Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bale Decides Copa del Rey Final for Dominant Real Madrid

Real Madrid have claimed their first piece of silverware as they march to the treble with a dominant performance over Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final. With Cristiano Ronaldo on the sidelines due to injury, Carlo Ancelotti picked the attacking trident of Bale, Benzema, and Di Maria. It was Di Maria who sparked the match into life after a deadly counterattack of one touch passing started by Isco. The Argentine latched onto the low cross-field pass by Benzema before finishing across goal, with Pinto's weak touch unable to stop the ball.

Gerardo Martino's under pressure Barcelona had plenty of time and possession to fight back, however were often unable to find a comfortable rhythm against Real's compact defending. Messi and Neymar weren't given any time with the ball by Real Madrid's defenders, and it was left to Iniesta and Xavi to retain possession and search for openings. Martino's choice to start Fabregas as a sort of false center forward was incomprehensible, especially considering the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Pedro kept on the bench. Fabregas rarely touched the ball, and Martino's side was continuously vulnerable against Real Madrid's quick transition led by Bale, Benzema, or Di Maria.

In the second half Barcelona suffered more of the same. An uncontainable Isco pinged passes for his teammates, and all of the Galacticos showed incredible selflessness in their counter-attacking play of one-touch passes. Messi continued in his mediocrity, with a couple of shots snapped wide or too weak to trouble Casillas. However, it was the 23 year old central defender Marc Bartra who found the equalizer for Barca, with his powerful header from a corner. With about 20 minutes left, Barcelona had suddenly reopened the encounter, and Martino's earlier substitutions of Pedro and Adriano (for Fabregas and Jordi Alba) now looked ready to double up and score the winner.

Yet it was another Real Madrid counter-attack which undid the Barca defence, this time manned by the unstoppable Gareth Bale. Poking a long touch past Bartra, Bale was pushed off of the field by the scorer of the equalizer, however the Welshman continued his tempestuous run around the defender and straight at Pinto before nudging the ball into the net for the winner. It was a fantastic goal which left Barcelona with only five minutes to reply, and Martino immediately threw on Alexis Sanchez in desperate hope for an equalizer. The final chance of the night fell to Neymar after Xavi slipped a sublime pass through the Real defence, but the Brazilian banged his effort against the post with a practically empty net to shoot at.

The match ended 2-1 for Real Madrid, with Gareth Bale claiming his first major trophy thanks to his brilliant goal. The disappointment of Barcelona's meek performance, highlighted by Messi's invisibility throughout the match will now surely prompt Martino's dismissal at the end of the season. On the other side of the spectrum, Ancelotti and the rest of Madrid will be celebrating the Copa del Rey victory passionately, before preparing themselves for the two other trophies which await them.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Liverpool's Title Dream Nears Under Rodgers' Guidance

The kindling of belief in Liverpool's title run is one which began in the best way possible. With Rodgers at the helm, this season's Liverpool players have been pushed to be versatile, able to play in various positions, in any formation. The continuous tinkering of formation by Rodgers has shown its results: a 3-0 win with a 4-3-3 at Manchester United, 4-0 against Everton and 5-1 against Arsenal playing with a 4-2-3-1, and now the 3-2 win over Manchester City with the midfield diamond 4-4-2. With that latest victory over Manchester City, Liverpool now have the fate of the Premier League title in their hands.

Earlier in the season, as Liverpool were rampantly eviscerating teams in free-flowing style with high-scoring matches, the possibility of a title run briefly came into my thoughts. It seemed reasonable that a team playing, scoring, and winning with that much ease deserves a title run, however I quickly came to the conclusion that they lacked the squad depth necessary in order to do so. With an already patchy defence, Liverpool's reliance on Suarez and Sturridge is evident seeing as they are the only two strikers who have scored for the club this season. Considering that the starting eleven for Liverpool are rarely rotated, the over-dependence on these players can not only lead to fatigue and injuries, but also stagnation and predictability.

By pushing his side to be adaptable, Rodgers has managed to avoid these problems of predictability while strengthening and broadening the attacking possibilities of his team. This growth is also seen on an individual level, with Raheem Sterling's performance against Manchester City highlighting a shining example of brilliant versatility. Previously only considered as a fast-running winger, Sterling has now become one of, if not even England's finest playmaker. Rodgers is a master of individually moulding his players. He has modified Gerrard's role into one of deep-lying and key importance while giving Henderson the space to blossom, and has helped Coutinho acclimatize into the Premier League with frightful speed. If you further consider the monumental man-management work required to transform Suarez into the loved goal-machine he now is, and to control the young and tempestuous Sturridge, Rodgers has revolutionized Liverpool and its players.

It definitely feels like Liverpool deserves this season's Premier League title. Recognition for one of Steven Gerrard's best season's yet, respect for Rodgers and his coaching of intoxicatingly exciting football, and a tribute in memory of the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough. Yet the way things are poised, this season's heartwarming story is precarious with Mourinho's Chelsea still to beat. The Portuguese coach is hunting for silverware to crown his returned season as a success. While Norwich awaits Liverpool next weekend, the true test for Rodgers and his team will be against one of the most cunning and ruthless managers in the world. And if there's one man willing to shatter Liverpool's title dreams for his own, it is undoubtedly Jose Mourinho.


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