Monday, September 22, 2014

Merengue Bites Episode 8 - The goals they are a flowin' edition

Kaushik, Ryan and I talked about Real Madrid's violent act of butchery at the Riazor over the weekend. Rahul missed out because he had to attend a wedding. He would later on say that had he known we were going to score 8, that he would have skipped the wedding. :)
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The podcast can also be downloaded here:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

In Need of Spinal Surgery (Real Madrid 5 – FC Basel 1)

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AS called it 'European Therapy', I on the other hand, think that the work which needs to be done ought to be something more along the lines of surgery.
It’s been 5 hours and I still can’t make up my mind: Did Real Madrid’s 5-1 win over Basel last night set a roadmap to recovery? Or was it a smoke and mirrors magic trick to deceive us into thinking that Real Madrid are not in crisis?
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Either way, it’s hard to imagine that Real Madrid raised La Decima only 7 (official matches ago). That beautifully fateful night in Lisbon seemed like it was a long time ago in light of the ‘crisis’ the club seems to be in at the moment (3 points from 3 La Liga games).
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In any case, I will leave it to others to decide / judge on whether Real Madrid are in crisis. What is clear to me however is that this season seems to be following the same pattern as last season: that the Real Madrid starts by beating ‘easier’ opponents (Cordoba, Basel, a Rakitic-less Sevilla) out of the sheer quality but suffers against tough, clever opponents who are unafraid to stand up to us. Last season, it was only in October, with the return of Xabi Alonso, where the team’s shape and style of play finally began to make sense and correspondingly gave us, the fans reason to believe that the team was going in the right direction.
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This season looks to be following the same pattern: a rough start in a struggle to figure out a tactical puzzle to fit the updated personnel pieces into a coherent style of play. Yes, yes, yes, it is outrageous to use this as a description to a Champions League-winning side – but it is what it is.
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Fundamentally, my assessment of the team is that it’s got a broken spine. Because while the team is world class along the flanks:  Marcelo/Coentrao + Carvajal at fullback, plus the glowing performance of Nacho at Right Back last night, together with Ronaldo and Bale at the wings (possibly with James as a backup in those wing positions, together with the much-anticipated return of Jese), right through the middle, the team is a tactical mess. From goalkeeper, to defense, to midfield, to attack, Carlo Ancelotti has much work to do.
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The ‘Back 3’ - Beat the Sacred Cows
Iker Casillas was the target of very audible boos and whistles all throughout last night’s game – an aftermath of the somewhat unfair blame placed on him from Tiago’s opening goal over the weekend. In my opinion, Iker was NOT at fault for any of Atletico’s goals. Both goals were conceded from shoddy defending. It is difficult however, to miss the fact that his confidence is at an all-time low. And for a goalkeeper whose assets are solely dependent on his confidence, this is fatal. His teammates know it too. At the Anoeta, Pepe and Ramos both chose to blitz the opposing wide player rather than hold their position in the middle to head / clear away the cross. The only logical explanation for this irrational decision of theirs is that they were too scared to deal with the incoming cross and thus instead chose to attempt to stop it from coming in the first place. If we were not bleeding points, then I would have no problem with this heroic attempt to restore Iker’s confidence. Having dropped six achievable points in the league though, I do think it’s time to let Keylor Navas have a try.
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Iker isn’t the only ‘Sacred Cow’ that needs to be whipped however. Pepe and Ramos also need to be jolted awake. The goals conceded last night, in the derby, and in the Supercopa were all classic examples of lapses in concentration from one or both Pepe and Ramos. We have the world’s best young Centerback on the bench – let him have a chance to show these complacent, sleepwalking fogies that their place in the starting XI isn’t guaranteed and that everyone needs to buck up.
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The Midfield – Trust Issues
I am most sympathetic to Ancelotti over what has happened to the midfield. Just as he thought he had the world’s best midfield (Kroos-Alonso-Modric), the rug gets pulled from beneath him (Alonso’s departure), leaving a gaping hole right through the epicenter of his team. No longer with the option of introducing a midfield utility man into the midfield (Khedira’s injury), Ancelotti is left with a question: Who does he trust more? Illaramendi? Or Kroos?
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I honestly find it a bit lazy when people simplistically believe that sending Illaramendi in to play the Alonso role is the solution to the midfield problem. While it is true that the Basque is more comfortable being the deepest in a midfield 3 and thus becomes the CBs last line of protection, Illara has yet to show us that he can be the team’s brain. Without the ability to dictate the tempo of the match, make passes that open up space for attacking players, or make those ‘armor-piercing’ long range passes, Real Madrid’s possession can easily become sterile if he fails to measure up.
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Toni Kroos possesses this ability. What he lacks is Xabi’s defensive positional sense and willingness to get his hands dirty with the requisite ball-winning responsibility that the ‘central pivot’ role demands. There are those who say that Kroos is too slow for the role, but since when was Xabi Alonso Usain Bolt?
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With the transfer window closed and Champions League under way, it is realistic to assume that bringing a ‘physical beast’ type of midfielder (e.g. Pogba, Vidal) even in January is a no-go. That will need to be a question for the next summer transfer window. Ancelotti’s only option now is to see who wins the race between Kroos and Illaramendi (who was given a run out last night) to play the Alonso role and successfully climb through the steep learning curve it requires. If Carletto is successful, we’ll have and answer by October (just like last season, where the answer was Alonso’s recovery). In the meantime, we’ll need to hope for more naïve opponents like Basel, who would be idiotic enough to give James, Modric and Kroos room to loop balls into space for Bale and Ronaldo to kill them with.
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The Striker Conundrum
The other end of Madrid’s spine is the team’s central striker. We’ve talked endlessly about how Benzema is the striker best suited to play with Ronaldo and Bale because of his unselfishness and the fact that he embraces his role as a ‘frontline facilitator.’ Having said all that however, 2 goals in 18 games (prior to last night). The BBC is NOT a one-way street. Benzema does not exist SOLELY to serve Ronaldo and Bale. Benzema himself ought to be capable of scoring on the multitude of chances (many of them on a silver platter) served up by Ronaldo and Bale to him. Getting on the scoresheet last night give him some momentary relief, hopefully for him, just enough for him to snap back into gear.
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Chicharito for me is not the answer. He is, in my opinion, a poor man’s Pippo Inzaghi. He can’t dribble through his opponents, can’t put in a defensive shift, can’t hold the ball up or be a target for an aerial ball. He is ‘only a goalscorer’ – which means that except for the times he scores, your team is effectively only playing with 10 men. He is thus perfectly suited to being a late game sub when you’re in need of a late goal. Chicharito is thus, to me, not someone who can be viewed as competition for Benzema.
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Real Madrid does however have a player, who likes to play as part of a front 3, can make the killer pass and is capable of scoring fantastic goals. He was in fact, the World Cup’s golden boot winner: step forward, 80-million man, and 2014 People Magazine Sexiest man in the world James Rodriguez (who opened his account with a poacher’s goal last night). I wish to be clear however that I’m not asking for Benzema to go to the bench – I would however, like to see Ancelotti give a Ronaldo-James-Bale front line a shot and in doing so, also allow Isco an opportunity to play as part of the midfield 3, where he has shown lots of improvement.  
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Not the time to push the panic button
All is not lost, there is still enough quality in this team for nights like last night. Ancelotti just needs to do more work to make the pieces fit together.
It’s early days and the time has not yet come to push the panic button. It can in fact be argued that had we won or drawn the derby Madrileno last weekend, things wouldn’t ‘feel’ so bad right now. Last night’s win might have been the equivalent to seeing the silhouette of the blueprint for the team to find itself once again. Either way, there is work to be done, and in Ancelotti’s case, some surgery to be performed.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Farewell to an Angel

