Thursday, April 10, 2014

Spineless, Gutless Chokers (Borussia Dortmund 2 - Real Madrid 0)

My Twitter Feed last Tuesday Night
Spineless, Gutless Chokers.
No Character. No Resolve. No Poise, No Cojones.
These were some of the words I used to describe Real Madrid last Tuesday night as I watched in horror how Real Madrid almost sabotaged their own advancement to the Champions League Semi-Finals. In the end, Borussia Dortmund won 2-0. They fell 1 goal short of the 3-0 scoreline they needed to send the game into extra time or even penalties. When the referee blew his whistle, though I cannot deny that I heaved a sigh of relief, I also stood up and applauded my television. The applause of course was meant for Jurgen Klopp and his men. It was as gallant and fearless a performance as I had ever seen in the game of football. There is no logical explanation as to why there is no queue or bidding war going on to acquire the services of this frumpy-haired, bearded German coach with yellow teeth amongst Europe’s elite clubs. He led his band of mostly-no-name replacements to almost eliminate the most expensively assembled squad in the history of the world’s most popular sport from the Champions League.
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That we lost to Borussia Dortmund did not upset me. I was in fact somewhat prepared for the possibility of seeing the team suffer and even lose. What really turns my stomach the wrong way however was the manner in which we lost… or to put it in another way: it exposed the team for what it really might seem to be: a team that is mentally weak, with a soft center that will crumble when put to the pressure. And let’s make no mistake about it – we are now in THAT part of the season where we will ALWAYS be put to the pressure.
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I’ve always hated teams that were like that: all the talent in the world but without the stomach or the bottle to use their talent to win (which is why I loved to make fun of the collegiate basketball team from my wife’s university, you should see her face blacken when I do it). And on the opposite side of the spectrum, I’ve always had a soft spot for teams that lack talent but whose mental fortitude carried them through. This is how I’ve become a Liverpool fan myself after seeing ‘the miracle at Istanbul’ (2005 Champions League Final) – how can you explain that Djimi Traore has a Champions League winner’s medal? Perhaps this is how I managed to win my wife’s love back after all those cruel and nasty jokes about her university’s basketball team.
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Beyond the Errors
My memories of choking in big moments in sports events all trace back to my basketball-filled childhood and teenage years and I realize that many of those moments involve free throw-shooting incidents:
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-John Starks missing 2 key freethrows for the New York Knicks to pave the way for the Indiana Pacers’ Reggie Miller to perform his heroics at the Madison Square Garden.
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-The Chicago Bulls’ Scottie Pippen whispering ‘The mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays’ to Karl Malone in the NBA finals. Malone would blow the free throws.
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-The Orlando Magic’s Nick Anderson missing FOUR consecutive free throws in game 1 of the NBA finals with his team leading by 3 in the 4th quarter vs. the Houston Rockets. The Rockets’ Kenny Smith would hit a 3 point shot and send the game into over time. Houston would go on to win it and later on sweep the Magic 4-0 in the series. Anderson would NEVER be the same player again after that moment.
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The penalty kick is football’s equivalent to basketball’s free throw. But just as hard as it is to score in football, the penalty is a considerably harder task compared to the free throw. That’s just fair enough given that a goal in football is worth far more than a point in basketball (heck, it’s worth more than 10, it’s probably worth 50). So when we won a penalty for what in my opinion was a dubious handball call (the player had his arm tucked to his body, but still had the misfortune of making contact with the ball) – it was as if the football Gods had decided to bless us with the opportunity to put the tie to bed and switch channels to the Chelsea-PSG game instead.
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But since when was Angel Di Maria our second-choice penalty taker (I would’ve had Alonso take it)? As Di Maria slipped as he struck the ball and Weinderfeller saved, one could only guss the football Gods felt insulted by our team’s response to their gift. The atmosphere of the crowd completely changed at that point. From the ‘we’re here to support our team no matter what because we love them’ vibe that started the match, the blown penalty turned the atmosphere of the Signal Igduna Park into ‘This is a sign! We can REALLY do this! It’s meant to be!’
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What followed wasn’t even a brain fart. It was a Brain Shit. Both goals were created by errors. Pepe’s misplaced backheader was the sort you’d see little boys make in the schoolyard. This ain’t the schoolyard though: on that pitch on that fateful Tuesday night, there was a shark prowling the waters named Marco Reus – and he made us pay dearly for it. The English commentator would comment during a replay of a goal: “If it’s a big game, Pepe or Ramos will surely commit a defensive error, and if you’re smart enough, all you need to do is wait for it and take advantage. Reus was clearly smart enough.” I hated that this English prick was probably saying it out of a stereotypical impression of a Real Madrid team…. But I hated it even more that what he said was true.
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The second goal was FAR WORSE. After the first leg, I wrote about the importance of having our 3 central midfielders needing to be constantly aware of each other’s position to ensure that there was always cover. When Asier Illaramendi lost the ball, there was an Aircraft Carrier-sized void between Illaramendi’s back and our CBs: the perfect landscape for a counterattack to be launched. And here’s the thing that REALLY made me want to chuck the remote control at the television: the goal wasn’t scored after Lewandowski’s strike, but it was a SECOND BALL (following the Polish striker’s shot bouncing off the post) that made it 2-0. What this means is that from Illara’s error, to the counter attack, to Lewandowski’s strike, to the ball hitting the post… None of Real Madrid’s players duly reacted quick enough or was adequately positioned to clear the ball. You will NEVER win a single title defending like that.
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The team would try to hold on for dear life following Reus’ second goal. A team that featured Ramos (27m), Pepe (30m), Alonso (35m), Modric (35m), Di Maria (36m), Benzema (30m) and Gareth Bale (100m) would cower to a bunch of ‘replacements’ (ever heard of Eric Durm? Milos Jojic? Oliver Kirch? I didn’t think so) is both shocking and embarrassing. I’ve never begged so badly for the halftime and fulltime whistle.
