Monday, 22 December 2008

Diarra for Diarra

With the signing of Lassana Diarra from English Premiership side Portsmouth, Real Madrid have taken their pre-Christmas spending to 40 million euros, matching the amount spent two years ago to sign Gago, Higuaín and Marcelo. That figure only takes into account the 'baseline' amount agreed between Real Madrid and Ajax for Huntelaar earlier this month, as a further 7 million may be paid out depending on results over the next few seasons.

Portsmouth have made a nice return on a player they splashed out £5 million for just under a year ago. With a reported transfer fee of £20 million, or €20 million (the near parity between the pound and the euro means that the numbers in both currencies are virtually identical), Lassana Diarra has now hit the big time.

Except this is not the first time he has joined a large club. He started his professional career in French second division side Le Havre (despite having the same surname as Mahamadou, given his Malian descent, Lassana was born in Paris and has already been called up to the French national side). In 2005 he moved to Chelsea, but did not feel he was given enough opportunities by Jose Mourinho and moved to Arsenal in 2007.

Life under Arsene Wenger was no better (in terms of first team football, at least) and Lassana decided to leave after just five months to join Portsmouth, in an attempt to get more playing time and exhibit his potential for other clubs to see. He is clearly ambitious and the injury crisis at Real will very likely furnish him plenty of opportunities this season to show off his talent. Whether he makes the most of them remains to be seen.

Although he plays in the same position as Mahamadou Diarra, as a defensive midfielder, his style is less about athleticism and muscle, and more about vision of play and passing accuracy.

Lassana completed his transfer after passing his medical on Monday afternoon and signed a four-and-a-half year deal that will see him play for Real Madrid until 2013. He will wear the number 6 jersey, the same as his namesake, although with the nickname "Lass", rather than his surname, to avoid confusion.

Last week, Real Madrid also negotiated the early return of one of its youngsters. Dani Parejo had joined Queen's Park Rangers on loan at the beginning of the season, and will be another option in midfield for Juande Ramos, although he's less likely to get as much playing time from the off as Lassana Diarra.

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Friday, 12 December 2008

Clásico: mission impossible or golden opportunity?

As the media machine that precedes every encounter between Real Madrid and Barcelona gears up to full speed, Juande Ramos should be thinking that this is a gilt-edged opportunity to turn his new charges' fortunes around.

The 3-0 win at home to Zenit on Wednesday was certainly morale-boosting, but neither its effect, nor the performance of the players should be overestimated. It's good to kick your tenure off with a victory and a clean sheet to boot, but let's not forget that there was nothing in play for the Russian side, as they had no chance to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League.

A win (or possibly even a draw) at the Nou Camp would have no impact in the relative standings, and is unlikely to be particularly decisive in the championship race. However, psychologically it would sow some doubt in Barcelona's mind - they have been unstoppable recently - and might have the same effect on the Real Madrid squad that the equivalent fixture had two seasons ago when Capello was in charge.

The managerial reshuffle has made things a little more complicated for Pep Guardiola, who rested some of his players in the midweek loss to Shakhtar Donetsk thinking that Bernd Schuster would be in the visitor's dugout on Saturday. Some Barcelona fans are a little worried too.

"With Schuster, we knew more or less what they were doing. With Juande, I imagine they'll do other things," said Guardiola, adding that he would look at the video of the Zenit game and some of the Sevilla games when Ramos was in charge (clearly he doesn't rate Juande's stint at Spurs to be too significant).

Guardiola is also using cautious language when asked whether Real Madrid's numerous injuries would benefit Barcelona. "There are no second rate players in either Real Madrid or Barcelona," he said. His counterpart has not made a pronouncement either way, but it surely cannot be helpful to have to add Rubén de la Red to Diarra and Van Nistelrooy as players who will be out for the remainder of the season. De la Red has been the subject of numerous tests for what is believed to be a heart-related condition, which may force his premature retirement from football.

Regarding the probable Real Madrid line-up, the talk this week has been about Dudek getting a start ahead of Casillas in the Zenit game. Iker's uncharacteristic poor form this season (24 goals in 14 games) fuelled speculation that he might not be included in Saturday's squad, although the most likely explanation was that he was being rested so he could fully concentrate on the Clásico.

Juande has been forced to experiment already to cope with injuries and suspensions, bringing Metzelder in as right back, instead of his usual central position, and switching Salgado to the left during the midweek tie. Initially, the rumours suggested that Salgado would keep that position as Marcelo was suspended for Saturday and Juande wanted a right footed player to try to control Messi's runs on that flank. It now looks like it may be Sergio Ramos who will get that responsibility.

Arjen Robben, perhaps Real's most dangerous and in-form player, is also suspended for the Barcelona clash following his sending off last weekend against Sevilla. Drenthe is likely to be the player Juande feels can bring some width and speed (if not much in the way of precision) to his side.

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Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Schuster is sacked, replaced by Juande Ramos

In hindsight, it was almost inevitable. Ramón Calderón survived a fractious AGM on Sunday and bought himself the time he needed to try to steer a new course before the ship that is Real Madrid is hauled into dock for a complete refit.

As it is, the sacking of Bernd Schuster and installation of Juande Ramos as caretaker coach is like careening the vessel at high tide to scour the hull: a superficial short-term fix that may do little to change the club's fortunes this season.

Sunday was a tough day for the club. The AGM approved the accounts, but with a fairly tight margin (55% of 'yes' votes). This was preceded by socio after socio standing up to speak to criticise Calderón for his management of the club. Though there was some vocal support from the gallery, the word was that they had been bussed in by the president to clap and cheer at the appropriate moments.

The accounts were approved and the budget was passed, but there remained the small matter of Sevilla visiting the Bernabéu in the evening. With Barcelona having demolished Valencia 4-0 the previous evening and nine points ahead in the standings before next week's Clásico at the Camp Nou, clinching all three points was essential for the men in white.

The game was a high scoring affair with refereeing controversy thrown in in for good measure. The visitors scored first (again) after a mistake by Casillas (again) before being pulled back by a Raúl goal. By half time Real Madrid were 3-1 down and the local crowd was chanting for the president (not the coach) to resign.