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Di Maria will now become the star of Manchester United.
So it’s finally official: Angel Di Maria will join Manchester United. One summer after seeing a player I loved watching (Ozil) depart, we see yet another. Call it the way the world works, but it still hurts nonetheless. It’s all great business of course: it also seems like the stalwarts of the Mourinho era at Real Madrid are all moving onto the Premier League – all for club record transfer fees too. As a result, the profits for Real Madrid are quite considerable. Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria arrived at Real Madrid at a combined 40m Euros (15m for Ozil, 25m for Di Maria) and depart for 128m Euros (56m Euros for Ozil and 75m Euros for Di Maria). When factored in with the Higuain sale (purchased for 12m Euros, sold for 40m), you’re talking about spending 52m on the 3 players,  and earning 171m on their sale = that’s a profit of 119m Euros!  
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And still people are curious as to how Real Madrid are able to afford to pay for Gareth Bale (100m Euros) and James Rodriguez (80m)?
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It REALLY hurts seeing one of the heroes of La Decima leave us
The Business of Star Players
Yes, yes, yes – Florentino is an astute businessman. How else can you steadily bring in a stream of star and superstar players in your team at unapologetically astronomical amounts? Those of us who are die-hard Real Madrid fans know the answer: by keeping a revolving door. As new star players emerge to capture the hearts and minds of fans the world over, many of them are brought to Real Madrid to be part of its galaxy of stars – and just as these new stars come, the ones from the previous generation are quietly ushered out the door. Ok, maybe not quietly. After all, who leaves for 75m and does so quietly? You do however, get the picture: the departure of past stars are used to bankroll the acquisition of new ones. As a result, the club’s roster of stars is perpetually kept ‘fresh’.
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Yes, yes, yes – Florentino is an astute businessman. And he knows / thinks he works in show business.
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The acquisitions and sales of Ozil, Higuain and Di Maria also mark a shift in the Real Madrid Star Player Business Model. Whereas the likes of Figo, Zidane, Brazilian Ronaldo, Beckham, Owen, etc. were brought to Madrid as they hit their peaks in their late 20s, Ozil, Higuain and Di Maria joined us in their early 20s, literally as exciting starlets on the cusp of breaking out to become stars (Ozil starred in a WC, Higuain in a River-Boca derby while Di Maria in the Olympics). All were sold at the cusp of hitting their peak, as they hit the latter half of their 20s – to earn maximum returns for their departures. Let’s all remember that Isco, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez are all yet to hit their peaks too.
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Certain members of Madridisimo might not agree with the notion of Ozil, Higuain and Di Maria as a star. To them I say: have a look at how the fans of Arsenal, Napoli and now, Manchester United are embracing them. At Manchester United, El Fideo will also inherit Cristiano Ronaldo’s #7 jersey – the same one worn by Eric Cantona. He will also be earning wages that befit a star player: which is EXACTLY what he is.
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If you’re in doubt as to whether Angel Di Maria befits the status of a star, then just think about it this way: If he played for Manchester United and practically carried his club to win the Champions League and is also the key player for his country’s appearance in the final of the World Cup – then Real Madrid would surely have been interested in, and be willing to spend 75m Euros on him. I can only come to one conclusion: the only reason Angel Di Maria is not going to be a Real Madrid player this season is that he was already a Real Madrid last season.
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What Manchester United are Getting
I first saw Angel Di Maria playing for Argentina in the Olympics and he bewildered me. It was thus not a surprise when some years later, I heard / read that Jose Mourinho illicited an ‘Are you sure!?!?!?’ reaction from Florentino Perez, when he turned Perez’s offer down to acquire David Silva and Jesus Navas (both Manchester City players now), and instead preferred the far-lesser known Di Maria.
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Under Mourinho, Di Maria became the team’s counterbalance to Cristiano Ronaldo: the more defensively hard-working and responsible wide man who looked more to pass and create chances for his teammates rather than score himself. At his best in that position, his dribbling, passing, crossing and incisiveness on the wing will also be balanced by the sort of effort and discipline that prompted Jose Mourinho to instruct the Bernabeu to applaud Di Maria. Louis Van Gaal was not only in search of a wide man who can create from the flanks, but one who can accept defensive responsibility. I will thus not be surprised to see Di Maria on the flanks in Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 at Manchester United – as an all-in-one fullback/wingback/winger. The choice of course to use Di Maria as an all-purpose wideman in a 3-5-2 or as a full-fledged winger in a 4-3-3 will be down to LVG.
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Under Ancelotti, Di Maria very comfortably slotted to become part of a midfield 3: tasked with the role of breaking forward to unbalance the opponent – making him a viable alternative to play as a ‘10’ behind United’s front 2 in lieu of Mata.
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What Real Madrid are Going to Miss
Angel Di Maria’s introduction during the first leg of the Spanish Supercup and his absence during the entirety of the second leg was very strongly felt. Playing with a midfield 3 of Kroos-Alonso-Modric, it was clear that Real Madrid greatly missed the dynamism and verticality that Di Maria brought to the team while performing his midfield role. And while Jese and James (funny thought: you can call them Jese James) and even Isco are all capable of playing as part of the front 3 of Ancelotti’s 4-3-3, the latter 2 are not at their best in those positions in the way that Di Maria would comfortably fit in.
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The truth is that Angel Di Maria never quite became *that* favourite player of mine at Real Madrid in the manner that Ozil and Higuain became during parts of their stints at the club. I will never be able to deny however, how important he became to the team. I am personally very grateful to him for his contributions to the club and take comfort in the fact that he’s won it all for Real Madrid: Spanish Supercup, Copa Del Rey, La Liga and the Champions League. I suppose you can say that his cycle at Real Madrid is complete.
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And finally, it won’t be long Angel Di Maria will also be able to do accomplish another thing I never thought possible: he’s going to make me want to watch Manchester United for the first time in my life. Farewell Angel.
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Muchas Gracias.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Merengue Bites 2014-2015 Episode 4 - Supercopa Dissappointment

Kaushik, Bassam, Ryan and I pick up the pieces from our shattered Spanish Supercup Dream: rationalizing the midfield and pondering an Angel Di Maria-less future. We also talked about some of the best and worst Real Madrid kits of the recent past. Plus, which Real Madrid player would bake the best cake?
Everytime I'm reminded of the second Capello stint at Real Madrid, I feel like slapping myself in the head for being a cheapskate and not buying that season's kit. It was also Ruud Van Gol's one super great season for us. 
Inspired by Game of Thrones? or the Chinese Mafia? Would have loved this kit WITHOUT the Dragon/s.
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The Podcast can also be downloaded here:


