Clasico – October 25, 2014.

The first Clasico was supposed to be one of the best matches of the season. It was, up until about 30 minutes lapsed. And then it all started to unravel in unspectacular fashion. One mistake after the other, things were getting worse. Injuries piled up. Stars faded. Substitutions seemed not to stop the bleeding. There was no fight to the final whistle. Is this the end of Barcelona as we know? At least for another season or two it looks like it. Factor-in the transfer freeze for two seasons it looks like the goose is cooked.
Losing a Clasico is not the end of the world. One team has to lose unless it is a well fought draw. The intensity is so much a result is almost always registered. Many times, it is easy to pick the exact mistake, a point of brilliance, or a lapse of concentration that led to the match-winning goal. Not this time. The gulf in performance was so large, there were flashes of November 2010, all in reverse. The 3-1 score line utterly flattered the control real Madrid had over Barcelona, at least in the second half.
Quite a few times this season we have seen Barcelona hold the ball and surround the opposition’s box in futile. There seems to be that final piece of penetration missing from this team. The only hope is that Luis Suárez provides that spark. In a way, he did. He had to be restrained by two defenders paying close attention every time he drifted into the box. The one time he unlocked the defense the referee harshly called a foul. The other unexpected problem was, there was no one else to capitalize on the advantage that Suárez created. So unusual of Barca. If Barca cannot lift itself against its eternal competitor Real Madrid, is there hope against smaller boring teams?
There seemed to be two matches being played by Barcelona in the second half. A direct game played by Neymar and a traditional possession-based game played by the rest of the team. Suárez seemed to be one of the players trying to actively engage Neymar in the game. When he was gone, so did the supply to Neymar. As the second half progressed, Neymar seemed to be more and more isolated, with plenty of space around him, but nobody passing the ball. The ball rarely moved through the left flank. When teams defend in numbers, Neymar is at a loss. He needs a little more space to swat around defenders as if they don’t exist. This game needed Messi at his best, at the very least, and he went missing, big time.
The first Clasico of 2014/15 season should be a stark reminder for Luis Enrique and the Barcelona faithful that the honeymoon is certainly over. It is back to the drawing board again. I have never seen Barcelona so low on morale. That should hurt the faithful.
A flash in the pan was Luis Suárez, who didn’t disappoint. He is one player who can shoulder the burden of a whole team, as he did last season. With fresh legs and missing a large chunk of the season, he should be more than hungry. And he is not known to choke on big occasions.
Until then, get your thrills when Atlético plays Real.

Bayern pays the price for Guardiola’s poor tactical choices

Make no mistake, this Bayern team is capable of beating any team in the world. But Real Madrid are not any team in the world and you can’t beat them sleepwalking and hamstrung. You need to be well prepared and take your chances. Poor tactical choices made by coach Guardiola meant Bayern never had a fighting chance.

Bayern neither have the speed nor the organization among their back-four to maintain such a high line of defense deployed against counter-attacking monsters Bale-Benzema-Cristiano. But that is, in a way, beside the point. Even before BBC could thread a few strings of their marauding runs at lightning speed, Bayern were done and dusted. Buried by two powerful headers, from set-pieces, by Sergio Ramos. Ramos has this ability to take any high-octane tie on its throat by imposing himself. Mostly by making some rash fouls but sometimes carrying his team across the line all by himself – by scoring his rare goals from set-pieces. Tonight, he scored twice from set pieces – rarest among the rare. Set-pieces have always been a glaring, gaping hole in Guardiola’s teams.

This Bayern team needs a completely new set of centerbacks and a rethink of strategy when they play big teams. When a team boasts Robben, Ribery, Mandzukic, Muller, Kroos, Schweinsteigern and Lahm on the pitch and cannot score a single goal over 180 minutes, and get thrashed 5-0, something should be fundamentally wrong. Also, the decision not to start Mario Gotze, who is more creative and had the best chance to score in the first leg in the few minutes he played, was a risk that ultimately didn’t pay. Guardiola has a lot to answer.

Pep Guardiola is making this Bayern team the laughing stock of world football. Bayern heirarchy should be thinking what is wrong with this team?

Guardiola bared?

Everyone would agree that Real Madrid gave Bayern Munich a masterclass in counterattacking football. Benzema’s goal was sublime in its buildup and finish giving the Bayern defense no chance. The pass to Benzema is arguably the most important two touches Coentrao has ever made for Real Madrid. Coentrao’s anticipation of the gap and Cristiano’s acceptance that Coentrao had the better chance, not to forget the accuracy of the pinpoint pass, are stuff legends are made of.

One of the biggest dilemma’s for Guardiola seems to be around the deployment of Lahm. Lahm is a supremely gifted footballer who can play as a right-back as well as mid-fielder. Lahm is equally effective in both roles. Against Real Madrid, Lahm played midfielder most of the game and was successful in shrugging off markers, creating space and moving the ball forward every single time he got it. He has developed this ‘Silva-ish’ ability to quickly turn direction and move forward, which he demonstrated time and again yesterday. The problem is: when Lahm is moved to the midfield one hell of a hole is agape in the right back, which Real Madrid exploited masterfully.

