Friday, May 15, 2015

Trying to Turn The Page (Real Madrid 1 - Juventus 1)

Kaushik, Ryan and I pondered the end of Real Madrid's season over last Friday's recording of the Merengue Bites Podcast. The podcast can also be listened to/downloaded from here:
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The 2014-2015 season for Real Madrid is over. So what if there are 2 more La Liga games to go? It's over for us. No Copa Del Rey, No La Liga, No Champions League. The season that could have yielded 6 titles only yielded 2: and neither of them were the big ones. 
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It was of course poetic justice of sorts that a goal in each leg from Alvaro Morata would end our season - the sort of nightmare Deja Vu that brought painful memories of Fernando Morientes into the minds of every Real Madrid fan old enough to remember that bitter night in 2004. 
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Still convulsing in heartache, I find myself in a state of reflection, going through an 'examination of the (football) conscience' - reflecting on the season that has been. I am trying to do this whilst clearing away the debris left in the wake of last night's disappointment vs. Juventus (a Big congratulations is in order for the Old Lady). I also find myself recalling the intense twitter debate I found myself in post-match (until I decided that getting 2 hours of sleep for a full day at work was more important than getting my points across). 
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I have to confess that after last weekend's 'loss' to Valencia, my conscience began telling me deep down inside that the season would end in disappointment. The probability of repeating as European Champions was very low (no one had done it before) and having to do it by beating a Barcelona who have found its groove was no simple matter. In a way it was like waiting for death to come, hoping against hope that it wouldn't. And when it did, it was still awful.
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With the benefit of an honest attempt to clear the red mist from my head, I have started to process the failures of this season for Real Madrid. And so far, the conclusion that I am coming to regarding last night's game is this: that last night's elimination at the hands of Juventus pretty much revealed everything that was wrong with the team. I suppose that's the sort of thing that can happen at this level of the competition: your weaknesses will be exposed and laid bare for all the world to see. It might be natural at first to be defensive about it - but like I said, now that the season is over, it's time to reflect, so here goes:
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Don't Mess with the Economic Model
Many level-headed critics have their fingers being pointed at Florentino Perez and the board, while some have the misguided notion of blaming Ancelotti re: the club's 'showbiz policy'. There is a lot of truth to the criticism of course: we signed a coach who wanted to play a 4-3-3 whilst acquiring 2 '10s' during Ancelotti's 2 summer transfer windows at the club (Isco, James): this is classic 'showbiz policy'. The key to making the policy work however was to get a coach who could make it work - and Ancelotti was the perfect man for the job.
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Here's where things get all muddled up though: those who insist in pushing the 'showbiz narrative' however also seem keen to add the departure Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria, 2 very good but non-showbiz types as part of the club's decision-making to further the 'showbiz narrative'. This is absolutely false. Di Maria's disagreements about pay were well-documented even before the last summer transfer window and Alonso insisted on leaving (at a very bad time!). Kroos was NEVER brought in to replace Alonso. I would argue in fact, that Ancelotti dreamt of lining up a Kroos-Alonso-Modric midfield 3 until Xabi's head was turned by Pep in Munich.
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The point I wish to make is that while I agree that over-doing the showbiz policy will bring us back to the dark days of the Galactico Era v1.0, I also believe that no one is making the effort to push us there either, Florentino Perez included. We must also embrace the fact that the 'showbiz economic model' is vital to Real Madrid in this age of the Premier League multi-billion pound TV deal and Bayern's economic overlord status in Germany (where they are nicknamed FC Hollywood). La Liga's TV deal has gone the right direction of being based on a collective deal for the entire league - but that brings a setback to Real Madrid's income, and the club must rely more than ever on its 'Showbiz Economic model' to bring financial juice to the club. Without it, Real Madrid's ability to draw from the cream of world football's crop will be greatly diminished and will see it gradually slide into mediocrity if we do not maximize all our income-generating avenues for the club.
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The key is to find balance. And if there's one thing that we should at least give Florentino credit for in this second presidency, it is that he is willing to spend money also for the role player (37m for Illara, 35m for Coentrao, 35m for Alonso) and not just the showbiz superstar (CR, Kaka, Bale, James).
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Thus, I urge Madridistas the world over to see this season as being the equivalent to spilling coffee onto the upholstery of our new car and then rear-ending in against someone else's. There is no need to put dynamite into it to blow it up.
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Squad Construction
The ridiculousness of the English Media (The Daily Telegraph) being spewed in the local papers here in Singapore.
If one was to summarize the season, it would go something like this: 
-Things were great, we won 22 straight games, but somewhere along the way, Modric and James got hurt. And then we lost our mojo
-But then, they recovered and we started playing well again.
