Monday, February 22, 2016

Andalusian Blues (Malaga 1 - Real Madrid 1)

The Eraserheads: Andalusian Dog

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I thought I'd start with that with a semi-obscure song (to their casual fans) from the Eraserheads (a legendary rock band from the Philippines I worship), Andalusian Dog - given that trips to Andalusia have constantly been giving Real Madrid fits of trouble. Last night's trip to Malaga, which ended in a 1-1 draw was no different. It was a result that leaves us 9 points behind Barcelona - making it practically official that we are only just playing for pride in La Liga from this point forward.
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And here's the thing: we shouldn't even be just looking at the result. We should be looking at the performance too - and it was awful! Last night's match was a rare instance I could catch Real Madrid at a decent hour (11pm) - and their performance still had me dozing off during stretches. That first half seemed like it was taking forever! Make no mistake about it - last night's match was not 2 points lost for Real Madrid - it was 1 point won. We played awfully, scored an offside goal (granted that 'justice' was done with Ronaldo missing the penalty - perhaps he should have tried that Messi-Suarez trick?) and had Keylor Navas saving our skins yet again. 
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I get that it was a tough match on the road (a second consecutive one at that), but this is a team that claims to be title contenders. And title contending teams either play well but lose the odd road game, especially if it's the second of a back-to-back... or they win playing ugly with a massive dose of luck (e.g. an allowed offside goal against the run of play).
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Tactics & Personnel
The days before the game were brought unpleasant news of Karim Benzema being injured and unavailable for last night. I thus found myself wondering how Zidane would set the team up expecting both James and Isco to play with either Kovacic or Jese getting the nod in the starting XI. I will admit that I applauded Zidane's brave move to bench James (probably against Florentino's will) and start with Kovacic with Modric and Kroos at midfield. This was Zizou recognizing the fact that we were playing a serious team on the road and that we needed more solidity at midfield (Kovacic) and pace on the flanks (Jese). The game started with me wondering whether Jese would be played in his favored left wing position (where he could cut in and shoot), or whether Isco would be given this task. I always expected Ronaldo to move into the center to be the #9.
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Except this wasn't the case. Last night, it looked to me like Isco was deployed as a false 9, who looked to play CR7 and Jese into space - much like Diego Perrotti for Roma midweek. It was an experiment Ancelotti tried on numerous occasions which just didnt' work. Last night, Zidane tried it again and the outcome was similar. It disappointed me even more that after 45 mins. of the system not working, Zidane, perhaps encouraged by the (offside) goal we scored, persisted with the system. It didn't work. Malaga's equalizer came past the 60th minute and at the point where we were chasing the game, having a focal point to our attack would have been needed. We didn't have it. I was disappointed with how we managed our tactics to get back into the game.
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Performances
It's funny how small circumstances can completely change the narrative. By the 33rd minute: Cristiano Ronaldo had scored in consecutive away games against a good level team. That was the narrative, if you had chosen to ignore the fact that he was a yard offside.  By the 36th minute, he had won a penalty that would have had the storyline say: Ronaldo carries Madrid to victory in tough road game. But alas he misses the penalty, and with it the feel-good narrative about his road to recovery and Madrid's declaration of its championship credentials. 
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A closer look must go to the 2 beneficiaries of Madrid's injury crisis as well: Jese and Mateo Kovacic. Both gave good accounts of themselves in their substitute appearances midweek and logically, both were expected to provide a positive spark to their team last night after being rewarded with an opportunity to start. Instead, it was disappointment everywhere for the 2. Kovacic failed to add the invention and verticality his runs with the ball normally had and lost the ball in many of his touches with it. Jese too lost the ball on many occasions and hardly beat anyone off the dribble and gave the game very little of the pace which he was introduced into the game for.
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Lucas Vasquez later came on (for Jese) and seemed to add a bit, but it was ultimately not enough. Zidane also did the logical thing of 'trying' James in Isco's role (who was graciously applauded by the Malaga fans). But is there perhaps a merit to trying Casemiro? It seems the counter-intuitive thing to do, but I find the idea of sending Casemiro in to sit as the sole holder at midfield, to allow Kroos and Modric up the pitch to have some merit. 
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The simple truth to it however is that the team as a whole were just not at the races today - particularly the defense. After an imperious performance in Rome, Ramos looked as shaky as ever last night at La Rosaleda, sloppy with the ball and somehow always a step behind the pace of the match. 
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Finding Purpose
It's embarrassing to admit: but La Liga has become like Ligue 1 with Barcelona romping through un-opposed. As Real Madrid fans, it's not wrong to expect our team to put up a stronger challenge to them than what we've shown so far. 

La Liga is the latest league to follow the Bundesliga and Ligue 1: in that the league leaders are essentially romping through the competition unopposed. In Germany and France though, the economic might of the leaders (Bayern and PSG) when compared to the rest of the competition, is an easy explanation for the situation. The same can be said about Atleti in Spain - who are punching above their weight thanks to the work of Simeone. The same however, cannot be said about Real Madrid.
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For a club that prides itself as the top dog in Deloitte's Football Money league, it's an embarrassment that we've practically surrendered the league title to Barca in Feburary. There is no excuse. We are not a club with budget constraints. Madrid is not an industrial wasteland or some rural backwater. It is a beautiful, modern cosmopolitan city with lovely weather, offering the world's best footballers and their families the absolute best quality of life. Our squad deficiencies are an outcome of poor planning, the lack of a sporting vision and a childish fickle-mindedness in the making of sporting decisions. 
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Unless the Monstars from Space Jam 'steal' the powers of Barca's players, particularly the MSN, La Liga is practically gone. 
This season is a writeoff. The Copa Del Rey is gone because we eliminated ourselves from it. Unless the Monstars from Space Jam 'steal' the powers of Barca's players, particularly the MSN, La Liga is practically gone too. Zidane now has a massive problem on his hands. Though we still have a chance at the Champions League, the only way you can win it is if the team reaches a level of hyper-focus, sharpness and motivation. And the only stage to facilitate this is the League campaign, where the players can compete on a weekly basis. But despite the 'We will fight to the death' statements, how are we to believe that the players will genuinely have the highest level of motivation whilst faced with the common sense knowledge that Barca are too far ahead already? This will be Zidane's challenge.
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But even before we can even begin to explore these questions about the players' levels of motivation and focus, we have to get down to an even more basic and simple question: How do you even get them to play better?

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