Distinct identities of top European clubs

Part of the charm of club football is that each football club has a distinct identity that is often adopted and justified by its fans, whether they are long-term supporters or glory-hunting bandwagoners. This tongue-in-cheek article runs the rule over a selection of top European clubs and their distinct identities. Before attacking me because your club has been slighted, note that I am a supporter of one of the clubs covered here.

 FC Barcelona – the wannabe underdogs

 FC Barcelona love to think of themselves as the underdog, despite producing arguably the best team in club football history very recently and still enjoying the services of the most talented player of his generation. The renowned “Barca DNA” has as much to do with a chronic victim complex as it does with tiki-taka and triangular passing. To this day, the club still laments how Real Madrid poached Alfredo Di Stefano – in 1953.

Di Stefano will continue to be the subject of Barca’s lamentations long after he’s gone.

Star defender Gerard Pique recently lamented that Barca “have never had the chance to spend lots of money”. He has a point, if one chooses to ignore that Barca have spent 650 million euros on players since 2003, a figure second only to one club…

 Real Madrid – the elitists

 Let’s be honest, Real Madrid and Barca are both elitist clubs. Fans of both teams go to the stadium and behave like they’re watching an opera, only cheering when they see something that they like. Then, it’s back to the cigars and pumpkin seeds. Difference is, the people who run Real Madrid don’t even make any effort to hide their elitism and pretentiousness. Real Madrid continues to hoot its horn about being named by FIFA as the Best Club of the 20th Century, even though we’re nearly 15 years into the next century. To top it off, club president Florentino Perez once had the gall to ask FIFA to suspend all official matches worldwide on December 18 2002 to mark Real Madrid’s centenary year.

Bayern Munich – the smug perfectionists

 Bayern Munich’s earned status as the best team in the world has their perfectionist fans gloating. The team plays attractive football, defends as a unit and produces world-class homegrown players. Moreover, many of the people who run the club are legendary ex-players. Bayern Munich is truly the prototype of how a football club should be run. The fact that the club gets absolutely free reign to poach all the best players from their Bundesliga competition is a moot point. Mario Goetze grew up a Bayern fan they say, so that makes it ok for them to poach Goetze a week before playing the team that moulded him – Borussia Dortmund – in the Champions League final.

Borussia Dortmund – the hipsters’ choice

Borussia Dortmund’s great performances of late mean they are far and away the hippest team around. This is a club that produces talented homegrown players year after year despite seeing them leave before they hit their peak- yet still manages to play attractive, winning football. The fact that their coach favours large glasses seals the deal. Borussia Dortmund, the hipsters’ team of choice.

No self-respecting hipster can resist the scruffy beard and large classes of BvB’s coach.

Manchester United – the history-lovers

From attractive pass-and-play football to 81 pointless crosses into the box, Manchester United have fallen a long way. David Moyes’ team has little to offer in the present and doesn’t appear to have a very rosy future. But that’s ok, because Man U fans can always turn to history to provide them solace. It doesn’t matter if Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool and even Tottenham or Everton finish about them. History is on Manchester United’s side, and that’s all that counts.

 Chelsea – the pragmatists

 When Chelsea won the Champions League title in 2012, every football fan who wasn’t a Chelsea fan recognized that it was the first time in many years that the team that won the Champions League wasn’t actually the best team in the competition. But Chelsea fans will say winning is all that counts, and they have a manager who fully supports that outlook. Ever the pragmatist, Jose “the Special One” Mourinho doesn’t feel guilty at shunting out the club’s most talented attacking player or launching vicious, uncalled-for verbal jibes at rival coaches. Winning is all that counts. And with Chelsea looking good to win the Premier League title this season, it’s an argument that looks to live on.

 Manchester City – the shit-disturbers

 While fans of the traditional powerhouses scorn Manchester City for selling out to wealthy Middle Eastern owners, Sky Blues supporters justify the club’s recent emergence as an elite team by extolling the virtues of capitalization and globalization. No matter that most Man City fans can’t pronounce the word “Etihad” or locate the United Arab Emirates on a map – they’ll find many ways to convince you that Man City’s foreign ownership simply makes them an inclusive, tolerant and forward-looking club.

FYI Man City fans – Abu Dhabi is not a country, it’s the capital of a country called the United Arab Emirates.

 Arsenal – the philosophers.

 Arsenal fans are adept at justifying style over substance, even though their team has spent several years lagging behind their competitors on both fronts. 8 trophy-less seasons is not an issue, Gunners fans say, because it’s all about building a team for the future. Arsene Wenger has seemingly spent the better part of a decade building a team for the future. With players like Ashley Cole, Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie and even Kyle Bartley leaving the club and winning silverware elsewhere, there’s no telling when the future will actually arrive for the Gunners.

 

 

 

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Gonzalo Higuain: a tribute to El Pipita

In December 2007, Real Madrid announced that they had signed a trio of promising young South American players. Easily the biggest of the three names was Fernando Gago, an elegant deep-lying playmaker who was touted as “the next Fernando Redondo”. Then there was the promising full-back Marcelo, who had caught the eye in Brazil with his energetic attacking displays on the left flank. He was to be “the next Roberto Carlos”.

And then there was Gonzalo Higuain – the next… nobody.

Gago was "the" big signing of the winter of 2006.

Gago was “the” big signing of the winter of 2006.

An awkward-looking player without a superstar-sounding name, Higuain was by far the most obscure name of the trio. Not that he was a complete mope, far from it – he was a starting centre-forward for River Plate no less, and announced his talents by scoring against their old foes Boca Juniors in the Superclasico. Nevertheless, his was the name that captured the least imagination in Madrid.

