Wednesday, January 29, 2014

4am Blues (and Whites)

Slept too early last night thanks to a cold. Woke up at 4am and unable to doze off again... so I decided to switch on the TV and the computer to catch 2 live matches taking place:
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Liverpool 4 - Everton 0
Being married to a Liverpool fan (and witnessing their historic 2005 Champions League win) turns you into a a fan. Roberto Martinez's Everton though are a side that's gives you the feel-good element. I thought it'd be a hotly-contested match but it turned out to be a whitewash.
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Martinez's side looked promising in possession, but Liverpool were just too awesome on the break. Rogers has been putting Gerrard in that central pivot role in the midfield, presumably to use his passing range to influence the game. I'm not sure that'll be useful when playing against sides who will know how to lure the tactically un-disciplined Gerrard out of position. Henderson looks a fit on that right-sided Central Midfield role - he brings work-rate and lots of running. Coutinho was great last night - that pass for Sturridge's first goal reminded me of something out of Guti's repertoire. I am however wondering if Coutinho is too lightweight to play as part of a midfield 3.
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Real Madrid 1 - Espanyol 0
I pay shitloads of money to 2 different cable companies here in Singapore for my football viewing (yup! i have 2 cable TV subscriptions!) to watch La Liga, BPL and the Champions League. The 2 companies also feature coverage of the Bundesliga, Serie A and French League, but I seldom watch them). In any case, despite all that money, I still can't get the Copa Del Rey on my TV. What's up with that shit? I had to watch this one on a stream(s).
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Kaushik gets the points in our prediction game from our last podcast. He predicted the first Real Madrid goal to be scored by Jese and for Ramos to get a yellow. My 'bets' were completely off: I went for the safe route, going for Ronaldo to open the scoring and the against-the-odds bet of Ramos finishing the game card-free. 
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Intriguing points to the game: Illaramendi playing alongside Alonso in a midfield 3. He played pretty well in the role - can he win a starter's place in that role one day? The most intriguing part of the game was seeing Isco start as a false 9. I haven't decided yet if I like it or not.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Merengue Bites Rebooted (thoughts on Real Madrid 2 - Granada 0)

The boys of RMFB gave me the wonderful opportunity to participate in the re-booted version of their podcast, Merengue Bites. Click and play to listen to our thoughts on last Saturday's Granada match and then some...


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Winding Up the Machine (Real Betis 0 - Real Madrid 5)

So it looks like my decision to wait it out till today (before writing this post), REALLY paid off. I'll be very honest: choosing to not write on a Sunday was a decision made more to fulfill my obligations as a husband and father rather than the desire to see how the rest of the matches for La Liga would pan out for the weekend. Let's all admit it too: no one anticipated Barca to drop points at Levante and Atleti to drop points to Sevilla at home. Thus, I spent my sunday morning chasing my son around in the playground in a public park and pushing the shopping trolley for my wife in the supermarket enjoying the fact that Madrid were level on points with Atleti and Barca. I did not expect however to wake up today to see them only one point ahead of us.
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I dreaded going back to work today. But going to work with this bit of information at the back of my head is a soothing balm for Monday morning blues. Perhaps it’s the reason I decided to break from habit by writing this inside a sassy coffee shop on my lunch break (rather than at my dreary and messy work desk). 
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Is the 4-3-3 Officially Back?
2013 ended with the team mostly reverting to Mourinho's 4-2-3-1 in the wake of the injury to Sami Khedira. Many liked the idea. All of a sudden, without the highly-functional (but less aesthetically pleasing) Khedira, Madrid were able to play 3 'passing' midfielders into the same lineup: Alonso and Modric would play as pivots, while Isco would be slotted into his favored '10' position behind the striker. The thinking was that Alonso and Modric were not the type to shun defensive responsibility and thus were suited to the role. And given that Isco struggled to adapt to the life of being a full-fledged central midfielder in a 4-3-3 anyway, why not just play him in his favored '10' position?
