El Clasico. March, 2014.

If you say that the whole of the football world was looking forward to this tie, aptly called ‘El Clasico’, you wouldn’t be mistaken. This is the pinnacle of football played twice a year and it doesn’t disappoint. The annual Champions League finals may be a contender but definitely lacks the rivalry of this tie, not to mention the sheer intensity. ‘El Clasico’ is more than just a football match. It is war. The intensity displayed by the players, and the fans alike, is unlike anything else.

Past performances and recent form has no real meaning in this tie. The players just have to ‘get’ the idea of the tie and then it is generally man to man. You don’t become a Real Madrid player or a Barcelona player unless you perform in this tie. The first leg of the 2013-14 season is already history, played at Camp Nou where a Messi-less Barcelona outplayed Real Madrid. At that point both the teams were adjusting to play under new managers and the match was won by a fabulous chip by Barca’s Sanchez. On an aside, Neymar scored his first Clasico goal as part of his induction process into the Barcelona team.

Real Madrid has really gelled well and grown in confidence under coach Carlo Ancelotti between the first Clasico and now. Old players have adapted to new roles – especially Angel Di Maria – and new players have been carefully integrated. In fact Madrid has been on a blistering run of 31 matches, unbeaten (they came close to losing against Atletico Madrid but were rescued by Cristiano). The other setback for Madrid is the season-ending injury to Jese Rodriguez. His blistering pace and great touch has baffled defenders, especially on the death when used as a substitute to inject life in times of crisis. He will be sorely missed.

Barcelona’s form has been a roller-coaster ride this season. After starting the season brightly despite an injured Messi, the form of the team off late has been unpredictable. The bright spot has been Messi’s seeming return to form with his hunger evident in the last Champions League tie against Manchester City (return leg).

The second leg of the Clasico is also important in that Barcelona has dropped points to mid-tier teams and are now playing catch up to Real Madrid & Atletico Madrid. This tie is a do or die in the League for Barcelona. Atletico has also been watching this tie with intent ever since they lost points to lesser teams and want to get their League fate back under control. A Barcelona win will put Atletico’s fate back into their own hands. Win, and Barcelona still have to pray for results to go against Real Madrid and beat Atletico on the final day of play. If there is one club that can do it, it would be Barcelona.

The match itself started in a measured way. No first minute theatrics to take the opposition by surprise. But after a few minutes of cagey display, the tie took off. Detailed, minute-by-minute, account would run to multiple volumes. Such was the intensity of the match. Di Maria and Benzema were the standout performers for Madrid. They combined well and were the creative and finishing force for Madrid.

Cristiano was another story. He wore a brand new pair of ‘lighter than ever’ studs with fly-wire technology (whatever it means) and carbon fiber plates. Despite this high-flying kit and two Ballons to show back home, his feet somehow seemed to be leaden and burdened, flopping at every significant tackle near the danger area and collapsing in a heap. When you expect him to be in his potent best, in a night when Madrid expected him to put Barcelona to bed, he somehow seemed to be going limp at the slightest touch. Did he forget the pill?

Messi and Iniesta were the standout performers of the night. What you missed to see due to the brilliance of these two magicians was that Xavi and Busquets managed to control the midfield while it was not on loan to Di Maria. Except for Pique, the lesser said about the Barcelona back four and Victor Valdes the better. They had a forgettable night but still managed to end up on the winning side, thanks to some scuffed options by Benzema and the mesmeric brilliance of Messi and Iniesta.

Barcelona won 4-3 but the main talking point of an otherwise fairly balanced contest was the refereeing. The referee, Alberto Undiano, actually had a good night keeping the game under control considering the mitigating circumstances. You would be deluded if you think a Clasico can be kept under control. Anything goes and it was a pleasant change to see Sergio Ramos failing to plant his studs on someone’s thighs ‘by accident’ or crash his elbow ‘strategically’ on someone’s face on the descent of a jump. Ramos was generally brilliant except for touching Neymar at the wrong time in the wrong place. Result: A career 19th red card. His itchy hands seemed to get ahead of him, leaving Madrid in the wake facing a Messi penalty.

