Sunday, 30 December 2007

White Christmas

It may be the season of peace and goodwill, but all such thoughts of truce are soon put aside when it comes to a game of football between Barcelona and Real Madrid. For only the second time since 1984, the Madrid side emerged victorious and dealt a hammer blow to Barcelona's league hopes, putting seven points between the two sides and ensuring the honorary title of "Winter Champions" at the championship's half-way point. It is by no means a decisive result; they never are this early in the season, but the psychological fall-out at the Nou Camp may become apparent once the winter transfer window opens on January 1st (is Ronaldinho now officially Ronaldo Mk. II?).

Plenty has been said elsewhere about the game itself (check out Steve's Liveblog and Corey's review at The Offside). Having watched Baptista's goal countless times, I am still not sure whether his final touch was a stroke of genius finishing or slightly fluffed. I was also really impressed by Pepe's certainty at the back (and even coming forward occasionally!), taking some (but not all) of the heat off Casillas.

Meanwhile, back in Madrid, Schuster can eat his turkey and turrón, and even his grapes on New Year's Eve having bought himself some breathing space (that is all he can ever do at the helm of this turbulent club). The seven league games before the Champions League restarts in February will give him a chance to consolidate the league leadership.

Continue reading this article »

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Nothing in reserve

Real Madrid's second-string side failed to impress after being given a run-out in the competition that time forgot. Their opponents, Alicante, have never lost against the Madrid side, although their win in their only previous encounter, a friendly in 1956, is hardly the stuff of legends. A collection of the marginalised (Dudek, Drenthe, Soldado), the out-of-favour (Guti, Saviola, Salgado) and those coming back from injury (Metzelder, Heinze) did little to convince their manager to consider them for the upcoming Clásico at Barcelona.

The manager publicly defended his players, claiming in the face of all the evidence that Alicante's goal came from a "gift" penalty from the referee that should never have been given and that it's unfair to judge the players on this performance, as they were not used to playing together (there's no minnows any more, eh Bernd?). Schuster hinted that some of those who played today would also play on Sunday (Guti, perhaps?) but he said nothing about whether they would be starting.

In the end Balboa saved the team's blushes with a header off a corner kick in the last minute of the game. The return leg will be played at the Bernabéu on January 2nd.

Continue reading this article »

Monday, 17 December 2007

The forgotten Cup

It was the trophy the galácticos could not win. The Copa del Rey, the oldest football trophy in Spain, has seen its status increasingly devalued over the years. Whenit was originally conceived in 1902, it was the only national football competition; this remained the case until the creation of the league championship in 1928. Winning it now "merely" grants access to the UEFA cup, which is presumably why most top clubs, Real Madrid included, field an under-strength side until the semifinal stages. More recently, Michel Platini, now UEFA president, had to postpone his plans to persuade national federations to nominate cup winners for entry to the Champions League, a move which could have helped to revive ailing cup competitions around Europe.

More importantly, unlike the FA Cup in England, the rounds involving top flight sides are played over two legs, with the second leg always played at the home ground of the team in the higher division. This clearly tilts the balance in favour of the bigger clubs and diminishes the chances of an upset, one of the beauties of any cup competitions as opposed to the league championship, which rewards consistency.

None of the current members of the Real Madrid squad have ever won the Copa del Rey. You have to go back to the 26th June 1993, nearly 15 years ago, for the last time the club won this competition. The squad list for Real Madrid that night is like delving into the history books: Buyo, Chendo, Nando, Sanchis, Lasa, Míchel, Hierro, Milla, Villarroya, Butragueño, Alfonso. Ramis and Esnáider came on as substitutes in the second half and Butragueño and Lasa were the scorers in the 2-0 win against Zaragoza. Curiously, Real's starting eleven was composed exclusively of Spanish players, unthinkable these days (it was pretty rare even then). Only after Argentine Esnáider came on for Alfonso in the second half was the symmetry "broken".

Real have reached the final twice since that day. In 2002, the club somehow managed to persuade the federation to stage the final at the Bernabéu to celebrate Real's centenary. Deportivo played party poopers that night in the infamous centenariazo where they came off 2-1 winners. More recently, in 2004, a galáctico-laden side (including Roberto Carlos, Figo, Beckham and Zidane) lost out to revenge-fuelled Zaragoza after an extra-time winner put them 3-2 ahead. That 17th March game marked perhaps the beginning of the end for the galáctico era, as Real Madrid was up until then on course to win three competitions (they were leading the league championship and still in the Champions League) and ended up 4th in the league and knocked out of the CL by a Morientes-led Monaco a mere three weeks later.

On Wednesday, Real will play Alicante, a side who have never played in the top division and who have spent most of their 90-year history in the lowly Tercera División (actually the fourth tier of divisions in Spain). They currently play one step above that, so are expected to pose little trouble to Real's reserve side. But then again, it is the beauty of cup football that a "lesser" highly motivated side can always upset a more skillful side who does not take them or the competition seriously.

Continue reading this article »

Wednesday, 21 November 2007


In a report in Spanish daily ABC earlier this week, it was revealed that Real Madrid captain Raúl has been making use of a hypoxic chamber to simulate atmospheric conditions at altitude to improve his stamina. Scientific studies show that reducing the concentration of oxygen in the air breathed stimulates the number of red blood cells produced by the body, which in turn improve athletic performance after returning to normal oxygen levels, as more of the oxygen is made available to working muscles.

According to the paper, Raúl now sleeps (or spends up to eight hours a day) in one such chamber in his house. One wonders whether his wife is inclined to join him in the experiment.

Three years ago, Florentino Pérez's then sporting director, Emilio Butragueño brought the idea of using such chambers for the first team players from his time in the USA, where they are more commonly used for athletes. The club looked at acquiring several but discarded the idea as too costly (around 20,000 euros each) and too hard to properly monitor their use.

The idea seems to have stayed with Raúl who has apparently been using one for the past year, possibly explaining his much improved recent level of fitness (and perhaps related to why Schuster has been reluctant to include him in his rotations very frequently). Raúl's also improved form, on the other hand, probably owes more to the fact that he's been played in his more natural position for the first time in several years. The fact that he also no longer features in Luis Aragonés's plans in the national side has reduced his playing (and travelling) commitments somewhat.

The ethics of using device such as hypoxic tents or chambers to simulate altitude training have been discussed by the World Doping Agency, who, in 2006 decided not to prohibit their use citing medical evidence, although it has been suggested it may have also had something to do with the logistics of testing and enforcing a ban. They are however banned in both Italy and France.

Continue reading this article »

Monday, 19 November 2007

The Bernabéu rejoins the elite

When Italy beat West Germany in the 1982 World Cup final, few could have predicted that more than a generation would have to pass before the venue, the Santiago Bernabéu stadium, could once again host an event of similar magnitude. The Bernabéu, which turns 60 this December, was recently added by UEFA to their "Elite Stadium" list, making it eligible to host the Champions League final.

The Real Madrid stadium has hosted the final of the top European club competition three times (1957, 1969 and 1980), but only in its previous incarnation as the European Cup, never as the Champions League. The final venues for the 2008 and 2009 editions have already been chosen, and the Bernabéu will face stiff competition from the new Wembley, Munich's Allianz Arena, Berlin's Olympiastadion, and Valencia's own Mestalla for the 2010 final. The decision will not be made by UEFA until March of next year.

The Bernabéu was inaugurated on December 14th 1947, when Real Madrid played against the Portuguese side Os Belenenses. The initial ground capacity was 75,432. Initially named Nuevo Estadio Chamartín after its earlier incarnation located in Madrid's district of that name, it was renamed in honour of its then president on January 4th 1955, prior to Real Madrid's unequalled run of success in the European Cup.

In 1953, due to enormous demand from the fans, the stadium was extended with a third amphitheatre (known as the "gallinero", or "henhouse"). During Real's golden period, in the 1950s and 1960s, the ground held crowds of up to 120,000, mostly standing. On the international scene, the Spanish national side won its only official title thus far in the Bernabéu, beating the U.S.S.R. in the final of the European Nations Championship in 1964.