-But Modric got hurt again, and so did Benzema and Bale and without them at their best, things fell apart.
-End of Season
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Modric's recovery (together with James) was the second wind the team needed to finish the season strong to put pressure on Barcelona and play at the highest level of world football: the final elimination rounds of the Champions League. But when he went down again, things just began falling apart. Ancelotti was left with too many attacking players, with too few competent alternatives to hold the middle down. Khedira's mind was on vacation, Lucas Silva too raw and Illaramendi has become Fernando Gago v2.0. 
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I've spoken about my 'A-list' and 'B-list' theory in the podcasts: Ancelotti essentially has an 'A-list' and a 'B-list' of players. A-list players are those whom Carletto would select to play with no worries regardless if they were automatic starters (e.g. Varane, Isco). The plain and simple truth however is that Ancelotti only had 2 'A-list' Central Midfielders (Kroos and Modric), thus when one of them went down, Ancelotti was left with 2 perilous choices:
1.) To play a 'B-Lister' (Illaramendi, Silva, Khedira). The results were mostly ineffective,
2.) To play an 'A-lister' who didn't really fit the role perfectly (e.g. Ramos as a midfielder or play both Isco and James, both 10s with Kroos like last night). The results have been mixed. 
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Looking back, despite Angel Di Maria's departure on the horizon last summer, it was clearly offset by the acquisition of James (who played the role pretty well having amassed 15 goals and 15 assists across 3 competitions so far). This would have left us with 5 'A-list players'  (Kroos, Alonso, Modric, James and Isco) to rotate between 3 midfield slots. Of the 3 midfield slots, 2 of them needed to be occupied by either Kroos, Alonso or Modric. The loss of Alonso late in the transfer window however, was not compensated for. so we were left either scraping the B-list barrel, or forcing A-list round pegs in to square holes. And at this level, that's not good enough.
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Squad Management
There is an argument that some blame (or some say a significant amount of it) needs to be placed on Ancelotti's shoulders. Kroos, among many wearing white on the pitch last night, looked ragged midway through the second half in last night's hot conditions. Looking back, it's not hard to recall matches where the team was up 3-4 goals with 30 mins. to go where the 'B-listers' might have been given the chance to give the likes of Kroos a rest. It didn't happen enough and there is thus strong merit to the thought that Carletto might have 'overplayed' most of our 'A-listers.' And that such fatigue has eventually accumulated and caught up with us late in the season.
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The Search for Solutions: Cristiano Ronaldo's Evolution
I am of the belief that as he has hit his 30s, Cristiano Ronaldo is slowly transforming into a '9'
Most of the 'noise' following the first leg loss at Turin were focused on Bale. Much of that noise carried over following the verbal diarrhoea perpetuated by Bale's agent which preceded last night where the Welshman had a slew of chances but couldn't covert. Many have gone back however and started asking "What about Ronaldo? What did he do apart from scoring a penalty (with accompanying comparisons to Messi who often turns provider when unable to score)?"
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My answer to this is that Ronaldo has been evolving in front of us and many of us aren't seeing it or are in denial about it. Newsflash: Ronaldo isn't a winger anymore (not that he's ever been one in a traditional sense). As he has now hit his 30s, and has started to feel the stiff hamstring every now and then, Ronaldo has gradually lost his Usain Bolt-like explosiveness and is beginning to evolve into his destined role: a striker. I'm not saying that he's become a Zlatan / Lewandowski-type of player (not yet anyway), but we are seeing him play much closer to goal than he was when he first arrived at Real Madrid or when he was blasting down the left touchline whilst playing under Mourinho's Formula 1 Football. 
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Last night, someone on twitter made the excellent observation that Ronaldo is becoming like another goal monster from Madrid's past: Hugo Sanchez. Sanchez was not a player who will participate much in the build-up, but will stab your heart with a goal when given the chance. The transformation may not be complete yet, but the signs are there.
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I am also of the belief that the 'solution' to the Ronaldo and the 'Bale Problem' can be the same. If we accept that Ronaldo has become a striker (or at least a 'second striker' given that his evolution is not yet complete), then we must also accept that Bale has never fully acclimatized to playing on the right. At his best in Tottenham, the Welshman was either allowed to roam freely behind a striker or play on the left side (where he played in his now-famous 'taxi for Maicon' game). Unlike Ronaldo, Bale doesn't need to cut in, shift to his strong foot and shoot.