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Stale Supercopa (Real Madrid 1 – Atletico Madrid 1)

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It was a debut goal for James. A scrappy goal, but they all count - especially in a scrappy, cagey affair.
We are now pursuing trophy #2 of the 6 up for grabs this season. And like many things in life, the degree of difficulty will only increase as we go from one trophy to another. Trophy #1 (UEFA supercup was claimed with relative ease), Trophy #2, which features 2 rounds against La Liga champs Atleti was always going to be tough. Trophy #3, the Club World Cup, may feature weak opponents, but will be held in December, where injuries, fatigue, and vacation mode mentality creeps into the team. Trophy #4 will be the Copa Del Rey – and the bulk of that competition will be on January, where the team will suffer a post-CWC/winter break hangover. Trophy #5 of course is the La Liga title which we have not won in 2 seasons and of course, the sweetest one of all is #6 – La UNdecima.
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But let’s go back to trophy #2, where Real Madrid pretty much collectively laid an egg on the pitch against Atletico at the Bernabeu last night – drawing 1-1 thanks to a goal scored by James on a ‘scramble’ and conceding an ‘away goal’ in what must now be a VERY familiar source: a set piece.
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Team Shape / Tactics
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A well-deserved contract extension for Modric. The Real Madrid midfield will need to drastically improve on Friday though if we are to lift the Spanish Supercup.
Ancelotti lined the team up as I dreamed up: a 4-3-3 with Kroos-Xabi-Modric lined through the middle. We were going to control the game and eventually figure out a way to unlock Atleti’s organized defense. Only we didn’t.
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Rather than being able to constantly circulate the ball with their passing and movement, Kroos, Xabi and Modric passed the ball around and remained static, unable to force Atleti’s defenders off their positions to enable us to find openings. As a result, the team became too dependent on our wide men (Ronado + Marcelo / Bale + Carvajal) to force the action – making the team’s play even more awkward. During those stages of the first half, the state of Real Madrid’s play really did seem to call out for a ‘10’. Going as far as switching to a 4-2-3-1 might not have been necessary (something Ancelotti could have done without as substitution as both Modric and Kroos are playing either as a pivot or a ‘10’). After all, what was just really needed was for our midfielders to be more active: both both Kroos and Modric to shuttle up and down the pitch almost as twin playmakers. If done well enough, there would be no need for a specialist ’10.’
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Keeping the ‘equilibrio’ however seemed to be Ancelotti’s foremost priority. With Isco, James and Di Maria all on the bench, he still had ‘bullets in the chamber’ if he wanted to turn up the attacking pressure in the latter stages of the game (which was what he did). It seemed a sound enough approach to the game: especially with James scoring a scrappy goal in the tight affair. It wall went to waste however when Madrid conceded in the most familiar fashion: a set piece (I actually missed seeing it live as I ran to the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee – the match was at 5am Singapore time!).
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It was then that Ancelotti, became more willing to take a risk by introducing Di Maria, sacrificing Modric’s stability (he had a meh game anyway) for the Argentine’s dynamism.
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It’s now finally clear to us that while having a Kroos-Alonso-Modric midfield will give us supreme control of a match, the combination can turn Madrid’s attack stale. It will be therefore VERY important to have a stash of sparkplugs (Di Maria, James, Isco) either on the bench or in lieu of one of the 3 pass masters (Kroos, Alonso, Modric) in certain games.
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I hope that this game would serve as the adequate message to Florentino that selling Di Maria might turn out to be a massive mistake. Because while Di Maria is not a superstar comparable to the likes of Ronaldo and Messi, he is nonetheless a player who brings elements to Real Madrid’s game that no other player can replicate.
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Questions for the Front 3
After seeing him tear Sevilla apart in the UEFA Supercup, all of us were given an eerie reminder that Cristiano Ronaldo might now be entering that dreaded phase of his career (where father time begins to creep in, in the form of more frequent niggles and knocks). We have the acquisition of Bale and James (who came in for CR7 in the second half to buffer the blow, which is massively painful nonetheless. James however was still playing on the left side, whilst Bale remained on the right. Might the team have done better if they had switch flanks instead? After all, playing on the left has not necessarily hindered Bale’s goalscoring ability (he played on the left during his famous ‘Taxi for Maicon’ game with Spurs vs. Inter). James on the other hand, was a right-sided player with Porto before becoming a full-fledged ’10’ for club (Monaco) and country.
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With Ronaldo injured, and Atleti’s defense giving us migraines, Real Madrid had a slew of lethal ball deliverers on the pitch. Alonso, Modric, Kroos, James, Bale and Di Maria are all capable of delivering long crosses into the box – except that Benzema is no target man. Might we have had use for a center forward capable of being an aerial threat out there last night? You might not agree with the idea of acquiring Tiger Falcao, but you have to admit that there were moments last night where you wished you had someone to send those crosses to behind Atleti’s defense.
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Quick Thoughts
I’m happy that the decision was made to do away with the pasillo shenanigans last night. The Supercup is a meeting between 2 champions, it’s hardly the appropriate occasion to play a game of one-upsmanship on trying to weasel a pasillo out from the other team. I was thus pleasantly surprised to see the touching tribute to the great Di Stefano instead prior to kickoff.
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Did Sergio Ramos throw a punch at Mario Mandzukic? I watched the game on a blurry stream but it did seem to be the case. If so, then he ought to be punished for that. I’m a Real Madrid fan, but there should be no place for cheapshots in the game. In fact as a Real Madrid fan, we all ought to be outraged that a player who wears the shirt behaves in that manner.
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Diego Simeone ripped out a page from Jose Mourinho’s playbook with his post-match comments (calling Di Maria our best player). While what he said was true, it was a clear attempt to poke / provoke Real Madrid by making such a remark about a player who is reportedly seriously considering his future with us. Clever move, El Cholo.
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Bracing for Round 2
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All to play for in the second leg
While it’s true that the team’s performance (as well as the result) is a source of much disappointment, it must not be lost on us that we are playing the La Liga Champions and Champions League Runners Up. The team’s dour play cannot solely be attributed to bad performances by the players but should also be chalked up to the effectiveness of Atleti’s play. 1-1 to me is a fair result. And though Atleti currently have the ‘away goals’ advantage, it is not unfathomable for us to score at the Calderon and even things out in that regards. I would in fact say that the tie’s arrangement might be to our advantage: as any goal we score on Friday (when things REALLY count), will be an away goal (much like what happened in Munich last season).
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Round 2 is on a Friday Night! Friday Nights are for beer, ribs, chicken wings and the company of people you share laughs with. This Friday will be extra-special – it will be all that plus a Madrid Derby. And the ultimate ‘bonus’? Seeing the boys lift trophy #2 for the season.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Waking up to a Fantasy (Real Madrid 2 – Sevilla 0)

