Sunday, 29 July 2007

First indications

An undemanding friendly against English 'Championship' side Stoke City gave the first clues to Bernd Schuster's approach at the helm of Real Madrid. The 2-0 final scoreline, with goals from Raúl (showing a bit of the class of old) and a penalty converted by Soldado ensured a victorious start to the games Real will play in the preseason before the start of the Spanish League on the 25th August.

In front of the unsurprising starting back four (Ramos, Pepe, Metzelder and Torres), Diarra will perform his usual defensive role, allowing the two wing backs to attack. The back line plays in a more advanced position than under Capello, some 35 metres from the goal line, and the whole eleven is compressed into a 30-metre wide band on the pitch to allow for all the players to put pressure on the opposition and retrieve the ball. Guti played in the 'midfield general' role, but I suspect this won't be the case on a full time basis, given his propensity to 'disappear' in certain games. Schuster has already expresed an interest in a player like Chelsea's Michael Ballack to fill this role.

After the game, Cicinho decided to publicly complain about being played on the left, stating that if he doesn't get to played on his favoured right wing, he would do better to leave the club. True, he's got his work cut out to displace Ramos from the starting eleven, but I suspect Salgado won't get as many starts this year as he's been used to in the past. Cicinho played on the left in the second half because with Roberto Carlos's departure, and the fact that Marcelo is still not back from international duty (plus he's still considered potentially too 'green' for the task and may get a year's loan) the squad has no cover on that side of defence. This is why Feyenoord's Royston Drenthe has been the subject of transfer speculation during the summer. Schuster reportedly had words with Cicinho and during Sunday's training session, the Brazilian played in his accustomed right side. Hopefully, this kind of public show of discontent won't become a feature under Schuster.

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Thursday, 26 July 2007

Cassa - no

When Bernd Schuster picked the players that would attend Real Madrid's preseason training camp in Irdning (Austria), Antonio Cassano was conspicuous by his absence. Not that this was surprising, given his recent history at the club after his outburst against Capello last October. The club has been, unsuccessfully, looking for a way out for him ever since.

Who would want him in their squad? If even "sergeant major" Capello was unable to tame him, it is unlikely many coaches would welcome the headache. Cassano's talent is acknowledged by many, but it has always been overshadowed by temper tantrums, walkouts, insults, and the like. He is bad for morale, and he is bad for discipline. He even managed to get Diarra benched for a while with his comments about who Capello's favourites were. He ended the season having played a total of seven games and was nowhere to be seen when Real celebrated winning the league title.

So, while the rest of the squad is off to Austria, Cassano has been asked to continue training on his own in the sweltering Madrid heat. Whether this treatment constitutes an attempt by the club to force Cassano out and save themselves the 12 million euros that would be due to the player in salary over the remaining four years of his contract, may be the subject of court proceedings, if the latest news reports are to be believed. The player's entourage have denied this is their intention.

What next for Cassano? Real would probably let him go for free or next to nothing, after paying 5.5 million euros to Roma for his "services" in January 2006. Fiorentina are rumoured to be considering taking the challenge on. Less believable is the news that Inter is looking at swapping Cassano for a former Real Madrid player, Santiago Solari. Frankly, this sounds like a bit of wishful thinking from Marca. Solari was a good solid performer in his time at the Bernabéu and is fondly remembered by the fans. I just cannot see Inter needing to take on the headache of Cassano (especially given Ronaldo is still on their books!).

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Friday, 20 July 2007

More transfer moves

After a quiet week on the transfer front, Friday saw the arrival of a goalkeeper already legendary for his penalty saving antics in the 2005 Champions League final and the departure of a central defender who has been at the club since 1999 and has winners medals for, among others, 2 Champions League and 3 Spanish league titles.

