A Full Bernabeu beholds a Ronaldo Goal - What a Magnificent Sight!

3 Points down, 3 Points to go: for our 32nd La Liga Title. After Ronaldo’s fabulous opener and Benzema’s brace last night, we needed a Barca loss to Rayo to get our hands on the Trophy. Last night however, Barca made Rayo ‘pay for the broken plates’: thus, we are now left with the arduous task of winning the title at one of Spain’s Football Temples, Athletic Bilbao’s San Mames – current home of Pep Guardiola’s mentor (Marcelo Bielsa) this Wednesday.Bilbao, especially this season, will be one of the most difficult places to win the title in. They have an amazing team this season, a genius mad scientist as a coach and a crowd who would HATE to see us win the title on their turf – this might be the last of our herculean tasks. As such, a victory in such a venue and setting would be the best way to cap off this domestic season that has seen Real Madrid do pretty much everything.

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I have to say that I’m unused to seeing Real Madrid kick off so early. The benefit of the late kickoff is that I’m sure that it will not conflict with any other item in my schedule other than sleep. With last night’s 6pm Singapore time kick off, my Sunday afternoon jog and dinner plans all had to be shelved. I was anxious to see how Real Madrid were going to play in light of the post-clasico euphoria and the CL disappointment: did the team have enough in the tank left, physically, mentally and emotionally to see off Michel’s team?

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Football at 200 MPH vs. Michel’s ‘Bayern Lite’?

The answer to the question above was an emphatic ‘yes’. Real Madrid played football at 200 MPH and Sevilla left the Bernabeu not really sure what hit them. Our boys played with a verve and freshness that left you no clues of the physical and emotional energy that exhausted over the past week.

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Michel had ominously warned that the Bayern game gave Sevilla all the clues they needed to beat Real Madrid. Perhaps he forgot that Bayern didn’t exactly beat Real Madrid at the Bernabeu (we actually won 2-1)? Some of his players also rightly warned that Michel, being a former Real Madrid player knows where Real Madrid’s soft underbelly was. It was because of these pre-match snarly comments from Sevilla that had me wondering:

1.)    Was Alvaro Negredo Sevilla’s Mario Gomez (a physical no. 9 to trouble or CBs)? Pepe’s WWE-style bodycheck that sent him to the rails in the front gave us the answer. Negredo may be a hulking physical presence, but nowhere close to the beast that dominated Pepe and Ramos midweek.

2.)    Were Jose Antonio Reyes and Jesus Navas Sevilla’s version of Robben and Ribery? Navas is a true winger (not an inverted one) and while he’s as fast as Speedy Gonzales, like Robben, he’s a one-trick pony (his go-to move is to cross,  the equivalent to Robben’s cut-in-and-shoot). Let’s forget about Reyes. But either way, neither of the 2 are close equivalents of their Bayern counterparts (ok – maybe Navas has a shot)

3.)    Rakitic as Kroos? Even with Ozil drifting wide so many times last night, and with Alonso starting with a ‘lightweight’ partner in Granero, Real Madrid owned the midfield – so it wasn’t even close.

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Yes, yes – Michel’s Sevilla probably usually play the 4-2-3-1: making use of the strengths of their best players (Negredo, Navas, etc.). But the ex-RealMadridB coach who had a team loaded with the talents of Mata, Granero, Parejo, etc. and got them relegated to the Segunda ‘B’ hardly earns much credibility from me. So for him ominously warn us that ‘he’s learned from Bayern’ to beat us at home, my reaction to that is: “Come on Michel – you need to get off those funny pills!”

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A Statement

Real Madrid’s performance last night was a statement to all of Spain and to the world: that this title is OURS – that we’re not merely waiting for the ‘formality points’ to trickle into the palm of our hands… we will SEIZE it with both hands and those who dare keep it away from us must beware. This was seen from Mourinho’s chosen XI – which haradly had any change from the side that faced Bayern (his first choice XI). And the only change? An attacking one – with Granero partnering Xabi Alonso at midfield.

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The football played spoke volumes as well: we didn’t win via a languid, barely-there performance that relied on a disastrous mistake from Sevilla or a singular moment of brilliance to sentence the game. RealMadridplayed their usual brand of ‘Formula 1 Football’, filled with energy and attacking intent and won, scoring 3 goals, doing so.

