The clock was ticking down at the Camp Nou but Real Madrid’s spirit wasn’t. They were still hustling, running around to make their supporters proud, to make themselves proud.
Last week wasn’t exactly an ordinary week in the office for José Mourinho. After the terrible loss to Barcelona in the first leg of the Copa del Rey, Spanish newspaper Marca revealed a training session argument between the two stalwarts - Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas – and José Mourinho. The revelation threatened to disrupt the unity in the squad and rumors had it that Mourinho would be leaving and punishing the Spanish players in the next match. However, after 90 minutes at the Camp Nou, the rumors disappeared. Only the applause remained. Real Madrid lost the tie but won hearts at the Camp Nou.
It was quite evident that Mourinho had gone for an all-out attack and Real Madrid pressed very well from the start. FC Barcelona did give away a few favors but Gonzalo Higuain failed to capitalize on either of the occasions. El Pipita did not have a very good time on the pitch and was substituted with Karim Benzema, who brought an extra edge to the attack with his passing, movement and ball control.
More than an year ago, Benzema was the third choice striker behind Higuain and Adebayor. However, the tables have turned. Higuain has scored important goals for the capital side this season but Benzema has scored more important ones. He scored in the league Clásico and scored a beauty again. It is pretty evident that, no matter how good Higuain is, Benzema is a better bet in the important matches. Even in the Copa tie, he caused a lot of problems to the usually reliable pairing of Puyol and Pique.
It is Real’s biggest advantage that both their strikers are in fine form and more importantly fit. And then, there is also a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.
Granero – Addition To The Spanish Armada
Esteban Granero, inducted into the team alongside the neo-galacticos, had fallen down the pecking order under Mourinho. The injury to Sami Khedira was thought to be a blessing in disguise to the Castilla product; but he was still sidelined in favor of a more experienced Lass.
The rift between the team captains and Mourinho seemed to have worked well for Granero. Not only did he start against Athletic Bilbao, but also got a standing ovation when he was substituted. He had not played exceptionally well but the manager got the message.
Against Barcelona, Granero did not start but came in the second half and delivered a solid performance, thereby earning himself a starting berth against Zaragoza. It was against Zaragoza that the former Getafe player showed his true worth. Alongside Alonso, moving forward when required, making key interceptions, Granero bossed the midfield moving the ball at will. He made 100 passes with a passing accuracy of 91%. He also made the key pass to Kaká to set up the third goal for Real Madrid.
Granero is a natural central midfielder. He does not stay deep like Alonso or move between the lines like Özil. He acts as the link between defense and offense, constantly moving the ball and retaining possession unlike Lass. He provides a greater attacking threat than Lass or Khedira.
Granero is not the only Spanish player on whom this team has thrived. Sergio Ramos has been brilliant as a centre-back and Alvaro Arbeloa has added steel on the right side of defense. Xabi Alonso has not looked very sharp this season but his presence on the pitch is invaluable. Callejón, another Castilla product, has been nothing short of exceptional whenever on the pitch.
Real Madrid, last season had featured only three Spaniards regularly in their first team – Casillas, Ramos and Alonso. This season, the Portuguese manager has given the Spaniards a fair chance to prove their worth and the Spanish Armada has not disappointed.
Özil – The Real Metronome
Özil’s first year at Real Madrid was nothing short of sensational. He notched up assists at will and created more goal scoring opportunities than anybody in the league. But, in his second season, Mourinho tinkered with his tactics a bit. Instead of placing Özil at the centre of his plans, he put Alonso and Ronaldo. Against weaker teams, his tactics worked perfectly. But, against Barcelona, Real Madrid suffocated.
Mourinho, realising his mistake, made the crucial switch placing Özil as the nucleus of his team again. And the German playmaker ran rings around the Barca defense, opening space for himself and his partners. Real Madrid nearly clinched the contest. Özill was back to where he belonged.
In earlier matches, Ronaldo was afforded the luxury of not doing defensive duties. Özil, on the contrary, was running, defending and tiring himself out, as Mourinho looked to utilize Ronaldo’s pace to score. But, the ploy failed. Instead, the former Chelsea gaffer built his tactics around Özil, giving him maximum amount of freedom on the pitch. And the German did not disappoint!
A Renewed Ronaldo
Ronaldo is as important to Real Madrid as Messi is to Barcelona. The Portuguese ace has been in phenomenal form this season scoring goals at will. However, he’s also had a few bad games - most notably against Barcelona in the league. But, the former Manchester United winger has responded in style. He has allowed Mourinho the luxury of allowing Özil to dictate play by tracking back and putting all his effort into defending. It has been a welcome change and Mourinho needs to be credited for this remarkable turn around. The zest seems to be back and the hunger to win is clearly visible on Ronaldo’s face and his game. His reaction after Barcelona scored their first goal spoke volumes.
And then came the welcome news of Barcelona drawing against Villarreal. Real Madrid had already defeated Zaragoza 3-1, thereby opening a seven-point lead at the top of the table. The week which looked like heading for the worst actually turned out to be one of the best weeks for Real Madrid in recent history. They restored their pride against Barcelona, made their supporters proud with their brilliant display and managed to open a big lead over their bitter opponents.