RMFootballBlog (Repost): Heart Ache, Heart Break (RM 2 – 1 Bayern Munich)

**** ****! – was probably what El Pipita was saying to himself when Cristiano’s shot was saved. Pepe’s shock and the pain in Xabi Alonso’s grimace is there for all to see.

There are a few lessons in life that I as a father will have the pleasure of teaching my son. There will be the basics: “Be honest, Be humble, etc.”… there are the hilarious but nonetheless important things: “Don’t fart in public…” and then of course are certain seemingly unalienable truths about the game of football. One of them goes like this:

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“In the game of football, when dealing with the possibility of a penalty shootout, Don’t f*** around with Germans.”

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Germans Sides and the German National team (which is normally loaded with Bayern Munich Players) have a well-earned reputation as murderous, cold-blooded killers in penalty shootouts. Last night, Real Madrid became the latest victim and in many ways, it’s difficult not to look into the events that transpired over the 2 legs and not come to the conclusion that Jose Mourinho lost his chess match against Jupp Heynckes. With the final to be held in Bayern’s own backyard against what will be a decimated Chelsea side… instead of seeing Mourinho become the first manager to win 3 Champions League title with 3 different clubs, Jupp Heynckes now has a chance join Mourinho and Mou’s mentor Van Gaal in the exclusive club of coaches who have won the Champions League with 2 different teams – with the German having won his first with us.

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Strategy in 2-legged Cup Ties – Learning from the Jedi

As the penalties were taken, Mourinho was on his knees on the Bernabeu pitch, likely praying to the Football Gods for luck. It was not to be… thanks to my overpriced TV subscription to see the Champions league on HD, it was very apparent to me that tears had welled into Mourinho’s eyes as Schweinsteiger hammered the final penalty… errr… nail… into our Champions League coffin. The tears didn’t flow but Mourinho was clearly emotionally broken by last night’s defeat. There was no UEFA conspiracy to blame, no ghost goal, just a shortage of luck as he probably chooses to see it. In fact, it was refreshing to hear him honor Bayern, saying that his Inter had beaten them by Fair Play, and that this time, Bayern had beaten his Real Madrid by Fair Play too.

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In my humble opinion however, a penalty shootout, while in many cases being a case of luck – isn’t so when you’re dealing with Germans. Even with the best goalkeeper in the world and with home advantage, call me superstitious, but I wouldn’t fancy a penalty shootout with a German side – which to me, is where I take issue with Mou: that he seemed totally prepared to enter this situation, or rather tried to avert it too late

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“Fear is the way of the Dark Side” were the wise words of Yoda, the greatest Jedi of them all – and over the 2 legs, it’s hard not to look back and admit to ourselves that our team played with fear. We sat back to defend a draw after making things even in Munich even after we put them on the backfoot. Last night, we did the same after our 2 early goals: we sat back to play on the counter because we FEARED their counter attack. In the end, it was this fear that had us surrendering the initiative to them: allowing Mario Gomez his share of touches in the box with all those crosses in from the wings, resulting in our late conceded goal during the first leg and forcing Iker into have to save our skins in the second leg. We would have lost last night’s match if we had a lesser keeper than Iker between the sticks. I can only guess that Mourinho believed that the winning goal would eventually come for us despite what looks like his instruction to his team to slow the game down and remove the ‘sting’ from it – it didn’t. As the match teetered closer and closer towards penalties, the advantage began tilting in favor of the Germans.

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Tactics

Staring down Bayern’s team is in many ways like looking at the mirror tactically for Real Madrid. The similarities are striking:

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Threats on the Flanks using primarily inverted Attacking Wingers (who interchange wings at times) backed up by an attacking fullback on one wing– Ronaldo & Di Maria + Marcelo mirroring Robben & Ribery + Lahm. Both teams use them as the primary offensive threat making both teams remarkably explosive when countering. Mourinho knows how dangerous his wingmen are to his opposite number and this explains his wariness when faced with a similar threat. Quality-wise, Ronaldo & Di Maria trump Robben and Ribery while Lahm trumps Marcelo defensively by a mile.

