Sunday, November 22, 2009

"El Clásico"

So, a big football week this week - at least for "El Clásico" participants: FC Barcelona & Real Madrid. Barcelona have a massive mid-week game against Internazionale prior to the game, and after this weekend's "La liga" results, Real are finally top of the league table - after a very very long time.

Could it be that the tables are actually finally turning? The ridicule of getting knocked out to a 3rd Division club (Alcorcón) seems like the past, and Pellegrini has led the team to the best start of a season (in the league) in 17 years. Real have obtained 28 out of 33 available points and are the team with fewest goals conceaded (joint).

Barça have just lost Yaya Toure and Eric Abidal to the swine flu, Messi is not currently match fit, and Zlatan's Ibrahimovic is having some physical problems as well. This tied in with mid-week game against Inter (where Barça must at least draw to still be able to qualify for the next stage of the Champions League - they are currently third!), alongside the unavailability of some players, as well as the poor draw agains King Cup challengers Athletic Bilbao over the weekend, means that Barça will not be reaching "El Clásico" at a great moment.

Real on the other hand, have not been as some call it "having fun" with their football - however they have been more consistent than their arch-rivals. The mid week game for them is against a substantially inferior opponent as is FC Zurich. Even though the game will take place in Barcelona, in the Camp Nou - Real will be heading there with not a lot to lose, but a great deal to gain. Even if their 1st position is changed after the game, the season is still very long, and they will have plenty of opportunities to turn this around again. Add all of this to the boost that returning Cristiano Ronaldo will have an impact on the team itself, the football, the individual skills, and the team morale - this simply means that for once, Real could actually stand a chance - and a game like the last one (where Real lost 2-6 at the Bernabeu) will not be repeated.

Ladies & Gentlemen, (actually only gentlemen) place your bets on "El Clásico" - the countdown is on...

And BTW, to all Thierry Henry supporters (after stealing a spot from Ireland for a spot in the World Cup 2010)....

But for those who actually have a sense of humour (specially the Irish themselves) visit:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The ultimate ridicule...

The Santiago Bernabeu was nearly filled on this occasion. Real fans all around the world were expecting the "Spirit of Juanito" to appear on this day and fill their lives with some excitement and hope for the first team. Everything was set for the first team to redeem itself against the first (surely, of many) ridicules of the season when they lost to third division local club Alcorcón 4-0, two weeks ago.

Coach Manuel Pellegrini decided to rest striker Benzema (after 8 full time appearences) and betted on Dutch veteran Ruud van Nistelrooy and captain Raúl to lead the team to victory after a prolonged injury period.

However... After watching the first half, the blood thirsty fans at the Bernabeu had lost all patience with the team and manager. The redemption seemed so ridiculous and further than ever with a 0-0 at half time and no signs of danger created by the local side's attackers.

How could a team that expected to score 5 goals against a very inferior team who beat them 4-0 two weeks ago present itself to the occasion with an incomplete four man defence like: Arbeloa (left back), Pepe, Albiol and talent-full Lassana Diarra as a converted right back - in conjunction with a centre midfield with slow passing and skill-less Mahmadou Diarra and Fernando Gago?

Diego Armando Maradona, present at the Bernabeu, watched incredilous, as Real fell far from meeting expectations, and saw how Gago and Diarra were completely incapable of g etting the ball into the opponent's half. It was not the only pr oblem of course. Slow veterans Raúl and Van Nistelrooy were extremely static and stayed very close together, leaving recently called up (why on earth did it take Diego so long to do so..?) Pipita Higuaín no space to manouvre and forcing him to play very far from his danger zone.

The funny thing is that talented and creative players such as Van de Vaart (on the bench) and Guti (not called up due as a punishment for aggresively trying to encourage the team in the first leg's first half) were not to be seen on the pitch. After Arjen Robben's last minute move to the Bayern Munich, Real was left with no real wingers. However, the few team members who could fit into such a role, Marcelo (on the bench), Drenthe (not called up for technical reasons, even though he hasn't played for a couple of matches, and hence is rested), and Sergio Ramos were nowhere to be seen.

Sergio Ramos' situation, is another ridicule by the club on its own. Ramos had been booked during the previous league match, against local rivals Atlético Madrid over the weekend. Pellegrini announced that Ramos was not called up for the "King's Cup" game against Alcorcón, because of this booking. However, no one, and that is no one, realised that this booking did not apply to another tournament and was on hold at the national league committee. This reminds me of the last season, when Lass Diarra and (now former Real player) Klaas Jan Huntelaar joined the team in the January transfer season, and once again, no one in the club realising that both of them would not be allowed to play the Champions League that season. No one...

After the 15 minute break, with no Guti to cheer the team to victory, Real stepped out to make a difference. Van der Vaart came on as a substitute (finally) for Mahmadou Diarra, who was clearly very rusty in his game and lacks match practice. Van der Vaart was very active, and his contribution meant the team actually started to attack, and believe (not that they could go through) but that they could actually score a goal.

