourinho’s starting XI and tactical approach very much reminded me of his Chelsea team: a 4-3-3 with inverted wingers (Ronaldo and Di Maria) and 3 ‘pivots’ featuring 2 powerful midfielders (Essien and Khedira with Xabi Alonso as the ‘passing fulcrum’ of the team) with fullbacks steaming up and down but with the appropriate dose of caution.
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Mancini’s Man City started with caution: they looked like they were using a formation that could switch between a 4-3-3, a 4-5-1 and a 5-4-1. His back 4 consisted of Maicon (an intent to attack?), Kompany, Nastasic (like Mourinho, he allowed a youngster play such an important match) and Clichy. The midfield started with ex-Real Madrid player Javi Garcia sitting at its base in front of the Defense with Toure and Barry. Further forward was David Silva and Nasri (both attacking midfielders who drifted inwards) sandwiching Tevez. In principle, Silva and Nasri were supposed to push forward to become a 4-3-3 in attack, and retreat back to become a 4-5-1 on defense. Their 4-5-1 however also had a ‘park the bus’ feature with Javi Garcia dropping deep to become a 3rd CB to turn them into a 5-4-1.
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With Mourinho leaving 205m Euros of talent (most of them attackers) on the bench, it was clear that both managers planned to play cautiously and at least in Mourinho’s case, gradually dial up the degree of offensive potency of the team. Had Real Madrid managed to get a lead with their ‘trivote’, I’d have completely imagined Mourinho sticking to the lineup until the points were on the board – but alas the football Gods wanted to be entertained.
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I must say however that Mancini’s first half tactics played right into the hands of Mourinho. Having watched Man City play live at the Etihad, Mou is acutely aware of the fact that the Sky Blues’ most potent weapon was their use of Yaya Toure to charge up the pitch like as a ‘midfield battering ram’ (as opposed to the more traditional use of a ‘battering ram striker’). Mourinho’s answer to this was to use his very own bruising African Midfielder to keep theirs at bay: his very own ‘son’ Michael Essien. Essien stayed goalside of Toure during his 60-minute spell on the pitch and mostly kept the Ivorian from becoming that ‘raging midfield bull’ (a funny metaphor considering the fact that Essien is called ‘The Bison’) which has torn so many Premier League defenses apart. With Essien around, Khedira was also given license roam (like his role for Germany) and duly kept Gareth Barry from supporting his fullback (Clichy) busy. Khedira’s performance in the first half must be praised for his effective high intensity pressing, efficient ball recovery, his constant availability for ‘exit balls’ and his incisive runs with and without the ball. In front, Silva and Nasri’s natural tendency as 10s to drift inward would lead them straight into intersections patrolled by a combination of Madrid’s fullbacks, Center Backs and midfield trivote (Nasri making way for Kolarov, who is a naturally wide player helped them spread the pitch a bit). In effect, Man City going forward looked like they were all funneling into narrow zone on the pitch right into Madrid’s trivote and getting choked up. And as Madrid pushed their midfield and defensive line higher, City got more and more compressed into their own half, and eventually into their own third.
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Another problem for City was that while Mourinho clearly scouted them, Mancini didn’t return the favor: packing the center might be an appropriate tactic against Barca – but for Madrid, the action is always around the flanks. With support from fullbacks who didn’t fear wingers exploiting space behind them (as Silva and Nasri wanted to be in the center), both Ronaldo and Di Maria (who played exceptionally well tonight) were able to abuse Maicon and Clichy respectively. They even switched wings every now and then just to allow each other to have the chance to abuse both City fullbacks on the night. It was only a crying shame that for all of Madrid’s attacking verve in the first half, instead of going up by as 3 or even 4 goals, it would end still 0-0 at halftime. .
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Second Half Tactics: Mancini declares Open War on the Channels and Loses
Marcelo had a 'superhighway' all clear for him to bash through in the second half because of Mancini's bizarre 3-5-2 / 5-3-2 lineup. This allowed the Brazilian to score a goal and combine well with Ronaldo in the game. 2 of our 3 goals came from our left flank.
Man City’s narrow-ness continued in the second half that saw Marcelo join Ronaldo’s attacking party even more frequently – allowing the Brazilian the chance to have 2 long range ‘practice shots’ at Joe Hart’s goal. When Mancini decided to make a change, he sent in Edin Dzeko for Silva, turning them into something like Italy’s Euro 2012 3-5-2-cum-5-3-2: Barry and Garcia were their ‘pivots’, while Kolarov tucked deeper in: presumably as a means to cope with Ronaldo and Di Maria killing them on the flanks. Up front, they finally had Toure as an attacking midfielder ‘battering ram’ behind in the ‘Pirlo role’ not as a passer / distributor, but as a surging midfielder. The 2 forward players (Silva and Tevez, later Tevez and Dzeko) worked the ‘channels’ presumably to exploit the space left by Madrid’s fullbacks much like Cassano and Balotelli did in the Euros. It was a ‘declaration’ of open war on the channel: an invitation to ‘thowdown’... and taunt to Madrid inviting us into a brawl.
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Once ‘open war’ had been declared on the channels by Mancini, Mourinho duly accepted the challenge and changed the lineup to feature all 3 of the team’s best passing and creative midfielders (Alonso, Ozil and Modric): there would no longer be a singular passing fulcrum (Alonso), but 3 equally proficient creative players spraying passes horizontally to our fullbacks, diagonally to our wingers or vertically to the striker. Garcia and Barry could no longer just gang up on our 1 or 2 passing midfielders.
