Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Water Polo and the Cantera Games (Levante 1 - Real Madrid 2)

David Navarro is a thug. Thankfully, neither the pitch nor Levante's extensive practice of Football's 'Dark Arts' got in the way of getting 3 points tonight for us.

For some odd TV scheduling reason, by the time I switched the TV on at 4:30am this morning to watch Levante-Real Madrid, Atletico vs Getafe was still on (82’). By the time the TV coverage of last night’s Levante-Real Madrid match started, the match was already at 7’ and the FIRST picture of the match that showed on TV was Ronaldo’s sporting that ugly blackeye. ‘Holy F%ck’ I said to myself: not even 10 minutes into the game, and already Levante are sticking it to our boys with their elbows, punches and kicks. At that point in time, I had not yet seen the replay that showed David Navarro’s UFC-style elbow maneuver on Ronaldo.
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If my memory serves me right, Real Madrid have failed to win at Levante for the past 2 seasons, which was why I looked at this game as one that was far from a being a secure 3 points, regardless of our injury situation. Levante after all are a team who make no bones about using the game's 'dark arts' to full effect in order to get the results they need. This is why I am aghast at the reactions of certain Levante players who are putting on this show of outrage over what happened last night. 'We wuz robbed' they say. Robbed??? You guys almost cracked Ronaldo's skull open you dipshits! Their players' reactions I must say smacked of being sore losers: after going through a game whose conditions favored their 'style' more than ours, it was Mourinho's men who came out on top for the simple fact that it was Real Madrid who adjusted better to the appalling pitch conditions. Even as I rant here about how Barca would surely throw a bitch fit if they had to play through such conditions, I too have to say that it was an embarrassment for a top-tier football match to be allowed to be played under such conditions. How can a professional Football League even make a claim to among the best (if not the best) football leagues in the world if a match between its defending champion and one of its representatives in continental competition can hardly even be called a football match? The Ciudad de Valencia Stadium's pitch resembled a swimming pool given how it allowed the ball to move. They might as well have asked both teams to play water polo last night.
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Pool Games
The winner of last night's match was also clearly the team that managed to adjust best to the fact that the match's farcical conditions had degraded to a water polo match - and that was the surprise. Who knew that in a match about rough-and-tumble tactics and long balls, that Real Madrid could manage 2-goals and win against Levante? Needless to say, some Real Madrid players adjusted to the match conditions better than others.
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For Real Madrid, it would be the our 2 midfielders: Xabi Alonso and Michael Essien, both of whom have seen their fair share of 'A Cold Night in Stoke'-type of battles from the Premiership who excelled. Xabi Alonso won practically every 50-50 ball and made some fantastic long balls that created lots of danger at the Levante box (I'll chalk up his missed penalty which he blasted right through the middle as wanting to take a 'risk-free' shot). For Essien, his strength, power and tidiness in possession helped Madrid take control of the game. Indeed, the 2 played as if they missed those water-logged pitches in lower league division teams in England whom they'd visit in their cup runs - not to mention the wet rainy conditions they frequently had to train under during their weekdays in England. Our first goal would be scored by Ronaldo (another Premier League veteran), who despite reportedly having lost vision on both eyes form Navarro's elbow, still knew where the goal was and had the presence of mind to control and bounce the ball off his thigh before striking it home - fully knowing that allowing the ball to make contact with the ground could see the scoring chance go up in smoke. It must be noted though that despite being declared as Real Madrid's designated '9' for the night, Ronaldo hardly played there - spending most of his 45-minute spell playing off Callejon, who pretty much functioned as the team's '9' for most of the night until Morata came on. i also felt that Vanilla Jose Callejon's tireless running, coupled by the simplicity of his game (no elaborate dribbling or risky passing attempts) was indeed very useful out there on Levante's 'water polo pitch'.
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Unlike our midfielders, Ronaldo and Callejon, Real Madrid still had a few players who failed in adjusting to the match conditions. The most guilty culprit of all was Angel Di Maria. Mourinho did praise him after the game - that praise in my opinion however is only deserved for his effort and his live wire performance. When it came to the actual goods however, Di Maria's propensity to make the wrong decision on-the-fly was made worse by his inability to alter this approach to the game with the circumstances: Di Maria continued attempting those through-passes and found many of his balls intercepted, he attempted too many dribbling manuevers that didn't come off (also thanks to the pitch conditions) and worst of all, he made an unnecessarily cheeky attempt to chip the goalkeeper on the break and fail. His miss would cost dearly with Levante finding an equalizer. The Madrid player however who had an absolute stinker was Raul Albiol. Jose Mourinho brought him on as a sub in the second half as the bottom tip of a diamond midfield to bring security to the back. He did the opposite: committing countless errors that required some great saves from Iker to erase.
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Canterano Questions
A Cantera Hero is born: We all knew Morata was special and we were all waiting for validation of it for the past few seasons. We all got it last night. We're proud of you Alvarito!

The man of the night last night (or perhaps 'boy' of the night?) as Alvaro Morata. Needing a goal after Levante's equalizer, I had tweeted that perhaps Mou ought to send Kaka in for Ozil to bring some fresh legs onto the match (given how the soggy pitch would have been surely energy-sapping especially for the low-stamina Ozil) and to send Morata in for Callejon in order to give Real Madrid a target man out there for them to knock those long balls and dead balls. Many had in fact commented that Mourinho sent him on too late (he only had 8 minutes). It was Morata though who scored the cathartic game-winner for us with his first touch of the ball last night.
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It's of course now impossible not to talk about what happened last night without talking about Real Madrid's 'Canterano Question' in light of Mourinho's public 'confrontation' with Alberto Toril. There now 2 main questions that I wish to answer in this regard. The first question in my opinion is the most important one of all:
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What Now for Morata?
Despite having been awarded a professional contract by Mourinho, it is my understanding that there is a maximum number of games that Morata is allowed to appear for the first team before he is made ineligible for Real Madrid Castilla. Where then does he go in light of the now-undeniable evidence (we knew he had the goods to play for the first team but there wasn't that blatant evidence until last night) that he is first team material... that letting him slip would be like letting our last true gem, Juan Mata slip away. Part of this question also goes to Jose Mourinho who has 2 world-class strikers at his disposal with neither of them fit. Does Mourinho formally take Morata away from Castilla? And if he does, is it good for the young Morientes-doppelganger to be playing behind 2 world-class strikers?