Somehow they managed to get back on equal terms after the break, with Arjen Robben providing the width that broke open the Sevilla defence. They could have even gone ahead but were denied by goalkeeper Palop's miraculous interventions in front of Raúl and Robben.

Sevilla were on the ropes and reeling when the referee decided to ignore a clear penalty on Higuaín by Palop and then showed Robben his second yellow card for protesting the decision. This proved another turning point in the match, with Sevilla making their extra man count to score the winner six minutes from time.

Schuster, in his post-match press conference, decided to dig his own grave (and, to the more cynical among us, guarantee himself a tidy pay-off) by saying the unsayable: "we cannot win at Barcelona because they are far superior and I think this will be their year. We can go there and be competitive, but that's about it".

Thirty-six hours later, Mijatovic informed Schuster of the club's decision to let him go and replace him with former Tottenham Hotspur and Sevilla manager Juande Ramos. After "short, but intense" negotiations, Juande signed for the remainder of the season, with an option to remain at the helm depending on the team's performance.

This weekend, Barcelona!

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Thursday, 4 December 2008

Youth Director resigns and lambasts Calderón

The feelgood factor generated for Real Madrid president Ramón Calderón by the signing of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar lasted barely twenty-four hours as his youth categories director tendered his resignation and blasted him for his "lack of knowledge or interest in the youth teams".

Calderón, who had already hinted at another possible transfer announcement in advance of the club's Annual General meeting on Sunday may not find it so easy to dismiss the comments made by former Real Madrid player José Miguel González Martín del Campo, or Míchel, as he is best known. For one, it was his idea to recruit the former legend to look after the lower teams to imbue them with the right kind of madridismo.

Míchel, a member of the famous Quinta del Buitre in the 1980s, joined the Calderón team in 2006 as coach of the Real Madrid Castilla side. As the team was relegated from the second division at the end of that season, Míchel then took overall responsibility for the younger sides, charged with spotting and moulding the future stars of Real Madrid.

It's no secret that few have made it into the senior side, and some, like De la Red, had to leave to prove their worth elsewhere. Schuster has been accused of not calling up the youngsters even when he was short of players through injuries and yet, a player like Juan Mata, whom Míchel pleaded with to stay at the club, is now succeeding with Valencia.

In a radio interview on Tuesday evening, Míchel had a few choice words for his former employer:

In the last two years he hasn't even bothered to come for the annual team picture with the youngsters and we had to cut and paste it in.

On Monday the president asked Mijatovic to fire me. I believe it's because of an argument I had with one of the board directors who was pressuring me to include someone's child in the youth team. The president himself brought another lad three months ago to try to do the same thing.

How is it possible that in two and a half years twenty players have left the youth teams and not one of them is good enough for the first squad?

Back in February 2007 I was offered Fabio Capello's job, because according to the president, he was about to be fired. In March 2007 he offered me Mijatovic's job.

I leave it to the reader to decide whether this is just a case of sour grapes from Míchel or yet another nail in Calderón's coffin.

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Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Early Christmas present for Real Madrid

There are a number of traditions regarding the opening of presents for those who celebrate Christmas. The earliest presents are opened on St. Nicholas' Day on December 6th in Holland, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic and some other European countries.

In most other countries, presents are opened on Christmas morning. In Spain, and some other countries with a Catholic tradition, the custom is to open presents on the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, commemorating the visit of the Magi.

Whichever tradition applies, Real Madrid have bought themselves an early Christmas gift in the shape of Ajax and Holland striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. They will however have to wait until January 1st to open that present, when the winter transfer window opens.

It is of course only "coincidence", as Mijatovic insists, that this signing is being announced mere days before the club's AGM this Sunday.

Both Calderón and Mijatovic are expected to face heavy criticism at the meeting, particularly over their disastrous summer transfer policy where they sold Robinho to Manchester City to finance the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United. Coincidentally, the Portuguese winger was confirmed yesterday as the winner of the Ballon d'Or, making him the European Footballer of the Year.

Huntelaar was this year made Ajax captain by manager Marco van Basten, an important recognition for a 25-year-old. He is seen as both a short and long term replacement for Ruud van Nistelrooy, who is out for the rest of the season, but is carrying an ankle ligament injury himself which means he won't play again until after he joins Real Madrid in January. This led Michel Salgado to joke that "we even sign them injured" on Tuesday evening as the agreement was made public.

Earlier in the week Ramón Calderón had promised new signings to alleviate the raft of injuries to the squad, although he said that any winter signings would come to "help out, because we already have the good players up front: Raúl, Higuaín and Robben". Let's hope Huntelaar sees a bit more of the pitch than Saviola, for instance.

On the technical side, there's little question that Huntelaar is a valuable addition to the squad. He's a centre forward at heart, so he will need good service from the midfield players, reather than tracking back to get the ball himself.

However, the presence of so many Dutchmen in the squad should make his adaptation relatively straightforward. His goal record speaks for itself; last season alone he scored 33 goals in 34 games in the Dutch league championship.

Real Madrid will pay Ajax 20 million euros for his services, plus another 7 million depending on results. Huntelaar will be in Madrid for a medical on Wednesday and is expected to sign a contract until 2013.

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Sunday, 30 November 2008

It's all uphill from here

It's hard to win a game where they score against you in the first few minutes of each half, said Guti, summing up the impotence felt by Real Madrid at Getafe.

More importantly, it illustrates why the recent mini-run of two 1-0 victories (against Recreativo and BATE) was a mirage and bodes extremely badly for the next lot of league games against the top-placed teams.

The week has been somewhat overshadowed by Ramón Calderón's announcement that a couple of "young, promising" players will be signed in January when the transfer window opens, plus two top stars in the summer. Given that he's clearly trying to shield himself from the ire of the socios at the upcoming Annual General Meeting next Sunday, this really does very little for the current squad in the current season.

Add to this the plague of injuries decimating the side (Sneijder and Torres had to be substituted in the first half hour) and the next few weeks, or even months, look very bleak. The medical staff and physios have been added to the close scrutiny everyone else is under.

