Monday, March 4, 2013

The Boogie Man Cometh (Real Madrid 2 - Barcelona 1)


In our painful 2-6 loss at the Bernabeu some years back, the image of Puyol kissing his captain's armband became a lasting image of the match. Last night, Sergio Ramos erased all that.
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Another Clasico, another win. If the world had any doubts on whether Jose Mourinho or Real Madrid had figured Barcelona out, I’m now pretty sure that all those doubts have now been laid to rest. To make things worse for the cules, last night’s win wasn’t just a display that saw Real Madrid ‘repeat the formula’ of past successes. Because apart from the defense, the side that was fielded last night was essentially a second choice selection – with key players (e.g. Xabi Alonso & Ozil) rested for Tuesday’s clash at Old Trafford. Last night's match was a demonstration that Mourinho's mastery of Barcelona was so complete and so thorough that even his 'B-Side' can get to them. Before the match began, we all pretty much knew that neither team wanted to win for merely 3 points. Barca were playing for redemption and Real Madrid were playing to establish their undoubted supremacy and dominance. The post-match scenes will be remembered for Victor Valdes' furious rant at the referee that saw him get 2 yellows (i.e. a red card, for verbal abuse - which can result in a Sergio Ramos-esque 4 game ban) - what that underscores however is the meaning of the match for Real Madrid. Not only has Real Madrid finally managed to erase the psychological advantage that Barca used to have over them - but they now have in fact turned it around full circle: Real Madrid have now become Barcelona's boogie man.
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Mourinho's game plan turned out to work better than expected: the plan was to keep Barca at bay, to frustrate them and keep them contained... and then to unleash the ultimate Boogie Man (more like monster), Cristiano Ronaldo, to tear up a tired and frustrated Barcelona late in the game. Having scored the early goal delivered a massive blow to Barcelona. Messi's single moment of brilliance equalized it for Barca, yet their impotence for the rest of the match was there for all to see. And when Ronaldo stepped onto the pitch at the hour mark, someone had clearly pressed the panic button for Barcelona as they turned into a hot mess. Ronaldo didn't score despite the many close-chances he had, but his presence clearly frazzled Barcelona as their supposedly beautiful tiki-taka was used instead to mindlessly keep the ball for the sake of it - very obviously afraid that a foiled attack on the Madrid goal could lead to a fatal counterattack.
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Power in the midfield
Without his Bullyboy tactics, Pepe's strength, pace and power are amazing weapons to have in your midfield with him playing as a 'pivot' man.
A look at the listing of the starting XI would have fooled you into thinking that Mourinho had installed a Coentrao-Pepe-Varane-Ramos defensive line with Essien and Modric playing as pivots. Instead, Mourinho opted to retain his recent first-choice defensive line (Coentrao-Ramos-Varane) with Essien playing at Right Back. Pepe was instead asked to reprise his role as a midfield destroyer (he actually created A LOT in the game including a great ball for Morata to have a shot at goal). The thinking was to perhaps track Messi whenever he went deep, but to also physically compensate for the light-weight-looking Modric at midfield. The decision paid off as Pepe, Modric and Essien all had great nights in their respective roles. One would have thought that having 'second choice' players in a critical zone such as the midfield would have affected Real Madrid greatly. Instead, Pepe's pace and power proved to be a great weapon with his tackling raids from deep turning into counter attacking opportunities. Modric looked very much at home during the game was as well while Kaka played neatly and offered verticality in Madrid's play. . 