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Mancini’s plan seemed to work though: with Pepe’s defensive error in an advanced position (marking Tevez working the channels) allowing Toure to barrel through to feed Dzeko for the opening goal. The flipside of their lineup however, provided with Marcelo a ‘super highway’ (see diagram) on the left flank to fly through and combine with Ronaldo. And having been given the chance at a few ‘practice shots’ earlier, he was adequately warmed up to make it 1-1 (where his shot was practically uncontested outside the Man City box) just minutes after Dzeko’s goal.
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I would chalk up both second goals to errors. Kolarov’s free kick goal was borne out of Xabi Alonso’s epic fail at clearing a simple looping ball (he missed it totally) and Iker completely misreading its flight (it would have been a routine save). Benzema’s equalizer on the other hand was also a moment of weakness to the typically-solid Kompany (who had a bad game), allowing himself to be turned by the Frenchman’s maneuver to create his superb goal.
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Ronaldo's not-too-sad goal celebration was just like Mourinho's (see photo above). Once again, Ronaldo delivered in the clutch for us.
It must be noted that as the teams went toe-to-toe with each other, Marcelo relentlessly barrelled through the left side uncontested: allowing him the sort of combinations with Ronaldo which made Real Madrid so dangerous. The very channels that Mancini wanted to attack became the very place from where his team’s demise resulted from: the winning goal from Madrid would come from there too. Ronaldo would deliver once again in the clutch for us.Maybe he realized that Zabaleta was the only remaining Man City fullback that he hadn’t abused yet? Like in the closing minutes of a basketball game, Ronaldo had the ball one and one with against his marker, and provoke the poor Argentine to fatally show him a path into the penalty box for the winning shot. His goal was simultaneously orgasmic and cathartic and reminded us all why football is such a beautiful game. 
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Vindication for Mourinho
Mourinho’s celebration was almost identical to that of his compatriot’s. In one night, he had gambled with a lineup, played a clever tactical game, accepted Mancini’s ‘open war’ challenge and won. His decision to bench Ramos in favor of Varane did not backfire (the Frenchman has never had a bad game yet in a Madrid uniform). Essien did well too. The trivote to start the match was clearly good enough to win it (if not for Hart’s first half heroics). And of course, he rolled the dice in a full-on end-to-end frontal assault against Man City and won. Above all, his team showed the sort of character and fighting spirit FOR NINETY MINUTES that we had been yearning to see since August. No one can deny that Real Madrid deserved victory tonight. Not even City.
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Waiting for a Call
A friend of mine who is a Man City fan called me last Monday cheekily taunting me over Real Madrid’s bad start to the season. He said he looked forward to seeing his Man City beat my Madrid and that he’d call me to talk about the game today already assuming they’d win. I’m still waiting for his call.

2012-09-15: Sevilla 1 - Real Madrid 0


Train Wreck (Sevilla 1 – Real Madrid 0)

On a weekend where Castilla graduates who have found their way to the Premier League gave a good account of themselves (Granero for QPR and Javi Garcia for Man City) – the ‘mothership’ crashed and burned in Seville. It was as abject a performance as I can remember from a Real Madrid squad – let alone a Jose Mourinho one. We started the season pondering the Valencia and the Getafe matches as ones which might have reflected a less-than-ideal state of the squad’s fitness: a reasoning I questioned (given that Barca, who have a 100% record, have had the same preseason as us). Jose Mourinho offered up a much more logical theory prior to the second leg of the Supercup – questioning the ‘psychological profile’ of the team. Are they focused? And even more importantly – are they still hungry? Now, I am once again finding myself asking the same question.
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Time of Mind Games
Jose Mourinho teams traditionally do NOT have reputations as ones whose achilles heel is the dead ball. That was never the case with Porto, Chelsea, Inter or the last 2 seasons’ Real Madrid (save for a few instances). This season however, out of 4 league matches played, we’ve lost twice and drawn once – and each and every one of these points have been lost on set piece goals. A big chunk of success behind set piece defending is always down to concentration and focus: the ability to stick to the planned marking assignments and be aware of variations which the opponent might throw at you. I once called the conceding of goals to set pieces as a disease. It’s clear to me now however, that this is merely a symptom – one of a team whose lack of focus and concentration is likely due to a drop in motivation / hunger / desire – and THAT is the disease. There, I said it. This to me, is not an issue of whether or not our defenders, midfielders, fullbacks, wingers or strikers are good enough (to think so when considering the fact that this is a squad that scored a 100+ points last season would be naïve) – they are. The problem is that, in essence, they all show the profile of a team who thinks that their mission has been accomplished. Trouble with that is that it was accomplished last season.
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It is interesting to note that this happens to be the season that sees 3 of Mourinho’s assistants are all in manager’s roles in Premiership Clubs (AVB at Spurs, Rogers at Liverpool and Clarke at West Brom). All 3 are known for their tactical acumen but all reportedly do not have Mourinho’s man management skills. This of course is the sort of man-management cabability that gets a 30-goal/season striker to play right midfield / right back (Eto’o), have one of the baddest players on the planet sob like a girl at your departure (Materazzi) or have one of your players creepily refer to you as his ‘daddy’ (Essien). Mourinho, unlike Alex Ferguson (who’s known for his ‘hairdryer’ treatment) employs beyond the usual carrot-and-stick methods to keep his players motivated, sharp and with the adequate amount of tension and edge to compete at the highest level. Conspiracy theories, public feuds with officials and opposing players and managers, and even eye-gouging are methods that he will employ to achieve that critical balance between calmness and being wound up tight enough to compete with an absolute edge.