We often hear the term “born to play for Real Madrid” bandied about by fans, ex-players and club bigwigs (I’m looking at you Florentino Perez). Apparently there have been tons of players who were “born to play for Real Madrid”. Some, like Francesco Totti and Neymar, clearly thought otherwise. Others - like Kaka and the aforementioned Gago - played for Real Madrid alright… but not particularly well.  

Higuain, one of the least high-profile and least hyped Real Madrid signings, was different.

Turns out Neymar was born to play for Barcelona, not Real Madrid.

Turns out Neymar was born to play for Barcelona, not Real Madrid.

“El Pipita” made his debut in La Liga in January 2007. In his debut game and the games that followed, he was rather wasteful and nervy in front of goal. But what stood out was the manner in which he got himself into goal-scoring positions, making intelligent runs and reading his new teammates’ play with great perceptiveness. And then there was the work rate that set him apart from most strikers.

But there was something else… something abstract and undefinable about the player that really stood out to Madridistas who had been crying out for a new young idol, one that was “made” in Real Madrid and not picked up after proving himself at another top European club. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly it was about him that made him so appealing.

And then, while watching one of his games in early 2007, my roommate at the time Sushil made an astute observation – in the simplest of language – that hit the nail on the head.

“He looks right in the Real Madrid shirt.”

Higuain - actually born to play for Real Madrid.

Higuain – actually born to play for Real Madrid.

For me personally, part of the reason for my soft spot for Higuain has always been the fact that he was the first player born after I was to play for Real Madrid. But the main reason has to be his epic performances towards the end of his debut season, in what was a historic season for Real Madrid.

During that 2006-07 season, Real Madrid were involved in one of the most tense La Liga races ever. Every one of the last 7-8 games were absolute must-wins for the team to keep pace with Barcelona and stand any chance of winning the league title and ending their miserable four-year trophy drought.

In May 2007, Real Madrid played Espanyol at the Santiago Bernabeu. The score was 3-3 and the game was all but over, as were Real Madrid’s title hopes. It was then that Higuain delivered one of the most memorable goals in Real Madrid’s recent history to keep their title hopes alive.

The 90th minute winner was Higuain’s first goal at the Santiago Bernabeu, and is still remembered fondly by every Madridista who watched that game whether at the stadium or on television. The goal showed all of Higuain’s four best attributes – his unwillingness to give up, work rate, intelligent running and clinical finishing. Under immense pressure, Higuain scored the goal that brought the Bernabeu to its feet in a way that no goal since has. Ruud Van Nistelrooy, one of the finest strikers of his generation, spent a good thirty seconds holding Higuain’s shirt aloft and displaying it to the crowd, as if to say “my successor has arrived”.

Van Nistelrooy holds Higuain's jersey aloft.

Indeed Van Nistelrooy played a huge role in Higuain’s development, mentoring the young striker and giving him the confidence he needed to succeed in the pressure-cooker environment of the Santiago Bernabeu.

“Ruud told me that goals are like ketchup. Sometimes as much as you try, nothing comes out. Then it comes out all at once.”
- Gonzalo Higuain

In 2008-09, Higuain’s proverbial ketchup bottle well and truly exploded. Despite the summer arrivals of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema, it was Higuain who was the club’s top scorer that season. Ironically, it was an injury to Van Nistelrooy that led to Higuain becoming a first XI player. Van Nistelrooy never regained his starting position, and left the club after that season. 

Fast forward to 2011-12, Higuain’s second season under Jose Mourinho. El Pipita scored 22 league goals and played a vital role as Real Madrid romped to the La Liga title, setting a points record of 100 (equalled by Barcelona this season).

However, all was not well. Despite his heroics in La Liga, Higuain was admittedly very disappointing in the Champions League, fluffing important goalscoring chances in several key Champions League games over the seasons. During the 2011-12 season, Mourinho more often than not selected Benzema ahead of Higuain in Champions League games. El Pipita was stung by this, and by the unfair amount of criticism that was leveled at him. Indeed he never felt fully appreciated by the club’s top brass. Despite Mourinho saying that “only a stupid coach would sell Higuain”, speculation was rife that the Argentine would ask to leave in the summer.

However, following Real Madrid’s final league game of the season and the celebrations that followed, the fans at the Santiago Bernabeu made it clear that they wanted Higuain to stay. I was one of the 80,000 fans at the stadium who yelled themselves hoarse calling for Higuain to stay as he joined his victorious teammates in the middle of the field during the post-match celebrations.

Ololololololooololooo, Ooololololololooololoo, Pipita Higuain! Pipita Higuain! Pipiiita Higuaaiiiiiin!
- Santiago Bernabeu, May 13, 2012

Higuain admitted in the days that followed that he had seriously been considering his future at the club, but was convinced to stay thanks partly to the outpouring of affection of the fans towards him that night.

However just over a year following that memorable night at the Bernabeu, Higuain has announced his decision to leave Real Madrid. It’s been a difficult season for El Pipita, who was slaughtered by the fans and press after missing a one-on-one chance against Borussia Dortmund in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal. Years of not being fully appreciated by the club took its toll, and led Higuain to say the following:

“I wanted to go last year but I was convinced to stay by the fans, coach and my teammates. But this year, I changed my mind. It is too tense at the club. I made the decision with my family.

The club knows I want to go. These seven years have been intense, heavy. I’ve thought hard before making this decision. It’s hard but I want a new team, new challenges. This is because of the other things I do not want to talk about.”