In the early 1980s, the ground saw its first major refurbishment to bring it up to the standard necessary to become a World Cup venue. The façade and access to the ground were modernised, and a cover was added, decreasing the capacity to about 90,000. The distinctive access towers were added during further work carried out in 1992. Once again, the capacity increased above 100,000, to 106,500.

However, according to Spanish legislation and new UEFA rules, from the 1998/99 season, all stadia had to be converted to be all-seater. Real Madrid was one of the few Spanish clubs unable to complete all the necessary alterations in time and they were granted a 2-year extension by UEFA to make the changes, reducing the stadium capacity to just under 75,000. Recent work to the stadium has once again increased the capacity to 80,354, but it has been other changes which have brought it recognition from UEFA: The Presidential Balcony was relocated to the East Stand in order to be in the same area as the press zone, the dressing rooms and all the club's administrative offices. Other changes include the new "Multipurpose" building which houses its own press and board rooms and the new Real Madrid store, the panoramic elevators and the escalators in the access towers.

Curiously, no indication that these changes could bring the desired acknowledgement from UEFA was given at the recent AGM. The alterations have been cumulative, rather than as a result of some heavily hyped grand design (compare with the proposed redesign of Barcelona's Nou Camp by Norman Foster) and so it is difficult to judge whether they form part of an overall vision to guarantee the stadium's future as a venue of international renown. They will, however, suffice for now.

Continue reading this article »

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

The whimpers of the impotent

Bernd Schuster learnt (or learned, take your pick) something this week: not all football managers are created alike. If on Wednesday, Schuster's double pivot took apart Óscar Fernández's Valencia, on Saturday the same starting eleven were comprehensively beaten by Sevilla. So, does Schuster have any idea who is responsible for such a turnaround in fortunes?

However, it's not the game itself I want to write about, other than to say that Real were not that wonderful against Valencia, and, by the same measure, they were not that wretched against Sevilla. The team is starting to click together better than at the beginning of the season. How far they have yet to go is anybody's guess.

It was Schuster's off the cuff statement, in the post-match press conference, that has raised hackles across Spain and left him once again in the media spotlight. He's been railing against the media for some weeks now, perhaps in a Mourinho-style attempt to take the attention away from the players and onto himself and thus relieve them of the usual pressures. But blaming the referee's allegedly poor performance on his place of birth really takes the biscuit: "Is he Catalan? Well, there's nothing more to say". As Sid Lowe, and many others have pointed out, this is the same referee that gave Real more than a little helping hand in their defeat of Almería back in September, which goes to show that Alfonso Álvarez Izquierdo is probably just not a very good referee, but then, that's par for the course in Spain. Guti added more fuel to the fire by claiming that it had not been a defeat, but simple robbery. Given that he narrowly escaped a red card for elbowing an opponent, he has little to complain about, other than the fact it was probably frustration at being expertly hacked about all night by Sevilla's defence.

But now, the media circus has turned into a farce. Against all the video evidence, Schuster tried the next day to deny he had said anything about blaming the referee for the defeat and that it was all blatant misinterpretation by the press. Then, the president of the association of catalan referees (do they really need one?), César Ochoa, wanted the Anti-Violence commission to investigate the matter as it could be seen as incitement to violence. And now, a catalan political party, Convergència i Unió are surprised, saddened and angry at Schuster and want him fined by the Spanish Federation. To be fair, the politician in question also said it was probably something that had nothing to do with the referee being Catalan and more to do with Schuster being a bad loser. He also expressed disappointment that the Real Madrid president had not shown some class by making the club's position on the matter clear, a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with.

So what did Mr. Álvarez Izquierdo think of the matter? "It was a heat of the moment thing. It has no relevance for me". Maybe he's not such a bad egg after all.

Continue reading this article »

Thursday, 1 November 2007

The Charge of the Light Brigade

It's been many years since Valencia lost by such a margin of goals at home (1933, in fact), but then, it's been many years since Valencia played with a diamond formation in midfield and the defensive line pushed forward to contribute to attacking duties. They didn't play like that under Cúper, or Ranieri, or Benítez, or Quique. For years the Valencia side has been a byword for solidity in defence. Last night, interim coach Óscar Fernández was given a very public baptism of fire and a lesson in top flight football tactics. It wasn't an attacking formation designed to give the Mestalla public the kind of spectacle they'd been hoping to see, it was suicide.

Bernd Schuster must have been rubbing his hands in glee. Not only had Valencia lost their more than competent manager three days previously for reasons only Juan Soler, the Valencia president, can comprehend, he was also facing a Valencia side depleted by injuries and a rookie manager who had already made public how his side was going to play. Schuster therefore deployed his forces to make the most of Real's strengths and to exploit Valencia's weaknesses.

Diarra and Gago formed a double pivot in midfield, much as Capello did last season, except he used Emerson instead of the Argentine. Together they completely neutralised Valencia's most dangerous midfield player, Silva and reduced him to a defensive role, continuously fouling Guti to try to get the ball back. The difference with the Capello set-up was that Gago clearly feels more comfortable in this kind of arrangement and was a vital source of well played balls to the more forward positions. Guti had the space and time to put the ball where he wanted, which he did to devastating effect several times. Sneijder, on the bench again, was not missed.

Within 41 seconds of the start, Raúl had put the league leaders in front. Within half an hour, Valencia were 3-0 down with Van Nistelrooy humiliating former team-mate Helguera, who had a nightmare of a game, and deftly chipping over Hildebrand, followed by Sergio Ramos finding an impossible angle to score from. The Dutch number 9 added his second before the end of the half and Valencia's fate was sealed.

Real took their foot off the pedal after the restart but still Valencia looked completely lost on the pitch. It was sheer persistence by Joaquín, probably the home side's best player, which saw him beat Marcelo on the wing and cross for Angulo to put it past Casillas.

With his mind clearly on the Sevilla game on Saturday, Schuster decided to give some of his key players a rest, bringing on Baptista and Torres for Van Nistelrooy and Ramos respectively. He had earlier substituted Marcelo, bringing on Heinze, as the Brazilian youngster was on a yellow and looking like he might leave his side a man down. In the end it was Valencia who finished the game with ten men, as Albiol was sent off for bringing down Robinho when he was the last defender. It could have meant Robinho's second goal, as he had put Real's fifth goal up on the scoreboard shortly after the hour mark.

It made Schuster's comments the previous day, comparing Real Madrid with Roger Federer, seem a little less arrogant than they may at first have seemed: "I'm very happy because we are playing like a top side. We toy with our rivals and when we have to go up a gear, we do that and win games. I see Federer and he does the same thing. He toys with his rivals." It wasn't quite a tennis score, but it wasn't far off. Sevilla is unlikely to make the same tactical mistakes, but they are also a team in transition and followed up their 3-0 defeat of Valencia at the weekend with a 4-3 defeat at the hands of Atlético Madrid last night.

Continue reading this article »

Monday, 29 October 2007

Waiting for Independence Day

With Real Madrid facing a very busy couple of weeks (Valencia on Wednesday, Sevilla on Saturday and Olympiakos the following Tuesday), Bernd Schuster decided to leave Raúl on the bench for the a priori easier task of dealing with Deportivo at home. This is the first time this season that Raúl has been included in Schuster's rotation policy, and so far, only Iker Casillas seems to be immune. Without their very own "Captain Marvel", Real were arguably at their most disjointed, playing an insipid, diluted game that could barely be described as football.

Over the past few weeks, in the media frenzy that developed around Raúl after the latest snub by national team coach Luis Aragonés, many squad members have been almost sickeningly fulsome in their praise for the Real Madrid (and formerly Spain) captain:

After last night's performance, you have to wonder if there isn't more to it than just cynical attempts by those players to ingratiate themselves with one of the heavyweights in the dressing room, or by certain elements of the press to put pressure on Aragonés. When Raúl came in for Saviola halfway through the second half, in what was the thirteenth anniversary (minus one day) of his debut with the first team, he seemed to inject some much needed energy and vision to his team-mates. Robinho, once again absent for most of the game, hit the crossbar and Guti, who had not had anyone to latch on to his deadly accurate passes, saw firstly Raúl himself, and secondly Robinho put paid to Deportivo's solid defence.

