Sunday, October 4, 2009

Can Dark Horses be Unicorns? - Part I

Posted by: Ashay K, India.

Casual observers, more often than not, write off the Spanish Primera Liga as a two horse race, that between Real Madrid and Barcelona, with Valencia showing up once a while to spoil the party and the other sides serving up nothing more than fodder for the thoroughbreds.

While it is easy to take the write-off at face value (and why not, the two Spanish behemoths share an outstanding 50 Spanish Leagues and 13 UCLs between them, amongst a host of other domestic and international honors), a closer look back over the last decade makes one realize that though Liga has been more or less a two horse race in terms of the end of season result, every season there has been a dark horse that has threatened to topple the domination of the Twin Towers of Spanish football.

Super Depor

The start of the new millennium saw the advent of a great team called Super Depor, none other than Deportivo la Coruna (), a team though not quite as decorated as but nevertheless comparable to Barcelona’s Dream Team and Real Madrid’s Quinte de la Buitre. Though Real Madrid eventually went on to win the UEFA Champions League that season, it was Super Depor who won the 99-00 edition of Liga. The team included talents like Roy Makaay, Diego Tristan and Silva. However, the 99-00 La Liga being Depor’s 1st ever title, was nothing compared to their whirlwind season of 03-04 which saw them beat Juventus in the UCL knockouts without conceding a goal. But even this dint beat the encounter that followed which saw Super Depor win 4-0 at The Riazor against an in form AC Milan, after having lost the 1st leg 1-4 at San Siro. The Riazor is incidentally Real Madrid’s bogey stadium, where Madrid hasn’t been able to get a positive result for the past 18 years. Coming back to 03-04, Depor eventually went down fighting like lions to Jose Mourinho’s Porto FC, who eventually went on to become champions of Europe that season. Deportivo la Coruna hasn’t been the same team since, but they have always finished inside the top 10 every season, just shy of the top 5 slots.

Real Sociedad, the 1 season wonder

Following the whirlwind 99-00 season, Super Depor finished as runners up in the 00-01 edition of La Liga, second only to Valencia who finished as champions; the same Valencia who featured in the all Spanish final of the 99-00 edition of UCL in the Stade de France, Paris. The 02-03 season saw another dark horse shake its mane, rear up and gallop away with the title, well almost. Real Sociedad encapsulated the finest in Spain that season finishing just 2 points behind Florentino Perez’s Galacticos Part I. The key members of that Sociedad side included Darko Kovacevic, Nihat Kahveci and Xabi Alonso. This Sociedad side dominated the entire year round, sitting top of the table till match day 37, and finished the season unbeaten at home and 6 away defeats. Only the Galacticos conquered them, but only just and that too on the last day through Sociedad’s undoing when they lost to Celta Vigo. Great things were expected out of Sociedad the next season; however they failed to live up to their own standards and faded into obscurity in the next season itself. An honorable mention to Celta Vigo who challenged like champions in the 01-02 and 02-03 editions of La Liga.

Real Betis Balompie & Osasuna

The 03-04 season saw Valencia as the run away winners with 77 points, while 2 points separated the next 3 positions occupied by Barcelona (72), Depor (71) and Real Madrid (70) respectively. It was one of the closest battles fought for the runner up position in the Liga. The 04-05 season saw parity restored as the traditional power houses of Spain battled it out, with Barcelona emerging as winners. Two frog leaps behind a total of 5 points separated the next 4 positions with Valencia, Real Betis, Espanyol and Sevilla battling it out for the Champions League spot. Only Valencia and Real Betis made it. Real Betis had been perennial challengers since the turn of the century having finished inside the top 10. They sprung more than a fair share of surprises for the top clubs during their time. Real Betis got knocked out in the group stage itself.

The 05-06 edition of La Liga was a closely fought season with only 4 points separating the first 5 positions. Barcelona did the league double with 82 points while Real Madrid ended up runners up at 80. Valencia followed at 69, while Osasuna and Sevilla were tied on 68 points. Osasuna who until then had been finishing outside the top 10 and had even flirted with relegation for a couple of season suddenly found them in Europe’s top tier tournament. The pressure proved too much and they crashed out in the qualification round against Hamburg. However, they made it till the semi final in Europe’s 2nd tier tournament leaving a string of upsets in their wake. Osasuna were never able to replicate that kind of form again. The following season they finished outside the top 10 again and in the 08-09 season they avoided relegation one of the last matches of the season thanks to a goal scored by a former merengue (Juanfran).

Sevilla FC

The 06-07 season dawned with Real Madrid having won zilch for 4 years in a row and Barcelona as hot favorites. The pressure was on Real Madrid’s new coach, Fabio Capello to deliver. The season started reasonably well for everyone, but the way it ended has become a story of legend. Real Madrid overcame a 5 point deficit over Barcelona in the last 13 games, winning most of them having gone a goal or two down. The title wasn’t settled after 38 games with Real Madrid and Barcelona tied on points. However Real Madrid were declared winners since they had the better head to head record. During this season, the only team that dared to challenge the two sides was Sevilla. Sevilla FC, the oldest club in Andalusia was relegated to Segunda at the turn of the century. Hence they did not take part in the 1st edition of the Primera in the new millennium.

Sevilla however were promoted at the end of 2001 and came once again to top flight Spanish football in the 02-03 season, finishing 8th in the table. From here on, Sevilla began a steady ascendency in the table finishing 3rd in the 06-07 season. The Andalusians play slick free flowing football, and are known as a unit rather than individual talents. Sevilla’s resurrection began with the hiring of coach Juande Ramos in 2005. In 2005, Sevilla won the UEFA Cup, trumped the then European Champions Barcelona to win the 06-07 UEFA Super Cup and successfully defended its UEFA Cup title against Espanyol in an all Spanish final in 06-07. Sevilla qualified for the 07-08 edition of UCL, but couldn’t get past the first knockout round. They however managed to secure a place in the 09-10 UCL by finishing 3rd in the table in the 08-09 season.

Villareal CF

The 07-08 season was dominated from the outset by Real Madrid and they went on to finish as runaway group leaders with a 12 point lead. Barcelona held on to 2nd place for most of the season, but crashed out terribly at the season’s close allowing even Villareal to finish 10 points ahead of them.

Like Sevilla, even Villareal played the 99-00 edition of Liga in Segunda but secured promotion for next year finishing inside the top 10 in 00-01 in the Primera Liga. In the next 2 seasons Villareal battled relegation and finished just above the drop zone. In 03-04 Villareal reached the semi finals of the UEFA Cup, followed immediately by a quarter final crash-out in the 04-05 edition of the UEFA Cup. Manuel Pellegrini’s hiring as the coach in 2004 turned the team’s fortune. Villareal finished 3rd in the 04-05 season qualifying for the 05-06 UCL. Villareal topped the group in Europe, a group which consisted of European veterans like Manchester United, holding out Man Utd to a 0-0 draw over 2 legs. They knocked out Internationazale Milan in the quarter finals, but narrowly lost out to Arsenal in the semi-finals. However, they earned a lot of praise during that season as an European newbie which played slick, attacking football and was not afraid to take the game to the big teams. The Yellow Submarine as Villareal are referred to, again drew Arsenal in the 08-09 season. They drew the 1st leg but lost the 2nd leg 3-0 to Arsenal.

…Spanish football has always emphasized on creativity over mundane strategies. It is this creativity which when nurtured properly gave rise to these so called Dark Horses. Spanish teams, as a rule, can boast of a strong youth foundation in all their teams. Combined with this youth foundation, shrewd signings of players with potential has enabled some teams over the year to churn out extraordinary results with what seemingly looks like an average squad of players.

The question that now arises is that with so much apparent talent, why do these so called dark horses find it hard to turn into unicorns, those elusive, mythical leaders of horses? Why does the Liga still seemingly look like a 2 horse race to people? I would like to know your views regarding these questions which I would compile to prepare the Part II of this article which deals with why these dark horses don’t turn into unicorn and what steps need to be taken to rectify this error.

Monday, June 22, 2009

CR7(9?) : A Curse Or A Boon?

Posted by: Rahul Shankar, India.