The foul against Cristiano was clearly outside the penalty area and at the speed at which things were proceeding the referee made a mistake awarding a penalty, which Cristiano easily converted to put Madrid ahead. But the foul on Iniesta was blatant. Xabi Alonso clearly went for his thighs. It was absolutely intentional and I guess he failed to remember in the heat of the moment that the referee was just behind him. Another penalty for Barcelona! The contention was if the ball was too far for Iniesta to reach. These are all minor issues when Messi was standout the exceptional performer having a hand in every turn of the tide for Barcelona.

Was it exciting? Yes, every minute of it. Wait, which Clasico in the last 10 years hasn’t been exciting?

Is Messi back? Absolutely!

Is Cristiano the best? Absolutely, against 98% of the teams! The poor 2% are Barcelona and Atletico (that is in La Liga…).

Are Neymar and Bale worth the ~100 million dollar tag? To say that they are the world’s most expensive players is not fair. Messi and Cristiano have not been traded recently and so their market value is unknown. Rest assured, they would easily command 150-200 million dollars today and no sane club would want to sell them. So the price paid for Bale and Neymar only shows that the player transfer market has heated up. Please get used to skyrocketing prices for all and sundry this summer.

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Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich, 11th March 2014.

A hero is the one who rises at a moment of crisis. A true hero is the one who ensures that a moment of crisis doesn’t arise in the first place. Arsene Wenger is a true hero and he needs no proof than the fact that he assembled the Invincibles in the 2000’s. But even for Arsene, replicating his own success is proving to be impossible. All his birds seem to fly out of the coop at the break of adulthood.

It was quite painful to see time and again, in the first half, that the ball had to be passed back to Fabianski and lost away with no sense of direction by Arsenal. Arsenal were afraid to try and pass it back up, when they had the ball. A few more services to Oxlade could have tested the Bayern defense more. Arsenal clearly wanted to play just for 45 minutes in the second half and try and kill Bayern quickly before they can get alert and lay siege to the Arsenal box. The team still needs to work on improving the work rate and pressing hard.

Podolski may have dips in his general form, but when the occasion beckons a superlative performance, he is still able to dust off the rustiness and marshall the team around. He badly needed support. It is a pity that key absences (due to injury) ensured Arsenal would never really pop the question to Bayern. It was just hope against all odds. Other specific players to impress were Oxlade Chamberlain and Fabianski.

This Bayern Munich doesn’t resemble, even remotely, to the all-conquering team bandied about by all and sundry. The Champions League is very much open this year. This team would struggle to pass muster against Atleti, a team designed to snuff out such excesses as ‘meaningful’ possession. Dante’s foul on Oxlade was pure desperation. It is a pity someone was behind or he would have seen red rather than yellow. Looking at some of Oxlade’s other runs through the Bayern back four, there could have been a lot more in that run (brutally and intentionally stopped by Dante by a kick on the shin).

The less said about Robben the better. With every passing day he seems to be intent on rubbishing his reputation. Bayern are doing well and there is no reason for sly dives and underarm tactics. It should be in his blood! I have this nagging question in my mind. What will Robben’s own family think about him every time he dives to try and draw a foul or a penalty? Will they think that this guy could cheat them (although they are family) when there is a moment of crisis? What would his own children think of him when they see him dive? Isn’t he ashamed of what stares back at him when he looks in a mirror? Does he now realise why people don’t even utter his name in the same sentence with real sportsmen like Messi (forgive this sentence for uttering both the names)?

This Bayern team has miles to go before winning the CL this year. On the evidence of this performance, it doesn’t look all rosy.

The best football match of this year

If you take only the Classicos and the Madrid Derbies as the title decider in the La Liga then Real Madrid will be third best in Spain. So far, they have lost two and drawn one. There are just two more matches yet to be played in this private competition between the three best clubs in Spain at the moment. These are the matches in which the three teams – Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, and Real Madrid – give their all. They play for pride and that is one thing these clubs cannot lose. More so in the last few years since the arrival of Diego Simeone as Atletico’s coach, which elevated the club as equals with the other two. Atletico also had a wounded pride after the Copa Del Rey mauling received at the hands of Real Madrid only weeks ago.