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A Passer / Engine + A Destroyer as 2 pivots. Xabi Alonso and Schweini are the team’s engines. Schweini doesn’t have Alonso’s passing range, but Alonso doesn’t have the German’s mobility. Starting his career as a right-sided midfielder – Schwein-whatever used his mobility with some destabilizing runs on the flanks. On the flipside, Khedira isn’t really a full-fledged hard man – he’s a utility player who does the dirty work – a contrast to Gustavo, who has a striking similarity to the disgusting ex-Barca and Bayern player Mark Van Bommel. Gustavo must’ve committed 2,000,000 fouls last night before getting his yellow card.

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A Creative midfielder in Front of the Pivots. Bayern for large parts of the season had been using Thomas Muller in this role. Muller however has the instincts of a forward and not a midfielder – resulting in a shortage of link play between their midfield and front mean. Toni Kroos however is a midfielder who is comfortable BOTH in a creative pivot role and as an advanced playmaker – a contrast to Ozil who thrives as a full fledge ‘10’ but offers little when deep. If we compared the 2 based on quality, Ozil is a far better player. But if we compare the 2 based on their tactical contributions (flexibility-wise), Kroos, gives more to his team – as he allows Bayern to go from a double pivot to a trivote in a snap. Bayern used this to great effect across both legs.

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A Lone Man Up Front

One of the big differences between us and them however would be on how our Front Men function. Mario Gomez is a classic target man. Opta stats show that his movement in attacking plays hardly have variety with him mostly moving around the same parts: around the penalty and 6-yard box. But then again, why would he need to do otherwise? He’s big, strong, dominant in the air and can swing a nasty kick of the ball on target even from a tough angle with no problems. In contrast to Madrid, we use our lone striker more to make runs in the hopes of dragging the opposing CBs out of position. Both Pipita and Benzema perform this function but with the latter also seems to have developed the ability to hold the ball and allows his teammates to join the attacking fray.

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Bayern, like us are a team that thrives on playing football at 200 mph. It is now wonder why Mourinho seemed to have had his team slow the game down after scoring the 2 opening goals: to take the sting out of the game and prevent Bayern from using the frenetic momentum the match had started with to score their own goals – something that happened for them to win their first half penalty BEFORE the match slowed down. The problem with that however was that this slower game favored their midfield whose personnel (with Kroos) allowed them to control possession and chance-creation in the game, because of Kroos’ ability to function both as a ‘10’ and a pivot. In contrast, the players we had who could make a difference (Ronaldo, Di Maria and Ozil) were more cut off and this was lamentable given how decisive the showed they can be in the early stages. This of course carried on to the second half where it seemed like both teams were looking to provoke each other to open themselves up to a counter. Neither flinched but Bayern had control of the ball and possession and as things wore on, they created more chances than us with Mario Gomez’s physical power ever present. Things only seemed to come more alive consistently for us during extra time as penalties loomed: with Mourinho upping the tempo again late in the game and in extra time. Perhaps turning up the heat at an earlier part of the game to make it 3-1 would have made a difference?

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It is of course easy for me to say this NOW, hindsight being 20-20 vision: that Mourinho’s ‘gamble’ to take the sting off the game didn’t come off. A late goal from us however would’ve changed everything completely and would have sentenced Bayern for good with little time remaining. If such a thing did happen, I would be calling Mourinho the king of calculated risks by now. So at the end of the day, though I agree that Mourinho could have had his team play more courageously, I also cannot entirely fault him for his decision to have the team play the way they did.

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Performances & Reactions

There are a few things that stand out in the game which to me need to be looked at again with a level head perhaps in the offseason.

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Benzema’s Evolution

Ask me how many times Benzema lost the ball last night: ONCE. Karim Benzema has not only earned the right to wear the Real Madrid shirt, he is also now earning the ‘9’ jersey number. He holds the ball up superbly, is unselfish, and has developed a deeper intelligence in his decision-making and understanding his teammates in knowing when to pass, to dribble with the ball and to shoot. Our little Kitten turns out to be a Lion-cub. I won’t call him a Lion just yet: I’d rather wait and see him continue his development – where we will likely see him mangle a few defenders / goalkeepers and teams in ways we probably never thought he could in the coming years.

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Our Defense

Ramos and Pepe were OWNED by Mario Gomez. We need to learn how to deal with Physically Powerful strikers like him in the future.

