Friday, April 24, 2015

88th Minute, Finally Getting a Win on the 8th Try

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It seems like a scene composed for an epic oil painting.
Orgasm. Catharsis. Nirvana.
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These were the words that I used to describe the sensations I felt at seeing Chicharito score last Wednesday's 88th minute goal and at hearing the referee blow the full time whistle that confirmed our entry to the Champions League Semi-finals, and sealed our first victory against Atletico Madrid in 7 matches.
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I once found myself describing the current La Liga landscape to my Premier League-supporting colleagues at work: For Real Madrid and Barcelona, the goal was to win the treble EVERY season. For Sevilla, Valencia (pre-Peter Lim), Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal: Europa League Minimum, hopefully a Copa Del Rey Final appearance but to at least have a shot at grabbing that last Champions League Spot. And for Atleti, or rather, the Diego Simeone Atleti: to challenge the big 2 for the league title (Champions League qualification as a minomum) and to win Copa Del Rey. But perhaps more importantly for Simeone's Atleti - to win the derbies against us... and if they can't win or even draw - to at the absolute very least, kick the shit out of us while trying.
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And in that regard, Diego Simeone's Atleti have been massively successful. After 6 winless games against them, a cloud seemed to have gathered above Real Madrid: it was as if the supernatural power that prevented them from beating us for more than 10 years not too long ago had changed sides and was now taking its grip over Real Madrid. 
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Last week, we didn't manage to beat them again. And though it was more ammunition for them to believe that the 'curse' had shifted fully onto us, our boys walked off the Calderon's turf believing that the curse had been broken. With Modric and James back in our midfield, not only were we unafraid of the physical brutality and the irritating gamesmanship they were capable of perpetrating, we actually beat them back into their own half, forcing them into a tiny little corner with only Jan Oblak there to save their skins. Our boys walked off the Calderon pitch with their heads held high, nodding in unison: 'we'll get you in the Bernabeu'. Until Benzema, Bale and Modric got hurt. And then the quivering began again (at least among fans like myself). 
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Carlo's Clever Move
Carlo Ancelotti however, was completely unshaken. 'Why worry about those who can't play? We should instead think about those who can." he said (I paraphrase). "I have the best squad in the world" he confidently said. It seemed like a statement meant to induce confidence at a time of uncertainty and worry over the loss of so many key players. Today, I now know that it was uttered in absolute self-confidence. 
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Carlo it turned out, had a clever little idea in his mind. While Madridisimo shook in fear, recalling Borussia Dortmund and Schalke at the thought of Illaramendi and Khedira taking up Modric's midfield place, Carlo pondered a series of facts: outside of Isco, he did not fully trust any of our midfielders completely beyond the first choice XI. He did however have an oversupply of world-class talent at CB. So he boldly decided to revisit his old idea of playing one of his CBs as a CM (he was vilified for it when he tried it in his first clasico). 
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His choice amongst the 3 was also as inspired as it was clever. Pepe could push the ball up on 'raids' forward (both offensively in runs with the ball that might remind some of the Brazilian Lucio and defensively in the manner Mourinho deployed him in the infamous 'trivote'), but we didn't need someone who could do so recklessly and risk defensive positioning. He needed someone who could hold his position, spray a few passes and bang bodies in the midfield. Occasionally, this player would also need to defend the right flank when Carvajal is caught upfield, and might even need to deliver a cross from the right flank should he find himself in that position while his team had the ball. Ramos, an ex-RB was the perfect choice. 
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This also had another knock-on effect: it gave us another tool to counter Atleti's favorite attacking weapon: the set piece. Having Ramos, Varane and Pepe all on the pitch meant there were more defenders on crosses and corners into our box. It also meant more targets for our attacking players to deliver crosses and corners to.  
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Make no mistake about it: Ramos is no Modric. His passes were mostly redundant sideways passes or back passes. He hardly penetrated the Atleti defense either. But thinking about it: how was that any different to what Illaramendi or Khedira could deliver for us in that role? Apart from set piece contributions, Ramos was also a bruiser - a meathead enforcer capable of trading blows and dirty tricks with Atleti's Dark Arts Masters - Arda Turan and his red card would tell you all about it. 