Once the first goal went in, courtesy of a set-piece from Real Madrid’s Benzema, you would have expected a capitulation from Atletico. Memories of the Copa Del Rey semifinals this year would have flooded past many viewer’s eyes. Atletico play a tight high-tempo defensive game and early goals by their opposition usually take the wind out of their performance. And when it is Real Madrid, that’s enough for the day. Not in this game. Atletico found another extra gear in their juggernaut and overran Real Madrid like never before. If not for defensively slipping up a bit due to fatigue in the second half and some refereeing horror, Atletico would have the pride of beating their more illustrious neighbors. Deservedly.

So much is expected of this Billion-dollar Real Madrid team that any failure is considered a catastrophe. El Cheapo Atletico has been a particularly prickly thorn in the last few seasons. Cristiano couldn’t impose himself into the game until the moment the equalizer came in dying minutes, when fatigued Atletico were having a mini defensive collapse. Bale was significant only in his complete absence and for poorly controlling the ball that luckily led to the equalizer. High marks for poor control. Watching Bale was like watching a kid in a candy store – all eyes wide and completely overcome by the occasion. Di Maria was running all over the pitch like a headless chicken. He should have been really happy when he was substituted. Every time Modric seemed to have a great moment, he was snuffed out, once brutally. Better not to mention about Arbeloa and Coentrao. When the big guns are firing, small arms must keep quiet, which in their case is almost always.

Atletico were at their very best, considering how they play, bullying Real all over the pitch by converting the game to a test of endurance. Arda Turan had another of his great days. He plays a sub plot in the game. He is best when he slows down the game to his own calculated self, to a different beat probably from the streets of Istanbul. He brilliantly set up the first goal and delivery of the ball to Koke could not have been more dramatic. It had the aura of a dancer’s performance in a Turkish palace. If there is one blot in Atletico’s performance, it was Diego Costa’s finishing. The usually clinical striker was always in two minds, whether to dive and force a penalty or stay up and go for the goal. His performance was stunning in winding up the Real defense and keeping it volatile. But he had a few open chances that should have settled the game in Atletico’s favor. And of course that refereeing horror. If a referee misses a penalty when the tackle happens in front of his eyes, he should be made to sit out three games.

One cannot think of what more Real Madrid could have done. One day they demolish continental rivals Schalke in the Champions League and the next day they are nearly snuffed out back in their own League. Real has been improving tremendously under Carlo Ancelotti and the next match-up with Atletico, probably in the Champions League, couldn’t be any less exciting. It so, it will be a meeting with more at stake. And Simeone’s Atletico will be waiting.

Beautiful, tight, less brutal, and engrossing football can be played. You would have to watch a re-run of Manchester City playing Bayern Munich in the Champions League second leg for that. In Spain, it is more rustic.

Today, the Spanish League (La Liga) is the best league in the world. If someone tries to tell you that the Premier League is the best, ask them to watch the Madrid Derby held at the Vicente Calderón yesterday. And also ask them if they can come up with a better match from the Premier League this season. Further, ask them to watch all the matches between Atletico, Barcelona, and Real Madrid.

Expectations for the Madrid Derby

The first leg of the Copa Del Rey semifinal fixture was one of the worst football matches I have ever seen. No, it’s not about the result. It is about the complete lack of any sporting decorum between the two teams. Two teams can play exciting and close games when a lot is on the table. But these Spanish giants are living examples of how ‘winning at any cost’ can ruin the excitement for neutral fans. If you think Rugby is very physical and brutal, watch the Copa Del Rey semifinal first leg again. It is high time FIFA and all the leagues come with retrospective punishments for all on-pitch behaviour, whether reported in the referee’s match notes or not.

My expectations for the league derby today is pretty dismal. A tight match with a 1-0 result if the teams behave. Or a floodgate if Real Madrid opens scoring in the first 10 minutes and the Atleti lose their composure.

Should Cristiano leave Real Madrid?