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He’s found out however that at Real Madrid, the preferred method as he achieved last season, was less controversy and to just allow the world’s clear favoritism of Barcelona over Madrid as a means to get his team revved up. But what happens when the world doesn’t fancy Barca to be that much better than Madrid anymore? – and that in fact, that Real Madrid may have actually figured Barca out already? How does he put back that chip on his players’ shoulders after last season? Carrot? Stick? Controversy? Only he knows… and we can only wait and hope it works.
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Argie-Bargie
Another aspect of the game I wish to highlight was the inappropriate behavior of Higuain and Di Maria. Pipita, along with Fernando Navarro, were given the match’s first yellow cards in the 6th minute. Navarro got it for his foul, which was made with absolutely no intent to get the ball (clearly a yellow card offense). Higuain on the other hand, was lucky to escape with only a yellow following what was clearly a retaliatory kick-out at Navarro. Di Maria’s behavior however, was more deplorable: following a foul by Rakitic to stop Angel from receiving the ball, the Argentine, lunged at the Croat with what was clearly an attempt to punch. It was so obvious on TV as his motion to have a swing at Rakitic was completely opposite to the momentum of his body as he was falling down. He was lucky to escape without a card in that incident, much less a red one with a lengthy suspension. Both Argentines (Higuain and Di Maria) were deplorable in their actions and absolutely deserve punishment. If the league won’t do it, then I certainly hope that they get an internal punishment from the club for such actions.
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Tasting Our Own Medicine?
Mentality issues aside, it must be said that Michel showed some good tactical savvy last night. I shall stop ridiculing his coaching ability as a result thereof. Starting with Trochowski (a natural CM) on the left side, his game plan was to press our midfield (particularly Xabi Alonso) to choke it off. Trochowski drifting inward to the middle left Khedira and Xabi Alonso in a 2 vs. 2 battle against Trochowski and Rakitic. Ozil on the other hand, was left to deal with their 2 pivots with the ineffective Di Maria.
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What was interesting of course however is how Sevilla seemed to realize that they had the right-sided Andalucian Cristiano Ronaldo in the form of Jesus Navas. Their plan, much like Real Madrid’s, was to funnel the balls they’ve won at midfield through their relentless pressing onto their attacking winger who opened the match up for them. Navas fulfilled this role wonderfully with his very own Brazilian fullback as his ‘wingman’ – Cicinho. Cicinho however, might not exactly be Sevilla’s right-sided equivalent to Marcelo given how this namesake of a past Real Madrid RB managed to stay composed while facing Ronaldo while defending, giving few opportunities for CR to exploit.
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As the match progressed, I began wondering if Cristiano’s off-the-pitch Lover’s Quarrel with Marcelo was in fact true – given how little they combined in the match. My post match thoughts however lead me to believe that the theory would have been moot and academic given how Navas’ presence and his ability to exploit the space left behind by Marcelo was the perfect deterrent for Ronaldo to raid Sevilla’s right flank with the accompaniment of his usual ‘side kick’. I thus find myself wondering if Coentrao, who could probably balance the role of supporting Ronaldo in attack every now and then while watching out for Navas’ forays would have been the better choice at left back. Alas, he wasn’t even on the bench as I can only suspect that he was being ‘reserved’ for Tuesday night’s encounter with Man City.
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The second half was slightly better for Madrid – with Modric on for Ozil. Modric settled in nicely to the conditions of the match and offered Real Madrid another passing option to spray the ball laterally and forwards as Sevilla’s midfield now had to deal with 2 ball distributors in Madrid’s midfield. And even with Mourinho taking his risk once again of going with 3 at the back and with 2 strikers, there would be no end product.
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Wreck
Train Wreck. Ship Wreck. Shit Wreck – call it whatever you want! It’s a bloody fucking mess. 4 league games, only 1 win with ZERO games among the 4 league games that can remotely be classified as having been played well. Losing to bad calls, funny inexplicable bounces of the ball, falling short on luck or getting sucker punched after playing well are all acceptable forms of losing for a Real Madrid fan. Losing because the team is unfocused over what clearly seems to be a lack of hunger however, is a totally different thing. I’m pissed off and disgusted. What else is left to say?

Monday, September 3, 2012

(Not So) Routine Win (Real Madrid 3 - Granada 0)

It was only by the time Cristiano Ronaldo managed to score his second goal for the night, to make it 2-0 for Real Madrid that I finally managed a sigh of relief. ‘This wasn’t going to end up like those matches’ – I thought, recalling our slip-ups against Valencia and Getafe. There would be no freakish, frantic comeback for the opponent and no moments of panic for our boys – just absolute control of the match and further questions if we can manage a 3rd , 4th, 5th goal and so on… Who knew that getting 3 points in the bag at home against a team that will fight for survival once again (Granada) would elicit such a sigh of relief from Madridistas such as myself?
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Sort of Getting into Gear
I'm really looking forward to the variety of playing styles that we will have because of Luka Modric

Make no mistake about it, despite the win, Real Madrid are not YET in full gear. Despite the fact that we looked far less vulnerable than in the last 2 league games protecting a 1-goal lead, our team’s still level dropped noticeably in the latter parts of the first half. The drop in level did not result in threats to conceding a goal as per Valencia or especially Getafe, yet it was still an alarming and disturbing sign.
