Thursday, December 20, 2012

Merry Christmas Everyone!

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to Everyone out there!

How NOT to be a Champion (Real Madrid 2 – Espanyol 2)


If my memory serves me correctly, this is the first time I’ve seen my beloved Real Madrid pretty much lose La Liga in December (or even before that). There have been worse Real Madrid sides in the past – that’s for sure… but there hasn’t been a better Barca side than this one. And when you put the 2 side-by-side each other in a league competition, the chasm between the 2 just grows larger and larger. This is not just because of Barca’s greatness (see how they replied ‘tsss… come on’ to those who asked if Tiger Falcao’s Atleti could even put a dent on them), but also because of Real Madrid’s hemorrhaging. Real Madrid are not just hemorrhaging points and goals, more importantly, our beloved team’s championship material is also bleeding out.
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Sure, there were plenty of bright spots last night:
-Ronaldo scored playing as a pseudo-striker. Though he was listed on paper as the striker for the night, he interchanged positions to with Callejon and Ozil to play as a winger for many stretches of the match. Real Madrid, ended up shifting back and forth from a 4-2-3-1, to a 4-4-2, to a 4-2-2-2 because of this.  He was wrestled Greco-Roman Style during pretty much every corner, had his shirt tugged every time he tried to run with the ball but still managed a goal and an assist. He now ties Puksas’ Real Madrid goalscoring record.
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-Callejon was listed as a winger at the start of the game but played a lot of minutes up front as a striker and as mentioned in discussing Ronaldo above, often found himself playing alongside the Portuguese winger upfront as a striker duo. The stints of Callejon up front however reveal that he's really not suited for this position. His pace is useful when attempting to play off the shoulder of the last defender but that's pretty much the only trick in his book when playing that position. Vanilla Joe can finish, he's got pace and he's unselfish, but I just find that he's incapable of providing that all-important reference point which a striker needs to do.
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-Coentrao played quite well in my opinion. It was for me, the first time that Coentrao has managed to bring his play for his national team into his club. Last Sunday, he showcased his acceleration and aggressiveness on attack almost to a Marcelo level (which we don't normally see when he plays for Madrid) and his efforts were duly rewarded with a goal.
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Xabi Alonso and Khedira had plenty of good moments in the game too. Khedira looks to be showing more and more of the role he plays for the National Team into Madrid (just like Coentrao): he takes the ball forward more comfortably when receiving those 'exit balls' from teammates in a bind and links play forward. For Xabi, I found myself speaking to the television frequently last Sunday: "Wow!" "Nice Pass!" "What a pass" at Xabi's lovely raking vertical passes which seamlessly travel through the tiniest gaps between opposing players and onto our front 4.
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Ozil and Modric played well too if you  think about it. Ozil was his usual tricky, wily self: his crouching posture with that slightly lowered head (like a viper about to strike) with the ball is now very familiar - but still unreadable, as to whether he'll go left, right and as to where to who he will thread the ball to.  The Croatian on the other hand reminds me of Bayern's Toni Kroos in many ways: playing between the pivots and behind the striker but many times, sitting deeper than your usual #10, giving the midfield a stronger presence and often drawing one of the opposing pivots with him. Modric doesn't hesitate to go forward though and just like Ozil, he's an assist (or a shot) waiting to happen when between the lines.
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Mourinho's decision to sub Modric for the out-of-form Di Maria baffled me at first initially (I thought Modric was playing well and deserved his place on the pitch). But DI Maria's performance (he wasn't bad) and his added tactical function (width) clearly improved the team in the second half and was instrumental in creating many chances.
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It is here where I find myself puzzled. The tactics were ok, The player performances were generally good. But here we are needlessly dropping points again. It is because of this that I find the simplistic tendency of pointing fingers at specific players or at the manager's tactics to be a very superficial way of perceiving the situation, nevermind mindlessly calling for the signing / sale of certain players. It's a team problem.  It is a problem with the team's mental / psychological mindset that has, as mentioned above, resulted in the hemorrhaging of the team's championship character: the team has forgotten how to be a champion. Last Sunday's performance was a display of all the symptoms that the team had UNLEARNED the necessary lessons on being a Champion.
