Thursday, February 19, 2015

Recovering (Schalke 0 - Real Madrid 2)

The boys got a much-needed injection of a positive vibe following last night's 2-0 win vs. Schalke at the Veltins Arena.
It's been a VERY LONG time since I've written about a Real Madrid game. To be honest though, it has felt just as long since I remember seeing Real Madrid play well enough to my absolute satisfaction. But what the hell, it's a long weekend here in Singapore, I missed last week's podcast, so what the heck right?
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Recovering from the Embarrassment at the Calderon.
If Depor at home in La Liga are a great side to use as a 'punching bag' (we didn't exactly punch the lights out of them last weekend), then Schalke away for the Champions League are a good 'next step' in our road to recovery from the humiliation at the Calderon.   
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They aren't some beast contender to win the Champions League (ala Bayern, Barca or Chelsea), yet they still possess the tools to punish you if you make the mistake of believing that you can sleepwalk through your match against them. They are 4th in the Bundesliga and can be fairly pegged to be at a similar level to Valencia, Villarreal or Sevilla in the Champions League - all of them teams who are capable of making us suffer, especially away from home. We can also factor in the Veltins Arena and their boisterous fans as another added 'level up', together with the residual German team hoodoo (most of which has been purged by last season's Champions League campaign). 
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Needless to say, despite the fact that it wasn't the 6-goal bashing that we delivered last season, considering our team's circumstances, it was nonetheless a test that we passed - or a test we passed with a pretty decent mark.
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Recovering Pepe
I'm conflicted about Nacho. When you isolate the plays involving him as he filled in for the absence of Pepe, it's hard to find fault. He's quick, alert, isn't sloppy with the ball and has his own ways for compensating for his lack of height (a pre-requisite nowadays to be a successful CB in the modern game). Having Pepe back in to pair with Varane however is a head-and shoulders level up for Real Madrid on defense.
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Chalk it up to experience, intimidation factor, or just plain quality, Pepe's presence was a welcome addition to the squad that brings confidence at the back (despite the occasional nervy moment). What's all the more important however is that somehow, Varane also plays better next to him. His presence not only levels up his specific position (taking the place of Nacho from the weekend) but also levels up Real Madrid's entire defense collectively.
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Lucas Silva's full debut (while awaiting the Recovery of Modric)
It was a good full debut for Lucas Silva. If this is the sort of performance we can expect from him, then I can say his purchase has been a very astute one.

The most notable name in last night's team sheet was that of Lucas Silva. After making his debut as a sub in last weekend's game, Carlo Ancelotti has finally decided that he was ready to make a full debut last night. And let's all admit it: even if it's 'just Schalke', getting your full debut in a Champions League last 16 tie against a German Team away from home is a pretty daunting proposition. 
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Let's all admit it: even though we kept winning towards late last year, the team has never been the same since the loss of Luka Modric. Modric brings defensive workrate and bite to the team TOGETHER with the ability to shuttle the ball forward vertically through his passing and mobility. A midfield of Kroos, James and Isco (playing for Modric) gives you some of the former, but sorely lacking in the latter.  When we are in possession, Isco in particular, gives us the incisiveness with his dazzling ability to dribble through multiple opponents, but he is no full-fledged central midfielder who can ping passes around to add momentum to Kroos' ball distribution. In effect, he adds something different from Modric - and while that may be a pretty good addition to the team's play, it's not as critical to the turning the team into 'beast mode' as Modric's style of play does. Without the ball, despite his much-improved workrate and willingness to track back and tackle, Isco is not quite as comfortable being in defensive mode as Modric either.
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Things have thus turned to shit for Real Madrid when we lost James. We are now without 2/3 of our first-choice midfield. And so I will say this: it doesn't matter if you're Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atleti, Bayern or Chelsea - if you lose 2 of your first choice central midfielders, you're team is going to be in for a massive drop in level of play with those losses. Thus, understandably, Ancelotti has to re-boot the entire midfield and has struggled to do so the last few months. He has essentially been scraping the bottom of the barrel: playing an Isco-Kroos-Illaramendi midfield, because they're the only ones left (even experimenting with Bale during the disastrous derby)! 
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If you've been watching Real Madrid play with the Isco-Kroos-Illaramendi midfield, then you wouldn't need to be a genius to see that Illaramendi isn't the man to play in Modric's place. It's notw becoming very very clear to me that he is a VERY poor man's Xabi Alonso. Also without the mobility, has a bit of the passing range, but without the ability to read the game as well as Alonso, and thus unable to make those one-touch long balls to advanced positions and dictate the tempo of play. In playing the Modric role, he has in my opinion, been a disaster. Essentially, he has been what basketball fans call a 'ball stopper': someone who kills his team's buildup momentum once he receives the ball. On attack, the 2 Central midfield roles on either side of Kroos require players to have the mobility to push the ball forward, the technical ability to keep possession and the momentum of the play to reach the front 3. Illaramendi mostly just receives the ball, and passes it backwards... or WORST of all: taps the ball with his foot 3-5 times, twists and turns as he's chased around by an opponent and then passes it backwards (or loses it) - totally sucking the momentum out of Madrid's buildup. In essence, Illara, despite his technical passing ability, lacks what Barca youth scouts like to call 'speed of thought'.
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In his full debut last night, Lucas Silva is not quite Modric who accelerates Madrid's momentum in possession, but Brazilian at least keeps the momentum going without killing it, pushing the ball forward, and can play the one touch pass when the circumstance dictates it. He was in essence, what I imagined Khedira would be like in a 4-3-3 without the injuries or the vacation-mode mentality. Without the ball, he displayed the physicality to throw himself about, winning and contesting balls but most importantly, offering the sort of mobility and muscle Madrid are sorely needing at the center of the park. If this is the sort of performance we can expect from Silva, at 14m for a 22-year old, to play the squad role of Illaramendi and Khedira, I'd say his acquisition has been an astute one for Real Madrid.
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Recovering Cristiano Ronaldo
The Cristiano Ronaldo we all want to see: Scoring and creating decisive goals for Real Madrid. 