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There were some really big and bright signs that marked the beginning of the game though: particularly Luka Modric – who got the strongest indication of Mourinho’s trust in him by getting a start. On the back of his 10 minute cameo during the 2nd leg of the Super Cup, I’d have to say it was fully deserved. I’ve differentiated Modric and Ozil previously, and perhaps the advantages and the disadvantages of Modric were plain to see in last night’s game. In the early exchanges, Modric was a menace to the Granada defense: spraying dangerous passes to Madrid players in the final 3rd of the pitch from his ‘10’ position. Having Modric in that position with Xabi Alonso sitting deeper and Khedira seamlessly shuttling back and forth from deeper positions and forward into more advanced points of the pitch solidifies Real Madrid’s midfield considerably and makes us a far more effective possession-based team.
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When pressed at midfield, Modric’s countermove is to skip away or turn and make a pass to another player (even if he’s in the final third of the pitch and surrounded by opponents). He’s not necessarily out to make the killer pass – just wanting to have his team retain possession in that part of the pitch - an underrated yet potent quality. His ability to do this is a constant danger to the opponent. Ozil, on the other hand has a bigger bag of tricks: using his relatively good pace, agility, ball tricks, etc. to wiggle out of tight situations. The result of this is that while playing the ‘10’ with Modric, Real Madrid is a bit more ‘static’ in the middle of the pitch but with a stronger midfield presence (great for a possession game). While with Ozil at the ‘10’, Real Madrid are more fluid, and thus constantly more ‘on the move’ – great for our fast-paced ‘formula 1 football’.
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At the start of the match, having Modric at such advanced parts of the pitch enabled Madrid to have a passing platform ala Xabi Alonso at the final third of the pitch – endlessly spraying passes to our forward players to create danger. It must be noted however that Granada would later on manage minimize the passing angles (taking advantage of his lack of mobility) to Modric as the game wore on. Modric would compensate for this by dropping slightly deeper to collect the ball or rely on Khedira to shuttle it forward for him.
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‘Routine Win’ from ‘Routine Goals’
Despite Modric’s performance (which earned him a well-deserved ovation from the Bernabeu), it must be noted that our goals were created by our usual means: through quick ‘blitzkrieg’ transitions (both via Ronaldo). I will also concede that Higuain’s goal was a definite case of the linesman asleep (offside!). Despite that however, it is heartening to see Real Madrid develop another means of playing – particularly against those teams who choose to park the bus.
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Perhaps it’s worthwhile to note that Modric’s signing though viewed correctly as a ‘replacement’ for Sahin (who looked mediocre last night vs. Arsenal), it should not escape us that his game is (to me at least) very similar to Granero (we didn’t get to see him do enough vs. City last Saturday as Mark Hughes decided to play defensively against City). Time will tell if we can successfully incorporate this ‘other way of playing’ into our game – if the boys can learn to affix ‘playing mode 2’ in their heads if ‘mode 1’ isn’t working. We did after all, see plenty of long ball attempts last night despite Modric’s effective presence on the pitch to facilitate a more patient, possession-based game.
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I raise this point also at the sight of seeing Kaka on the bench. It seems clear to me that his exclusions from the bench in the previous encounters was not out of some sinister plan to ostracize him from the squad – but to merely put him on the shopping window. Now that the shopping window is closed (until January that is), perhaps Mourinho can look into other positions where Kaka’s characteristics at age 30 can fit in. Apart from being a ‘10’, I also see his height, and finishing ability worthy of a shot as a striker. And bereft of the jets that his legs used to have, I also believe that there’s merit to the theory that he might also function well as a pivot – reports from Italy had after all indicated that Milan's Allegri would have tried him as a ‘regista’ had a return to Milan materialized.
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Several Years Late (but better than never)
If Michael Essien regains his form from Mourinho's Chelsea days, then we'll have ourselves an absolute midfield monster
Several years ago, as Mourinho’s Chelsea took the world by storm, many also marveled at the players of that team: Lampard, Drogba, Terry, etc. As a Real Madrid fan however, there was only one player from that team whom I wish played for my Real Madrid: Michael ‘The Bison’ Essien. He is in my opinion – the embodiment of a Mourinho-rules footballer: Athletic, Powerful, All-Action, No-Fuss, Multi-Dimensional (attacks AND defends) and Multi-Functional. He arrives several years late and ravaged by a couple of injury-plagued seasons – but what the heck.
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Guti was critical of his signing in relation to Granero’s departure. I would argue however that Essien arrives as Lass’ replacement. If healthy and successful in recapturing his form during Mourinho’s days, Essien will more than capably fill in as Lass’ replacement: he will play RB (and will not complain) and when in form, he might just play the Khedira role better than Khedira himself. The Essien of Mourinho’s Chelsea after all was the precursor to the role that Khedira now plays for Madrid. If Essien can re-discover his Mourinho-Chelsea days – it would be a relief to Madridisimo that Chelsea has all but forgotten the importance of the pivot positions (given their current fetish for Hazard / Hulk / Schurrle / Mata – types: the 3 behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1) as it might give us the chance to sign him permanently on the cheap (he’s ‘only 29’ – unlike Carvalho who was 70 when he joined us).