It’s been over a week since the sensational news shook the entire footballing world right down to its roots. And at times, not even just the footballing world; a fine example being that even the Prime Minister of the UK, Gordon Brown, came out and commented on the mind-numbing move. A lot has been written and a lot has been said since. A lot of criticism has come the way of the club regarding the dizzying amount of money put into plucking the player. And the obvious question thus arises. Is the player worth this much? Does Cristiano Ronaldo really deserve the astronomical salary he is bound to get at Real Madrid? Does any footballer for that matter?

This will be painful, but let's just for a moment jog back our memory and look back at the season gone by. The season began well enough with the victory over Valencia in the Spanish Super Cup, a cup that often results in criticism when lost, and no joy when won. But nonetheless, won it was. The Liga season began with a loss. Some might call it ominous signs for the season ahead. Others might argue Barcelona started their season with a failure too and their season was anything but. The trouncing of Sporting Gijon was one of false hope, as the season, as well as Schuster's reign, started crumbling, with vital losses to Juventus, Getafe and Sevilla. He was quickly thrown out and replaced by Juande Ramos. The first Classico loss was not his fault, and eventually under him, our season started gaining remarkable momentum, with victories being notched up at an astounding rate. Liverpool was a catastrophe (understatement) but that was soon overlooked by the continuation of the robot-like victories in the Liga. The Classico came again, catastrophe happened again and the season thereafter spiraled down to a miserable and thoroughly forgettable mess. All this time of course, the football remained deplorable. Downright woeful, so much so that had I not been a Madridista, I would've been afraid to sit through 90 minutes of a Real game. The management was hardly helping. Under Calderon, we spent more than our fair share without recruiting the kind of quality that was fit to challenge at the very highest level. He lacked the tact, temperament and stature to broker the big deals; Canterano such as Roberto Soldado and Javi Garcia were wrongly recalled and subsequently neglected, while Juan Mata was allowed to leave; and one often unnoticed fact is that no Spanish players were purchased throughout his reign.

It was thus, no secret. Changes were needed. Immediately. Big changes to not only provide adequate results but to drastically improve the quality of the football being offered. To bring back the glory, the pride, the lure, of donning the famed white. Florentino Perez decided he must take the responsibility of trying to shape these changes.

Now we're Real Madrid. The biggest club in the footballing world, however you look at it. And we had to rebuild. To reconstruct, one makes changes. And when you're the biggest club in the world, the changes have to be big and only the biggest players can cause the required changes. It doesn't quite get bigger than Cristiano Ronaldo today.

Our right flank has been vacant and it has been screaming for someone to occupy it since Beckham's departure. Filling it up has been long overdue. As a right-winger, Ronaldo probably just about edges out Julien Faubert. He can play on either flank, possesses explosive pace, exceptional goalscoring ability and instinct, and aerial threat as a central striker. His crosses and wing-play are right up there with the best. He can take unique, effective and diabolical set-pieces. His skills, flair and the bag of tricks just add the sheen to a bulging repertoire. We have a player who, on the pitch, offers us everything we need in a manner that no one else - not even Kaka - could match. And in this instance, to add to all the multitude of talents, we have got only the most commercially viable footballer on the planet next to David Beckham. There's been a tremendous amount of hue and cry about the colossal amount paid to get him. But that's a very subjective, even pointless argument. We can afford it, that's why we paid it. Manchester United and Real Madrid obviously believe he's worth that much. We'll obviously make it all back and lots lots more in no time thanks to his hysteric pull. With of course the "added benefits" of having a tremendous quality footballer who can do almost whatever he wants on the pitch. And off it as well, and that's where the problems begin.

One thing Ramon Calderon can at least be credited with having overseen at Madrid, is the virtual elimination of the ego. The club performed beyond their means time after time, with thrilling come-backs being conjured at regular intervals, to collect back-to-back Liga titles over a Barcelona side that, on paper at least, remained markedly superior. Now surely even an illiterate football viewer will know that the only thing to denigrate Ronaldo by, is his attitude. His ego, which inflates with every step-over he performs, can be a serious cause for concern. His plea for praise can reach vulgar limits at times. His massive salary can be a genuine worry for the fans as it could lead to potential rifts within the dressing room. And if a strict disciplinarian like Alex Ferguson could not tame his temprament, there will be doubts if Pellegrini can. Although the Chilean did handle Riquelme's ego admirably while at Villareal and did not let it affect the team, Ronaldo is a completely different case altogether. But one heartening thing from all this is that his game on the pitch never deteriorated. His performances have remained remarkably consistent week-in week-out. In spite of the massive self-admiration, he does his business magnificently on the pitch.

He makes statements like "I am aware I'm already among the best of the best”. But in the same breath, he says things like “I don't like to relax. The fans want to see a great Cristiano Ronaldo so I try to never disappoint." Love him or hate him, he is undeniably an enigma. And he's on his way to Real Madrid. Will he eventually live up to all the hype, expectations and the price? Will he be a curse or a boon? I believe the age old saying goes something like, “Only time will tell...”

Friday, May 8, 2009

Fiesta, Siesta and Iniesta

Posted by: A Spaniard in the works, India.

Okay. I have to tell the truth here. I have been hurt as much as every one of you here because of the match result. The blog had a very good preview for the El Classico, but the match report (more of a post mortem I guess) was conspicuously absent. I am still hurting from the loss. I will be even more honest here. I wanted to write an article that night itself about how we should learn from Barcelona and how I would not begrudge them a victory in the champions league and how Nadal's victory in Rome was an omen that a Spainsh team would triumph again. But, due to my fraility I waited. Why? All my words of praise and judgement would come crashing to the ground had Barca lost on the pitch in London yesterday. In a way, I was bothered about what my peers would think of me because of my actions. It is sometimes convenient to think of football clubs and managers as massive personalities. Some of the decisions taken about playing style and tactics is also about personalities and public perceptions. And that is why I believe it was a huge difference in the style of the match and also the result. Which one did you like?

......2-6- Game, Set, Match, Championship

It did indeed read like a tennis scoreline. I had a dilemma here. Our match was right in between the two legs (now, now lets all be adults here.) of the two champions league semi final fixture. Yet, here I will treat it as one event and deal with it later. In reality, there was much to learn from the way Chelsea played the game, atleast tactically. But again, did we go wrong so much? The two scenarios were very different. Chelsea were playing to get a result. We were looking for pride and probably dent our rivals' chances. In hindsight, Barcelona approached all the three games in the same fashion. Looked comfortable in possession and were not afraid to play one touch football even if it was to play out of trouble. It was another matter that Real had some baffling tactical stupidity behind some of its decisions. Juande Ramos has disappointed me tactically in all the big games this season. Let us take this game and dissect where we lost the game:

a) Extremely high backline- Juande thought that Real was a popular actress going to one of these red carpet events and used an exposed high backline. This is of no use against a team with extremely fast attackers like Messi, Henry and Eto. When a ball is played to a frontline, it is common knowledge that the attackers face the goal and defenders have their backs to goal. Beating the offside trap means that a forward has an advantage of not having to turn for the ball and hence has the edge. The problem is compounded if it is a fast forward scenario (pardon the pun!!). The goal being a game changing event, the offside rule was recently tweaked to protect a defender. Now, any part of the forward must not be ahead of the last defender when the forward pass is made for a non offside call. Earlier, the line used to be drawn at the feet. Leaning in would create a major advantage for the forward. Even then, when you are playing a very fast attacking team, you don't play a high backline unless you have very fast defenders who have the legs to recover the ball. We have Pepe and Ramos who are quick. The rest of them would not win a sprint for sure. In that scenario, how do you explain having a high backline? Most of the attacks were because of the lack of pace in defence. One more essential quality of a high backline is co operative forward movement to lay the offside trap. In the Classico, that was absent. The positioning of the fullbacks was abysmal. They lagged in pushing up and paid the price.

b) Absence of a central offense- All our attacks barring a couple of passes lacked invention in the centre. Most of it was directed through the wing. Higuain was left to dribble past three players multiple times and most of it was directed through the wing. If the wingbacks are busy in trying to cope with torrential rain, you are not going to receive much help from them either. I don't understand his reluctance to play Van der Vaart. I believe he has not got enough chances to play in his preferred position behind the strikers. In too many games he has played on the wing or come on too late. If I were Ramos, I would have played VDV alongside Lass. He is a a handy passer for the Netherlands. Raul was invisible except for two chances as a consequence of that.

c) Sergio Ramos- He has not been looking like himself of late. Looks jaded and surprisingly looks suspect defensively. I used to rate him alongside Maicon and Alves as one of the 3 best right backs in the world, but his form has been disappointing to say the least. And, to make things worse, we have no viable alternative in his position. Gabriel Heinze was worse.