The Spanish league this season has been likened to the Tour de France, and December sees the Alpine stages as many of the "top" teams face each other. Next week, it's Sevilla, followed by Barcelona, Valencia and Villareal. Barcelona have already made short work of Sevilla with a 3-0 away win and look to be running away with the Championship. The shape that Real Madrid is in means that they'll struggle to compete for a Champions League place come next May.

Things have got so bad that Casillas had possibly his worst game in years. He looked insecure every time he came out for the ball and was particularly uninspired in Getafe's second goal. He even conceded a penalty that the referee did not see (or maybe he took pity on him).

And yet, even after going two down at the beginning of the second half, Real might have got back in the game as Guti found Saviola for his first league goal for his team. Getafe looked shaken for all of five minutes when Raúl could have equalised.

It was not to be (nor would it have reflected the relative merits of both sides). Eight minutes from time Uche made it 3-1 and means Real Madrid is losing sight of the leading rider as they are slowly absorbed into the ranks of the peloton.

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Monday, 24 November 2008

Much needed win is scant consolation for more injuries

There were a few positives for Real Madrid following the weekend's action in la Liga. A win against Recreativo de Huelva when the top three teams all dropped points means Real Madrid climbed to second place, three points behind leaders Barcelona.

It was also the first clean sheet since the 2-0 away win at Racing back in September, and, surprisingly, Real Madrid is now the best home side in the league, with sixteen points out of a possible eighteen. Aside from the purely statistical though, there is little joy to take from this game, and the patient is still languishing in intensive care.

There was so little football that there is barely any need to recap the game, if only to note that Sneijder's goal, six minutes before half-time, was the only one of a handful of chances to go in, helped in some measure by the wicked deflection it took on its way into Riesgo's goal.

Injuries to Cannavaro end Heinze forced Schuster to make Pepe and Ramos his pair of central defenders, and, to be fair, the squad looked a little more solid at the back than in recent weeks. Whether that was also because the opposition was not particularly ambitious in their attack is another matter. Miguel Torres, returning from injury, was an able substitute on the right flank and even Marcelo was less accident prone than thus far.

However, the lack of a true centre forward forced Raúl into a position he's uncomfortable in, and it showed. Even Higuaín managed to miss an open goal before having to be stechered off with an ankle injury that may keep him out for up to ten days.

To the already large injury list Real also added Sneijder's name. He was replaced by Van der Vaart, who will likely start in Tuesday's Champions League game against BATE Borisov. He is also likely to be joined in the starting line-up by either Saviola or youngster Alberto Bueno, both of whom had a few minutes late in the game.

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Wednesday, 19 November 2008

And the scales tip yet again...

It's obvious, but perhaps it needs to be stated from time to time, and Xavi, the Barcelona and Spain midfielder put it succinctly the other day when he said that "Barça and Real are like a set of scales, when things go well for one, they go badly for the other, and viceversa".

Just think back six months: Real Madrid were running rampant in a league championship they eventually won with an eighteen-point lead over Barcelona. When the Catalan club visited the capital, Real had already won the title and the Barcelona players had to do the traditional pasillo.

Key players like Eto'o were accused of forcing a yellow card in their previous game so they wouldn't have to face the humiliation in Madrid. Barcelona went on to lose the game 4-1. Club president Joan Laporta had to face a motion of confidence, which he narrowly defeated.

Fast forward to the last few weeks and you can see the scales have truly tipped. After six wins on the trot in September, Real Madrid have lost both Champions League ties against Juventus, been dumped out of the Copa del Rey by a third division side, and have managed just three wins in their last six league games, conceding ten goals in the process.

Conversely, Barcelona are riding high, with a five-point lead at the top of the standings, and a truly breathtaking start to the championship. They have scored thirty-six goals in eleven games and Eto'o is the current pichichi with thirteen. Confidence is clearly with the men in red & blue as the two sides look to their first meeting of the season in mid-December.

It's always been thus, but the roots of this particular debacle can clearly be traced to the disastrous way Real Madrid managed their summer transfer campaign. Having won the league early, and being in the enviable position of planning for the coming season with several months in their back pocket, they decided to base their entire strategy around the signing of one Cristiano Ronaldo (remember him?).

Ramón Calderón has always felt the long shadow of his predecessor, Florentino Pérez, and his failure to match the galáctico-signing antics of the Florentino years has always weighed heavily on this much-criticised president. Only yesterday, he hit out at Florentino's being photographed at a charity match organised by Zinedine Zidane: "It's sad. I would have loved to have seen that photo when we won two league titles and the supercopa. It illustrates that badly kept secret that he has spent the past two-and-a-half years obstructing and trying to discredit the Real Madrid board. He only thinks of his own personal gain."

Calderón must have reasoned that the only way to make people forget about Florentino was to secure the services of one of the most sought-after players in the world. Well, we all remember what happened, which is that not only did Real Madrid not manage to sign the tricky Portuguese winger, but they also managed to enrage their most creative player (Robinho) to such an extent that he upped sticks and left them for Manchester City.

In all of this, Mijatovic has aided and abetted his boss, and Schuster claims to have been a mere spectator. However, while he may have a strong case to claim he has been handed an unbalanced squad, and taking into account a number of injuries in key positions, Schuster still cannot expect to be seen as purely innocent.

There is no excuse for conceding six goals and being eliminated from the cup by a third division side, not with this squad. There is no excuse for claiming he has "no idea" why his side is letting in a record number of goals.

We knew what we were getting when Schuster was signed. He's always been temperamental and difficult with the media, but when you barely get involved in a game you're losing and then go AWOL for several days without explaining what your strategy is to get the team out of the mess it's in, then, frankly, it's all downhill from there.

So the recent vote of confidence in the coach from the Real Madrid board is as convincing as Mijatovic's press conference to announce it. Fielding a question about what would happen if Real lost again this weekend at home to Recreativo, he avoided saying that the result was not linked to Schuster staying at the club: "I can't be certain as to what would happen. We would have no problem in taking difficult decisions if we have to, but we won't rush into them".

We just need to keep watching to see whether the scales have any further to tip before they start heading back the other way...