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Life Imitates Art
Apart from suffering an injury, Ronaldo's statement of unhappiness had Madridisimo on Red Alert 
I slept in peace after switching the TV off at 4am this morning following the match. Breakfast however was a totally different story. My laptop screen all of a sudden resembled the command center of Manager Mode in FIFA 12: with one Cristiano Ronaldo ambiguously stating that he is ‘unhappy’ amidst an explosion of stories speculating that he wanted to leave. Life imitates Art (if one would like to call a Video Game ‘art’). As a Madridista who was relieved to tell himself ‘yeah, we won as usual last weekend’ this was a rude awakening.
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Things were of course worse on Twitter with Madridistas flying into angry rants for accusing journalists / pundits / bloggers / trolls / aliens  of twisting the interpretation of Ronaldo’s words, reportedly:
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"I'm sad because of a professional issue and the club know why. That's why I didn't celebrate the goals, because I'm not happy. The people [at the club] know why… The people at the club know about this. I can't say any more."
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And with an international break coming up, the timing of his statement seemed perfect for the rumor mill to go on overdrive (which brings be to the theory that the release of this statement was ‘strategic’). Beyond the creepy suggestions of people supposedly in the know and other hilarious suspicions, below are my thoughts / theories on the matter:
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  • $$$
The easiest and simplest reason behind all of this is money. Cristiano Ronaldo is arguably the best player on the planet at the moment. Despite this however, he is reportedly not the best paid: as the likes of Etoo at Anzhi and Zlatan Ibrahomivic are out-earning him (he supposedly earns the same as Kaka who has not even come close in terms of achievements with the club). At age 27 and with his contract expiring at 2015, his next contract will be at age 30 where he will have less leverage to bargain for a big contract (given his age at that time). Thus, this seems to me like the ‘professional’ issue that he’s referring to: it smells like Ronaldo wants his pay upped to match the biggest earners in the game given that he might not get the same kind of pay packet once the time comes to re-negotiate and he's about to hit the wrong side of 30.
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The timing is says a lot: it is just a year or so after Rooney’s ‘I wanna leave Man U’ episode (that resulted in a new upgraded contract) but merely months after he said ‘I want to retire at Madrid’. Perhaps his ‘I want to retire at Madrid’ after his super season and La Liga title was his ‘nice’ way to winking to the club to ask for a new, upgraded deal. Having this request fall on deaf ears however, we must not forget that Ronaldo’s agent is a shark by the name of Jorge Mendes: and such tactics are not out of bounds for such characters. We might not know that behind the scenes, massive efforts from the CR camp to push the subject matter have already been shoved aside by Madrid’s money minders (who are reeling with the lifting of the "Beckham Law" in Spain in dealing with the club’s payroll). It is said that both Florentino and Jose Angel Sanchez know what the problem is – aren’t those 2 the club’s key money minders?
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  • ‘Institutional Support’
Another theory is one involving ‘institutional support’ from the club. We must also not forget that it wasn’t long ago when we experienced a typhoon of ‘will he leave or will he stay?’ re: Jose Mourinho. His beef with the club was about ‘institutional support’. Might this be a result of what he deems to be a lack of support from the club to fuel his pursuit for individual honors? He denies it to be about losing out to Iniesta in the recent UEFA awards – but might Iniesta winning be a result of elements within Real Madrid not ‘campaigning’ enough on CR’s behalf for such awards?
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We all pretty much accept now that such awards are so subjective that they’re all pretty much a trendy beauty pageant – subject to direct or indirect influence by clubs who wish to campaign for their players. Perhaps Ronaldo who has done pretty much everything for the team, was disappointed about the fact that not enough was done or is being done to support him in this regard (even though he denies it?). Perhaps he’s furious that Real Madrid refuse to let him participate in the WC Qualifiers this international break given his injury? Perhaps he’s upset that the club allowed speculation re: his off-color start to the season rage on in the media (including speculation re: his personal life) without any defense for him? Or did Jose hurt his feelings during Mou’s tongue-lashing of the team following the 2-1 loss to Getafe?
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Of my 2 theories, I find the money angle to be the stronger one. People are free to disagree with me re: this but I for one believe that he deserves a pay rise for what he’s done for us these past few seasons. Besides, if he’s one of the best players on the planet, why shouldn’t he be one of the best paid? By a club who is among the richest on the planet? People are also of course right to criticize Ronaldo for bringing up such a matter in public, but perhaps it’s a case of having no other choice (the club refusing to go to the negotiating table)?
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On a sporting level, there doesn’t seem to be any other place for Ronaldo to go. He is in the biggest club in the world challenging the (arguably) greatest club side of all time – and in this, he has also just about fully turned around the tide of battle too in his favor without fully winning yet. Either way, I can only hope that this sorts itself out as soon as possible.
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Because when Monday rolls along and I get asked about what happened to my football club the weekend before, I REALLY miss answering “We won. We killed them. Routine Win...” with that cheeky Madridista smile.

SuperCopa Tales (Real Madrid 2 – Barcelona 1: Real Madrid win Supercopa Espana 4-4 on Away Goals)



My apologies for posting my thoughts on the match too late – I’ve only managed 3 hours of sleep since the night of the match (until last night). But, even as the fanfare from our victory dies down in the wake of being drawn with the Champions of Germany, Netherlands and England in the Champions League, I continue to find myself waxing lyrical about last Wednesday’s (or in my case, Thursday early morning) match. Here are a few ‘tales’…
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Long Ball Fairy Tales
Barcelona and the tiki-taka Taliban have long decried the ‘English’ fascination with pace, power and its reluctant use of the ‘Long Ball’ – that ‘ol punt forward whacked aimlessly into the air with the half-intent of getting your Center Forward (usually built like a WWE Wrestler) to somehow maul his way towards reaching it. Madridistas have long decried this ‘uncultured’ practice too – often criticizing the likes of Raul Albiol for his tendency to aimlessly punt the ball forward. Liverpool, who purchased a 35m GBP striker last season for presumably such purposes and who are now joining the tiki-taka association, have loaned out said striker to Long Ball Merchants West Ham and are in the process of trying to curb midfielders Gerrard and Adam from their tendency to go for the ‘Hollywood pass’.
