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?

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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?

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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