Monday, April 18, 2011

Super Pepe salvages battle, Super Pep wins war

Much Better than the Hasta El Final mosaic. Simple and Terrifying
As the final whistle rang out on the first of four Clasicos; three things were certainto this blog: Barcelona had finally sealed their third consecutive league, Real Madrid proved that the remaining matches were going to be anything but a foregone conclusion and Mourinho had learnt from his mistakes. The previous five clasicos had a common pattern. Madrid started the game well, then lost the midfield battle to Xavi, Iniesta and co. and over a period of 90 minutes, slowly slumped to a point of no return. In fact, APTW almost had half a mind to give this one a miss given the fact that Mourinho had given up on the league already and given the latest string of results, the clasico has been one of the easiest matches of the calendar for Barcelona.

Going into this match, Barcelona had already effectively won the league given the sheer quality of their team and the 8 point gap with seven games to go. If you might’ve read any talk from Madrid in the vein of “we will fight for the league till its mathematically impossible” be assured that it was absolute hogwash. Mourinho had given up on the league the night his nine year old record was broken. Since then he’s been preparing for the cup tournaments, trying different formations and strategies as he seeks to banish the Barca ghost once and for all. A small blueprint of that was seen in the first clasico on Saturday as Madrid took to the field with a 4-1-4-1 formation. The blog feels that brownie points are in order since it was right in its judgement about the formation Mourinho would set his team out to play in the tactical preview. The 4-1-4-1 that Mourinho had his team play had Carvalho and Albiol in the center with Ramos and Marcelo in the wider areas. Pepe deputized as a destroyer, sitting just behind the midfield duo of Alonso and Khedira, while Di Maria and Ronaldo played as straight wingers. The formation was a classic Mourinho formation and for once, Madrid countered Barcelona’s strength in the midfield by going level on number of players in that particular area of the field. On the other hand, Barcelona played their standard 4-3-3 formation, the surprise being Puyol making the starting elven. The blog feels that Pep might have rushed in Puyol for the crucial first encounter and may yet regret his decision if Puyol fails to make the starting 11 come Wednesday for the Copa Del Rey final.

He did all the ball winning, but was no slouch at keeping the ball either
The match started fairly predictably with Madrid being slow and lethargic and Barcelona hogging possession confidently. After the initial, nervy 20 minutes, which are the most dangerous 20 minutes against Barcelona, a team whose entire dynamic is based on scoring early, Madrid looked more comfortable without the ball. A point to be noted here is that throughout the season, Madrid has strived to play a possession based, direct game and they had to tear up that gameplan and flush it down the toilet for this match. Given this fact, Madrid were mightily impressive in playing without the ball. The midfield trio of Pepe, Alonso and Khedira strived tirelessly to prevent the talented Barcelona midfielders from having the time on the ball they like. Pepe playing between the defensive and midfield lines had his best ever game in a Madrid jersey as he broke down constant attacks, rendering Messi in his withdrawn center forward role to an average player at times. Khedira made sure that Iniesta remained invisible throughout the game. Barcelona’s surprise factor, Dani Alves, was prevented from using the right flank to his advantage by the combined work rate and attacking of Marcelo and Di Maria. In the last clasico, Guardiola displayed a brilliant masterstroke in playing Xavi high up the pitch with Messi even more withdrawn. This time though, in probably an attempt to outmaneuver Mourinho, Guardiola made no significant change to his usual gameplan. On the other hand, Mourinho’s heavily modified midfield strategy saw Xabi Alonso playing highest up in the midfield trio where he could close down Xavi. With the primary threats dealt with, the other defenders were left to perform zonal marking and cut down stray runs, through balls and deal with the pace and trickery of Villa, who at this moment can’t score in a whorehouse by the look of things. The real ace of spades was played by Mourinho and was twofold: He played Pepe in a pure destroyer role; and he managed to rest players like Ozil, Kaka, Higuain and Benzema for the upcoming batch of clasicos. The blog expects that the lineup may be altered slightly at the Mestalla with Mourinho preferring to go for the kill earlier on. So all in all, over this season the Pep vs Jose debate stands at 1-1, with both managers getting the better of one another once tactically. Of course this has nothing to do with winning or losing the game nor is it a head to head record based on stats.