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SYMPTOM #1 - Fail to win at home vs. an out-of-form bottom side
Imperfection is a human quality. As such, it's understandable to see hiccups. Football teams are no different... even champion football sides. As such, though it's disappointing to drop points to places like the Ciutat De Valencia (Levante), Sanchez Pizjuan (Sevilla) or the Reyno De Navarre (Osasuna), there remains an iota of 'understandable-ness' to it. Certain grounds are really tough places to play in. Heck, even the pre-relegation Riazor (Depor) was deemed to be a cursed ground for Real Madrid. Playing at home however against such sides is a totally different thing altogether. Espanyol are a struggling team: they sell their best players every year and rely on loan opportunities and are now starting to prematurely promote youth teamers just to make up squad numbers.  They are struggling to the point where they have had to sack their coach and are now just learning the ropes under ex-Atleti coach Aguirre. We didn't play them at their home base at the heart of Catalunya (Barcelona) - we played them on our turf. Champion teams will occasionally struggle against spirited bottom sides when playing away in front of their voracious crowd support... but Champion teams are supposed to beat such teams when playing at home, if not wipe the floor with these bottom teams.
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SYMPTOM #2 - Amateur Night on Defense
I watched the first half of Liverpool vs. Aston Villa on Saturday Night. Liverpool started the match dominating it, keeping possession on the ball and going forward with dangerous intent only to be sucker punched on the counter against the run of play thanks to the brilliance of Benteke (who score the first and assisted Villa's second). For Real Madrid on Sunday, it was the pony-tailed ex-La Roja striker Sergio Garcia who would torment us, always looking for the slightest drop in concentration or error to exploit. our defenders and midfielders are particularly guilty of this. Liverpool are a side with a new manager learning a brand new system languishing in 12th place in the Premier League. Real Madrid have been under Mourinho for 3 seasons now, won the league title last season and is not a side 'under construction'. It's embarrassing to be comparing ourselves to them but look at us! The comparison (which is an insult) is clearly deserved! Let's not even talk about Espanyol's second goal - sides who concede goals like that normally get relegated.
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SYMPTOM #3 - Fail to Capitalize on Chances Created
Call it luck, call it form. Call it whatever you want. Real Madrid created enough chances to win last Saturday Night but didn't capitalize on enough of them to win. I will insult Real Madrid once again by making yet another comparison to Liverpool: apart from the #7 (Suarez for Liverpool and Ronaldo for us), there aren't enough alternative goal scorers on the team. Part of what made us La Liga champions last season was that our 'tridente' of Ronaldo, Benzema and Higuain were all amongst the top scorers in La Liga (in contrast to Barca's Messi-dependencia).  This season, Barca solved their goalscoring problem by having Messi score even more (at least twice in every game), while on our side, while Ronaldo's scoring numbers are still great, Higuain and Benzema are injured and we are relying on defenders (e,.g. Coentrao) to score. Except if he's Messi, a team with only one legitimate reliable goal-scorer is not going to win you a league title.
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SYMPTOM #4 - Downshift while the Opponent is on the Back Foot
For a while there, I genuinely thought that the team was going to showcase its championship credentials last Saturday night. After getting sucker-punched early in the first half, Real Madrid equalized just at the stroke of halftime, dealing a massive psychological blow to Espanyol. Then at 48' we take the 2-1 lead, completely shattering Espanyol - undoing all the great work they did so far. What followed was an exciting sequence of Real Madrid's brand of Formula 1 football - dazzling wing play, one touch vertical attacking sequences and so forth. For a while, you thought that last season's Real Madrid was going to turn up with their message to the opponent under such circumstances: "So, you dare to score on us!? F%ck You!" Then Bam! 5 goals right down their throat and game over. That wasn't what happened last Saturday though - Real Madrid said their line, threatened Espanyol with a host of goalscoring chances... and then.... they downshifted, allowed the fast pace of the game (that favored them SO MUCH) to ebb away and complacently allowed time to tick away, contented with a one goal lead. Everyone knows what followed.