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Playing the 4-2-3-1 in such a manner however doesn't give the side enough 'steel' at the midfield. It also exposes Alonso's lack of mobility, especially in the absence of a mobile, hardworking midfield 'hatchet man' ala Khedira. Partnered with Modric, who is willing to track back but isn’t a natural ball-winner, Alonso becomes prone to vunerability on the counter, forced to cover too much ground or worse, to concede unnecessary bookings given how Modric tends to drift all over the pitch in his role as that short-range passing ball distributor. I can only guess that this is the reason why Ancelotti has opted to revert to the 4-3-3 where Alonso can be protected by a system where 2 Central Midfielders are inherently given roles to be close to Alonso.
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A Perfect System for Modric
Modric has quietly become Ancelotti's most tactically important player.
It has to be said, that the 4-3-3 is perfect for Luka Modric. So much talk has taken place re: the 4-3-3 and the 4-2-3-1 as suitable to one player or another, but it seems lost on way too many people that the 4-3-3 has been a perfect fit for the Croatian. Voted La Liga’sWORST signing of 2012, he has now completely shut his critics up with his performances and his contributions. After starting out as a classic ‘10’ and later on forced to play on the pivot in Redknapp’s Tottenham – Modric’s game has now evolved to become Real Madrid’s answer to Xavi Hernandez.
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Modric’s game of constantly passing and moving has been the anthem of Ancelotti’s 4-3-3. In the Mourinho era 4-2-3-1, Madrid’s midfield passing consisted primarily of long-range passes from Alonso to surging fullbacks or to the front 4 – necessitating quick vertical transitions to create scoring chances (i.e. counter attacks). With Modric playing as a CM in a 4-3-3 with license to roam forward when Madrid is in possession, the team not only has a capable ball distributor, but one whose movement / mobility on the pitch can change the spatial configuration of the pitch to allow Madrid the ability to more effectively penetrate massed up defences. It is a role we’ve seen Sami Khedira attempt with limited effectiveness much to the chagrin of many fans.
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On the other side of the ball, having been ‘trained’ as a pivot man by Redknapp at Spurs, Modric is a willing tackler, presser and accustomed to being given defensive responsibility. If this season has raised us an interestingly disturbing question it is: if the signing of Illaramendi puts us at ease over having a backup for Alonso, who is Modric’s backup?
The OTHER CM
Are Modric and Di Maria now Alonso's ideal dance partners in the midfield of Ancelotti's 4-3-3?
The second big question re: the 4-3-3 in the absence of Khedira then becomes: who is the OTHER CM? We all thought that it was going to be Isco – he looked great during preseason in that role but then began getting shaky in the role as the season rolled along. Unable to fully understand how to influence the match from such a deep position, and cope with newly-assigned defensive responsibilities, the ex-Malaga man has ended up turning in quite a number of disturbing performances.
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And it is here where Angel Di Maria comes in. Known for his willingness to shoulder defensive responsibility even as a winger, his eye for a killer pass and even dead ball delivery, it seems clear now that Di Maria’s appearances as a CM are no longer just an experiment. With a midfield trio of Di Maria-Alonso-Modric, Ancelotti is able to field a lineup that features 3 players all fully willing to shoulder defensive responsibilities as well as one where all 3 players are capable of creating danger up front, with long-range passing (Alonso), endless pass-and-move maneuvers (Modric) and verticality through mazy dribbles and trickery (Di Maria). If made to work, it allows the team to completely dispel the Jurgen Klopp impression of: stop Alonso, and you stop Madrid. This is also the first time of the season (if I remember correctly) where Ancelotti has repeated the same midfield in consecutive La Liga games.
