Thursday, October 25, 2007

CL Wrap: The Return of Capello's Boys

Real Madrid downed Olympiakos 4-2 on Wednesday night, seemingly with same spirit (and good fortunes) that marked the 2007 La Liga title.

Madrid got off to a great start, with Raul knocking in the 1-0 in the 2nd minute of play.

Things were looking good, as the team had momentum in front of their home crowd, and an early lead to build on.

That's when everything went wrong. Olympiakos equalized in the 7th minute, and then had Vassilas Torosidis sent off in the 13th. I assumed that meant that Madrid would go ahead and win handily, taking advantage of the extra man.

Instead, Madrid played the same sort of ugly, fruitless football that plagued them for stretches of last season and this season. They allowed Olympiakos to go up 2-1 on a Julio C├ęsar free kick deflection, along the way exposing a shaky defense ravaged by injury.

Sergio Ramos, usually a key component to the offense with his explosive runs up the flank, was shifted into the center of defense. He wasn't able to support the attack as he would have liked, and it was little-used Michel Salgado who was bombing up the wing, without any success.

The team continued to play some awful football, unable to put up much of an offensive attack until Robinho headed home the equalizer in the 68th.

Robinho energized the squad, and they started to play some exciting, attacking football. The midfield came alive, and in the blink of an eye, Guti, Sneijder, and Gago were delivering gorgeous long-range passes to the wingers. Robinho, enjoying this support from the midfield engine, later scored the 3-2 in the 83rd.

The fun was just beginning, as Madrid had to withstand a wave of dangerous attacks from the 10-man Olympiakos squad. Iker Casillas made some absolutely incredible saves, drawing a deafening ovation from the Madrid fans at the Bernabeu.

It was the kind of nervous excitement Real Madrid fans came to expect towards the end of the 2006-2007 league run under Fabio Capello. I can't lie, it was absolutely breathtaking football. Occasionally beautiful, sometimes hideous, but always with an entertaining finish.

Javier Balboa, who replaced Wesley Sneijder in the 82nd, scored the 4-2 and secured the victory in the 90th.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Madrid-Olympiakos: Crucial CL Clash

Group C co-leaders (4 points each from two matches) Real Madrid and Olympiakos will meet at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid on Wednesday. Madrid are coming into this match in dire form, dropping their match Saturday against Espanyol (see match recap) amidst a flurry of injuries and poor play.

Half of the starting 10 outfield players manager Bernd Schuster envisioned before the season are out with injuries.

Just this weekend they lost center back Fabio Cannavaro and defensive midfielder Diarra, both out of the match with Olympiakos. These injuries are added to the long list of walking wounded, as starting left back Gabriel Heinze, center back Pepe, and left winger Arjen Robben are also out.

Madrid CL Results:

Madrid's Champions League run has produced mixed results, much like their start to the Spanish League. They downed Werder Bremen 2-1 at home in their first match, winning but not winning convincingly. They followed that by drawing 2-2 with Lazio in Rome, a match that was theirs for the taking.

The draw at Lazio was painful, given that defensive lapses caused the team to twice blow leads and eventually settle for a draw.

Squad vs. Olympiakos:

The defense is going to be makeshift at best against Olympiakos on Wednesday, as Schuster will likely have to move Sergio Ramos from his preferred right back position into the center of defense, alongside Christoph Metzelder. A combination of Michel Salgado, Marcelo, or Miguel Torres will be covering the right and left back slots.

The midfield will likely comprise of Guti and Gago in the middle, with Wesley Sneijder and either Gonzalo Higuain or Robinho on the flanks.

Ruud van Nistelrooy and Raul will likely play up front, but it is worth noting Schuster brought in little used striker Roberto Soldado late in the game during the weekend. Given the dire performances recently, it would not be surprising to see Schuster make more ample use of his backup strikers, meaning Soldado and Javier Saviola may see minutes if the offensive struggles to produce.

Schuster should give Julio Baptista some minutes, as his outstanding effort and goal-scoring ability would be a welcome addition to the starting rotation. Odds are Baptista won't see a minute of time, but he could be a difference maker if given the chance.

Olympiakos Update:

For their part, Olympiakos just recently ended an 11-year, 31 match winless streak in Champions League away matches. They beat Werder Bremen 1-3 at Bremen, and they are starting to believe in themselves. Olympiakos striker Lomana LuaLua said, "You always want to face teams like Real Madrid because they're one of the best sides in the world, but we really believe we can beat anyone. We've already shown we can win away from home, so why not?"

They currently sit second in the Super Greece League, 4 points behind A.E.K Athens. They won the 2006-2007 Super Greece League title, and hence earned a Champions League berth.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Espanyol-Madrid Recap: Return of Poor Play

Well, per my prediction Madrid lost to Espanyol 2-1 in what was arguably their most lackluser performance of the season. This loss seemed to be inevitable coming into the match. Madrid has been on a downward slope since the beginning of the season, and Espanyol has become somewhat of a giant killer in this young season, taking down Valencia, Sevilla, and now Madrid. Also, Madrid was hit hard during the international break due to injuries and the "incident in Rio." Robben, Heinze, Robinho and Baptista all succumbed to the curse of the international break.

Madrid's game was thrown off when Albert Riera put in a header for Espanyol in the first minute of play. The rest of the game was mostly one-sided with most of possession and the scoring chances going to Espanyol. The midfield was simply shocking for Madrid. Sneijdner did nothing, Guti spent more time rolling on the ground asking for calls than actually creating anything, and Diarra was decent but got hurt in a collision and his play suffered. The only spark in the middle was Higuain, who was active but not good enough.

Early in the second half, Raul Tamudo put in a beautifully crafted goal just out of the reach of Casillas. That turned out to be the game winner, as even after the goal, Madrid's game was sluggish and unimpressive for most of the half. This changed in the 90th minute when Sergio Ramos (the only Madrid player who played well the entire game) put one in on a corner kick with a left-footed volley he redirected into the net. The first goal put some life back into the team and they seemed to have that Capello-era belief that they could win. However it was too little too late, and shortly after the goal the final whistle blew.

Madrid's run of getting results despite weak play appears to have come to an end. This week's Champions League tie will be a very big test for them, as we get to see how they'll react to their first setback of the year. An interesting story to watch is what will come of Baptista and Robinho. It was clear in the game on Saturday that Robinho was needed to inject some life into the team. However we still don't know exactly why he and Baptista missed their flight and what Schuster will do in response.