Jerzy Dudek will surely not be expecting a great deal of change in his circumstances. He has been warming the bench at Liverpool for the best part of two seasons wince his pivotal role in that Champions League win in Istanbul back in 2005. Rafa Benítez has preferred Pepe Reina over him and there's virtually no expectation that Schuster will prefer him over Casillas. Curiously enough, Reina is the second choice goalkeeper in the Spanish national squad, behind Casillas.

However, the departure of Diego López to Villareal left Real Madrid without a quality replacement goalkeeper. Unless Casillas gets injured, it's unlikely Dudek will get many chances to play except in the Copa del Rey or any low-risk (whatever that means) Champions League ties. At 34, he is still young enough in goalkeeping terms for several years at the top level. Perhaps he'll yet get his chance to shine.

Iván Helguera, on the other hand, is a couple of years younger than Dudek, but many feel he has less time left at the top. What he lacks in speed he makes up in his awareness and positioning, and has a knack for scoring a few headers per season. After a torrid time in 2006 where he barely played, circumstances gave him another chance which he grabbed with both hands. His contribution at the back last season was extremely valuable and helped Real to their 30th league title.

The club has tried to make up for the tough times he faced when he was stripped of his shirt number and was forced to train with the youth team players. His contract had an incentive clause that would guarantee him a 1 million euro bonus if he completed 45 minutes or more in 30 games during the season. His unfortunate injury a few weeks before the end of the season left him 13 minutes short of the requirement, but the club waived the requirement and paid him his bonus. In today's move to Valencia, Real Madrid has allowed him to go for free, even though he still had two years left on his contract. Obviously there's a certain amount of good business sense here, given that two new central defenders have been signed in the past week and Helguera was unlikely to get much playing time, especially if Cannavaro stays put at Real Madrid.

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Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Surviving a slogan

Back in October 2001, Real Madrid coach Vicente del Bosque was in trouble. After 6 league games, the team had notched up a miserly 5 points and was languishing in 14th spot in the table. Early days yet, but this was Florentino's Real Madrid, who had just that summer signed the world's most expensive player, Zinedine Zidane, from Juventus for a mind-boggling 75 million euros. Athletic Bilbao were visiting the Bernabéu and a number of the top players - Roberto Carlos, Zidane, Makélélé (remember him?), Figo - were away on international duty.

Three players from the cantera, the youth team, made their debuts that day: Raúl Bravo started in Roberto Carlos's left wing, Valdo came on for Geremi just before half time, and Pavón substituted Bravo himself on 71 minutes. The final score was 2-0 to Real Madrid with goals from Raúl and Solari (remember him?). The youngsters impressed both the coach and the faithful so much that both they and a number of their colleagues (Borja, Rubén, Miñambres, Portillo) made several appearances for the club in that Champions League-winning season. Florentino Pérez then coined the now-infamous term Zidanes y Pavones to describe the club's transfer policy.

Del Bosque was uniquely placed to take advantage of the "Pavones"; after all, he had been involved with the youth teams at Real Madrid for a number of years and had seen a lot of the players grow up and develop. When his contract was not renewed after he won the league in 2003, none of the canteranos, other than Pavón himself, made any kind of lasting impression on the first team. Subsequent managers overlooked them in favour of new galáctico signings.

As an aside, the Zidanes y Pavones policy began to show its flaws at that point: it did not give the squad strength in depth because not enough players were being bought or coming up through the ranks to "do the dirty work" that the starry galacticos couldn't or, in some cases, wouldn't. In his Guardian blog, Rob Smyth traces it all to the departure of Claude Makélélé to Chelsea and "replacing" him with David Beckham. It is perhaps not the only reason for the team's decline, but it's a compelling one nonetheless.

For Pavón, however, the departure of Florentino also meant the end of his playing days at Real Madrid. He did not play a single minute in the whole of the 2005-2006 league championship under Capello, and had only a couple of run-outs in the Cup. Capello preferred to use Cannavaro, the rehabilitated Helguera, Sergio Ramos, Miguel Torres, and even Raúl Bravo as central defenders. While not necessarily prejudiced against cantera players (after all, Torres was a starter for nearly half of the games last season), Pavón just did not cut the mustard with Capello.