I sympathise with Juande Ramos. He has done well in his spell but has failed in all the big matches. But we should not forget why we gave Barcelona this kind of space. We had to win the match. And if we had won it in Chelsea style, the fans at the stadium would have never forgiven us for playing soporific football. Even though they were vastly outnumbered in the Bernabeu, the strengh of (her)cules took them through. There was no necessity of Real yelling "Eto'o brute?". He did not show up, much to my delight. Barcelona could have scored more if Messi was more clinical and Iniesta not that unselfish.

Stamford Bridge has fallen down, my fair lady....

"As we say in Portugal, they brought the bus and they left the bus in front of the goal." -Jose Mourinho

It is sort of ironic that a former Chelsea manager came up with this iconic quote for occasions where lower teams played for not conceding against the big teams. This is the funny thing about the world. When lower teams do this men behind the ball approach, they are ridiculed for being afraid and very defensive. Yet, when a big team like Chelsea does it, it is tactical superiority and super commitment. It is not just in sports. I would like to highlight the power of perception in two other real world scenarios. I must warn a discerning reader that these are stereotypes and not necessarily true:

a) A rich guy drinks for culture. A poor guy who drinks is a wifebeater.

b) This is a question and answer scenario to a person X.

Q: Why is the sky blue? A: I don't know.

Let us see our reactions for two cases who are the people who have given the answer.

X= Nobel prize winner= "Ooohhh..... he is so modest! He has an attitude of wanting to learn everyday".

X= Tenth standard student= " What? You don't know that? You are retarded, man!"

Unfortunately, the power of perception happens to be real and that is why life is so interesting so many times. Anyway, the matter of how we come across as a football club and philosophy is worthy of a lengthy article in itself.

I will not mince my words. I have massive respect for Guus Hiddink and Fabio Capello as I believe they have the ability to get the best out of even limited resources. Guus Hiddink has shown time and again that he can overachieve even with the most modest resources in the case of PSV, Australia, Russia and South Korea. In many of these cases, he had a job to do- to qualify. And it was obvious in the first minute with any of these sides that they were the weaker team when they slayed fancier opponents. So, it was almost second nature to him to ask his players to stay behind the ball and not give any space whatsoever. Chelsea actually defended in two lines- the midfield right in front of the penalty box and the backline was extremely deep to sweep any through balls. It also served another purpose; it negated all the movement and pace by Barcelona in the box. In my opinion, it was anti football. I don't like this approach. To be honest, I almost had an aneurysm at the end of the match. But, this approach exists solely because it is successful, even though a lot of fans might feel it is boring. Chelsea are not afraid to bruise their opponents in the EPL. But here, only Messi and Eto were marked heavily. They were happy as long as the ball did not come close to their box. They did not come snapping at the heels. Eric Abidal's sending off was a pivotal point in the game. For more than twenty minutes, Barcelona played without a defensive midfielder- just Xavi and Busquets- and Chelsea did not capitalize. They took off Drogba who could have caused some problems. Chelsea played only in the counter attack which was mostly off the wing. This signalled lack of intent to kill the game for me. Iniesta's goal was very good. Essien's goal was even better. Chelsea will feel hard done by. They have been to five semifinals in six years now and have not won the trophy even once. They have a set of talented players who will probably never lift the trophy- like the game's biggest bridesmaid- Michael Ballack. But this is a victory for the game of football. Barcelona have clearly been the best team in Europe and it would have been a shame not to watch them play in the finals. So, the decisions taken by managers are a product of their environment and their situations. I am sure SAF will not follow the same tactics as Hiddink. I personally believe that doing so gives an impression that you feel that you are a weaker team. Many might disagree with me, but I am interested to know which of the two approaches would any footballing fan prefer? I would love it if fellow madridistas gave me their opinions on this one.

32-26-36? Va Va Voom!

This is the vital statistic this season, with Barcelona playing sexy football in popular footballing parlance. These are the number of goals scored by Eto'o, Henry and Messi in all competitions this year. Even though this number looks humungous, it is easy to forget the under rated Andres Iniesta. Not too long ago, he was Ronaldinho's understudy. He has been instrumental in getting the ball moving on the pitch. His biggest weapon is his two footed dribble, which allows him to keep the ball not too far away from his body and that makes it very difficult to dispossess him. Due to this, he can move both inside and outside the fullback with equal ease. I will not forget the way he danced around Essien in both the legs. He is extremely unselfish as well. I have seen numerous occasions where he is happy to grab the assist. The Classico had two such examples. Against Valencia too, he had a chance and he passed to Messi. It is players like these who win matches. In fact, there is a legend that our own Ferenc Puskas was one such man. He made many goals for Di Stefano when the latter grew insecure about the top goalscorer status.

Iniesta the Redeemer.

Any resemblance to the statue in Rio is simply coinicidental. Here is to a man who I believe is one of the modern wonders of the world!

Barcelona's high possession, short pass football has been nice to watch. What is interesting is the unusually high pass percentage. A team with 60% has had a very good day. Yet, in all the three matches, it was more than 80%- something that would be associated with a defensive midfielder or defender. United are going to trouble them with set pieces. I feel that the balance has shifted slightly to United as Barca are going to miss their regular fullbacks and I just hope Barcelona's victory against Chelsea was not pyrrhic. I am hoping for one good football match. Hopefully, we can reach such a stage next year at home!

Hala Madrid!

A Spaniard in the works.

P.S: I kindly request those of you who have managed to read through the whole article and are somehow awake to give me feedback about what sort of tactics should Real have employed? Our attempt at attack failed. Should we have taken a Chelseaesque route? I don't think so. Let me know what you think!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Squad Analysis

Posted by: Paulo Martin, Spain.

The bloody defeat to Barcelona on Saturday at the Santiago Bernabéu has provoked a veritable earthquake in Real Madrid. The history, philosophy and fighting spirit of the club has kept us fighting until the final whistle, but this time it has become clear that our chances of victory were not real. The club lived in a fantasy that Guardiola and his players woke us from as sharp and harsh as possible.

Now, just over a month for the election to the presidency Madrid, the club movements are accelerated. Regardless of who wins the election the Merengues demand and expect changes. Deep important changes. It has been made clear that the squad is not good enough and making a couple of signings will not be enough to strengthen it if the club wants to compete in all 3 competitions as is expected from it.

Before making additions to the squad some casualties will have to be made and among them could be some major players. It will be a long and difficult process, but at the start of next season, the squad could be very different from today.

Here is my analysis of the squad:

Casillas - Nontransferable: Although during Florentino`s first term at the club he was being questioned by the president, he has earned his right to stay and become a club and world icon. For many, Iker today is the real "galactico" of Real Madrid.

Dudek - Transferable: The Czech has not played, and when he has not had an outstanding performance to close the door to the youth keepers. His function could be carried out by Codina.

Codina - Nontransferable: The canterano has demonstrated a good level. Is able to replace Casillas, and until he plays he can continue learning to play from the worlds best keeper: Iker Casillas. If he wants to progress away from Madrid, youth team has alternatives.

Salgado - Transferable: The Galician is in the twilight of his exceptional career and looks set to pack his suitcases bound for Qatar. No longer is he able to dominate the right-back role. His character does not compensate his physical shortcomings.

Pepe - Nontransferable: Assault aside, the Portuguese is one of the best center backs in Europe. If he can control the outbursts he will once again be very important for the team.

Sergio Ramos - Nontransferable: The Andalusian has not had a good season. Was very confused throughout the season and has made grave mistakes, but if it regains his focus he will again become a great player.

Cannavaro - Transferable: The Italian central back has reached the end of the season at an average level, but you begin to notice the years on him. Furthermore, it appears that he has committed himself to Juve for the coming year. We shall miss his professionalism.

