Morbo Minute

Obviously almost all eyes were focused on the Big One, but there were some surprising results in La Liga this round.  La Liga Loca was kind of a Debbie Downer this week, perhaps affected by all the awful football and situations going on at the bottom of the table. Or maybe he was just depressed after Atletico were destroyed by Espanyol.

Saturday

Real Betis stunned Valencia, and probably the entire world, with two late goals.  They had earned one point in the their last 30, but Castro scored twice in the dying moments to take three points off Los Che and officially end Valencia’s title fight.  Glancing at Valencia’s line-up, it was not the usual suspects.  Looks like they were missing Pablo and Jordi Alba, with Albelda and Parejo on the bench.  Nice to see Banega at least on the bench and hopefully he will be back after the winter break.

Levante beat Sevilla 1-0, which is a great result for Los Granotes after getting stuffed last week against FCB, but another loss for Sevilla, as the air is definitely going out of that balloon.  Also a Sevilla win would have kept them within touching distance of the fourth CL spot, but the loss leaves them five points back.  Since their amazing 0-0 draw at the CampNou in October, they have only picked up eight of the 21 available points.

Sunday

Again, another Sunday with La Liga.  One of my New Year’s resolutions is watch more Primera games on Sunday.  The guys at SpanishFootball.info do an excellent job of giving quick and informative summaries.

Rayo Vallecano     1-3          Sporting Gijon

Getafe                        1-0         Granada

Villarreal                 1-1          Real Sociedad

The Yellow Submarine continue to struggle.  Can they turn it around in 2012?

Málaga                      1-1          Osasuna

Malaga drew at home against Osasuna and just can’t seem to get a streak going.  They are stuck on 24 points with Sevilla, and it will be interesting to see if either team will be able to capitalize on Levante’s anticipated swoon after the break.

Real Zaragoza        0-1         Mallorca

The trap door is agonizingly wide open under Real Zaragoza.

Athletic Bilbao      1-1          Racing Santander

San Mames has not been a fortress lately, with Los Leones only picking one point from their last two matches.  I read there was not Llorente, which I’m sure was a factor.

Espanyol                  4-2          Atlético Madrid

Surely Manzano is on his way out.

Now that we’ve got all of that out of the way, on to El Clasico.

Real Madrd 1  FC Barcelona 3

The biggest game of the year and I scheduled a community event on that day.  I realized as soon as I started publicizing the event that I had made a scheduling oversight.  I immediately started worked on a strategy and coordinated with a friend to tape the game so that we could watch it later that night.  The next step was to go into media blackout so that I wouldn’t know anything about the match. No twitter, no facebook, no soccer sites.  The final step was to pick up beer.  I picked up a bottle of Guinness and a bottle of Harp to make Half and Half, Shiner Bock, Killian’s, Stella, and Goose Island 312.

After my event and clean up and nap, I had absolutely no emotion regarding the game, but the closer I got to my friend’s apartment, the more and more nervous I got.  I sat down to watch the game and was immediately confronted by a complete fuck up by Valdes.  I was stunned for the first fifteen minutes and didn’t even realize that FCB was playing a 3-4-3 with Alves pushed high up on the right. (Or were they?)

As with previous matches Real Madrid came out with high energy, putting pressure on the Barcelona players, upsetting their natural rhythm, and it paid dividends.  Slowly but surely FCB got into the match and Sanchez equalized just before half.  Messi was not able to run at the Real Madrid rearguard with much success and when he finally passed instead of dribbled, it resulted in a goal.

The second half saw FCB having more of the ball but Real Madrid were quite dangerous.  For me the changing point of the match was Xavi’s deflected goal.  Once that went in, Real Madrid slipped, and once they slipped, the edge that they had was gone and FCB was back in the ascendancy.  For all of the talent and organization and quality of Los Merengues, there is a sense of mental fragility.  They are great when their tails are up, but when confronted with an obstacle, or immovable force, in this instance, they cannot respond.

One of Barcelona’s issues this season has been putting teams to the sword, but Fabregas’ goal took care of that.  Forget the games against Real Sociedad and AC Milan, where the Blaugrana allowed their opponent a chance to equalize.  Alves, in his advanced position, whipped in a cross which Fabregas nodded home and injected real life into the La Liga campaign.  There was no way back for Los Blancos, and they headed back to their compound losers once again.