As far as stats go, Barcelona was clearly the superior team as they had an astonishing 70% possession with 740 passes completed to Madrid’s 30% possession and 149 passes completely. That being said, partly because of Pepe who stood head and shoulders above every other player last night, and partly because Barca were playing with their version of being defensive (that of keeping the ball in their own half and venturing forward only if they saw a real opening), Barce never really threatened Madrid. In fact it was Madrid who had the better chances at goal with Ronaldo hitting the post off a freekick, a Pepe header that Valdes scrambled to get clear and a Khedira shot which was hit straight at Valdes. And all this despite keeping Ozil out of the game for more than half the game. Ozil’s introduction changed the game dynamics and in the last 10 minutes, it was Barca who looked most likely to slip up than Madrid did. The diminutive Turk German came into the game past the 65 minute mark and immediately took the game to Barcelona who had Puyol stretchered to the sidelines with a pulled hamstring and Busquets deputizing in the vacated position, where he’s not too comfortable. The match in itself was a dull affair as far as eye candy goes with both the goals coming off penalties, but a spectacle tactically.

That is exactly why APTW finds it amusing to find Mourinho’s tactics lambasted in some corners of the press. Barcelona’s ex-honorary president, legend and current filthy mouth concluded that to play with seven defenders at home is a measure of Barcelona’s superiority against Madrid. Madrid’s current honorary president and legend Di Stefano laid out his harshest criticism yet about the club claiming that “the football Barcelona play is to be watched with the soul and not by the heart. Madrid has no personality. If Barca is a lion, then Madrid is a mouse”. While the blog is quite positive that such a approach would not be tolerated by Madridistas if it becomes the standard norm of playing at the white castle, it certainly could not dismiss the loud cheers the home side got when the referee blew the final whistle. The fans at the Bernabeu might be suckers for performance and fickle, but they can be practical, something that was quite out of the ordinary if you compare it with Di Stefano’s romantic viewpoint. To expect Madrid to take Barcelona head-on immediately after a clasico where they had a manita served to them is folly. But then Di Stefano has been around for a much longer time, much longer than the time APTW took to get out his diapers and start blogging. Di Stefano has seen Laudrup’s Barcelona hand a 5-0 to Madrid, only for Laudrup’s Madrid to hand Barcelona a 5-0 in the next clasico (separated by a summer in which Laudrup moved from the port to the capital). That is stuff right out of a fairytale, but the blog’s quite confident about the fact that Mourinho’s never believed in fairytales. He’s believed in pragmatism; that ever abused term in today’s footballing world.

The ref’s final whistle at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu was actually the whistle to signal the start of the media clasico. Referee Cesar Muniz Fernandez has immediately come under fire from both sects of fans for a series of blunders that are being debated endlessly since the match concluded. While the cules feel that Fernandez should’ve sent off Casillas for his foul on Villa and awarded them a penalty (not withstanding the fact that Ronaldo had a similar shout for a penalty disallowed in the last clasico), the merengues feel that the Valencia loving, wanting-to-feel-the-Mestalla-crowd-from-the-stands-and-not-the-pitch, Albiol should’ve been awarded only a yellow and Dani Alves was the one who deserved to be sent off. As if it mattered what he thought, Dani Alves sought to clear his stance after the match claiming that it was a fair challenge and he got the ball, despite camera evidence pointing out that it was nothing more than a studs-up, last minute lunge from behind. Then of course, there is this little matter of Messi not being cautioned for deliberately kicking the ball into the stands. However, despite the fact that Fernandez is the guy who had awarded 10 penalties to Madrid and 1 to Barca prior to this game suggesting a strong bias, the blog feels that the referee was simply too incompetent to officiate in a match of this caliber.

Campeones, surely!
Meanwhile, Marca has taken a break from all the Orgasmous, Podemous and Moudrids and is crediting the team for a draw that tasted like a victory, pointedly ignoring Mourinho. Ditto with AS; the reason for this being Mourinho’s media boycott on the eve of the match fearing what would be “misinterpreted” comments, as if they’ve ever bothered Mourinho, leaving number two Aitor Karanka to deal with the journo hacks who walked out of the conference, at least the ones from AS and Marca did. After the match, Mourinho did talk to the press, but only the international outlets, claiming ever so humbly that they can expect a good cup final if all the three teams played fairly and then letting his disdain for the walkout be known by answering a question posed by a journalist from AS with “Are you the director of AS? If not, I cannot talk to you, because apparently it is your company’s policy not to talk with those who are second in command and deserve respect”. Props to Mourinho for standing up to the no-gooders, but the blog feels that he might have just dug his grave by angering the previously adoring Madrid press. Think Pellegrini. While all this madness is rife, people seem to have forgotten that Barca have well and truly sealed the 21st league title, their third on the trot under Guardiola. The catalan dailies are taking pain to point it out, but as envisioned by yours truly, the four matches have cascaded into one giant match where he who will laugh last, will laugh the loudest.


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