Marcelo - Nontransferable: Not very active in defense but in attack was great as is expected from the Brazilian. Has not shown that can be a regular starter as left back but looks like a good left winger, still young and has room for improvement.

Miguel Torres - Nontransferable: While not spectacular, always done well playing in either the right or the left. Great squad player for next year.

Heinze - Transferable: The Argentine is no longer the player he first was when he arrived at Madrid. Has gained strength in the dressing room because of his strong character but has lost strength on the pitch against rival forwards, no longer is his presence respected and feared and he is surpassed with ease.

Metzelder - Nontransferable: The German has been shown to be a great solid reliable central defender, he has made it clear that he has sufficient quality to play for Real Madrid.

Javi García - Transferable: Canterano. He has not played too much this year and when he has he had to switch between two different positions: centermidfelder and center back. It seems like he is not Real Madrid material.

Drenthe - Transferable: He arrived in Madrid as a diamond in the rough. He had room for improvement, but it is clear that there will be plenty of polishing to do before he becomes a diamond. Has not gone down well with the public of the Bernabeu and is considered not worthy of wearing the white shirt.

Diarra - Transferable: In past seasons he was the only players keeping our midfield together, but little more. Much of the balls that recovers he gives away again in the after a bad pass. Unable to launch the offense from our area.

Gago - Uncertain: The Argentine has quality to spare, and is great physically and is not afraid to fight for the ball. His problem is his irregularity. Has been "absent" in all the big game, the games where we expected the most from him.

Lass - Nontransferable: If Madrid wants to keep a midfielder that offers any containment then it should be him. Since his debut he has shown class and character and has become a key part of the team.

Guti - Transferable: An institution within the club, but is still questioned by his ever lasting problem: his irregularity. He is capable of best (while being marked can give an impossible assist) but also the worst.

Parejo - Nontransferable: This creative center midfielder has barely been able to demonstrate his quality. Alfredo Di Stefano`s favourite canterano has a lot to offer.

De La Red - Nontransferable: He is recovering from heart problems and should be important part of the squad in the future (if his medical condition allows it). His vision and his quality of play have never been questioned.

Sneijder - Uncertain: The player who struck it big in his first games with Real Madrid, his power and his class have been diluted over time. Only if he recovers and regains focus will he remain as part of the squad.

Robben - Uncertain: There is no doubt about the quality he has. However, a team as big as Madrid can not afford to have a player that plays only 45 percent of the matches of the season due to injuries.

Faubert - Transferable: No comment. The signing inexplicable. Has barely played.

Van der Vaart - Transferable: He arrived with the hype of being a "superclass", but perhaps having played far from his natural position or adjustment problems have resulted in him not delivering what was expected of him.

Raúl - Transferable: The captains time has come for him to pass the torch. Thanks to his intelligence and quality he continues to have good stats, but a young striker with more quality and pace will surely bring more and better things. Madrid would miss his winning mentality and his Madridismo.

Saviola - Transferable: He is not a striker for Real Madrid. Last season took the few opportunities he had coming out from the bench well, but when played full games hardly saw him at all.

Van Nistelrooy - Uncertain: The Dutchman is one of the worlds great goal scoring mahcines but is at the downhill of his career. Ensures goals, but maybe someone younger can bring more to the team.

Higuaín - Nontransferable: The Argentine grows and grows every day. Not world class yet, but a very good player. He has been improving his finishing and demonstrated being strong and having character and faith in his possibilities.

Huntelaar - Nontransferable: "The hunter" has shown he can score goals in the league. The Van Nistelrooy of the future.

Friday, May 1, 2009

El Clasico Special: Fan Vs Fan

Posted by: Ashay K, India

Photo Credit: Saurabh (Cule)

So in line with the “El Clasico” preview, our blog team did a small “Fan vs Fan” bit on Orkut. We invited Cules and Madridistas from the Real Madrid vs Barcelona community on orkut to participate in a common questionnaire. We got some really interesting, some whacky and some spiteful answers. One thing cannot be ignored though; although the two sets of fans absolutely loathe and despise each other, there is a kind of grudging respect for the rival teams, if not for anything, then simply for what the rival club symbolizes.

So, we move on with the questionnaire and let the readers come to their own conclusions about the matter…

What do you think of your rival team’s squad?

Joan (Cule) put it straight and up front about Real Madrid: “They have little depth in certain areas of the squad. The squad is totally uncompensated. No right wingers, no quality reliable left backs; they only have 3 center backs, they lack pace in all departments but especially up front. They lack a consistent creative midfielder who dictates the pace of the game. And they have too many injury prone players”

Sachin Chandra (Cule) took a slightly diplomatic tone: “well they are a young squad with pretty good talent even though not world beating talent; they have excessive squad players who are not worthy enough to play in a club of such a big stature but still play. The squad lacks any kind of creative spark in its play”

Rai Krol (Madridista) was full of praise and gushingly commented: “I think they are the best technically gifted team i have seen play. They do not just play football; sometimes what they do is art”

King (Madridista) answered it limerick-ishly: “Youth, Flair, Speed, Skill, Possession, all summoned up by the brilliance of Pep can be summed up as Barcelona's style”

What do you think about the chances of your team?
Overall, the mood from the Cule camp seemed to be quite confident. Same cannot be said about the madridistas though.

Joan (Cule) answered confidently: “Pretty good chance of getting a positive result. Its do or die for Madrid but it isn't for us, so realistically an away draw would be an excellent result for us where as it would be a terrible result for Madrid”

Kunal (Cule) wasted no time in putting it mathematically: “75 % chances of winning and 15 % of drawing”. We assume the missing percentages to total it to 100 are the chances of losing according to him.

Pradeep (Madridista) was quite frank about his team’s chances: “It’s slightly less than that of our rivals. We have many injury problems and many of our key players are missing. Real Madrid need a win and any other result wont do for us which is a big advantage for our direct rivals!!”

Paulo Martin (Madridista) also tried his hand at being mathematical: “I think we’ll push very hard, especially at the start of the game and at the end again depending how close the game is. We have the advantage of playing at home and crowd carrying the team and the fact that Barça will be fatigued. I’d say its 60/40 in our favour”

What strategy do you think the coach of your team will employ in the clasico?

Saurabh (Cule) quipped: “Same as always: Attack, Attack & Attack, and a 4-3-3 formation. We'll play our usual passing game”

Karthik (Cule) had something different to say, other than the above mentioned (patented) answer: “I think we will be given a bit more physical strength in the midfield by adding Keita. I think the coach will let the team play just as they had played the season and he would ask the players to press for the ball a bit more so that the opposite team will get frustrated”

Paulo Martin (Spain) put it quite laconically: “Probably cautious counter attacking football but strategies tend to go out the window in a clasico.”

Pradeep (Madridista) sounded a bit apprehensive: “With many of our players missing, I dont think we will be attacking from the first minute! We may try to play defensively and will step up our play according to the score line at half time.”

What strategy do you think the coach of the opposite team will employ in the clasico?
There seemed to be a divide in the Cule camp about this. The madridistas seemed to have a common consensus.

Karthik (Cule) expects something out of the ordinary: “Well i think real madrid would come and attack us a lot. They have a very good holding midfielder in Lass and I think VDV will be up to the mark in the clasico since he is very intelligent on the ball. Their defence will be a bit weak but i think they will attack and defend together as a team. Higuain can cause lot of problem to our defence since he is doing spectacular and he has been an absolute revelation this season.”
Joan (Cule) is more in line with the feelings coming out of the camp nou: “I think they`ll be fairly cautious and try to counter attack us at all times. I don't think Madrid are capable of carrying the game and keeping the ball, they are much more comfortable giving the possession away and counter attacking.”

King (Madridista) commented: “The same strategy they have used all season; Pass, Pass & Pass till they find a hole. Keep possession and be wary of physical contact”

Rai Krol (Madridista) seconded: “Same as always; possession football at its best”

How confident are about your team winning this match?

Prashanth (Cule) had the disposition of taking whatever comes his way (except defeat, of course): “Would love Barca 2 complete the first double for us since 98-99 is it. But a draw would be fine with us as well!”

Kunal (Cule) was quite confident though: “I m a bit jittery keeping in mind that the team will travel to England, but then since it's the Classico our team will leave no stone unturned and will surely do a double on RM this season.”

