‘Reyes De Europa’: The Kings of Europe. 2 more matches like last night and it will come true.
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Nevermind that the scoreline could have been 3-0. Last night, Real Madrid delivered a performance that demonstrated that IF (and it still remains to be a big ‘IF’) they were to lift La Decima this season: that they were capable of the sort of performance that Champions League trophy winners deliver. All that is left now is to repeat the trick twice… and hopefully, next week, we won’t have to do it with our 2 best players only at 50% fitness.
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Growing a Spine and showing our Guts
I recently joined the ever growing band of critics of this Real Madrid side who charged that despite the team’s newfound ability to play possession football, that it was a spineless, gutless bunch of chokers (who couldn’t beat big teams) following their near-catastrophic collapse at the Signal Igduna Park. It didn’t take long however, before this team shut me and my fellow critics and skeptics up with their Copa Del Rey winning performance vs. Barca. Perhaps it was in that match where one could say that this team began to display the positive symptoms of a championship-winning side: defensive organization, the absence of suicidal / stupid errors, work rate and the ability to kill the enemy when the opportunity presented itself (or as in the case of Bale’s goal, insisting on the presence of an opportunity to kill the enemy even when that didn’t seem to be the case).
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People say Xavi, Yaya Toure, Vidal, etc. when they talk about the world’s best Central Midfielders. I say Modric should be included in the discussion.
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Bereft of our 2 best players at their best (Ronaldo and Bale), Madrid relied on the same qualities that gave us the opportunity to see Sergio Ramos drop his second Copa Del Rey trophy off the team bus (an opportunity he thankfully didn’t take). Across the board, the team played superbly: Ramos and Pepe had ZERO errors (their first this season), Carvajal had Ribery in his pocket, Di Maria had Alaba in his. Coentrao and Isco worked together to sterilize Robben (Coentrao in fact, reminded me of Bassam’s bold statement that when he’s on his game, he’s the best left back in the world). Alonso was an absolute boss. Modric demonstrated that when we talk about the world’s best Central Midfielders, he should be in the conversation (Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox were BOTH singling him out for praise). Iker became a forcefield when it was needed. Benzema showed why he is the perfect striker for this team. And Ronaldo, even at 50%, showed that he learned A LOT watching the Copa Del Rey Final from the bench (that he too can make a killer pass and doesn’t need to sprint with the ball every single time he gets it).
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Sergio Ramos and Pepe were Defensive Titans vs. Bayern. Not often you hear that said about them, but it was certainly true last night.
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We are now at that point of this tournament where winning does not come only from moments of magic and sorcery from the special players, but more importantly, it comes from the ENTIRE TEAM doing the simple things perfectly over and over again ad nauseum. We didn’t win because this or that guy did something out of this world. We won because from player 1-11 plus the 3 subs, everyone did every simple little thing to near perfection and the other team wasn’t able to do it as well. This is what great championship teams routinely do. And our boys managed to do it in the biggest of games against the biggest of teams time last night.
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Cup-Tie Strategy
Bayern Munich are Real Madrid’s ultimate Champions League Black Beast. UK Sky Sports / ESPN FC’s Graham Hunter (writer of that Barca book) pointed out a really neat fact: that the only times Real Madrid have ever eliminated Bayern Munich in a Champions League elimination ties was when we kept a clean sheet at home. Until last night, this has only happened 4 times: in 1988, 2000, 2002 (when we won the 9th) and 2004.
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Last night’s scoreline was 1-0. I value the ‘0’ more than the ‘1’. And even if it was 2-0 or 3-0, I would still have valued the ‘0’ more. I would in fact argue that it may not be that bad that the current aggregate scoreline is only 1-0. Bringing a 2-0 or a 3-0 to Munich might be a recipe for a repeat of the Debacle at Dortmund (with more serious consequences). A 1 goal lead gives us an advantage, but also ensures that the team retains its edge and helps a great deal in eliminating any false sense of security that might creep in (like what happened vs. Dortmund).
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I am also perhaps part of a minority that prefers to play the second leg of a cup tie away. Despite playing in hostile territory, your goals count for more when things REALLY count. And heading into next week’s tie with no away goals conceded means that every goal we score is easily worth more than theirs. We’ve seized the initiative in this battle, on Tuesday, it’s time to ‘take it home.’
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Pondering, Ponderous Pep
Pep Guardiola had 2 important tactical dilemmas heading into last night’s match. And in my opinion, on both counts, he opted for the wrong option.