By “the other things”, Higuain ostensibly was referring to his constant under-appreciation by club president Florentino Perez, and the fact that he has been made the scapegoat for Real Madrid’s inability to win their long-awaited 10th Champions League title. It is undeniable that Higuain’s performances in the Champions League – 8 goals and 4 assists in 48 games – have been hugely disappointing. However, it’s easy to forget that while it feels like he has been around forever, he is only 25 and still to reach his peak as a striker. It’s also easy to forget that his goalscoring rate in La Liga for Real Madrid is similar to that of Brazilian legend Ronaldo.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has never rated Higuain.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has never rated Higuain.

Higuain may yet flourish in the Champions League in a team where he is made the focal point of the attack. At the time of writing, his most likely destination appears to be Serie A champs Juventus, even though there are several other clubs including Arsenal and Manchester City who are understood to be vying for his services.

Higuain arrived at Real Madrid a virtual nobody, and was actually expected to play for the reserve team rather than first team. However his performances in training forced coach Fabio Capello to thrust him into the big time, and he never looked back. He now leaves Real Madrid a world-class striker, the club’s 14th-highest all-time goalscorer, and the starting centre-forward for the Argentine national team alongside his good friend Lionel Messi.

Higuain starts alongside Messi for the Argentine national team.

Higuain starts alongside Messi for the Argentine national team.

Real Madrid will surely regret letting go of Higuain just before he hit his peak years. After bringing the Argentine to Europe and overseeing his development into a world-class striker, most of us hoped that the club would do what it took to hold on to him and reap the benefits of his talents. However that isn’t the case. Apparently Higuain simply isn’t Galactico enough to be appreciated at Real Madrid.

What is perhaps most unfortunate is that Higuain will not get the kind of farewell he truly deserves. His final goal came in Real Madrid’s concluding La Liga fixture last weekend against Real Mallorca. Higuain, who wore the captain’s armband in the absences of Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos, didn’t bother celebrating.

He leaves as he arrived, with little fanfare.

Higuain’s sad expression after the goal was a stark contrast to the ebullient celebrations we have come to expect from the likeable Argentine. Perhaps he was sad because he knew it was his last goal at the club that turned him into a star. Perhaps he was sad at years of being under-valued and criticized despite his exemplary attitude and league-winning performances. Most likely, it was a combination of the two.

Following the game, Higuain told journalists in the mixed zone that he would be leaving, setting off a flurry of rumours over who Real Madrid would sign to replace him. Luis Suarez of Liverpool and Edinson Cavani of Napoli appear to be the top targets. Whoever his replacement is, they will have an extremely difficult task at their hands matching his performances and winning the fans’ adoration like he did.

El Pipita will be sorely missed. Here’s wishing him success wherever he goes, at a club that will hopefully appreciate his talents and personality more than Real Madrid could.

Here are some of his best goals for Real Madrid:

[Fast forward to 3:15 in this vid]

Gracias Higuain

Gracias Higuain

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3 achievements and failures of Mourinho’s tenure at Real Madrid

Florentino Perez has just announced what we’ve known for long – that Real Madrid and Mourinho are indeed parting ways. Mourinho’s position at Real Madrid has appeared untenable in the wake of a hugely disappointing season where the team was out of the La Liga race as early as December, exited the Champions League at the semi-final stage for the third consecutive season and lost the Copa del Rey final to Atletico Madrid in extra-time – their first defeat to Atletico Madrid since 1999.

The time is therefore right to look back at Mourinho’s tenure and point out some of his achievements and mistakes. I’ve selected three of each in this quick post.

ACHIEVEMENTS

  1. Ending Barcelona’s hegemony

    Mourinho was brought in to do two very specific things: end Barcelona’s dominance in Spanish football, and bring Real Madrid its long-awaited 10th Champions League. He succeeded in the former (more on the latter in the “Failures” section of this post).

    Last season, Mou’s Real Madrid romped to the La Liga title while smashing various records along the way, including points total for the season (100, beating Barcelona’s 99 the season before) and goals scored (121, smashing the previous record of 108 that stood for over 20 years).

    La Liga 2011-12 - the highlight of Mou's tenure

    La Liga 2011-12 – the highlight of Mou’s tenure

    Mou spearheaded Real Madrid’s resurgence in Clasicos, with Los Merengues currently on an 8-match undefeated streak against their Catalan rivals. Whereas Real Madrid previously took to the field against Barca trying only to mitigate the scale of their defeat, Mourinho gave Real Madrid the confidence to take their game to Barca and it has produced undeniable results.

  2. Bringing in excellent signings for the present and future

    Mou has done very well for Real Madrid in the transfer market. He brought in the likes of Di Maria, Ozil, Khedira, Coentrao, Callejon and Modric. All are very young and have tremendous upside. And while it is unlikely that all six will still be at the club this season, Mou still deserves credit for laying the foundations for what could be a frighteningly strong Real Madrid side for the next several seasons.

    One name is missing from the above list of players, and that’s because he deserves special focus…

  3. Raphael Varane

    While Zinedine Zidane may have been the man who brought then-unknown Varane to Real Madrid, it was Mourinho who had the courage to play the baby-faced Frenchman in place of the experienced Pepe in several big clashes this term against the likes of Barcelona and Manchester United.

    Raphel Varane has been European football's biggest find this season.

    Raphel Varane has been European football’s biggest find this season.

