Thursday, 28 February 2008

Fateful February

The numbers for the month of February speak for themselves: Played 5, Won 1, Lost 4. The situation has deteriorated so much that even the previously impregnable Santiago Bernabéu stadium no longer guarantees victory. Jarek Berga, over at American Madridistas, argues that this is a case of luck evening out over the course of a season. In other words, the first half of the championship has seen Real Madrid grind out wins where perhaps they did not "deserve" them; where their effectiveness in front of goal meant that they could be outplayed for most of the game and still come away with the three points. There is an element of truth in this, of course, but, from a statistical perspective, four losses in five games is somewhat of an aberration; we should be able to identify more immediate reasons for the slump.

Talk of "crisis" has begun to feature prominently in the media, particularly following the comical way in which Getafe scored against Real last weekend. With the greater part of the squad celebrating a "goal" by Robben by the corner flag, only Guti and Heinze noticed the linesman's outstretched arm signalling for offside. A quick counter by Getafe saw these two, plus Casillas, facing four players from the visiting side. the outcome was never in doubt, and Uche coolly slotted the winner home. Real never looked like equalising, much less winning the game, so what's happened?

A slew of injuries to Real Madrid defenders over the past couple of months have been discussed on this blog on a number of occassions. To some extent, this has been the case all season, with Schuster rarely using the same back four three games running. Also, Casillas is no longer playing the saviour role since his unbeaten run was broken. A potential piece of good news on this front is the likely return from injury of Pepe against Recreativo next Saturday, assuming he can regain the form that helped to shore up the centre of defence earlier in the season.

Another player likely to return from injury is the much-missed Robinho. Some have pointed to his absence as a factor in Real's misfortunes, but I think that, from a technical perspective, this is largely not the case. The loss of Robinho has coincided with the return of Arjen Robben, who has given Real much needed width and pace in attack. In fact, during February, Real has managed an average of sixteen shots on goal per game, rather more than in the earlier part of the season.

And so, it seems, a lot of Real's troubles must therefore stem from an inability to put those chances away. I think this is more than simple statistics or luck evening out and is likely to have a psychological component. All strikers suffer from periods of plenty and periods of drought and both Raúl and especially Van Nistelrooy seem to be in the middle of one. Nobody else is picking up the slack, and this is where I think Robinho could bring some much needed inspiration.

The other psychological element is that affecting the whole team. It's hard to bring yourselves out of a losing dynamic, particularly when you think you're doing all the right things and nothing seems to work. Bernd Schuster must put his psychologist's hat on and turn things around. I believe the next two games are crucial: beating Recreativo away and getting past Roma in the Champions League could be the tonic to put this campaign back on the rails.

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Wednesday, 20 February 2008

No Roman holiday

A familiar pattern: early lead from Real, who had the best of the possession, squandered as the home team soak up the pressure and make the most of their few chances to edge the game 2-1. Like the Betis game, Bernd Schuster failed to take any of the blame for the result, focusing only on how his team "deserved more" for their efforts.

There is a certain amount of consensus in the Spanish press that Real Madrid did indeed play well (better than at the weekend in Sevilla) and possibly deserved to take more from the Stadio Olimpico in Rome than the away goal. Some Roma fans experienced a certain degree of anxiety as the clock wound down, fearing a second goal from Real that never came. The numbers show that he visitors had around 60% of possession and the same number of chances on goal as Roma. But numbers don't tell the whole story.

Aside from Raúl's early goal and a Van Nistelrooy shot hitting the woodwork, Real showed a frightening lack of effectiveness up front, with up to 10 shots going wide (well wide on some occassions) and are now suffering a fate similar to the one they were inflicting on opponents earlier in the season. Schuster does not seem to want to experiment too much with his strikers, so Saviola and Soldado and even Higuaín are unlikely to get much playing time barring injuries. Brightest up front was once again Robben, who raced past former Real player Panucci time and again.

Uncharacteristically, the back four were all pretty effective last night: Heinze played the full 90 minutes and although he must take some blame for the 2nd Roma goal, he was pretty solid all evening. Unfortunately, Sergio Ramos picked up a booking and will miss the return leg (please, don't replace him with Salgado!). The midfield, on the other hand, was a bit of a dog's dinner. Playing more horizontally than vertically is a good way to keep possession, but not a good way to threaten the opposition's goal. More bizarrely, the sight of Diarra in Guti's position and viceversa must have had some wondering if Schuster had lost the plot. Bringing on Drenthe and Baptista gave Real some more speed and danger, but why did he have to wait until 10 minutes from time?

Real Madrid have now lost their unbeaten record at the Olimpico, and run the risk of getting knocked out at the last 16 stage for the 4th year running. February has been a disappointing month so far with 3 away defeats punctuated by that 7-0 home win. However, a 2-1 result is by no means insurmountable, and with Real's record at home this season, there is some room for optimism, but the squad have to regain the killer instinct they seem to have mislaid if they want to progress any further.