His contract expired on June 30th and yesterday, Real Zaragoza announced that he had decided to join them as a free agent for the next four seasons. He will pair up in the centre of defence with Zaragoza's other recent surprise signing, Roberto Ayala, who left Valencia to join Villareal, and, 16 days later, bought out his contract and signed for Zaragoza.

Real Madrid has now left that fateful Zidanes y Pavones slogan behind. Let's hope that its less illustrious component can do the same and make a new name for himself. Good luck, Paco

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Friday, 13 July 2007

The White Rabbit

Javier Saviola, during his presentation at the Bernabéu'Saviola is better than Zidane' - Diario Sport, 2-Nov-2001.

'The fans want Saviola to stay' - Diario Sport, 12-Jan-2007.

'I won't betray Barcelona; I cannot go to Real Madrid. If I leave it will be for new experiences abroad' - Javier Saviola, 10-Feb-2007

'The club has treated him extremely well in his five years here, and he's had excellent contracts, but unfortunately his yield in terms of titles and trophies has been nil' - Joan Laporta, 11-Jul-2007.

'His technique is reminiscent of Michael Owen's, his instinct in front of goal is like Raúl's' - Ramon Calderón, 13-Jul-2007.

El Conejo, as he is known, will have to wait until two days before Christmas to make his return to the Nou Camp, where he will hope his reception is less hostile than what Luis Figo had to face. Barcelona supporters seem split about the move, from wishing him luck, regretful denial (sorry Linda), to outright hostility. Not all Real fans are happy, either.

He will also face some competition in the starting line-up, with Van the man, Raúl, Higuaín and Soldado (returning from his very impressive loan season at Osasuna with an extension to his contract until 2012). They say Schuster prefers to stick to the same set of players and does not rotate often, but then he's not really had to juggle three competitions on the go at the same time at either Getafe or Xerez.

Check out his profile, for a hopefully objective summary of his career so far.

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Wednesday, 11 July 2007

The curse of the central defender

It seems a good time, given the recent addition to the squad of two central defenders: Pepe and Metzelder, to reflect on the 'curse' of the central defender at Real Madrid, particularly the non-native specimens.

It seems that first Sanchis, then Hierro, and now Helguera have been the only long-lived central defenders at Real Madrid in the last 15 years. They have two things in common: they all started as midfielders, moving back when their pace proved insufficient, and they are all Spaniards.

Some of those troubled by the 'curse', though still remembered fondly, were Alkorta (who had to move back to Bilbao for family reasons) and Karanka (a heart problem meant he was, in my opinion, unfairly overlooked in his last two seasons). Even hairy Iván Campo was an important contributor to Real's two Champions league wins in 2000 and 2002, although anxiety and depression fuelled by a hostile press and some in the club's management forced him to emigrate, with some success, to the Premiership.

But the 'curse' seems to reserve its malevolence for those that come from abroad, most of whom barely last a season or two before moving on:

  • Geremi (Cameroon) - signed from Turkish club Genclerbirligi in 1999, he made 45 appearances in 3 seasons (though in his last season he played only 9 times) before being loaned out to Middlesbrough in 2002 and sold to Chelsea in 2003 for 10 million euros. Solid if unexceptional.

  • Julio Cesar Santos (Brazil) - arrived in 1999 from Valladolid and played for one season. Loaned out in subsequent years until he was finally re-sold to Valladolid in 2003. Never fulfilled any promise he might have shown.

  • Walter Samuel (Argentina) - known as 'The Wall', he struggled to make a favourable impression in his only season at Real Madrid (2004-2005) and promptly returned to Italy with Inter.

  • Jonathan Woodgate (England) - Truly cursed: injuries denied him any kind of regular run and he only made 9 appearances in official games with Real between 2004 and 2006. Loaned out to Middlesbrough in 2006, the move was made permanent at the end of the season.