When the match started at 2:45am, I was still feeling as disoriented as those dudes trying to spell 'Real Madrid' during the opening ceremony. All that changed when the match started
Maybe it’s because this is the offseason after orgasmically winning La Decima…
Maybe it’s because this is the offseason when I became a dad for a second time…
Maybe it’s because this is the offseason where we had a very entertaining World Cup…
Or maybe it’s just simply because life in the office has become insanely busy these days…
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But we are a couple of weeks from the opening of the La Liga season and somehow, I still feel de-sensitized to the supposed excitement building up to the season opener(s) of the European football calendar.
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All of that changed last night after seeing Real Madrid pretty much stroll right through Sevilla to win the first of 6 possible trophies to be won this season. Sure, it was ‘only’ a 2-0 win. I predicted the scoreline correctly during the weekend podcast too: accounting for Sevilla’s lack of creativity going forward to the departure of Rakitic (to Barca) whilst Real Madrid I thought, might still be rusty. I was only half right of course: Sevilla did indeed barely threaten us (except the last few minutes), clearly missing the incisiveness of Rakitic’s passing… our ‘only’ 2 goals however, were more due to Beto’s great performance between Sevilla’s sticks.
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Ancelotti’s Goes Counter-Intuitive AGAIN

Everyone saw Kroos, Modric and James on the teamsheet at midfield and instantly thought: 4-2-3-1 (including me). It seemed like the logical thing to do: you assign Modric and Kroos as pivots (where they have played before) whilst allowing your 80m Euro #10 (James) to play in his preferred role behind the striker.
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Doing so however, meant curtailing Kroos and Modric’s role and forces them to function more as ‘specialist’ pivots. Mr. Carlo ‘Equilibrio’ Ancelotti was having none of that. He thus surprised us all by deploying his team using the same 4-3-3 formation he used for majority of last season: with Modric in his usual role, Kroos in the ‘Alonso role’ and James in the ‘Di Maria role’. In essence, all 3 midfielders were both given the opportunity to conduct the team’s passing movements AND carry the defensive responsibility equally. ‘Balance’ – as Ancelotti has preached all of last season. I think everyone would agree that it was an absolute success.  
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Midfield Kroos Control
Given the way Kroos and Modric were playing, coupled with Cristiano starving to make an impact, Sevilla stood no chance against us. Artwork from @r4six (follow him on twitter!)
No one impressed me more out there last night than Toni Kroos. He made everything simple for Real Madrid: keeping possession, neat touches and clear and accurate passes. He completed 96% of his passes including 13 out of 14 long passes. I once called him a ‘Modric lite’. I was wrong – he’s a far better player than my feeble, lazy assessment at the time. Together with Modric (94% passing accuracy last night), Sevilla stood no chance against us (not even those red elbow patches on Unai Emery's suit could do it). We kept possession and were in complete control of the entire match. Kroos not only impressed with his neat, tidy possession and his passing acumen, he also functioned as the team’s primary hub and was the conductor of the orchestra last night. I never expected him to slip so seamlessly into Alonso’s role.
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Real Madrid can now play with a midfield 3 of Kroos-Alonso-Modric if it chooses to do so, it will be a 3-headed passing monster combo that cannot be stopped in the manner Klopp once imagined (stop, Alonso and you stop Madrid). All 3 are masters of possession, passing, and the dictating of the game’s tempo. From one game to another, depending on the nature of the game or the opponent, Ancelotti can opt to rest 1 or 2 of his 3 passing/possession maestros and inject the midfield with steel (Khedira/ Illaramendi), more attack-mindedness (James / Isco) or blood the youngsters in (Isco / Illaramendi).
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Last night, bereft of Alonso (who shook his head towards Platini and gave him a ‘you’re a shithead’ look while collecting his winner’s medal), Ancelotti decided to try James in the role Di Maria played last season. Occasionally, when it would catch Ronaldo’s fancy, the 4-3-3 would become a 4-4-2, with CR7 joining Benzema to form a strike partnership upfront, turning Bale and James into wide midfielders. The Colombian, also blessed with a sweet left foot (like Di Maria and Isco who played that role last season) will need to learn the virtues of one of Carlo Ancelotti’s greatest disciples: a one-time Madridista-turned-Milanista legend: Clarence Seedorf, who learned to use his qualities as a ‘10’ in a central midfield role to devastating effect. And like Isco, James hasn’t ‘gotten’ the role just yet (Incidentally, I take Di Maria not playing last night as a near-sure sign that he might leave us).
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Remember Him???
1-2 weeks before last night’s match, twitter experienced a surge in photos showing Gareth Bale in a sleeveless training top with his biceps about to explode during his first proper preseason with the team. He had the look of a player ready to morph into his idol, Cristiano Ronaldo.
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Playing in his hometown with a trophy at stake, after a preseason where he’s been the sole bright spot for his team, he really looked set to explode last night. And in a way, he did… just more subtly. Bale demonstrated a highly-improved, and a far more organic understanding of his teammates. His actions on the pitch were not just relegated to the use of his explosive pace. Last night, we saw plenty of neat touches, diagonal passes, lay-offs, lobs and crosses that showcased the fact that he has gotten to know and has synchronized his play with his teammates. Now all he has to do is get rid of that stupid hair band.
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But as all eyes were transfixed on the hometown boy, the world’s best player chose to end his injury hiatus and remind us all who the true super star was. Cristiano has gone missing since around March-April. We managed to win the Copa Del Rey without him, fell apart in his absence for the League campaign (where we also rested other key players), whilst nearly lost the CL final with the skin of our teeth with our star man barely half-fit. As expected, Portugal’s fate was tied to his strained/torn/tendinitis-stricken knee/muscle/etc. this past World Cup. But chasing the only club title that has eluded him, and eager to come back, Ronaldo exploded last night as if to ask us all ‘Remember Me???’
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Yes Cristiano, we remember. ‘Cristianoooo, Cristianooo….!’ went Cardiff City’s stadium last night over his performance, and so did my living room. Glad to have you back champ!
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10 Thoughts for the re-introduction of the #10
In a situation where Benzema is unavailable, how is a 4-3-3 with James as a 'False 9' (formation on the left) very different from a 4-3-1-2 / Midfield Diamond (formation on the right)? Might there be a chance for CR/Bale (who are all 20+ goals/season players) to be played as wide forwards (much like Robben in the WC)? We can even include Di Maria in the midfield rotation!
Last season, we all enjoyed watching the BBC terrorize defences. The combination of Ronaldo and Bale’s pace and power, coupled with Benzema’s selflessness (bravo to his contract renewal!) made our front 3 the best in the world. This was on display again as all goals involved members of the BBC (Ronaldo’s goals last night were assisted by Bale and Benzema respectively). My post-season reflections however, brought a few key points to mind:
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#1: After 3 super-spectacular seasons under Mourinho (playing practically all minutes of all games), last season, we were all reminded that CR7 is human. He CAN get injured and miss a significant number of games (just as he did when he was supposed ‘voodoo hexed’ by a witch doctor during his first season).
#2: Gareth Bale too can get injured. His early years at Tottenham were mostly injury-ravaged. We should also remember that players with the sort of pace of Bale are prone to long injury spells (Robben, Walcott) from muscle niggles, etc.
#3: Remember Jese? He’ll be back before year end.
#4: Particularly intrigued by Louis Van Gaal’s Dutch team in the World Cup, I found LVG’s use of Robben (a pacy, goal-scoring winger like CR, Bale and Jese) as one of 2 forwards to be interesting.
#5: Ronaldo, Bale, Jese would NOT be comfortable as a central striker, they would, I imagine, thrive as part of a strike partnership. (in the manner Van Gaal used Robben with Van Persie in the WC)
#6: We only have one ‘proper’ striker: Benzema (this point would of course be invalid if we ended up signing Falcao).
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So I was thinking: if a ‘balanced’ midfield is non-negotiable for Carletto, and if Isco and James are going to need possibly another season or 2 to be a functional part of a fully-stacked midfield department, Why not rip a page out of Van Gaal’s playbook and use our goalscoring wingers as part of a strike partnership, and then using our world-class #10s in their preferred roles? Many may remember Carletto’s ‘Christmas Tree’ (4-3-2-1) in Milan, but few perhaps might remember that he did use a 4-3-1-2 as well in Milan (Izaghi and Shevchenko with Rui Costa as ‘10’) and the occasional diamond midfield in Chelsea (with Drogba and Anelka up front). Applied to this Real Madrid:
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#7: James and Isco can be played in their favoured positions while still having the midfield 3 Carletto considers important for team balance
#8: The presence of Ronaldo / Bale / Jese and even Benzema in one or both forward spots will mean that there will still be width up front as all have their tendencies to drift wide according to the needs of the game.
#9 The system is in essence, not very different to a 4-3-3 that deploys James / Isco as a ‘False 9’.
#10 The system can just as easily be converted on the fly to a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 without substitutions if the players are drilled properly.
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I’ll stop at 10 points because maybe my imagination has gone a bit too wild.
Maybe my mind is drifting far too deep into ‘fantasy mode’…
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Oh well, but then again, isn’t this Real Madrid team exactly that: a team for one’s fantasies.
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Now we all know that when Florentino Perez talked about ‘ilusion’, he really meant it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Merengue Bites Podcast: Preview

