Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Real Botch-up

This 2010/2011 season has been poor for Real Madrid. Shortly after the capital club had their hopes of a historic tenth Champions League title dashed courtesy of perennial rivals Barcelona, they will now miss the presence of Jose Mourinho on the sidelines for 5 matches. The Catalan giants, on the other hand, have but grown stronger by the game in a season that will see them march on to an inevitable third La Liga title on the trot, matched by a strong possibility of reclaiming the Champions League crown in the Wembley Final.

Their choice in players has been unquestionably palatable, with the courtship of former recipients of the Ballon D'Or Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká, the potential of Mesut Özil and Ángel di María and the playmaking abilities of Xabi Alonso hallmarks of the second Galacticos era. However, their selection of the men made to undertake the daunting task of steering Real Madrid to the ever-elusive “La Décima” (the tenth of their collection of Champions League titles) has been found wanting.

In the final season of the first Galacticos era in 2007, Fabio Capello was appointed to put an end to Real Madrid's barren run. He went about achieving just that, relegating the ailing Ronaldo to the bench and drilling a strict defensive rigidity into the squad. This was much to the disdain of the fans, who preferred attacking fluidity over the pragmatism that Capello devoted himself and the team to. The situation was not helped by Real's position in the league being a depressing fourth. David Beckham, in what was to be his swansong, would then come on to spearhead their resurgence with a dramatic return to form. It was there and then, divested of the glitz and glamour of the Galacticos, that Real Madrid claimed the title from Barcelona reach. But even that could not save Capello from the axe.

Enter Bernd Schuster. His return to the Bernabeu since his playing days was met with much approval from the fans as he shed Madrid of their defensive-orientation. Coaxing the exhilarating best out of Robinho and bringing van Nistelrooy's goalscoring might to the fore, he brought the fast-paced flair back into their game in a season which saw Madrid amass 85 points to win back to back La Liga titles and the Spanish Super Cup in style. The future bode well for both the German and Real's post-Galacticos era, until a slump in form and straining media relations meant that Schuster was to leave the Bernabeu.

After Juande Ramos' time at Madrid and Manuel Pellegrini laid the foundation for the neo-Galacticos, the infamous Jose Mourinho was brought in to take the reins. Jose Mourinho, who coached Inter to a treble in his second season. Jose Mourinho, who is known to resort to whatever tactical set-up it took to achieve victory. Jose Mourinho, whose stifling catenaccio nullified the tiki-taka of Barcelona over two legs. Jose Mourinho, whose pierce de resistance arguably is his achievements in the Champions League. It is clear what it is that Real Madrid craves with all the exasperation and desperation there is.

But it is too the baffling part about Real Madrid. While Mourinho has ruthlessly unleashed the attacking finesse of his charges on most opponents, he adopts the same siege mentality that saw him frustrate Barcelona a season ago. Even as Mourinho allows his team to run riot against most forms of opposition, the crown jewel that is Cristiano Ronaldo is forced adapt into a goal poaching forward. The delightful flair and artistry of old have been sacrificed for industry and results. In the process of attempting to fluster and keep up with Barcelona, he has denied Ronaldo the freedom that he thrives on. Although the goals have piled on as Cristiano Ronaldo obliterates record after record, it is apparent that the tactical straight-jacket and goalscoring burden is inhibiting Ronaldo. Beating the defending champions and bringing the true best out of Ronaldo still remains the ultimate challenge.

Not that they have not done the former; Mourinho produced a defensive masterclass in the Copa Del Rey final which was won by Ronaldo's extra-time header. But if was for an attacking philosophy the Madrid faithful fell out with Capello over, how is it that they approve Mourinho's tailor-made strategy based on robustness (or anti-football as the critics have it) against Barcelona? Surely the real test of their aptitude in going forward would be to match the Catalans at their own game?

It is unlikely that fate will permit another 4 El Clasicos in a season. In order to wrest dominance over the La Liga back from Barcelona, they have to learn to be daring. While other teams such as Arsenal have imploded trying to match Barcelona's famous build-up, some have picked defensive resilience to hold out for as long as possible only to succumb. Real Madrid have tried the latter, much to their disappointment. They must now focus more on venturing forwards to threaten the Blaugrana's vulnerable backline rather than parking the bus and hoping for a break. Barcelona simply will not afford them such a privilege.

No one will know what goes on in the cold, calculative world of Jose Mourinho. He is relishes instilling an ideology with a heavy offensive inclination, as he has shown during his tenure in England. He will equally be capable of “parking the bus, or the boat, or the airplane”. Barcelona have paraded the mangled heap of Arsenal as a warning of what happens when one tries to have a go at them. But when a squad boasting one of the most enviable line-ups in the world is involved, what's not to believe?

By Joshua Tong-Lok