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When practiced with a bit of culture though, both in the means by which it is launched and the means by which it is received, the use of the longball is as elegant, and to me, arguably more heart-stopping. The same can be said for those long, raking, penetrative vertical passes Madridistas enjoyed so much from Guti from days of yore – they undoubtedly qualify as ‘Hollywood Passes.’ …And that’s why they’re called ‘Hollywood passes’: because they’re attractive, exciting and breathtaking – because they get you off your seat when you see them launched regardless of whether you’re in the stadium live, in a pub, in your living room, or on your bed, wife sleeping next to you, while watching it from a 4-inch window on your PC at 4:30 in the morning.
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The proper argument between the long pass and the short pass should always be centered on context. What’s best against a team sitting deep? Against a team right up on your face at midfield and breathing down your defense? Are you playing against giant wrestler types? Or midget technicians? Great coaches and managers are the ones who know how to use the right types of weapons to combat their varying types of opponents. In football, I take the choice between the long ball or the short ball as question of a match’s circumstances and the opponent and not as an issue of morality or ethics… or WORST of all: as a moral or ethical question in the name of aesthetics.
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The first 35 minutes of last Wednesday night, when we tore Barcelona a new asshole: was a tour de force performance to display such a belief. Real Madrid attacked, they attacked beautifully, they made Barcelona look like deer caught in the headlights using the sort of weapons (the long ball) that the tiki-taka Taliban decries as inappropriate for the sake of the game’s beauty.
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The substance however must lie in the sauce: it wasn’t born out of a philosophical discourse on why playing the long ball was morally better. It was simply because using it was the perfect weapon against Barca’s defense who had proven susceptible to balls played over their Centerbacks (they liked the ball on the ground). It was because our guys delivering those passes which travelled more than half the pitch, delivered those passes as beautifully as Xavi and Iniesta would do with their passes that travelled less than the quarter of the pitch. It was because of our guys (e.g. Cristiano Ronaldo) receiving those passes with such technical brilliance to get past their defenders. Real Madrid used the qualities that were diametrically opposite to what the tiki-taka Taliban established as the criteria for football beauty. We were Direct, Physical, Powerful, Fast and Relentless. But yes: Beautiful.
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A Tale of 2 Halves
My lone qualification to last night’s match was that it was once again a tale of 2 halves. The first half (or approx. the first 35 mins.) was a tale that teaches us the falseness of certain myths borne out of impressions taken out of context (tiki-taka vs. direct football, etc.). The second half then, turned out to be a potiential cautionary tale on urgency and initiative.
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Make no mistake about it: we almost lost the Supercup given the way by which we dealt with Barcelonain the 2nd half. The plan seemed clear to me: we had the lead and the advantage to win the tie and they had 10 men. We also didn’t seem to be in full fitness, which made playing them 150 mp/h impossible. So the plan was probably to play them on the counter. To do this effectively however, we needed to establish a line and hold it. What happened however was that we allowed our defensive line to sag deeper and deeper – creating the sort of disconnect that made it difficult for us to get the ball to our front players and allowing Barca’s passing game to begin clicking into gear. I know that we have world-class defenders and the best living goalkeeper on the planet – but playing in a manner that makes us THAT dependent on them is tantamount to playing with fire.
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Tito Vilanova was right to be proud of how his team attacked so well in the second half despite playing with only 10 men. We on the other hand, should count ourselves lucky they didn’t manage to score a goal. In a way, the match reminded me a lot of our second half performance against Bayern in last season’s CL semi-final during the second leg: a strong start where we looked like we were going to throttle them, but with a second half that had us smelling of fear of losing rather than the desire to win. I take our second half performance as a lesson not learned from our Bayern experience. It is the lone sour taste in my mouth following that match.
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A Tale of 2 Strikers
When asked about the rotation system of his strikers, Mourinho clarified that the use of Benzema and Higuain in matches was not merely down to a mindless ‘alternating system’ but based on the suitability of the players’ characteristics to the match conditions. It is thus noteworthy that Benzema started the first leg while Higuain the second. The reason behind this decision was made known prior to the match with Mourinho saying that he wanted us to score as soon as possible. I can thus surmise the 2 differing characteristics between Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema:
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Higuain is the more direct of the 2 strikers. Pipita, had his formative years in Madrid under the tutelage of Raul and Ruud Van Nistelrooy. RVN of course is the purest of strikers while Raul, having lost much of his pace in his latter years, relied mostly on his nose for goal to contribute, apart from his tireless running. It is thus not unusual that Pipita’s movements have been all about getting himself into goal-scoring positions – an art he has clearly learned from his 2 great masters. His natural style of play is about effort, graft and industry and less about technique or grace – he is the type of player who will likely be a striker for the entirety of his career. When he ages and loses his pace, I anticipate that his game will evolve into a combination of Raul and RVN in their latter years – using his ‘Banzai M%therf*cker!’ attitude to tirelessly throw himself at his opponents… but with the guile and cleverness of RVN. At his current age however, he has yet to fully master RVN’s ability to somehow freeze time in that split second goal-scoring opportunity to know precisely where to shoot: away from the keeper and into the net, instead of just merely getting it on target. The boy will learn and get even better. Let us not crucify him for failing to score every chance he got. He after all, only managed to miss the target once (hit the post), the rest were on target (just saved).