Kaushik, Bassan, Ryan and myself look forward to the upcoming La Liga season. We have a look at the squads that Barca and Atleti are building and attempt to rationalize the one Carlo Ancelotti has been given.
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You can also listen to / download the podcast here: 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Merengue Bites 2014-2015: Preseason Episode 1

Once the the stream expires, you may listen to / download the podcast here:
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The scent of the 2014-2015 season is in the air: Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez are now onboard for our pursuit of 6 titles this season. The dark cloud of the goalkeeping question also looms over the club with the signing of Keylor Navas seemingly 'in the chamber'. Who makes way for him? Iker or Diego? or Both?
Kaushik, Rahul and I siff through the questions.
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Our listeners also ask a fun question: if Real Madrid Football's first team were to start a pickup basketball team, who would our starting 5 be? I give it my best shot. Have a listen.
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Please send us any questions and comments for our next recording: @madridistamac (via twitter).

Thursday, July 24, 2014

In the Meme Time...

Wow. Things sure went my REALLY fast. One moment, we were able to keep track of the world cup, putting out podcasts, writing about matches - and the next thing we know, it's all over.
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What can I say? A crazy few weeks in the office and at home with a new baby have that power to make time evaporate at the snap of a finger. Lucky for me, despite largely being unable to tweet, podcast or write about the goings on of the last few months, I was actually able to see most of the action and keep abreast with most of the news.
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The World Cup
Everyone was watching out for Neymar, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but it was James Rodriguez who would make the tournament his own.
I kept ranting that Germany's weakness of lacking width was going to do them in. Fortunately for them, they decided to make use of their embarrassment of riches in midfield and re-deploy Philip Lahm once again as a fullback. Together with supersub Schurrle on the left side, Germany regained their team's width and deservedly won the World Cup.
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I had a much more interesting narrative that didn't pan out: at the 40th year anniversary of the 1974 WC where a 'Total Football Holland' would fall to an unimaginative but efficient and highly functonal West Germany team, the 2 sides would meet but with reversed roles: A fluid, attack-minded Germany that would fall against a tactically-organized yet functional and unimaginative Dutch team. It didn't happen.
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It was instead Argentina, whose tactical error of bringing wide man Lavezzi off for Aguero ultimately blunted their attack and allowed the Germans to deservedly win the cup for a unified Germany.
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My Player of the Tournament: James Rodriguez.
My Goal of the Tournament: James Rodriguez vs. Uruguay
My Team of the Tournament (3-5-2):
----------- Neuer ------------
Mascherano - Vlaar - Hummels
------- Lahm - Kroos ---------
-- Robben - James - Neymar --
--------- Messi-Muller ---------

I realize that I tend to pick 3-at-the-back lineups for teams of the tournament / season. This is due tot he fact that attacking players tend to be considered to be the highlights of a season or tournament. I am also acutely aware that I've put Lahm in the midfield (despite criticizing Germany for putting him there) and Mascherano as part of a back 3 (despite playing in midfield for Argentina this WC). All I can say re: that is - well I need to at least make the lineup work somehow.
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The Transfer Market
Being married to a Liverpool fan (and thus being one myself), I honestly would have loved to see Suarez in a Real Madrid Jersey (yup, I said it!). The last thing we need however, is someone with his sort of anger management issues. After all, we already have Pepe for that sort of thing. Looking forward to seeing them kill each other this coming season though...
So after the logical signing of 2 GKs (Ter Stegen and Bravo), the club who weren't supposed to be allowed to sign players (Barca) choose to sign a  player who isn't allowed to participate in football activities for 4 months (Suarez). Suarez joins a massive front line in Barcelona that include: Neymar, Messi, Pedro and the returning (from loan) Deulofeu. On paper, a starting front 3 of Neymar, Suarez and Messi is a frightening prospect: the issue they will need to resolve however is that all 3 men are used to playing in the same area of the pitch and none of the 3 are used to being given defensive responsibility. Luis Enrique is in for a big challenge. Meanwhile, at midfield, Barca's purchase of Ivan Rakitic is an astute move: having acknowledged the failure of the Cesc Fabregas experiment, they have acquired a player who might have the makings of someone who can play the Xavi role as their midfield talisman looks towards the twilight of his career at the top level. Finally, yesterday's acquisition of the 30-year old Jeremy Mathieu from Valencia for 20m addresses an area of need. Mathieu however is 30 years old. Might they have been better off spending 40m on Mats Hummels?
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There was only one player who made me go "This dude should play for Real Madrid!" in the world cup. It was NOT Toni Kroos or James Rodriguez. It was Paul Pogba. The dude is a monster and a badass motherf*cker who ought to be patrolling the Madrid midfield with bad intentions. Having said that, the acquisition of Toni Kroos is a marvellous coup for Real Madrid. Over-reliant on Xabi Alonso at the base of our midfield, having him paired alongside Modric spraying passes all over the pitch further 'de-centralizes' the team and increases the number of areas where we can create danger to our opponents without jeopardizing the team's tactical positioning (which is what we get with Di Maria).
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Real Madrid's squad is a frightening one. How it'll play however remains a big question mark.
It was the acquisition of James Rodriguez which puzzles and intrigues me. Having never displayed an affinity towards the 4-2-3-1, Carlo Ancelotti is once again given a classic '10' to fit into his lineup. It is as if the challenge of turning Isco into a proper central midfielder wasn't enough. If my sketchy impression of James Rodriguez pre-World Cup is correct, the Colombian used to play on the right wing for Porto before moving to Monaco. Does Ancelotti try to turn him into a proper CM? Rotate him with Bale and (gasp!) Ronaldo in the wing positions? Play him as a false 9? Does Ancelotti go with a 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2? Or accept that playing a 4-2-3-1 is the most logical way to go? The signing of this magnificent player raises plenty of questions though I'm not sure if they're necessarily good or not.
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There is still one month to go in this silly season. I suppose now is the time to start getting warmed up to get ready ourselves for this rare chance to race for 6 titles.