And thus the reason behind this article's oblique title: Real seems still to be unhealthily dependent on three of its longest serving players: Raúl, Casillas and Guti. Without taking away anything from their contributions, a squad of this depth (and cost) should by now be able to perform as effectively when they are not playing. Nobody should be indispensible when the season is this long. Real Madrid may think itself fortunate that it is facing two potential contenders for the title (Valencia and Sevilla) at a time when they have recently lost their managers. Don't be fooled; both teams have been playing more solidly and consistently (albeit without the luxury of having results go their way) and will provide a stern test of Schuster's ability to construct a team out of a bunch of talented individuals.

One last thing, can anyone explain to me why Salgado continues to play first team football?

Continue reading this article »

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Codes of Conduct

When Robinho and Baptista returned several hours late to Madrid following Brazil's 5-0 thumping of Ecuador, they missed training and were excluded from the squad that lost the first league match of the season to Espanyol. Following reports that Robinho particularly had been involved in some "wild partying" on the night following the game, the club launched an enquiry and the two face some heavy fines. But is this because they were late, or because of the alleged late-night antics?

Following the players' return, Baptista explained that the delay was due to problems with air traffic, and apologised for not informing the club of their status. Assuming that this is true (why wouldn't you phone in if you know you're going to be late for work?), then surely the players should not face a particularly heavy rebuke for circumstances outside their control, even if informing the club should have been the first thing they did.

However, it seems the club is keen to be seen to be cracking down on incidents of misconduct precisely because they recently issued guidelines on proper conduct to the whole squad. There is a whole argument to be had here about whether this is something that employers can enforce when employees are not representing the organisation. Personally, I don't care what players do in their leisure time as long as it's not illegal and it does not affect their performance on the pitch. I don't buy the whole 'role model for youngsters' argument. They don't have to be likeable, just do their job.

But the curious thing here is that, after huffing and puffing on the weekend about leaving the Brazilians out of the squad, Bernd Schuster has been at pains to make Robinho feel all warm and fuzzy at Real Madrid, with statements like "he arrived at the club at a very difficult time, when the team wasn't playing well and to be viewed as some kind of saviour put too much pressure on him. He's a player that needs to feel happy; we need to take pressure and responsibility off him. He can make something happen in a second and that is what we want him to show. We still haven't seen the true Robinho".

How long does he need? He's been playing for his country since 2003, was in the World Cup squad last year and finished as top scorer in the Copa América earlier this year. If he's not performing as Bernd Schuster wants him to, maybe he should be allowed to go to as many parties as he wants and who cares about codes of conduct?

Continue reading this article »

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Dilemma over Diarra

Mahamadou Diarra captained Mali to a 2-0 victory away to Togo on the weekend, ensuring the national side's qualification for next year's African Cup of Nations in Ghana. The competition, which runs from the 20th of January to the 10th of February will leave Real Madrid without their key defensive midfielder for at least the whole of January, given that players have to be available to join their national sides 15 days before the start of official competitions. During that time, Real Madrid will play nine games, a number that could increase if Mali qualify for the latter stages of the competition.

This is not the first time there's been a clash of fixtures between club and country, although last time FIFA ruled in favour of Real Madrid to ensure Diarra was present (and crucially scored) in league championship decider against Mallorca. This time, despite the protestations of some club presidents, country will win over club, and Real Madrid finds itself with a big problem in midfield.

Schuster, has included Diarra in his rotations policy, mostly, I suspect, because the player could not train as hard as normal during the month of Ramadan (13 September - 11 October). However, his replacement, Fernando Gago, has struggled to be as effective in his defensive coverage (not helped by the fact that there is little assistance from the rest of the midfield).

Hence, Real Madrid is already reported as either scouring the winter transfer window for an alternative or 'repurposing' another player in the squad. The departure of Emerson and De la Red in the summer, means that this could be one of Drenthe (still unsettled), Baptista (not defensive enough) or Sergio Ramos (not a natural midfielder).

Diarra himself narrowly avoided injury in the Togo - Mali qualifier, where the crowd invaded the pitch at the end of the game and assaulted the Mali squad with bottles and knives. His countrymen Kanouté, who plays for Sevilla, and Sidibé (Stoke City) were less fortunate and subsequently needed medical assistance African players in Spain have also been in the news recently due to the Spanish Federation ratifying the 2000 Cotonou agreement and granting citizens of 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific states the same working rights as EU citizens (as long as they are working legally in Spain).

You can also read this, and other articles, over at Real Madrid Online

Continue reading this article »

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Truce in TV war

A temporary truce was reached yesterday in the media wars between Sogecable's AVS and Mediapro over the right to broadcast Spanish league games both in Spain and abroad, following a ruling in a Madrid court. The court ruling prohibits Mediapro from any exploitation of the football broadcasting rights owned by AVS during the 2007/08 season. It further awarded costs against Mediapro, but required AVS to put up a bank guarantee of 50 million euros within 20 days in the event that any subsequent court rulings find for damages in favour of Mediapro.

What does this mean from a viewer's perspective? The judge ruled that the contract signed between Sogecable and Mediapro on 24 July 2006 must be adhered to, whereby Mediapro retains the right to broadcast one (general interest) free-to-air game per league matchday in Spain, has exclusive international broadcasting rights, the rights for the second division games, as well as the re-caps of all the games. Mediapro will remain as the production company for all games shown on pay-per-view (even though AVS will retain the broadcasting rights).

If both parties agree to the ruling (and Mediapro have already said this was what they had been asking for), it means we will be back to the status quo prior to the dispute, which should at least ensure that there is no disruption to the international feed. This could have been extremely damaging to the brand value of the clubs, especially the big ones like Real Madrid and Barcelona. The League has now called a meeting with both parties on Thursday to discuss the scheduling of games for the remainder of this season.

However, it is not all over by any means. There is still an outstanding legal dispute between both parties which will need to be resolved. Mediapro owns the broadcasting rights to 10 of the 20 first division clubs. From next season, this will increase to 12, with the addition of Real Madrid and Barcelona, with a further five joining in 2009. This will leave Sogecable (whose majority owner is the Grupo PRISA, also owner of El País and As newspapers) with a rapidly diminishing ability to exploit football via pay-per-view. The only first division clubs which have not signed a deal with Mediapro are Atlético, Betis and Getafe.

Continue reading this article »

Monday, 8 October 2007

Brightening up

It was not a classic performance by any means, but there were some positives to take away from Sunday's 2-0 win over Recreativo de Huelva. Real started the game at a much higher tempo than we have been used to and Raúl had a header for the opener within 13 seconds of the start. Robben seems to have reached full match fitness and his speed is causing problems for defenders on the wings. Marcelo is improving with every game and with Heinze having an excellent performance at centre back, Schuster may be able to give Cannavaro a rest now Metzelder has recovered from his injury. Raúl continues to show that he is on form, particularly when linking up with Van Nistelrooy, though clearly not enough for Luis Aragonés to recall him to the national side, and Casillas was largely responsible once again for the team having their fourth clean sheet in the league this season.

However, not all the pieces are clicking seamlessly together. There is still a large gulf between the defence and the midfield, and the team is vulnerable to fast counters, which teams more effective than Recreativo might have capitalised on. Guti and Sneijder are still not making the link to the forwards with enough consistency to allow Real to derive benefit from their possession and put games away quickly. Raúl and Van Nistelrooy were left chasing shadows for most of the first half. It is only when the opposing teams begin to tire that Real Madrid seems to strike, as all but three of Real's sixteen current league goals have been scored in the second half. But this only works if you can stop them from scoring against you.