Kashan (Madridista) was a bit philosophical: “I believe in destiny and Real Madrid is all about Winning”

King (Madridista) sounded a bit desperate: “It’s a do or die situation for us. We can only go for a win if we are to have any chance at the liga. But barcelona have always been a super stubborn side and defeating them will not be the same as defeating sevilla or the others. How ever if we lose or draw, we can say goodbye to la liga. Fans will play an important role in this fixture”

What is your match prediction for the clasico?
Most of the cules predicted a draw and their predictions do have a ring of truth about it. Barcelona hasn’t really done the double on Real Madrid for a long time. So the overall mood coming in from the cule camp is that of cautiousness.

Karthik (Cule): 2-2
Saurabh (Cule): 3-2 to Real Madrid (Probably the only cule in this whole world predicting a loss for Barcelona)
Sachin Chandra (Cule): 1-1
Kunal (Cule): I think Barcelona will win 2-3. Iniesta , Yaya Toure and Dani Alves will play a big role in it and perhaps Eto'o.
Kashan (Madridista): 3-1 to Real Madrid
Paulo Martin (Madridista): 2-1 to Real Madrid
Siddhant (Madridista): 2-0 to Real Madrid
Pradeep (Madridista): 2-1 to Real Madrid

We only hope that the predictions by Madridistas come true and they don’t end up like our current interim club president.

What does your rival club symbolize to you as a football club?

Prashanth (Cule) summed it up in a very short sentence: “Never say die attitude, determination who want attractive football !”

Joan (Cule) seconded: “Fighting spirit, grit, determination and its never give up attitude.”

Kunal (Cule) had a grudging tone about his reply: “They believe in : Hit, Hit, Hit, Hit; Keep on Hitting until the opponents die or they die themselves; But never say die.

Karthik (Cule) put it as neutrally as possible: “Madrid has a great history, a great captain, a great goal keeper. They are sure to bounce back soon enough to their glory days”

Rai Krol (Madridista) admitted he was a bit envious about Barcelona before going to reply: “Admirable footballing philosophy, excellent brand of football and excellent youth set up”

King (Madridista) didn’t hold anything back as he said: “They are our arch rivals and both sets of fans dont like each other at all, but I will be frank here. I think barcelona are a wonder ful team and they have a very good way of handling their youth, they play beautiful possession football and are among the best clubs in the world. I hope they keep playing the way they are and make spain proud by kicking those lazy english clubs (read here as Chelsea, Manchester Utd / Arsenal) out of our sight”

Paulo Martin (Madridista) put it as neutrally as possible: “Brilliant style of football, never vary their style or change their philosophy of football. Always look to the youth system as a solution and not a problem and I admire them for that.”

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A CLASICOL Encounter

Posted by: Ashay K, India

December 13, 2008

“The runaway league leaders beat Madrid 2-0 at the Camp Nou. Every cule tonight is proud of this team. This team is comparable to the legendary Dream Team or Rijkaard’s 05-06 team, for the sheer quality of football they play, even though they haven’t won anything till now.”

“Real Madrid played ugly football with systematic tactical fouling on Messi.”

“We proved we are not in any kind of pressure from any team. Our 12 point advantage proves that”

“We have one hand on the league with this kind of a lead. Real Madrid is not good enough to win it this time.”

Real Madrid:

“We played well given the circumstances. We did what was necessary to contain Barcelona and we almost succeeded. The world will remember that Madrid dint throw in the towel and instead tried to make a game out of a forgone conclusion.”

“We will fight and win the league. The race is still on.”

…That was some months ago. As we arrive at the eve of probably the biggest football match on the planet, known for the intense rivalry between both sets of fans and players, it’s only logical to go back and revisit the post match comments and compare them with the pre match comments of the upcoming El Clasico.

Present Day

“Even if we lose to Real Madrid, we’ll still be 1 point ahead and also remember that Real Madrid have more difficult upcoming fixtures than Barcelona”

Real Madrid:

“We will fight and win the league. The race is still on”

…The difference in the tone of the comments is very perceptible. From self-proclaimed winners back to title contenders under serious pressure, the mood of Barcelona has been akin to that of having a saving account of pressure, where more and more pressure has been deposited by their friendly neighborhood rivals since the dawn of the new quarter. On the other hand, for Real Madrid, the journey has been pretty much stable. No one expects them to win anyway, and yet winning is probably the only thing they’ve been doing amidst healthy doses of Capello now and then.

Twelve points in December 2008. Four points in April 2009. The ferocious tenacity shown by Madrid in chipping away the huge point deficit has been really commendable, even though their style of play hasn’t. Games like this, the one against Sevilla, the one against Getafe define how a season ends and Madrid has surely come out tops over Barcelona in that aspect.

The Tactician vs The Prodigy

Juande Ramos has a lot of plaudits under his belt. He’s one of the reputed coaches around, inspite of his disaster of a season with Spurs. His achievements in Spain cannot be forgotten though. He is the coach responsible for taking a modest Sevilla outfit to one of the potential title contenders grabbing two consecutive UEFA Cups on the way, making them a force to be reckoned with in Europe as well. What counts against him is the fact that the injury prone Madrid squad is also not balanced with too many reinforcements in one area and none in the other.

On the other hand, Pep Guardiola is the rookie having no silverware under his belt. What he has on his side though is a motivated squad with all the players having hit top form simultaneously; not to mention the fat cash incentives that the Barca management has promised him in his contract for each of the silverware he wins.

The last time these two went head to head was on December 13 last year. Ramos had barely one training session to assess his team before rolling the players out in Camp Nou. On the other hand, Pep had a team which was demolishing every team they played in excess of 3 goals scored and none conceded. On May 2, Ramos will go into the Clasico on the back of a record breaking unbeaten streak for Real Madrid. Pep will go into the Clasico having a highly motivated and treble dreaming, albeit fatigued squad. It would be interesting to see how these two lay out their pawns on the green chess set of the Bernabeu.

Barbarians vs Ballerinas?

Real Madrid received a lot of criticism from Catalunya and football purists for their ultra conservative approach towards the match they last played. Some sects of fans in Barcelona went as far as labeling them as “Barbarians” for marking Xavi out of the game and the tactical fouling on Messi. Madridista retaliated by branding Barcelona as “Ballerinas”, for being so delicate that they took offence to physical contact in a contact sport. And they did have a case. A footballer knows how to get a player injured and set back home. But all the fouls on Messi were directed at his shins where there is protection. It was a desperate tactic; albeit a very ugly one, employed by a team clutching at straws to try and disrupt the Barca attacking flow and their mentality so that their concentration was disturbed. The tactic did pay dividends as Barca was unable to score till the 83rd minute with Iker Casillas grinding out one of his best performances in a Madrid jersey.

Only days ago, Valencia demonstrated that the mighty Barca can be halted by using a modified version of the tactic Madrid employed and last night Chelsea used the tactic to hold Barca to a goalless draw at the Camp Nou. That is evidence to show that Barcelona are indeed the Ballerinas of football. Exquisite, attractive, but shy at physical contact. Pep doesn’t seem to have too much tactical initiative when posed with a team which disrupts their normal style of play, and this chink in armor could b exploited to devastating effect by Madrid. On the other hand, Madrid with their defensive frailities in big matches (2 goals against Athletico, 5 against Liverpool, 2 against Sevilla) could be exploited if they allow Barcelona into the game.

The key to this encounter for both teams would be to simply continue what they’ve been doing and how they’ve been playing. Any deviation from the normal would spell doom. So, its back to Barbarians vs Ballerinas? That remains to be seen.

A Distinct Madridismo

Madrid have an advantage of playing the reverse leg at their fortress, the Santiago Bernabeu, where in inspite of their disaster of a seaon, they can boast of the best win record of this season for any club, and the better win record against Barcelona.

To make matters worse for Barcelona, only 800 tickets have been granted to Barcelona to be distributed amongst their travelling fans. And if this was not enough, a giant white mosaic has been prepared by the club fans to intimidate Barcelona. Each fan will find posters on their seat, which when raised simultaneously will blanket the stadium white.