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Saturday, 15 November 2008

That sinking feeling

With talk of this game being make or break for Bernd Schuster, you would think that both coach and players would make that extra effort to show everybody that they are worthy holders of the league championship they conquered last year. None of this was in evidence as an extremely poor Real Madrid fell to a not particularly inspired Valladolid. Not even their goalscoring prowess came to the rescue this time, as they failed to score for the first time this season.

Perhaps they were really missing Ruud van Nistelrooy, who was earlier this week diagnosed with a serious knee injury that could keep him out for up to nine months. The players wore tee-shirts with messages of support to the Dutch goal-magnet as they stepped onto the pitch.

Schuster's approach to this game was visibly cautious, with the more defensive Javi García in for Wesley Sneijder in midfield, waiting for openings in the Valladolid defence, instead of taking the initiative. Guti, often the player others look to, was totally uninspired and Real felt flat, with no depth or width, and none of the self-belief that has got them out of trouble in other games this season.

Though Valladolid have not been prolific in their scoring thus far, they had one chance just after the half-time break and took it well through Canobbio.

The expected reaction did not come. Sure, they had a couple of chances to put the game level, and perhaps they should have taken them, but did they look like a winning team out there? No, they looked like little lost sheep, scared to show what we have seen they are capable of.

Frankly, the fixture list for November is not as complicated as the one that closes out 2008, and yet Real Madrid are making a meal of every game. You have to wonder whether Calderón and the board will have to get rid of Schuster sooner rather than later, especially given the fact that no reaction seems forthcoming from the players.

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Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Irún puts Real Madrid in intensive care

The word crisis, whispered in the last few weeks, has now reached a crescendo at the Bernabéu, as Real Madrid were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by a third division side. A repeat of the 4-3 weekend scoreline was not enough to subdue a Real Unión de Irún squad that ran rampant for large stretches of the game, as if the venue or their opponents were of no consequence. Not even a hat-trick from captain Raúl was enough to bring his half-dead team back to life.

The first half was symptomatic of everything that ails Real Madrid at the moment. This is a side split in half to such an extent that they seemed at times to have completely abandoned the midfield to the opposition. It's not just that the defenders are sometimes slow to react and badly positioned, there is just no support from most of their team-mates.

But the lack of players tracking back to defend was also in evidence when the team had the ball. It's not in Real's genetic make-up to play long-ball football, but that is exactly what the local crowd were treated to for most of the first forty-five minutes.

Raúl, the busiest player by far on the night, acted as link-up man, even though he was nominally one of the two strikers, the other being Saviola. This seemed to change in the second half as Sneijder dropped back more often, but just exactly what are Schuster's tactical instructions at the beginning of the game? Asking Metzelder to make runs on the left wing was a first, and what Real gained in attack they more than lost on defence.

The visitors went ahead through Abasolo after 13 minutes, after Salgado failed to deal with a cross on his wing and left Dudek with little chance of making the save. It took a mistake from Eduard, the Irún goalkeeper, to allow Real to equalise, with Raúl easily heading the ball over the advancing goalie after a cross from Marcelo.

Saviola could then have put his side ahead but his goal was disallowed on the stroke of half-time when he was clearly on-side. That was the linesman's fault, but someone needs to take the referee aside and explain to him how to apply the advantage rule, though his failures in this respect affected both sides equally.

Schuster swapped Cannavaro for Javi García during the break for no apparent reason, other than the Italy captain was not having a very good night - but then, neither were any of his colleagues in the back four. Three minutes in, García and Metzelder were not fast enough to catch Salcedo,though it must be said, they had precious little support from any of the midfield players, who were all far too far upfield.

Fortunately for Real, Irún's lead lasted just over a minute, as Raúl got his second after Saviola's pass had found him free in the area.

With the game at 2-2 fifteen minutes into the second half, Schuster brought Alberto Bueno on for Drenthe. The player from the Castilla reserve side only had two minutes on his debut in the first leg in Irún. The promising youngster impressed with his energy and talent and went on to score the goal of the night to put his side ahead and even the tie.

Raúl then thought he had put his side through five minutes from time with his third of the night from a free kick intended as a cross which none of the other players got a touch on. It was the first time all night that the home side was mathematically in the last 16 round of the Copa del Rey.

In a heart-stopping finish to the game, Real Unión took advantage of yet another defensive blunder to score their third in the 89th minute and put Real out of the competition on away goals.

Real Madrid have shown all season that they have the talent up front and the self-belief to enable them to claw their way out of adverse scorelines. However, this is a side so unbalanced on the pitch that any team with a modicum of tactical nous can control the game at their leisure. We haven't seen Bernd Schuster do anything to remedy this over the last few weeks and, as he admitted in the post-match press conference, it's now looking like he doesn't know how to.

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Monday, 10 November 2008

Real needs four from Higuaín to win

There is a school of thought that holds that the only objective in football is to score more goals than the opposition. Real Madrid's performance against Málaga was an exemplar of this, coming back after being down in the match three times, playing one man down for all of the second half, and still managing to win the game with all four goals scored by the same man: Gonzalo Higuaín.

Last time a Real Madrid player scored four goals in the same match was two years ago (almost to the day) when Van Nistelrooy bagged all four against Osasuna.

Diego Armando Maradona, Argentina's recent appointment as head coach of the national side, had earlier told El Pipa Higuaín that if he wanted to make his team he had to become "more involved" in games. Higuaín must have taken his words to heart, as the great man watched from the stands in the Bernabéu.

Málaga played some great one-touch football, ably assisted by Real Madrid's hapless defence. It is astonishing to think that virtually the same line-up that conceded the least number of goals last season (thirty-six) has now let in sixteen in ten games. The first came after a mere six minutes, as Eliseu toyed with Marcelo on the left wing, played it back from the touchline and then picked up the rebound to score.

Two minutes later Real were on equal terms as Higuaín found the ball almost rebounding from his boot into the back of the net following a save from Málaga goalkeeper Arnau.

More defensive shambles were at the heart of Málaga's second goal, especially from Heinze, who seemed to allow the ball to go past him and through to Baha for the goal, when he could have easily cleared it.