Rud opened the scoring after 72 minutes in typical predatory fashion, after an inch-perfect through ball from Raúl. Though he missed a similar chance in the first half, Van the man now has 16 goals in the last 18 league games and it is no surprise the club is reportedly looking to extend his contract to 2010. Higuaín finally managed to score again, as the clock was running down and kept the chasing pack at bay, especially a Messi-led Barcelona, who have been impressing all and sundry in recent weeks after a bit of a shaky start to the season. International fixtures over the next 10 days mean that we have two weeks to wait until the next league encounter, away against the in-form Espanyol.

Continue reading this article »

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Capello analyses Real

Fabio Capello, who, since leaving Real Madrid, has taken up a post commentating for Italian state TV channel RAI, did not mince his words last night, as he analysed the Lazio-Real game. Interestingly, this has been picked up by the Spanish press from different perspectives, depending on who you read. Most highlight the fact that Capello thinks Real Madrid are still a team which "lacks identity". As, not my favourite publication, as those of you who read this blog regularly know, is one of the few who spins his comments positively, focusing on the fact that he thinks the current squad has more speed and quality than the one he managed. Here are a selection of quotes, some insightful, some seemingly contradictory:

  • "I've known few players as good as Raúl in the area, where he moves like a fish in water"
  • "[Last season's squad] was extraordinary, full of talent, that at any time could create opportunities. The current squad still has no identity, although Schuster is trying to give it one"
  • "I'm surprised Guti's on the right, it's not his best position, he's not comfortable marking players. Also, Diarra is a little isolated in front of the defence. He's getting very little help."
  • "Real are having trouble with Lazio's fast strikers, but both Heinze and Cannavaro are coping well. Also Marcelo, who is very good, but lacks experience in these high tension international games"
  • "The current squad is clearly faster and more talented than what I had to work with last season"
  • "Right now I'd love to be on the bench coaching Real"
  • After the game: "The galáctico Madrid had a lot of talent and personality. I coached them at the end of this phase, where Roberto Carlos, Beckham and Ronaldo still played. Today's squad has lost some of that personality. The truth is that Robben has shown himself to be very dangerous when given space. Guti is still at the centre of everything and, in general, Real can score a goal while doing very little, as ever. Once again van Nistelrooy has been crucial..."
  • "Fabio [Cannavaro] is in great shape, he knows all the tricks of the trade; Real have been lucky to have him there tonight. Ramos is an extraordinary professional with great qualities, full of class"

Three members of Real Madrid's infamous Ultrasur radical supporters group were arrested in Rome last night after causing trouble and setting off fireworks at the end of the game. Once again, the actions of these brainless morons may push UEFA to fine the club.

Continue reading this article »

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Winning ugly

Some statistics from the Getafe-Real Madrid game illustrate the deterioration in Real's play since the 5-0 drubbing of Villareal (currently lying second) on the second week of the championship. Getafe had 26 shots on goal (7 on target) compared with 13 for Real Madrid (5 on target). Getafe had a total of 10 corner kicks, for Real's 2. And yet, the game ended with Real's first ever win at Getafe's Coliseum courtesy of Sergio Ramos's goal from a Robben through ball, although the Dutchman was in a dubious offside position. Is this a return to last year's playing pattern under Capello, or is Schuster taking a terrible risk with his squad rotations?

Contrast the treatment that Schuster is having at the hands of the Madrid press with the constant criticism of Capello for most of last season. It can't be just because the team is still sitting atop the standings, with their best league start in 16 years; no such slack was granted to the Italian. When the press turn, as they surely must, it won't be pretty.

The arguments about squad rotations can be summarised simply: when the season consists of 70+ games, you cannot use the same starting eleven and expect them to perform at the same level throughout. However, constant chopping and changing of the team gives the players little time to settle and learn how to best link up with each of their colleagues. Long gone are the times when a team like Nottingham Forest could win the 1959 FA Cup with the same starting eleven in all 9 games. Schuster is perhaps still trying to integrate some of the newer arrivals, like Robben, who had little or no time in the preseason to adjust, but results will only continue to go his way for so long, if the team continues to perform as poorly as in recent games.

Against Getafe, it was the pair in the centre of defence (Cannavaro and Ramos), who, along with Casillas's usual collection of last-gasp saves, and the providential intervention of the woodwork, kept Real in the game. Schuster had words of praise for them: "I think that, once again, the back four have been exceptional. They, along with Iker Casillas, saved our bacon. I don't like how the four in midfield are discharging their defensive duties; they're causing us problems".

Schuster was referring to the now all too common malaise at Real Madrid, where there are huge spaces between the defence and the midfield, resulting in loss of possession. It is nonetheless his responsibility to get the team to play how he wants them to. Drenthe seems to be all over the place, and Gago is just not able to do the same type of job that Diarra does. Sneijder and Robinho were playing far too far forward and just were not getting the service, and it was only when Guti came on for Drenthe early in the second half that Real started to connect (though they still were far from great).

The worry is that the last 4 league games have been against weaker opposition, at least on paper, so how will the team perform when they have to play against higher placed teams? The answers may have to wait, as the next league engagement is against mid-table Recreativo, although the team from Huelva did win 3-0 at the Bernabéu last year.

Continue reading this article »

Friday, 28 September 2007

TV or not TV

The Media wars that have been affecting Spanish League football this season intensified last night over the broadcasting rights for the Real Madrid - Betis match. Two rival media companies: Sogecable and Mediapro are currently in dispute over who has the right to show certain matches. Sogecable maintains that that Mediapro must first accept a contract on joint football rights signed by the two groups in 2006 and pay Sogecable a pending fine of around 70 million euros. Once Mediapro accepts these conditions, Sogecable said it will renew the broadcast of a television signal for the producer's use. Mediapro claims that the contract is no longer valid and denies that it owes Sogecable any fees. The latest salvo in this war ended up with the game being shown on Sogecable's pay per view channel, rather than on a free-to-air channel.

Real Madrid is caught in the middle of this dispute because it signed a deal with Mediapro last November for all its broadcasting rights until the 2012-2013 season. However, it has a still-current contract with Sogecable until the end of this season and is therefore legally bound to abide by its decisions on how matches are broadcast. To this effect, the club issued a communiqué yesterday deploring the current dispute, announcing that it had allowed both sets of TV cameras into the stadium in expectation of an agreement being reached and claiming that it had no choice but to comply with their contractual obligations to Sogecable.

The plot thickens because this match had been billed as the one free-to-air game that Spaniards have guaranteed by law (21/1997, if you must know) per round of the league. As the game was broadcast on PPV, this meant that no game was broadcast for free and the law has been broken. Real Madrid are probably unlikely to face any legal proceedings as they allowed both sets of cameras onto the stadium and it was Sogecable's insistence that they had the rights to the game that prevented it from being broadcast by Mediapro on their La Sexta channel. Sogecable's argument is likely to centre aruond the fact that they proposed other games for the free-to-air slot and it was Mediapro's intransigence that meant no games were broadcast. It's getting uglier by the day and will likely end up in the courts, as the stakes are very high for both sides.

The match result? 2-0 for Real, and very tedious it was too, so those who paid to watch it must feel even more disappointed. The only highlight, other than the fact that Real stay top was Julio Baptista's impressive overhead kick for the second goal. Let's hope he gets a few more minutes this season.

Continue reading this article »

Thursday, 27 September 2007

The dangerous legacy of attacking football

A fascinating tactical analysis in today's El País uncovers some of the historical reasons for Real's defensive woes, typified in recent games by the squad's inability to maintain possession. This is aggravated by the fact that the midfielders do not push back to help defend and the central defenders stay too close to Casillas's goal. The Real Madrid technical team is trying to rectify the situation but "it is not easy because this squad is accustomed to have possession. When a team is constructed for attack, the players get out of the habit of also performing defensive duties."

Back in 1999, the then Real Madrid captain and central defender, Fernando Hierro (confirmed on Tuesday as the new sporting director of the Spanish FA and officially presented earlier today), perhaps conscious of the fact that his speed was not one of his best attributes, argued with the defensive midfielder of the day, Fernando Redondo, about how far back the central defenders should stay. With the arrival of Florentino's era and the emphasis on attacking galáctico signings, Hierro found an ally in Iván Helguera (not a particularly fast footballer either), who argued that "with so many players attacking, you have to be very coordinated at the back to push forward. If you leave too much space behind you, they can hurt you on the counter."