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JCC (James, Chicharito and Cristiano)
JCC doesn't have quite the same ring as BBC. The decision to push James to the front 3 whilst Isco took his midfield place was completely logical and is something that we've seen before. With Ronaldo's explosive pace seemingly gone however, large part of last Wednesday's game felt like it was in dire need of Gareth Bale. Without the Welshman however, our next best speed demon was Jese, and literally just minutes before we scored, I had tweeted my wish to see Ronaldo pushed on to become a full-fledged Center Forward and to have Jese replace Chicharito.
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But alas, Carlo's faith in that front 3 combination would pay off with the move that won us the tie: a 1-2 combination between CR and James - Ronaldo drawing 4-5 defenders, plus the goalkeeper's full attention, then a pass to Chicharito who scored his trademark late-game tap-in. 
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Ancelotti's Triumph
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Carlo Ancelotti was the undisputed winner in the battle between the 2 Madrid coaches last Wednesday
It was an absolute triiumph for Carlo Ancelotti. On defense, Varane headed away 32,871,239 Atletico Madrid deliveries to the box, At midfield, the Ramos gamble gave us solidity, and extra man on set pieces and a talismanic figure who not only kept Atleti's bullies away, he managed to get one of them (Turan) sent away too! Simeone waited for Carletto's boys to lose patience, lose their nerves and make a mistake to pounce on. They didn't. The boys embraced the virtue of patience Carlo preached. And as they did, Simeone found himself playing a waiting game for extra time and penalties, sinking deeper and deeper into defensive mode. By the time Chicharito scored, Simeone had 10 men, 3 used substitutes and a spent Mario Mandzukic as his only offensive weapon. 
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Our wily Italian coach, had backed their supposedly fearsome Argentine coach into a cul-de-sac he couldn't get himself out of. 
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There are only 2 hours to go for the Champions League Semi-final draw as I write this. There are no more draws that can be deemed easier than the other. We are in true European giant territory now - the place for everyone to be at their absolute best.
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We should not forget however that our hunt for La Liga resumes on Sunday as Barca play the Catalan Derby at Cornelia El Prat while we travel away to Vigo to face Luis Enrique's old charges, Celta. There will still be no Modric and no Bale. And just like last Wednesday, no room for error.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Arise Real Madrid, Arise! (Real Madrid 9 - Granada 1)


Kaushik and I talked with glee about Real Madrid's 9-1 win vs. Granada. You may also listen to/download the podcast here:

As a Real Madrid fan living in Singapore, I’ve had all sorts of meals watching my team play during ungodly hours: mostly ‘midnight snacks ’ for 2/3am kickoffs and unusually early breakfasts for 4-6am kickoffs and if I was lucky, dessert for 9-11 pm kickoffs. I have had, on occasion enjoyed a Real Madrid game over dinner (8-9pm kickoffs). I have however, never had caught a Real Madrid game BEFORE dinner. Last night was my first – watching the game between split-seconds of spoon feeding a toddler. It was a lunch time kickoff for Real Madrid, and I imagine the schedule of the match was a tricky one for their meal schedules too. So they decided to have Granada for Lunch.
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9-1. It was exactly the scoreline and the performance that our team needed following last matchday’s clasico loss. Nevermind that Granada were shit. Apart from fitness and fresh legs, what the team REALLY needed was a boost in confidence. And if a 9-1 win can’t give you a psychological shot-in-the-arm, then absolutely nothing will.
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Midfield – James is Back
They are now all asking who sits on the bench now that James is back. While this may be bad for one of the 2, this is NOT bad for the team - and we should all think on those terms at this point of the season
We received the news that James started training with the team following the Clasico. The sceptic in me thought of it as a PR stunt meant to revive the downtrodden morale of the Real Madrid faithful, but if it was serious, then it was great news. With a fully-fit squad, we can have at least 2-3 weapons off the bench when things soured for us. I had thus earmarked the 2 Champions League Derby games for us to see a fully-fit James Rodriguez: expecting to see a 30-minute cameo, followed by a 1 hour performance, before we finally see him play a full 90 minutes, hoping that he could hit peak form in time for the 2 derbies. I was thus expecting to see Lucas Silva play instead of the suspended Isco last night. It was instead a pleasant surprise to see James start.