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SYMPTOM #5 - Put a Remontada to Waste
What followed was that we put a Remontada to waste. There's a sense of inevitability that comes with Championship-winning sides (like how we were last season), that makes opponents feel like there is no way to stop you once you've turned it on and you're going for your opponents' throat. Real Madrid are a team who boasts that 'remontada legacy'. We're supposed to be the team that makes other sides feel powerless once we decide that we want to take something from them... that even after taking a few (or many) hits, it is still never a guarantee for an opponent that they can walk away with what they've taken from us. Last Saturday, we didn't live up to that. Last Real Madrid's performance was that of a poser's: a display of muscle-flexing, posturing, but without the ability to follow through on the threat that we made.
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AS' Alfredo Relano preferred to look at Mourinho's decision to turn up at the post-match press conference as an act of discourtesy. Having read what he said after the match however, I found Mourinho's statements revealing of how deflated he felt ("I have never been in a situation like this, to lose so many points and take the team so far from their objectives"). Let's call it what it is already: Real Madrid's objectives now will be to try to finish 2nd (to avoid having to go through early qualification rounds for CL), and go for the 2 cups: (CDR and CL). Many have mentioned that our last 2 Champions League triumphs came on the back of failed La Liga seasons. Last season's winners Chelsea also had a miserable League campaign last season. I personally consider such matters to be circumstantial: because the key to all of this is the team's mental edge which is clearly bleeding away. I am not keen go into conspiracy theories about the Portuguese vs. Spanish faction soap opera theory, or Ronaldo's sadness or even speculation on Mourinho's future (he after all received a very strong show of public support from Florentino last week). We do all know however (as I'm sure he also knows himself) that an issue such as mental edge is well and truly part of his job scope. Maybe he should sell someone, maybe he should take them for a BBQ again, maybe he needs to take the boys to Vegas, maybe he needs to lock them all into a torture chamber.
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Whatever he does, the key to all this is very simple: to teach the boys individually and collectively what they've clearly all forgotten... how to be Champions again.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Stick Shift Driving (Real Valladolid 2 - Real Madrid 3)

What a dissappointing weekend for for the Filipino sporting fan. I write this now merely hours after seeing Manny Pacquiao literally swallow straight right-handed punch to his chin c/o Juan Manuel Marquez in a loss that pretty much marks the watershed moment in the Pacman's career that spells its end or depending on how he plays his cards, spells the beginning of its end. And just last night, hours before Real Madrid's match at the Zorilla, the Philippine national football team only managed a 0-0 against Singapore at home soil in the semi-final of the ASEAN Football Championships (Suzuki Cup) with the return leg this Wednesday here in Singapore. Thankfully, Real Madrid spared me from going 0/3 last night.
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Same Old Virus
The Sky Sports UK guys who were doing the commentary during the broadcast of last night's match, were calling in the old cliches: They were saying that Real Madrid were vulnerable last night because they said firstly, we were playing away from home, and secondly, we were playing on the back of a midweek Champions League match. "But I thought they played second stringers midweek vs. Ajax?" my wife asked me when I cited the Sky commentators' explanations for Madrid's shoddy set piece defending. If your wife who doesn't follow football closely enough can see through the mindlessness of some of the punditry that's going on, then something's really wrong with some of them (apart from the fact that I have a wonderfully insightful spouse). Putting aside the theories of Gerry Armstrong & co., I can only come to the same conclusion that many Madridistas have known all along: that our team is not yet fully cured of our 'Dead Ball Virus'. Both goals which were scored by Manucho featured some ridiculous defending by our CBs and Alonso who were all rested midweek vs. Ajax. This is particularly worrying for a team whose aspirations for silverware are pretty much hinged in cup competitions where away goals you concede tend to bite you in the ass. The inability of Mourinho, his coaching staff and the players to kill off this 'deadball disease' is a disturbing sign as it is very easy to imagine getting dumped out of the CDR or the CL over dumbass goals conceded in that manner.