    Prior to this season, Varane showed signs of his serious potential in several games against weaker opposition. But his performances against Barcelona in particular have boosted his confidence and have made it clear to the world that in Raphael Varane, Real Madrid have a 19-year-old who looks dead cert to become the best defender in the world, and could be the lynchpin of the team’s defensive line for the next decade.

    Mourinho will go down in history as the coach who gave Varane his start at Real Madrid.

FAILURES

  1. No La Decima

    Mou’s failure to deliver La Decima will go down as his biggest failure at Real Madrid.

    Three consecutive semi-final appearances is a massive achievement, coming as they did after several seasons of not even making the quarterfinals, but the fact is that Mourinho fell short of his primary goal, which was to bring home La Decima.

    In 2010-11, Real Madrid were undone by some high quality play-acting and diving from Barcelona players coupled with very shoddy refereeing. In 2011-12, the team were a penalty shoot-out away from the final with the squad’s two strongest penalty kick-takers Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka both conspiring to miss. But Real Madrid’s poor away performance in the first leg this season against Dortmund was hugely disappointing and as head coach, Mourinho takes responsibility.

  2. Tactically one-dimensional

    Mourinho’s Real Madrid is arguably the best counter-attacking side in the world, and has mastered the art of turning defence into attack with speed and dynamism. However, the team has constantly struggled against teams that sit back and pack the box with defenders.

    Real Madrid’s tactical setup calls for space for its attackers to run into and when this space is taken away, the team struggles. In three seasons at Real Madrid, Mourinho has not been able to find a way to consistently break down park-the-bus defences.

  3. Off-the-pitch drama

    From the Vilanova eye-poke to the Barca/UNICEF rant to his public comments on Casillas and Pepe, Mourinho has needlessly given Spain’s ruthless football journalists plenty of fodder for their stories.

    Mourinho has seemingly failed to recognize that Real Madrid is not Inter Milan, Chelsea or Porto, where good results mean that any drama will be forgiven and forgotten. Real Madrid is a club that is intensely conscious of its image, and the majority of football followers will agree that Mourinho’s words and actions have hurt the club’s image.

    eye poke

    The eye-poke – not a Real Madrid thing to do

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Why Casillas’ benching was justified

Much has been said and written about Jose Mourinho this week following his brutal assessments of Iker Casillas and Pepe, and more subtle jibes at the media, fan base and the club president.

This post is not about Mourinho’s behaviour and his many questionable comments and poor decisions off the pitch. It’s not about his next coaching destination, the handsome settlement he will pocket should Real Madrid decide to sack him, or the divide between him and some of his senior players.

Mou has had plenty to say lately.

Mou has had plenty to say lately.

This post is about Iker Casillas, and the footballing reasons behind Mourinho’s hugely controversial and gutsy decision to drop the club legend.

Most Madridistas take grave offence to any kind of criticism of Casillas. Many think Mourinho’s decision to bench Casillas was rooted in personal differences, and want to see the back of Mourinho for this simple reason. Not me (i.e. I have other reasons to want to see the back of him).

While I’ve been Casillas’ biggest fan since seeing his performance in the 2000 Champions League final and he has always been my favourite goalkeeper, I like to think that no player is un-droppable. Not even an undisputed club and national icon like Casillas.

My first memory of Casillas - the 2000 Champions League final.

My first memory of Casillas – the 2000 Champions League final.

Casillas had a poor season in 2012-13 even before sustaining the injury that caused him to be supplanted by his former deputy Diego Lopez, who was brought back to Real Madrid from Sevilla. Casilas was also somewhat short of his best in 2011-12.

Completely forgivable.

After several stellar seasons over which he established himself as the world’s best goalkeeper, Casillas was bound to have a poor season. And a player who isn’t performing at his best should always be dropped if there’s a better option. Casillas will become Real Madrid’s no. 1 again next season once he regains form and fitness.

But Mourinho in my opinion has been quite justified in fielding Diego Lopez for the second half of the season. There are many reasons to criticize Mourinho this season, but his decision to bench Casillas was beyond ballsy – admirable even – and shouldn’t be criticized.

Diego Lopez has been stellar since his return to his boyhood club.

Diego Lopez has been stellar since his return to his boyhood club.

In addition to Casillas’ recent poor form, the fact of the matter is simply that his goalkeeping style doesn’t fit well with Mourinho’s safety-first footballing philosophy.

Just as there are different kinds of strikers – the battering ram (Drogba), the target man (Van Nistelrooy), the offside-line-tightrope-walker (Inzaghi), the fox in the box (Raul), the jackrabbit (Luis Suarez) or the false no. 9 (Messi) – there are different kinds of goalkeepers.

And just as there’s nothing wrong with a coach preferring a target-man striker to a false no. 9, there’s nothing wrong with a coach preferring one kind of goalkeeper to another. This is something that is often overlooked by football fans and pundits, who tend to oversimplify the goalkeeping position.

Iker Casillas is a shot-stopper. His biggest assets are his razor-sharp reflexes and decisiveness in one-on-one situations. He’s an agile diver and is fast across the line. His superlative shot-stopping skills are best represented by these two miracle saves against Sevilla in 2009. In other words, his strengths all revolve around shot-stopping – the stopping of the shot.

Believe it or not, there are aspects to goalkeeping that go beyond making saves and stopping shots. Less-appreciated aspects, but important parts of a goalkeeper’s skillset nonetheless.

Like any other mere mortal, Casillas has weaknesses. He is occasionally indecisive in dealing with corners and crosses (when compared to a Cech or Kahn) and has never been the best at organizing the defensive line (compared to a Buffon or Schmeichel).