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Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Laterally Challenged

Did I say it was nearly sown up? Well, it looks like some of the stitches have begun to unpick, as an eight-point lead, which could in theory have increased to eleven, was reduced to a "mere" five points by Betis. And I say "mere" because the mindset that makes you have a winning or a losing attitude is a fragile thing. Just think back to Barcelona's slow but inexorable descent last season that gifted the league title to Real Madrid. There were twists and turns and a hundred times it could have gone the other way, but there was a palpable belief that Capello's men would eventually do it, like a tale with only one possible ending. And that belief wasn't reserved for the players from the capital, it permeated the opposition's thoughts as well.

One can only hope that the second away loss in a row is a temporary setback and that normal service can be resumed next week at home to Getafe. However, there is the small matter of a visit to the Olimpico in Rome as the Champions League enters the knock-out stages, bringing us football twice a week. Perhaps minds were more focused on that upcoming game than on Betis, and a certain amount of complacency following the 7-0 drubbing of Valladolid. Curiously, Real's last big away win (5-1 in Valencia) was followed by defeat in Sevilla, to the city's other Primera División side. In his excellent weekly column, Phil Ball argues that it is all a question of desire, and harks back to the age of Di Stefano, the first 'total' footballer, who was literally "hungry" for success. Di Stefano was honoured by the club and UEFA this weekend; that other elegant midfielder, Michel Platini, now UEFA president, awarded him the President's Award and called him "a great among greats").

The game started promisingly, with Drenthe opening the scoring for the visitors inside 10 minutes. But, despite having most of the possession, it was the flanks that gave Betis a way through time and again to threaten Casillas' goal. I have argued several times that Michel Salgado is no longer good enough to play at this level and he and his inflated salary should be put out to pasture. Marcelo, while he looks dangerous going forward, has many deficiencies at the back and does not have the speed of Roberto Carlos to make up for it. Betis exploited the wings to perfection in both their goals. To be fair, Schuster has had injury worries in the centre of defence to deal with, which is why Sergio Ramos had to play alongside Cannavaro, but that merely illustrates that there is not enough strength in depth in certain positions, especially at left back. He has said he may have to risk Heinze in Rome, which says little for his confidence in Marcelo. Real clearly missed Robinho; in the mdifield, Baptista and Gago were poor and the team were not as effective up front as of late, with Van Nistelrooy hitting the post in their only clear goal chance in the second half.

Some capital will be made by the Madrid press about Barcelona's late win at Zaragoza coming from a doubtful penalty award, but this sort of thing evens out throughout the season, and one has to remember that Zaragoza missed their own penalty. Excuses count for nothing; to win, you must maintain focus each and every week. At least there won't be many cries asking for Raúl and Guti to be called up to the national side this week. Thank heavens for small mercies.

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Thursday, 14 February 2008

Life sentences

Raúl and Casillas received a St. Valentine's day present from Real Madrid when they linked what is likely to be the remainder of their playing careers to the club by agreeing contract extensions at lunchtime today. Under the terms of the agreement, Raúl's contract was extended until 2011 (when he will be 35) and Casillas until 2017 (when he will be 36). From that point on both players will then see their contracts automatically extended by a further twelve months if they play a minimum of 30 games for the club during the season. As long as they're fit to play, and if the manager of the day chooses to select them, they will continue to be Real Madrid players.

A lot has been made in Spain of the fact that these contracts are "for life". In reality, the guaranteed contract keeps them at the club until an age that is not unusually high for players at that level, especially for a goalkeeper. The further extensions will be in function of how useful they are to the club at that point, so I can see little reason to object to them. It should also be noted that one other player in the squad, Ruud van Nistelrooy, already has this extension clause in the contract he renewed last month.

Interestingly, neither Guti, who, apart from Raúl, has been at the club for the longest period, nor Sergio Ramos, who was also in Ramón Calderón's sights for this type of contract, were included in today's opresentation. One can only speculate whether one or both may soon see the club reward their efforts in this fashion. Something else that's not been widely reported is whether the players' image rights still remain with the club. Both Raúl and Casillas are among the most valuable players in Spain in terms of their advertising potential and tying their fortunes to the club ensures a steady steam of revenue, helping to keep Real at the top of the table of football clubs in terms of earnings.

Casillas had some words of encouragement for his former team-mate Ronaldo, who suffered a career-threatening knee injury in a Serie A game last night: "on a day like today, with such good news both for Raúl and for me, I want to remember a colleague like Ronaldo, who is suffering after the injury he sustained last night. From here I want to send him the best wishes of the club and all the players."