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An angle which can be explored in all this is whether Carletto also wants to show the Argentine that he isn’t just a backup for the regularly-injured Bale. By showing Di Maria that his source of minutes will not only come when the 100m-man is not fit, Ancelotti becomes more convincing to El Fideo that ‘you’re not a second fiddle man’. Di Maria must in turn, grab the opportunity with both hands, having the opportunity to slot into 2 different positions in a side like Madrid guarantees him an important role in the squad and plenty of minutes. For the CM role, it’s a great help that even as a winger, Di Maria isn’t a high-volume goalscorer (like Bale) or assist man (like Ozil was) – he won’t always have ants in his pants when 2-3 games have gone by without a goal or assist. This allows him to concentrate more on facilitating build-up play.
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There is however one trait that every great CM requires that Di Maria is very much short on: good decision-making. Looks like we all just have to see how he fares.
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Isco – The Odd Man Out?
This returns the conversation back towards Isco. The 4-3-3, designed without room for a ‘10’,  does not give Isco a clear role in the team. If Ancelotti has indeed decided to bite the bullet and proceed with the 4-3-3, then Isco must learn to adapt. He must either: 1.) embrace the opportunity to learn playing as a CM and evolve into the sort of player Modric is today, 2.) Play on the wings where he will be pegged behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Bale and even Di Maria in the pecking order or 3.) Offer Ancelotti the possibility ofplaying as a false 9.
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A Different Sort of Manita
Last Saturday’s Manita was a different sort of Manita. The scoreline at halftime was 0-3 to Madrid. By the second half, after Di Maria’s laser guided missile goal, you still didn’t get the sort of feeling that one used to get during the 0-4 / 0-5 massacres of the Mourinho era where Madrid had this look of an irresistibly forceful team. Was it because our goals didn’t come from hurricane-like formula 1 attacks? That they were borne out of more deliberate, passing sequences?
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Or simply, was is because Madrid are just simply not yet at that point where it could be said that our team indisputably unstoppable? Jurgen Klopp after all was recently quoted as saying that RealMadrid are not yet at par with Europe’s current powerhouse team (Bayern) – andthat we’d get a whipping if we were to face them.
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Maybe he is right – maybe Real Madrid are a still a team that’s slowly but surely getting its act together. Atleti is a team at its peak whose sole concern now is the maintenance of their team’s fitness and form. Barca on the other hand to me have the look of an unsteady team, seemingly in decline and struggling to keep itself afloat (maybe Messi’s return will remedy that somewhat). Real Madrid on the other hand have the look of a team ‘getting its shit together’ – the gears are beginning to click, the injured are being nursed back to health (e.g. Varance) and the unfamiliar slowly finding their place (e.g. Di Maria, Bale).
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Maybe Klopp is right – that we aren’t quite ready for Bayern just yet. But the last time I checked, the next team from Germany we face are Schalke. And thus, there is still time. Time to polish things up and wind the machine up just tightly enough such that when the gears are cranked up by then, the boys are able to reply with a nice meaty snap right back at them when the time comes.
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It’s 2014 guys. Let’s all get in the mood to win some trophies.
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My Reaction to Ronaldo's Opening Goal.
p.s. Now that he’s won the Balon D’ Or, is Ronaldo now gunning for the Puksas award (for best goal)? That 30-yeard opening goal made me suffer from a temporary loss of sanity… and though I’m happy to see Morata get on the scoresheet, let’s all admit it: We would all have rather seen that bicycle kick go in.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

3 Points (Espanyol 0 - Real Madrid 1)

Real Madrid were right back to a 4-3-3 last night much to my surprise. Diagram is from whoscored.com
3 Points. That's the number of points that our boys won in that hard-fought match at the Cornelia El Prat last night. 
3 Points. That's also the exact number of points that separate us from co-leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. 
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In any other season from the past, Madridistas all around the world would have preferred to see the 'usual turn of events' - for Atletico to hand us 12 points: by losing to us (via self-destruction) and beat Barcelona in the season's rare moment of lucidity. This however, isn't like any other season. Atletico have the look of a team that will steamroll their way to the title if allowed to go unchecked. And for this reason, there were probably no Real Madrid fans watching the events at the Calderon last Saturday hoping for an Atleti win. The best result in that match would have been a draw. And the best result for Sunday night was of course a Real Madrid win. And so here we are with those exact events having taken place over the weekend. Atleti and Barca Draw. Real Madrid win. Their lead is down to 3 points with 57 more to fight for. 