One again Higuaín pulled the home team back, this time from the penalty spot, following a handball in the area. Though the Argentinian is not a natural pick for taking spot kicks (Van Nistelrooy, Raúl and Van der Vaart are preferred by Schuster), his heroics in the Madrid derby last month meant that it was he who took the responsibility (that and the fact that Raúl was on the bench and Van Nistelrooy could be out of action for at least a couple of months after aggravating a knock on his knee -however, Van der Vaart was on the pitch).

With four goals scored, the half was not yet over when Sergio Ramos decided incomprehensibly to stamp on Eliseo while the Málaga player was on the ground following an earlier tackle. The result was his eight dismissal as a Real Madrid player.

Schuster brought on Salgado for Sneijder after the break and Málaga scented the chance of a famous victory. They must have thought they were there when twenty minutes from time Gago bundled a Málaga player over for a penalty which Apoño converted.

But it was not to be, as Higuaín responded with a superb effort from outside the area barely a minute later and then followed it up with his fourth of the night from the penalty spot. Strictly speaking, his final goal was not a penalty kick, as Arnau saved it and Higuaín put away the rebound. There was also the whiff of a dive by Higuaín for the penalty award, but that wasn't going to stop him celebrating.

The plan was to put behind the disappointment of the loss to Juventus in midweek by putting together a convincing performance against Málaga and follow it up with a win over lower division Real Unión on Tuesday. Morale was perhaps bolstered by the "epic" nature of the comeback, but it does nothing to allay the fears for the erratic way the squad is defending.

Adding to those fears is the growing number of players out with injuries. As well as Van Nistelrooy, Robben is out for up to six weeks, De la Red is out for an indefinite period following his loss of consciousness last week, and Diarra picked up a knock in the dying minutes of the Málaga game, while Pepe is expected to return for the Copa del Rey game on Tuesday.

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Friday, 7 November 2008

Beaten up by the old lady

If Schuster thought he had been having trouble with the Madrid sports press recently, he had better think again, as both they and the Bernabéu faithful are laying the blame squarely on his shoulders. The latest defeat against the 'Old Lady' of Turin, Juventus on Wednesday, proved too much for the home crowd who booed the German coach after Alessandro Del Piero's free kick put the game beyond Real Madrid.

The Bianconeri secured their passage into the knockout stages of the Champions League, but Real still has some work to do to see off the challenge of Zenit St. Petersburg for the other spot in Group H.

It could not have started worse for Real Madrid, as Arjen Robben tore a calf muscle during the warm-up and had to be replaced by Royston Drenthe. He could be out for up to six weeks.

Though Schuster can perhaps point to a host of missed chances and a couple of debatable penalty decisions, it was nevertheless the Italian side who had the better of the encounter. Their coach, Ranieri, put together the sort of solid defence that Real must be hoping to ape at some point soon: this is the ninth game on the trot that they have failed to keep a clean sheet.

The contrast with last year's defensive solidity, which enabled Iker Casillas to lift his first Zamora trophy as the best goalkeeper in the league, are striking, all the more so because the line-up hasn't changed. Del Piero's second goal came from a poorly set-up wall, which Casillas later took responsibility for.

Del Piero had the sort of magical European night his Real Madrid counterpart, Raúl, has been dreaming of for some time. It had been 46 years since either of the two sides managed to win at the other's ground. Real Madrid failed to improve on that statistic two weeks ago, but, inspired by their rejuvenated captain, Juventus made history at the Bernabéu. As Ranieri substituted Del Piero in the dying seconds of injury time, the local crowd gave him a standing ovation, much as they did for Ronaldinho when he led Barcelona to victory against Real back in 2005.

Real Madrid will look to two home games in a row against (on paper at least) 'weaker' opposition to bolster their much battered morale. The first is against Málaga this coming Saturday, followed by the return Copa del Rey fixture against Racing Club de Irún on Wednesday.

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Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Calderón claims Florentino abandoned Real Madrid

Motormouth Real Madrid president Ramón Calderón took advantage of an interview on the financial TV channel Intereconomía Televisión to announce the club's general assembly will be on December 7th and to criticise former president Florentino Pérez for leaving the club.

"He is the only president in the history of the club who left half way through a season. The only one to abandon the club, leading to four presidents in the space of six months. The only president who spent three years without winning a trophy. It would be very hard for him to have to explain all that", Calderón said, alluding to the rumours that suggest Florentino may stand at the next presidential elections, which will take place by 2010.

Calderón added that Florentino left not through illness or other problems, but "because the team wasn't winning. It would be very hard for me to have to say that face-to-face to a person whom I helped so much to become president. I am proud of having helped him, but he hasn't behaved well towards me".

He once again showed his anger at recent accusations that he was using the club's money for personal purposes. "A Real Madrid president cannot spend every single day denying whatever the press decides to publish, but this time they went too far. They manipulated information to say I'm a thief, and attacking the club's honour. I have not spent 1000, or even 600 euros of the club's money. I've worked 30 years as a lawyer with some success and I've managed to pay off most of my mortgage".

Commenting on the radio journalists who first published the reports on his show, he added "I would not meet Abellán (who published the reports on his radio show) face to face because I prefer to spend my time with human beings. Based on what I hear him say, he cannot do what he does and have a human heart. It's impossible for anyone to have that much evil inside them, that much bile to pour on me".

The Real Madrid president also came out in defence of coach Bernd Schuster, who has been the target of recent criticism by the media for his sometimes erratic behaviour at press conferences. "He is a great guy, but it's not easy to have to face 30 or 40 journalists every day. It would be perfect if he was really friendly with the pres, but I'd rather have a coach who does his job properly".

Calderón could not help weighing in once again into the recent spat with Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, with some unnecessary ribbing at the Scotman's expense. "He's a little bit envious of Real Madrid's nine European Cups. He realises that he won't have time to reach that figure. When I said he was a bit senile it was a bit of a joke to try to show how unimportant the words of a man who looks like he is jealous of a great club with the kind of success he hasn't had"

He was a lot kinder in his words towards rival club Barcelona. "When they play well I enjoy it like any other football fan. Envy is a ridiculous feeling; you have to admire those who do their job well".