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Pre-season reports show Morata being considered by Mourinho as a Cristiano Ronaldo substitute (as if Cristiano really ever gets substituted) in light of his successful deployment on the left wing last season. His height and undeniable history as a successful '9' though means that he is also a legitimate backup to Benzema and Higuain and can play the 'Adebayor' role for the team: the specialist target man who can be brought on in specific instances of a match like last night where his skills are best suited (just as a way to get young Alvaro started). My opinion on the matter is that we should let circumstances dictate the course of action. Taking Morata from Castilla just for the sake of it might see this young gem pegged back in the pecking order with little chance to play. Leaving him in Castilla on the other hand would mean that the first team would be denied the use of such a wonderful talent in times of need and also deprive him of the chance to make the jump. In my opinion, Mourinho should continue to call him up for games where he is needed and be kept as a sub in games where Mourinho has an available striker. He should however, not consider the 'quota' when deciding whether to use or not to use Morata for the match: if the match needs young Alvaro, then send him in and let the chips fall where they may: if Morata exceeds the limit of appearances that sees him cross the threshold to become a full time first team player - then so be it.
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Exciting times for La Fabrica. RMFB's Twitter handler (Kaushik?) commented that last night's events reminded him of Raul. I replied back saying that Morata reminded me much more of Raul's BFF Morientes. His reply summed it up wonderfully: the style of play was clearly Morientes, the narrative however was all Raul. At this point in time, I can honestly say that there isn't a player out there whom I crave to see a Real Madrid shirt. In my opinion, the team has reached is peak in terms of quality, personnel-wise - it must now take the next step to blood our young talents from La Fabrica and mix them with its young world class talent to construct the Real Madrid of Madridismo's dreams.
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Fifty Shades of Real Madrid Grey
"In Real Madrid's case, perhaps more than Barcelona's, you must also remember that the Madridistas' secret dream is to repeat the events of the mid-1980s, and forge a side from local stone with the same qualities as the mythical "Quinta del Buitre", the vulture squadron led by Emilio Butragueno and his local buddies (although one of the five, Miguel Pardeza, was from Huelva). This legacy haunts the club in many ways, and forces them to pretend that, in some not-so-distant future, the galacticos will return to their planets and the reserve side will supply a never-ending batch of spunky local youngsters, all up for the cause like Raul (who was actually brought up at Atletico, but never mind) and Michel, to quote just two. This truth is an ironic one, given the post-millennial notion that Barcelona is the cantera (youth set-up) and Madrid the cartera(wallet), when the reality of Barcelona's traditional mind-set was that of their cosmopolitanism, as opposed to Madrid's paternalistic Spanish outlook. You'd have to ask an older culé now what they think of all this. Famous Catalans have of course been present throughout the club's history, but it is only recently that the club has started to make a public virtue of this, probably to draw attention to Madrid's own lack of a youth policy. It's a touchy subject, and I'll leave it there."
-Phil Ball breaks the myth of Laporta's 'Barca-Cantera, Madrid-Cartera' propaganda and raises a few questions of for Real Madrid to ponder. Full article here:
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We must remember that even before Morata's performance last night, a media war has been going on between Mourinho and Castilla Coach Alberto Toril supported by many Spanish Pundits. To me, the matter is a 'grey area' - because while I think that Mourinho's points are correct (I'll explain below), I question his motives.
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Mourinho is in my opinion correct to say that he is NOT the culprit Real Madrid's disappointing treatment of its cantera. Indeed it was not he who let the likes Etoo, Negredo, Soldado, Mata and Borja Valero leave the club and show the world that Real Madrid missed out. Granero did leave under Mou's watch - but El Pirata himself said that Mourinho didn't want him to leave. We should also not forget that last night's goal-scoring debutate hero Morata credits Mourinho for the chance he was afforded. Perhaps its because we remember Mourinho's Chelsea core as its current 'old guard' despite the fact that the core of that team (Terry, Lampard, Essien, Robben, the 2 Coles, Drogba) were all about the same age as Ozil, Di Maria & Khedira when he arrived / brought them in. Perhaps it was because apart from a few pieces in their squad, the core of Mourinho's treble-winning Inter was comprised of more 'senior players.' Either way, I do find that tagging Mou as anti-Cantera is unfair.
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i also find Mourinho's gripes re: the Cantera to be valid. I agree with him that Real Madrid Castilla should prioritize the development of young players over league placing objectives. Mourinho is right: if a Castilla player reaches the age of 23 / 24 (the age Ozil / Di Maria / Khedira joined us), they are likely no longer going to make the Real Madrid first team and instead promising teenagers like Jose Rodriguez should be prioritized in terms of playing time and be given more than bit parts. He's also right that Castilla, Real Madrid C and even the juvenil sides ought to be playing the same system as the first team to allow the seamless transition of players from one level to another - and that any candidates for the first team should be played in the position they are being eyed for in the first team. Heck, even Barca horn tooters share this opinion.
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Having said that, it's also fitting to discuss all of this after seeing the kind of physical beating our first team just went through at Levante. Physical play, a bag full of dirty tricks and shit pitches: these are the sort of teams that populate the Segunda A. These are the sort of teams that also eat teenage 'puppies' for breakfast - especially if those pups are wearing uniforms with a Real Madrid badge on their chests. And with keeping the team within the Segunda A important, striking a balance between winning and staying in segunda A and developing the team's young talent is imperative. This is where the communication factor across the various levels of the club football program becomes important... something that Real Madrid seem to be really lacking at the moment.
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Despite Mourinho's very valid points however, it's hard to keep him off the grey areas given certain points:
1.) Why does he need to air it out in a public forum?
2.) The timing of this statements seems clearly aimed to take attention off Madrid's failure to beat Borussia Dortmund over 2 games
3.) Is he trying to get Toril fired? In favor of another one of his buddies (or Jorge Mendes clients?)
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Thus, though the footballing logic behind his rants are clear and are more than valid, it's also difficult to get around what over motives he might have over the ruckus that he has raised over the Cantera. Regardless of all this though, I do think that it's fair to say that Jose Mourinho is no enemy of the Cantera and that he in fact should be given some credit, even just a bit. This to me isn't a case of black and white, but a murky territory with various shades of grey.
