Note: The following post was supposed to be done as a debate post but Saheli (@riverscollide) did such a wonderful job writing this I decided it was better to publish it as her post, keep in mind this was supposed to published on Sunday April 3, I screwed up and delayed the post.
Last night I observed the difference between my mentality of a Madridista and the mentality of a Cricket Fan. With Real Madrid, I've always adopted an 'it ain't over till the fat lady sings' attitude and with the latter, it has always been 'oh crap, India is going to lose' even before the start of the second innings. The way things unfolded last night, I’m beginning to think a swap of mentalities is in order.
Needless to say, Real Madrid's performance was quite dreadful, with Adebayor being the biggest flop of the day as he missed countless chances. Subsequently, Barcelona’s 1-0 win away at El Madrigal means that they're now eight before ahead of us with eight games left to play in the league. Mathematically Barcelona are still not champions, but a conversation with Deepak made me think, is it time to give up on the league and focus instead on the Champions League and the Copa del Rey final instead?
For Madrid, April is a make-it or break-it month with six extremely crucial games left to play. We will first host Tottenham on 5 April for the first leg of the UEFA Champions League quarter finals. Next, we will travel to San Mames to play Athletic Bilbao in the league, followed by the return leg of the UCL at White Hart Lane. Following that, there will be two intense encounters with Barcelona – once at the Bernabeu, and once at the Mestalla for the Copa del Rey final. The month then rounds off with an away trip to the Mestalla to face Valencia.
Out of the three competitions, realistically we have a chance of winning two. At this juncture, it is safe to assume the outcome of La Liga is out of our hands: it is Barcelona's title to lose. Based on last night's display, we realise exactly how much we miss Xabi Alonso's creative spark in the midfield. We have played and won without Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, but last night was a testament to our lack of creativity in the midfield. Perhaps creativity is a wrong choice of word; rather we lacked a midfielder who could control the game, like a conductor conducting an orchestra.
Real Madrid have already confirmed that Ronaldo, Marcelo and Benzema will be available for the clash against Tottenham. Gonzalo Higuain clocked in more than twenty minutes last night after being out for more than four months. So it is safe to say we will have a relatively full squad with the exception of Kaka and Gago. Now the question that arose in my conversation with Deepak is this: is it time to let go of the league and focus solely on the Champions League and the Copa del Rey?
My short answer is yes. Let me elaborate with a long one.
It is true that once we stop pursuing the league, Barcelona will be able to breathe a sigh of relief. But if the last three years have taught us anything, it is this: Pep Guardiola is a pragmatist. He will not stop pursuing the league until Barcelona have won mathematically. This will not happen in April – since Barcelona will play only three games. Right now Barcelona have 81 points, compared to Real Madrid’s 73 points. There are still 24 points up for grabs for both sides in the league.
Assuming Barcelona wins all three of their April league games, and Real Madrid lose all three, they will extend their lead by 17 points. Only then will it make them champions by the end of April – based on the assumption that Madrid has to lose all three of their league encounters. However, if Madrid doesn’t drop all nine points in April, Barcelona still have to play two more games to win the league title. Confusing? Yes. Bizarre? Ditto. Bottom line is this: it’s highly unlikely that Barcelona will be able to win the league by the end of April.
So technically, Barcelona will still be fighting on all three fronts. Whereas if Real Madrid decides to forfeit the aggressive pursuit of the League and instead focus on the Champions League and the Copa del Rey, it would mean resting key players like Ozil and Di Maria during league games.
I am not saying that we should throw away the remaining games; more on that later. Mourinho did say before the Gijon match that he can’t rest the key players because the La Liga hinged on the outcome against Sporting. Now that it is over, I think Mourinho should shift his focus onto the other two competitions. This way, our starters would have played less minutes prior to meeting Barcelona than their starters.
The counter argument is that if we lax our pursuit of the league title, Barcelona can also do the same. And yes, we know that Barcelona reserves are more than capable of winning games by themselves, like they did last night, without either Xavi or Iniesta in the squad. Compared to their second string team, I think it is safe to say, based on last night's display, our second string team sucked. We still do not have the cohesiveness that Barcelona have built up over the season.
However, we should not concern ourselves with what Barcelona will or won't do. We should focus on ensuring that our starters are in their top forms for the two (or maybe four) crucial encounters against the Catalans. Barcelona are not unbeatable and neither are they invincible. Their players tire as much as any other La Liga players. Right now, our aim should be to field a fully fit team for the games against Tottenham and the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona.
I am not suggesting that we throw away the league and let Barcelona wrap it up before April. Instead, I think this will be a perfect time to bring on the canteranos and expose them to the first team. Morata, Alex, Juan Carlos, Juanfran, Sarabia have all tasted first team action this season – and they've been on top notch form with Castilla. With Castilla's playoff position more or less secured, I’d love to see them get some playing time.
This will be a win-win situation for us: it will take the pressure off our regulars and it will also give us a glimpse of what our future is like, since it is my earnest desire that one day we will build a team around our Cantera. Apart from the Canteranos, this will be a good time see which of our reserves should stay and which of them should go: Canales, Pedro Leon, Garay etc; by playing them against Bilbao and Valencia. As for El Clasico, I expect Real to field a fully fit team since it is a matter of pride and we want to ensure a repeat of 6-2 does not happen again.
However, given that we'll be facing them again in three days, it is time to prioritise. Do we want to defend our honour at the Bernabeu or do we want to win the Copa del Rey to ensure we do not finish trophyless this season? For Barcelona it is a win-win situation – they either get to humiliate us at our own turf or they win the Copa del Rey. For us, it’s time to sort out our priorities.
To wrap it up, we can pursue the league but it might backfire terribly on us and leave us trophyless at the end of the day. Because pursuing the league means devoting resources away from Champions league and Copa del Rey to focus on something that is almost a lost cause. It is a simple division of labour – pursuing the league means Ozil, Di Maria et al will be playing more minutes, thus risking them to either fatigue or injury.
Of course this doesn’t mean that we're going to easily win our Copa del Rey and the potential Champions League Semi-final ties against Barcelona – at least we will go into the respective games with a fully fit squad.
Mourinho has beaten Barcelona before with Inter and that victory came after two group stage defeats against the Catalans. We should also keep in mind that this is the first season that these new signings and Mourinho are working together. While expectations are sky high at the Bernabeu (and sometimes quite unrealistic to be honest) and among Madridistas, as long as we put up a good fight, losing to them won't be the end of the world. My only wish is that we do not throw away the encounters like we did in November: now that was just plain embarrassing.