That worked fine when Real with Zidane owned the midfield and kept control of the ball, but three trophyless years brought Capello back to the Bernabéu and a renewed rigour to the squad's defensive duties. This was mostly accomplished by keeping defenders and midfielders in the Real half waiting for the opportunity to counter-attack. This also explains why Real Madrid had a much worse home than away record, given the fans' expectations when playing at the Bernabéu.

The new manager now finds that he has a problem. He wants to be able to play attacking football, but still be solid in defence. This poses problems for the midfield, who have far too much ground to cover, as the defenders play too close to Casillas. Diarra complains that "The space between defenders and midfielders is too great. When we lose the ball it is very hard to get it back."

Schuster's challenge is to convince his defenders that they can play further forward and not put additional pressure on Casillas to perform his usual heroics. Barcelona, who have been playing the same way for five years, have far better defensive statistics: Touré steals a ball every 12 minutes, compared with 18 minutes for Diarra. Similarly, Iniesta has better numbers than Guti, and Xavi is far more effective defensively than Sneijder. The transition won't be easy, if it happens at all, but it may go some way to explain the curse of the central defender which has plagued Real Madrid for years.

Continue reading this article »

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Paying the price of rotations

"We have to think about every player's physical condition in every match", said Bernd Schuster ahead of Sunday's game against newly promoted Valladolid. While not in Rafa Benítez's league when it comes to squad rotations, Schuster was as good as his word and left out Sneijder (replaced by Drenthe). Injuries to Pepe and Metzelder forced Ramos to join Cannavaro in the centre of defence, with Salgado on the right and Marcelo on the left (why not Torres?). Since the start of the season (including the Spanish Supercup), the only players still to get some time on the pitch are Soldado and reserve keepers Dudek and Codina. however, if Sneijder was in no condition to play (and he didn't come on when things turned sour), why was he on the bench? Why not Soldado, or better yet, Baptista?

Valladolid started very strong, putting the Real defence under a great deal of pressure in the first 20 minutes of the first half. Drenthe was ineffective on the left and Guti was not getting enough deliveries to feed to the front line. Diarra thankfully, was strong, despite his Ramadan-induced fasting, but he's not the type of player to link up with the forward players. Robinho was perhaps the most aggressive in the first half, with several jinking runs nearly undoing his markers. Salgado gave away two handballs in the area and Valladolid can count themselves unlucky neither of them turned into a penalty. He is really off form (I'm not the only one who thinks so), and Schuster should consider giving youngster Torres a run out.

The second half was more even, particularly when Robben came on for Drenthe on the one-hour mark. Things can only improve when he's fully match fit. However, first blood was for Valladolid, with a tremendous strike by Pedro López which Casillas, with his soon-to-be insured hands, had no chance of reaching. Casillas later claimed this was the second best goal ever scored against him.

With five minutes to go, Schuster decided to throw caution to the wind and brought Saviola on for Salgado. The little Argentine had only had a couple of touches when a through ball from Guti to van Nistelrooy beat Valladolid's offside trap. The Dutchman unselfishly laid the ball off to Saviola who merely needed a tap-in to score Real's equaliser. On the balance of play, a point was probably more than Real deserved and they'll be much happier with the outcome than Valladolid, who, like Almería, so far have shown they have what it takes to stay up this year.

In other news, the New York immigration service mistook Ramón Calderón, travelling on leisure, with a similarly-named criminal and detained him at the airport for over two hours while they checked him out. Unfortunately, telling tall stories to the press about the football club you run does not warrant a custodial sentence in the U.S., so they had to let him go.

Continue reading this article »

Thursday, 20 September 2007

When there's no unrest, make it up

Bernd Schuster is going to have to learn quickly how things work when you are in charge of a big club. And number one on his list is to realise that every word he says will be scrutinised minutely for meanings, even where none exist. Take for instance his interview with German TV channel Premiere following Real's 2-1 win over Werder Bremen in Tuesday's Champions League match:

"I have got to wait and see if this is what I really want. I have to see if I enjoy the way things work at Real Madrid in the long-term. You see all the people who come to training, and that really is a big responsibility for somebody who has previously only worked at small clubs. At Real you only get opinions, not facts. This is not good and I am not yet used to it. I will have to just see how this year goes."

I've not seen the interview, and even if I had I could not comment on it as my German is nonexistent. The above translation is taken from the Spanish version on Marca, so something may have been lost on the way. German tabloid Bild and Marca itself believe it signals a desire for Schuster to leave at the end of the season. As, on the other hand, has completely ignored the story and is keener on trying to sell the fact that Bremen's Brazilian midfielder Diego is on his way to the Bernabéu next summer. The likelihood is that these are the unguarded words of someone whose life and way of working has changed radically since his last job and is saying he needs to take stock after some time to see how he is doing. I think it unlikely that he is sending a message to his employers this early in the season, and when things so far are going his way. But what Schuster has to learn, and learn quickly, is that everything you say can and will be taken out of context by a press desperate to get their angle of the story onto their front pages. And this can contribute to a destabilisation in the club; not by itself, of course, but if other factors also come into play.

Schuster must have realised that he had to provide some context, which is what he did the following evening on the Spanish Antena 3 TV channel: "Of course I'm happy. Just being in Real Madrid makes me happy because I have finally arrived at a big club and the results are going my way. I cannot ask for more. If I'm not happy now I don't know when I would be".

Some think that Marca is just causing trouble because, coincidentally, one of their favourite coaches, José Mourinho last night decided to leave Chelsea and they would like him at the helm. Personally, I find this a little far fetched. Others think, like I do, that this is just an easy way for Marca and Bild to fill their front pages.

In other news, BBDO consulting, a unit of the world's largest advertising agency, published a ranking of the 25 most valuable teams in Europe. Real Madrid is top with a brand value of 1,063 million euros, followed by Barcelona with 948 million and Manchester United with 922 million. The report also says that Real's three-year jersey sponsorship with online gambling company Bwin is worth more than 60 million euros.

Continue reading this article »

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Unopposed, yet ineffective?

What a difference a year (and two league titles - in football and basketball) makes. All through last summer, after the disputed election result, and even into the AGM in December, Ramón Calderón's authority, and even his legitimacy as president of Real Madrid was constantly called into question.

On Sunday, Real Madrid held their AGM and approved, by an overwhelming majority, the accounts for last year, which showed the club had a healthy balance sheet, although also a significant amount of debt (not necessarily a major issue in an entity of this size). However, only 654 out of the 2,106 socios compromisarios made an appearance for the initial speeches by the president and the board, and a mere 353 remained for the voting. By the time questions from the floor were allowed, only about 100 socios remained, a worrying level of interest (or perhaps overcomplacency) in how the club is run.

I've written before about the voting process at AGMs and how I feel that it is an undemocratic way of doing things, and one which has little transparency. In most democratic institutions, the lack of participation would be seen as a source of concern, because it directly affects the validity of the mandate the leadership has over that institution. This sort of thing promotes cronyism and corruption and should be reformed as a matter of priority, but, of course, it's not going to happen unless the members attend in numbers and demand it.

A number of announcements were made regarding the building of a new High Performance Centre to be managed by the club physio Walter di Salvo, a new residence for the players to spend time together before matches, and a new arena for the basketball team. However, nothing was said about any upgrades to the Santiago Bernabéu to make it one of the best stadia in the world, something the "richest club in the world" should aim for. Contrast this with Barcelona announcing that they have engaged one of the most prestigious architects in the world, Sir Norman Foster, to do with the Nou Camp what he did for Wembley stadium.

My personal bugbear with this AGM was the inability of the management to reform the statutes of the club to ensure the postal voting debacle at the last presidential election does not happen again. After all this time, they are still working on them and they did not furnish a date when they would be presented to the members for approval. The club has entered the 21st century as a business that makes rather than loses money, but the same cannot be said for the transparency and fairness of its processes.