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Happy Deepavali
Finally, I'd like to end this post by wishing all our Indian Readers a Happy Deepavali!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Breaking Mirrors (Real Madrid 2 – Borussia Dortmund 2)

Bah! Those Germans! We still can’t beat them and I’m worried sick about the prospect of meeting a German Side once the group stages are over. Bayern, our European Bette Noir, are sure to bash through beyond the group stages while rivals Schalke and Dortmund who both managed draws (against Arsenal and us respectively) remain group leaders. Real Madrid fans need not hang their heads (too much) in disappointment. Like many of  you, I expected a win and not a draw or even a possible loss. And now that I am writing about the match 4 hours after the match has ended, having allowed some of the emotion to drain away, looking back at the match with a higher level of rationality allows me to conclude that it wasn’t too bad of an outcome considering the circumstances and that though we looked like a second-class side in the first half, the boys redeemed themselves in the second half.
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The First Half – Mirror Image Games
 My notes during the first half of the match. Borussia's CMs and fullbacks would double team our wingers - opening up the center for Ozil. Trouble was that Ozil's supposed dance partner, Higuain, was nursing an injury.
The first half unfolded in a manner that showed us all that Borussia had Real Madrid figured out… or rather, this current injury-depleted Real Madrid. Borussia’s play has many striking qualities that are remarkably similar to Real Madrid: they play a 4-2-3-1 have a well-oiled midfield to press and circulate the ball and of course, have great players on the flanks (wingers and attacking fullbacks) to support a strong lone central striker. Using a combination of their midfield, fullbacks and even wingers, their general strategy has been to press opponents into mistakes and losing the ball and use direct (and/or counter-attacking) play to create chances from the flanks to score. Sound Familiar? Indeed, Dortmund’s 2 goals were scored off swift counter attacks that might as well have been taken from Mourinho’s Real Madrid playbook. It was as if Dortmund was a mirror image of Madrid, albeit a more menacing and dangerous version during the first half.
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In any case, Real Madrid pretty much do the same thing – that is, when their fullbacks are fit (Marcelo / Coentrao) and are in their preferred positions (Arbeloa). Without the ideal fullback situation, Real Madrid were without their ‘Magic Juice’ while Dortmund had theirs. So the first half was to me essentially a story of Borussia Dortmund making Real Madrid taste its own medicine and Real Madrid unable to make Borussia taste theirs because it was without its fullbacks – and this was what made me curiously irritated.
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Over the past few matches, particularly against Mallorca, Real Madrid seemed not just to be looking for ways to allow Luka Modric to learn Madrid’s ‘pivot’ role, but also in doing so, allow Madrid to develop a means of attacking through the middle. Seeing Mourinho start Modric alongside Alonso last night brought that to mind. Madrid’s play however suggested otherwise and it played right into the hands of Dortmund’s defensive strategy.
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Throughout the first half, Real Madrid’s continually attempted to attack through the flanks via Ronaldo and Di Maria and mostly without fullback support. Jurgen Klopp had a very clear strategy to deal with this – he had both his pivots ‘enclose’ our wingers to the touchline when they had the ball, forcing them to face pressure both from the opposing fullback (Picsczek / Schmelzer) and the opposing pivot (Kehl / Gundogan). Without their usual fullback support (Marcelo / Coentrao on the left and Arbeloa on the right) who would normally race along the touchline, Ronaldo and Di Maria were repeatedly forced to either lose the ball or pass vertically backwards to Arbeloa / Ramos. Thus, I found myself constantly yelling at the television: “Play through the middle! Come on!”
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Because what Klopp’s defensive strategy did, was open up the pitch at the center where Ozil in particular could operate and link up with Higuain. Indeed, I found that the most promising attacking moments for Madrid was when Ozil had the ball behind the striker with a considerable amount of space around him to operate, leaving him free to make a pass to what was supposed to be a mobile Higuain. Higuain however was nursing some form of muscular injury that had him lumbering about in the pitch, offering little for Ozil to work with. A look at who we had on the bench had me scratching me head: no strikers left, sending in Callejon to play on the wing with Ronaldo as a striker will have Klopp free up one of his pivot men from doubling up on Calleti thinking that one fullback to face him is enough. Thus as the referee blew the halftime whistle, I was thinking that perhaps Mou can send in Kaka to play as a striker for Ozil to link up with – the Brazilian after all, had the height, strength, mobility and finishing capability to fulfill that role. Mourinho however, had a more radical idea in mind.
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Second Half – Mourinho shatters the Mirror
Soccernet Gamecast's diagram showing the average positions of the players on the pitch. When you remove Higuain (20) and Modric (19), it looks like we played a 4-2-2-2. And with Kaka (8) on for Arbeloa (17), it looked like we played a 3-2-4-1 with Kaka as the lone striker
Substituting Essien in for Modric and Callejon for the injured Higuain, I thought that Mourinho had opted to revert to a more conventional 4-2-3-1 with a midfield muscle man (Essien) assisting Alonso with 'Vanilla Joe' Callejon taking up a place on the flanks to push Ronaldo up as the lone striker. The change he opted for was far more radical. Mourinho solidified his midfield (Alonso + Essien) and allowed this 'platform' as a base for the much-reviled 'Magic Square' formation (4-2-2-2): with Ronaldo, Callejon, Ozil and Di Maria taking turns as attacking midfielders and strikers. Callejon would make an instant impact with several great scoring chances - including one which was debatably called offside.
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Playing with a stronger sense of purpose (presumably following a tongue-lashing from Mou during halftime), Madrid dominated the second half and seized the initiative from Dortmund: forcing them on the backfoot. And now unable to 'mirror' us on defense because of the natural chaos / flexibility that the 4-2-2-2 affords its front 4 players, Borussia's marking system for our players came unstuck. It was no longer possible for them to mark our front 4 without disrupting their team shape and this increased Real Madrid's superiority in the match. No goal though.
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Mourinho's last roll of the dice would be to go with 3 at the back: not too bad of a risk when you consider that we had 2 of the world's most athletic and pacy CBs (Ramos and Pepe) together with the composed and positionally astute Varane. It looks like a 3-2-4-1: with Callejon, Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria behind Kaka as the lone striker when seen from Soccernet's Gamecast, but it also resembled a 3-5-2 (3-2-3-2): with Callejon, Ozil and Di Maria behind bromance partners Ronaldo and Kaka. Regardless of what it actually was, it was an undoubtedly bold move from Mourinho which paid off with Ozil scoring a goal from a Free Kick (thankfully Ronaldo let him take the shot - which was perfectly suited to his left foot).
