Monday, March 31, 2014

Who Are We? (Real Madrid 3 - Barcelona 4)


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The Big Picture
Prior to the Match, I recalled Ancelotti’s 2 matches vs. Atleti and Barca where he ‘risked by playing safe’ and mentioned that I was hoping that he would play our first choice XI and go for a gunslinging duel with Barca. Real Madrid after all, could afford to lose this one. He did just that and prior to Sergio Ramos’ sending off, the match seemed to be exactly what the neutral fan asked for: 2 big clubs, neither ‘playing safe’, both going for each others’ throats. It also was as I expected: we would conceded goals from their frontal assault, but they likewise would to ours – with home advantage, form and physicality on our side allowing us to edge it out. It didn’t happen though, because…
The Referee
The kneejerk reaction is to blame Undiano Mallenco. His decision to send off Sergio Ramos completely ruined the spectacle of the match. It was a wrong decision too. Sergio Ramos’ hand barely brushed Neymar’s back. At its very worst, Sergio Ramos was either 1.) trying to scratch Neymar’s back or 2.) trying to tickle Neymar into losing the ball. Neymar exhibited his diving expertise by simulating the sort of momentum that would result in a defender trying to bundle you over by not just diving, but going on a tailspin movement. Those of us who have the benefit of instant replay can attack him for his bad call (just like Barca fans can do so for calling a Penalty on Alves for tripping Ronaldo outside the box) – but let’s all admit it: this is the sort of call referees commonly make mistakes with. The second penalty was more contentious. In my opinion, things were the other way around: at first look, it seemed to be no contact and replays show that there was indeed some contact. The contact however, was very marginal and thus it was a soft penalty to give. At the end of the day however, in my opinion, both calls were bad ones.
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The Play
Up until the sending off, Real Madrid’s play last night was a cathartic experience. Since accumulating the likes of CR7, Kaka, Ozil, Alonso, Benzema, Bale, Isco, etc., the world has been collectively waiting for a Real Madrid side to engage Barcelona in a pitched battle. No defensive schemes, no mind games, no rough-housing. Just 2 sides playing good old attacking football. Real Madrid gave the world what it was looking for. As I type this, apart from praising Messi and Barcelona, the world is also collectively positively reeling from the intensity of the play from the 2 sides last night. Real Madrid didn’t shirk or hide: Ancelotti and his boys went into an open field on a clear March night with their pistols, machine guns and machetes on hand and duly engaged Barca in a gunslinging duel. It was sheer footballing exhilaration and orgasm. It was to me, the footballing equivalent of having a Victoria’s Secret model in your bedroom, with every little moment of pre-coital flirting and cavorting oozing perfection… that is until your drunken uncle (Undiano Mallenco) turns up, knocks on your door asking if there’s any milk in the fridge. Jose Mourinho, at the time aware of Madrid’s lack of prepared-ness for such an encounter, avoided such a pitched battle. In his first clasico, also unsure of the team’s prepared-ness, Ancelotti did likewise (Ramos as DM). But finally after 31 unbeaten games, Ancelotti gave the world (and madridisimo) what it was craving for. Ancelotti deserves praise for that. He was however by no means perfect.
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The same goes for a number of Real Madrid players. Prior to the match, I had expressed my concern about Alonso’s lack of mobility being exploited by a Leo Messi dropping deep and running circles around him. Barca’s first 2 goals were all a result of that. If Madrid are to get far in the Champions League or are to beat Barca in the Copa Del Rey final, Ancelotti will need to have a close look at this weakness and address it. Carvajal was trapped in 2 minds for the first goal: does he help close Messi down? Or cover his man streaking down the flanks? Before his mind could decide, Messi’s pass would release Iniesta with acres of space for the opener. Minutes later, Carvajal would once again join the fray in closing Messi / Neymar through the center only to be tricked by Messi’s endless running who would receive a return pass from Neymar to score Barca’s 2nd.
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Alonso, Modric, Ronaldo and Bale didn’t cover themselves in glory either. Alonso and Modric failed to show the calm and ‘equilibrio’ that Ancelotti had been preaching (like a broken record) for the last several months. Bale seems to have forgotten many of the lessons he’s gradually learned over the past few games: making dynamic runs, robbing the ball in advance positions, and swinging the play from one flank to the other when there was too much pressure on him. Ronaldo forced himself into the game too much (as opposed to responding to the situations within the game): too many forced shots, too little tracking of Alves, too little influence for a Balon D’ Or winner.
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The 2 players who were deserving of praise would be Angel Di Maria and Benzema. Di Maria almost won the game my himself. He ran himself silly (to the point of almost passing out from the looks of it) for his first assist… only for him to repeat the trick again minutes later. I often feared that when the day came as to when our midfield would be exposed for being lightweight, that it’d would be el Fideo who would be questioned. It wasn’t him last night though. Benzema on the other hand can be viewed positively or negatively. He could have had 5 goals by half time. He scored 2, missed 2 and had 1 cleared on the line by Pique. He made Macherano and embarrassment to CBs the world over. The question remains however, if Macherano was going to be such a sorry excuse for a defender, then perhaps embarrassing him wasn’t enough – Benzema should have mercilessly annihilated him. The match would’ve been in bed by halftime if he had done so. There are arguments to both praise and criticize our French #9. I will however, stay on the fence on this one.
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The Mourinho Days Are Over
Losing was hearbreaking. Losing because of bad refereeing was infuriating. But seeing the team being bad losers was utterly disappointing. I have no problems with the team crying foul over bad refereeing. But when the team’s leaders (Ramos, Ronaldo) make conspiracy theory rants to the press, that to me, crosses a line. Someone should tell them that Jose Mourinho doesn’t work for Real Madrid anymore. We don’t do things that way over here anymore. If the team has taken a significant psychological blow from the loss, ranting petulantly only makes it obvious and provokes the vultures to circle over us even more, giving them confidence… giving them that ‘a-ha!’ realization about us. In 3 days, we travel to the Sanchez Pizjuan to take on the CL-aspiring Sevilla. Are we going let the Andalucians become vultures? Or shall we turn them into fried chicken?
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Now is not the time to bitch and moan. Now is not the time to rant petulantly over spilled milk. We had a great chance to end Barca’s title hopes and TOGETHER with the referee, WE blew it. Our title chance is however NOT yet blown. Now is the time to look at ourselves and ask 'Who Are We?',  'Where did we get it wrong?' and move forward. 3 titles are still at stake and questions about the team character are now being asked.
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Now is the time to answer them the right way and show them who we really are.

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