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So why do I still feel unsettled? Here are my 3 Points Why:
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POINT #1: Tactical Memory Blackout
Tactical Heat Maps of Modric, Alonso and Di Maria, our 3 in the middle. Modric's (top diagram) and Di Maria's (bottom diagram) show them almost playing as wide players - too far away from Alonso, who in turn was forced to uncomfortably be all over the midfield (middle diagram). Diagrams are from Squawka.
Both Ancelotti and the players need to be looked at for this.
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Last night's match saw the team make a surprising return to a 4-3-3 featuring Modric and Di Maria playing on either side of Xabi Alonso. Ancelotti's decision to revert back to this formation was particularly interesting for me given that I saw the match immediately after Liverpool's 3-5 win over Stoke which featured Alonso's ex-midfield partner Steven Gerrard playing EXACTLY the same role as our '14' in the game (as the team's 'passing pivot' - while pushing Lucas Leiva from his usual spot in that very position to one of the CMs). I honestly thought I had seen the last of the 4-3-3 this season under Ancelotti following Sami Khedira's injury. And given the way we played last night, I really missed Sami.
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Last night's rendition of the 4-3-3 by Modric-Alonso-Di Maria was awful. 4-3-3 is supposed to allow you to control the match by having 3 players controlling the center of the park. What happened instead was that our midfield trio, decided for reasons that I have yet to understand, to play so far apart from each other. The heat maps above show Di Maria and Modric practically playing as wide players and the not-so-mobile Xabi Alonso all over the pitch. The outcome was a team unable to keep their shape and retain possession with everyone spread so far apart from one another.
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This in turn led to a torrid opening 15 minutes where Real Madrid was hardly able to get out of their own half. This defeated the entire purpose of using a 4-3-3.
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The hugely dislikable Johan Cruyff once upon a time elaborated on one of the great virtues of the 4-3-3: it is the only formation that allows a team to cover the entire pitch. The success of its use however is predicated upon not just being 'in your position' but also always understanding your position on the pitch relative to those of your team mates - and it is in the application of this necessary element that is hindering the team's successful use of the system.  
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POINT #2: Pub League Defending
An interesting footnote to the game was Carlo Ancelotti's praise for his defense (Pepe and Ramos). Ancelotti went as far as publicly revealing that he had to convince Pepe to stay over the summer, most likely in the wake of Mourinho's 'he lost his place to a teenager' comments.
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What cannot be disputed however is that thus far in the year 2014, Real Madrid have yet to concede a goal in 3 matches (3-0 vs. Celta, 2-0 vs.Osasuna in the CDR and 0-1 last night). That's a 6-0 aggregate score, which, considering our defensive frailties last year, merited a pat-in-the-back remark from the coach to his defensive charges.
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But while the statistics may inject something of a feel-good element, the team's defense still fails the 'eye test' (i.e. what we see when we watch them play). During the opening 15 minutes when Espanyol took the game by the scruff of the neck (because of our porous midfield), the defense looked really shaky. Our defensive line looked continuously vulnerable to set pieces and crosses into the box. Our boys were constantly off position as well and found themselves making poorly-timed challenges which duly resulted in fouls, yellow cards, and worst of all, even more set piece opportunities for them to threaten us. We may have been fortunate enough to escape those opening exchanges (and the rest of the match) with an unblemished, but a stronger opponent (e.g. Atletico or an Champions League foe) would have duly punished us for it.
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Ancelotti, his coaching staff and the players need a to take a long hard look at themselves immediately to sort this weak defense out. It won't be long before it is embarrassingly breached really badly.
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POINT #3: Balon D' Oh-My-God-How-Could-You-Miss-That!?!?! 