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We must all consider the possibility that this evolved Ronaldo who plays much closer to goal now, can vacate his old stomping ground on the left wing (or do so on more occasions) to allow Bale more opportunities to play there. Bale after all has the skills to reprise the role of Ronaldo circa-2010-2013 to combine with Marcelo (who is also comfortable roaming to the middle with the ball on attack) and Ronaldo himself (now a forward) to create the world's most lethal left-sided attack.
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Embracing Ronaldo's transformation into a striker might also save us the potential for a Morata / Chicharito dilemma: having a striker who doesn't play 80-90% of the time, but becomes uber-critical to the team when Benzema is unavailable. C-Ron and Benzema can both play with each other or split time playing as the team's striker, whilst allowing one of Bale or James (who can also contest for spots at midfield) spells of rest every now and then.
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The Search for Solutions: Extending the A-List 
Dani Carvajal looked like he was about to vomit his lungs out midway through the second half last night. With Danilo in the squad next season, I expect this not to happen if the 2 can share the load at Right Back.
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The heart of the problem however is the heart of the midfield. Ancelotti needs to have a good look at Lucas Silva in the offseason / pre-season as well as the returning Casemiro (who impressed at Porto while on loan this season) and decide if they are A-List or even B+ List material. If the answer is no, and money is no object in the transfer market (as is usually is the case with Real Madrid), then Ancelotti must be allowed to shop for his next A-List Midfielder. And since we lack power, strength and muscle in the midfield, there is a strong argument to participate in the Paul Pogba sweepstakes this summer.
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The Search for Solutions: Stop Playing Games Between the Saint and the Shit.
Last week in Turin, Iker the shit turned up. Last night, it was Iker the saint. Every week and every game we play starts with anxiety as we wonder which Iker will turn up. A team that aspires to League and European Titles every season cannot afford to dick around playing such games. The girlfriend of Spain's next great goalkeeper recently described the English city they live in as 'uglier than the back of a fridge'. David De Gea also happens to be a Madrileno (nevermind that he used to play for Atleti, he wouldn't be the first to move to the fairer side of town anyway). I also am a believer that when deprived of a choice, Mourinho would have no problems starting with Petr Cech in goal just as he has trusted John Terry all season at CB. David De Gea and to a lesser extent, Thibaut Courtois are both within reach for Real Madrid. 30m? 40m? To secure our goal for the next 10 years? A fair price in my opinion. 
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The Search for Solutions: Keep Ancelotti
AS says that majority of the fans would like to see Ancelotti remain with Real Madrid. I am one of them.
If we stop being in denial about the fact that we employ a 'showbiz economic model' at the club, and that we only need to tune it down just a bit, then we must also acknowledge that the best man to coach this team is Carlo Ancelotti.
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Let's all also admit the fact that Real Madrid is not the sort of team where you can sustainably force star players to accept lesser roles (i.e. long spells on the bench) to fit a preconceived tactical system. This normally results in the club inefficiently spending copious amounts of energy fighting battles in the media to justify benchings and the exclusions of star players.
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We have now, thanks to Ancelotti a tactical model which can for the most part, flexibly accommodate a multitude of star 'glamour' players in the team. And while many credit Ancelotti for his uncanny ability to breed team chemistry, not many give him enough credit for his tactical nous. His ability to 'massage' players to accept roles which may partially be beyond their comfort zone is normally linked to his 'don't rock the boat' attitude in facing upper management. It's tempting to fit this into Ancelotti's 'Mr. Harmony' narrative and less about his tactical approach. A look at his CV however tells a different story: Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Angel Di Maria, and Toni Kroos have all been given unfamiliar roles where they have succeeded tremendously on an individual and team level, whilst giving Ancelotti's teams the much-needed added dimension to win titles.
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Let's not be Toddlers
Some time last year, my son (he turns 4 at the end of the month) received a gift of a coloring book with a set of colored pencils. He enjoyed the gift tremendously and got to coloring the pages with aplomb almost as soon as he opened the gift. At about the 4th page, perhaps he was too over-eager, with the heavy, clumsy hand of a toddler, he pressed the colored pencil against the page so hard as he was coloring it that he ended up tearing it. He stopped, put his pencil down and almost with a sudden fury in his face, ripped the page from the coloring book. I was shocked. He then looked at me, exploded in tears and asked me to buy him another brand new coloring book exactly like the one he whose 4th page he had just ruined. He was inconsolable, livid and he wanted a do-over.
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There was of course, no need for a do over. There was another page waiting to be colored.