  • Fabio Cannavaro (Italy) - has struggled to live up to his 'FIFA World Player' title, even though Real Madrid ended up winning the league in his debut season. His future is currently uncertain and Juventus are thought to be lining up a bid to get him back.

One more curious fact: Gabriel Milito had a 'lucky' escape when his 2003 transfer to Real Madrid was suspiciously aborted on the pretext that he failed his medical, and that his knee injury had not fully healed. He went on to have an extremely successful four seasons at Zaragoza and today was unveiled as Barcelona's latest signing. You have to wonder how it might have turned out...

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The Twin Towers

Christoph Metzelder has known for some months that he would be joining Real Madrid in the summer. Today, he was finally officially presented as the first signing under the new Bernd Schuster régime. This marks the second (after Schuster himself) in a week of new signings, as yesterday's surprise announcement, Pepe, passed his medical and will be presented tomorrow, and Javier Saviola, who finished his contract with Barcelona on June 30th, is expected to agree terms and be presented on Friday.

Metzelder himself has been working hard to make a good first impression and demonstrated at his presentation that he has been learning Spanish in recent months. His formidable height (1.93 metres) and cool demeanour won him the title of 'Best Young Player' in the 2002 World Cup and will make him a very valuable addition to the centre of defence. He has suffered more than his fair share of injuries, missing the entire 2003-2004 season with an achilles tendon problem, and, more recently, he had a knee cartilage operation in September 2006. These injury problems have made him seem a bit of a gamble for any club to take him on, but his obvious talent, and the fact that he is a free agent, probably decided Real Madrid to take the chance. It should be noted that he has only signed on for three years, instead of the usual four or five for a player of his age (26), so this is perhaps another instance of the club hedging their bets.

The signing of two tall central defenders (Pepe is 1.88 metres tall), who are good in the air and can also play the ball intelligently supports Schuster's intention to play with defenders in more advanced positions and speed up getting the ball to the forwards. Real Madrid has also reinforced the view that Sergio Ramos is one of the top players in his position by doubling his salary and increasing his buy-out clause. With Cicinho recovered and also covering the right wing, things don't look too good for Salgado this season. The left wing is presumably Miguel Torres's to keep, with Marcelo as possible cover, although there have been plenty of rumours about the club looking to reinforce this position with young Dutch sensation Royston Drenthe.

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Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Pepe? Who's Pepe?

The papers have been so busy concentrating on the Schuster saga at Real Madrid, that they have completely missed the fact that the club was negotiating with Porto for the transfer of their Brazilian central defender, Pepe. Given that Kléper Laveran Lima Ferreira is a bit of a mouthful at the best of times, it's hardly surprising his chosen nom de plume trips off the tongue a little more easily.

Pepe is a highly rated central defender (he's been the subject of transfer speculation before from Juventus and Chelsea), who can also play at right back. In his three seasons at Porto, he's helped them win two Portuguese league titles and one cup. The 24-year-old has not yet been called up to play for a national side and as he has recently been granted Portuguese citizenship, he could play for that nation instead of his native Brazil.

The official Porto website claims that the transfer fee has been agreed at 30 million euros, which, if true, is a massive amount for a defender with no international experience. One has to wonder, once again, if the club is over-paying for players, but the lack of transparency in the transfer market makes it very difficult to judge. It also means a surfeit of central defenders at the club, with Christoph Metzelder expected to be presented on Wednesday. Helguera is the most likely target of a clear-out, but this may also mean Cannavaro will not be first choice in the upcoming season.

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Start of the Schuster era

In a presentation devoid of any kind of title promises, Bernd Schuster put pen to paper at Real Madrid once more, this time as its manager. It's been no secret that Calderón wanted him at the helm from the start of his accident-prone presidency, but was convinced by Mijatovic that Capello was a better guarantee both of getting elected and of putting the squad in order to bring back a trophy for the first time in three years. Calderón also recently admitted that Capello's fate was sealed as far back as February of this year, inexplicably, as far as I'm concerned, but I've covered that elsewhere.

