Thursday, February 27, 2014

Annihilation (Schalke 1 – Real Madrid 6)

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Madrid completely butchered Schalke at the Veltins Arena last night.
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I am still stunned in a really beautiful way following what I just saw a few hours ago. Last night / early this morning, Real Madrid completely annihilated Schalke 04. The score was 1-6 with our front 3, the BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano), each scoring twice. In all my years as a Real Madrid supporter, this was the greatest ever performance I have ever seen the team play away from home in a Champions League elimination tie. I say that in consideration of the nature of the opponent and the manner by which the team won. Someone had remarked ‘Schalke 0-4’ rather cleverly on twitter last night, with the scoreline at 0-4. I instantly thought to myself ‘that’d be a great title for my blog post for the match.’ Schalke 0-5 worked too, so did Schalke 0-6. But at 1-6 (with Schalke’s superb consolation goal coming from ex-Real Madrid player Huntelaar), and thinking about the fact that the scorelie could have easily been 1-11, I decided to go for: ‘Annihilation’.
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With respect to other European Leagues, Schalke are not some team from a second / third-rate European league, whose players would consider it a blessing from heavens to be breathing the same air as Cristiano Ronaldo and co. I’m not saying that Schalke are Bayern Munich, but let’s make no mistake about it: they are no strangers to the Champions League either. They in fact, play only 27 miles (or kilometres?) from Real Madrid’s most frequent European Disaster (Borussia’s Signal Igduna Park), at the heart of Germany’s Ruhr Valley… the country where Real Madrid’s greatest heroes spectacularly fail (1 in in 25 matches won prior to last night).
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Balance and Control
Saw this graphic on Twitter this morning. It summed up really well what happened at the Veltins Arena last night.
One of the things that really struck me following last night’s match were the similarities between last night’s spectacular win vs. Schalke  at the Veltins Arena and last Saturday’s meh win over Elche at home. What do I mean by this? Real Madrid have learned to control a match and seem to have learned to play with the ‘Balance’ that Ancelotti has been preaching. It seems like a simple thought but it really is quite a big deal.
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Mourinho’s Madrid was about sheer intensity, physical power and fast-as-a-fuck lightning speed (a model he seems to be trying to replicate in Chelsea now). He happily ceded control of a match to the opponent, many times luring them into moments of having a false sense of security before murderously striking them down with irresistible speed and relentlessness. It was exhilarating to watch as a spectator but also easy to anticipate as a tactical observer if you were the opponent. Thus, its success became predicated on intensity and physical aggression. 3 years of this method in Madrid’s fishbowl environment, political landscape and such would inevitably take its toll on the team. Conflicts emerge (Casillas, Ramos, Pepe, Ronaldo even) and players whom the team cannot live without physically wear out (Alonso).
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Enter Ancelotti who has obsessed about ‘Balance’ (‘equilibrio’ as he would say). He sounded like a broken record, particularly at the start of the season as he would criticize his team’s performance early in the season. We’re finally starting to understand where this obsession for ‘Balance’ comes from… and what it means.
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Against Elche over the weekend and against Schalke last night… and pretty much against every team we’ve faced over the last 2 months, we saw it. We didn’t always play well going forward, we didn’t always tune up the intensity (as we did in that first leg in the CDR vs. Atleti) but we almost always learned how to control the match with possession and did so with ‘balance’ – keeping Lopez and Casillas’ goal safe from harm. With the midfield trio of Alonso, Modric and Di Maria, Ancelotti have found 3 players who all are willing to embrace defensive responsibility and offer 3 completely varying ways to bring the ball forward to our attackers: be it through Alonso’s long range passing, Modric’s pass-and-move maneuvers or Di Maria’s vertical mazy dribbling. And in this sense, last night was no different from last weekend – or the last 2 months.
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Beyond the team’s tactical ‘balance’ and newfound ability to control the game, it’s also very important to note that the individual members of the team have all also collectively improved their ability to read the game. It is clear that there is a sort of system in place by which certain players surge forward to retrieve lost balls / clearances and press the opponent when our attacks are repelled. Likewise, a system also seems to be in place by which the team is able to collectively double back once the opponent is about to start a counter attack. This collective improvement in the team’s ‘Group Think’ has become one of the critical elements of the team’s success. Players are no longer simplistically designated as ‘attackers’ or ‘defenders’, the team now collectively attacks and defends together. It is an entirely different, but wholly more beautiful way of defining ‘balance’.  