Mou prefers aerially dominant goalkeepers like Cech - and Diego Lopez.

Mou prefers aerially dominant goalkeepers like Cech – and Diego Lopez.

That is not to say the aforementioned were/are better goalkeepers. They just happen to have different strengths. Strengths that a coach like Mourinho has every right to value over reflexes or shot-stopping ability.

In a season where Real Madrid have conceded heaps of goals from corner kicks, set pieces and crosses, Mou has every right to field a goalkeeper who is taller and better in the air.

And as Mourinho points out, he has every right to pick the players he believes constitute the team’s best XI.

“I’m a football coach and that’s what I was hired to do,” said the Special One. “One of my duties is to choose who plays and I can assure you that I don’t base it on a coin toss. For hours I think about, discuss, analyze and study my decisions and I try to decide with my head.”

“I like Diego Lopez as a goalkeeper more than Casillas… I like a goalkeeper that comes out and dominates the airspace and plays with his feet,” Mou explained.

“One’s more offensive, the other defensive. I have the right to say this and with me, under normal conditions, Diego Lopez is going to play.”

Then, as Mou often does, he followed up a completely reasonable set of statements with a veiled barb.

“It’s nothing personal, I just like him [Diego Lopez] more as a goalkeeper… I can also say that he likes a coach like Del Bosque or someone with a different profile more.”

That last bit was unnecessary.

However, Mou’s footballing reasons are fair and he shouldn’t be vilified for dropping Casillas. In my opinion, Mourinho deserves praise for having the cojones to make a decision which was always going to be hugely unpopular and make his own position at the club untenable.

Many other coaches would’ve reinstated Casillas to the XI as soon as he recovered from his injury, and they would cite valid reasons. Similarly, Mou’s reasons to bench Casillas are not outlandish but are based on valid beliefs.

No player is too good or too legendary to sit on the bench, not even St. Iker. His benching should only motivate him to return to his best next season, which can only be a good thing.

I had the privilege of seeing St. Iker in the flesh in May 2012.

St. Iker in the flesh (May 2012).

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The Big Lewandowski – 4-goal striker leads slaughter of hapless Real Madrid.

As Robert Lewandowski was busy slaughtering Real Madrid and putting in the best ever performance by a striker in a Champions League semifinal, I was 30,000 feet above sea level and happily oblivious to events at the Westfalenstadion.

The previous evening, I sat at the airport bar in Toronto and watched Bayern Munich maul Barcelona 4-0 over a pint of Thirsty Beaver. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy seeing the old enemy suffer such a spectacular defeat.

I didn't think Dortmund would repeat Bayern's feat of scoring four goals.

I didn’t think Dortmund would repeat Bayern’s feat of scoring four goals.

A guy sitting next to me – a Manchester United fan - asked me how I felt going into the Dortmund game. I was concerned, I told him. Dortmund took four points off Real Madrid in the first round, and I thought they had a good chance of winning the first leg in front of their home crowd, one of the loudest and most passionate sets of supporters in world football. I predicted a draw or a narrow win for Dortmund.

Prior to my flight, I decided that I would cut myself off from the internet after landing and stay oblivious to the result until downloading and watching the game the following day, i.e. today.

I wish I hadn’t bothered.

Borussia Dortmund's famous stadium support was in full voice.

Borussia Dortmund’s famous stadium support was in full voice.

Demolition in Dortmund

The Yellow-and-Blacks absolutely flew off the blocks in the first half, their pace and dynamism causing all sorts of trouble to a slow and clumsy Real Madrid side. They were rewarded for their fine start in the 7th minute, when a fabulous cross from star playmaker Mario Gotze was pushed into goal by a lunging Robert Lewandowski.

The beanpole striker (pun intended) benefited from some poor defensive decision-making from Pepe, who opted to get into a wrestling match with Lewandowski to put him off rather than tracking his run. Lewandowski had the last laugh, and Dortmund were up 1-0.

Then towards the end of the 1st half, Dortmund thought they should have had a penalty kick when Rafael Varane made contact with Marco Reus in the penalty box. Replays suggested the referee was right in waving play on, as Reus went down far too easily under minimal contact.

Dortmund were still protesting the decision when at the other end of the pitch, defender Matts Hummels gifted the ball to Higuain, who squared for Ronaldo to sidefoot in the equalizer.

Ronaldo exults after scoring the equalizer.

Ronaldo exults after scoring the equalizer.

The non-call for the penalty kick and Real Madrid’s goal 40 seconds later then caused Borussia Dortmund to lose concentration, as their players grew frustrated. At halftime it looked as though Dortmund’s inexperience might cost them.

It didn’t. In fact, Dortmund began the 2nd half in even more spectacular fashion than the 1st, scoring just five minutes after the break and besting their 1st half effort, where they took all of 8 minutes to open the scoring.

A defensive header fell to Marco Reus, who controlled the ball and threaded an accurate pass up front. Lewandowski took an intelligent first-touch on the swivel before prodding the ball home with the outside of his right foot. At first glance it appeared to be an easy finish but was actually anything but. Lewandowski scored great awareness to take a calm first touch and finish with accuracy rather than needless power.

Former Manchester United captain Gary Neville, fast becoming one of the most astute football analysts in the broadcast world, proceeded to describe Lewandowski as a player “who is able to slow his mind when everything around him is happening fast”. It was the perfect description of Lewandowski’s finish, and there was more of the same to come.