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Sunday, 10 February 2008

Magnificent Seven

The league championship, while not quite sown up yet, is slowly wending its way to the trophy cabinet in the Bernabéu museum. Real Madrid took full advantage of Barcelona's late draw in Sevilla on Saturday night to stretch their lead to an impressive eight points. For the seven goals, these are seven keys to last night's "festivities":

  1. Valladolid's defence: brave? foolhardy? suicidal? They played right into Real's hands with a defensive line pushed so far forward that the local midfielders, especially Guti, picked them off at will. Not one of the Valladolid back four picked up a booking all night. 'Nuff said.

  2. The mercurial midfielder himself, Guti, had a dream of a game (though he was allowed to play, rather than hindered, by the opposition), finding the perfect pass time and again, scoring two exquisite goals (OK, one was a bit of a fluke) and provising three assists.

  3. Raul's nose for goal is till there. Forced to play further up front due to Van Nistelrooy's injury, the captain scored a signature goal to open up his tally, and picked up his second by converting a penalty. Valladolid is now the league club he has scored most goals against: his 2 on Sunday night contributing to a grand total of 14.

  4. Robben's speed and versatility have not been adversely affected by all his injuries. He started off on the left wing, but looked equally comfortable on the right when Robinho had to go off injured and Drenthe was brought on. His goal will have given him some confidence.

  5. The Bernabéu is proving to be an invincible fortress; this game was Real's eighteenth consecutive league win (11 of them this season). The fans are not the most vociferous or passionate, but the players seem to be very comfortable. Contrast this with the situation just over a year ago with just four wins in eight games at home.

  6. Baptista's strength, playing just behind Raúl (in Raúl's usual position), showed once again why he's a player that has a place in this Real Madrid squad. He harried and fought, was brought down for a penalty and his enthusiasm when given an opportunity should be an inspiration to those who are struggling to get into the side.

  7. Bernd' Schuster's team choice, with seven players injured, produced a balanced side that made the most of its virtues (interestingly, Valladolid had a comparable number of shots on goal tto Real's, but look at the difference in effectiveness). In a curious piece of trivia, Schuster himself was on the scoring sheet for Real Madrid in a 7-0 demolition of Castellón back in 1990.

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Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Diarra doomed?

Analysing Real's defeat to Almería on Saturday, Phil Ball makes an interesting statement about why Mahamadou Diarra may not have a long and illustrious career at the Bernabéu. He draws a parallel with Claude Makélélé, a player who performed a very similar role, but was unloved by the Madrid faithful because of his lack of skill in playing the ball forward creatively, while overlooking his obvious qualities as a defensive midfielder.

Almería's midfielders turned the tables on the Mali captain by putting intense pressure on him every time he had the ball, forcing him to give it away time and again. This, Phil Ball argues, is why he will eventually be let go in favour of someone like Gago, less able defensively, but much more comfortable with his passing skills.

I wonder how likely it is that history will repeat itself. The departure of Makélélé in 2003 coincided with a downturn in Real's galáctico fortunes, and they did not manage to win a trophy again until the league championship last year. Some have argued that the lack of an effective defensive midfielder, a "destructive" rather than a "constructive" player, was a major contributing factor, and that Real Madrid really did miss Makélélé.

Florentino Pérez's inelegant parting shot to a player who then went on to form a core part of Mourinho's Chelsea may have come back to haunt him: "He wasn't a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélélé to be forgotten.". There's a place in the squad for a player of Diarra's characteristics. Let's hope Schuster has the wisdom to see it.

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Sunday, 3 February 2008

A good time to lose?

Schuster called Real's 2-0 defeat at Almería, the first after 8 straight league wins, "the best time to lose". Following days and weeks of triumphalist reporting by some sectors of the Spanish sports press (you know who they are), with the championship "in the bag" according to some, it is perhaps a welcome return to earth for those surrounding the team.

Because,to be fair, neither the Real supremo, Schuster, nor any of the players have made any such statements. They have been content to keep trotting out the old clichés about there being a long way to go and nothing being decided yet. All well and good, though I suspect that there may have been a certain amount of private complacency; given recent results, it's probably only human. That 9-point lead may be reduced to a "mere" 6 by the end of Sunday, when Barça play Osasuna, though the pressure is now on the following teams to take advantage of Real's stumble.

Having spent most of the week rehearshing defending against set plays, it was ironic that Almería's first goal came from a free kick, and the second from a penalty. A deserved result nonetheless for the recently promoted side and their coach, Unay Emery, who took the measure of Schuster's men and made them look decidedly ordinary. The one item of bad news was Ruud's van Nistelrooy's ankle injury at the end of the first half, the extent of which is still not known. The team definitely lose effectiveness up front without the Dutchman. Why Schuster decided to bring on Higuaín, who despite his clear talent is not a 'number 9', instead of Soldado, is anyone's guess.

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