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.

A Display of Dominance (Barcelona 1 - Real Madrid 3)


Wow. What a performance. The last time I saw Real Madrid dominate Barcelona like this was way back in the 'Pasillo' Match. That match however was played at the Bernabeu, not at the 98,000+ capacity Camp Nou (the largest football stadium in Europe). The last time I saw Real Madrid dominate Barcelona like that at the Camp Nou? I honestly don't remember - heck, it probably never even happened in all the years I have watched football and supported Real Madrid. "Dominate" is indeed a strong word to use, and it is a word that the Tiki Taka Taliban will be up in arms over. They will say that  they thoroughly dominated possession (62%). Many answer to that is "so f%cking what? - where did that get you?". Real Madrid did as Real Madrid pleased and Barca were only allowed to do what Real Madrid pleased - which was to mindlessly keep the ball with no end product (well except that consolation goal). Prior to last week's shock defeat at the San Siro, Max Allegri had a pretty good term to describe it: "Sterile Possession." Across the pitch, I argue that Real Madrid were completely dominant. Dominant in attack, Dominant in midfield, Dominant in defense.
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Twitter Users exposing the kind of mindless Twat Barca's President is.
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The match essentially took place as if Mourinho wrote a script on how each event of the match was to take place and in what sequence - and our boys executed it to perfection: Score an early goal, let them have the ball, press their midfield, keep them aware that we can hit them with a counter at any time, score at around the hour mark (not too early for them to still believe in a comeback) and then put them through the sword shortly after. The 'executioners' also seemed to have been cast hollywood style. The first scorer was our flashy, pretty boy super hero Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a brace (that's 6 consecutive goalscoring clasicos now for him) - testament to how brilliantly effective Mourinho's counterattacking tactics were. The second goal scorer was wonderkid Raphael Varane (his second consecutive clasico goal, not bad for a 19-year old DEFENDER) - as a tribute to the job well done by our defense and midfield who showcased tactical awareness, discipline, compactness and extraordinary workrate.
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Barcelona's Terrible Defending and Tactical Clusterfuck
Sky Sports' Terry Gibson concurs with the observation that Barca's defending last night was awful.
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Barcelona have now conceded goals in their last 12 games, stretching all the way to mid-January. The teams who have found the back of Barca's net are not necessarily the who's who of World / European football - it's actually a list that includes humble La Liga teams like Getafe, Osasuna and Real Sociedad. It doesn't take a tactical genius to figure it out: they're terrible without possession, especially on defense and extremely vulnerable along the flanks because this season, they now play with attacking fullbacks on BOTH sides (Alves & Alba). Every team has sought to expose the same weaknesses in the same way: long balls behind their fullbacks on the counter to force the vulnerable Pique and Puyol to turn and run backwards. I'm not keen to speculate on whether Pique is a world class defender having a poor run of form, or a mediocre one whose passing ability in Barca's tiki taka system has masked his true defensive frailties. Puyol on the other hand is on the wrong side of 30 age-wise and is beginning to show his age. In all Real Madrid goals, last night, the 2 Barca CBs were ruthlessly humiliated. Perhaps Pique would have been better off dancing Gangnam Style to unnerve Ronaldo as the Portuguese winger executed his stepover maneuvers rather than sticking his leg out foolishly to concede such an obvious penalty (what was he and Puyol arguing with the ref for on that one anyway?). For Real's second goal, Di Maria's 'crossover' move saw Puyol almost break his ankles and need hip replacement surgery. Di Maria's abusive gambetta on Puyol reminded me of Kyrie Irving's humiliation of Brandon Knight during the past NBA-All-Star weekend. You could almost admit that it was cruel for Barcelona to set themselves up in a manner that would subject their great captain to such abusive treatment by an opposing attacking player. Barca's defensive strategy was awful one which was made worse by even more awful execution. Ditto for Real Madrid's third goal which saw the 19-year-old Varane once again beat the taller and more experienced Pique to the ball for the second consecutive game.
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End of the match for both legs of the tie: Dead Ball situation and a goal conceded from a Rafa Varane header... and look who was supposed to be marking him in the first place.
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Barca look to me like they have reached a point where they believe in their tiki taka so much that they appear to believe that it makes them exempt from needing to apply basic fundamentals in defending.  To be fair, they are currently without a coach and their current acting coach (Roura) is on his first stint as an assistant. Organizationally, Barcelona football club only have themselves to blame for this (if Pep had an assistant capable of handling the reins immediately even if it's temporary in the form of Villanova, then why is Tito not given the same?). League matches are a different animal compared to cup ties - and at the highest level, the innocence and inexperience of the likes of Roura will see them get chewed up and spat out when faced with more seasoned tactical minds like Allegri and Mourinho.