Just 5 minutes later, Lewandowski began to well and truly take the tie away from Real Madrid by scoring his best goal of the night. A deflected shot from Schmelzer fell to the striker, who executed a beautiful turn and drag back before slamming the ball into the roof of the net. A frustrated Xabi Alonso could do nothing more than slam the ball into the sky in frustration.

10 minutes later, that man Alonso was the villain as he shoved Marco Reus in the penalty box. Up stepped Lewandowski, and there was only ever going to be one result. The in-form striker – who has scored in each of Dortmund’s last eleven Bundesliga games – put his foot clean through the ball and nearly tore the net right off the goalposts. 4-1.

Complete team performance

While Lewandowski hogs the headlines for becoming the first player to score four goals in a Champions League semifinal and the first player in European club competition to score a hat-trick against Real Madrid, his performance was but the highlight of an incredible team performance from Dortmund.

Real Madrid were undone by an all-round team performance from Dortmund.

Real Madrid were undone by an all-round team performance from Dortmund.

One of the most impressive performers on the night came from deep-lying midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, whose tireless running and tackling unsettled Real Madrid and prevented them from building up meaningful attacks. The young German-Turk was also excellent on the ball,  spraying accurate passes to teammates in advanced positions.

Gündoğan came out on top in the battle of the German-Turks.

Gündoğan came out on top in the battle of the German-Turks.

He also almost managed to score the best goal of the night after beating several Real Madrid players with a diagonal dribble before firing a shot that would have ended up in the back of the net if not for Diego Lopez’s intervention in front of goal.

Meanwhile, Marco Reus and Mario Gotze put in effervescent displays in attack, with the latter seemingly unfazed by the poorly-timed leaking of the news of his impending defection to Borussia Dortmund’s main rivals Bayern Munich. Many fans in the stadium booed Goetze every time he got on the ball, but it didn’t affect his performance.

Dortmund also counted on effective displays from their wing-backs Piszczek and Schmelzer as well as goalkeeper Weidenfeller, who bravely raced off his line to prevent Ronaldo from scoring a second.

Real-ity check for Madrid

Lewandowski’s performance will probably condemn Real Madrid to a heartbreaking third consecutive exit at the semi-final stage of the Champions League, but it also served to show Real Madrid what they need to do if they are to take that next step to the final.

Lewandowski's awesome display of finishing showed Real Madrid what they're missing.

Real Madrid have not had a pure centre-forward – a no. 9 – for many years now, and it continues to hamper them. Both Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema are talented players capable of scoring goals, but neither offers consistently ice-cold finishing in the box in situations where time and space are limited and the stakes are high. Higuain managed an unselfish cross to Ronaldo for Madrid’s sole goal – and showed his never-say-die attitude by tracking all the way back to tackle the dangerous Reus – but his goalscoring record in the Champions League is plain terrible.

Meanwhile, Real Madrid were hampered by the lack of a true playmaking alternative to Mesut Ozil. The no. 10 was completely anonymous on his return to Germany, and was unable to influence proceedings. Real Madrid need an alternative option other than a Kaka who is six years past his best and rarely ever match-fit.

Looking forward

Dortmund’s incredible performance means they are heavy favourites to make the final, where they wouldmeet Bayern Munich who are practically there after their 4-0 destruction of Barcelona in the 1st leg. Real Madrid can make the final with a 3-0 home victory, but that looks highly unlikely against a Dortmund side who are dynamic and clinical up front but are defensively solid and recover well after losing the ball, an important defensive trait against a Real Madrid side that are fundamentally set up to play on the break.

If Real Madrid don’t manage that historic comeback, the season will end in disappointment and will prompt significant upheaval at the club, with Jose Mourinho likely to move on and changes expected among the playing personnel.

For Dortmund, they can now begin dreaming of their first Champions League final appearance since their victory in 1997. Dortmund has grown accustomed to losing a star player each year, with  Nuri Sahin leaving for Real Madrid in 2011 (he has since returned to Dortmund to warm the bench with Gundogan taking his place in the lineup) and Shinji Kagawa departing to Manchester United in 2012.

Now, the Borussians are on the verge of losing mercurial playmaker Mario Gotze to archrivals Bayern Munich, while four-goal hero Lewandowski also looks likely to depart, with Manchester United leading the race for his signature.

Klopp - accustomed to losing his star players.

Klopp – accustomed to losing his star players.

Nevertheless, Dortmund’s charismatic and colourful coach Jurgen Klopp is well-accustomed to seeing his brightest stars snapped up by Europe’s elite, and with him pledging his future to the club, there is no reason why Dortmund cannot become a new force in European football.

As for Real Madrid, they must now begin planning what would be a most improbable comeback against this hugely impressive Dortmund side.

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El Clasico takeaways – Ronaldo and Messi trade braces, Barca’s mediocre defence, and more.

“They say that sport and politics should not mix but sport and politics do mix, especially when it comes to Real Madrid versus Barcelona.” – Sid Lowe, The Guardian (Oct. 8 2012)

I was keen to focus purely on the football during this blog post, but to ignore the political underpinnings of this clash would be akin to ignoring an army of zombies riding elephants down the street in front of your house. El Clasico, which is steeped in politics like no other sporting encounter in the world, took on even greater political significance this time around given the economic worries of Spain and its Catalunya region. Catalans have long accused Spain’s federal government – based in Madrid, of course – of short-changing their province. Calls for a referendum on Catalan independence have been growing. Therefore it was no surprise to see 98,000 Barca fans holding up senyeras - red-and-yellow Catalan flags – during the pre-match stadium mosaic. It was quite a powerful sight, as you can see in the below photo. When the clock hit 17:14, the fans in the stadium began chanting in Catalan – Independence! Independence! 1714 would be the year when the siege of the city of Barcelona ended.