Emotional moment: Ronaldo receives his award from Pele
Cristiano Ronaldo finally wins his second Balon D' Or. Well-deserved and well-timed that he received it in the same ceremony where Pele received his honorary prize as well. He's only 28 and has a long way to go in his career, but there should be no doubt that he belongs to the pantheon of the game's all-time greats.
By the time this review of the match is posted, Cristiano Ronaldo might well and truly have been declared officially as the world's best player. It is a well-deserved accolade that has been long due. His goals, fighting spirit and lately, his leadership as well, have become critical to Real Madrid's success on and off the pitch. Last night however was a different story. After declaring his willingness to attend the awards gala last week, perhaps Ronaldo's mind had found itself flying off to Zurich, getting his hands on the much-coveted trophy.
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Cristiano Ronaldo uncharacteristically missed what must have been 5-7 spectacular scoring chances, many of them in the second half to put the game to bed. Truth be told, had Cristiano buried 1 or 2 of those and if we were looking at a 3 or 4-0 win for Real Madrid, then perhaps many would be looking at the performance from a much more positive standpoint. So in a way, it can probably said that a couple of goals from him might have been able to sugarcoat many of the negatives of the overall team performance. Having said that, going into the 80th minute of an away game with a porous midfield, shaky defense and a 1 goal lead is not a recipe for comfort or peace of mind heading towards the endgame.
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At the end of the day however, 3 points is still 3 points, and there are just some days when you need to claw for them... and last night, it just so happened that those 3 points just got us to within 3 points of the League's 2 co-leaders.
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And that my friends, ain't too bad.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Waking Up For the New Year (Real Madrid 3 - Celta Vigo 0)

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The Match Started with a Moment of Silence to Pay Tribute to Portugal's Greatest Ever Footballer, Eusebio. Even at 71, he was for me, gone too soon.
Happy New Year Everyone! We've had to wait for nearly a week into 2014 to see Real Madrid in action again - and judging from the empty seats seen last night at the Bernabeu (as well as the dour atmosphere amongst the crowd), many are willing to wait longer than a week to get their Real Madrid fix. Not this blogger though. I was eager to see my Men in White get it on - and to pay tribute to Portugal's greatest ever footballer, Eusebio, who left us way too early. 
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2014 ended with a nail-biting match for Real Madrid - requiring the late heroics of Jese to grab the win for Madrid against Valencia. Heading into 2014, having to play Luis Enrique's Celta Vigo at home would have been an ideal matchup for Real Madrid. Any betting man would have easily gone to betfair and rolled the dice in favor in of the much-fancied Real Madrid over the now-18th-placed Celta. Celta however, did not make it so straightforward for Real Madrid. It may have been a 3-0 win for Los Merengues on paper, but those of us who saw the match know very well that the scoreline flattered Real Madrid tremendously. 
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Celta Cedes the Midfield Part 1: Pressing High
What really struck me about the match was the clarity of Celta Vigo's game plan. From the first minute, to the last, they had absolutely NO INTEREST in winning the midfield battle. Instead - they played 2 modes. The first mode involved high pressing, particularly during the first half: winning balls in our third of the pitch to create scoring chances. After the match, Luis Enrique bemoaned the fact that all that was missing for Celta was to 'get the round thing' (ball) into the 'rectangular thing' (the goal). Most of these opportunities came during the first half when the fragility of the Ramos-Pepe defensive partnership continued to get exposed. 
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It was an interesting tactical battle in that sense: a 4-2-3-1 (Real Madrid) vs. a 4-3-3 which operated to allow Madrid to control the central zone of the pitch. And it was in this situation where we saw the inherent weakness of the 4-2-3-1 when attempting to play possession football. With Alonso and Modric controlling the ball at midfield (and Celta not interested to contest them in that zone of the pitch, all playmaking at the advanced zones of the pitch was forced through one player: Isco. And without adequate speed in their circulation of the ball, particularly in the advanced areas of the pitch, this resulted in mostly-sterile possession for Real Madrid. A 4-3-3 with a single holder would have given Madrid 2 creative players when going forward and thus avoid bottle-necking its entire attack through Isco (but alas, Madrid has decided to abandon this system of play when Khedira was sidelined). 