Friday, June 20, 2014

Football in Sickness (and In Health)

So my health has finally caught up with me. I started showing symptoms of the flu last Monday and here I am wheezing, sneezing, snorting and sniffing my way through the day. Having caught the flu though, my wife has now kicked me out of the bedroom lest I infect her and the 2 kids. So behold my new mistress: football. Here are a couple of thoughts on the last 2 matches:
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Belgium 2 - Algeria 1
If they're not going to entertain us with their football, they should at least do it with their hair. Come on Mark Wilmots: play the all-afro midfield of Witsel and Fellaini!
I looked forward to seeing the hipster's choice for the tournament. They have the best young goalkeeper in the world (Courtois), one of the best CBs (Kompany) and 2 of the best young attacking players in the world (Hazard, Lukaku). They were in turn surrounded by plenty of great players whom almost much every nation would like to have in their team (Witsel, Fellaini, De Bruyne, etc.). What Belgium don't have however are fullbacks, and it is this weakness of theirs that I think will be exposed... and that's exactly what happened when Jan Vertonghen (a CB made to play as a LB) conceded a penalty to allow Algeria to take the lead.
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Playing CBs as fullbacks usually means that the opposing wide player will be facing a slower, less-mobile man when going forward. On defense, it also means that the team in question will have a limited ability in spreading the pitch open as most CBs deputizing as full backs have neither the pace, nor the crossing ability to threaten you. All this was exposed in the game vs. Algeria.
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Belgium also lacked that much-needed zing going forward. De Bruyne didn't give Belgium the much-needed spark that a '10' brings while Lukaku's first touch and passing was a let down. Too often, especially in the first half, Eden Hazard was given the ball (or his team mates let him have the ball) in the oddest parts of the pitch as if expecting him to turn into the Lionel Messi of 2-3 years ago (who could dribble his way into, around and through a defense at will) to create a scoring chance. Trouble is, Hazard is no Messi.
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Belgium in the end had to resort to 'Route 1 Football' tactics: relying on Fellaini to open the scoring and using a counter attack to win the game. They will still get past the group stages. Their stock as the hipster's choice however is rapidly taking a nose dive.
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Brazil 0 - Mexico 0
Here's the shocking bit: Brazil lack creativity. Instead of a legend-class striker to lead the line (e.g. Romario, Ronaldo), they have the functional, feigning Fred. And behind him are Brazil's 'only' have 2 creative players: Neymar and Oscar - whom they are way too dependent on to create and score. Faced with a plucky organized team, they will struggle. And struggle they did against Mexico whose GK Guillermo Ochoa played the match of his life. Credit must not go to Ochoa alone though. We must remember that in the London Olympics (where many of this Brazil and Mexico team played), it was the Mexicans who walked away with Gold.
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Spain 0 - Chile 2
Marca's painful and poignant cover marking an end to the era of the Spanish National Team's dominance. 
The problem is NOT that Tiki-Taka dead.
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The problem is that Spain's ability to play Tiki-Taka well has died.
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The ‘Tiki-Taka’ football that saw Spain win Euro 2008, 2012 and the World Cup in 2010 was built around the ability of the team to retain possession at an enormously high level. And when the ball was lost, the team would then expend incredible amounts of energy to press the opponent into surrendering it back. It was these 2 elements in their play that saw Guardiola’s Barcelona and Aragones + Del Bosque’s Spain reach the highest quality levels in possession play.  At its zenith, ‘tiki-taka’ football as we know it, functioned both as a vicious attacking strategy (see Barca’s 5-0 mauling of Mourinho’s Madrid) and as an effective (albeit boring) defensive strategy (see Spain’s Euro 2012 performance, except for their performance vs. Italy in the final).
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Here’s the thing about tiki-taka though: like any other tactical strategy in playing any sport, when played badly, the strategy is shit.
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Spain is out of the World Cup not because it played tiki-taka. It is out of the World Cup because it played tiki-taka BADLY. Bereft of a midfield engine who can choreograph play, construct space and dictate the tempo of the game as he sees fit, Spain could no longer command possession of the ball in the manner it used to. That midfield engine, that choreographer was Xavi Hernandez. He is 34 now and clearly no longer has the same engine as the midfield conductor of Spain’s Euro 2008, WC 2010 and Euro 2012 Xavi. He was off the pace against the Netherlands, and wasn’t even on the pitch against Chile last night. Without Xavi in his prime, Spain in possession are still a great team, but they are not at the level of the seemingly immortal Spain (or Barca) circa 2008-2012.
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To make things worse, this Spain team no longer hunt in packs like starved wolves for the ball once it is lost. A lost ball or a broken attacking play from Spain is now an immediate opportunity for the opponent to start an attack. La Roja’s opponents no longer look over their shoulder in fear of being blindsided by 3-4 red shirts when they are in possession of the ball. They instead are able to push the ball forward at pace to start a counter attack which in turn catches the Spanish’s high defensive line (a tiki-taka staple) flat footed and vulnerable.
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And once you add all that to a goalkeeper who was once the source of the team’s absolute confidence, and is now instead the subject of the team’s insecurities (Casillas) – the result is fatal.
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Tiki Taka isn’t dead. Bayern Munich will terrify us all with it at club level again next season, and perhaps Spain will do so again with their new young crop of players.
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The only thing that has died (or has passed on) is the era of this Golden Generation of Spain’s national team. I for one, am just glad that I was a witness to its greatness in all its pomp. Perhaps one day in the future, my son will gush about some great team able to dominate ball possession, win multiple titles and strike fear into the hearts and minds of the rest of the football world. And maybe, just maybe, my reply might be: “yeah they’re great… almost like Spain 2008-2012. But not quite there yet.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Weekday World Cup Musings - June 16


