Real Madrid’s Corner: Pre-Clasico Waves Begin!

In 2008-09, Barcelona had won everything that could be won, and hence became the undisputed champions of club football. Their style was termed immaculately impressive and their team was described as one of the best teams to have played club football ever. With players like Eto, Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Puyol under the guidance of club legend Pep Guardiola, who was coaching a senior team for the first time, they conquered everything. They finished with 87 points in 38 matches with an astonishing goal difference of +70; compare this with the stats of the second best team that season – the eternal rivals, Real Madrid C.F, who managed 78 points with a goal difference of only +31. Also, Real Madrid had crashed out of the Champions League again in the round of 16 against Liverpool without scoring a goal against the English giants. It was no wonder Florentino Perez took upon himself the task of restoring Real Madrid to their glory and knock Barcelona off their perch.

This is the second year after Perez took over Real Madrid and restarted the galactic era, now termed as the Neo-Galactic era. This weekend, one of the fiercest derbies in world football will take place. As a build up to the El-Clasico, we would be analyzing the progress of Real Madrid in the pre-clasico-I period in 2009 and the pre-clasico-I period in 2010.

Apr. 10, 2010 - Madrid, Spain - MADRID, (SPAIN) 10/04/2010.- FC Barcelona midfielder Xavier Hernandez (R) fights for the ball with Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo (L) of Real Madrid during their First Division soccer League match played at Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain on 10 April 2010.
Can Ronaldo prove to be the distinguishing factor or will it be Xavi?

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Pre-Clasico-I 2009:

Florentino Perez returned to Real Madrid as President, and made his intentions clear with the signing of Manuel Pellegrini, the then Villarreal manager, by buying out Villarreal’s 4 million euros clause on Pellegrini. He then went on a super shopping spree, bringing in every marquee name available on the planet and splurging 250 million euros in the process. He assembled a team of super stars who were either BallonD’or winners or who were touted to be one someday, the most notable ones being Ronaldo and Kaka.

As the season kicked off, Real Madrid began demolishing opponents; they crushed Espanyol 3-0, Zurich 5-1 and Xerex 5-0. Real Madrid was playing an attractive brand of football which was pleasing to the eye. Kaka was in terrific form and Ronaldo was breathing fire. People began to wonder if this team could stop Barcelona, and Madridistas were already dreaming of a Champions league final at their home ground. But a loss against Milan at home proved to be a setback for Pellegrini and his ambitious outfit.

People began to realize that the defense of Madrid could be infiltrated, and that Madrid is definitely not invincible. The real blow and the most humiliating of them all came in the Copa Del Rey, when Real Madrid was humiliated by a third tier club Alcorcon 4-0. Real Madrid’s defense was split open, and Alcorcon ran riot. AS and MARCA called for the head of Pellegrini and ran a campaign asking for him to be sacked. But Perez stood firm; he was willing to give more time to Pellegrini, fondly referred to as ‘The Engineer’.

The calming nature of Pellegrini didn’t help matters either. The defeat to Alcorcon had great consequences for the club. Guti revolted against the gaffer, and was promptly dropped. The manager appeared not to have the total support and confidence of his players, and it looked as if the players had lost conviction in themselves. The Alcorcon disaster is considered by many as the lowest point of Real Madrid last season. Teams began to realize that the Madrid defense had no proper plan and organization, and were more interested in stopping the opposition rather than defending their goal. Tackles were reckless and ill timed. Madrid was knocked out of the Copa Del Rey on aggregate.

As the Clasico’s date drew closer, Madrid managed to draw against Milan and escape with 1-0 wins against Racing and Zurich, with Higuain on target in both the matches. Ronaldo was injured and was unsure of starting against Barcelona in the Clasico. But, Kaka was in great form, and was providing the necessary creativity from midfield.

Pellegrini had made some impressive tactical changes in his first team since he took over. He noticed that Marcelo was better off going forward; as a result, Marcelo played on the left wing while Arbeloa started at left back, and Pepe and Albiol were deployed in the centre. Ramos occupied the right back position. In spite of being a good tactician, Pellegrini lacked a very solid defensive organization, and the defenders ended up making mistakes; there was no proper man to hold the defense together. Iker Casillas was as solid as usual, and the opposition found it extremely difficult to score against inarguably one of the best goal keepers in the world. Lass Diarra and Xabi Alonso occupied the midfield, with Ronaldo on the right and Kaka as a central attacking midfielder and Higuain as the striker. Benzema had failed to impress consistently and was hence dropped to the bench in favor of Higuain. Raul was also forced to start on the bench, as Higuain was beginning to hit a purple patch.