The expected attendance at the Bernabeu is 80,000 which means a sell-out. Barbarians or Ballerinas, this colossal event guarantees to be a sell-out worldwide; something every football fan will tune into for.

Hala Madrid!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A “7EGENDARY” Comeback

Posted by: Ashay K, India.

Real Madrid is a brand name. But in this team, every player is a brand name in his own right. The 06-07 season saw the team branded quite differently from the usual Los Blancos, Los Galacticos to “Capello’s Boys”. Capello symbolizes an abstract for the Madrid faithful (players, fans and management) rather than a person. Capello is determination, grit, pride, the “never say die” attitude for a madridista.

“Jonarda 33: Sevilla – Real Madrid” saw yet another chapter written into the scripted comeback that only Real Madrid with their “Capello” can orchestrate.

Rewind the clock to December 13, 2008. Juande Ramos had landed in Madrid 48 hours before and proclaimed that the back 4 of Real Madrid (S. Ramos, Cannavaro, Pepe, Heinze) – until then the leakiest defence in La Liga – could grace any top team in the world and was one of the best. Pretty strong claim, if one considers the last season, but not this one. Real Madrid played one of most defensive games in their entire career as a professional football club to stem the Barca juggernaut. And they almost succeeded. Drenthe spurned a one-on-one chance with Valdes, Casills wared off an Etoo penalty kick at the other end and the goal, when it came in the 81st minute, came from a corner (that ever reliant scrappiest source of goals). Real Madrid lost 0-2 to Barcelona at the Camp Nou and the point gap widened to 12 points, but it silenced those who were expecting a manita. A team which was going to be doubtful to make it to the Champions League next term went down fighting like lions, fighting for pride. There were flashes of Capello in that match; but not enough Capello. We declared the next day that we would fight for the league and win it. Everyone in Barcelona had a patronizing grin on their face and the so called football pundits had the disposition towards Madrid which a father has towards an errant child.

Fast forward the clock to Present Day. Real Madrid has been unbeaten on the trot since that fateful encounter with Barca. We have won 17 out of the last 18 matches. We have one of the meanest defence in the league since the turn of the new year but our play lacks the necessary eye candy element, which is still fine given that there are no extra points for attractive football There’s enough of Capello in our squad though and we’ve clawed our way back from a 12 point deficit to just 4 after being virtually written out of contention for the league; which all brings us down to the last concluded match.

Barcelona had a lucky draw against a resurgent Valencia at the Mestalla on the previous day and got 1 point out of an encounter that was destined to hand them none. This was the chance for Madrid to shorten the now 7 point gap to 4, provided they won against Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan; a venue where they hadn’t won for the past 6 years. Unlikely? Very Much. But the team, especially El Capitan had other ideas.

Juande-Dollars and Judas Chants

The Andulasian crowd greeted Real Madrid on the back of a 4-0 defeat to Barcelona with dollar bills having Juande Ramos’ mugshot on them and chants of “Judas” directed at Juande Ramos and Sergio Ramos. Ironically, it was Juande Ramos who led Sevilla from being a mediocre mid-table club to European glory before departing for his disaster of a season with Tottenham Spurs. The Andulasians seemd to echo a distinct anti-madrid feeling by whistling at the two Ramoses, though they dint seem to take any offence to Dani Alves, who had departed for exactly the same reason as the former two did, but to Barcelona.

Referee Alfonso Burull (the awarder of the infamous decisions in Madrid’s favor against Osasuna) kicked off the match in front of a 45,000 attendance and Sevilla immediately hit top gear. Sevilla had the lion’s share of possession in the opening 10 minutes. Adriano, Renato, Kanoute, Perotti, Jesus Navas dominated the midfield and kept the ball moving around the park through Romaric and Duscher. Quite predictably, Sevilla had all the initial chances. Romaric and Renato blasted in early chances which were saved by San Iker. Sevilla kept up the pressure with Madrid really struggling to string passes together. Sergio Ramos, in particular was having a very poor game (by his own high standards) and soon, Perotti wrong footed Ramos and unleashed a beautiful cross. Torres was caught napping as Renato nodded a free header into the back of the net. Sevilla were one goal up in 15 minutes and showed no chances of relenting as Kanoute sprayed an easy effort wide of the goal. Barely a minute later, Perotti broke free of the offside trap and bounded down the park. But his left-footed shot was tame and easily parried away by Casillas.

As the time wore on and the initial exuberance faded, Madrid slowly started getting into the match. Marcelo had a half hearted shot which was well wide of the goal. Higuain slowly started getting into the groove and had two back to back chances, one which Palop parried and the other which could only make the side netting at the near post. The match soon disintegrated into a midfield tussle with destroyers taking precedence. Lass was having yet another of his best games as he ran all over the park, working tirelessly to cut down openings and nip attacks in the bud. At the other end Duscher received a yellow card for a bad foul on Guti and nothing came out the ensuing free kick. The ball continued to bob around in the air as the Madrid defenders started tracking back after the non-productive free kick. All of a sudden it landed at Ramos’ feet who backheeled it to a back tracking Metzelder. Metzelder beat Navarro to the ball and accelerated down towards the end of the pitch before unleashing a dangerous, low cross into the middle of the box. All of a sudden, Raul beat Prieto to the ball and flicked it away into the far post from 3 yards out, past an onrushing Palop.

The Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan went silent just as the clock read 45 minutes and the scoreboard read 1-1. Real Madrid was back into the game. The stage was set for the next 45 minutes, which promised to be much more entertaining than the first.

“Raul” Madrid

As soon as the teams came out of the tunnel, each had shots at either end. Marcelo had a brilliant run into the box and he laid off the ball for Higuain to finish it, but the in-form striker’s 1st time shot with his left foot (and incidentally the same foot which helped Madrid win against Getafe) let him down as the ball went harmlessly wide. On the other end, Jesus Navas drilled a low, power strike to the bottom right corner which Casillas spilled initially but gathered later before Kanoute latched on to it.

Sixty-three minutes into the game, Higuain combined with Torres who sent in a tame cross into the box which took a deflection off Escude. Almost against the direction of play, Raul came in from behind Prieto and volleyed the ball into the far post at his right. Palop was absolutely clueless and so was Prieto. It was one of those touches which only Raul can manage. Suddenly Real Madrid was leading 2-1 and the Pizjuan went silent once more. Only 3 minutes later, Palop made a criminal error in spilling Higuain’s low cross. Raul, on the prowl, darted forward and guided the ball into an empty net. Its times like these which make one to never count Raul out of the game. El Siete took just 3 chances to score only his third hat-trick in La Liga, and it was more to do with the fact that Sevilla had got their tactics horribly wrong. They had labeled Raul as a “has been” and concentrated on marking Higuain out of the game. But this strong reminder from El Capitan would always serve the Andulasians to remember that one never under estimates Raul.

The game dragged on with Madrid enjoying more possession, and substitutions happening at regular intervals. Almost at the death, as the clock struck 82 minutes, Jesus Navas sent in a tempting cross and Ramos completely miscued it to allow Diego Capel to strike it home at the near post. The Pizjuan came back to life as Sevilla announced that they would not go without a fight. Madrid then closed up shop and chose to defend and hit on counters. Sevilla could not penetrate Real Madrid and though they tried their best, their attack simply lacked enough conviction. In injury time, Madrid made a slick counter attacking move which saw Huntelaar (on for Raul) and Marcelo up front with two defenders to beat. Huntelaar drew away one defender and sent in a pass to the surging Marcelo who went one-on-one with Palop. 1..2..3 fakes and still Palop dint go down; but Marcelo having had enough of the little game slot the ball past Palop beautifully for the 4th goal and final nail in the coffin for Sevilla.

Madridistas world round were celebrating the further reduction in the point deficit. Things, as they stand now, Real Madrid are 4 points behind leaders Barcelona with El Clasico coming up next week. Should Real go on to win the Clasico, the gap would close down to 1 point; a very realistic chance there on of winning the league. The way Barcelona is playing, no one expects Madrid to win against them. But in Madrid, they believe in miracles. An abundance of Capello is what drives this miracle team. At Madrid they have a right to dream…

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Of Pandemonium,Pain,Panenka and Pipita

Posted by Shibarjun Ghosh, India

Some moments are special. Special enough to write about them even if it is 4 in the morning and you have work to attend to early next day. Jornada 32: Real Madrid Vs Getafe was surely one such match. “Game of Three Thirds” as Terry Gibson stated. It certainly was one... Like Marc Anthony’s rendition in the motion picture “The Mask of Zorro” …

”heroes rise, heroes fall and they rise again with it all…”

The game tonight followed a somewhat similar note.Just as an autobiographical synopsis of any great legend.