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Chaos Theory
Last night, we managed to see a great tactical maneuver by Jose Mourinho. I've seen more than a few remarks in the comments section at RMFB criticizing Mourinho's substitutions as if to say that Mou was incapable of making important substitutions to change the course of a match to Madrid's favor - some thing which honestly pissed me off as they were remarks that smacked of lacking in perspective. Last night was not the first time that Mourinho rolled the dice in favor of an attacking strategy and seen his changes bear fruit. Granted that such gambles don't always come off, last night was one of those classic moments where Mou clearly spotted what our opponents were onto and reacted brilliantly by ringing in the changes to turn the match around. I have to say that what made last night's tactical change even more exciting was that Mourinho opted for a solution that was less about structure and more about chaos (ruining Klopp's marking system).
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Experimental Horizons
More tactical experimentation will surely continue for Mourinho's Madrid in light of Pipita's injury. After the match, Mourinho openly admitted to being blindsided by the injury woes for his strikers to explain why Morata was excluded from last night's match (he played 90 minutes last Sunday for Castilla). Short on Fullbacks, short on strikers - our team will be in for more experiments coming on the horizon. We should expect Mourinho to be doing more lineup and tactical shuffling in the coming matches. The truth is with the team out of its personnel and tactical comfort zone, our matches stand to be more unpredictable - both in good ways and in bad. I can only suppose that at this point, we can take comfort from the fact that we have a coach who seems to know what he's doing.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Replacements (Real Madrid 4 – Real Zaragoza 0)

For the mean time, the likes of Modric and Essien are playing like replacements that circumstances have forced upon us. Soon enough though, I genuinely believe that they will multiply Real Madrid's playing capabilities considerably.

Another Real Madrid match, another goalfest – a 0-5 win against Mallorca last weekend, a 1-4 win against 3rd division Alcoyano midweek and now a 4-0 win at home vs. Real Zaragoza. It really does seem like the team is snapping back into gear, right? NOT! Let’s not be deceived by the score-line folks as the proof is always in the play, and not in the scoreline. Let's also be honest about it: the 4-0 scoreline was not a fair reflection of what transpired on the pitch out there last night.
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Last night, Real Madrid continued to soldier on with its makeshift lineup. Alvaro Arbeloa did return earlier than expected from his injury (he was expected to be gone for a month) and he slotted in at left back – freeing up Michael Essien to join Luka Modric at the center of midfield. Arbeloa’s return was just as nice too, given that Xabi Alonso was suspended for last night’s match. The pairing of Modric with Essien then would prompt a discussion at midfield very much different from the one I explored after last weekend’s match. It wasn’t going to be about the idea of having passing midfield pivots – but about how the pairing of Modric and Essien fared in their attempt to replicate the functionality provided by Alonso + Khedira.
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The Alonso-Khedira partnership at the center of the pitch has developed as one of the Real Madrid’s most critical tactical components (if not it’s most critical one). Alonso was the team’s deep-lying ball distributor – able to use his seemingly limitless passing range to reach his teammates all over the pitch: from Khedira who would normally be standing next to him, to Ozil in front, back to the Center Backs, further laterally to the fullbacks and even all the way forward to the front 4. Khedira on the other hand is Alonso’s wingman. The German’s tireless running is both an offensive and a defensive feature of his game. In attack, Sami makes himself constantly available to Alonso as a possible means of ‘exiting’ the ball when our ’14’ is under pressure by ensuring that a passing angle / channel is always open between the 2. This attacking relationship has not only functioned well (making it more difficult opposing teams to simply mark Alonso) but has also blossomed (we are now seeing Sami bring the ball forward to dangerous positions). On the flipside, on defense, Khedira offers his considerable lung, leg and physical power in pressing, anticipation and tackling.
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Last night - playing with 'replacement' midfielders, I was reminded of the funny 2000 movie 'The Replacements' (starring Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman), where a player lockout in the NFL forces a coach and an American Football Team's management to hire replacement players. The story of course sees the ragtag bunch achieve some success but not without the usual share of comical antics. In the case of Real Madrid, it would be injuries and suspensions that would force Mourinho's hand to opt for his replacements. And given the scoreline, I suppose one can assume that there was a bit of success there - albeit not without the usual head-scratching moments.
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Last night’s combo of Modric and Essien at midfield was clearly an attempt to replicate this relationship. Modric, who had learned to play deep under Redknapp’s Spurs and keep up with the physical demands of the role (especially in the Premier League) played the Alonso role last night. Essien on the other hand was tasked to play the ‘Khedira role’ – the latter is a far more interesting arrangement in my opinion because I consider Khedira’s role in Mourinho’s Madrid as Mou’s attempt to re-create that insatiable combination of physical power, tireless workrate, and dynamism that embodied Essien at his peak in Chelsea. In short, with regards to Essien, I found it both bizarre and interesting that we had Essien playing the ‘Khedira role’ whose inspiration was Chelsea's ‘Essien role’ in the first place.
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Modric and Essien’s rendition of their pivot role in their night out on the Real Madrid’s starting XI was slightly different to that of Alonso + Khedira. A likely implication of his more limited passing range and his natural tendency as a ‘10’, Modric played at a more advanced position both when compared to Alonso and relative to the positioning of Michael Essien. What Modric adds to the role is an additional goal-assist threat from the pivot when compared to Alonso. Alonso’s game is much more about facilitating play and keeping the circulation of the ball perpetual especially to the key parts of the pitch rather than directly creating the goal-scoring opportunity. Modric on the other hand, will likely never be able to fully temper his natural predisposition to attempt to carve out the scoring opportunity himself. We saw a few enticing looping balls from deep for Ronaldo and Di Maria to run down last night.  It might take a bit of time, but I don't see why it can't be a possibility for us to see Ronaldo, Di Maria, Benzema or Higuain managing to get on the end of these types of balls from Modric to create / score goals.
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Made in Argentina
Despite the new midfield arrangement though, our goals would come through more familiar if not more conventional means. Both first half goals were scored by the team's 2 much-criticized Argentines. Gonzalo Higuain, who has been criticized for his 'poor conversion rate' opened the scoring last night by slamming the ball into the net following Albiol's thundering header (not a bad game too for El Chori). For those who sneer at Pipita's scoring proficiency, please consider the following stats: 7 goals in 10 La Liga games with 2 assists. Angel Di Maria scored the second goal from the right after getting on the end of a diagonal thru-ball and attempting 3 shots (the first blocked, the second saved, the third time a charm) before managing to score. Both goals conceded were reflective of how badly Real Zaragoza played in the early exchanges of the game, particularly on defense. Having said that, we must not discount the fact that both Argentines are in good form and are reminding us all of why they play for our club - the form of players will always go through peaks and valleys and I find that we are always too quick to judge them dismissively without considering what they bring to the overall scheme of things. One day Falcao might find himself in a goalscoring funk and Peter Crouch just might explode with a 30 goal season - should we sell Pipita then and approach Stoke City for Mr. Abby Clancy? Beware of fads and trends people.