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Benzema on the other hand, is a far more technical player. Though he’s not a naturally pure #9, he’s been played both as a classic #9 and as a winger in a 4-3-3 while in Lyon– taking full advantage of his vast array of technical skills. Though a natural forward, his natural game is to drift deep and participate in the buildup of play – which is said to be the reason why Ronaldo prefers playing with him as the likelihood of CR receiving a pass from Benzema to score is far more likely than from Higuain. And while his naturally aloof personality has irritated Mourinho (who clearly loves Pipa’s ‘Banzai M%therF*cker!’ attitude!), it is this same aloofness than enables Benzema to keep cool and unfazed during the heated exchanges of a match where the goalscoring opportunities come.
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This comparison in interesting to me after seeing a tweet during the match where a Madridista fan had wished for a player with Benzema’s finishing and Pipita’s movement. You could also wish for a striker that combined Higuain’s fiery intensity in approaching the game and Benzema’s calm precision during goalscoring moments. The viewpoint however that deems either of the 2 as not being ‘Real Madrid class’ is in my opinon, absolute rubbish. My take on comparing the 2 in relation to the match is actually borne out of my opinion that perhaps Mourinho should have introduced Benzema in the match earlier to combat what was Barca’s strengthening grip on the match in the second half – where Benzema’s natural tendency to drop deep and participate in buildup play when in possession could have greatly helped.
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A Tale of 2 Attacking Midfielders
Last Wendesday night also turned out to be the debut of Luka Modric – a player whose arrival has sparked a multitude of questions as to where he will play. Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox makes an interesting point in his recent post – hypothesizing that Alex Song’s arrival signals Barcelona’s attempt to ‘Madrid-ify’ itself a bit and that Modric’s signing is Madrid’s attempt to ‘Barcelon-ify’ itself a bit. As such, the questions re: Modric should not be about pondering whether he is a ‘squad player’ or not. His addition to the Madrid midfield should be taken in a similar manner to the Benzema-Higuain case – that neither is really the backup and that they are used based on the characteristics of the opponent and the circumstances of each game.
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In the case of Modric – apart from being the long sought-after alternative to Xabi Alonso (who turns 31 this year), he’s also an alternative to Ozil. This is where it is perhaps worth looking to compare the 2.
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I remember once referring to Ozil as “a more consistent, less temperamental and far more mobile version of Guti”. I realize now that wasn’t a purely accurate statement. Apart from the sweet left foot and the amazing threaded through balls, Guti also was far more capable than Ozil in playing in a deeper midfield role and when ‘in the mood’, capable of dictating the tempo of the game. Ozil at his best functions as a marauding playmaker behind the striker/s looking to thread balls to them and has very little capability (at this point in his career) playing in a deeper position to dictate the tempo of the match or ‘run the offense’. His mobility with and without the ball and relatively good pace makes him perfectly suited to the advanced midfield role behind the striker/s but also with the capability to functioning as an ‘inside right’ or ‘inside left’ midfielder on the flanks.
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Similarly, someone has referred to Modric as a ‘right-footed Ozil’ – I also disagree. Though a natural attacking midfielder, he has managed to learn to become a ‘pivot’ in the physical premier league despite his small frame – where he played the ‘Xabi Alonso role’ at Spurs. He’s been played as a full-on attacking midfielder of course and has racked up an interesting stat: he has the most completed passes in the final third in the premier league yet was not among the EPL’s leaders in assists. Modric is less mobile compared to Ozil but having learned the pivot role at Spurs, he has learned to control the tempo of a game and do so at a more advanced position on the pitch. Last Wednesday, against Barca, in his less-than-10-minute cameo, Modric provided us with what we needed at that point: the ability to receive passes and neatly distribute at an advanced midfield position – increasing greatly Madrid’s ability to keep the ball in enemy territory without necessarily playing 100 mp/h. This ultimately is what I think Modric is for – to increase the team’s ability in playing possession-based football.
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Teams will not always succumb to our ‘Formula 1’ football. And because we’re not extremist-zealots in our style of football, having at our disposal, an alternative way of playing is always important.
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Awaken Madrid!
“It does not matter to me whether we win or not, what I want to know is whether the psychological profile that we showed against Getafe is just a temporary thing or the product of a psychological mind-set that has been building up. We can lose. The fundamental thing for me is to see what players I have got and what psychological profile they have."
-Jose Mourinho, before the 2nd leg of the SuperCup
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More than winning the Super Cup, what I really hope is that Madrid have re-awakened from their slumber. Whether it’s a question of fitness, motivation or concentration, last Wednesday might just be the type of match we needed to have to shaken everybody up to face the remaining 36 league matches. Last Wednesday was also the team’s FIRST WIN of the season – a reminder to the team of what it’s like to win and lift silverware. Let’s hope that that’s the only thing they remember from hereon in.


2012-08-26: Getafe 2 - Real Madrid 1


A Slap in the Face (Getafe 2 – Real Madrid 1)


“I like the [Getafe] coach Luis Garcia. I like how organised his teams are and how he puts them into practice. I admire his work." said Mourinho before the game.
