Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Signs of Life (Galatasaray 1 – Real Madrid 6)

Con esta espectacular imagen recibieron los aficionados del Galata a los dos equipos.
'Hell Freezes Over': The hugely impressive banner of the Galatasaray Fans sought to spook us. Slightly past the halfway point of the second half though, the stadium known as 'hell' began to empty after the spanking our boys handed to their team.
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Don’t be Deceived by the Scoreline. 
Don’t be Deceived by the performance.
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Real Madrid did not play as well as the 6-1 scoreline suggested , but neither did we play as poorly as our dour first half seem to indicate either. The truth re: our team’s performance in my opinion,  is somewhere in between.
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Make no mistake about it though: last night’s result was utterly significant. It was supposedly Real Madrid’s first win at Istanbul and ‘biggest’ away win scoreline in the Champions League. It was also the team’s first ‘big’ score line in the Ancelotti era after a couple of sputtering wins and a draw in La Liga and Cristiano Ronaldo’s first goalscoring ‘explosion’ in the Ancelotti era. Real Madrid were in desperate need of a win with such an emphatic scoreline... that it came on opening night of the 2013-2014 Champions League campaign in what was supposedly a difficult stadium to play in, was absolutely huge for the team.
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(Slightly) Improved Possession Game... but with goals scored c/o Counterattacks
Average Positions of Real Madrid last night (c/o uefa.com). The team essentially looked like an asymmetrical 4-4-2 with a wide man on the right (Di Maria) and a playmaker in an 'inside left' position (Isco)