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Monday, 3 November 2008

Off the pace

Real Madrid put paid to a lacklustre last few games with a draw at Primera División newcomers Almería (this is only their second season ever in the top flight). This leaves them still lying in third place in the league standings, two points behind leaders Barcelona, who have had a particularly impressive run of form recently, scoring fifteen goals (including five against Almería) in their last four encounters. Almería's late equaliser left Real feeling like they'd "let two points escape", as Bernd Schuster put it.

It was a particularly tedious first half, with no shots on goal from the local team, and not much more from the visitors. The only bright spot was Raúl's goal, which came from a great bit of skill from Higuaín on the wing, crossing the ball for the captain to deflect it past the keeper in a diving header. It was Raúl's first goal away from the Bernabéu since the one he scored against Racing Santander last April and his fifth in the league so far.

If anything, the second half was even more depressing from a Real Madrid standpoint, as the players (and coach) obviously had their minds on the clash with Juventus on Wednesday and decided to "secure" the win. Inevitably, this led to a lack of depth (to add to the general lack of width in the side), with lots of losses of possession. Almería grew in confidence and self-belief as the half wore on, and it was only a matter of time before they scored.

Sergio Ramos, who had otherwise had an acceptable game, gave the ball away with a header into no-man's land. A lightning-quick move from Almería caught him and the other defenders napping and gave Casillas no chance. Almería even had the chance to walk away with all three points, and it would not necessarily have been an unfair result.

To add insult to injury (or should that be injury to insult?), Pepe limped off three minutes into the second half and is doubtful for Wednesday's Champions League game. Another player certain of not being selected is Rubén de la Red, who fainted in Real's midweek Copa del Rey clash and who is out for an indefinite period until the doctors can determine what caused his loss of consciousness.

All in all, this game is best forgotten. One hopes that Real has plenty more up their sleeve against a Juventus finding their form, otherwise their chances of qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages (not to say anything about getting further in the competition) may be in jeopardy.

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Thursday, 30 October 2008

Calderón accused of living off the club

How much more can Ramón Calderón take before he decides that enough is enough and he packs his bags? It's not been an easy few days for the president of Real Madrid, continuously dogged by issues that have nothing to do with the team's sporting results.

Last week he had to contend with the announcement by Juan Villalonga that he would seek the presidency of the club at the next election, scheduled to take place by 2010. You may remember this same Villalonga was looking to poach Calderón's right-hand man José Ángel Sánchez back in July to head his proposed take-over at Valencia.

After Villalonga's attempt fell through just ten days later, nobody could predict that the man who used to run Spain's Telefónica before having to leave over accusations of insider trading would next try to take over an even bigger football club. Over at La Liga Loca there's an excellent review of the background to this story.

There followed then rumours that Florentino Pérez, the architect of the galácticos was seriously considering returning to the post he voluntarily resigned from in February 2006.

None of this should perhaps worry Calderón too much. After all, a lot can happen in two years, and the club has had sporting success with two consecutive league championships. However, it is the president's personal financial affairs that are now taking centre stage.

On Wednesday, business newspaper Negocio published an article detailing Calderón's income and tax statements since 2004. Without specifying how these details were obtained, the surprising news is that Calderón has declared no income and paid no tax between 2004 and 2007, and yet somehow managed to buy a flat in the centre of Madrid valued at some 800,000 euros.

This was followed that same next evening in José Antonio Abellán's personal crusade against the Real Madrid president in his radio programme El Tirachinas. Abellán claims that Calderón is charging personal expenses using two club credit cards for items as varied as cups of coffee, fuel for his car, rounds of golf and visits to health spas. He even published copies of these card statements on the radio station's website, blanking out some of the amounts. Abellán extended his accusations to the rest of the club's board members, saying Calderón was merely the figurehead.

In my opinion, the "documents" don't look very official and could have been knocked up very quickly. Also, some of the expenses are in locations that Calderón is known to have visited with the team during the preseason in Irdning and the Algarve. However, the allegations are extremely serious and have been echoed widely in the Spanish press.

Whether they can be justified as legitimate business expenses will presumably be addressed by Calderón himself at a press conference tonight at 19:00 local time (18:00 GMT).

Update: At his press conference, Calderón blasted his accusers, saying they had obtained information illegally and supplemented it with lies.

"Sadly I have to stand here before you to make a formal declaration to answer these very serious accusations, which this morning I have put in the hands of they police so they can initiate the relevant investigation."
"Most of the items mentioned were of my daughter Leticia and the rest are false. None of those items has been paid by Real Madrid. The situation is so serious and so brutally damaging to my prestige and the honour of Real Madrid that I could not remain silent."

He then went on to present documentary evidence from the banks to the effect that those credit cards had not been used by him for any personal motive and that most of the transactions that were published by the various media were from a debit account in the name of his daughter. He also showed copies of his tax statements for the past 4 years, in reply to the article from Negocio about his apparent lack of income.

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Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Ferguson still bitter over Ronaldo

Alex Ferguson has a right to be remembered as one of the best club managers the world has ever seen. His list of trophies (22 in 22 years) at the helm of Manchester United, including a treble (League, Cup and European Cup) in 1999 helped earn him a knighthood. He even won the now defunct Cup Winners' Cup with Aberdeen back in 1983, beating, you've guessed it, Real Madrid.

He is also a controversial media figure, and has not spoken to the BBC since they broadcast a programme over his son's alleged involvement in the football transfer market, an allegation that was never proved.

Ferguson is known for his clever use of psychology on both his players and on opponents, most famously when he completely unsettled Kevin Keegan, then at Newcastle, for the 1996 league title. However, he is not above showing his frustration when things don't go his way, and frequently criticises referees when he feels his players aren't properly 'protected'.

In an interview with GQ Magazine published in The Times, he gives vent to some of his annoyances over the whole summer saga regarding the transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo.

"I knew it was coming, so I wasn't surprised. When we sold Gabriel Heinze to Real Madrid [the previous summer], we knew it was going to happen, because Ronaldo was very close to Heinze. I knew what they were doing. I don't believe they were interested in Heinze – good player though he is. The endgame was to get Ronaldo.

What made it really obscene was that Madrid, as General Franco's club, had a history of being able to get whoever and whatever they wanted, before democracy came to Spain."