It was not the sort of performance that earned him the Balon D' Or for the last 2 years, but Cristiano Ronaldo's 1-goal, 1-assist performance was a massive step towards making us remember him more for decisive moments on a football pitch in a Real Madrid uniform rather than ones in a Karaoke club in a silly hat.
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That his goal broke the deadlock and it was a vintage Ronaldo 'Beast' Mode goal (leaping like a Salmon) beyond multiple defenders to give Real Madrid the decisive lead was very critical. It wasn't one of those shit goals where we were up 3-0 (none of which was a CR goal) and someone wins a penalty for Ronaldo to score. The match had been a cagey affair up to that point until his moment of brilliance. Real Madrid needed that moment from Cristiano just as much as he needed it for himself. He would test Schalke's impressive goalkeeper just minutes later in what must have been his best Direct Free Kick attempt all season (despite having no goal to show for it). 
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It was a performance that merited the seriousness of Schalke's marking to open space for Marcelo to double the lead (with a beautiful goal) and nearly put the tie to bed. 
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Cristiano still lacks the explosiveness to blast past opponents in the manner that he did so casually no too long ago (now only Bale has that ability in the team, who by the way had another pretty good game last night). He tried more than a few times to knock the ball past an opponent and try to run past his marker to reach it - without success. Is it a matter of recovery (from a knock / injury)? or a matter of the jets having left him permanently due to father time? If the latter is the case, then Ancelotti must observe and accept it and so must Cristiano. This still does not worry me: Cristiano after all has another 5 years at least in his career as the world's best striker - and Ancelotti will need to re-shape the team once we all get to that point. 
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For the mean time however, it's great to see him back amongst the goals.
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Recovering
A telling moment for me from last night was Marcelo's touching hug with Carlo Ancelotti... and how the team collectively turned this very personal moment between the 2, into a group hug - a collective moment for the group. It speaks of what all of this means to the team. It speaks of the team's awareness of their collective burden and responsibility to recover from the doldrums suffered in the past several weeks - and the recognition of relief and feeling a sense of accomplishment and understanding that a significant step had been taken last night.
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Perhaps it was a reminder that the process of recovery cannot and probably should not be based on the simplistic notion just of blasting some poor team trying not to relegated by 6-7 goals - but that it is a gradual process. A process of healing from the mental scars and wounds suffered, a process of internalizing the shortcomings of the immediate past and learning from them, and a process of recovering the injured. Not just the physically injured and fatigued of course, but also those who have much recovery to do in terms of their intensity, focus and awareness.
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Make no mistake about it, the process isn't complete yet. Far from it. But last night might just have been a pretty significant step forward. And for now, that much is enough.
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p.s. A Happy Lunar New Year to all. Here's to a healthy and prosperous year of the goat!