Carlo Ancelotti didn't fuss about with personnel or tactics last night. He started to me what looked like a 4-3-3. At central midfield, it was Isco-Modric-Khedira with Modric playing as the team's main ball distributor as Isco tucked closer to his left at the center shuffling up and down while Khedira was to the Croatian's right, providing muscle and ball-winning functions to the middle. Up front, it was Ronaldo-Benzema-Di Maria. 
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In practice however, the lineup, much similar to what we've seen at La Liga thus far, has gradually mutated into an asymmetrical 4-4-2: with Ronaldo surging forward to play as a striker and Di Maria withdrawing slightly from the right, almost in line with Isco - providing Madrid with a wide man on the right (Di Maria) and a playmaker 'tucked in' on the left (Isco).
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Playing a possession-game in this particular match was always going to be difficult given that Galatasaray lineup up as a 4-3-1-2 (or a 4-4-2 with a narrow diamond): packing the middle with 4 CMs (including Sneijder) behind 2 strikers: Drogba, a muscular target man and Yilmaz, a more mobile stiker playing the channels. Thus, the outcome of the midfield battle was a bit fuzzy during the start of the game - and it was not helped by the fact that both teams played at a level that someone on twitter described as ' at the pace of a charity game' during the first 20-35 minutes. This is the fault of both sides in particular as both the Turks and Madrid were seemed to be unnecessarily but casually and cautiously feeling their way through the game. There were moments of danger created by Galatasaray's Felipe Melo here and there - but by and large it started as a dour affair because of both sides.
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It's interesting to note that things only began to tighten up into a proper high-level European clash when the first goal was scored. Even more interesting is the fact that the goal created seemed to be play right off Mourinho's playbook - A long, looping direct pass from deep targeting an attacking midfield runner (Isco), who controls beautifully, bamboozles his defenders, and scores the opener. At that point, it actually felt as if the opening goal was against the run of play.
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Many people have rightly lavished praise on our new star playmaker (Isco), and I'm one of his admirers. His passing and chance creation are not as picturesque as Ozil, yet his movement, skill, technical ability and tactical awareness is a thing to behold. Last night's unsung heroes for me however would have to be Luka Modric and Sami Khedira. Apart from a few heavy touches and misplaced passes, I find that the combination of the 2 at the middle of the park has seen us come closest to Ancelotti's 'vision' of a Real Madrid who are competent and comfortable with possession without having to put the pedal to the metal every single time we have the ball. The 2 have demonstrated the value of a lateral or diagonal pass that doesn't necessarily create a goal scoring chance, but is critical to the positional setting up of a team to create that goal-scoring chance. To play this style however, the team will need to know how to win the ball back when possession is lost. I did not like the fact that Galatasaray enjoyed long bouts of possession during the first half of the match. Whether this is because of the fact that Galatasaray had 4 midfielders, or whether this exposes Madrid's collective weakness at winning the ball back once it has been lost, something needs to be done about it.
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Kudos must also go to Ancelotti for his decision to embrace the opportunity to play on the counter last night. Up 3-0, Ancelotti brought on Gareth Bale for Isco: Bale played on the right side with Di Maria on the left in what looked like a straightforward 4-4-2 featuring 3 players with warp speed pace (Ronaldo, Di Maria and Bale). Carletto was duly rewarded with 3 more goals. I have no problem with Ancelotti's objective of letting the team be more comfortable with being the side who has majority of possession - it is something our team needs to develop when facing majority of La Liga sides who have learned to effectively park the bus and ambush us on the counter. I do feel however, that it is just as important for the team to not let go of its counter-attacking game - especially when we have 2 of the world's best pacy goalscoring wide players (Ronaldo and Bale). 
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Mr. Champions League Again
The straw that broke the camel's back however was Benzema's goal early in the second half. A split second of catching them asleep at the wheel cost them dearly as our Mr. Champions League (Benzema) ruthlessly punished a defensive error with a clinically-taken goal that seemed to have totally deflated them. I've spent the last few weeks hammering on Karim Benzema for his lackluster performances - but last night, he shut me up.
The Frenchman completed a great game with two goals.  The Champions League continues it really well.
Karim Benzema: 4 games, 4 goals, 3 assists. That's HARD to argue against.
What is it about the Champions League that makes Benzema's blood stir differently? Even during the first 25 minutes of the match when things were still stale, Benzema had a bounce to his step and was clearly playing with some form of bloodlust. He was making tackles, making runs and running after seemingly lost balls, one of which he even turned into a scoring chance for Ronaldo. Was it the removal of that horrifying ugly patch of hair on his head that somehow made him more aerodynamic and play as if he was 10 kilos lighter? Despite performances that have been met with criticism from many fans (including me), I will have to admit that it's difficult to argue with statistics. Karim Benzema has played 4 matches and he has 4 goals and 3 assists. Can he carry his Champions League form into La Liga? Or should we let young Morata have a run out against Getafe at home this weekend?
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Pregnant with Goals
Cristiano celebró su renovación marcando tres goles y comenzó esta edición de la Liga de Campeones a lo grande.
Ronaldo celebrated his contract renewal (and MASSIVE pay rise) with a Hat Trick in 'Hell'
He didn't score in our first 2 La Liga matches (vs. Betis and Granada) - so somehow at the back of your head, you just knew that he was going to blow up at some point and 'compensate' for those matches without goals scored by bursting in with a hat trick. Who knew that he would do it in 'hell'? What was tactically notable about Ronaldo last night was that he played almost as a full fledged forward last night (not just his usual 'inverted winger' role).
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I'm finding that Ronaldo is increasingly more willing to try playing 1-2s with his teammates either for himself or for them to burst into the box for goal scoring chances. It was also refreshing for him to attempt a sneaky pass (it was intercepted though) rather than take a shot fron long range on one free kick occasion. He linked up really well with Benzema last night too... and how about that 3rd goal??? An absolute beauty.
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Beyond The Scoreline
Looking back at last night's events with a level head, I find it important to NOT be caught in the euphoria that such numbers (the scoreline, etc.) can provoke within us. Many of the team's weaknesses continue to exist and need refinement (controlling possession, keeping clean sheets, etc.). There were plenty of positive sensations that came about from last night's match though. La Decima is the trophy that is deepest in the hearts of Madridisimo and our start to the current European campaign could not have gone any better. In a way, I prefer to look at what the team has accomplished last night as 'signs of life' on the sort of things that this team under Ancelotti would be able to achieve once things begin to click.
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Final Thoughts
-I really feel for Iker - injured again on a freak accident on his first game back. I'm really glad though that we have Diego Lopez onboard
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-Perhaps Pepe ought to try shaving his head. Benzema did it and look what what he did last night. 

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