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Finding the Bright Spots
It's not difficult though to find the bright spotS in last night's match. Apart from enjoying myself as a witness to these moments, I also felt a bit of poetic justice being rendered upon those who made many out-of-perspective remarks re: the likes of Ozil, Callejon and of course, Mourinho. It's totally understandable to be upset at the fact that we conceded 2 goals off set pieces the way we did, or by the fact that we actually allowed ourselves to go behind as a result of those 2 goals... but to win despite being under such difficult circumstances is important. Make no mistake about it: Valladolid played well: their set pieces were spot on, and were very compact when they didn't have the ball with their defensive and midfield lines close to each other and sitting deep to effectively prevent us rom building our attacks which generally require 'build up space' to gather momentum. Real Madrid also benefitted from the injury of Patrick Ebert who was doing very well until he needed to be subbed off. Performances like last night's by teams like Valladolid put the Liga De Mierda 'Shit League' descriptions of La Liga literally to shit as it showcases that small teams in La Liga are completely capable of putting together impressive physical, tactical and technical performances to frustrate the likes of Madrid and Barca (it will happen soon enough this season) into mistakes and make them vulnerable.
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It is in moments like last night where championship character has to show itself in teams. Where simply having more talented players is far from enough to win the 3 points. Amateurish-loss-of-concetration-to-concede-goals aside, having the stomach to recover from an early deficit is a critical quality for a championship side, nevermind 2 deficits. It's also important to note that the team has been out of its comfort zone for majority of this campaign - given the many games we've seen makeshift defenses (no Marcelo), makeshift midfields (no Khedira) and even the loss of options upfront (no Higuain): and this is what makes last night's 'double remontada' important and filled with the feel-good factor that it has: because the team didn't come back merely by just playing with more intensity - they did so playing out of their comfort zone, without having the familiar players in their familiar positions doing the things we see usually see them do. The second goal (Ozil's first for the night) comes to mind as the play leading up to the goal looked more like it was out of a  Barcelona playbook - little space to run, tight passing, lots of 1-2 exchanges within a sea of Valladolid defenders' legs between highly technical players and a goal where the scorer literally 'passes' the ball into the goal. It was a reflection of the positive qualities of Madrid that shone last night, capable of reinventing itself to meet the demands of the occasion, with players who step up (Ozil, with 2 goals last night has now scored 5 goals in his last 7 games) when the usual suspects (Ronaldo) are shackled.
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Stick Shift Driving
Credit for last night's success must go to the very-talked-about Jose Mourinho. He has of course come under fire from many Madridistas for his exuberant and controversial ways. But shockingly, criticism of his tactics has also come with some even making statements (which in my opinion are ridiculous!) that he's slipping tactically or that his substitutions are all useless. My reply to those statements is simple: managers will make changes when they feel those changes are necessary - sometimes they come off, sometimes they don't. The outcomes of those changes however are not solely down the tactical nature of those changes - sometimes they're counteracted by the opponent, or sometimes the players on the pitch were unable to execute the plan... heck sometimes the plan actually works but just doesn't produce the goal/s. The bottom-line about such matters however is this:  Managers who have tactical nous in the game are plenty. Managers who have tactical nous and with the right dosage of boldness however are rare. Or perhaps it's not just about boldness?... but rather, the ability to know when to go another gear higher and when to downshift. Mourinho's performance as a coach last night, was a tour de force in this regard.
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After Halftime: it looks exactly like Mourinho's usual preferred XI - except with Callejon playing for Marcelo
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The First 'Up Shift' (4-2-3-1 with Callejon as LB) or a 3-5-2? Mourinho started with his familiar 4-2-3-1 with Nacho where Marcelo normally is and with Callejon given a start ahead of Di Maria both as a reward to Vanilla Joe for his impressive showing against Ajax and as a stern message to Di Maria that he has been piss poor these past several matches. With the score at 2-2 after halftime though, one would have thought that Mourinho would have had his boys stay with their current system to see if it was possible to get that game clinching goal with his current system. Instead, veering away from his reputation as a 'safety-first' tactician, Mourinho instead opted to send in Di Maria... for Nacho(!), pushing Callejon from his role as an attacking wide midfielder to (gasp!) left back. I was honestly trying to see if Mourinho had actually opted for a back 3, but alas, it genuinely looked like a 4-2-3-1 with Callejon at left back in what I can only interpret as Mourinho's attempt to have Callejon attempt to interpret Marcelo's role. It might have seemed to be a nutty idea, but the truth is that having the pacy, aggressive, but disciplined-and-hard-working Callejon as an attacking fullback wasn't as 'wild' an idea as it seemed to be.