In the end, it was an odd game, with a bizarre start, CR7 missing two gilt edged chances, and a strangely subdued finish at the Bernabeu.  At the beginning of the season, I picked Real Madrid to win the league.  After the shock results against Levante and Racing, that prediction looked to be in jeopardy, but after FCB’s defeat at Getafe, my guess looked pretty good.  After Saturday’s match, I don’t know what to think.  FCB has reduced the deficit but the Blaugrana still remain three points behind. Logic says that Mourinho tells his team, start another winning streak, maintain performances and come into April’s game, the Evil Empire will still be three points (or more) ahead.

One more question about the game, what now for Villa and Pedro?  Sanchez continues to impress and Villa looked horribly off the mark when he came on.  Pedro can only make substitute appearances as Cuenca improves with every match.  Maybe it will be an embarrassment of riches, but it could also cause tension in Pep’s Wonderland.

As always, Zonal Marking gave a thorough breakdown of the game.  His comments were very interesting and he saw things that I didn’t pick up while watching.  I would argue that Barca morphed into a 3-4-3 with Alves advanced, but what do I know?  I didn’t really notice Busquets dropping into the back four.  Messi did see the ball but was not able to slice and dice as he did on several occasions during the Champions League games.  As for Real Madrid, Mourinho started his typical formation and went right at the Blaugrana.  They were in the match but conceded control after 30 minutes or so.  After going down 2-1, I didn’t like the Benzema move to left mid.  Thought he was wasted there.  All in all, a thrilling match with so much going on below the surface.

Jonathan Wilson echoed Zonal Marking’s analysis and went a step further, focusing on the backline of three and a half, with Busquets doing two jobs in one.  Both writers identified that Ozil was either not the right choice or possessing the right ability for this match.  Funny how one of the best signings of last year has been made a possible scapegoat a third of the way into this season. Wilson also mentioned the Three Year Rule, which may hold true in typical leagues, but La Liga is far from typical.  Long runs are just 20 (Cruyff’s Dream Team of 1990-1994) and 25 (Real Madrid’s 5 in a row from 1985-1990) years away for the Big Two and, with their current financial stranglehold, it’s possible that we could see dominant cycles domestically in the future.

For the Real Madrid perspective I visited Real Madrid Football Blog.

Kaushik (@_kaushik7) was very frank in the aftermath of the match.  He felt that Real were playing the same game–“Same in terms of us not putting our chances away, same in terms of us failing to track spaces and let Barca score those goals, rather easily“–as the last two years and are still too far away from FCB, especially mentally.  He had some sharp criticism for CR7:

What can I say, I am not pissed with him, or calling for him to benched like many extremists are, but I am just disappointed. Not upset, just terribly disappointed. He is our best player, and so much is expected from him. To set him apart from the great players to the legends, it is in matches like these that these best players, these leaders carry their teams. And he did not. Holding him responsible for not converting chances sounds criminal, but aren’t we as fans allowed to set that high standards to those that we bank on most? More than the chances, he was just not influential at all. I don’t know what it is with big matches or clasicos, its a different Cristiano. Does he put too much pressure on himself? Or does he simply not have the mental strength? I think the latter is too harsh, and hence I’ll choose to pick the former.

Madridista Mac was sick after El Clasico but as he sorted through his thoughts, he urged Madrid fans and the Madrid Team to rise to the challenge of this Barca squad.  He echoed the CR7=choker sentiment, second guessed the tactical choices of the Special One, and questioned the character of the current Real Madrid squad.  He urged them to not wallow in despair but to respond, to start preparing for April when they will have to measure themselves again.

Barcelona have become the measure to true excellence in football and we’ve only got one remaining chance left this season to test ourselves against them. If this team truly wants to earn its rightful place in the football world, then it must begin counting the days for the next encounter – they should in fact pray to the football Gods that we meet them in battle once again in the Champions League or the Copa Del Rey. Times and defeats like this are not cues to cower or shudder in fear: these are moments for Madridisimo to bang their fists on the table to demand another go.

For the Barcelona side of things, I visited Barcelona Football Blog:

Euler did a two part review of the match.  My response to the first part: Wow.  He started by dismissing the premise that most pundits had coming into the match—that FCB were regressing or stalling, while Real Madrid were progressing.  His response:

We saw once again how this Barcelona project is never satisfied.  It always wants to win.  It isn’t complacent or interested in resting on the past or on a particular generation of talent.