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Spain 1 - Netherlands 5: The 'Roja' Wedding
It's painful to see Iker like this.
This would be perhaps the most shocking result of the WC thus far. The shock does not come from the fact that the Dutch won, but from how badly they destroyed Spain. For the few who don't follow the HBO series Game of Thrones, the 'Red Wedding' is an infamous scene in the series that sees major protagonists get massacred whilst attending a wedding. Well, we were all geared up and in a festive mood to kick off the events for Group B in the world cup until we saw the World and European Champions get butchered.
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I had predicted a 2-1 Spain win but advised a friend (who gets the betting man's disease when the WC rolls around) that the odds for a draw would probably be good and that would be worth a punt. So, when Van Persie equalized with his 'salmon leap' header, I thought that 45 minutes would be plenty of time for my anticipated result to pan out.
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And then it happened.
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Let me say this: all the goals that Spain conceded were the result of individual errors particularly by Iker Casillas, Gerard Pique, and to a lesser extent, Sergio Ramos.
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The Van Persie's first goal was a result of Pique dropping too deep and playing Van Persie onside. Robben's first goal was Pique's fault too: coming too late, he forgot what the entire world already knew: that Robben would cut to his left foot and shoot, he sealed off Robben's right foot instead and duly got turned. The next 2 goals would be on Iker. De Vrij's goal was very similar to the once Casillas conceded to Diego Godin in the Champions League final: flapping and misjudging a cross and getting punished for the loose ball. Ditto for Van Persie's second, where Casillas had a 'Paul Robinson moment' (remember him!?!?! I'm embarrassed to put the 2 names in the same sentence!). Robben's second goal was a repeat of his first: this time with Casillas making the mistake. Pique was trying to seal off Robben's left foot - what was Casillas doing trying to dive at the Dutchman's right? When did the best goalkeeper in the world, Real Madrid's all-time greatest goalkeeper become Calamity Casillas?
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Whatever happens to Spain in this WC, Casillas must look himself in the mirror and admit that the time has come for him to let David De Gea take his place as Spain's #1. I would in fact, not mind seeing the change happening in the next match. Yup, you just heard that from a Real Madrid fan.
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As for the rest of the team, Del Bosque I think needs to have a tactical re-think. The team's width comes almost exclusively from the fullbacks alone with the 2 supposed wide midfielders (Iniesta and Silva) drifting inside. This makes the team predictable, and less incisive, especially with Xavi unable to single-handedly control the match with his passing any more. A real winger with pace (Pedro?) is needed. Diego Costa needs someone who he can be in synch with on the pitch too, so perhaps Koke ought to be considered. The temptation is great to stick to the old guard, but we must all know when the time has come to make changes.
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Here's another thought: the second-placed team in this group will play the first-placed team of Group A, likely to be hosts Brazil. Is this the WC where we will see the Spanish Armada get shipwrecked?
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England 1 - Italy 2: Guilt
I have to admit that I really enjoyed watching this fresh young and fearless England side vs. Italy
I have NO idea who to support in this WC. Many Filipinos have always had an affection for Brazilians during World Cups, and I am no different. I supported the Romario-led Brazil in USA 94, had Zidane break my heart in France 98 and went crazy with a pack of strangers when Ronaldo redeemed himself in Japan-Korea '02. I never got over the heartbreak caused by the implosion of Brazil's 06 side and thus went on to cheer for Spain in 2010, dancing on my bed at the sight of Iniesta scoring.
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Before this tournament began however, I had already decided I wasn't going to be cheering for Spain. I told myself that I'd watch the group stage games and make my mind up from there. And here's where my guilty confession comes in: of all the games I've seen so far in this WC, no team has entertained me as much as England.
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Props must go to Roy Hodgson for letting majority of the old guard make way for the fresh and fearless youngsters in the team: Sturridge, Sterling, Welbeck, Henderson who all gave good accounts of themselves against Italy. They lost to an Italy side who showed the frightening savvy of a side who understands what it takes to win this competition: tactical nous (Prandelli), calm and clear-headedness (Pirlo), grit (Marchisio, Candreva), ruthlessness (Balotelli) and verve (Darmian). Did we just see the sort of performance that makes this team a dark horse for the title?
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Either way, I find myself covered in guilt as I feel as if I'm getting myself sucked into becoming an England fan (no offense to England supporters out there). At the end of the day however, I truly believe that if they play with the sort of verve, energy and fearlessness that they displayed vs. Italy for the rest of the competition, I have no doubts that they will make a dent in Brazil.
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Ivory Coast 2 - Japan 1: Elephants Trample on the Samurai
Honda's Karate Kick goal gave me hope Japan could pull it off, but the Ivorians' power was just way too much for the Japanese to handle.
As an Asian, I will cheer the Asian teams by default, so I was cheering for the Blue Samurai when they faced the Elephants of the Ivory Coast. I had my father-in-law, who probably never saw a single football match in his life, cheering for them too. We both leapt off the couch when Keisuke Honda pulled off his Karate-kick shot to make it 1-0 for Japan. After that, all we hoped for was for them to hold on for the win.
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The analogy of Blue Samurai vs. Elephants was no exaggeration however. Japan fought and tried, but could not handle the physical power of their Ivorian counterparts. The Ivorians were too big, too powerful. The Japanese were mangled in pretty much every physical challenge. Exhausted, the Japanese had no answer for the energy and motivational boost that the Ivorians enjoyed once their 'King Elephant' (Drogba) turned up and duly conceded 2 goals in a matter of minutes.
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A word for Arsenal, who is rumored to be looking at Serge Aurier to replace Sagna (who joined Man City) as the team's Right Back: Sign him up!
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Argentina 2 - Bosnia Herzegovina 1: Pushing me towards England
Messi had the best goal of the tournament thus far but his team raised plenty of tactical questions.
A colleague asked me today if the reason I looked like a panda bear was because of the World Cup or if it was because of my newborn daughter. I had only gotten up to watch one match at an ungodly hour over the weekend (Spain vs. Netherlands at 3am). The others were at 12mn, or 6 in the morning, just an hour earlier than my usual wake up time. Argentina-Bosnia was on at 6am today and after the opening goal (a Bosnia OG), I dozed off for the rest of the first half.
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I have NO idea that Argentina were trying to accomplish with the 3-4-1-2 they started the game with (with what looked to me like Mascherano as a '10!'). In my half-unconscious state, I could hear the play-by-play commentator calling the game as if it was Bosnia-Herzegovina who were creating the scoring chances. Argentina couldn't string 3 passes together!
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I had to get ready for work by the second half. And so did Sabella, reverting to a more logical 4-3-3 with ex-Real Madrid player Fernando Gago in the central midfield. The front 3 remained unconvincing for me: with Messi playing as a false 9 means that striking talents of the team like Higuain and Aguero will be playing in the flanks. Yes, yes, yes, Messi might be the best player in the world when on song (and his goal duly demonstrated that), but in this situation, his role doesn't make full use of his teammates' talents.
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One of my picks to possible make the final remains unconvincing.
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Germany 4 - Portugal 0: Pepe goes mad. AGAIN.
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Pepe self-destructs AGAIN.
I cheered for the Germans in Euro 2012 but became a skeptic of theirs because they're essentially playing this tournament with a 36(?) year old striker (Klose). Loew's side looks slightly different this tournament though. They looked like a 4-3-3 with Lahm and Kroos sitting deep and dictating play from there: creating a weird situation of Sami Khedira freely receiving passes in advanced position with space to feed the front 3 (as if he was a #10). Ozil and Gotze, both natural #10s, played on the flanks with Thomas Muller playing as the striker. Muller scored a hat trick and the scoreline looked great for the Germans. 
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Here's my tactical critique though: playing with natural CBs as fullbacks (Boateng and Howedes) and with #10s (Ozil and Gotze) as wide midfielders, they're the sort of team that can get choked up against a team with a great defensive set up.
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Let's call it what it really is. Germany won so handsomely because Portugal's players had their minds in Mars when this game happened. Pereira's silly, early conceded penalty, Rui Patricio passing the ball directly to a German player twice and most of all Pepe having completely lost his mind (2 red-card offenses: fouling a player who might have a clear goalscoring chance, and headbutting Muller). Pepe might never set foot on a world cup pitch again because of this, and it's hard to argue that he didn't deserve it. His team played a man down for majority of the match and look to miss him (their 2nd most important player to Ronaldo) for the rest of the competition.
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Portugal Iberian neighbour Spain as having been butchered at the hands of a Western European neighbor (Germany, Netherlands).