Bayern Munich is now living in a kind of a tactical purgatory, struggling to choose between possession-based ‘heavenly’ football or more direct ‘hellish’ Bayern-style football. The stylized heavenly football that Guardiola is so keen to develop can live without a strong and alert defense but needs a magician in the center. The devilish ‘Bayern’ style played by Heyneckes last season was more direct and suits the current players but out of favor with the current coach. The players seem to be always in two minds, caught between the two.

The current Bayern team is a supremely versatile team. It switches between the two styles with little fuss and effortlessly manages to make the transition. One is effective against smaller teams and the other is effective against stronger teams. Against Real Madrid, Bayern seemed to be in a dilemma about which team to turn up with and got promptly punished.

The current Bayern team, arguably, has the best midfield in world football. What it lacks is a defense worthy of this team. The defense is too slow and not well organized. Guardiola would do well to get back to Bayern-style football that suits his current team and park tiki-taka for the next season. The draw is still not lost and despite the single goal advantage Real Madrid has a large mountain to climb.

A well half crossed!

There is only one manager who can grind out a tactical draw however boring the team may appear to look. And there is only one manager to whom the team will religiously cross all ‘t’s and dot all ‘i’s to grind out a tactical draw. A well half crossed! The return leg at the bridge is going to be another tactical match-up.

It was also interesting to see that Atletico didn’t get crazy with all the possession and overcommit. Two disciplined teams going about their business, albeit with a slightly different role with more than 65% possession for one!

The attrition at Chelsea looks alarming.

The Champions League semifinals match-up that nobody wanted

Chelsea and Atletico play an almost similar style of football. Both clubs have charismatic managers who are known to extract the maximum from their players, though I would say Mourinho has somewhat failed in this aspect since he is unable to get the maximum from his strikers. One striker failing may be a lack of form, but all three strikers failing spectacularly is something wrong with the approach to play. Although generally successful, the last seasons with Real Madrid has also exposed some of his critical managing deficiencies. The potential losing of Lukaku might be another chapter of his polarizing attitude and inability to accept a loss of face.

Atletico’s strategy is well known and generally they do not stray much from it. They strangle you of space in the midfield and try and play the ball high up and score on the rebound. As much as Atleti are credited for a water-tight defense and teamwork not much praise has been given for their ability to link up play in the midfield and in the final third of the pitch, especially when space is tight. Atletico has grown in leaps and bounds through this season and they are now a more resilient well-rounded team. Atletico’s strength in defense takes the attention away from how well rounded a team they really are. And all the key players are returning to duty (Turan included).

Chelsea pretty much do the same to defend but their attacking style is very different. They try to move the ball fast through the midfield using raging diagonal runs. For this to work, Chelsea need a wee bit more space in the final third of the pitch. It works spectacularly against slow defenses (think Arsenal). Key players are injured and some of them are cup-tied as well. Chelsea do not have a striker who can hold up long balls and create havoc. Expect this critical deficiency to be put to ridicule by Atletico’s water-tight defense.

Chelsea have been lucky to survive this far in the Champions League. Galatasaray was lucky to remain in the draw. PSG showed too much respect in Stamford Bridge and paid the price. Atletico are not pushovers and will not do this mistake. Expect Atletico to shrug off Chelsea. There will be lots of drama and unusual tactics from Mourinho, all in vain.

The case of Courtois vs. Chelsea

The hottest debate in the Champions League this season is if Thibaut Courtois should play against his parent club Chelsea or not? Courtois is a Chelsea player loaned to Atletico Madrid for the past three seasons. The most important detail this season is a clause in the deal that is believed to mean Atletico has to pay Chelsea $2.5 million for every game Courtois plays against Chelsea. For a sport, this is outrageous.

Players are professionals and there should be no question of their commitment for the team they are playing for. No one should question that the own goal scored by David Luiz against PSG in the Champions League quarterfinals is borne out of his frustration against his coach Jose Mourinho for benching him often and the possibility that Luiz could be sold by the end of the season. A football player has the right to change clubs and his loyalty is to the club for which he plays at the moment. These commitments should be outside suspicion and if they are up for debate, football will cease to be a sport and football players will cease to be professionals.

The big argument forbidding players appearing against their parent club is the conflict of interest – that they would play poorly and miss key chances. Even though that situation is possible it has to be remembered that players live and play in the present. Players will take all their chances and win the Champions League this season rather than expect to win it with their parent club the next season. The parent club may not decide to promote them to the starting eleven. There is no guarantee that the parent club will win the championship next season. There is no guarantee that the player will not sustain an injury that may end his career.

Courtois himself has a precedent in this situation playing for Atletico against Chelsea in the SuperCup. He appeared in the match and Atletico beat Chelsea to win the cup. There was no question of Courtois’ commitment or conflict of interest at that time and as a professional player there is no issue about his commitment this time as well. In fact all questions should be asked about Chelsea’s intent as the club clearly doesn’t want Courtois to play against it but wants him to play against other competing clubs in the Champions League.

