Thursday, February 27, 2014

Annihilation (Schalke 1 – Real Madrid 6)

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Madrid completely butchered Schalke at the Veltins Arena last night.
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I am still stunned in a really beautiful way following what I just saw a few hours ago. Last night / early this morning, Real Madrid completely annihilated Schalke 04. The score was 1-6 with our front 3, the BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano), each scoring twice. In all my years as a Real Madrid supporter, this was the greatest ever performance I have ever seen the team play away from home in a Champions League elimination tie. I say that in consideration of the nature of the opponent and the manner by which the team won. Someone had remarked ‘Schalke 0-4’ rather cleverly on twitter last night, with the scoreline at 0-4. I instantly thought to myself ‘that’d be a great title for my blog post for the match.’ Schalke 0-5 worked too, so did Schalke 0-6. But at 1-6 (with Schalke’s superb consolation goal coming from ex-Real Madrid player Huntelaar), and thinking about the fact that the scorelie could have easily been 1-11, I decided to go for: ‘Annihilation’.
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With respect to other European Leagues, Schalke are not some team from a second / third-rate European league, whose players would consider it a blessing from heavens to be breathing the same air as Cristiano Ronaldo and co. I’m not saying that Schalke are Bayern Munich, but let’s make no mistake about it: they are no strangers to the Champions League either. They in fact, play only 27 miles (or kilometres?) from Real Madrid’s most frequent European Disaster (Borussia’s Signal Igduna Park), at the heart of Germany’s Ruhr Valley… the country where Real Madrid’s greatest heroes spectacularly fail (1 in in 25 matches won prior to last night).
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Balance and Control
Saw this graphic on Twitter this morning. It summed up really well what happened at the Veltins Arena last night.
One of the things that really struck me following last night’s match were the similarities between last night’s spectacular win vs. Schalke  at the Veltins Arena and last Saturday’s meh win over Elche at home. What do I mean by this? Real Madrid have learned to control a match and seem to have learned to play with the ‘Balance’ that Ancelotti has been preaching. It seems like a simple thought but it really is quite a big deal.
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Mourinho’s Madrid was about sheer intensity, physical power and fast-as-a-fuck lightning speed (a model he seems to be trying to replicate in Chelsea now). He happily ceded control of a match to the opponent, many times luring them into moments of having a false sense of security before murderously striking them down with irresistible speed and relentlessness. It was exhilarating to watch as a spectator but also easy to anticipate as a tactical observer if you were the opponent. Thus, its success became predicated on intensity and physical aggression. 3 years of this method in Madrid’s fishbowl environment, political landscape and such would inevitably take its toll on the team. Conflicts emerge (Casillas, Ramos, Pepe, Ronaldo even) and players whom the team cannot live without physically wear out (Alonso).
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Enter Ancelotti who has obsessed about ‘Balance’ (‘equilibrio’ as he would say). He sounded like a broken record, particularly at the start of the season as he would criticize his team’s performance early in the season. We’re finally starting to understand where this obsession for ‘Balance’ comes from… and what it means.
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Against Elche over the weekend and against Schalke last night… and pretty much against every team we’ve faced over the last 2 months, we saw it. We didn’t always play well going forward, we didn’t always tune up the intensity (as we did in that first leg in the CDR vs. Atleti) but we almost always learned how to control the match with possession and did so with ‘balance’ – keeping Lopez and Casillas’ goal safe from harm. With the midfield trio of Alonso, Modric and Di Maria, Ancelotti have found 3 players who all are willing to embrace defensive responsibility and offer 3 completely varying ways to bring the ball forward to our attackers: be it through Alonso’s long range passing, Modric’s pass-and-move maneuvers or Di Maria’s vertical mazy dribbling. And in this sense, last night was no different from last weekend – or the last 2 months.
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Beyond the team’s tactical ‘balance’ and newfound ability to control the game, it’s also very important to note that the individual members of the team have all also collectively improved their ability to read the game. It is clear that there is a sort of system in place by which certain players surge forward to retrieve lost balls / clearances and press the opponent when our attacks are repelled. Likewise, a system also seems to be in place by which the team is able to collectively double back once the opponent is about to start a counter attack. This collective improvement in the team’s ‘Group Think’ has become one of the critical elements of the team’s success. Players are no longer simplistically designated as ‘attackers’ or ‘defenders’, the team now collectively attacks and defends together. It is an entirely different, but wholly more beautiful way of defining ‘balance’.  