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Without the benefit of a 'running mate' on the left wing for Ronaldo, the team will need to become more 'balanced' in its attack in these 'Left Back-less' months: and finding goalscorers and chance creators in the other parts of the pitch are important. Having an extra goal-assist threat in the middle (Modric) will mean that our forwards are in for better service - and Pipita's and Benzema's form (2 goals midweek) are positive signs. Having an attacking right back (Ramos,) will also mean more chances for Di Maria. And on both accounts, our boys are responding.
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The 'Donut Match' Disease
Last night's performance was met with criticism from no less than Jose Mourinho himself: "It was not our best game today. We can and we must play better."
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It was a match that I would personally like to refer to as a 'donut match': empty at the center with the substance on the sides with our best play coming at the beginning and at the end of the match (where our 2 midfielders would find the back of the net). Our team's performance in the first half was an intriguing display of how our 'replacement' midfielders attempted to shoehorn themselves into the team and interpret their assigned roles. As mentioned, there were a few bright spots which culminated in the 2 Argentine goals. What followed however was a 'Lost in Space' performance that saw Real Madrid sleepwalk through the match and even allow Zaragoza glimpses of brightness to get back into the game (forcing Casillas to a couple of good saves).
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It's a disturbing observation to make - the entire team, particularly the midfield 'switching off' after gaining a 2 goal lead. By the second half, our midfield was completely overrun (affirming my donut metaphor once again): Zaragoza moved and roamed freely into our half with almost zero resistance from our midfielders. It's in this regard, it's worth noting that Mourinho criticized the team's performance as a whole (see quote above), yet still chose to praise Modric:
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"I really like Luka Modric since he joined. He works well, and he has adapted very well... Playing in the Premier League, and playing in the Spanish league are very different, and playing for Tottenham is as well very different than playing for Real Madrid. But he is a great player, and he is adapting very well."
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Perhaps this was his attempt to build up the Croatian's confidence? Though Modric has learned to cope with the physical demands of being a central midfielder from Tottenham, his role there has pretty much remained as a creator with minimal defensive responsibilities. At Madrid however, whether playing as a substitute or as partner to Xabi Alonso, Modric must learn and accept that his role will come with considerable defensive responsibilities. No, we are not asking him to morph into Nigel De Jong - but just to be able to at least mirror Alonso's fair-but-certainly-not-minute contributions on defense. Pundits in the Premier League love talking about the adaptation process non-Premier League players will need to go through particularly referring to the pace and physicality of the English game. On the flipside, last night was a display on the adaptation process that Essien and Modric will need to make in the Spanish League where play has less pace, but players are more technical and move the ball about with a better sense of tactical intuition. Brute force, physical power and the ability be on the receiving end of physical play will need to make way for improvements in reading the game and anticipation. Essien in particular fell short in this regard - often found merely reacting directly as play unfolded in front of him and thus ending up always a step behind in the play (his second half performance reminded me a lot of Lass' 'headless chicken' routine).
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Alonso looks to be back on Tuesday vs. Dortmund, but not Khedira. This means that we can continue to expect Modric or Essien playing the pivot for Madrid - thus making these improvement to their play very critical. Dortmund will be happy to make us pay dearly if we allow their midfield to overrun ours even if we are playing at home on Tuesday.
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Positives and Negatives
All in all, last night's match was one of positives and negatives. It wasn't just about the doom and gloom of having a porous midfield of 'replacements' struggling to come to terms with their roles for our team. It was also about our boys finding their scoring boots. The seemingly ill-timed teething process for Modric and Essien also has its positives and negatives. Rather than be allowed to take his sweet time (and allow questions from the media to creep in on why Modric isn't playing enough) to master their roles on the training pitch, circumstances (injuries and suspensions) are now forcing the 2 midfielders to learn on the job in actual matches at an accelerated pace. With 1 (semi-understandable) loss at Dortmund, this 'teething process' hasn't come at a stiff price on our standings given our 13-1 aggregate score in the last 3 matches (vs. Mallorca, Alcoyano and Zaragoza) which have all ended in wins.
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For the mean time, I'm opting to take all of these as temporary hiccups and hopefully exchange them for seeing our team peak at just the right time in the season. And  hopefully when that happens, there will no longer be such a thing as 'replacements' in this team anymore.

Alternate Possibilities (Mallorca 0 – RealMadrid 5)

Mallorca 0 – RealMadrid 5. A brace each from Pipita and Ronaldo with Callejon grabbing a late goal as a sub - Now that’s a scoreline from last season’s Real Madrid! The funny thing about last night however was the lineup didn’t function like the Real Madrid of last season: there was no dynamic duo (Ronaldo + Marcelo) on the left side tearing up Mallorca’s right flank and no German Tank in the midfield tearing their attacks apart and subtly knocking cracks onto their defense (Khedira).
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Losing Automation and some answers to Critics
If there is one lesson Madridisimo has learned over the past 2 matches (the 2-0 win vs. Celta and 2-1 loss to Borussia), it’s that the team suffers from a lack of ‘automation’ not just when key players are missing, but also when supposedly ‘secondary’ players go missing. In fact, I’d argue that it is from the team’s ‘supporting cast’ where the seemingly automated playing system comes from – the very platform on which the likes of Ronaldo conduct their attacking show.
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Anti-Madridista critics (many of them Cules) might be smirking at us at the moment telling us ‘well now you know what it’s like!’ over our fullback department becoming fully decimated as a means to compare to Barca having no Central Defenders. The comparison to me is not valid – because where Barca had only ONE layer of competent defenders, we had two: only for both layers of our wing defenders end up getting lost to injuries (as a side point, we saw what their ‘second layer’ of central defenders looked like last night in Fontas – and he was awful). Our means to cope has also resulted in further losses to our midfield department with Essien shuffling over to left back and thus unable to provide the midfield muscle that Khedira normally offers. Thus Madrid’s injury problem at fullback created a two-fold problem: less dynamism on attack in the flanks and lack of depth in the midfield muscle department.