Continue reading this article »

Monday, 17 September 2007

Sneijder shows his worth

It wasn't pretty, but it was a win. That's not a standard summary game review for last season, but a fair reflection of Saturday's outcome against Almería. The newly promoted side set out to prove that their 3-0 season opening win at Deportivo was no fluke and took the game to Real Madrid, who floundered for the first half hour or so.

Saviola, in for Van Nistelrooy who was presumably not 100% after his international duty for the Netherlands, had a goal disallowed for a clear offside before picking up a rebound off the post from a Raúl strike and neatly putting it away. In the second half, Schuster brought Drenthe in for Heinze and Higuaín in for Robinho, like-for-like substitutions which preserved the tactical line-up. Almería, however, were uncowed and rightly protested a disallowed goal soon after the restart, as Higuaín was clearly playing Uche onside.

In fact, Almería are to be congratulated for their fighting spirit, which should be rewarded with retaining their top division status at the end of the season. After Sneijder doubled Real's lead with a sublime free kick worthy of David Beckham (his fourth goal in three matches), Almería received a further blow when Crusat was sent off for bringing down Saviola as the last defender. Still they kept on coming, harassing the Real defence, making Casillas look shaky on the high balls, and finally getting their reward with a fabulous finish by Uche, after he got the better of Cannavaro. They even had a penalty appeal turned down (it looked like an accidental clash between Metzelder and Natalio, rather than a deliberate trip). This is the sort of stuff that will have Sport and El Mundo Deportivo claiming biased refereeing, while Marca and As will say it was just human error, the opposite of what either side said after Barcelona's last game. Naturally.

Higuaín made it safe a few minutes later, with Saviola in an offside position (was he or wasn't he interfering with play? You decide) and Real are now the only side with three wins out of three, although Sevilla are 2/2 with a game in hand and looking as good as last season.

The Champions League group stages kick off this week, with Real hosting Werder Bremen on Tuesday, and the fixture list is starting to look its usual congested self at this stage of the season.

Continue reading this article »

Friday, 14 September 2007

General Disassembly

At last December's AGM, Ramón Calderón managed to avert a coup to his fledgling presidency but could not deliver a reform to the entity's statutes, especially regarding the management of postal voting in presidential elections. It is essential that the controversy which dogged the early months of his presidency and which was finally resolved in the courts cannot happen again.

The club is bullish about the club's performance over the past year, claiming it as "the best fiscal year in its history" with €351 million in ordinary revenue (20% up), €83 million in earnings (EBITDA, 43% up) and profit of €44 million before tax. It seems clear that the club's finances are sound and the structure put in place by former president Florentino Pérez to run the club as a modern business is reaping the rewards. However, there is concern in the Real Madrid blogosphere (see El Triangular Madridista in particular) that good results should not overshadow a number of questions that need answers, aside from the reform of the electoral process:

  • Accurate transfer figures (including commissions) for players arriving and leaving this season.
  • Detailed explanations on the allegations of electoral corruption in a Telecinco documentary last June.
  • Clarification of the club's sporting management structure. Who is in charge of what? Mijatovic? Portugal?
  • Plans to make the Bernabéu stadium once again fit to host the Champions' League final.
  • Detailed accounting of the board of directors' expenditure, which supposedly has matched in 6 months that of the administration of the previous 6 years.

More details next week.

Continue reading this article »

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

This is no time for euphoria

Coming back from a week's holiday to find that your team is the best thing since sliced bread (which, let's face it, was never that great an invention) always brings out the cynical side in my nature. Granted, winning 5-0 away from home doesn't happen every week (last time was over 11 years ago, on 24th January 1996 against Athletic Bilbao), and Villareal had not lost in 18 games.

Perhaps Bernd Schuster has it right, calling for an attitude balanced between joy and caution: "I'm not worried about the feeling of euphoria because there's a 10-day gap until the next game and in that time nobody will remember what happened here. That's why we're going to enjoy the result, which is a thing that happens only rarely. What I liked the most was the team's attitude; they're all working together at the highest level. We can undoubtedly improve on certain things because not everything was that great." Real Madrid looked good, balanced and playing more exciting football than under Capello, but let's not forget the 120 million euros that have been spent building this squad and all the jogo bonito in the world will not save Schuster from the chop if the trophies don't come his way.

There are some positives to take away, of course. Guti and Sneijder seem to be complementing each other in midfield better than could be expected (though of course it's still early days and Guti has a propensity for 'disappearing' from a number of games every season). Phil Ball argues that Drenthe and Sneijder have given the side the balance they sorely needed and Diarra is doing all the dirty work behind Guti and the little Dutchman. Heinze debuted at left back, coming in for Raúl(!), and freeing up Drenthe to roam further up the pitch, where he prefers to play. Cannavaro and Metzelder were solid in the centre of defence all evening, especially in the first half when Villareal had most of the possession and the attacking play. Ramos continues to impress on the right wing and his tribute to the late, lamented Antonio Puerta, who collapsed during Sevilla's opening game of the season, suffered a number of cardiac arrests and finally passed away a few days later, was spoiled by an officious yellow card from the otherwise fine refereeing of Medina Cantalejo. In a rare display of humanity, the Spanish Federation annulled the yellow card as they considered the tribute to be "sincere" and made in "exceptional circumstances".

However, some of the other news of the past week have not been so positive. Schuster took six canteranos with him to Austria for preseason training: Granero, Balboa, De la Red, Adrián, Codina and Bueno. None have any room in the current squad, given the influx of players, and in the hours before the closing of the transfer window on August 31st, De la Red and Granero moved to Getafe (transfer and loan, respectively) and Adrián was loaned to Celta for a year. Soldado does not seem to feature highly on Schuster striker list and may opt for a move at Christmas.

Continue reading this article »

Friday, 24 August 2007

How not to build a new squad

With the arrival of Heinze (12 million euros) and Robben (36 million euros) from Manchester United and Chelsea respectively, Real Madrid have taken their summer transfer spending spree to a staggering 119 million euros. This, just on five signings (Pepe, Drenthe, Sneijder, Robben, Heinze). A further three (Saviola, Metzelder, Dudek) came 'for free', or at least for no transfer fee. Add to these the two returning from loan (Soldado, Baptista) and you find yourself with an almost brand new starting eleven (and almost all positions on the pitch would be covered, too).

A strange strategy for a club that has just won the league championship, you might think. Well, you would not be alone, but this is Real Madrid and normal rules never apply here. If you take as a given that the club needed an infusion of fresh talent and a change in playing style, then there are still several issues which suggest the whole thing just has not been planned at all:

  • Replacing the manager took far too long; consequently the club was late getting the transfer strategy under way. The signings have come so late they have not had time, for the most part, to integrate into the squad. The manager has not yet instilled a recognisable style of play either.
  • Paying well over the odds for an unknown central defender, thus signalling to all and sundry that Real Madrid was in the market to get fleeced. Even if Pepe turns out to be the next Paolo Maldini, the damage was done, hence the ridiculous sums of money that have been spent this summer.
  • No clear direction in the signings. The left side certainly needed reinforcing, but they then went and signed three left-footed players (Heinze, Drenthe, Robben) and got rid of a young right back (Cicinho), leaving that position half-covered (Salgado should probably have gone and Ramos is better in the centre).

Neither Robben nor Heinze will play in tomorrow's league opener against Atlético. Torres and Higuaín are still injured, and Cannavaro picked up a knock in training. It looks like Casillas might be fit in time to see whether Reyes makes good on his promise to score against Real.

Continue reading this article »

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Capello lashes out

Marca has an "exclusive" interview today (continued tomorrow) with Fabio Capello, but you won't find it on their website, only in the printed edition. He has some choice words for the management, led by Calderón and Mijatovic, especially about the manner of his dismissal after winning the league title:

"Mijatovic lied to me and (assistant coach) Franco Baldini, who had a very important offer from another team. He said: 'You will stay here, we will all be staying here.' I never heard anything from him (Calderón). He has never called me... I think I deserved some respect from someone who came to get me from Italy, someone I helped to win the elections and succeed as president."