Questions should be asked about the validity of such a clause in the Chelsea-Atletico loan deal that discourages a specific player playing against a specific team by the provision of a monetary benefit. If Atletico are to rest Courtois, they are set to save $5 million over two games. This is not small change and is grossly disproportionate to the fee Atletico pays for the player appearing in other matches. This monetary benefit gives Chelsea a distinct advantage in those games and improves the odds of it going to the finals of the Champions League. If this is not unsporting behavior, then what is? In fact, UEFA should penalize Chelsea for inserting that clause by fining the club of the amount in debate in the clause; nothing less.

It all questions about the validity of the loan system and how it works. Arsene Wenger has been very vocal against the current EPL rules that prohibit loaned players playing against their parent clubs. Imagine a club under the EPL rules that has about 50 great players – due to its immense wealth – and loans two of them to every other club in the league. These players will be instrumental in demolishing every other club except their parent club. These players are ineligible to play against their parent club. The parent club will have a great year and has the potential to win all the games since all the games are fixed to its advantage. Arsene Wenger is right, there should be no provision prohibiting a player from appearing in a specific game against a specific club. It is unsporting behavior and handicaps every other team. The argument that the rule is the same for every team is flawed. This provision favors the rich teams and penalizes the poor ones.

The loan system is flawed because it is fundamentally unsporting unless the loan recipient has no scope of playing against the loan provider. Loaning players to a team that can potentially play against it at a competitive level is akin to match fixing. The ideal solution is to ban loaning of players to any team, failing which, there should be no restriction for the players to appear against any specific team.

Thibaut Courtois should appear for Atletico Madrid in the Champions League semifinals and Chelsea should not receive any monetary benefit for that. In fact, Chelsea should be fined for inserting that clause into the contract and trying to fix the outcome of a match and bringing the Champions League into disrepute.

Atleti are favorites for the Champions League

Defeats can sometimes be very important in the evolution and transformation of a person or a team. No amount of strategizing in a classroom can equate to the emotional experience handed by defeat. Many times, defeat is an essential ingredient of greater success. The defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the first leg of the Copa Del Rey semifinals was an important turning point in the making and evolution of this Atletico team this season. The lesson was not about losing points. Atletico has lost to many smaller teams in more disorganized ways. The lesson was about the reaction to an early goal and the ability to shrug off early setbacks that punish the style of play employed by Atletico. It was a costly lesson as the Copa Del Rey is emotionally an important tournament for the Atleti. It was the win over this same Real Madrid in this same tournament last year that boldly proclaimed the arrival of a third force in Spanish football, a league that has become a two horse race in recent years.

Atletico deploy the most organized defence in modern football. Today, it is the most comfortable team able to confidently defend a single goal advantage. The counterattacking nature of scoring doesn’t promise a rain of goals and so every goal is extremely precious. Setbacks in the form of early goals usually snuff-out the Atletico threat and make the team work harder than ever, sometimes pushing it beyond its ability leading to larger defeats. The ability to shrug off the setback and grow resilient was the lesson learned from the defeat in the hands of Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey semifinals. A deflected goal pushed that game beyond redemption. But the lesson was learned, which was put to display when Atletico met Real Madrid again in the league. There was a repeat of an early setback, but there was no capitulation. In fact, by the time that match ended, Real Madrid was the one on the ropes and was more than happy to escape with a single point.

The progression of this season has also improved how the Atletico midfield plays together. The team is now more confident defending and so has started creating better chances in the opposition’s box. The progress has been so fast that it created three hits on the post and a goal in the opening 20 minutes against Barcelona in the return leg of the Champions League quarterfinals. This is in a match where Barcelona clearly had a mission to score, to nullify the away goal advantage held by Atletico. By the time it ended, we didn’t see the usual tired and panting Atletico praying for the 90 minutes to end. It was in fact Barcelona that looked tired and panting praying for the match to end to stop prolonging the beating being handed out. All this without the two most visible stars in Diego Costa and Arda Turan for Atletico, who were both sidelined with injuries.

The match itself was so one-sided that a detailed writeup is like prolonging the agony of a really painful surgery. Messi was nowhere to be found, his usual flair missing in front of the goal and having to drop deeper to spruce up the defence. It appeared as if the Argentine genius had his mind somewhere else, far away from the Calderon. The Neymar show had the usual brilliance in the wings flattering to fail when it counted, tightly marked out in the box. Iniesta was far more dangerous but lacked support. The new thinking in Barcelona seems to favour connecting Iniesta with Neymar, who seemed to be the more dangerous pair than anyone else on the pitch. The match had a strange feeling that it had all been destined even before the starting whistle had sounded. Barcelona looked so jaded and out of sorts reminding the Champions League semifinals last season.

Come this weekend, Atletico would again labour to a grinding win against another mid-table team in the league. That would be more a reflection of bordeom rather than inability. Diego Simeone’s biggest challenge in the league will be to keep his players motivated in the smaller, but equally important, matches. He might do well to rotate the players giving the usually benched ones an opportunity to have a go and add some spirit to the games.

If this Atletico is not a favorite to win the Champions League, then who is? Many write about the mighty Bayern, but I feel Bayern Munich is yet to see a real team. Atletico is no more afraid of other teams on this planet. It is now the other way around.