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Real Madrid were made to feel the full force of this two-fold effect last Wednesday at Dortmund where Essien’s lack of familiarity playing as a left back and Madrid’s lack of midfield muscle was exposed. Many Madridistas reacted by pointing the finger to Mourinho – criticizing his decision to opt for Essien at Left Back over the use of Nacho or Casado. I personally found many of the post-Dortmund criticism of Mourinho unfair and lacking in perspective. Mourinho made the decision to face Dortmund with a player whom he trusts with his own children (Essien) at left back and one of the best passing midfielders in the world to replace the injured Khedira in Germany: both decisions are hardly questionable. Had he opted to go with Nacho / Casado from the cantera and seen either of the 2 getting skinned by Marco Reus then we would have suffered not just a loss of 3 points in the CL but also the shattered confidence of 2 youngsters. Hindsight is always 20/20 vision – let’s remember that when we criticize.
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Adapt and Adjust vs. Alternatives
Our usual 4-2-3-1 with our 'attacking superhighway' carved out by Ronaldo + Marcelo indicated with the red cones. This system is designed to allow both Ronaldo and Di Maria to drift diagonally inward to the center in the final third.

The first layer of thinking that many of us thought upon losing Marcelo, Coentrao and Arbeloa + Khedira to injuries was that the players needed to adapt and adjust to each other to play the familiar and incredibly effective 4-2-3-1 system that Mourinho had instituted upon his arrival. A bit of extra effort and razzle dazzle from Ronaldo who would be less supported by his stand-in left back, a bit more tackling from Alonso who lost his assistant Khedira and so forth… All these however were only measures to mitigate the impact of the injury losses through adaptation and adjustments.
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What the team needs however is an ALTERNATIVE means of playing – and last Sunday, this was what we saw Mourinho attempt after his hand was forced by the loss of Khedira at Dortmund. The key players in this new way of playing would be Ramos, Ronaldo, Di Maria and above all, Luka Modric. Below are some of my key observations about the way we played Mallorca:
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Alterations in Wing Play
Seeing Ronaldo and Di Maria switch wings was not unusual – but for the most part, our 2 wingers played as inverted wingers. The right-footed Ronaldo played on the left so he can cut in diagonally to shoot, like the left-footed Di Maria on the right. For Di Maria this situation also sees him drift to the center to help in pressing the opposing midfield. Once we factor in our attacking left-sided full backs (Marcelo / Coentrao) and a defensive-minded right back (Arbeloa), this will result in an asymmetrical system where the left side attacks and the right side is more conservative.
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In our current situation however, the opposite has become true: with our attacking fullback now coming from the right side (Ramos). As a result, Ronaldo and Di Maria are found switching wings more frequently to allow Ronaldo to attack the opposing fullback with Ramos playing as a right-sided Marcelo. Di Maria on the other hand finds himself playing on the left side where his defensive application becomes useful in protecting Michael Essien (whose lack of mastery of the LB position was exposed at Dortmund). While sound in theory, the impact of the switching though seemingly small, might have a significant impact: as the left-footed Di Maria playing on the left might see him hugging the touchline more and looking more to cross than to drift diagonally into the middle. While for the goal-hungry Ronaldo, he will need to find more creative ways to get into scoring positions different apart his previously comfortable left-wing position.
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Alterations in the Center
Real Madrid Formation at Mallorca (2012-10-28). Ronaldo and Di Maria played as true wingers for a seemingly larger part of the match (hugging the touchline) allowing the 3 creative passing midfielders space to 'create' that 'attacking superhighway' (marked by the red cones). Ronaldo and Di Maria (mostly Ronaldo) would then 'ghost' into this zone to streak forward when Madrid burst forward to attack many times combining with Pipita.
The biggest adjustment will of course come through the middle. With our midfield muscle man (Khedira) out and his supposed backup (Essien) filling up at Left Back, Mourinho has no choice but to put to use his vast arsenal of attacking midfield talent (which includes 3 world class 10s). Last Sunday, Mourinho embraced this reality and started with Modric alongside Xabi as a pivot with Ozil ahead of them. Once we factor in Ronaldo and Di Maria playing on switched wings and hugging the touchline more as true wingers (as we saw for majority of the second half) – the pitch opens up at the center for our 3 CMs (Alonso, Modric and Ozil) to operate. Of our 3 CMs, 2 are passing ‘pivots’ (Alonso and Modric) which means that it will be impossible to shut off our team’s passing outlets from deep. Also, of our 3 CMs, 2 are fully capable of making the killer goal-assist-pass (Modric and Ozil): multiplying our ability to create danger through these central positions. Consequently, the opening up of the center also allows our wingers to ‘ghost’ in to the center where they are not expected (while they are playing as true wingers) to make plays through the middle.
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Madrid’s main adjustment will thus be to learn how to play THROUGH the middle: BOTH in counterattacking and in playing a possession-based game. It must be noted that ALL of last Sunday’s goals products of this method of play:
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  • Di Maria playing on the left looping a ball for Pipita to make it 0-1
  • Higuain receiving the ball at the center and laying it for Ronaldo on the right side for 0-2
  • Ronaldo’s long, raking Guti-esque pass through the center for Pipita to make it 0-3
  • Modric evades a defender that results in Pipita sending his own long vertical pass to a racing Ronaldo (barging through the center) to make it 0-4.
  • Ozil is released and ‘crosses’ for Callejon to complete the manita.
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It is of course easy to play like this against weaker sides: all that’s needed is for Modric, Alonso and to a certain extent: Di Maria + the fullbacks to establish an understanding of covering the pitch defensively – something that was clearly well accomplished last Sunday.
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The true test will be if we can play such a system successfully against a team with a very good #10 or with the meanest, baddest, nastiest combo of physical midfield destroyers. This is what will make the ‘return leg’ of the Champions League vs. Dortmund very interesting: if Mourinho will not be playing this system merely as a reaction to injury but as a thought-out strategy from the very beginning. If we succeed: the world better watch out.
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Plan A? Plan B? All of the Above.
Real Madrid's Stats from whoscored.com (in orange) - Our attacks last sunday were more balanced between the left and right flanks. They key stat however was that a big majority of our goalscoring opportunities came smashing right through the center
Mourinho’s Real Madrid has been praised by many. Much of that praise however has irritatingly come with the ‘ummm…. But they’re just a counter-attacking team’ comment. It’s become tiring for Madridistas to have to listen to such commentary from the zealots of the tiki-taka school of pass-turbation – many of whom blindly follow such ideals on the grounds of some obscure notion of ‘philosophy’.