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Highlights of the Match

I personally found the game more of one to enjoy rather than to analyze, so my apologies if there is an expectation for me to discuss more than the following talking points:

1. Sergio Canales

Real Madrid's players jumped into the field with a shirt with a slogan in support of Sergio Canales, who last Thursday broke the ligaments of the knee.  'Mood Channels', read the motto.

At his tender age, I'm not worried Canales will physically recover: he will. I'm REALLY worried however about what this 're-injury' will do to him psychologically

The players entered the pitch with well wishes to our wonderkid on loan to Valencia who can’t seem to get a break. Canales re-injured himself once again and seems to have done it on exactly the same leg. Canales clearly has the talent to become a Real Madrid player but like last year, lacked the experience and the requisite physical development to do so. The 2 year loan spell toValencia, where regular minutes in a Champions League-caliber team were supposed to do this. With a new 6-month absence, he looks only to be back on the pitch on 2013: effectively cutting his Valencia ‘experience’ to 50%. The injury may well have fractured his confidence too (which, given his age and the time he has to physically recover from this injury, may turn out to be the bigger ‘injury’). Since he was loaned out, many are saying that he may probably never end up becoming a Real Madrid player again (with or without the injury). Either way, to see such a bright talent get his possibly career extinguished in this manner is heart breaking for any football fan.

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2. Karim Benzema

Karim Benzema: our little kitten has grown to a Lion-Cub with wings.

I’ve spoken/written much about Benzema’s evolution, incorporating more and more, the characteristics of a ‘classic 9’ into his game. Both his goals last night were goals we normally wouldn’t see him score (whereas the one he blasted over Javi Varas’ crossbar on the nearpost would’ve been a classic Benzema goal). His first goal was a tap-in after ‘ghosting’ in behind the clueless Coke (who probably took Michel’s funny pills given his performance) to latch on to Di Maria’s long range pass – the sort of poacher’s goal a clever, ‘classic 9’ would score. His second goal was a diving header – the kind of goal he didn’t score earlier in his career.

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Known for his exquisite technical abilities (great first touch, clean ball control, etc.), Karim Benzema is also now finally learning to use his fairly large frame to good use to complement his skills. Once he adds a further-developed guile and cleverness in the art of goal poaching, it is frightening to consider what a great striker he will become.

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3.      Midfield – Steamroll ‘Em, then Regain Control

By sending Granero Forward, the critical zone of play is pushed to Sevilla's 3rd. The plan suffocated Sevilla to death.

On paper, Mourinho deployed Granero as Xabi Alonso’s midfield partner in a classic 4-2-3-1. On the pitch however, the application was different – and this MIGHT probably what destroyed Sevilla’s game rhythm. Xabi Alonso played the ‘lone pivot’ role: with Granero pushing up and Di Maria in many instances, switching positions with Ozil (shunting Ozil to the right once again) to form a 4-1-4-1. The alighment, literally took the game to Sevilla. Mourinho used Di Maria’s hyperactivity and Granero’s advanced positioning to harass Trochowski and Deivid. The move compressed the key zone of play to Sevilla’s 3rd. RealMadrid were up 3-0 before the hour mark.

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The game ended with Mourinho’s substitutions saying ‘shop closed’ sign across the midfield with Khedira and Albiol protecting Ramos and Pepe = muscle in front of muscle. Tactically, it was a very ‘professional’ job by Mourinho. Get the 3-0, close the shop, rest Xabi Alonso and prepare forBilbao.

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The Trophy in Sight

What impressed me most about last night’s game was that it was played as if the euphoria surrounding our Clasico win at theCampNouand the heartbreak from our CL elimination didn’t take place. It was a thorough and ruthlessly professional game played by Real Madrid against a ‘Banana Skin’ Team. The last time Real Madrid won a title having to play Sevilla at home late in the season, we had to concede 2 early goals from Enzo Maresca and needed 2 laser-guided passes from Guti (off the bench) to win the game. Last night, there was no need for late heroics, a heart-stopping remontada or other such drama.

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Instead, last night’s performance was all about a team that knew what had to be done and went about their business like it was any other day. In other words, last night, we saw a team that already knew they were champions and made no fuss about letting everybody see what made them so.