Schuster supposedly bought out his contract with Getafe on Monday morning for some 480,000 euros, the last legal obstacle to his signing a three-year deal with Real and was duly presented in the early afternoon at the Bernabéu. In the subsequent press conference, he paid tribute to Capello's success in winning the league title, claiming it has calmed things down at the club, in terms of expectation. He did not follow this up with any promises to win, other than the usual comment that the club aims to win as many titles as possible. He placed much more emphasis on his playing philosophy, saying that "it's not just about winning titles. I want the fans to enjoy the football. I hope the idea I have in mind fits in with what the fans want. It's more than just tactics. All teams practically play the same, but we have to find something else. Giving freedom to player, for example, which is more important than a system. Last year can be an example. I have always preferred having a centre midfielder who helps in attack, and another who works in defence. That's just an example.".

This really says nothing about what he intends to do or whether he has any kind of clear idea of the way the team is going to play under him. I suspect that's partly because he is not as involved as some would have you believe in the club's transfer policy, so he'll have to make do with whatever the squad looks like by the time preseason training starts on July 22nd.

Given that Schuster is Real Madrid's 12th coach in 10 years, you would probably get very good odds on his not seeing out his three year contract. We shall see...

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Friday, 6 July 2007

Just get on with it!

Can someone explain to me just what is going on? I've been following the to-ings and fro-ings at the Bernabéu since they decided Capello should no longer be in charge of the team and am no wiser than I was a week ago.

Mijatovic, Capello's hitherto strongest supporter (supposedly) inside the club, announced his sacking by saying that he was not the most suitable person to take the club forward. It has been speculated that Mijatovic was being forced sideways by Calderón, who wanted the former Racing de Santander coach (Miguel Angel Portugal) to take over as the sporting director. Mijatovic is said to have forced the issue with Calderón and his price for not sticking with Capello and making things awkward at the club would be if Portugal's role did not interfere with his - well, at least that's what As said and you can bet the mortgage on their investigative journalism, right?.

However, Portugal had already signed a contract, and things went very quiet about his future for a week until last night, when he was officially announced as the new new technical secretary. His duties are unclear and there is confusion (at least from an outsider's perspective) as to whether he works for Mijatovic or alongside him. It may be that Mijatovic's days are also numbered...

Still, that's just politics. It's a shame Capello got caught in the middle of it, but that's life. You'd think that at the very least the club would be doing their utmost to kick-start the planning for next season with a replacement in the manager's job. Well, Bernd Schuster is in the middle of his very own saga.

It's understandable that Angel Torres, the president of "modest" Getafe is a little miffed that Real Madrid have been 'tapping up' his manager, who, after all, has a year left to run on his contract. He's entitled to compensation, all 480,000 euros of it, and all he asked for initially was just a courtesy call. The response from Calderón was emphatic: "Real Madrid does not buy out coaches' contracts. If a coach wants to come here, he needs to sort out his own contract. We're looking at other options. Yeah, right.

Why all the playing of games? It's perfectly normal for a club to buy out a player's contract, why not a coach's? So Bernd has to buy out his own contract or the club will find someone else. What exactly is going on behind the scenes? Yesterday, Calderón even accused Torres of "seeking protagonism", of wanting to become Real Madrid president himself. He's not just paranoid, he's insane. Check out Tim's take at La Liga Loca,and Linda's over at The Beautiful Game.

In the middle of all of this, the names linked to Real Madrid succeed each other with all the regularity of a bad case of the runs - Chivu, Cesc, Malouda, Kaká (yet again), Adriano, Robben, Pato, Drenthe. This is perfectly normal for this time of year, but if only a handful of them are true, just who is making the plans, who is building next year's squad, and using what criteria? Does Schuster know, does he care?

Can someone explain to me just what is going on?

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