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.

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.

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.