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Celta Cedes the Midfield Part 2: The Italian Goes Brazilian.
I actually didn't notice Di Maria 'doing a Michael Jackson'  last night as he was subbed out. I am thus surprised that it's a big talking point for today. I did however notice Madrid going 4-4-2 / 4-2-4 in the wake of Ancelotti's substitutions.
There were, in my opinion 2 key tactical happenings in the second half that ultimately gave Real Madrid the win in the second half. 
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First was the fact that Celta Vigo stopped pressing high and decided instead to defend deep. I can only suspect that the reason for this was the fear of the impact of fatigue creeping into the players pressing high, who might have conceded a goal in the wake of a first half that saw them fail to capitalize on any of their scoring chances. A draw at the Bernabeu after all, was not a bad result. Thus, Celta went into their second mode: their plan was to sit deep, keep their shape, remain compact and look for opportunities to hit Madrid on the counter. What was VERY notable was how their compactness thwarted Real Madrid further - forcing our boys to penetrate a narrow 'low-block' which was not helped by the fact that our 2 supposed wide men (Ronaldo and Di Maria) were playing as inverted wingers whose tendency was to play narrow: with Cristiano cutting diagonally inwards, looking to shoot, and Di Maria cutting diagonally inwards to deliver (mostly) crosses. 
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Jese now has 2 goals and 4 assists this season.
It was very clear that the solution to the 'problem' was also very clear in Ancelotti's mind: stretch the pitch wide open and put his best goalscorer in a goalscoring position. This was the 2nd key 'tactical event' of the match: with Carlo Ancelotti switching his 4-2-3-1 into a 4-4-2... which operated like a Brazilian-style 4-2-4. Jese and Bale (who came on for Isco and Di Maria), played as attacking wingers while Ronaldo joined Benzema to play as a Center Forward. 
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All 3 goals were created from wide positions. The first goal was a result of an interchange from right wing (Carvajal) to left wing (Jese) to the center (for Benzema to score). The second goal and third goals were both created from the right side: created by Carvajal (2-0) and Bale (3-0, who assisted not by cutting in 'Di Maria style', but by crossing with his right foot like a traditional right-sided wide man would). 
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It was a notable display spotting a tactical opportunity and shifting the team's gears to capitalize on the said opportunity to maximum effect on the part of Carlo Ancelotti. It was notable however that Ancelotti would subtly rant about his team's lack of 'balance' (which gave Celta their opportunities to score and get something out of the match) and lack of 'speed' in the movement of the ball (even our chances on the counter lacked sharpness). There remains much to be done for this team to sort out if it is to overhaul the 5-point gap that Barca and Atleti are currently enjoying over us.
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Another key message from the changes that Carletto ruch during the game was also about Jese. It was clear that the chances for play that were being handed out at the start of the season were mostly being handed to Alvaro Morata. And though he had shown flashes of brilliance, most of his performances were marked what what looked to me like an over-anxiety to play well and score, which often backfired and resulted in missed chances and nervous finishes what would be saved. Heading into the second half of the season, the chances are now being given to Jese - and he is grabbing them with both hands. His cameos have started out mostly as performances marked by his confidence with plenty of bright spots. Coming into last night's match, he had been responsible for 2 match-winning goals in Madrid's last 2 games (against Valencia and PSG). Last night, he played as a pain-in-the-ass troublemaker to the Celta defense. Ladies and Gentlemen, Madridistas all over the world, News Flash! Jese Rodriguez is about to explode. Let's all get ready to see a great show.
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Cristiano Ronaldo - Balon De Oro!
Cristiano Ronaldo's 19th and 20th goal for the season turned out to be the 399th and 400th of his career. What an accomplishment. Having announced his willingness to attend the Balon D' Or gala, is this year truly now his year to win it again? 
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A trip to Osasuna's El Sadar is on the cards next this Thursday. Here's to getting a better result than that wretched 2-2 draw last time out.