As Real Madrid headed to the Camp Nou for the season’s first Clasico, Ronaldo was declared fit to start, and Real Madrid were all set to go and try to beat Barcelona at their home. It was a fiercely contested match, with Ronaldo missing a glorious opportunity and Ibrahimovic coming off the bench to score a neat volley in 56th minute, which ultimately decided the match in favor of Barcelona.

Pre Clasico 2009 was a start of a new era for Real Madrid, and the string of impressive results in the beginning had given Madridistas lot of hope. Real Madrid played well in the first Clasico but was unlucky to lose to Barcelona. However, their performance echoed optimism and belief that the team was on the right track.

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Pre Clasico-I 2010:

Pellegrini, in spite of managing a mammoth 96 points, was sacked, as Real Madrid again failed to qualify beyond the round of 16 in the Champions league and came second to Barcelona in the La Liga. Perez went for Jose Mourinho, the self proclaimed ‘Special One’, who had just won a treble with Inter Milan and made a desperate attempt to stop the Barca juggernaut.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi scores a goal against Villarreal during their Spanish first division soccer match at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, November 13, 2010. REUTERS/Albert Gea (SPAIN - Tags: SPORT SOCCER)
It will be tough for the Madrid defence to contain Messi

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As soon as Mourinho took over, he made some very promising signings in Di Maria, Khedira, Ozil, and Leon. And after an unsuccessful attempt to sign Maicon, Mourinho went for his trusted commander-in-defense, Ricardo Carvalho. The first thing Mourinho did was to assign specific roles to each player in the team, and ensure that every team member stick to their roles and perform their tasks efficiently. He brought a sense of discipline to the training ground and made himself accessible to his players.

Real Madrid’s start to the season wasn’t as exciting as the previous season, as their opening match against Mallorca ended in a dull draw. The results weren’t convincing enough, and people began to question the tactics of Mourinho, who had gained reputation as a defensive coach. But the thrust to Real Madrid’s campaign was provided by a 6-1 drubbing of Deportivo, and Madrid finally looked as the team to watch out for. Ozil, Di Maria and Ronaldo started combining well and the results were there to be seen. Milan were hammered 2-0, and Malaga and Racing were crushed. Mourinho seemed to inculcate a never-say-die spirit to the team and the players seemed to respond to it as well as respect ‘The Special One’.

The tactics of Mourinho clearly reflected in his signings. Carvalho provided the ability to hold the defense together, while signing Khedira is already looking as the best decision of the year. Khedira tackles clean and has the ability to stop the offense as well as provide an option in attack, making him an indispensible resource in the starting XI. Mourinho put Marcelo back in defense and employed Di Maria on the right and Ronaldo on the left as inverted wingers. Kaka got injured, and hence Ozil was a natural replacement for the Brazilian; the German became an instant crowd favorite with his silk touches and a needle sharp final ball. Benzema was made to train hard, and he has now become the super-sub of the neo-Galacticos. Leon scored the decisive goal against Milan in stoppage time to continue Mourinho’s unbeaten run until now. Madrid has found a new sense of belief and a hunger to win under Mourinho, and the win against Sporting Gijon proved just that.

Mourinho has employed a standard 4-2-3-1, which was also employed by Pellegrini last year; but he now has pacy players who can tear apart the opposition in a counter attack. Di Maria’s game brings another dimension to the attack of Real Madrid, which Marcelo couldn’t do last term. Pepe has grown immensely and has formed a formidable defense partnership with Carvalho.

As the Clasico draws near, Barcelona have been kind of patchy, but hit the right note against Almeria with a 8-0 drubbing, while Madrid demolished Bilbao 5-1. This year’s Clasico is not only a battle between two great clubs but also two great managers, who will be out to prove a point to the world. Both the teams are evenly matched, and this year’s Clasico promises to be the most exciting match in a long time. Real Madrid seem to be more confident, more organized and more hungry to prove themselves than last year, and have their players in top form at the moment.

And the recently concluded 4-0 win at the spectacular Amsterdam Arena was the perfect icing on Real’s hugely successful Champions League campaign group stages which gives them the perfect impetus to face mighty Barcelona.

Let the mind games begin as we hope for the best team to come out on top in what should be a classic ‘El Clasico’.

HALA MADRID!

Rizwan Ahmed

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