OK, you can perhaps forgive Ferguson being annoyed that his star player was the target of one of the biggest clubs on the planet, and that they made few bones about making it known (even though appearances were more or less maintained). The player and his advisers, who must surely shoulder a large part of the blame for the whole media circus, also unsurprisingly escape Ferguson's wrath - one wonders whether he would be so understanding had Ronaldo made a stronger attempt to leave Old Trafford. I wont even delve into the accusations he has faced of similar behaviour when he had wanted players to come to Manchester United.

But Ferguson is very conveniently ignoring both recent and ancient history. Gabriel Heinze did not go to Real Madrid in the summer of 2007 because he was part of a master plan to sign Cristiano Ronaldo. Heinze had been approached by Liverpool and Ferguson blocked the transfer, gifting a bargain to Real Madrid in the process. The whole thing was transacted in a matter of days, not weeks or months.

The whole General Franco claim is just laughable, all the more so in this day and age. Someone should perhaps point out that while Real Madrid won more league titles than either Barcelona or Atlético during the Franco years (14, vs. 8 and 7 respectively), Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona, clubs from parts of the country that had been against Franco during the Civil War, won more cup titles (9 and 8 vs. 6).

Even if any of that were true, the suggestion that in the 32 years since Spain became a democracy, Real Madrid still have the attitude that they can buy anyone they want when they want because of the Franco legacy is just plain bonkers, or to use Ferguson's own word, obscene.

Real Madrid have been seen as arrogant in European footballing circles because since Florentino put the club on a much sounder financial footing, they have been able to compete in the hyperinflationary transfer market. His policy of buying the best player on the market every year was the subject of worldwide media attention, even if, as we now know, it actually led to an unbalanced side that won no trophies for three years.

That transfer market, it must be said, is now led by Premiership clubs flush with TV and foreign owners' cash. Real Madrid are not unique in looking out for the best players and never have been, something that Ferguson conveniently forgets. But hey, he says he's retiring at the end of next season. Maybe he can spend some of his free time reading some history, instead of revising it.

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Monday, 27 October 2008

Can you please stop moaning?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm not fond of conspiracy theories (for my previous 'rant' on this issue, see the recent article and comments on Raúl). The latest one comes straight from the heart of Real Madrid Towers and revolves around dodgy refereeing decisions.

Pedja 'Brylcreem' Mijatovic left little of his state of mind (such as it is) to the imagination with statements like "we are worried. It's too easy to rule against Real. If in doubt they rule against and that cannot be". Even Schuster got in on the act during his post-match press conference saying he "shared Mijatovic's worries".

Are they at all justified? It's true to say that the referee in the Madrid derby last week was truly appalling, a particularly poor example of a particularly poor breed. Goals were disallowed, penalties awarded and players sent off, much like in this Sunday's game against Athletic.

The thing is, the facts just do not stack up; some decisions went against Real and some benefited them. Higuaín's disallowed goal last night was not offside and Heinze's penalty was more than doubtful. However, Marcelo should have seen red, not yellow, for his horrific tackle on Etxeberria on the stroke of half-time. And Real Madrid won the game, like last week.

Refereeing conspiracy theories have been the bread and butter of the Spanish sports press for decades - probably since the first ball was ever kicked between two sides. Alfredo Relaño in As for instance, has been claiming for years that the Spanish Federation, and Villar, its president, are at the core of a monstrous attempt to pervert the course of Spanish football by favouring Barcelona over Real Madrid.

There are supposedly no direct instructions (of course not, these would be too easy to disprove). Instead, referees who see things 'the right way' are allegedly rewarded with Cup finals and international appointments, and those who don't are relegated to obscurity. In other words, a triumph of insinuative rather than the investigative journalism they should be doing if they really though there was this level of corruption at the heart of the game.

Now, for a conspiracy to prosper, you need a couple of things: as few parties as possible must be involved and they must all be able to keep a secret... for ever. Call me naïve, but the general level of competence of the federation and its lackeys does not inspire me with a great deal of confidence in their chances of keeping a secret for longer than 24 hours, on a Tuesday, in July, when they're all home with the 'flu. Plus, the level of discretion displayed by the average club director is such that they could just not keep it to themselves if they'd somehow managed to put one over the opposition.

But the funny thing is, the papers this time are taking a different tack. Uncharacteristically for Marca, they have published an "analysis" that seeks to show that controversial refereeing decisions have been both for and against Real and that in no case have they had an influence in the result of the game (at least against Real Madrid), given that they have won all those games.

The Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola, has taken the high ground that Real Madrid should aspire to occupy by saying that neither club should complain about the referees. "Seriously, these things work themselves out in the long term. We sportsmen have an obligation to behave ourselves. The referees do the best they can and that's the end of it". Let's hope that he continues to keep his composure, as neither Mijatovic nor Schuster seem to be able to do so. Perhaps they should also take note of the Athletic manager who said ironically "how hard it is to know how to win" after the game.

Another one who has recently joined the ranks of the moaners is Sergio Ramos. Following his midweek outburst saying that his recent poor performances are due to the fact that he gets little support on his wing, Bernd Schuster decided to leave him out of the squad and play Michel Salgado in his stead. "To be honest", said Ramos "I'm not happy playing right now. Before I had help on the right wing from Beckham and others and that helped a lot. Nowadays I feel very alone on the wing and it looks like I get the blame for all the mistakes". Though Schuster claimed that the change was for "rest and rotation" reasons, he also pointedly avoided making any comment on Ramos's statements, even after being repeatedly questioned about it just before the game.

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Sunday, 19 October 2008

Dramatic Derby

Gonzalo Higuaín snatched all three points for Real Madrid with a goal from the penalty spot deep into injury time and extended his side's unbeaten run at the Vicente Calderon stadium to nine years. However, the true "star" of the show was, for all the wrong reasons, referee Carlos Clos Gómez. Two disallowed goals, two extremely rigorous sendings-off and one instance of not applying the advantage rule when it could have resulted in a goal mean that he is receiving significantly more column inches than any of the other 22 men on the pitch.