Undoing Barca's Attempt to Create Width
Callejon was all over Alba last night. While Morata gave did the same to Alves on the other flank.
Last night's clasico was the first time in a long time that saw the match scheduled during a digestible timeslot (11pm). As such, the local sports channels finally gave it the sort of attention a Premier League match gets. Doing a pre-match analysis for Singapore's Star Sports was former Liverpool midfielder Steve McMahon. He cleverly analyzed and likened Madrid's defensive line to a series of soldiers attached to a string - perpetually coordinated in their movements, and most importantly, attached close to each other to deny any midfield runs between the defenders. Real Madrid openly ceded space on the flanks, daring them to raid the flanks and send crosses into the box - who was gonna get to them? The 5'9 Messi? Roura's adjustment prior the match was the use of David Villa for the match - more comfortable to make diagonal runs from the flanks rather than re-create the midfield clusterfuck from last week's midweek match at the Camp Nou. With Pedro + Alves on the Right and Alba + Villa on the Left, Roura's adjustment from the CDR semi-final was to give his team width on both sides in a a bid to force Madrid's defense to open wide for his midfield runners and Messi to knife through.
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It was in this instance where Mourinho's decision to choose a 'B-side' worked to its absolute perfect advantage. In the place of Di Maria and Ronaldo were Jose Callejon and Alvaro Morata respectively. Unlike their first-choice counterparts,  both canteranos were not expected to dazzle in attack (to merely contribute was enough), but were in fact, expected to follow Mou's instructions to the letter - and that's exactly what they did. Roura's supposed 'improvement' to the team (the inclusion of David Villa) failed to bear fruit as Villa's diagonal runs from deep brought the asturian right into Michael Essien's realm, while any support offered by Jordi Alba to provide Barca with additional width was thwarted by Callejon who was on him all game long like a virus. I can only suppose that Alba's disgusting behavior to celebrate Messi's goal (giving the Bernabeu crown the middle finger) was borne of his frustration. On the left side, it was business as usual with Pedro unable to make a nuisance of himself against Coentrao while his fullback support Alves was tracked by a much bigger and defensively committed Alvaro Morata. Both canteranos showed the world the sort of effort and determined play that we Madridistas want to see from them. They were tireless both in attack and in defense. You can't fault Barcelona in this game for being too narrow - they did try to spread the pitch open, it just didn't work because of our 2 boys who bleed white.
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Target Man #11 
Morata assisted the opening goal and had some great chances to score last night. I will remember his performance however largely for his role as a 'Target Man-Winger'
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Alvaro Morata deserves special mention. There will be those who irritatingly sneer at him for failing to score on 2 great chances that fell to him (Pepe's great forward pass and Modric's perfectly placed looping cross) - but those critics forget that he's only 19 and that he hasn't been given a lot of playing time this season. What I found particularly interesting in the way that he plays as a left-sided winger (a role, as I understand, that he plays now and again apart from his usual striking role) is how he actually uses his height and physical build to intepret his role as a left winger and fuse it with aspects of Center Forward play such as being a target man. Over and over throughout last night's match, Diego Lopez and a variety of Real Madrid's outfield players would send long looping balls to Morata for the youngster to, with his back to the goal and his defender, chest down and hold up the ball and created lop-sided attacking opportunities. CBs are of course trained to  deal with Center Forwards playing with their back to the goal and functioning as a Target Man. Fullbacks however are not - and Morata's ability / knack / tendency to do this proved to be disturbing for Barcelona's defenders. All in all, I felt that Morata played a heck of a game: his pace impressed me, his crossing ability impressed me, his ball control impressed me, his work rate impressed me and his confidence level amazed me.
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Look who concedes a headed goal late in the game yet again.
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Pissing into the Fruit Punch
Despite this loss, it's almost a complete certainty that Barcelona will go on to win La Liga. Their lead over us is at 13 points and even if other teams manage to replicate Mourinho and Allegri's tactics to blunt Barcelona and perhaps even grab a couple of points here and there, they will still likely win La Liga. If that's a foregone conclusion, then let it be so, their chances of getting themselves out of the bind they created for themselves vs. Milan seems unlikely whilst their Copa Del Rey campaign (no matter how much they like to dismiss it as 'unimportant') is over. Come the end of May, Barcelona will be celebrating their La Liga title... but by beating them in this manner for 2 consecutive matches, it is as if we will be pissing into their victory party's fruit punch. And boy does that feel good.
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For Jose Mourinho, who was hired not just to win silverware, but also to destroy Barca's hegemony, whether you like him or hate him, you can't deny it's mission accomplished in that sense. Not only is the Barca air of supremacy gone, it has also now been replaced by Madrid's brooding and intimidating presence looming above them. We are back to becing their Boogie Men. And boy does that feel really good.
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p.s. Re: Their Penalty claim at the end of the match: my take on it is that Sergio Ramos DID stick his leg out.... but Adriano (who was clearly looking for a penalty) leaped ABOVE Ramos' leg, avoiding contact in the process... thus no penalty.

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