1.The Rise(min 0 to min 9)-The first of the three thirds.The shortest of the three. Spanned for little more than 9 minutes. Real Madrid pushed along the wings through Higuain and van der Vaart. The crowd was on a high and the audience experienced some crisp passing, attaking football. Surging runs, floating crosses and tiki taka at its best The party came to a grinding halt when old cantera boys Granero and Soldado combined to silence the bernabeu crowd. Against the run of play Granero collected a pass on the right wing and crossed it to Soldado who suddenly found himself in free space enough to build a parking lot, made no mistake and headed it past a hapless Iker Casillas. Certainly making amends for the miss he has had barely 6 minutes ago and making a statement to the sporting director for a year that he wasted in oblivion.

2.The Fall(min10 to min84)- Ceratinly not as beautiful as the American “Fall” if u are a madrisimo. The 74mins were long. The only silver lining was the Higuain’s goal in the injury time of the first half. The attacking front seemed to have been cut off from the rest of the squad. There was very little activity around Getafe’s goal. An out of touch Huntelaar, an out of position van der Vaart, a confused Guti and an invisible Raul seemed late for the prom night. Lass’s presence was deeply felt as Guti and Gago failed to provide a productive midfield pairing. The modest Getafe was taking the game to their more illustrious neighbours. Playing matadors in the bernabeu is not something that many clubs can afford to do ,but Getafe surely had come to spoil the party. Attacking along the flanks, they nipped any attack that came their way in the bud. Marcelo and Cannavaro seemed wanting against the darting runs of Granero and Gavilan .

Then came the Arjen Robben cameo,who by Juande Ramos’s own admission “has had a problem or two when he plays back to back matches”. 17 minutes, four long “Forrest Gump” runs later the “man of glass” was out. Canna followed shortly after and in came Drenthe and Javi Garcia and a slew of tactical blunders. Gago as centre half and Drenthe on the wings seemed to do precious little in their positions. Uche and Albin then did what seemed at the moment to be hammering in the final nail in the coffin of real madrid’s title ambitions. On a wild run on a counter attack Uche crossed on to Casquero whose header found Albin ,and the hit man from Uruguy did what he had already done twice in the season i.e fire the ball past Iker Casillas . Victor Munoz’s super sub had thrown the spanner to real madrid’s title ambitions and there was silence in the crowd and the only sound was that of crashing dreams. That was min 84.

“Picture abhi baki hain mere dost…(the film has not ended yet my friend…)” as the Bollywood thespians like to put it.

3.The Rise Again (min 85 to min 93)- He has attitude problem, he is any coaches’s nightmare, he is the bad boy of the media, he is past his prime, he is the prodigal son of the Bernabeu, he throws tantrums, make fiery comments and he score stunners from freekick when his team needs it the most…He is JOSE MARIA GUTI.

Min 86- Guti curled the ball from the edge of the box into the top left corner of Stojkovic’s goal. Two minutes is all it took to bring Madrid into the game. The silence of dejection suddenly changed to roars of jubiliation. “Stuff of genius”, “sheer brilliance”, “scintillating” .. the commentators can go on…but for us Madrisimos its was an important equalizer from one of our favourite sons and there was little time to waste on platitudes at this juncture of the game (and the league).Compliments can wait...we have a league to win.

Min 88- Pepe pushed Casquero in the box and then mistook him for the ball which made Pepe see red.(pun intended).

Min 89-Casquero took the kick himself with one eye on the morning newspaper headlines reading out his name in bold letters applauding him as Getafe’s hero who made a fool of the world’s best goalkeeper to give his team a most unlikely victory. The other eye on the ball and the goal seemed not enough. He took a penalty kick which would certainly put him on the tabloids but most probably in the “jokes” section. A weak spot kick which even a ten year old could stop was certainly not good enough to test San Iker.

Still score was 2-2. Time was ticking on.

Min (90+3)- Breaking in through the crowd Gonzalo Higuain shoots and it’s a GOOOAL. A thunderous left footer from the edge of the box went roaring into the top left corner of the Getafe goal. Jubilation turned to delirium and it blew the lid of the Bernabeu .

Real Madrid 3-2 Getafe.

Title chase continues


Hala Madrid.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The pepper at the gates of dawn

Posted by A Spaniard in the works, Bangalore

Real have missed many tricks once again. It is that time of the season when a fan looks back and sees if the optimism and excitement at the start of the season was worth all the trouble. Time and again, we have fallen due to the same set of weaknesses and have ended up looking like a bland dish served cold. It is time that we admit our shortcomings and work towards spicing things up so that it leaves a taste in our imagination. Hence the weird title. I also hope that next season can be the start of a new beginning.

Us and Them
Football is like no other game in the world. It has an unparalleled worldwide audience due to an air of approachability. Most sports are very inward looking- i.e. they believe that people who have played the game at the highest level are only fit to be involved with it. For example, in cricket, some of the old timers (my uncles in my family) have a problem with, say, when someone like a Ravi Shastri has something to say about technique. They ridicule him for not having been a player worth his salt in his day and now having the nerve to talk about players who are much better than him. I must warn a reader that Ravi Shastri is just a placeholder in the previous sentence. It could apply to any pundit. Cricket is very inward looking and it is cultured that way. Many sports have such attitudes. In fact, cricket is finding it very difficult to get commentators that will be taken seriously by armchair critics around the world. There are no new faces to fill the voids left by giants like Richie Benaud. On the other hand, football is a unique game. The manager is also a very important element in the game. What is surprising to note is that football does not have such pretentiousness. There are very few world class managers (a handful) in the game who have been the world's best players in their era. Good players do not necessarily make good managers. This is an important as it draws more fans to the game and also leads to unnecessary clashes with rival fans who claim they are more knowledgeable. The other side of the coin, as one may call it. Football is the perfect blend of individual artistry and team ethic. This has also agreed with many political philosophies and also contributed to its widespread popularity. A capitalist nation would identify with individual talent- it only seems natural that they believe in a pecking order; the communist nations respected the team ethic as it represented proletarian values- the backbone of their system.

Since there are multiple ways of looking at the same picture, there are variations as to how the game is played in various countries and how the fans approach it. In Spain, we see showboating on a regular basis. Spain as a nation respects individual ability. The fans have to be won over before they start cheering for a home team. A rival player with a good move would be appreciated and very often, we have seen jeering of our own players and also cheering for the opposition team. Teams are a bit slow to close down. A good goal is necessary to get the crowd moving- mazy runs and no recollection of where the play started in the first place- much like the plot of Memento. On the other hand, in England, the teams follow a team approach. The fans are behind the team from the first minute. The football is very direct and played at a frenetic pace- reliant on long balls. Every home attempt is cheered- even a misplaced cross to row Z! I am not a huge fan of this method, but it does have its own advantages. It helps the team to settle quickly. I have lost count of the number of times that English supporters have egged their teams for a response and that percolates to even small time clubs like Barnsley. That is the sort of romanticism that is associated with the FA cup. The reason why I raised this point is that it might be worth considering what attitude we fans must take towards our own players. The Santiago Bernabeu was a fortress in its time and now in the past few years it has resembled an incontinent elderly person- leaking at the first sign of pressure. The first task that Juande Ramos has to do is to get back the respect of the Bernabeu (with the help of the fans, of course). During his time at Sevilla, he did make the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan a scary place to visit. Sevilla three seasons ago were a free wheeling team that would throw the kitchen sink at the opposition in their backyard.