We saw a team that is starting to evolve its core, a team that has been drastically turned over from 2008/09 yet still continues to achieve wondrous results.  We saw a new group of players emerging to contribute.  We saw a squad that is getting younger at key positions.

We saw a squad that Guardiola is constantly pushing to get better.  A squad organized by strategy and tactics that are always evolving playing a system that is constantly designed and redesigned.  If anything – this season we’ve seen these issues pushed even harder.

Surpassing Barcelona will not be an event because Barcelona will not sit still.  This is the challenge for the opposition. Barcelona is a moving target – one that is competing not only against other teams – but against itself.  Surpassing this Barça project will require a process, a process that will only attain weight and meaning over sustained time.

The longer that process goes on for the opposition though, the more difficult it will become in some ways because with each achievement this Barça team learns more and more deeply how to execute at the highest level, how to stay composed and focused.  It explores new dimensions of how to win.

What a post, thoughtfully considering the now in the context of history and what lies ahead in the future.  His comments were beyond FCB and were more about life, success and the desire to evolve.  Forget TACTICS!  Consider the sentiments in this post.  Really well done.

Just to note, Messi didn’t score against Real Madrid, once again proving Surreal Football’s point that he is rubbish.

In the all of the reviews of El Clasico, I’ve certainly gotten my fill of Sid Lowe.  La Liga Weekly, the Guardian pod and the Guardian site.  His weekly recap of La Liga took a unique approach to the fallout of the biggest game in the world—he praised the bravery of Valdes and Barcelona.  Despite giving up a very early goal, Valdes continued to play the way the Blaugrana play, and his teammates did likewise, until they took control of the match and eventually won.  A telling quote . . .

When people talk of bravery in football, they tend to conjure up Terry Butcher’s bandage. The image of bravery is of the hardnut centre-back flying into lunatic challenges. But it’s tempting to conclude that that’s not brave at all – surely kicking people is the opposite – and even if it is, there’s another type of bravery. The player who keeps his head when all around others are losing theirs, who stays strong after a mistake, who overcomes the pressure. A brave player is the one who loses the ball three times and still wants it; who keeps attacking. The goalkeeper who makes the biggest mistake on earth – and doesn’t take the easy, if short term, way out. The team that have the courage of their convictions.

Phil Ball offered his analysis of the Big One, examining the strange things that seem to happen mentally and psychologically in this match, along with assorted tactical points.  He also mentioned the complete dog fight going on at the bottom of the table, as a few points separate relegation from a Europa League place.

Mando at Forza Futbol wrote a quick piece in the aftermath of El Clasico and examined how both teams got to this point—coaches, players and tactics.  Really enjoyed the comments as both teams act and react to each other’s moves, yet FCB remain on top.  Give it a quick read.

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Pods

Forza Football had the filmmakers behind El Clasico on in preparation for the big game.  Elisa had mentioned this in previous shows, and I really want to catch it in a theater or buy the DVD.  Amazing what you can do with some fortitude and knowledge of another language.

Sid and Andy reviewed El Clasico on La Liga Weekly right after the match.  This was Real Madrid’s chance.  Again.  And yet they were found lacking.  Barca are completely devoted to their identity, and right now, this belief is able to overcome the athleticism and tactical ability of Los Merengues.  Who knows what the landscape will look like in April, but I’m sure we’ll in for another fascinating confrontation.

The panel on the SpanishFootball.info pod had some strong comments on El Clasico.  One member called CR7 a luxury player and everyone commented on the gap between CR7 and Messi.  According to David, Valencia has received the necessary financing to move forward with their new stadium that will seat 75,000.

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Articles

Saw this headline on El Centrocampista-MALAGA COULD DO BETTER SAYS VAN NISTELROOY-so I clicked on it. Not much too it, but then I came across this little bit of transfer rumor from A Different Liga.  Valero to Malaga would really be a kick in the teeth to the Yellow Submarine, while Parejo to Valencia makes sense for the player if he wants to stake his claim, but not, as the article points out, for Valencia, as it would strengthen a direct rival.

I had heard that Oriol Romeu was playing at Chelsea, but didn’t realize he was doing so well.  From Lee Roden’s post on El Centrocampista, it sounds like there may be a battle for his services in the next year or two.  I believe FCB inserted the same clause in Bojan’s contract in Roma (not that they would ever exercise it).  As Lee correctly states: “One should never underestimate the will of a player, just ask Cesc Fabregas. The door is still open, but it will be up to Oriol Romeu to walk back through it.”  Time will tell.

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