Monday, April 7, 2014

Crushing the Banana Skin (Real Sociedad 0 – Real Madrid 4)

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Post-clasico, we all knew it: there were 2 banana skin games left in the La Liga calendar. The first was at the Sanchez Pizjuan against Sevilla. The second was last Satuday at the Anoeta. We failed in Seville. We succeeded in San Sebastian. Following the loss vs. Sevilla, there were those who ranted that Carlo Ancelotti couldn’t beat ‘big teams’ or ‘big games’. And given that many of those sentiments came out following the Sevilla game, one would surmise that these critics have included Sevilla as a ‘big team’ or that the match was a ‘big game’. I am thus looking for those very same critics now following this win vs. Real Sociedad – the ones who would refer to last Saturday’s game as a ‘big game’ if we had lost it and a ‘usual game’ now that we’ve won it 4-0. Let’s all admit that there’s a double standard right there and that it’s really unfair.
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Real Sociedad may not be the Champions League qualifying team that they were last season (with Montanier at the helm), but they are still the team that beat 3-1 at home. So let’s put aside the double standard and make no mistake about it. This was a big game and a genuine Banana Skin game for us… and Ancelotti and his boys didn’t only side step the banana skin, they crushed it.
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Risks and Rotations
Ancelotti did it while taking some pretty big risks too. Without Cristiano Ronaldo, one would have thought that the most logical thing to do was to play the best players from the remainder of the squad. That means a full first choice XI with his best attempt to compensate for the Ronaldo-sized void in the team. He didn’t do that though and instead chose to play without Di Maria and Coentrao.
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Was this because he felt that the title is no longer a priority and that it was time to go all-in instead for the Champions League? Was this him screaming into the night towards the football gods, daring them to strike his team down from La Liga contention? Or was this a merely a calculated risk (he still had Di Maria and Coentrao on the bench after all) which he could have undone if things didn’t go well?
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Either way, it was a gamble that he took and it paid off. Coentrao was rested. So was Di Maria (he played a few minutes) while Ronaldo managed to take the game in from the comfort of his living room presumably with his knee in an ice bucket. On top off that: we got another solid performance from  Illaramendi, the chance to see Isco shine with his tap-dancing routine and Alvaro Morata to score another peach of a goal for the second consecutive game. At this stage of the season: you now need to be able to reach in as deep into the squad as possible and get a performance out of those guys and Carletto’s rotations last Saturday night was a big help towards that.
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Switching Flanks
It was a talking point in this week’s Merengue Bites podcast: the tide seemed to turn in our favour when Bale and Isco (who was playing in Ronaldo’s left wing spot in the front 3) decided to switch places.
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Real Sociedad were chasing our boys all over the pitch in the first half, giving them barely a second to react once the ball was received. Their objective was to force our boys into losing possession… or to ‘reset’ the play by returning the ball to our CBs and even to Diego Lopez. The plan was greatly helped by the fact that less adventurous Nacho was playing as a Left Back and Isco (who as a natural ‘10’, drifts inside) was playing as the left winger in Ronaldo’s stead. This resulted in a lopsided Real Madrid: we had width on the right (Carvajal + Bale) and none on the left (Isco + Nacho). With Bale and Isco switching flanks, the team became more balanced: with Bale providing width on the left and Carvajal providing it on the right.
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Having width on both flanks essentially spreads the width of the pitch of the team even further: forcing Real Sociedad to cover far more ground… and further facilitated the fatigue factor for them having to cover so much ground. They physically hit the wall in the second half and conceded 3 goals to a fired-up and more fluid Real Madrid.
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This is a ‘trick’ Ancelotti needs to employ more frequently. Except for the 2 English teams, every remaining team left in the Champions League are capable pressers of the ball. If they’re going to try to run after us when we have the ball, then we might as well force them to do so all over the pitch. A wider pitch also means more space for our 3 midfielders to operate. And so what if Ronaldo and Bale will be less able to cut in to shoot with their stronger foot? We’ve all seen Ronaldo score buckets of goals from the right… and wasn’t Bale’s Champions League claim to fame (during his Spurs days) that hat trick vs. Inter playing on the left (that had Spurs fans singing ‘Taxi for Maicon’)?  
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I am not calling for the 2 to permanently swap wings, but for them to do so more frequently. It’s a good trick to physically and mentally exhaust the opponent.
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Appetizers
It didn’t occur to me until my quick fixture list look just now. The weekend after next is the Copa Del Rey Final. Real Madrid would do well to get past Dortmund tomorrow and Almeria next weekend without any physical (injuries) or mental (low morale from a loss, etc.) issues heading into our first chance for silverware: The Copa Del Rey Final vs. Barcelona.
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Barca will surely be physically and mentally exhausted next weekend (where they travel to 15th-placed Almeria) regardless of the outcome of their Champions League clash vs. Atleti. There will be a week’s rest before we cross swords with them once again in the Copa Del Rey Final. And it’s time to hope that the absences of Victor Valdes and Pique will be felt very badly by Barcelona.
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As for Atleti, they ‘travel’ to relegation-fodder Getafe midweek and host Elche on the weekend of the final. There is no reason for them to drop points even in the absence of Diego Costa.
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I suppose there’s no point in looking too far now. Now is the time to ‘live in the moment’. Every match from here on in is a big match, regardless of how big or small is the team that we are facing next. That means that every team that we face from this point onwards is should be treated as a ‘Banana Skin’ game… and the time has now come for us to either kick them aside or crush them all.   

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