Real Madrid and other Liga musings - Week 18
Well, that certainly was an impressive layoff... Chalk it up to holiday hangover and being a little busier than I had anticipated.
Ah well, on to more important things. La Liga is back and Real Madrid actually looked quite a bit better after the layoff. Then again, it would have been hard to look worse than they did in their final games of 2005 (drawing with 10-man Osasuna and losing to relegation-threatened Racing, both at home).
Let's start off with their match at Villarreal.Villarreal 0 - Real Madrid 0
Despite the scoreline, this was actually a very good match, with both teams creating several opportunities, and a couple of inspired keepers maintaining their clean sheets. Riquelme was probably the best man on the pitch (other than the keepers) - but only for the first hour, afterwhich he was not only ineffectual, but almost impossible to even find on the pitch. This has been a criticism of his (mainly in his games for country) - that he disappears and the team becomes lost. Perhaps it's a question of stamina (?). (Almost) fortunately for Villarreal fans, Jose Mari really came on and created loads of danger with his runs and passes through the white defense. The only part that was missing for the home team was the finishing. Forlán, in particular, was rather stunningly incompetent as his side's main striker.
As for Madrid's efforts, there was quite a change in the lineup, and it mostly seemed to work. The biggest changes were in the very middle of the pitch. López Caro opted for Woodgate and Ramos at the back, putting Helguera in his old role of pivote
, but this time, there was no partner for this position. Instead, Zidane and Guti played in front of him in a more attacking role, though it must be said that Guti ended up coming back more than really surging ahead, while Zidane seemed to be much more offensive-minded. Not to sound ungrateful, but we had suspension to thank for Beckham's absence from the right side of the pitch, giving way to Robinho, with Baptista on the left. Very soon in the match, however, it became apparant that Baptista and Zidane would do a lot of switching, thus allowing Baptista's brawn to take up space in the middle of the pitch. Ronaldo was the lone striker, having passed a fitness test a few days earlier.
Everything seemed to work pretty well, in fact. Well, other than Baptista (more on him later) - and some other poor finishing. Madrid controlled the center of the pitch, Zidane and Guti teams up (along with RC on a couple runs up the left) to create danger, and Robinho was playing creatively over on the right. Villarreal, for their part also had their chances, most notably a beautiful "almost-goal" by Riquelme (not only the shot, but the build-up was also superb). Still, it can be said that Madrid were the better side overall.
Alas, even the best-laid plans can go awry, can they not? Ronaldo broke again in the middle of the opening half, so Baptista was moved up to the striker position, Zidane came permanently into the middle, Robinho changed sides, and Cicinho made his debut along the right (in front of Salgado, if you're wondering). I was happy to see the Brazilian get a run out on the right, but the two things I feared would hurt play (Robinho on the left, and Baptista alone up front) ended up doing exactly that. Robinho isn't all-out bad
on the left, it's just that he can be very special on the right. Meanwhile Baptista will continue to be my own personal whipping boy until he actually proves he can play the game. The poor bugger is simply lost. He doesn't create his own chances; he doesn't often make incisive runs for through passes, which makes the people behind him look bad because all they can do is pass the ball 1) to the wings or 2) to Baptista's leadweight feet while he has his back to the goal; finally, when the occasional opportunity does
finally come his way (and he had a golden chance in this game), he invariably comes up with a unique and wholly unexpected way to flush it. He must surely be rueing the day he chose Madrid over Arsenal (I know I am).
The second half saw Sorín substituted out of the yellow lineup, which in a way was too bad, as I am a fan of his, but Pelligrini surely knows better than I, for his side came out much stronger, creating loads of chances and surely causing a few merengue hearts to run aflutter. Madrid seemed to run out of legs (a common occurrence this season, to be sure), and Villarreal pounced on a number of missed passes in the center of the pitch. Forlán managed to do his best Baptista impression, however, and Casillas was up to the task when the ball did manage to get through, and then, something rather special happened. Soldado was brought in for Robinho (Baptista would have been my rather unoriginal choice, but still a pretty good decision), Gravesen was brought in for Helguera a few minutes later, Villarreal ran completely out of gas, and Madrid starting connecting a few passes together, making a few runs, and oh-so-nearly saw Soldado put one in after a nice pass from Guti. Makes you wonder what the outcome might have been if Soldado had been playing upfront from the get-go. My uncle once said the top striker has to have the mentality of an assassin - he said this back in the day Vieri was playing (and scoring) for Atlético - Soldado has the look.
Two players I would take to build a team: Sorín and Riquelme.
Elsewhere around the league, we saw Barcelona taking the local derby from Espanyol at the Montjuic. They'll win the league (and perhaps more), but I think they miss Xavi in the middle.
Deportivo continues with its impressive recovery from last year's poor campaign, as they won away to Athletic 1-2.
Valencia was unable to do more than scrape out a goalless draw against food-poisoned Atleti. Aimar was apparently tightly marked and ineffective for most of the match.
And poor Alavés continued its abysmal run at home, this time losing 0-2 to Zaragoza. Chuchi Cos is now out as manager, but it's hard to see them scraping together enough points to climb out of the relegation zone.
------------------Teams in form
Zaragoza - quietly moving up, and now in 9th place, sneaking closer to the European spots
Deportivo - breathing down Valencia's neck
Barcelona - until they lose, they have to remain on this list!