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And in stark contrast to the effects of the over-intensified pressure cooker environment of Mourinho, Ancelotti’s team last night showed an unusual calm unflappability. After Schalke’s early dominance on the ball, it was as if the team collectively raised one eyebrow (much like their coach) as if to scoff at Schalke’s cheeky attempt at bravery and calmly proceeded to seize the game and deliver the incredible beat down they delivered to the Germans. And even when the Germans resisted at first, almost scoring an equalizer, the team, led by San Iker (what a save!), responded calmly to Schalke’s challenge with no fuss.
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The steel forged by Mourinho is clearly well and truly still within this team. This steel however has been further galvanized by the calm balance and measured control that Carlo Ancelotti has brought. And he did it all without any cryptic critiques to the media, without any feuds with opponents or other members of the club hierarchy – only with a raised eyebrow and lots of chewing gum.
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BBC Blastoff
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For me, Gareth Bale had his best game in a Real Madrid shirt last night
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Last night also saw an orgasmically wonderful performance of our team’s front line, the BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano). It wasn’t just a performance of the 3 players all having great individual games. It was wonderful because the 3 players’ near-perfect individual performances was a result of their equally near-perfect combination of playing together. Apart from Benzema constantly shuttling up and down the pitch, switching roles from being a facilitator and ‘9’, Ronaldo and Bale also interchanged wings many times and duly learned to utilize the space left by Benzema (when the Frenchman dropped deep) by making ‘center forward runs’… and wreaking absolute havoc upon the Schalke defense.
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Benzema has evolved into the perfect striker for the system and personnel of this Real Madrid side. The Frenchman has found the perfect balance between his roles as a facilitator for the team’s 2 goalscoring wingmen and as the opportunistic striker who will get his when the right moment arrives. Apart from his 2 goals and 2 assists, Karim Benzema also completed 19 out of 19 passes last night.
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As for Ronaldo, after his 3 game suspension, it was clear that he was chomping at the bit to get on the scoresheet.  He netted ‘only 2 goals’ but could have easily been 5 if it weren’t for the efforts of the Schalke keeper. The most critical aspect of Ronaldo’s play however is what appears to be a newfound appreciation to ‘play within the system’. Our MVP has clearly learned to appreciate and understand the spatial landscape created by the 4-3-3 and has very intelligently chosen to exploit the advantages it brings. He is no longer the player looking to receive the ball, run ¾ of the pitch and take on 3-4 defenders. Ronaldo now reads situations and duly makes decisions based on in-game situations. Run with the ball? Pass off? Is there a space to run to? Dribble through the defender? We are now seeing a more cerebral dimension to Ronaldo’s game.
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For Bale, there has been much talk about whether he restrains himself in the presence of Ronaldo. After 3 meh La Liga games for Madrid (where he was whistled in the last one), Gareth Bale played his best game in a Real Madrid shirt last night, right next to his idol CR7. Rather than perpetually and predictably look to score by cutting to his favoured left foot (and towards 2-3 help defenders), Bale looked to his idol last night for other ideas on how to play the game from his position. Making runs to receive diagonal balls from teammates, and playing 1-2s, he was able to showcase new dimensions to his game.  For Bale, last night’s performance was ultimate proof that when Bale and Cristiano play together, there was absolutely no need for one player to subsume his game for the other. What we saw last night was in actual fact, confirmation that the rest of the football world outside of Madridismo had feared all along: that Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo could not only play together, but that they could also make each other better.
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Time to take this Home
It certainly looks like the time has come for Madrid to take this form and rally towards the season’s finish line. Following last weekend’s establishment of a 3 point lead over Barca and Atleti, this weekend brings us an opportunity to cast into stone the elimination of Atletico from the title race by winning and setting up a 6 point gap with them. This glorious win over Schalke provides the team with yet another beautiful opportunity. Last night’s massacre essentially turns the second leg at the Bernabeu into a dead rubber – a match that will be played days before the season’s second clasico. Barring any shock losses in La Liga, Real Madrid now have the golden opportunity to rest key players in the second leg vs. Schalke to ensure a fully rested and fit side to face Barcelona and also establish a 6 point lead over them in the league. Assuming Madrid, Barca and Atleti do not drop any more points in the league, the boys will have the opportunity to establish a 6 point lead over both our title rivals before the end of March… and it might actually turn out to be a bigger lead if Barca and Atleti fail to arrest the slides that their respective teams are experiencing.
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The path to glory is now visible. All the boys need to do is stay the course.
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It’s time to take this home.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

