Early morning on the first of January, I left with a group of friends, wife and mum-in-law for an extended weekend break. Whistle thrushes, bee-eaters, fly catchers, deer, wild boar, elephants and more kept the mind and body off football as the year kicked in, though there was time for some entertainingly contested pool. But the seven hour drive back through increasing traffic and the first few seconds of channel surf brought me back to mundane planet and football. One I dread and the other is joy. Let’s stick to the joy.
Southampton v Manchester United, FA Cup, January 4
Sony Pix shows movies and out-of-the-blue football games. Just as the drive and dust and the dawn wakeup effect were putting me to sleep, Man U walked out at Southampton. Andy Penders of ESPN Star Sports described these two as the best and worst teams in the world in his blog and though the Saints were not THAT bad, they were definitely not looking like the genie who makes the Cup magical.
Nerves, lack of ability and a complete mismatch is talent were enough for Southampton to be in deep trouble, they also got a very non-controversial red card which the commentator kept insisting was controversial. All that in the first half. But by the time of the red card, Danny Welbeck, a very decent looking striker had already put United ahead. He looked offside though. There would be moments when the home team would attack but not know what to do after a while. For most of it though, it was the red Devils game.
Without Ronaldo, Rooney or Tevez, Berbatov led the front line and did it brilliantly. Went deep to collect the ball and start attacks. Touched and flicked around the box to set up finishes. Dribbled and beat men to bring a smile. Anderson, started out in the middle then went to the left and was creative. So was Giggs, who moved from left to the centre and tried to reach the flanks or play through balls. Carrick continued to fail to impress me with his creativity though he hardly ever lost possession and showed some good movement. Welbeck had pace and looked a decent enough threat. The defence all did their job, though Evans clearly is not at the level of others…and justifiably.
This ended three-nil eventually and Riley gave a penalty to Man U when there was none. Didn’t see any of that because at the same time that half-time happened in Southampton, it was also half-time in Madrid.
Real Madrid v Villareal, La Liga, January 4
Robben had already scored and Madrid led one-nil at half time. It was difficult to believe if you only saw the second half. The Yelllow Submarine dominated for a long long period even though Marcos Senna was not at his best. But Cazorla, Pires and later on Cani were very impressive. If de Rossi had been on fire, Villareal would at least have equalized.
But in the end Juande Ramos, continued the feeble turnaround, eeking out another win, almost Mourinhoesque in nature.
For the first ten minutes of the second half, new signing Huntelaar was paired with Raul up front. Apparently he had a decent first half though he missed an easy chance. But from minute 46-55…when he was substituted…Hunt did not have too much to do and was substituted by Drenthe. Real improved after that and Juande Ramos’ 4-2-3-1 style was a little easier to evaluate.
Gago and Diarra lined up in deep midfield and L Diarra quickly showed that he was an addition of value. Produced a great moment when he relieved Senna of the ball and looked more energetic than all Madrid players put together from a few weeks back. Gago played a slightly more adventurous role. The key for this pair will be to balance attack and defence and keep the supply lines open for the front four, because up front Real could have the potential now to play with some fluidity.
Raul played as the target man and did a decent job of winning long balls played by Casillas and setting up Sneijder, though he may be better off playing behind the target man. Sneijder, who was in that role, was active and involved but lacked the finish. Robben on the right was enjoying himself when he got the ball and Drenthe tried to the best he could on the left but he is quite obviously not so much a wide player.
The Real defence was appalling and as usual Casillas had to play savior. Individually they range from decent to very good but as a unit they are a disaster. Definitely a coaching challenge to get this one right.
I think the formation is fine and offers a lot of scope for creativity as well as the option to defend tightly, though some positions need shoring up. The defense can certainly be improved, namely through a centre back and a better left back than Heinze. Then there are Diarra, Diarra, Gago, Guti, de la Red and Van der Vart for the two central positions and the competition for the places should improve performances here. I think Drenthe is also suited to this bucket of players, though I’m not sure how well he marks and tackles.
In the forward line, you have Ruud, Huntelaar, Raul, Robben, Higuain and Sneijder and ignoring the injuries again for a moment, the quality is there. The problem is that the injuries are real and with Ruud absent, it is critical that Huntelaar quickly settles down as target man and excels, because Raul I feel will be better playing behind the target man. How many of these are suited to the wide right and left positions is the question.
Signing off with some pics from my trip.