Sergio Ramos and Pepe were a disaster in the first half. They looked like a comedy version of a number from ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ with both men unable to command their box and organize themselves against the mirror image of our attack. They waded into each others’ territory, opened up spaces and looked very vulnerable. Ditto for Marcelo. The backline improved greatly as the game wore on though. It must also be noted that neither Ramos nor Pepe (no one from Real Madrid basically) managed to deal with Mario Gomez. Gomez physically dominated our players and once again got his fair share of touches, headers, knock downs, flicks and shots on goal that could’ve cost us a few goals. Iker saved their skins last night. Maybe it’s because there are so few powerful players in La Liga (I can only count Fernando Llorente and not even he is as physically commanding as Gomez)? Either way, this is something for Mourinho and his technical team to have a look at.

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The last point on defense: Mourinho should study game tape of how Bayern defend Dead Balls. The Germans were bloody amazing defending them. It didn’t matter if we had Ramos, Pepe and Ronaldo all as dangerous aerial threats: Bayern never allowed me to feel that our boys had a chance in dead ball situations.

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Cristiano Ronaldo

People might choose to remember you for that shootout ‘miss’ Cristiano, I choose to remember your 2 goals instead

Certain people, especially the haters will call him out for missing his (and Madrid’s first penalty) in the shootout – and would even liken it to Messi’s miss the night before. To that I say: Horseshit! Firstly, Ronaldo scored 2 goals in the first 25 minutes including a penalty. Secondly, a penalty taken during a game vs. one taken in a shootout are very different situations. Thirdly, Ronaldo did NOT miss: his shot was on target and was saved by a guy who is the closest candidate to dispute Iker as the world’s best goalkeeper. Ronaldo did NOT choke. Heck, even his Free Kicks were on Target.

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After the game, Ronaldo’s reaction spoke volumes: “I apologize to the fans, Please don’t forget this, I owe you a Final”. It was a reaction that smacked of the attitude of a leader, taking responsibility and standing up to be counted. To Cristiano Ronaldo from this Madridista (me) who called you a choker last December: you have made me deservedly eat my words and more than a few slices of humble pie. Thank you for making me witness your performance throughout this season – when my son grows up, I will be proud to tell him of the glorious days you played wearing my beloved Real Madrid’s shirt.

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The Team’s Leadership – Jose Mourinho & Iker Casillas

Jose Mourinho – he can be a prick when you’re on the opposite side. But when he’s on your side, it’s impossible not to love him.

The 2 men’s methods contrast to the point where they reportedly dislike each other. But their reactions to last night’s game speak of 2 men who are probably far more similar than they would care to admit. Mourinho and Iker sounded like father and big brother figures respectively: defending their teammates who stood up to be counted in the penalty shootout. “The ones who missed are also the ones who had the balls to step up and take those penalties” Mourinho said. He was right. Like I said above, a penalty during a game and during a shootout are 2 very different things – so I will call no faults on our boys who missed and whose shots were saved. For Iker, he probably got as close a glimpse as he could ever have at his opposite number (Neuer) who in my opinion is the closest thing to being him: the best goalkeeper in the world. Iker showed it last night too – it might have been a draw or a loss if it weren’t for him. His Karate-chop save on Philip Lahm is also a clear example that while age has taken it’s toll on his hair, his reflexes are as good as ever.

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For Mourinho, it was very clear that the loss had hurt him. It’s worth pointing out that his media silence, likely borne out of a typical Mourinho act of defiance has made him resemble a gentlemanly Real Madrid Manager more than he would probably like to admit. His decision to listen to his players’ wishes to attack Barca (and win in the process) also speaks of a coach who thrives not just with his ability to command a team to do as he wishes, but also has the ability to listen to his team and becomes successful doing so as well. It may be debatable to many, but to me, Real Madrid has clearly benefitted Mourinho just as much as the opposite.

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I would like to end by giving my Congratulations goes to Bayern Munich for a very well-played Semi-Final. You deserve your dream final at home. It’ll be a battle of Cinderella teams on May 19 – between the club who dreamt of playing and winning the cup in front of their own fans… and the club whom nobody believed even had a shot.

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By the time the ball is kicked on the 19th of May for the Final, I hope to take comfort from the fact that though I have to continue to wait for European Cup #10 for my beloved Real Madrid, I would still sleep soundly with the thought that I at least didn’t have to wait for La Liga #32. Let’s give our boys the applause they deserve.

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