Friday, June 13, 2014

Pre-Weekend World Cup Ramblings, etc. (Brazil 3 - Croatia 1)

Now come on. That was NOT a penalty.
I took in the game (4am Singapore time) whilst ironing a pile of dried laundry that consisted of my clothes, my wife's, my son's, my daughter's and my in-laws'. I didn't manage to finish the entire pile (the other half will be left for tonight's Spain-Netherlands match, 3am tomorrow early morning).
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I managed to download an excel file where you plug the scorelines of the matches of the tournament, which in turn update the rankings in the group tables and eventually fill up the brackets in the elimination rounds. In filling it up and exchanging notes with some colleagues in the office, I was startled by how the groupings allow Brazil a very good chance of making it into the finals and winning it all. In my 'excel simulation', they reach the final to face either Spain or Argentina.
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Opening matches tend not to be great contests (I didn't watch South Africa's opening match in the last WC, and saw Germany steamroll Costa Rica in 2006). Brazil-Croatia was a proper contest though. Croatia had enough quality players to bother the hosts and it really looked like that when the match started.
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Brazil need to sort out how their fullbacks bomb forward. They can't just be all gung-ho about it because soon enough, someone will exploit them for it. Before Marcelo's 'opening (own) goal', Olic had already raided Brazil's right flank and sent in a dangerous cross as a 'warning'. Brazil didn't heed it and duly paid for it with Olic creating the tournament's first goal.
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The match for me was pretty balanced afterwards even after Neymar's great equalizer - and this was a great way to start the second half. Let me say it though: it was NOT a penalty. Lovren barely touched Fred who in my opinion should have been yellow carded for simulation instead. The decision altered the game completely. Oscar's goal (to make it 3-1) wouldn't have been possible if Croatia had not gone into full attack mode to get the equalizer - making the 3-1 scoreline too harsh. 
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A few things that bothered me about Brazil:
1.) Defensive coordination is a joke. When a fullback bombs down the flanks, the defense needs to adjust to the space left behind, it will be exploited by good teams and Brazil can end up paying a dear price for it.
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2.) The CB partnership isn't solid. This will be next season's PSG CB partnership... and it looks shaky. Luiz doesn't convince on clearances, last ditch interceptions / tackles, etc. Thiago Silva does NOT look like the world's best CB out there. A team with a great #9 can give this CB partnership problems if they carry on like this.
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3.) Center of midfield is dull. Gustavo and Paulinho offered no dynamism. No great passes, no ability to keep possession in advanced positions, no dynamic runs. There is way too much reliance on Neymar and Oscar alone to create. 
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My Man of the Match: Oscar
Everyone will be talking about Neymar for sure. Given the #10 shirt, he's the undisputed star player of Brazil and scored 2 goals in the opener starring for his country on home soil. That #10 shirt however, should have gone to the real #10 in the team instead: Oscar.
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He ended the season poorly for Chelsea but I have to say that I really like what I saw from the baby-faced playmaker last night. Without the ball, he was all over Modric, refusing to give Croatia's chief creator any time or space to create anything. This aggressiveness without the ball is what saw him barrel through 3 Croata players to send the ball into space for Neymar to tie the game. His tireless running is also what saw him create and capitalize on that half chance to seal the game 3-1. 
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He's got a great knack for finding a pass to open up the defense and create a scoring chances it was there for all to see last night.
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Final Thoughts: Cesc to Chelsea? Really???
Cesc wears 4 as a tribute to his idol Pep Guardiola. He instead should probably have selected #8 jersey Frank Lampard left behind.
My wife will be mighty pissed off to see this. I'm honestly surprised that this happened and a few questions / criticisms come to mind.
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1.) This is a real 'egg-in-your-face' moment for FC Barcelona. Today's bandwagoner fans of FC Barcelona will probably not remember that their club's bandwagoner fans of the past were at a state of righteous indignation when Arsenal were trying their hardest to hold on to Fabregas. They argued that it was some sort of birthright of Barca for Fabregas to return (which IMO is ridiculous). A Barca player of the time (I forgot who) even suggested that Cesc was being treated like a slave. Now they let him go to the club managed by one of their mortal enemies.
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2.) This tells me that the Fabregas signing was a tactical failure, just like like the Ibrahimovic signing (speaking of which, I read his autobiography, and it's magnificently entertaining). They signed Ibra to have a proper striker leading the line for them, only to throw money into the ocean when they decided to allow Messi to lead the line and use their most expensive signing (at the time) as a spare tire - selling him to Milan on the cheap. In a similar vein, they signed Fabregas presumably as an alternative to Xavi, or as some part of their midfield 3 but just couldn't make it work. The price paid for this process of forcing this tactical intent to work was the loss of Thiago Alcantara to Bayern (who looks much more convincing as a Xavi alternate). Cesc has instead seen plenty of time as part of the front 3 (where Barca have plenty of choices). The signing of Rakitic from Sevilla looks more likely for Barcelona now. It might turn out to be a Croatian vs. Croatian battle in midfield for the next clasico.
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3.) Is Fabregas going to become Mourinho's new Frank Lampard? Mourinho's Porto and Chelsea both made use of a 4-3-3. Having been gifted with genius-level #10s in Inter (Sneijder) and Real Madrid (Ozil / Kaka), he then found himself using a 4-2-3-1 after. Now that he has dispatched Juan Mata to Man U, the only #10 left on his team is Oscar, who has the work rate for a midfield place in a 4-3-3 and can play as part of a front 3 (like Joe Cole during Mourinho's first spell at Chelsea). Having signed his new Makelele (Nemanja Matic) in last season, while closing in on his new Drogba (Diego Costa), will Cesc become the new Frank Lampard in Mourinho's re-booted 4-3-3 in Chelsea?