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Xabi Alonso and my Ex-Girlfriend
Before and during the early period of getting together with the woman who is now my ex-girlfriend, I remember quivering in excitement over certain very specific qualities about her. After a certain period of time however, those very qualities that I loved so much about her began to turn into the things that I really disliked about her. Later on, it would get to a point where even the things that caused so much conflict between us would end up being attributed to, related to, or are an implication of having those very qualities which made me fall so madly for her in the beginning.
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Exactly the same thing is now happening between me and Xabi Alonso right this very moment. He is the best long range passer in the game. His vision and intelligence is off the charts… making him the tactical epicentre of the team. All of these qualities come at the expense of his athleticism and we accept and love him for being just that.
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It is however no coincidence that our every failure this season (and many of our failures in the past few seasons) can be directly attributed to this. Last season Madrid was exposed by Jurgen Klopp (Stop Alonso, you stop Madrid). This season, Messi and Rakitic ran rings around him and Raul Garcia bullied him – and we lost. Last night Mykhitaryan imposed his speed and athleticism all over Alonso. He ran rings around him too. In trying to anticipate moves, Alonso also took more than a few unnecessary risks without assessing if there was adequate coverage behind him should he fail to nick the ball.
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Alonso is the team’s strength AND its weakness. He is normally directly responsible for whether we play badly (where I detest him) or brilliantly (where I fall in love with him). Ancelotti’s job is to watch game film of our losses to Atletico, Sevilla, Barcelona and Dortmund and ask himself: how can Alonso not become that ex-girlfriend (whose qualities that make you fall in love also become the ones that cause you pain)?
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A Look On the Bright Side
Frustration: It all gets a little too much for the Portuguese star as he gesticulates on the sidelines
Ronaldo patrolling the Real Madrid Touchline Last Night. If he can't play, he should be made to sit on the bench instead. If your best player is that fired up, then you ought to be.
The sigh of relief that followed the halftime whistle was preluded by the comforting sight of Cristiano Ronaldo frantically yelling, signalling and gesturing at his teammates – almost as if he was the coach himself. In fact, if I could recall correctly, he had to be told by the fourth official to sit himself down on the bench. I later on tweeted that Ancelotti should just lock Ronaldo up in the dressing room with the players to give the halftime team talk. Many have spoken of the need to learn to eat a bit of humble pie on their way to the semi-finals: that it would do them some good to be made to suffer in order to deflate any sense of over-confidence that might be building up in them. It may have done good for Ronaldo to be on the bench that night as well: for him to see what his teammates look like when they stop supporting each other both in attack and on defense. He might be back for Almeria this weekend, but I honestly would much rather see him in the clasico Copa Del Rey Final instead.
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It’s important to note that Ancelotti’s substitutions worked out well too for Real Madrid. Isco’s introduction in the second half worked well (where he played in the left wing and Di Maria was shifted to the midfield). Isco didn’t frantically try to speed his way into Dortmund’s box every time he received the ball as one might expect. Instead, Isco gave the game (especially Real Madrid’s) a much needed ‘pause’: he calmly dribbled his way to the corners, slowing the pace of the game down, diffusing the tension, and retaining possession to allow his teammates to regain their bearings in the match. By the latter part of the second half however, Dortmund turned up the pressure once again and Ancelotti sent young Casemiro in for Di Maria. The young Brazilian gave Madrid’s midfield an additional ‘bite’ and didn’t at all seem fazed by the occasion. I don’t consider him to be a superbly talented footballer just yet – but what he lacked in magic, he made up for with cojones… and did so in spades.
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The final bright spot of the match would have to go to Iker Casillas. Many of today’s goalkeepers are expected to command the penalty box, dominate in the air and come out decisively for crosses and high balls, or even to play the ball properly with their feet to start attacks. Diego Lopez does ALL of these better than Iker Casillas. But Iker Casillas might probably the greatest shot-stopper of all time. In a one-on-one situation, or even a two-on-one, or if the ball finds its way to an opponent’s #9 in the box, if I had to gamble with my life in that situation, I would choose Iker as my goalkeeper. Iker will go to the World Cup again this summer and will thus return to training camp later than Diego Lopez once again. Despite all the additional functions we want to see from a goalkeeper these days, I still say that the primary role of a keeper is to stop shots of the opponent. And though I’ve written MANY times that I UNDERSTAND why coaches prefer Lopez to Iker, let me say this now once and for all: if it was up to me, Iker should be our first choice goalkeeper.
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Across the Channels
Last Tuesday, in the other channel, our other ex-girlfriend Jose Mourinho masterminded an impressive comeback 2-0 win to send Chelsea to the semi-finals. He too lost his best player (Hazard) and duly responded with 2 of his substitutes scoring goals (Schurrle, Ba). It was an impressive display of character.
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While last night, Atleti beat Barcelona 1-0 to add another highlight to what has been an absolutely epic season for them. They too played without their best player (Diego Costa). And finally, in another part of Germany, winning character was met with winning character. Manchester United refused to die at the hands of Bayern and forced the Bavarians (who were without Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez) into a second half display of guts, character and poise to earn their place in the semi-finals.
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Every team that’s in the semi-finals now except for us has reached this point of the competition thanks to an impressive display of team character.
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We are currently the only spineless, gutless bunch of chokers with no cojones, no resolve, no poise of character left in the competition. If we are to have any hope whatsoever to even have the chance to raise La Decima this season, Ancelotti and his boys have exactly 2 more games left in this competition to prove that what I said about them last night isn’t true.

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