Run like hell or Learning to fly?
Football is cyclic in nature and the various tactics have been slow to evolve. Earlier, the leagues had a lot of local players and as a result, the continental competitions had a bit of nationalism attached to it. Today's football clubs are more like corporations- Liverpool had more Spanish players playing compared to Real. But, it is one of the major advantages of exposure nowadays. In the old times, Latin American teams were known for technical ability and European teams were known for physical ability. Nowadays, the gap has gone down. The clubs are more multicultural nowadays and it exposes players to different conditions. The Brazilian team today is a lot more physical than what it was sometime back. They are not afraid to bring down a player- tactical fouling. Players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kaka, Tevez, Messi all have bulked up in terms of physique to handle the physical conditions of Europe. So, for Real's own benefit, we need players like Higuain and Gago to be able to compete physically with some of the best players in the world. Like it or not, today's game is played with a lot more pace and power compared to the older days. The average football player in an average football game runs around six to eight kilometres today, compared to around three to five twenty five years back. As a result, we see athletes peaking a lot earlier. The Spanish league was known to get players from Latin American countries due to language, cultural and climatic similarities and hence had a distinctly technical flavour to it. But, the game has changed in ten years time. The English league has come a long way from being a joke in the late nineties. It was a matter of ridicule that nobody had won the World player of the year until Ronaldo did last year. The English league is more open to foreigners. It is without a doubt, the most diverse league in the world. But, it does have its own pitfalls. One reason that was attributed for the failure of English and Spanish teams to win any major international competition was that the players were too fussy to move abroad. With the exception of Steve McMananam, David Beckham and Owen Hargreaves, no other English player plied his trade outside his country when he could still offer a lot to the game in the last ten years. Is it surprising that Spain winning the Euro has come at the same time that many Spaniards have moved over to greener pastures at the EPL? It also helps that there are successful managers of different nationalities which can be a factor in getting overseas players.The English league has a lot of money due to investments from foreigners and this has been channelled to get players from different nations, more so at the cost of promoting their own players. This matter is worth another debate.

One more approach that has resulted due to the English league is the heavy work rate. Players with pace have an inherent advantage in that league & players who are no more in their physical peak like Deco or Shevchenko have little to offer. Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko had expressed their reactions about the frightening pace of the English premier league. Closing down by everybody is mandatory and also, creative freedom is a luxury. It is this high tempo direct approach that has set the ball rolling for the EPL now. Skill and technique come into the game once it is slowed down. The EPL teams are now dominating the apparent skill deficiency with increasing the tempo. This is something that the continental teams are yet to come to grips with. Football, despite all the arguments of it being a team sport, it is still the players ahead of defence that claim most of the headlines- as there is no other statistic in the game itself that can compete with a goal in terms of importance and outcome of the match. But, of late, the anchorman in midfield has been given the spotlight. This position being one of the most ridiculed positions in world football for being least technical is now, in my opinion, the most game changing due to the high work rate. Players like Mascherano, Lass, Essien, Gattuso are all respected for their abilities to heckle the opposition players into giving the ball. This has crept into other positions as well. One of the casualties of this tactic is that very few players have creative freedom. The role of a winger is almost erased from the books of football. WIngers are viewed as luxury elements as they do not necessarily defend. Even if a team plays with them, it is more of a 4-5-1 approach like the Netherlands or with false wingers like Barcelona with a safety first approach. The width is more or less brought by a fullback. Wide midfielders are expected to track back and defend and clog the centre of the pitch rather than go down the line, outside a fullack and pull in one of the most dangerous passes in the game. How many genuine world class wingers are there in the game today? Just make a list of them and you know exactly why this has happened.

Maybe Real need to approach the game in a way that Barcelona does- use wide midfielders who play as false wingers. These are players who play off the wrong foot and essential cut inside for a pass. We have tried it before. Just that our approach fails as Robben and Higuain, Sneijder are not as comfortable with the ball like Messi and Iniesta. They are equally adept at going outside and inside of a full back. On the other hand, Robben has a heavy bias towards his left foot. It makes it that much easier to defend against him. Figo was the last true winger whom we had. Robben is yet to learn crossing in the air and he does not have much reason to! This brings us to the next point- we have never been a threat in the air. Morientes, RVN and now KJH are three people who could head the ball in. This has been a major weakness with Real. The long ball has almost never been used and we seem to keep buying people who are quick on the ground. That might be ok when you have people like Ronaldo who are exceptional talents, but it will not work when you have back ups like Saviola. We as a team need to challenge airtime. Juve has three strikers- Amauri, Trezeguet and Iaquinta who are all amazing in the air. Milan has Pippo, Shevchenko and even Gilardino sometime back. If we have to compete globally, we cannot continue to ignore one aspect of the game. KJH is a step in the right direction. He is a perfect striker except that he is slower than many. This is not such a major handicap as long as he has a partner who can do all the running.

The show must go on
What must be our approach to the game then? We are no longer able to attract the best players on the planet like we used to sometime back. More on why it might be so in a later post. Clearly, we have no system in place to identify and procure talent. Or, the one we have is not working the way we want to. How do we modify our game then? I am all for a gung ho approach in every match. But, would we prefer attractive football without the results? I don't think so. As long as we have the ability to win a game by bulldozing opponents, we can do so. But, we are not able to play to potential more often than not. It might be worth trying a safety first approach when we are no longer at the peak of our abilities. In the last eight years, there have been only three teams that have won using their virtues of pure attack alone- Real and two Barca squads. Even these sides which were blessed with talent came to a stop when they faced some defensive teams. Even though I am not a fan of defensive football, I feel we may have to consider it as it is a successful tactic. Knowing when your number is up and adapting is a hallmark of any champion and I feel swallowing our pride and plaiyng for a win is better of a larger picture. It is not that we do not know these things. Our attitude towards Capello showed that. We clearly stood in line when we needed a dose of bitter medicine both times and got rid of the doctor with the first signs of recovery.

We have a decent squad depth and I propose that we must play different teams home and away- the midfield, especially. I have said this before and I say it again- we are in dire need of a central midfielder. I was hoping for DLR to step up and Gago to do something or Sneijder do what he does for the Netherlands, but we seem to be missing a tempo setting midfielder in away games. Sneijder did a decent job of being a box to box midfielder last season, but he has not been the same ever since his injury. I feel we need to play:
Home games- Lass/ Gago+ VDV/ Guti+ Marcelo at left back
Away games- Lass+ DLR/ Sneijder+ Heinze at left back.
The biggest problem is that we do not have a decent left back for sometime now. Torres might be worth a try. This way, we can battle fatigue as well. The attitude of learning to scrape when you cannot milk the opposition is what is costing us dearly in knockout competitions, not to mention the Copa del Rey being an embarassment. This way, we can use the squad depth and clearly assign roles to players in order to achieve the results that we want. Teams like Croatia, Turkey, Germany have an excellent work ethic and we must be able to pick fringe players from there who will fit into our system.

The Dark side of the Goon
In the last segment, I hope to address our "big bully" attitude. We have been guilty in the past of unsettling people by using the media. Most recently, the Cristiano Ronaldo saga comes to mind. While such an attitude is deplorable in my opinion, I have to agree that it has yielded results in the past. I am happy to say that we, as a club, have no double standards in this respect. For example, Manchester United did the same in the case of Berbatov, Rooney and Rio Ferdinand. But, they had a problem when we kept pursuing Cristiano Ronaldo using the same tactics. We were also on the receiving end in the Robinho case. We did take offence to it only when Chelsea sold some away jerseys bearing his name. We also have a big reputation for getting referee decisions in our favour, rescinding of punishments and all dirty attempts to change the rules. Some of these charges are common to other champion clubs, but, these don't look good on any of them. We need to make sincere attempts to reduce such "pants down" scenarios as perceptions in the eyes of the world is very important. "Too big to fail" is an attitude associated with some of the biggest empires. One actually wonders what the magnitude of a punishment might have been if the culprit were to be someone more hapless. For example, big companies get tax cuts and extremely favourable lending rates for big projects as compared to an ordinary person who might actually benefit more with a fraction of the money. The bailout plan for the multiple US companies also highlights the "above the system" image that some of them flaunt. Muralitharan's suspect bowling action had implications in the interpretation as to what a legal delivery in cricket was. We need to take more responsibilities for our actions on and off the field as we are the people who can make a difference. With great power, comes great responsibilities! Hopefully, our club should use the power to set right the club vs country debate, foreign player issue, protection of youth team products (ironically!) and so on.

Hala Madrid!
A Spaniard in the works