Thursday, February 6, 2014

Winning Great, Good, Bad and Ugly (Real Madrid 3 – Atletico Madrid 0)

Before last night’s match, Real Madrid were desperate…
-Desperate for a win against a top tier opponent
-Desperate for a win against Atletico Madrid, who had already beaten us twice in a row after a more-than-decade-long hoodoo.
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And finally, last night, Carlo Ancelotti and his boys delivered that much-needed win. Along with the win however, and perhaps arguably even more important than the win per se, was the team’s performance. Real Madrid beat Atletico Madrid in EVERY aspect of the game and beyond. We beat them tactically, technically, physically… we beat them in terms of intensity, in terms of intelligence, in terms of poise… we beat them with the mind games, we beat them with the dirty tricks. We won in every sense of the word. We won good, bad and ugly.
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Winning Great and Good: A Massive Victory for a the 4-3-3 with the Di Maria-Alonso-Modric Midfield
Apart from bossing the midfield with Angel Di Maria, Luka Modric made a VERY critical goal-line clearance off a Godin header from an Atleti Set Piece
I can totally imagine it now: probably some time back in December, over a bowl of over-priced pasta (Carletto is reportedly a foodie), a bottle of expensive wine and perhaps even a cigar…. When Carlo Ancelotti came up with the seemingly nutty idea of playing Di-Maria-Alonso-Modric in the midfield of the 4-3-3 – that he was imagining the team playing as it did last night.
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Alonso dictated the pace of the game with his passing and positioning while Modric and Di Maria provided the team’s midfield with mobility, pace, the ability to keep the ball as well as the ability to distribute it forwards and sideways. And whenever it was lost, it would be the tirelessness and relentlessness of the 2 who led the team’s pack mentality to press Atletico to retrieve it back. Beyond them, Alonso marshalled the defense in coordinated ‘raids’ to make interceptions and retrieve loose balls, avoiding as much as possible having to get into tackling duels with Atleti’s forwards.
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The team played wonderfully as a unit. The boys played as if there was an invisible string that linked each player to one another. Every square inch of the pitch was covered when Atleti broke forward. On attack, our moves capitalized on every square inch of strategically-important open space vacated by the scurrying Atleti defense. The boys (including CR7 for the most part) hardly forced themselves into the match unnecessarily with over-elaborated individual moves. Instead, they passed the ball around, looking for open spaces, open teammates… giving team a ‘natural flow’ to the attack. It was thoroughly enjoyable to watch: I don’t care about the fact that we scored 2 goals off deflections (which counted as own goals). If we play like this, we can’t be beaten.  
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Winning Great and Good: A Mancrush Dilemna
Remember the name: Jese Rodriguez, Real Madrid's new young star.
From one week to the next, I’ve been flip-flopping on my Real Madrid man-crush. Tonight’s Madridista-of-the-match in my book had to be Modric (edging out Jese). The Croatian was once again sensational with his movement with and without the ball on attack and his tirelessness, alertness (what a wonderful goal-line clearance of Godin’s goal-bound header) on defense. Another definite candidate for Madridista-of-the-match honors was Angel Di Maria. Turning in his most convincing performance as a Central Midfielder, Di Maria left the pitch to an ovation from the Bernabeu. It was a stark contrast to his Michael Jackson antics amidst a hail of boos and whistles from the same crowd just some weeks back.
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And as we look dreadfully back towards the La Liga campaign which will see Ronaldo miss the next 3 matches, a bright light has been shining up front for us: Jese. Is he Real Madrid’s answer to Barca’s Pedro (a speedy, dynamic winger with pace to scare the underpants off any defense)? His second goal might be viewed by some as simple. It was however, a far more sophisticated finish than the casual eye suggests: latching on to Di Maria’s through ball, the ex-Castilla man, opted not to strike the ball squarely with his left for a straightforward shot. Doing so would have seen the attempt saved by Courtois who had ‘made himself big’ in anticipation of the shot attempt. Jese instead opted to use his right foot to very delicately touch the ball and subtly steer it away and slide underneath the Alteti’s  outstretched Belgian keeper. It was the sort of cultured, sophisticated finish last seen from the boots of Butragueno and Raul (there, I said it!).  
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Ronaldo will get his ‘La Liga break’: giving him the opportunity to skip the team’s La Liga matches (and getting the chance to get rested and freshened up) for the month’s tasty midweek encounters against Atleti in the return leg and against Schalke in the Champions League. Real Madrid fans the world over will instead have even more chances to see the pearl of the cantera given even more chances with the team.
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Winning Bad and Ugly: Winning the Mindgame Duel of the Wind-up Merchants
Pepe not only kept his head in the face of La Liga's King of Windup Merchants (Diego Costa), he also (sort of) scored a goal and got Costa suspended for the return leg. Did I also mention that he played well?
One of the scariest matchups for Madridisitas coming into the match was the duel between La Liga’s master of the Dark Arts, its king of wind up merchants: Diego Costa vs. our 2 hot-headed Central Defenders: Ramos and Pepe. Many Madrid fans spent the match nervously monitoring the duel scared out of their wits that Costa’s antics would get into the heads of our defenders and cause the team to self-destruct.
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It didn’t happen. What happened instead was one of the night’s funniest moments for Madridistas the world over: the sight of Pepe, ugly face, unkempt hair and all, close up with Costa and laughing like an overfed hyena. It was Costa instead who lost his temper, earning a yellow card and ruling himself out of the second leg at the Calderon.
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Last night, our boys in white gave as much shit as they had to take from their Atletico counterparts with regards to the game’s dirty tricks: kicks, elbows, shirt-pulling, trash-talking, diving, some say even spitting. We gave as much shit out as the referees allowed too – with Pepe the sole winner of a yellow card for Madrid (Atleti had 4 men get into the book).
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Maybe Arbeloa and Coentrao aren’t the team’s 2nd-choice fullbacks… Maybe they’re just better suited over the enthusiastic Carvajal and Mr. Sunshine Marcelo in matches for windup merchants such as last night.
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Finding Themselves
It was only 2 seasons ago when Real Madrid ‘found themselves’ at this very point: the Copa Del Rey Semi-Finals. Having been able to convince Mourinho to allow them to attack Barca, our boys put the fear of God into Barca. We lost the tie, but set the foundations for our La Liga #32-winning campaign.
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What happened last night feels very similar. It was as if the band finally learned to play it’s song perfectly in the face of very difficult circumstances.
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There’ still an away leg to play (and not concede 3 goals) and an away ‘la liga leg’ to play  at the beginning of March. Time to mark your calendars people – I’m starting to feel the pleasant sunshinge that comes with La Liga leadership upon my face.

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