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Either by circumstance (injuries) or by design (a desire for a ‘Plan B’), the signs are there that Mourinho is beginning to (gasp!) tinker with this idea of a possession-based style of play through the middle: using his lateral players to create space that will enable the wealth of creative midfielders he has at his disposal to put their talents to use.
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The successful use of this plan last Sunday night must not be interpreted that we can successfully do this against every team we face – at least not at this point in time. Let’s all admit that last Sunday’s Mallorca side were very off-colour from a Caparros-coached team. Refinements to the execution of this system need to be made especially with regards to coping with creative midfield players of an opponent and with the team's overall defensive solidity against more offensively potent sides.
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But let’s call what we saw last Sunday as it was. It was a Real Madrid side that either by design or by circumstance, was attempting to marry the values of their relentless wing-play-based “formula 1 football” with a more possession-based style that used the ability of their creative midfielders to retain play at the center of the pitch. The result was 5 wonderfully scored goals in line with Madrid's brand of supersonic football but created differently and while using the team's wealth of creative talent at central midfield.
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From our team’s ‘Plan A’ of carving out a thoroughfare on our left wing to allow our Ronaldo to open the opposing defense… last Sunday, we seemed to have developed a ‘Plan B’ where we used our Central Midfield assets to carve out that thoroughfare through the center of the pitch to attack. What happens to the football world then when Mourinho manages to fully figure out how to expand the team’s ‘attacking superhighway’ from Madrid’s narrow left flank all the way to the entire width of the pitch?
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It’s not yet a reality, but if it does come off: then that would be a wonderful, beautiful alternate possibility. Madridisimo waits.

Relief and Belief (Barcelona 2 – Real Madrid 2)


The World's 2 Best Players Putting on Great Displays made Last night's Clasico a real Classic
Last night's Clasico started with a demonstration of the Catalan 'Nation's' desire for independence. Being neither Catalan, nor Spanish, nor both, i was of course far more interested in the footballing demonstrations that took place at the Camp Nou last night. It was a treat for the neutral fan surely – with 2 of the best club sides in the world, featuring the 2 best players in the world trading blows with 2-goal performances. The match ended as a 2-2 draw just as how (I suppose) many had predicted. And though many Cules will be harping endlessly about how all 3 points could have been theirs (over a supposed Iniesta penalty) and that Madrid appeared to be holding on for the final whistle, it’s also easy for Madridistas to come back and make their own penalty claims too (Ozil). I will admit though that I have mixed feelings because though I am relieved at not seeing Barca’s lead swell to 11 points, it’s also difficult for me not to kick myself for thinking that it was more than possible to wake up this morning to see Barca’s lead whittled down to only 5.
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The Big Bad Barca No More
I will surely stoke the ire of many cules when I say this: but on the back of last night’s performance (and the memory of the Supercopa): Barca are absolutely no longer a team to be feared (at least not for Madridistas). Maybe Puyol and Pique might change that… or maybe more time for Tito to put his ideas in – but on the evidence of the Supercup and last night, there is no longer a bone in my body that believes that Barcelona are better than Real Madrid. At this moment, there is absolutely NO DOUBT in me that Real Madrid are better than Barcelona.
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Certain pundits point to the dramatic ‘death’ of the monster Pep Guardiola built. But maybe it’s just familiarity? Maybe it’s just the plain and simple fact that since Mourinho took over, Real Madrid has gradually progressed upwards to match and surpass Barcelona’s level. We must remember that except for Ricardo Carvalho, Mourinho fielded EXACTLY the same lineup last night as he did that fateful night where we were on the receiving end of a 5-0 massacre at the Camp Nou just 2 seasons ago. There was no need for an extra ball-winner, no need for a trivote, no need for extra physicality, no need to play defensively – heck, there wasn’t even a need to play Modric in a bid to keep more possession.
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Last night’s performance was the display of a Real Madrid side who showed the world that they seem to have finally figured Barcelona out. Barca’s 2 goals were not scored out of their brilliance as a team (apparently, I’m not the only one who holds this opinion): the first was off a defensive error (by Pepe). The second was purely from Messi’s individual brilliance – I don’t watch Barcelona regularly so I’m unable to trace when Messi has all of a sudden learned to shoot free kicks as brilliantly as that (I only know that now, Madrid has fallen victim to this weapon of his twice).
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In contrast, Madrid’s goals on the other hand, were a showcase on how Jose Mourinho designed his team to function: intelligent aggressive pressure applied during selected situations in the game, speed of player movement, speed of ball movement, verticality and relentlessness. Where Barca tortured you with the thought that they could score on you at an unappointed time while in one of their seemingly endless spells of ball possession, Madrid on the other hand, made you feel that relinquishing possession of the ball, even if it was just for a few half-moments, could spell instant death.
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Familiarity & Preparation: Madrid Progress, Barca Regress
After once boasting that he doesn't remember being scored on by Cristiano, Valdes has been made accustomed to watching the ball go into his net from a Ronaldo strike


Real Madrid’s midfield and defense were perfectly aware of how Barca were going to attack too, and made their seasoned fans (me included) feel the same way: Iniesta and Fabregas’ runs were marvelously tracked by Madrid’s right flank (Di Maria, Arbeloa and the midfield) and thus made to look predictable. Then, somehow the Real midfield and defense were prepared to see Pedro get released on Barca’s right flank -  because though he created what seemed to be danger, there was always a Madrid player ready to put the fire out. The best part of course was that Messi dropping deep at midfield and ‘ghosting’ into the box was no longer a surprise – it was clear that every Real Madrid defender knew the appropriate way to deal with balls sent into the box and preventing a late Messi run from turning into the goal. The plan was simple: clear it off instantly – only this time, with the boys more familiar with each other, the clearances weren’t just mindless punts – but offense-generating passes to our midfielders or even longballs for our attackers to create instant danger. Barca’s lone goal from open play was a result of Pepe’s error in such a clearance. And in dealing with Messi, Barca's little magician often found himself escorted by a Real Madrid defender into a ‘cluster’ of waiting white shirts whenever he received the ball in outside the box before he could attempt a mazy, Maradona-like dribble to attack.