My wife and I have started to teach our 15-month old son the nursery rhymes: “The wheels on the bus go.... Round and round (3x)… The wheels on the bus go round and round all through the town…” . With this tune stuck in my mind, I found myself singing to it with a new set of words in the wake of last night’s stinker vs. Getafe (with an ironic, sarcastic and creepy twist): “The Alarm Bells in Madrid are going… Ring, Ring, Ring (3x)… The Alarm Bells in Madrid are going Ring, Ring, Ring – all through the club…” . 3 matches, 0 wins. 2 La Liga matches – both with goals to lead the match scored in the first half by Higuain and assisted by Di Maria – both with goals conceded in the second half off dead ball situations. The similarities are as alarming as they are damning. Real Madrid looked sloppy, lacking sharpness/freshness and most disturbing of all: bereft of ideas. What the hell is going on? 
The Spanish Summer Heat? Every team in La Liga is putting up with it. 
Fatigue from Euro 2012? I see the core of Spain’s Euro 2012 team in Barcelona and they opened a can of whoop-ass on Sociedad and manage to inch their way (albeit unconvincingly) to victory at one of La Liga’s most difficult grounds (Osasuna’s Reyno de Navarre). 
A Lousy Preseason? The boys went to the US just like last year where last season, they came back looking razor sharp. And they didn’t go to Asia this preseason too. . The trend threatens to continue too – we face Barcelona in the 2nd leg of the Supercup – making it entirely possible to have a 4-match winless streak to start the season. Let us not forget that while Barca were slipping up at Getafe’s Coliseo and Osasuna’s Reyno De Navarre last season, we were picking up wins in such places on the way to the title. Last night, we screwed up big time away to Getafe as Barca managed to squeak past Osasuna away (nevermind the ‘controversial circumstances’). Looks like that disturbing telltale sign has struck us very early in the season. . . 

Tactics? Fitness? Personnel?
What's going on with you Cris?
Let’s call it what it really is: a lack of sharpness and fitness for certain key members of the team. Ronaldo is not himself, neither is Ozil and Marcelo looks like a bloody over-sized sushi roll in a Real Madrid uniform (he looks over-weight!). . Against both Valencia and Barcelona, Xabi Alonso looked to be in great form in his ball distribution. He was hitting balls long and short with absolute precision, in traffic and through traffic. Trouble was, no one was making use of his balls to create enough danger in enemy territory. Mesut Ozil is still incapable to bringing his best for 90 minutes and it wasn’t helped by the fact that the man he feeds assists to, or combines to build up the team’s attacking plays, Cristiano Ronaldo is clearly out of sorts. 
Ronaldo, on the back of a season where he broke his reputation as a big game and National Team choker, seems to be a step slower, less aggressive, less tricky, less dangerous. Ultimately – a noticeably far lesser player than he was last season. Last week against Valencia, Coentrao eagerly played the role of attacking fullback – the sort of wingman he loved to have on his side… yet #7 still looked off-color. Last night, his favorite wingman Marcelo was beside him, still below-par. Perhaps it didn’t help that Marcelo looked like he enjoyed one too many buffet meals…? 
People are also talking about signings and the lack thereof – some incredulously saying that if only Modric was around then perhaps he could have offered something different. We must remember that Modric has also had a pretty screwed up preseason as a result of the transfer saga involving him. 
Then people have been also critically targeting the use of players like Callejon and Morata into the mix as Madrid went for the winner. Once again, I do not buy this as these 2 were Mourinho’s best offensive weapons left on the bench. Tactically speaking one also cannot fault Mourinho for his changes. He has openly said that if the opportunity was there for him to win a match in a league game – he would take it over settling for a draw. And that explains his decision to risk one of his pivots (Diarra) and eventually one of his defenders in favor of more attacking players (Callejon and Benzema). It was just too bad for him that Getafe coach Luis Garcia, whom he has openly praised for his tactical acumen, telegraphed ‘The Only One’s’ moves perfectly as it would be substitute Adrian Colunga who proved critical in turning what looked like a draw (with Madrid laying siege on the Moya’s goal) into a Getafe win. 
Facing Up To It 
"It was an unacceptable game, in this match for me it is not a frustrating defeat. We totally deserved to lose…The only conclusion that I want them to get is that this was a defeat for Real Madrid and more than a well-deserved win for Getafe." 
I take heart from the fact that Mourinho has not shirked from what happened last night. There was no hiding behind the refereeing decisions, no sideshows (even the way he denied that Coentrao said anything to the ref was quick and without fuss), no quarrels. Mourinho just said what everyone needed to hear (especially Madridistas) – that the team played poorly and that the performance was unacceptable. 
That’s the plain, simple hard truth to explain last night’s debacle: that our team of La Liga Champions mostly played terribly as individuals, which, when put together, resulted in a poorly played game as a team that ultimately merited a loss. The consequence to this is brutal and it really does look like the road to recovery (compensating a 5 point deficit against a rejuvenated Barca after 2 league matches) will be long and hard. Perhaps this was the slap in the face the team needed to get their heads off the trophies and glory that they enjoyed in the offseason as Champions of Spain. 
Barcelona arrive at the Bernabeu on Wednesday for the Supercup. Real Madrid LAST SEASON, were the Kings of Spanish Football. Here’s to hoping that that slap we just suffered has finally knocked that heavy crown off our heads. Because what better team is there to pay for the broken plates but Barca? 
p.s. As I finish writing this post, Real Madrid have finally signed Luka Modric. Welcome to the team Luka. Get yourself fit, in-synch with the guys and we’ll talk about you soon enough…