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Another Gear Higher: Alonso plays as a ball-playing CB while Modric, with his playmaker's mentality offers another goal-assist threat from deep. It actually also somewhat looks like a 3-4-1-2.
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The Next 'Up Shift' (4-2-3-1 with Alonso as CB) or a 3-5-2? At 62' and still without a goal to get the lead, Mourinho cranked it up offensively another gear, sending in Luka Modric for Arbeloa - pushing Ramos to the right with Alonso and Pepe as Centerbacks with Alonso presumably playing a similar role to Busquets at Barca when dropping deep to be part of the Central Defensive Line, playing the role of ball-playing CB, to allow Modric to be the midfield distributor. This change is also significant particularly in light of Modric's performance midweek vs. Ajax (I managed to see a late replay): because even as the Croatian was playing as a pivot, he still has the mentality of a playmaker (keen to deliver the goal-assist) rather than the ball distributor (ala Xabi). Thus, the change also provides Mourinho's men a player capable of delivering killer pass from deep: a useful tool against a compact defense sitting deep. Madrid's far more offensive posture as a result of this substitution not only produced the winning goal (Ozil's free kick) but also one disallowed despite being a perfectly valid goal (Ramos was NOT offside).
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Downshift Mode: 4-2-3-1 with Varane on for Benzema, goes to RB, Ronaldo pushes as the lone striker, Ozil plays as an 'inside right', Modric pushes up as the '10' and Alonso slots back into his familiar pivot role.
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Downshift With the lead secure, Mourinho made his final change, 'closing the shop' by sending in Varane (for Benzema) to play RB thus allowing Ramos to revert back to his familiar place alongside Pepe. Ronaldo then pushed up to play as the lead striker with Di Maria (Left), Modric (10) and Ozil (Right) behind him - right back to a more defensively oriented 4-2-3-1 to keep secure.
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Making use of each substitution and putting each one to great effect, I can only imagine that it was the sort of performance by a coach that is shown in coaching clinics and in workshops on tactics. All of that of course would also not be possible without Mourinho having the right pieces on the pitch on the first place: namely Ronaldo (who plays both as winger and striker), Ozil (who can play as a wide midfielder apart from the '10'), Ramos (who plays as RB and CB) and of course, Callejon - who tactically speaking, was the key to it all. It would have been easy for the 'experiment' to blow up in Mou's face had Calleti playing at LB been exploited, but it was a combination of the team's overall play as well as Vanilla Joe's combination of work rate + defensive accountability that made it all work.
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It may well likely be that when I wake up tomorrow, Barcelona will right back to being ahead of us by 11 points and Atleti by 5 with Messi having finally matched or broken Torpedo Muller's goalscoring record (I honestly don't care), but I'd rather look at our team an point to the team's achievements last night. Yes we defended like school children for many parts of the game, but we came back. Twice. And won. And did so playing waaaaaay out of our comfort zone - both for the players and the manager. Perhaps in the big picture, we might not be able to overhaul that 11 point lead, but looking at last night's match just from the rectangular panel of my television alone, I can say that I'm happy and proud with what my team did out there last night.

Action and Reaction (Manchester City 1 - Real Madrid 1)

Having been able to eke out a 1-1 draw at the Etihad stadium, together with Borussia Dortmund's 1-4 trouncing of Ajax, Real Madrid booked their ticket to the last 16 of the Champions League. First place in the 'group of death' or rather 'group of champions' did not go to us as many had expected, but the milestone is one to look at for us Madridistas as something positive. I'll admit though that I'm trying really hard to overlook the fact that we have failed to win in the Champions League in the last 3 matches.