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‘Simplicity’ was a word constantly used by my fellow Merengue Bites Podcaster Ryan to describe James’ play. It is however not a word we would normally associate with a player whose natural position is as a ‘10’. Players such as James normally have their team built around them and are relied upon to ‘elaborate’ the game in the final third to create scoring chances for their teammates.
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The ‘simplicity’ required to play a central midfield role in a 4-3-3 however, is a very difficult level to achieve. Deciding when to make a one-touch pass, to stop the ball and pass it again, to pass it backwards (to the holding player / a CB) to ‘recycle’ the ball, to run with it, to loop it over swarming defenders or to attempt to thread the ball ala Guti is a very tricky balance that very few Central Midfielders can do. Modric comes to mind, but beyond that, there are very few. And for a natural ‘10’, James seems to be quite a natural for the role as well.
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With him and Modric on either side of Kroos, a very natural fluid rhythm settles in to the team, making the play very fluid and keeping the momentum going. It brings our minds back to the 22-consecutive-match-winning team of the 2014-2015 Real Madrid. And I will admit that I haven’t realized how important he is to the team all this while. Maybe it’s because I’ve been blind to his 11 goals and 12 assists so far this season (across La Liga, CL, and CDR): that’s 23 goals he’s been directly involved in!
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The BBC starts broadcasting again!
Cristiano's BAAAACK!
Real Madrid fans have had genuine reason to be alarmed by the very dramatic dip in form across the board that has happened to our front 3. Benzema started 2015 with promise but tailed off as the year went on. Ronaldo was reportedly nursing some sort of knee ache (a fact that made us hold our breaths for a while when we saw him slam his knee onto the goalpost), which also went along with his post-Irina heartache. Gareth Bale on the other hand couldn’t make an obvious pass when an open teammate was clearly within reach, nor could he score on legitimate chances which last year’s Gareth Bale would have handily put away.
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Last night however, the BBC was back in full broadcast mode. The opener came from Gareth Bale, who pulled off a manoeuvre that had flashes of Raul and Emilio Butragueno’s goals running through my mind – nearly the last sort of players I’d ever find myself reminding me of Gareth Bale (who is more about pace and power rather than touch and finesse). Bale was in full service mode too: assisting goals and associating well with those around him.
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And while we all marvel that the technical brilliance of Karim Benzema yet again (who has ‘quietly’ amassed 21 goals and 10 assists in La Liga, CL and CDR – and we have 2 months to go in the season), everyone’s attention last night was on Cristiano Ronaldo.  Cristiano was finally back to his ‘usual’ self last night: unstoppable, irresistible and irrepressible. It was a classic case of Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s ‘Ketchup Theory’. Cristiano Ronaldo simply needed to un-choke the bottle. Last night, he completely shattered it. The key thing for me however was that many of the goals that Ronaldo scored last night were goals that the early-2015 CR7 would NOT have scored. His 5-goal burst is sure to give him that burst of confidence that he has sorely been missing these past few weeks / months, which will serve him in good stead as we head onto the business end of the season.
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30/30
Prior to the match, AS published a 30/30 campaign – a rallying call to repeat the accomplishment of Fabio Capello’s epic team that pipped Barca to the La Liga title for the first time in 5 years (?). It was an epic title run that I shall forever remember for little anecdotes like Ruud Van Nistelrooy holding up Gonzalo Higuain’s jersey to the Bernabeu crowd after an epic 4-3 win vs. Espanyol and Espanyol’s own Raul Tamudo torpedoing Barca’s title hopes with a late goal at Montujic. It was an improbable run of consecutive wins when all seemed lost until the title was won and Real Madrid fans the world over caused the Club’s official site to crash.
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As Barca struggle to 1-0 wins off improbable goals scored by their Center Backs towards this business end of the season, while our best players are regaining form and fitness, the time to get the momentum to build up has come. Real Madrid will not need to leave their city in the next 5 matches (until they visit Celta). It’s the perfect time to gain momentum (like last night), vanquish ghosts from the past (Atleti) and complete the resurrection that might just have begun this past Easter.