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And in stark contrast to the effects of the over-intensified pressure cooker environment of Mourinho, Ancelotti’s team last night showed an unusual calm unflappability. After Schalke’s early dominance on the ball, it was as if the team collectively raised one eyebrow (much like their coach) as if to scoff at Schalke’s cheeky attempt at bravery and calmly proceeded to seize the game and deliver the incredible beat down they delivered to the Germans. And even when the Germans resisted at first, almost scoring an equalizer, the team, led by San Iker (what a save!), responded calmly to Schalke’s challenge with no fuss.
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The steel forged by Mourinho is clearly well and truly still within this team. This steel however has been further galvanized by the calm balance and measured control that Carlo Ancelotti has brought. And he did it all without any cryptic critiques to the media, without any feuds with opponents or other members of the club hierarchy – only with a raised eyebrow and lots of chewing gum.
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BBC Blastoff
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For me, Gareth Bale had his best game in a Real Madrid shirt last night
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Last night also saw an orgasmically wonderful performance of our team’s front line, the BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano). It wasn’t just a performance of the 3 players all having great individual games. It was wonderful because the 3 players’ near-perfect individual performances was a result of their equally near-perfect combination of playing together. Apart from Benzema constantly shuttling up and down the pitch, switching roles from being a facilitator and ‘9’, Ronaldo and Bale also interchanged wings many times and duly learned to utilize the space left by Benzema (when the Frenchman dropped deep) by making ‘center forward runs’… and wreaking absolute havoc upon the Schalke defense.
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Benzema has evolved into the perfect striker for the system and personnel of this Real Madrid side. The Frenchman has found the perfect balance between his roles as a facilitator for the team’s 2 goalscoring wingmen and as the opportunistic striker who will get his when the right moment arrives. Apart from his 2 goals and 2 assists, Karim Benzema also completed 19 out of 19 passes last night.
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As for Ronaldo, after his 3 game suspension, it was clear that he was chomping at the bit to get on the scoresheet.  He netted ‘only 2 goals’ but could have easily been 5 if it weren’t for the efforts of the Schalke keeper. The most critical aspect of Ronaldo’s play however is what appears to be a newfound appreciation to ‘play within the system’. Our MVP has clearly learned to appreciate and understand the spatial landscape created by the 4-3-3 and has very intelligently chosen to exploit the advantages it brings. He is no longer the player looking to receive the ball, run ¾ of the pitch and take on 3-4 defenders. Ronaldo now reads situations and duly makes decisions based on in-game situations. Run with the ball? Pass off? Is there a space to run to? Dribble through the defender? We are now seeing a more cerebral dimension to Ronaldo’s game.
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For Bale, there has been much talk about whether he restrains himself in the presence of Ronaldo. After 3 meh La Liga games for Madrid (where he was whistled in the last one), Gareth Bale played his best game in a Real Madrid shirt last night, right next to his idol CR7. Rather than perpetually and predictably look to score by cutting to his favoured left foot (and towards 2-3 help defenders), Bale looked to his idol last night for other ideas on how to play the game from his position. Making runs to receive diagonal balls from teammates, and playing 1-2s, he was able to showcase new dimensions to his game.  For Bale, last night’s performance was ultimate proof that when Bale and Cristiano play together, there was absolutely no need for one player to subsume his game for the other. What we saw last night was in actual fact, confirmation that the rest of the football world outside of Madridismo had feared all along: that Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo could not only play together, but that they could also make each other better.
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Time to take this Home
It certainly looks like the time has come for Madrid to take this form and rally towards the season’s finish line. Following last weekend’s establishment of a 3 point lead over Barca and Atleti, this weekend brings us an opportunity to cast into stone the elimination of Atletico from the title race by winning and setting up a 6 point gap with them. This glorious win over Schalke provides the team with yet another beautiful opportunity. Last night’s massacre essentially turns the second leg at the Bernabeu into a dead rubber – a match that will be played days before the season’s second clasico. Barring any shock losses in La Liga, Real Madrid now have the golden opportunity to rest key players in the second leg vs. Schalke to ensure a fully rested and fit side to face Barcelona and also establish a 6 point lead over them in the league. Assuming Madrid, Barca and Atleti do not drop any more points in the league, the boys will have the opportunity to establish a 6 point lead over both our title rivals before the end of March… and it might actually turn out to be a bigger lead if Barca and Atleti fail to arrest the slides that their respective teams are experiencing.
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The path to glory is now visible. All the boys need to do is stay the course.
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It’s time to take this home.

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