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His first dilemma was on where to play Philip Lahm: as defensive midfielder? Or right back? Lahm seems to be Pep’s favourite player due to the Germany Captain’s intelligence on the ball. It was this very quality that has led Pep to ‘convert’ Lahm into a defensive midfielder. Lahm however, also happens to be the world’s best right back, perhaps the only player who will not make his manager lose sleep at the thought of going head to head with Cristiano Ronaldo. Last night, Pep decided to play Lahm as his midfield pivot: and duly enjoyed a good performance from the little German, especially in the opening 15++ minutes of the match where he controlled the match. This meant however that Arjen Robben and the mediocre Rafinha would have to defend against the world’s best attacking left wing combo (even a 50% CR and Coentrao, instead of Marcelo, Madrid still has the best attacking left flank in world football). He duly paid the price when Ronaldo and Coentrao combined to create Benzema’s goal. Javi Martinez would come in later on to play the pivot with Lahm back as Right Back. It was too late though.
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Pep’s second dilemma was about tempo. His greatest triumphs as Barca manager was his 5-0 and 2-6 El Clasico wins against us which all featured pinball-on-steroids style of passing and moving on possession. When possession is lost whilst playing at such a frenzied pace however, Bayern become more susceptible to pace on the counter. And having seen how lethal we were vs. Barca during the Copa Del Rey
final, plus the fact that we now have TWO cheetahs in the team (Ronaldo and Bale), he probably thought that there was merit to a more measured, probing-style approach to the game. I do not understand however why he did not consider the fact that Ronaldo wasn’t 100% and that Bale was ill. Last night, Bayern, controlled possession (75%) but they were slow and lacked incisiveness. Choosing to be ponderous rather than to play pin-ball-style sterilized their possession and played right into our hands: it allowed us those few precious
additional split-seconds to organize and set up to prepare for their next wave of attacks.
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Pep got it wrong last night. He probably knows it. For Madrid, the team must brace itself for a more intense and frenetic Bayern at the Allianz Arena. Hopefully by then, our 2 Cheetahs (CR and Bale) will both be fit and hungry enough to tear their flesh.
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Changing Gears
Ancelotti won the tactical battle vs. Guardiola last night, giving the Ex-Barca coach his first loss in the Bernabeu
Stage 1 of the ‘Ancelotti Era’ has seen the team find its preferred system: an attacking, possession-based 4-3-3 that utilized Alonso’s intelligence and passing range together with Modric and Di Maria’s work rate and dynamism in midfield behind the BBC. The team took a few knocks while ‘stumbling’ into this system but has now managed to use the system comfortably. No longer is the team addicted to running at the opponent at 200 mph once the ball is won, only to struggle and ‘hit a wall’ once they are met with a compact and organized team. Playing in this ‘Mode 1’, the team has learned to be comfortable in keeping the ball, circulating possession and probing for an opening. What we all learned the hard way however was that there are teams out there like Barcelona or Bayern who can and will
out-possess and out-pass us – and that there are teams out there, who are quick, energetic and athletic who can punish us by capitalizing on the inherent weaknesses in ‘Mode 1’.
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Stage 2 of the ‘Ancelotti Era’ is where the 4-3-3 becomes a 4-4-2 when the ball is lost. When in ‘4-4-2 mode’ it gives the team 2 neat banks of 4 to defend against teams who are out to out-possess us, gives us a second pivot next to Alonso to protect the Basque (normally Modric) and a wide midfielder to track the opposing attacking fullbacks. The ‘4-4-2 mode’ is also Ancelotti’s celebration of Mourinho’s ‘Formula 1 Football’ legacy: making use of the fact that we have the world’s 2 deadliest and fastest winger-forwards (Ronaldo and Bale).
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Ancelotti’s triumph however is the team’s ability to change gears as and when. We saw it in the Mestalla last week and we saw it again last night: when in ‘4-4-2 mode’ while defending, the team punished Barcelona and Bayern viciously on the counter, but when given time and space on the ball, Real Madrid would switch to ‘4-3-3 mode’, and was completely comfortable in possession, probing the opponent for openings to exploit.
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I never believed it possible that within one season, Real Madrid would be able to find a tactical approach as flexible and as sophisticated as the one which we have showcased over the last 2 matches against 2 of the world’s biggest clubs in the most critical of matches. Ancelotti deserves praise, credit and admiration for this.
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Facing our Inner Demons
They say that victory is attained when we are able to face and vanquish our innermost demons. In the Champions League, German Teams have become the vilest and most evil of inner demons that haunt us. They are, as many call them our ‘Black Beast.’ This season in the Champions League, we’ve eliminated the 3rd best team (Schalke 04), the 2nd best team (Borussia Dortmund) and now hold a slimmest of advantages over their champion (Bayern Munich) heading into next week’s 2nd leg. Might this be the season where we can truly slay the beast?
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If Real Madrid makes it to Lisbon on the 24th of May, the perhaps it’s time to spray paint this Black Beast White.