Cristiano Ronaldo is a very driven footballer and by the time he hangs up bis boots he wants to be remembered as the greatest ever to play the game. He has worked really hard and is on track to fulfill his ambition. He is playing better than ever before and the victories are coming in the bucket loads. Real Madrid is so settled and is playing so good that the club is looking forward to one of the best runs in its history. But it doesn’t bode well to Cristiano’s personal ambition.

The simple reason is Real Madrid is not dependent on Cristiano any more. When Cristiano is not playing, Jese can easily step into his shoes and no one will miss Cristiano. And mind you, Jese is very much a local hero and his finishing seems to be better than Cristiano himself. Sometimes you mistake Jese for Cristiano when he is on his run. And while Cristiano seems stoppable by well knitted defenses, Jese seems to be able to find a way. Jese is also in the form of his life and he is just blossoming into a A-team footballer.

The all round ability of Real Madrid has improved so much that Cristiano is no more the fulcrum of the team. Carlo Ancelotti has really made Real Madrid the star and spread his bets on more than one player. The team has really gelled well and the results are plainly visible. Ancelotti will need Cristiano one more season until Jese proves his extended reliability. And then the ability of recouping some of the transfer fee shelled out for Cristiano will start diminishing.

So where does all of this leave Cristiano in Real Madrid? He can be part of one of the greatest teams in history, much like the era defining Barcelona three years ago, but the glory will have to be shared with the likes of Bale, Jese, and even Benzema. His fate is just about to turn like Ribery of Bayern Munich – an important part of a great team. There is nothing wrong in that. That is the objective of any team sport. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work like that.

Cristiano doesn’t need the wages on the pitch to stay as the top earning footballer. As long as he is playing well the endorsements will ensure he is the top earner. What he needs is a team that is good enough but will not be top dog without Cristiano on the pitch.

Is Cristiano willing to live on shared glory with his teammates in Real Madrid and have the life of an unchallenged Galatico or is he made of sterner stuff and really wants to establish himself as a true legend? Only Cristiano can answer.

There is a fork down the road. The question is, do you take it?

Tipping point for ‘total football’?

Football has changed in the last five years. What used to be called a ‘full court press’ in basketball, usually adopted by smaller teams against bigger teams, is now the new norm in football. Barcelona, Dortmund, Munich all play this high octane style. Even Real Madrid runs like a scalded cat these days when they lose the ball. Rinus Michels’ ‘total football’ has just reached a tipping point.

To play this style you need a team of players who are comfortable dribbling and generally playing the ball, physically able and willing to put a hard shift, track back and defend vigorously when the ball is lost, disciplined not to play out of position, and ultimately trusting each other. It is more systematic football.

English Premier League may be the most competitive league in the world with more tight matches and any team able to beat any other team on its day, but except for a few clubs all others are still caught up playing football from the last century. Arsenal has been a beacon of hope for almost two decades but has failed to consistently unlock the true potential of its style, falling from the heights reached circa. 2003. European football has left English football in its dust.

The recent trail seems to run from Barcelona to Dortmund and finally to Munich. Real Madrid is trying a blend of total football with stars. This style has a short lifespan for players as it is extremely taxing and fatigue/injury prone. We can see players peaking early and fading pretty soon. The day they cannot run past an offender will be the day they have to hang up their shoes. Look at Barcelona today.

The fact that smaller teams are playing more systematic football can be seen when bigger teams enjoy (?!) disastrous results when losing focus, even momentarily. Napoli, Barcelona, Atletico have all seen such results in the last few weeks.

Thinking of some of the mighty clubs in the EPL, it is a pity that Manchester United will not be one of those clubs adopting modern football. MU seems to be having a hangover with last century’s ‘scrappy football’ that was plaguing Germany for decades. It will give you reasonable success, but when you meet the might of modern day Bayern or Barcelona, forget it!

The next decade is going to see some of the best football played on earth. There are lots of good players coming through and the managers seem to be doing better all the time. One of the most exciting English teams to have latched on to this journey is Swansea City. They are the most exciting newly resurgent team on the block.