2014-02-23: Merengue Bites Podcast Episode 5 - Bravo! Raul Bravo!

Went for a trip to Malacca with my parents who came to town. Didn't think I was going to make the podcast, much less see the match vs. Elche. Thanks to the good folks at Malacca's beautiful Casa Del Rio Hotel however, I was able to catch the meh game - and thus was able to join the boys over the weekend to talk Real Madrid. 
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Bassam and Kaushik also had to bring back some really unpleasant memories, particularly one that involved my most-hated Real Madrid player: Raul Bravo.
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In any case, you may also listen / download the podcast here: (Because the stingy people at soundcloud only lets us keep 2 podcasts in their site for embedding at a time, or rather, because we're stingy and refuse to pay for a premium account).
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By the way, did I mention that we're not league leaders? It's a beautiful week baby!


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

9am Thoughts on the 3:45am Match (Manchester City 0 - Barcelona 2)

I woke up at 3:45 this morning to make use of my other overpriced cable TV subscription (which I got just to see the Champions League). What the heck, it was Manchester City vs. Barcelona after all - it promised to be a great tie, which I totally expect to be settled within 2 nail-biting legs. Who knew that it was pretty much going to get settled within 90 minutes (in case you live in Mars, Barca won 2-0 thanks to a Messi penalty and a late Dani Alves goal)?
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Manchester City
Last night was the second time Pellegrini's misplaced faith in Martin Demichelis has backfired upon him and his team. Many followers of the Premier League will remember how the ageing Argentine defender, used as a midfielder against Mourinho’s Chelsea was completely abused by Willian, Hazard and Ramires in what was a very critical league match. Last night, playing in his preferred role as Center Back, the pony-tailed-Argentine was once again left exposed and in doing so, made his team pay a very painful price. Having him one-on-one with against Messi dribbling towards Joe Hart’s goal was only going to have one outcome. Yes, yes, yes – replays showed that Demichelis’ foul on his compatriot was OUTSIDE the penalty box. The foul however, with him playing as the last defender would have resulted in the straight red card nonetheless.
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City spent the first part of the season experiencing woes away from home largely due to a leaky defense as they waited for club captain Vincent Kompany’s return to fitness. Despite his return however, he remains without an ideal partner to form one of the key ingredients to a Championship side: a rock-solid central defensive partnership. Nastasic is a bright young prospect who seems to have the makings of a future first-choice Center Half. As of today however, he’s probably best suited as the team’s 3rd choice CB – as the first choice to step in in the event of injury or suspension to Kompany or his partner. Thus, I find that City would do well to splash the cash this summer for a top quality Center half and do away with all this funny risk-taking business with Demichelis. Despite his resume (having played for Bayern for a few years), it’s time for the club’s hierarchy to wake up and smell the coffee re: him. Martin Demichelis is not the starting CB for a BPL / Champions League-winning side.
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To Pellegrini’s credit, despite his declarations that his team ‘wouldn’t change their approach to the game regardless of who their opponents were’ (I paraphrase), he played a slightly more conservative side and team shape yet still had a go at Barcelona. Abandoning his 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2, Pellegrini opted to play a 4-2-3-1 using true crossing wide men (Navas and Kolarov) on the flanks with Silva playing as a ‘10’ behind a classic #9 striker (Negredo). The formation sought to capitalize on Barca’s weakness to crossed balls (with an aerial threat in Negredo) and gave City an additional man in midfield (Silva). The Chilean’s post-sending-off changes also were very sound, playing a 4-4-1/4-2-2-1: abandoning the wing play (Navas + Kolarov) and putting bodies in the midfield (Silva + Nasri). It was in my opinion, on the night, a good display of tactics from our ex-coach.
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Sad to say however, tactics alone won’t win you matches.
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Barcelona
Barca started the match predictably: dominating possession. I don’t watch them week in and week out – which is why I was surprised to see how confusing their shape STILL tends to be when Cesc is on the team. With Fabregas listed as a CM and Iniesta playing on the left wing (and Messi dropping deep in his false 9 role), their team shape seemed very unclear to me with Iniesta and Cesc in particular, playing in the same zones.
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Barcelona started the match brightly, pinning City within their own box for the first 15 minutes of the match – only to allow City spells of possession in the first half that gave the home side confidence to attack the Catalans. The 10 minutes that followed Barca’s early dominance however was all Manchester City. Did Barca tire out in pressing for the ball to keep possession? Did Man City decide to play possum to give Barca a false sense of comfort for the first part of the match on purpose? I don’t know.
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What was clear however was that during City’s spells of possession, they really looked like a side capable of getting on the score sheet against Barca. Whether through their exchanges in passing (largely thanks to Silva and Toure), or long looped balls towards the powerful Negredo, City had a look of a side more than capable of finding the back of Victor Valdes’ goal. Thus in my view at least, Barca still desperately need to solidify their rear guard if they are to get past the likes of PSG (who blasted 4 past Bayer Leverkusen in Germany last night) in the next round.
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Outlook
It was a harsh outcome for Manchester City. Their plan seemed solid, their performance generally good and tactics well-conceived – all undone by individual errors and unfavourable refereeing decisions. They can take heart from the fact that for the second leg, any goal they score is an away goal. There is also time for them to recover the likes of Kun Aguero back for the second leg.
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As for Barca, it is a result that ought to please them greatly. They were clearly cautious in their approach to the match and despite the vulnerability they have shown during many moments of the game, they leave Manchester with 2 very valuable away goals. The tie is certainly now theirs to lose. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Merengue Bites Episode 4: The Getafe Edition.