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Maybe it was Florentino's transfer policy that tore up this season's page of the Real Madrid coloring book. Maybe it was Ancelotti's poor (or non-existent) rotation policy. Maybe it was just darned luck with the injuries. At the end of they day however, there is no need to set the coloring book on fire. Because even if we've spoiled this season's page, there are still plenty of great things that can happen with what we have if we can learn our lessons and make the right adjustments.
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Let's not be toddlers to petulantly demand for a do over. It's the time to cry, to process heartbreak, to reflect on mistakes made and contemplate the lessons which need to be learned. And when we're ready, we can turn the page and try again.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

ABCs and 123s (Juventus 2 - Real Madrid 1)

What a shit performance. At age 35 (turning 36 this year), I am finding it harder and harder to get up at 2:45 or 3:45 am Singapore time (depending on European Daylight Savings time) to watch Champions League matches. And when you get up in the middle of the night, on 2-3 hours sleep to watch a match like that, and then get another 2 hour shut-eye session before heading to work - your day is pretty much fucked up before it even began. 
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I am not by the way, referring to the result. I am referring to the performance. Champions League (or and form of Cup Competition) semi-finals are supposed to be cagey affairs. The remaining teams are normally there on pure merit and the matches are normally decided by fine margins. A yellow card, a sending off, a tiny defensive error, a minor tactical oversight or such minute things are supposed to decide such things. They are not supposed to be decided by basic, fundamental errors like how Ancelotti and his boys allowed things to transpire last night. 
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If we lost last night because of such fine margins, I'd be half-awake at this moment ruing such minor details and half-cursing our luck. But here I am today, half-awake with the entirety of my conscious self livid over our boys' shortcomings on the ABCs and the 123s of top level Cup football. 
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Tactics 
Juventus as they lined up in their last 2 Champions League Matches. A 3-5-2 vs. Monaco and a 4-4-2 Diamond vs. us last night
The tactical question re: Juventus coming into this game had always been 'will they play 3 or 4 at the back?' With 3 at the back, Juve play a 3-5-2. With 4 at the back, they play a midfield diamond. Both systems deploy their numbers through the center of the pitch, presumably to 'protect' Andrea Pirlo. And for a team like Real Madrid, with forwards like Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo and fullbacks like Carvajal and Marcelo, we had the opportunity to take advantage of their weakness - the flanks.
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Last night, Juve lined up with 4 at the back and a midfield diamond. We on the other hand, lined up in a narrow 4-4-2 (or a Brazilian style 4-2-2-2). It was a sound approach: with Isco and James drifting to the middle, we could match their numbers at the center. When on attack mode however, with CR and Bale up front, when paired with Isco + Marcelo (on the left) and James + Carvajal (on the right), We had superiority on the flanks or force their CMs (Marchisio and Sturaro) to be drawn out from their comfort zones in the middle. 
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The goal that Ronaldo scored, created by an overalapping fullback (Carvajal), combining with a wide midfielder (James) to reach our striker (CR), was the sort of goal Carlo Ancelotti envisioned us scoring in this tactical battle.
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The system though, had its key weakness. as we saw in Luxemburgo Real Madrid in the first galactico era, and in Brazil's ill-fated 2006 World Cup campaign. Playing natural 10s as wide midfielders usually meant that attacking width only came from the fullbacks: leaving acres of space behind them vulnerable to be counter-attacked by opposing wide players. 
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 Kaushik, Rahul and I all agreed in last weekend's podcast that Morata's large frame concealed the fact that he's got good pace and could hurt us with it. You can also listen / download the podcast here:

Without natural wide players though, Juventus SEEMED at a disadvantage and unable to capitalize on our weakness. But with pacy forwards like Morata (as pointed out in last weekend's podcast) and the hyper-active Carlos Tevez, Juventus had 2 players up front who enjoyed attacking the space left behind by our attacking full-backs. Juventus' opening goal was a result of Carlos Tevez finding himself open in a sea of green open space behind Marcelo, away from Kroos, and even further away from Varane. It was Morata who stabbed us in the heart, but it was El Apache who found the opening in our 'armor.' (if you can call it that).
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Personnel 
While Ancelotti's tactics for the match were sound, his personnel selection proved to be greatly flawed. The selection of Sergio Ramos against a defensive Atletico Madrid side who are lethal on set pieces was a brilliant move. It was clear that night however, that Ramos was uncomfortable in the role but was important for Atleti's aerial game and to stymie Mario Mandzukic. Against Juventus' 4-man midfield looking to press him in possession, Ramos was totally exposed and useless. His passes were mostly backpasses and any ones that weren't resulted in the loss of possession. About 3 of them turned out to be wayward crossfield balls seemingly aimed at members of the crowd.