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The same however, could not be said about Barcelona. Their first tactical failure is their irritatingly stubborn insistence to employ 2 only Centerbacks in their squad (I don’t count Bartra in because they don’t trust him enough to play him). This resulted in having NO PLAYER in their team being taller than 1.8m (6ft) – against a team who have no less than FIVE legitimate aerial threats (Ronaldo, Ramos, Pepe, Benzema, Khedira). They were spared by Ramos’ profligacy in the first half, when the Sevillan’s header went wide after a corner where he was left unguarded. Their second blunder is their naïve insistence in ‘converting’ defensive midfielders and fullbacks (Adriano last night) into Center Backs. Ronaldo’s second goal was a result of a diagonal run across the face of the Barca goal which they failed to deal with while Benzema’s flubbed chance in the first half (that hit the post) was a result of pub league defending by Barca's 'Centerbacks'. Then there’s the most obvious tactical flaw of all: with a weakened central defense and with only one ball-winning midfielder (Busquets), they still had 2 attacking fullbacks cluelessly angling all the time to bomb forward. Ronaldo’s first goal would result from this: putting his foot through the ball first-time off Benzema’s intelligent pass. The Frenchman's pass was of course designed to swing the attacking play quickly from Madrid’s right flank to its more lethal left flank. Watch a replay and you will find Alves at this time 'pretending' that he too was a CB. Barca’s right flank would actually become ‘safer’ with Alves coming off for the more ‘conservative’ Montoya. Benzema’s missed sitter in the first half was also off Madrid’s wing play on the right flank. In the second half, Pipita would send 2 uncontested crosses (the first was an epic fail) from the right only to have no Madrid players in the box to receive them. Note to the world: Barca's flanks are where all the action's at (I'd love to see Bayern's Ribery & Robben have a party there).
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Standouts of the Match
Lionel Messi. Apart from being one goal away from matching Di Stefano’s record of 18 goals scored in clasicos, I as a Madridista would like to applaud Lionel Messi. It’s funny how Real Madrid has over the past 10 years, been known more as a team that relied on the individual brilliance of its players more than its ability to function well as a team. Over the past few clasicos however, it’s been the Barcelona #10 who has been papering over the cracks of the Blaugrana. More than ever, Barcelona are over-reliant on him – with their lack of incisiveness in their play masked by their dominance of possession. This is further masked by Messi's superhuman performances and goalscoring. It now appears to me like their Tiki-Taka has become a marketing ornament rather than the dangerous weapon it once was. For Messi, at the risk of committing Madridista blasphemy, I will say that with what seems to be a nearly perfected free kick technique – I concede that I fear his Free Kick Goal more Ronaldo's. The Barca #10's ‘conventional’ technique of striking the ball after all, seems far more reliable and consistent than CR’s ‘knuckle ball’ technique.
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Cristiano Ronaldo. That’s now a record six consecutive clasicos Cristiano has scored in. Not only has Ronaldo completely shed his reputation as a ‘ghost’ in big games, he has also now become a full-fledged ‘Barcelona Boogie Man’: the kind of player that can have Cules stomachs turning the wrong way at the sight of him bearing down on their goal. I will never forget the silence of the Camp Nou after his first goal last night – it was as if a ghost whose existence they refused to acknowledge has fully made its presence felt to them – totally spooking them out. Ronaldo would also end the match playing through the pain barrier after crashing shoulder-first in an attempt to replicate Benzema’s goal midweek vs. Ajax. It’s a relief that there’s an international break coming up that can hopefully allow him to let that shoulder heal heading into the Celta game, which is merely days before that ominous trip to Dortmund. By the way, that’s now 160 goals in 155 games for Madrid. In 3 seasons, he has managed to become Real Madrid’s 9th all time leading scorer. The word ‘awesome’ doesn’t even begin to describe what he has managed to accomplish in a Real Madrid shirt.
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Mesut Ozil & Kaka. I will admit to the fact that before the game, I really felt that Modric would have been the perfect #10 to be used for last night’s match. Modric I felt, gave Madrid a stronger midfield presence and would allow us the ability to seamlessly shift from a 4-2-3-1 to a trivote. The Croatian would have also been much better at allowing Madrid to retain possession. The choice to go with Ozil despite his questionable form however was an inspired one from Mourinho. Ozil’s mobility and his natural tendency to drift wide allowed us to overload Barcelona’s vulnerable flanks during our attacks. Last night, He was also active with the ball and was effectively able to make some neat passes in advanced positions which allowed Madrid to retain the ball and create danger. It must be noted that last night was the second consecutive Camp Nou clasico in La Liga where he has assisted Ronaldo. As for Kaka, seeing him get sent in for the last 10 minutes is the surest indication that he has fully regained the trust of Mourinho following standout performances against Millionarios, Depor and Ajax. In the dying minutes, the Brazilian tracked back repeatedly while offering Madrid a strong physical presence (he’s got a pretty big frame) to accompany the offensive threat everyone knows he has. It looks like Mourinho will now have THREE world-class 10s in his squad this season.
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Cule Relief… and Madridista Belief
Cristiano's 'Calm Down' Goal Celebration at the Camp Nou is the 21st Century Version of Raul's 'Hush' Goal Celebration. The Camp Nou's silence following Ronaldo's first goal was glorious music to my ears.
While the psychological self-defense mechanisms of Cules have had many of them making a lot of chest-puffing statements, I find myself snickering at remembering the sight of Barcelona’s players and their fans last night having that undeniable look of relief after the game. Deep down inside, many of them know that they got out of jail tonight thanks to Benzema, Di Maria and Ramos’ profligacy in front of goal, coupled with the genius of Messi. I can only hope that other La Liga teams have found some help in what we’ve accomplished last night in terms of learning to capitalize on Barca’s weaknesses.
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On the other hand, for Madridistas like myself, surely many are hearing that irritating, nitpicky voice inside – itching to feel disappointed at missing out on winning and cutting down the Barca lead down to 5. When I consider however that that same voice is probably the one calling for us to sell Benzema and buy Falcao for missing that chance (can y’all imagine if it was Pipa who missed that one?) – I find my level-headed sentiment prevailing and perspective coming back to form. For Real Madrid, the outcome of the match can hopefully be used as fuel for the rest of the season. After all, it is now plain to see that the ‘greatest team in the world’ is clearly not greater than our own Real Madrid.
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Pepe asks the Ref: "If I kiss you, can you forgive me and not give me a yellow card?"