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Iniesta and Fagregas seemed to make each other redundant because they both wanted to play in the same space (yellow circle). Meanwhile, Alonso was fabulous in his positioning to deny Messi space in receiving the ball in his preferred area.
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The second component to Barca's own undoing was the tactical clusterfuck they somehow got themselves into. Cesc Fabregas and Iniesta (who was named to a left sided role but  generally drifted inwards into his comfort zone as an attacking midfielder) seem to be playing too much in the same space. This redundancy not only constricted Barca's operating space and made them narrow, but it also denied them the possibility of having a wide man on the left (apart from Alba) to spread the play wide or be a secondary goal threat (e.g. David Villa). It must be noted that by the time Villa was introduced to the game, Barca needed 3 goals (i.e. too late).
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The Madrid Monster
 Varane celebrating his goal with Mourinho made us remember that there was a time when players and the coach shared a close bond. Perhaps victory will build the necessary bridges to form those bonds again.
Barca's shortcomings as discussed above may have been glaring, but this is not to say that Real Madrid played brilliantly.
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In attack, the decision to go with Gonzalo Higuain proved to be an inspired choice for a team looking to play on the counter. Playing a 4-2-3-1 without the ball, and a 4-4-2 with it (Ronaldo would charge up and become a forward), having a striker who would instinctively make an attacking run to a goalscoring position (Pipita) rather than one who is keen to drop deep and participate in build up play (Benzema) proved to be the right choice. Every Cristiano Ronaldo surge from deep would need to be tracked and defended in context to the fact that there was another forward making a run towards a goalscoring position. Turning backwards to chase after Ronaldo wasn't so simple when you had to worry about Higuain too. Yes - he didn't score last night, but he played a pretty important role out there too.
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Behind Pipita, the line of 3 (Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria) would have to be the source of Alex Ferguson's (who in the stadium) anxieties. Ronaldo's goalscoring and Man of the Match heroics aside, Ozil and Di Maria played very well too. Ozil is clearly no longer spooked by the sight of 2-3 Barca players swarming him, partly because of confidence, partly because of his increased awareness through familiarity as to his teammates' positions on the pitch, the google-eyed German looked incredibly comfortable dribbling, wiggling and passing his way out of  Barca's pressing. As for Di Maria, who has been the subject of much discussion both positive and negative, he wasn't wasteful with his touches of the ball and did not make any Madridista feel like tearing their own hair out of frustration. Maybe its the big occasion, maybe it's the sight of Kaka slowly getting his mojo back (and thus threatening El Fideo's starting XI spot) - either way, it's great to see the Angel Di Maria we expected once again.
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In the 'Engine Room', Alonso was superb in performing his function to deny Messi the ball and to force Xavi into back and sideways passes. Khedira on the other hand, whom most will remember for what initially looked like a speculative longball clearance (which would created the second goal), worked brilliantly with Arbeloa in controlling the space which Iniesta and Fabregas were 'competing' for. While on defense, Coentrao gave a measured performance, balancing his roles in attack and defense (he had one shot on goal).
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Tonight however, apart from Cristiano's brilliance, we are also celebrating the fact that we have unearthed a jewel for our defense: Raphael Varane. We've seen him perform at home, last night, we all discovered that even in a place like Camp Nou, he  doesn't flinch and is capable of performing at the highest level. In a night whose only blemish for Real Madrid were Pepe's antics, I say that the just-turned-30 trouble-magnet better watch out. Pepe said that Varane will be one of the best CBs in 2 years - which means that it won't be very long before circumstances will mean that the club will no longer consider it worth the trouble to keep him and his antics around especially if he's getting in the way of Varane's development.
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What I Meant
Sometime before, perhaps after last season's semifinal clasico of the Copa Del Rey, (where Barca won but left us with the sensation that we were thoroughly capable of beating them) or perhaps after the SuperCup, I made the comment that all the fear and hesitation within me on Barca's 'superiority' has totally washed away - that I believed completely and fully that Real Madrid had exceeded Barcelona's level already. I was of course sneered at, criticized and told off by many Cules for such sentiments. It is for this reason that the satisfaction of seeing us prevail is so great - because it was not just about winning, but doing so with complete mastery and dominance.
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Today, those who thought I had lost it when i said that Madrid are better than Barca now know fully what I meant.