Harsh words, and yet not surprising. It's been fairly well documented that Mijatovic initially wanted Capello to stay, but probably buckled under pressure from Calderón and the rest of the board who wanted 'exciting football' at the Bernabéu. To save his own skin, he stabbed Capello in the back so that the decision was seen to be unanimous.

"What hurt me most was that they appointed me to do a serious, tough and difficult job and we had a very difficult dressing room to deal with. There were many conflicting groups and each one had its leader who blamed the others when things weren't going well. But we pulled the team together, recovered the team spirit and they played with great enthusiasm and belief."

All true. This is my main gripe with the management. They had no class. You do not set objectives for someone, knowing full well how they intend to deliver them, and then proceed to remove them when those methods become unpalatable. They may have had the excuse they wanted, had Capello not won the league (one almost senses that they would have preferred this), but they went ahead and did it anyway. This may come back to haunt them.

Capello also blamed the management for the decision to exclude David Beckham from the squad. "The decision was taken because the club management said that he had negotiated with them, having already agreed a contract with Los Angeles. They said that they couldn't count on a player that wasn't going to remain at the club."

At the time, I suspected this may have been the case. However, it cannot be the whole story. Capello must take responsibility for either bowing to pressure or agreeing that the punishment was adequate. That he eventually recanted when things got tough is not necessarily to his credit, if it's not accompanied by an apology for his earlier decision.

Capello also praised AC Milan for signing Emerson from Real Madrid for 5 million euros. "Milan have made a fantastic signing in Emerson. He is a champion that can give a lot. He struggled at the start of his adventure with Real Madrid but then he recovered well. Emerson is a complete midfielder, able to interpret to perfection all the roles in the centre of midfield."

He would say that, wouldn't he, given that Real brought him from Juventus on his advice. But, to be honest, Emerson never really completely clicked at Real, no matter how many chances he was given. It is true he brightened a little towards the end of the season, but his overall performances never justified his price tag. Presumably this is why he has been let go for a fraction of his original cost (both he and Cannavaro signed for around 20 million euros last summer). Emerson himself had harsh words for the management at the club: "During the hard times I lived through last season I never had a call from the president. He did not behave correctly towards me. There is a huge gulf between the players in the squad and the management."

It'll be interesting to see what Capello says in tomorrow's second instalment.

Continue reading this article »

Monday, 20 August 2007

Capello would not approve

When Capello was sacked after finally bringing the league title to the Bernabéu following four trophyless seasons, Calderón justified the "unanimous" board decision on the basis that they needed "to find a more enthusiastic way of playing". In other words, attractive football would reign over the expediency of results at any cost.

Last night he got his wish, although not perhaps in the way he might have hoped: a crushing home defeat at the hands of Sevilla in the return leg of the Spanish Supercup saw eight goals scored at the Bernabéu. Sevilla proved to be superior in pretty much all aspects of the game as they picked up their fifth title in 15 months (2 UEFA Cups, 1 Spanish Cup, 1 European Supercup and now 1 Spanish Supercup).

What is surprising is that under Bernd Schuster, Getafe tied Barcelona for the least number of goals conceded (33) during last season's league championship. In other words, he built his team around solid defensive principles. With Real Madrid, he doesn't seem to have decided on a playing style or scheme, or even a fairly consistent starting eleven. This is fine in the middle of the preaseason, and there's been a fair amount of movement in the transfer market, but the league opener, the Madrid derby against Atlético, is only five days away, and the Bernabéu crowd can turn nasty very quickly if he doesn't deliver.

The Madrid press so far have been fairly forgiving of Schuster. This is hardly a major shock, given that they were the ones hounding Capello all of last season and demanding his presence at the helm. Their criticism so far has been mild, but this will quickly be forgotten if Real's performances don't improve soon.

There are worrying signs that the pressure is getting to Pepe. Following his provoking a Cadiz player by spitting at him (getting both the Cadiz player and his team-mate Diarra sent off in the process), he topped this by a truly unfortunate display last night where he gave away a penalty resulting in Sevilla's third goal, was partly responsible for three of the other four, and ended up getting sent off in the dying seconds of the game. Not the best way to justify the 30 million the club spent on you during your home debut. Drenthe, on the other hand, did get a cracking goal, but it was all for naught.

Continue reading this article »

Thursday, 16 August 2007

You can't trust anyone

"... and even less at Real Madrid". So said Iván Helguera, in his usual uncompromising manner, demonstrating that he won't be winning any prizes for diplomacy any time soon.

The quote comes from an interview in this week's Don Balón, following his move from Real Madrid to Valencia this summer. For the benefit of non-Spanish speakers, I've translated selected extracts.

Do eight years club as big as Real Madrid leave a big impression?

Yes, I played nearly 300 games there and won many titles; there's no doubt that leaves its mark. Almost everything was good, although I've also had many disappointments.

Did the club behave well towards you or did you leave with a sour taste in your mouth?
The vast majority of what I went through there was good, but I've also had many bad moments in the past few years. In spite of everything, I cannot leave with a bad taste in the mouth, because, as a footballer, Real Madrid have given me everything and for that, I will always be grateful.

Were you surprised by Fabio Capello's departure at the end of the season?
In truth, yes, because he was asked to win the League and he won it. After he arrived, the team progressed upwards. But you know what football is like. You can't trust anyone and even less at Real Madrid. They opted for a change and I wish Schuster lots of luck, although obviously not at Valencia's expense.

Without Roberto Carlos, Beckham, Helguera... it looks like Real Madrid will be very different to what we've seen in the past few years.
I think so. Schuster replacing Capello already makes it a different team. But, at the moment there's not been that many signings given the "revolution" that had been promised.

[This interview most probably took place before Real's Madrid very recent signing of Drenthe and Sneijder]

They say Schuster is a guarantee of attractive football; do you think it's a risky approach?
I don't know, because, aside from Getafe, Schuster has coached Cologne, Levante and Xerez. I believe that out of those four teams, he hasn't done too well in three. He was a great player and he will be a good coach. Time will tell either way.

Is it a mistake to say that Helguera is looking for a golden retirement at Valencia?
Yes, because I had offers from clubs abroad who were less demanding than Valencia and who paid more money. I decided to join this club because I like it, I respect it, it has ambition and they've put their faith in me.

Do you think your honesty has ever cost you dear?
Yes it has, but I don't care because that is my character, you can't change people. I always try to say what I think; it's my way.

Are central defenders at Real Madrid cursed?
Not at all. What happens is that people think that Real Madrid has to win every game 4-0 and that is no longer feasible. It's absolutely not cursed, and especially not for Spanish defenders. You only have to look at my figures there, as well as Hierro and Sanchis, for example.

But you cannot deny that when Sanchis retired it was a struggle to fill his position, the same happened with Hierro, and perhaps the same will happen now that you've left.
Perhaps it's cursed for foreign players. The problem for a central defender at Real Madrid is that the team has to play attacking football, which leaves gaps in defence. The same thing happens at Barcelona and that is a disadvantage for defenders.

What did it mean to you to leave the Bernabéu having won the League title?
It was a tough victory. Noone was betting on us and we ended up silencing a lot of people. Real Madrid was a disaster who was never going to win the league, but we did it through hard work.

Was it a triumph based on self-belief?
Self-belief and desire, but especially character. We gave everything on the pitch.

Barcelona has signed up some first class reinforcements. Will that many stars intimidate the rest
The Real Madrid of the galácticos, as Florentino used to call them, was also intimidating, and we went three seasons without a title. Barcelona has great players but they are not unbeatable. Last year both Real Madrid and Barcelona had lots of problems both in the League and the Champions League and Barcelona won nothing. This means that hard work is an important element and that makes Valencia one of the favourites.

Pepe will be your replacement. Do you think 30 million euros is too much to pay for a central defender?
That depends. You can pay that for a striker so there's no reason not to pay it for a central defender. It's not a crime. If they pay that much for him it's because they have a lot of confidence in him. This is just to do with the way the market is, nothing more. What is really tough is to find first class central defenders. There are many, and young, in Spain.