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The Madrid press, together with Mourinho (who celebrated his 100th Champions League match as a manager) are once again irritatingly deflecting all attention towards last night's refereeing decisions: referring to the numerous times where fouls on Ronaldo weren't called and of course the penalty that was awarded to Manchester City to tie the game. People seem to forget that penalties are awarded for such incidents (even if we deem them to be 'soft') and that Real Madrid also have themselves to blame for their failure to put the game to bed with a 2nd or 3rd goal. Having said that, it must be noted Real Madrid played generally well and must be given due credit for their performance last night which clearly deserved more than a single point. The point re: the performance of Real Madrid becomes important for the simple fact that the match featured an interesting Action-and-Reaction sequence with regards to tactics - and that Real Madrid played in a manner that showcased the futility of Mancini's plan to foil us tactically.
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Man City Goes with 3 at the Back (3-3-2-2 vs. 4-2-3-1)
My notes during the early part of the first half: The Tactical Matchup at the beginning of the match: Man City's 3-5-2 vs. Real Madrid's 4-2-3-1. City's defense had a considerable numerical advantage in anticipation for Ronaldo + Di Maria. Their execution however was poor.

The first meeting of the 2 sides saw Real Madrid successfully mauling the English club over our team's extensive use of its attacking resources on the flanks. Roberto Mancini's  statements praising Ronaldo before the match, coupled with his decision to opt for 3 (or 5) at the back last night was the surest sign that he was wary of the threat offered by Ronaldo + Di Maria. With 3 (or 5) at the back, the key protagonists in the match for Mancini were his wingbacks (Maicon & Kolarov) and how they could manage to simultaneously threaten Madrid and ensure that there is always a spare man when defending. The numbers game in defending would have been simpler: If Ronaldo AND Coentrao would attack on Madrid's right, the idea was to allow Maicon to pick up Coentrao's run while Ronaldo (with presumed support from Benzema) would be covered 3 vs. 2 by City's CBs. The tactical plan seemed very sound indeed. But alas, it's success would have to depend on how well City's players could execute the plan - and therein lay the problem.
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A look at the match's opening goal by Benzema however was a blatantly clear sign that all best laid plans are meaningless if they're not executed properly: Di Maria was given all the time and space in the world to serve up a tasty cross for Benzema to half-volley home behind a sleepwalking Maicon. Real Madrid would make mincemeat of Man City's defensive strategy many more times during the early stages of the first half with Ronaldo once again being the protagonist serving up Sami Khedira twice. How strange it is to find Manchester City thoroughly prepare a defensive plan to protect the flanks against Madrid only to see those very same flanks torn open due to the defensive ineptitude of their own players? Real Madrid's countered dangerously forward with menacing vertical runs and passes, many times along the very same flank positions Man City were supposedly protecting. It is in this regard where we must give a tremendous amount of credit for Ronaldo as well: he may have not scored, but he surely put City's back to the wall
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Credit must also go to Mourinho for making the right choice of picking Modric to start the game instead of Ozil. Though both are essentially playmakers, the Croatian tends to play deeper and was thus always in front of Toure. Having Ozil on the pitch (who tends to play much higher) would have allowed Toure to push forward and support Silva and Nasri more to put pressure on Alonso + Khedira. Khedira was once again the attacking surprise package - with his rampaging runs from deep catching City by surprise many times.
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Switching to a Back 4 and playing more Through the Center
Man City changes to a back 4 in the final third of the first half. Kolarov would be replaced by Javi Garcia (who would take his place at the center of the pitch) and allow Nasri and Silva to play as twin playmakers behind Aguero and Dzeko.

Mancini's '3/5 at the back' plan though sound in theory was left utterly in shambles thanks to his team's poor execution. Thus, being in need of a goal, he switched his formation on-the-fly without substitutions in the latter stages of the first half: going to a back 4 with Zabaleta at LB. the result was an asymmetrical 4-4-2 with Silva on the right drifting inwards and Kolarov pushing up as a true-blue wide midfielder. The formation gave City a stronger presence in the middle and allowed them to take control of the game more. It didn't take long however, before Madrid regained their bearings once again and snap into the dangerous counter attacking mode that threatened City once again. And at the start of the second half, Mancini would send RM Castilla graduate Javi Garcia in for Kolarov - turning them into a full-fledged 4-2-2-2 with Toure + Garcia at the middle with Silva and Nasri as midfield schemers playing behind 2 strikers. At this point I had one thought: Mourinho had finally managed to push Mancini into a situation that the Portuguese favors - with City playing a narrow possession-based game that allowed our wingers space to hit them on the counter. Mourinho would later on send Callejon on for Modric to confront Mancini's narrow 4-4-2 (4-2-2-2) with his own wide 4-4-2 with Callejon on the left, Di Maria on the right and Ronaldo + Benzema up front.