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When playing with 2 pivots, both men need to win balls and distribute them forward. Last night, Real Madrid's pivots could only perform one function each. As Ramos continuously lost possession, the space behind Kroos became the base from where Carlos Tevez terrorized Casillas and his defenders.
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You could say that injuries have made Carlo Ancelotti's team selection one that was conducted 'by default.' Modric is hurt and Illara can't cut it. Well now Carlo, let's call it what it is: Against Juventus, Ramos can't cut it either. He will have to re-examine Illaramendi, Lucas Silva, a lightweight midfield with Kroos, Isco and James, or some other kooky idea against Juventus especially for the return leg where we must also now likely prepare for a match against the world's best young central midfielder: the mow-hawked Paul Pogba.
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Iker, Iker, Iker,
Before the match, I read a piece asking wondering which Iker Casillas would turn up: San Iker? or Iker 'What the fuck are you doing!?!' Casillas - (the Iker Casillas who was described as someone 'who flapped at crosses, and spoons shots into the path of opposing attackers tap the rebound in'). Every match, this question looms dreadfully over the thoughts of every Real Madrid fan. Last night, Iker 'What the fuck are you doing!?!' Casillas turned up.
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He started the match with an error that nearly led to a goal, then almost got caught off his line (by Morata) and then finally he spooned Carlos Tevez's long distance attempt right into the waiting boot of Morata.
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Let me finally say this unequivocally: this summer, we should buy a goalkeeper. I don't care if we spend 50, 60, 70m, not for a goalkeeper to 'compete' with Iker, but one who will clearly, and with no doubts replace him as the team's #1. At this level, the absolute highest level, Iker's time is up.
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Dani, Dani, Dani
The biggest boo-boo of the match sadly has to go Dani Carvajal. Just like what happened with Marcelo, the space he left behind when bombing forward became a comfortable operating zone for his fellow Real Madrid Castilla classmate Alvaro Morata (which as I pointed out, is a natural consequence of the formation we play). His big boo-boo however was obviously the penalty conceded to give Junvetus the match and the advantage of the tie.
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Let's be clear about this though: the counterattack we conceded to Juventus was the fault of the entire team. How could we be in a situation where we didn't have a single CB or Defensive Midfielder around to protect us from a counter attack? The penalty conceded though, was all Carvajal - and it was a mental meltdown of epic proportions.
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As Marcelo's deflected shot capriciously bounced into Tevez's path to create the counter-attacking opportunity, Real Madrid were forced into stopping a 2 vs. 2 counter-attacking opportunity. Tevez was being harried by Carvajal to drift to Madrid's right flank as Morata was bursting through the middle tailed by Marcelo. The play unfolded in everyone's mind before it could even happen: if Tevez could somehow cross or thread the ball to a Morata who could brush Marcelo off, it would be Morata vs. Casillas and possibly a goal. Marcelo was keenly aware of this and thus decided to tactically foul and bring down Morata at the cost of a yellow card - leaving Carvajal 1-v-1 against Tevez who was being forced to his left. By the time Tevez arrived in the penalty box, Casillas was already in position, covering the near post with Tevez having no angle to shoot as he was far too much to the left side. Carvajal only needed to hold this position for long enough for Pepe, Varane and Ramos to catch up. His inexperience however got the best of him - sticking his feet out in an attempt to poke the ball off Tevez's feet. He missed. Penalty. Goal. Ouch.
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The tie turned from one where we had a clear advantage (we were going for a 2-1, to give us a series lead and 2 away goals), to one where we are now: lagging behind.

Was it a red card offense? Perhaps. I've seen them given, and Juventus had a legitimate claim to ask for one. I personally felt lucky the red card didn't come out: Carvajal after all was the last man. A few post-match pundits though did point out to the fact that when the (missed) tackle happened, Tevez was already ferried out off a direct goalscoring position and thus the foul did not merit a red card. Either way, we were lucky there was no red card.
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A Look on the Bright Side
Despite a host of rudimentary errors, our prospects to win the tie remain pretty good. A 1-0 at home wins us the tie, a 2-1 brings the match into extra time. That's a pretty good outlook for a team that completely fucked things up for themselves in the first leg.
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We are by no means in an ideal situation with the absences of Benzema and Modric. We were however a team that was in touching distance of the Champions League final despite all these absences. And if we only managed to get our basics, our ABCs and 123s down to pat, we might have had one foot in Berlin already.
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So next week, there is no reason not to believe that these rudimentary basics will be sorted out. And hopefully, this time next week, we will have then moved on from ABCs and 123s to arithmetic and spelling.
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W-I-N. 2-1, 1-0.