On to the football then. Most avid La Liga watchers would have expected the two teams to be no more than a couple of points apart going into the mammoth clash, given that it was only the 7th round of the league campaign. However, Real Madrid found themselves 8 points adrift of the summit prior to kick-off as a result of their poor start to the season. Nevertheless, with Cristiano Ronaldo coming into the game on the back of back-to-back hat-tricks against Ajax Amsterdam and Deportivo La Coruna, and the poor state of Barcelona’s ‘defence’ compounded by the unfortunate, sickening injury to Carles Puyol last week, Madridistas were very confident that three points were there for the taking.

What we saw unfold was one of the best and most evenly-matched Clasicos in years. It was an end-to-end tussle that saw the two greatest players of this generation trade braces. The 2-2 end result was fair, given that neither team deserved to lose this one. Here are a few takeaways from the game:

1. La Liga Football is lucky to have Ronaldo and Messi at their peak at the same time.

There has scarcely been a time in football history where two attacking geniuses have gone toe-to-toe in quite the same manner as Ronaldo and Messi have in recent times. That these two play for two arch-rival megaclubs that are head-and-shoulders above the rest has lent their individual rivalry even more intrigue. We are lucky to see Ronaldo and Messi turn out for Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively at the same time.

Ronaldo’s first goal was the end result of a wonderful team move from Real Madrid. It began with Xabi Alonso playing one of his long-range Hollywood passes to Ozil, who exchanged a smart one-two with Di Maria before passing the ball to Marcelo. The Brazilian found Sami Khedira with a cute back-heel, before the German – who has shown his attacking prowess to great effect this season – found Benzema with a forward ball. The Frenchman then laid off the ball to Ronaldo, who threaded a powerful, precise shot past Victor Valdes’ near post. Ronaldo then treated the Blaugrana faithful to his now-iconic “calma” celebration. Check out the goal below:

The goal was Ronaldo’s sixth-straight in Clasicos, an all-time record. And to think some knuckleheads out there still insist he doesn’t show up in big games. For his second, Ronaldo made a lightning-bolt of a diagonal run before latching on to a through ball from Ozil, whose peripheral vision is nothing short of astounding, and depositing the ball past a hapless Valdes.

However, it soon became apparent that Messi was not going to stay in Ronaldo’s shadows for too long. His first goal may not be one that makes goal compilation videos on YouTube, but was rather a result of great intelligence and tenacity. Pepe over-committed to a header and completely fluffed it, and the Argentine genius took advantage of the ensuing penalty box pinball to steal in and stroke the ball home in opportunistic fashion.

Messi’s second on the other hand, was all pure genius. The Barca icon has become one of the world’s best freekick takers in recent times, and there was nothing Casillas could do to stop his beautiful curling strike into the corner. Some have said that Benzema shied away from heading the ball whilst in the defensive wall, but it’s arguable whether that would have made any difference.

Regardless, the sublime free-kick took Messi – who is only 25 – to within one goal of Real Madrid legend Don Alfredo Di Stefano’s all-time Clasico goalscoring record. It was also his 100th league goal at the Camp Nou. Meanwhile, Ronaldo’s strikes took his goalscoring tally for Real Madrid to an incomprehensible, mind-blowing tally of 160 in only 155 games. Ronaldo has plundered 120 La Liga goals in only 108 games, making him the club’s 9th highest league goalscorer. The player above him in the charts, Emilio Butragueno, has 3 more goals… in 233 more games.

On another interesting note, Ronaldo and Messi are now in a three-way tie with Atletico Madrid’s Radamel Falcao on top of the La Liga goalscoring charts with 8 goals.

There is simply no separating these two otherworldly football Gods. I’ll leave the pointless arguments over who is better to others, and will again reiterate that I feel lucky to be watching football at a time when these two are pushing each other to goal-scoring heights that have never been witnessed before. I daresay I’m not the only one who feels this way:

“It should be forbidden to say who is the best player in the world because these two are from another planet.” – Jose Mourinho.

2. Barcelona are no longer the undisputed best team in the world.

That much is eminently clear. The result is a great one for the Catalans as it helps them maintain a huge 8-point lead over Real Madrid, meaning they are odds-on favourites to win La Liga. But it is clear that they have long shed the veneer of immortality that caused teams – including Real Madrid – to show up at the Camp Nou knowing even before kick-off that they would be decimated.

Barring just the one change, the Real Madrid that took on Barca in this clash was the same lineup that lost 0-5 only two seasons ago. However, El Clasico clashes since that fateful night have seen Real Madrid get better and better to the point that Los Merengues beat Barca at the Camp Nou last season en route to winning La Liga, and got the better of the Catalans in this season’s Spanish Super Cup in August, before putting in a performance today that could have seen them emerge victorious had they not been so profligate in front of goal. Which brings me to my next point.

3. Madrid must be more clinical in front of goal in big games. 

This is something I seemingly harp on after every Clasico. With the game at 0-0, Sergio Ramos missed a fantastic chance to open the scoring with an open header from an Ozil corner kick. And just minutes after Ronaldo’s opener, Benzema had a golden opportunity to double the lead and put the game past the Catalans, but completely scuffed his shot. Di Maria meanwhile was unable to lap up the rebound. Madrid may have shattered the all-time league goalscoring record last season, but they must be more calm and collected in front of goal in the big encounters. One missed chance can spell the difference between a championship and finishing second or worse.