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It didn't happen though. To their credit, City kept the ball well and was able to successfully use their 'midfield platform' (comprised of their 2 hulking midfielders Toure and Garcia) for Silva to operate. Edin 'Don't-call-me-a-super-sub' Dzeko, who is built like a classic #9, showcased his mobility and drifted wide several times to send some tasty crosses in which weren't converted into goals. Madrid on the other hand continued to threaten on the break: in the second half however, Di Maria had a very poor game. El fideo would finish the game with a paltry 51% pass completion rate.
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The internet now allows us to freeze time and capture moments of people being such dickheads.
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The Real Madrid hero for me however would be (surprise!) Ronaldo. He bitched and moaned over calls which didn't go his way much to the amusement of the City fans. Ronaldo also failed to score last night. It was Ronaldo however who personified the kind of lethal threat on the counter which Mourinho envisioned his team to pose once the onus to score fell to of Man City. It was the sort of performance that would surely have pleased a coach even if it would fail to do so for a casual fan who merely judges players by the number of goals they scored. I'm also pleased to see him attempting chips over the keeper over his low-power shots (which tend to be deflected given certain game situations). His chip over Hart last night was just a yard away from crossing the goal before being cleared by Nastasic. Ronaldo also successfully 'led the line' as the lone striker in a 4-4-1 formation after Arbeloa's sending off and even managed to give the Sky Blues many nervy moments during our counter-attacking opportunities.
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Other Anecdotes
-How about that wonder-save by Casillas eh? That was a moment right out of the Iker-when-he-was-21 scrapbook.
-I honestly thought Varane would play as CB when he was sent in - instead he played as a RB. Albiol played as a 3rd CB when he came on. Mourinho will take comfort in the fact that Madrid has finally pulled off a rearguard action successfully in an away match against a top team in European competition - it might just prove to be the sort of experience our team needs once we go to the last 16 and beyond.
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Prospects
Mourinho has pointed to the curious fact that his 2 Champions League trophies were won from campaigns that started with only a 2nd place berth from the group stage. Interestingly, in both instances, his teams came in 2nd to Spanish Teams (Madrid and Barca respectively). One of the interesting points for me however will be the implication of having a 2nd place seeding on the elimination ties. Holding a second seed will mean that the ties will be played at the Bernabeu first and the away leg will be played after. This might actually be the sort of situation that favors the cautious Mourinho more given his propensity to opt to 'defend' a lead during the tie once its gained - and in a situation where the second leg is at home, the fear of conceding an away goal later in the tie tends to work against a team with Mourinho's mentality (e.g. what happened against Bayern). I would like to think that playing the first leg in the Bernabeu will naturally force Madrid to play more aggressively in the first leg while the urgency to win and secure the tie with an away goal in the second leg might work better psychologically for our team.
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Another point to consider as well is that for Mourinho's past 2 CL campaigns with Madrid, apart from Bayern and Barca, our opponents have not necessarily been the cream of Europe's crop. This campaign however has seen us face up against elite teams in the early stages and seems to promise more of the same (in lieu of our 2nd seeding) for the next phase of the competition. Thus, it doesn't just become about making victory sweeter, but also about conditioning the team mentally, physically and tactically for the competition.
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The campaign's focus will shift back to La Liga on Saturday away to Betis. The next pair of midweek games are now essentially dead rubbers (at home vs. Alcoyano in the CDR and Ajax in the CL): time for Mourinho to prep the likes of Mssrs. Varane, Callejon,  Rodriguez (Jose & Jesse) and Morata for those. And as for Mssrs. Pepe and Ramos, maybe it's time prepare contemplating Mr. Falcao's impending visit to the Bernabeu too.