If you could erase anything of what happened to you in the past few years, what would it be?
I can't change anything, that is all in the past. I've tried to give everything when I play. What I would change is the way they behaved towards me; that was not right.

Does Real Madrid treat players like human beings?
It's not a Real Madrid thing; we're now seeing that football is changing and when players are surplus to requirements they are treated differently. It happened to me, but I'm not the ony one, unfortunately.

On a final note, I'm not ignoring Real's fifth defeat of the preseason last night at the hands of "nearly relegated" Real Betis; it's just that there really is very little to take away from the fact that the team is not yet gelling together, and it's hard to know whether this is because the players don't know each other and they don't know the manager, or the manager doesn't know what he's doing. Unlike Capello, who clearly didn't give a fig about the preseason results this time last year, Schuster hasn't asked for 50 days to get his team together. He might be justified in doing so, but then he was taken on to get Real playing attractive football, rather than going all out for results. Right now, he's delivering neither.

Continue reading this article »

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Finally seen the back of him?

Bari bad-boy Antonio Cassano is Sampdoria-bound on a season's loan. Real have desperately been looking to offload him all summer (and probably since his falling out with Capello in October last year). He did not join his team mates in celebrating the winning of the 30th league title and was left out of the squad visit to Austria for preseason training. He even allegedly threatened legal action against the club, although this was later denied.

A number of clubs have been linked with Cassano throughout the summer, including Premiership sides Bolton, West Ham and Manchester City. However, his current wage bill of around 4 million euros was too rich for most clubs to consider. In the end, Sampdoria has reportedly agreed to pay one third of it, with Real covering the remaining two thirds.

At the end of the loan period, Sampdoria will have the option to buy the player (if they're still talking to him by then). Though this is probably Cassano's last chance to make any sort of impression, I do not doubt his ability to royally screw it up once again. Frankly, I think if this is the best deal that Real could get, it would have been better to let him go for next to nothing, rather than pay nearly 3 million euros of his salary this season and then wait (and hope) that they can sell him on next year.

He won't be missed.

Continue reading this article »

Monday, 13 August 2007

Going Dutch

Bernd Schuster's Real Madrid is acquiring a distinctive Dutch flavour. Two Dutchmen have joined the club in recent days to keep Ruud van Nistelrooy company: Royston Drenthe and, as of yesterday, Ajax midfielder Wesley Sneijder. Typically, his countrymen have gravitated towards Barcelona over the years; he is only the fifth ever Dutchman to join Real Madrid:

  • Johnny Metgod (1982-1984) - currently assistant coach at Feyenoord, so he knows Drenthe's game well.
  • Clarence Seedorf (1996-2000) - only player to have won the Champions League with three different clubs (Ajax, Real Madrid and current club AC Milan)
  • Ruud van Nistelrooy (2006-) - most expensive Dutch signing when he signed for Manchester United for PSV Eindhoven in 2001 for 30 million euros
  • Royston Drenthe (2007-)
  • Wesley Sneijder (2007-)

If Robben also arrives, there'll be almost a many Dutchmen as Spaniards in the starting 11! Sneijder will be the second most expensive Dutch signing ever, at 27 million euros, according the the Ajax website, and 25.5, according to As (the devil will be in the detail, I expect with additional payments for trophies won, goals scored, or other such things).

Last week, Ajax publicly announced that negotiations had stalled at around 24 million euros, when they were looking for 27 (after initially asking for 30), and that if Real wanted the player, they had better hurry, or he would be cup-tied in Ajax's upcoming qualifier Champions league tie. Real responded with an ultimatum and a withdrawal of their offer on Friday. Clearly this was just a bit of posturing, as Mijatovic travelled to the Netherlands over the weekend to finalise terms and give Schuster the playmaker he's been asking for. Sneijder has, at 23, already several Champions League ties under his belt, quality and technique, scores goals (18 last season) and is a specialist free-kick taker. On paper, he's probably the best signing so far this summer, in my opinion. He should also alleviate some of the Guti-dependency that Real has had in the preseason, which can be no bad thing. Hopefully he will adapt to the new league, team-mates and language quickly enough to make an impression.

Both Drenthe and Sneijder will be officially presented later today. They are both reportedly potential starters in next Sunday's Spanish Supercup 2nd leg at the Bernabéu against Sevilla. It may be too soon to expect them to fit in; however, given the Dutch season starts earlier than the Spanish, they should at least be physically ready.

Continue reading this article »

Friday, 10 August 2007

Drenthe-d for success?

Official confirmation of Royston Drenthe's joining Real Madrid finally came yesterday evening, though the story had been one of those on/off culebrones since June, when he impressed a number of scouts in the European under-21 championships he won with Holland. Both Chelsea and Barcelona were reportedly also following his progress closely.

Negotiations with Feyenoord stalled over price, and, in a surprise move last week, Drenthe announced that he was willing to take Feyenoord to the Court of Arbitration to be released from his contract. He argued that Feyenoord was setting an unrealistic price for the transfer (around 18 million euros) and thus preventing him from plying his trade freely. Interesting argument, that. After all, who decides what constitutes an unreasonable price? I don't know whether he would have had any success in court, but he was under contract (recently renewed) and more "insane" prices have been paid for players with the same or less level of experience (the case of Pepe springs to mind). Real Madrid's role in all this is unclear, but it does add to their reputation for unsettling players in order to force their clubs to negotiate.

The big question mark at the moment is where Schuster will play him. He said last night, after Real's defeat to Deportivo in the Teresa Herrera tournament, that Drenthe's arrival, made him "happy as if it were Christmas", but gave no further clues as to how he intends to use him, other than he is still hoping for some more arrivals. Ostensibly Drenthe is a replacement for Roberto Carlos as left back, given Marcelo's relative inexperience and the fact that Torres, although he has covered that position well, is not a naturally left-footed player. Drenthe has played in all positions on the left flank, but, more recently, for the Dutch under-21 side, has been playing further up front, where he has particularly impressed with his pace and technical ability. If no other left-sided players arrive this summer, Drenthe may get to play in midfield, but otherwise, he may be asked to display a more defensive nature. One wonders what his expectations are.

The club will most likely wait until after the first leg of the Spanish Supercup against Sevilla this Saturday for the official presentation.

Continue reading this article »

Monday, 6 August 2007

From Russia with goals

Rather than go into details about the two matches Real Madrid played in Moscow, I'll concentrate on a few of the things to take away from the performances we've seen in the preseason so far.

Results-wise, it's not been too bad (the exaggerated 3-0 scoreline against Hannover aside). All the teams faced so far are at least a couple of weeks further along in their preseason training than Real Madrid; this makes a big difference at this stage. In the case of Lokomotiv, they are actually half-way through their season (which must be worrying for them, given the 5-2 score, but then again, perhaps their attention was focused elsewhere). Also it's clear Schuster is moving all the pieces around to see how well they fit into his scheme. He clearly still has some work to do. Whether new signings will come in to supplement what's already there remains to be seen, the bleatings of the sports press notwithstanding.

  • Dudek showed off his impressive reflexes, although he could've done better in the second goal against PSV, but Casillas now knows he cannot rest on his laurels. I still see him as second-choice, though.
  • Metzelder has had a worrying lack of opportunities: he did not play against Hannover or PSV and only part of the game against Lokomotiv, where his performance was not up to par. Let's hope this is not the shape of things to come.
  • Pepe, on the other hand, is looking settled already and shows perhaps why Real paid so much money for him. However, if Cannavaro and Metzelder don't pull their socks up, Ramos may be joining him in the centre of defence, rather than on the right wing.
  • Twelve months on, there is still no replacement for Guti (not Gago or de la Red). Capello had similar troubles last season finding someone else with the creativity to open up defences and link up Real's midfield and forward lines.
  • Saviola got off the mark in both games, although the first came from the penalty spot. He's also been doing his set-piece homework, connecting with Guti's inch-perfect set-up from a free kick to score Real's only goal against PSV. However, Real are clearly still missing Van Nistelrooy up front.

Continue reading this article »