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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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