4. Barca’s mediocre defence will leak many goals this season.

Gerard Pique’s astonishing loss of form last season have been compounded by injury worries this season. Meanwhile, club stalwart Carles Puyol has been struggling with injury for a long time now. Despite this, Barca have failed to adequately bring in defensive cover. Mascherano has proven to be an adequate centre-back and nothing more. Neither Song nor Adriano are anywhere close to being central defenders. Any central defensive pairing that Villanova puts out lacks understanding, as was evident when Ronaldo ripped through the defensive line before scoring his second. Barca truly missed a trick by not bringing in the world’s best central defender Thiago Silva when he was available during the summer.

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Barca missed a trick by not signing Thiago Silva, who went on to join Paris St. Germain.

Meanwhile on the flanks, both Alves and Alba are irresistible going forward but hugely suspect at the back. Notice how Alves was caught ball-watching for Ronaldo’s first goal. Barca’s period of dominance over club football was not solely down to the attacking genius of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Villa and co. but also the defensive prowess of Pique, Puyol and Abidal. If the Catalans want to get anywhere near those lofty heights again, they might want to consider bringing in a real central defender instead of throwing ball-playing central midfielders into the defensive line all the time.

5. Sergio Busquets is a truly exceptional player.

Busquets is one of the most disliked players in world football with good reason, as he is one of the most shameless and pathetic divers in the modern game. The midfielder’s whining antics frequently induce nausea for viewers, but he remains one of the best and most under-rated players in the world.

In my estimation, the slappable central midfielder is as critical to Barca’s game as Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. He picks up loose balls with diligence and recycles possession with consummate ease and calm, getting the ball to one of the three aforementioned players and allowing them to wreak damage. He has a fantastic touch on the ball, and despite lacking pace can beat two or three players with skill and technique alone. And when receiving the ball in a tight space, he executes smart turns and strafes to evade opposition tackles.

While Busquets will continue to remain one of the most reviled characters in the world football due to his playacting, he will also remain one of the finest midfielders in the world, especially as he has plenty of time and room for improvement at his age (24).

6. Pepe can be a useful counter-attacking weapon

Speaking of widely-reviled players… one of the interesting sights of this game was seeing Pepe not just initiate counter-attacks from defence as he often does, but sprinting down the length of the pitch to add numbers to the counter-attack, to good effect. In fact, it was one such run all the way down to the Barcelona box that forced Valdes to boot the ball out of touch, giving Real Madrid the throw-in that led to the first goal.

The hot-headed defender has lightning-quick pace, and it makes sense for him to occasionally bomb forward when he has forward momentum playing the ball out of defence. Barca have a plan for Ronaldo, Di Maria, Benzema/Higuain and Ozil when Madrid counter-attack, but sending someone like Pepe forward as a surprise attacking weapon can cause confusion. Sami Khedira is astute and reliable enough to temporarily cover the centre-back position, while Pepe is smart enough to know when it’s time for him to turn around and return to his defensive position. This is something I hope to see more of this season.

- Here’s to a most memorable and entertaining El Clasico, and a night when Ronaldo and Messi ensured that football rose above politics.

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Defensive Midfield transfer activity: Granero and Lass out, Essien in.

Real Madrid have announced the sale of canterano Esteban Granero to Queen’s Park Rangers for €8 million. A hardworking player with good passing range and a decent shot, Granero has always been a fringe player during his three seasons with the first team squad, managing a total of 67 games. While many Madridistas including myself were hoping that Granero would eventually become a starter, fact of the matter is that as popular and likeable as he is, El Pirata is not first-team Real Madrid material at this time. Real Madrid do reserve the right to bring Granero back to the Bernabeu after his second season, if they are willing to shell out twice as much QPR paid for him.

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Goodbye El Pirata :(

Real Madrid have also announced that Lassana Diarra has been sold to nouveau-riche Russian outfit Anzhi Makachkala, who are captained by the world’s highest-paid footballer Samuel Eto’o, who was a Madridista in a previous life. Anzhi also boasts none other than the great Roberto Carlos as their Sporting Director. This was initially thought to be a loan deal, but is actually a sale for an undisclosed fee.

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Lass made a spectacular impact upon his arrival under Juande Ramos’ tenure, his energetic, all-action style making him a quick favourite among Madridistas. But the arrival of the more disciplined and complete Sami Khedira has consigned Lass to a bench role, something the temperamental Frenchman has been grumbling about for a while now. With Khedira only getting better and better, it appears that Lass has decided that enough is enough. His loan deal comes at a time when he has only one year remaining on his contract, meaning we won’t see him playing in white again. This is certainly the right time for Real Madrid and Lass to part ways… I for one will miss him, and wish him the best in Russia.

While Lass’ departure was somewhat expected, the loan signing of Michael ‘The Bison’ Essien comes as something of a shock to avid transfer market watchers. Essien has been suffering from injury worries, and barely made 20 appearances for Chelsea last season. However if he regains his fitness, he will have a lot to contribute.

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Essien – right in white.

Unlike Lass, Essien is at a point in his career where he won’t mind being Khedira’s back up at Real Madrid. Lass’ desperation to regain his starting place has often resulted in him overestimating his own abilities and trying to do too many things on the field. But when Essien takes to the field, he can be counted on to be disciplined, focused and committed to the team’s cause. He is also versatile, and can play in the right-back position when needed. When fit, The Bison has a frightening physical presence, is a great tackler and an intelligent passer with a ferocious long-distance shot. Here’s hoping we see the best of Essien this season.

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