Bassam took the reins as host this episode as Real Madrid came away with a 'routine win' against Getafe (0-3). We talked about Jese, Gareth Bale, hopes for Morata and more... Bassam also introduced a 'quiz game' into the show... and I'm still kicking myself at this point for not getting the answer correctly (Santi Solari). We also had a look at upcoming matchups for the Champions League.
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You can also listen / download the podcast here:

Monday, February 10, 2014

2014-02-10: Merengue Bites Podcast Episode 3 (Real Madrid 4 - Villarreal 2)

I had the privilege to host the podcast last weekend, where the boys and I discussed Real Madrid's 4-2 win over Villarreal as we looked forward to the second leg match of the Copa Del Rey vs. Atleti tomorrow.
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We also took in a few questions from the comments section of the blog as well as from twitter. You may also listed to the podcast here:

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.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Acid Tests

Pre-Match Jitters
Real Madrid face Atleti tonight in the Copa Del Rey Semi-Final. And while it's true that the team (sort of) have the license to not cry over not winning the competition this season, tonight's match is nonetheless a very-important acid test for the team.
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I would in fact recommend for Ancelotti to take a page off Mourinho's strategy. In his first season with us with a team 'under construction', Mourinho made if very clear that he was taking the Copa Del Rey seriously. Thus, our CDR win in his first season to a certain extent, became a soothing balm that helped heal the scar left by our 5-0 defeat at the hands of Pep's boys. It also laid down a marker of progress for the team and in a way, gave the club a 'consolation prize' which was very critical for the morale of the players. It eventually served as the foundation for our historic 100-point, 100-goal La Liga winning season. 
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In La Liga, Real Madrid have lost to Barca, Atletico while in the Champions League, we've been lackluster against Juventus. So far, we have been La Liga's Flat Track Bullies: comfortably putting poor teams away whilst struggling against good sides. It is for this reason why I'm more antsy about tonight's match than usual: I'm anxious to see Madrid play well against a good side. And as of this moment, in Spain, there is no better side than Atletico Madrid. (there, I said it).
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Life Without Cristiano (for the next 1? 2? 3? La Liga Matches)
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A Look Into the Lighter Side. +GeniusFootball  (follow them on twitter) posted this and it gave me a good laugh. Yes, Gurgegui and Itturaspe were clearly being vile for their play-acting, but Cristiano had no business raising his hand onto an opponent's face.
As of this writing, it is not yet clear how many La Liga matches Cristiano will miss as a result of his red card against Athletic last Sunday. It's pretty likely that Real Madrid will miss having Ronaldo in their ranks against the impressive Villarreal at home this weekend and might also miss out on the team's trip to Getafe (where RM have unexpectedly dropped points many times) and perhaps even the home game vs. Elche if he were to be supended for 3 matches.  
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Carlo Ancelotti has a few interesting options to consider for the lineup in Ronaldo's absence:
-Does he carry on having Jese in the starting XI with Bale taking up the other wing position?
-Does he bring Di Maria back to the wing and play Isco or Illaramendi at midfield?
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Real Madrid have played without Ronaldo before and those instances for the most part have not been all that bad. Perhaps the suspensions might just be the perfect opportunity for Ancelotti to cultivate the confidence levels of the team's other players in our superstar's absence. 
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Yes, yes, yes, January's 100% record with 0 goals conceded was enjoyable. But the first batch of this season's REAL acid tests come on February.  And if I had to choose between a flawless month of not-so-important matches vs. a month of Acid Tests that we pass by the skin of our teeth, I choose the latter.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

2014-02-02: Merengue Bites Rebooted Episode 2 (Athletic Bilbao 1 - Real Madrid 1)

Rahul, Kaushik and I got together once again after the match to talk about Real Madrid's bitter draw at the new San Mames vs. Athletic Bilbao. We also spoke about Sergio Ramos' growth in lieu of his 10 years in La Liga, the new 'shoe-like' Microsoft (?), Coca-Cola (?) Bernabeu as well as the legacy of the late, great Luis Aragones.