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.

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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.

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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.

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