When fans saw Marcelo warming up minutes later, it became clearer that perhaps a light bulb had actually gone on in Pellegrini's head, however, then came the most controversial decision. Pellegrini decided to take Lass Diarra, by far the man of the match at the time, off the pitch to put Marcelo in the pitch. This meant that he maintained a 4-4-2 scheme using Marcelo as a left back (and not as a left winger as in the previous two games). Big mistake, Manuel. The crowd immediately gave up on the manager, and asked for him to be sacked. No surprise at the Bernabeu. One thing is to not meet expectations, but a whole other one is to have €250m worth of transfers one season, and to lose to a club with a transfer budget of less than €100, 000, by 4-1 over 180 minutes. That, Manuel, is way below expectations - and there is definitely a lot of fault to be taken by the manager.

The question is, how long will he last?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hierro & Alkorta...

It's Pellegrini's time to fight to make Real Madrid a team that knows how to defend again. Being the strategically offensive man Manuel is, it doesn't seem like that man to carry out this terribly challenging objective.

It hasn't been since Rafael Alkorta and Fernando Hierro formed the partnership in central defence that Real Madrid has shown any stability in defence. Even during Fabio Capello's second stint at the club, Real was more solid as a team and it conceived many fewer goals than in other seasons, but the defence was always shaky.

There was a time after Alkorta back to Athletic Bilbao (helping them to become runners' up that first season he was back), that the starting central defenders in Real were of the quality of Julio César, Karanka, Ivan Campo, Pavón and Mejía, the last two from the youth team. It wasn't until Ivan Helguera joined the club that there was slightly more stability in the back two.

Vicente Del Bosque came to a rather unorthodox solution to counter these weaknesses. This was to start with three central defenders rather than two: Julio César, Hierro and Ivan Campo, using Ivan Helguera in centre midfield. This allowed him to win the Champions League, and so could not really be questioned. However, having a defence made up for five men is not something any offensive, creative and fun football team has done.

Let's have a look at what happened season by season then:

2000-01 & 2001-02

Ivan Helguera became the head of the defensive four the most important task was to look for a long term replacement for Fernando Hierro who had a troubled campaign due to several injuries. However, strengths in other parts of the tactical diagram meant that Real won the league in the first of the two season, and then went on to win the Champions League in the last season.


This was Fernando Hierro's last season at the club – and President Floren was the one to make this final decision – allowing one of the greatest players to ever wear the Real Madrid shirt, and one of the most courageous players to hold the captain's band, to leave using the Bernabeu's back door. He formed a good pair with Helguera throughout the season, and even though his physical condition wasn't the best, he still proved a vital part of the club to win the League. He left after a successful season alongside Vicente Del Bosque for reasons not many understood, not even Mr. Pérez himself.


The fact that Hierro had left the club, left a huge gap in defence. And apparently there was no need to look for a replacement in the market. Instead, a lot of emphasis was placed on two youth team players who were never really ready for the challenge: Álvaro Mejía and Paco Pavón. Avoiding criticism to both these Spanish youths, but years later, it is evident that they were nowhere near the the standard of a starting team member in Real Madrid should have and the defence showed all its flaws in a glamorous way this season with Helguera taking blame for a lot of it.


The Argentine Walter Samuel arrived at the Bernabeu having cost the club in excess

of €20m. He came as one of the best defenders in the world and to solve all the problems in defence at the club. He could not face the fans at the Bernabeu, and simply had a terrible season before he left again. Helguera again, took blame for many of the problems in defence, and the levels of stress were extraordinary.


The defence was absolutely abismal this season, with an alternation of Mejía, Pavón and Helguera as centre backs, often in Champions League matches against the top teams in Europe, miserably facing them with no chance whatsoever.


President Calderón, who then turned out to have rigged his elections, decided to go all out to fix the matter, and sign the best player in the world – or so it seemed from his previous world cup and golden ball experience. Fabio Cannavaro was called to be the man in charge of taking control of the defence and bringing it up to an Italian club's standard. He had Fabio Capello to help him do it, and the club did well and won the League title – however Cannavaro's performance was very far from the Italian's brilliant stray of games as captain of the Azzurri.


€30m is what Pepe cost the club. It was evident that Cannavaro was not enough, and forming a pair with the relatively unknown Brazilian born Portuguese defender Pepe seemed like a great solution. Oftentimes, when Sergio Ramos left his full back position and formed a pair with Pepe, the team seemed like it had a more robust back four, however....


This year, anything and everything the club did was completely overshadowed by arch rivals, FC Barcelona's extraordinary success. Games like the 0-4 to Liverpool FC showed Real's deficiencies in defence and even though Pepe was deemed by the fans as a great buy – the defence still needed a lot of work.


It became evident to most Real fans, that one of the main things that the team lacked was some proficiency in the left back position. Marcelo was talented and young, but was a very offensive player and simply does not know how to defend. Heinze left after another terrible season, and Drenthe had a similar problem to Marcelo, he does not know how to defend. After great signings, like Kaká, Cristiano, Xabi Alonso or Benzema, it seemed Florentino Perez' second ètage will prove a very promising and title-full experience. However after only about 1/5 of the season played, it seems like Real's defence is still a complete mess... With the likes of Ezequiel Garay, Christoph Metzelder and Raúl Albiol, it seems that there is simply not enough completeness in the defence, and leaving the left back areas to Marcelo and Drenthe is simply never going to work.

Did Pellegrini even have a say about this? Surely a man with his experience would realise that a signing of a right back like Arbeloa wasn't going to do anything for the team's defence.

Will there ever be another Alkorta and Hierro- type partnership in the club again?...