Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Quick Thoughts ahead of Round Two

My thoughts on the first of the four Clasicos came out in a stream on my Twitter feed. Overall, Real were the slightly better team, as one might expect when they are playing at the Bernabeu. Jose Mourinho learned his lesson in November and set out his team to defend with a central defender - Pepe - as the anchor in the midfield and then two ostensible defensive midfielders - Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira - next to him. Real were very aggressive and denied the Barca midfield the chance to impose their will on the game. As a result, David Villa was relatively quiet and Pedro was positively absent. Because Leo Messi now drops back towards the midfield to get the ball, he was able to play a role, but he didn't have the space and time that Real afforded him in the first leg.

Issues for Jose

The problems for Mourinho are four-fold. First, he showed his hand - three defensive midfielders and a long-ball strategy - in the first game without accomplishing what he needed, which was a win to keep Real in the hunt for La Liga. Second, his team got better in the later stages of the game when Mourinho put Mesut Ozil into the mix, so how does he involve Ozil while still screening his back line and choking the midfield? Who goes to the bench to make way for the one guy who can link defense and attack and thereby prevent Real from being a long-ball team? (Problems one and two are odds with one another. If Mourinho makes changes to incorporate Ozil, then he hasn't really presented a stationary target for a Guardiola counter, now has he?) Third, Real's strategy worked so well in no small part because they were at home. Buoyed by a great crowd, Real's midfielders were full-blooded in their challenges. Will they have the same edge at the Mestalla or the Nou Camp? Fourth, there is a Brazilian saying that soccer is like being under a short blanket on a cold night. If you pull the blanket up, then your feet are cold; if you cover your feet, then your shoulders are cold. (HT: Tim Vickery.) Mourinho gave his team bite by putting Pepe into the midfield, but doing so brought Raul Albiol into the team, and Albiol committed the stupid red card foul that gave Barca their goal. Now, Albiol is out of the Copa del Rey Final and Ricardo Carvalho is out of the first leg of the Champions League semifinal. Does Mourinho move Pepe back into defense or does he roll the dice with someone like Ezequiel Garay?

Issues for Pep

With a more set approach to football, Guardiola won't be thinking as much about strategic of tactical changes in advance of today's game, but he will have some concerns. First, he has another misfiring striker. I was one of those people who thought that David Villa would be a massive upgrade over Zlatan Ibrahimovic and even a slight upgrade over Samuel Eto'o (or at least a push), but Villa picked an awfully bad time to go on a ten-game scoreless run. Villa did set up the Barca goal by beating Albiol and getting dragged to the turf by the neck, but he was ineffective for most of the rest of the game. Specifically, he had a good chance at 0-1 to put the game away after a feed from Messi and he shot straight at Iker Casillas. Villa seems to be lacking in confidence in the finishing department. My saving thought is that Eto'o was in the same place heading into the 2009 Champions League Final and then scored the opener of a 2-0 win with a nice move. Second, what does Guardiola do if he has to split up the Puyol-Pique pairing? The team suffered when Busquets was moved back into defense when Puyol had to come off on Saturday. Does he make the same move again, or does he deploy the shorter, faster Javier Mascherano now that Masch is done with his suspension? Third, how much does Guardiola worry about today's match going to penalties? You think that Mourinho isn't thinking about setting out a defensive side that can get a 0-0 or a 1-1 over 120 minutes? Isn't that always the refuge of the coach in a cup final with the inferior side? All of Barca's advantages in controlling play go out the window if the match comes down to kicks from 12 meters. Does Pep encourage his team to take risks to avoid that result? Or does he comfort himself with the knowledge that Jose Manuel Pinto - Barca's designated Copa del Rey keeper - has a better record stopping spot kicks than Iker Casillas?

Dare I Dream?

In the aftermath of last weekend's events, I am starting to think about the possibility that Jose Mourinho will leave Real Madrid after one year without a trophy. As great as another Barca treble would be (or even a La Liga/Champions League double), it would be even sweeter if the end result would be Mourinho going back to Italy or England with his tail between his legs. Before last weekend, I would have dismissed that possibility. A fallow season would just cause Mourinho to dig in and try even harder. However, consider the events of the last week:

1. In one of his typically petulant displays, Mourinho refused to answer questions from the media last Friday. Dozens of members of the Spanish media walked out on Jose, so when he fielded questions after the match on Saturday, he refused to talk to those journalists. I thought it impossible that Jose could turn Marca and AS against him, but that is now a possibility.

2. Mourinho deployed a defensive approach against Barca, leading club legend Alfredo di Stefano to write a scathing column stating, among other things, that Barca played like lions and Real played like mice. This would be like Joe DiMaggio criticizing the Yankees in the 70s; it's a very big deal. Moreover, I suspect that di Stefano is in the Jorge Valdano camp at Real, so the column is likely a shot across the bow from figures at the club.

3. Mourinho has enrolled his kids at a school in Milan.

I'm not suggesting that Real are going to fire Mourinho, even if Los Meregues are kocked out of the Copa del Rey and Champions League by Barca. Florentino Perez may be many things, but he's not an idiot. However, things could get a little dicey such that Mourinho feels like he isn't getting sufficient support from the club. If that happens and Chelsea or Inter are waiting with open arms, then he might leave. At that point, I will do a one-person parade down Ponce de Leon Avenue in a full kit, chanting obscenities in other languages.

And now, enjoy a shot of Real fans with a blow-up Shakira.

No comments: