Friday, April 22, 2011

Reyes Del Copa

Champions of Spain
In this blog’s awfully short living memory, there hasn’t been an occasion before when the Copa Del Rey final has been received with such fanfare. Consequently, the blog wonders if it is only because of the big two or is it because the final signaled a prospective end to the hegemony of arguably the best side in world football today.

While people in Catalunya have been fairly attentive to the Copa Del Rey (Cup of Kings) over the years – if only because for them winning it symbolizes yet another victory over the “establishment” – for clubs like Ahtletic Bilbao, a derision towards the capital combined with the fact that there’s only so much their “homegrown players only” policy can do, the Kings Cup has been the only tournament they could be realistically realistic about. Compare that with the view from the capital, where the tournament has been often labeled as a Mickey Mouse Cup, a trophy so derided, that in recent years it has been looked upon as nothing more than a scrap for the rest of the pack to feed upon. Madridistas worldwide are already forlorn given the decade long drought of the beloved UEFA Champions League, a trophy Real Madrid considers synonymous with the tradition of the club itself. The drought of the Copa Del Rey has been longer, 17 years to be precise, and included embarrassments such as the 4-3 (agg.) defeat to Real Union and the 4-1 (agg.) defeat to Alcorcon, both clubs placed in the third tier of Spanish football. For this reason alone, they have been the butt of several jokes in recent years, one from the Spanish Prime Minister himself. But save for Iker Casillas, no one (at least those under the media spotlight anyway) at Madrid; has ever expressed their desire to win this particular tournament. Then came one man, and then it all changed.

Jose Mourinho, previously derided by the dogmatic Bernabeu faithful, walked into the Bernabeu and won the UEFA Champions League with Inter. Three months later, he made the switch permanent with the words, “Every coach should have the fortune of coaching a club like Real Madrid on his resume. Real Madrid is one-of-a kind and I want to be a part of its history”. On 22nd April, 2011, Jose Mourinho wrote his name into the Real Madrid history books for the very first time by winning the Copa Del Rey in his first season as coach. Against Barcelona, no less. The funny thing is that for all the supposed lack of care from the capital, it was the Copa Del Rey that Mourinho proclaimed to be his primary target, El Numero Uno, for the season. And he ended up winning it, dedicating it (or what remained of it) to the 1,00,000 Madrid fans gathered at the Cibeles. So much for not being bothered, you’ll say, but the blog feels that it was relief at finally defeating Barcelona to a trophy more than anything else.

It is easy to write off Madrid as having arguably the world’s best squad at the moment. Their cohesion though, is light years behind Barcelona as was evidenced in the 5-0 mauling of the first clasico last November. “In that game we did not see the ball. We lost 5-0 and if the game had lasted 10 minutes more, it would have been six or seven. It is a game to forget, but one we must always remember, a bit like the first match Inter played against them last season. We lost 2-0 in the group stages, and it could have been 4-0. We do not forget, as that game was the basis for preparing the semi-final against them, and I will do exactly the same with Real Madrid when they return to play against Barcelona”, said Real’s gaffer after that match. He did not forget and he prepared for the time when Real Madrid returned to Barcelona. He overturned the embarrassment of the 5-0 by slightly outplaying and holding Barca 1-1 with a 10 man team in the return leg of the Liga. Four days later, he took it a level ahead by beating Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey final.

It is difficult to fathom what goes on in Jose Mourinho’s mind. Over the course of a season, he has provided the Madrid based dailies with sound bytes that have made headlines. “What are you thinking? Do you think you’re playing in France? I’ll have to train you at twelve, because at ten you come sleeping and at eleven you are still sleeping”, was his public flogging of Benzema which was supposed to serve as motivation. When asked as to why Benzema was still being benched inspite of Higuain being injured and out, he famously answered, “You can hunt with a dog; you can hunt with a cat, but less so”. Half a season later, the cat finally roared a lion’s roar with Benzema being one of the most successful strikers in the year 2011. Over the course of the season, inspite of coming across as a moaning scoundrel (as Manuel Preciado, the coach of Sporting Gijon called him), Mourinho has always sought to protect each and every member of his team and make them grow stronger. He has given the team faith, belief, discipline and mental strength. Over the course of 120 minutes, every single quality of his Real Madrid squad came through.

The Real Madrid backline straddled by the trivote of Pepe, Khedira and Alonso patrolled their half with discipline and hunger over 120 minutes. Pepe, reinvented in the role of a defensive midfielder in the previous clasico took the role further as a roving box-to-box midfielder for this game and he played that role with discipline, hunger, determination and passion till the final whistle. In the first half, Real sought to break relentlessly into Barcelona, not allowing them time over the ball or leaving empty passing lanes to feed the ball into. In fact, Barcelona rarely threatened the entire half, barely registering a shot on goal. On the other hand, Mesut Ozil, the star of the first half starting in favor of Adebayor played the Messi role of a false nine and created three to four genuine goal scoring opportunities. Two squandered Ronaldo chances and an unlucky Pepe header which rebounded off the post saw the teams walk away with the score tied at 0-0 at the end of the half. The second half began with Barca shifting gears and playing some of their most impressive football till date. Casillas lived up to his billing as the world’s number 1 by making some excellent reflex saves, leaving the score at 0-0. The intensity of the Real pressing, whether by intent or fatigue, had reduced and Barca sought to take advantage of this. Yet, Madrid prevailed. As the match wore on, Mourinho changed tactics once more by getting off Ozil in favor of Adebayor who started playing as a targetman with Ronaldo moving to the right. The flanks of Ronaldo and Di Maria sought to exploit the flanks of Adriano and Dani Alves on the break with balls hoofed upwards that Adebyor controlled in order to orchestrate breaks. As the match wore on into extra time, it was on the flanks that Real finally made a kill. Di Maria caught Dani Alves on the break, played a swift pass to Marcelo, who passed it back to Di Maria who beat Alves for pace and then delivered the cross into the box which was headed powerfully past Pinto in goal by Ronaldo coming in from the opposite flank. Suddenly Real Madrid went up 1-0 and after a gritty, defensive performance for 110 minutes, Real Madrid were certainly not going to concede a goal in the remaining ten. As Madrid celebrated with delirious fans at the Madrid side of the Mestalla with the Barcelona side empty, Mourinho took time to reflect on criticism leveled at him after the previous clasico. “I respect the words of Di Stefano, I'm a nobody in the history of the club, but I'm the coach and I take the decisions”, said he setting the record straight before adding, “I came here to do important things and make some important changes”. At Real Madrid for the past decade and more, the decadence of the top management has been such that the post of a coach has always been looked upon as that of sitting in a cauldron of boiling hot water.

The cup that got away...
On Wednesday, Mourinho might have just righted that wrong. Cruyff might’ve claimed that Mourinho is a coach of titles, not football, but Mourinho does not mind it. Said he, “Someone said that I’m a coach for winning titles and not for football. Thanks, I like it that way.”


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