The stadium, with a three-match ban from UEFA hanging over it for the incidents at the recent Champions League clash with Olympique Marseille, thankfully did not become a protagonist on the night. The fact that there were only a few hundred "visiting" fans (clearly a result of ticket allocation rules rather than the "inconvenience" of staying on the Madrid Metro for a few more stops) meant the large police contingent had little to deal with. Less impressive however, was the unfurling of a 10 metre-long banner just before half-time paying homage to recently deceased extreme right-wing Austrian politician Jörg Haider.

It took a mere 34 seconds for Ruud van Nistelrooy to get on the scoresheet, with a cheeky shot from outside the area that found the corner of the goal and surprised Atlético keeper Leo Franco. Twenty minutes later the Dutchman wasn't so lucky as the referee disallowed his goal for a dubious offside decision. Raúl then had another goal disallowed for offside, this time more debatable, but certainly a close call.

Real could have finished the half three goals up as Atlético's midfield fought with Gago and De la Red and lost. Instead, both sides went to the dressing room a man down. Perea slapped Sneijder and got his marching orders on the half hour. For Real Madrid, Van Nistelrooy was on the receiving end of an extremely harsh decision just eight minutes later. Frankly, it had the whiff of "compensation" from the referee.

Javier Aguirre, the local coach, brought on Simao after the break, making a huge difference to his side and forcing Real to give up significant ground. Sergio Ramos, who had had a fairly easy time of it in the first half, struggled to contain Atlético's attacks on his wing in the second. It was Simao himself who would send the local fans into a delirium of happiness as he flighted a free kick over the wall to beat a static Casillas, levelling the match with under a minute left of normal time.

However, there was still more drama to be played out. The referee had to stop the match in the second half for an injury he himself had picked up, and consequently had to add on plenty of stoppage time. Then, on the 96th minute, Drenthe was clearly tripped inside the area by Heitinga and Higuaín put away the resulting spot kick to extend Atlético's derby curse for yet another year.

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Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Against thoughtless racism

This is not a post about Real Madrid. It is tangentially related, as the incidents at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium in a friendly between Spain and England in 2004, prompted the English FA's head of communications to request that an upcoming friendly between the two national sides not be played at the same venue. The England coach, Fabio Capello, has distanced himself from these remarks, saying that "I don't decide where England play, it's a decision of the English federation which they will have to agree with the Spanish. For me I don't mind where we play, and of course if it is the Bernabéu, then all the better".

A lot of Spaniards have been scandalised about being tarred with the same brush as a few racist idiots and many feel misunderstood by the English about 'innocent' remarks such as those uttered by then national coach Luis Aragonés about Thierry Henry. Instead of answering these points myself, I leave it to the editor of As, Alfredo Relaño. I don't usually have a lot of time for As, or even for Relaño, but I think his commentary this time is worth translating.

England says that they don't want to play at the Bernabéu, because of the racist chants heard in that stadium against Ashley Cole in the last match between our two nations. At first, in the heat of the moment, we find their attitude offensive, but, on reflection, we should give it some thought. Are we racist? Perhaps we are, without knowing it, like that character of Molière's who spoke in prose without realising. What about the English then, you will ask, and with reason. Well, the English are the English and we are who we are. They were responsible for awful behaviour in their day and found themselves in a multiracial society before we did.

That's why we must give their reproaches some thought, even if they are exaggerated, like this one. For me, the game has to be played at the Bernabéu or not at all. If they don't want to play, then we don't play, and we'll say no more about it. But we have to think about this. Here we don't think we are racist but we speak without thinking: "Tell that black shit that...". We use expressions like "deceive like a Chinaman". We call those who are overly jealous "moors". We use the word "judiada" (jewry) to talk about a treasonous action. We mistrust those who are different. When we were all alike we didn't notice it. Now we are beginning to realise.

People always say to me: "we are not racist. We only jeer the black players from other teams, not our own black players". Well, perhaps that is to be more fanatical than racist, but it is still racist. When you call someone black with the intention of insulting them (I'm not even going to go into doing monkey chants) it's because you perceive being black as worse than not being black and that is racism pure and simple. It's another matter altogether that we don't see it as racism and that those who went through the same problems earlier have to tell us to make us notice. They had to bear that burden before and now seek for us to bear it as well. They may overdo it, as the English FA are doing now, but we must not waste the opportunity.

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Monday, 13 October 2008

Calderón faces calls for his resignation

In a week where the various international fixtures mean there is little in the way of Liga to talk about, the Madrid sports dailies try to entice punters to buy their wares with a tried-and-tested strategy: transfer talk. Never mind that it's only six weeks since the transfer window closed, As continue to carp on about Benzema and Marca have wheeled out Bernd Schuster to stoke the flames surrounding the future of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Obviously, if you're looking for news items unfavourable to Real Madrid, you need only to look at the Barcelona sports dailies ("Mourinho wants Pepe and Higuaín" - Mundo Deportivo, "Saviola to be asked to leave" - Sport). It is unusual, however, to have an interview with a pro-Real Madrid group in such a publication, except of course, when it's used to air grievances over Ramón Calderon's presidency of the club.

Plataforma Blanca, a group of several hundred Real Madrid socios (members) unhappy with the way the club is run, are headed by Eugenio Martínez, managing director of a PR firm. In the interview, Martínez claims he will demand Calderón's resignation at the next General Assembly:

Is reform necessary at the club?
Calderón's management team has shown that it does not have the ability to help Real Madrid evolve. We have to look to the future.

You see yourselves as an alternative at the helm?
We have the desire to be an alternative. Change is in the air.

Some say that Plataforma Blanca is just a front for Florentino [Pérez, former Real Madrid president].
There is nobody behind us. This initiative has come from young, professional, Real Madrid supporters looking to reform the club.

Calderón seems to go from conflict to conflict. Has his presidency really been so bad?
The club's image has been damaged by all those scandals and alleged irregularities. The climate right now is not favourable towards him, as he does no inspire confidence or credibility.

And the socios still don't have the accounts for the last financial year.
It's unbelievable that this late in the year we still have not seen the accounts or that a date has been set for the General Assembly.

Could debt once again threaten the club's survival?
I'm waiting to see the accounts, but by my reckoning, we could be three hundred million euros in debt. That leaves us with negative room to manoeuvre. The ability to generate revenue is smaller than expenditure, so the debt just keeps on growing.

How do you feel about those figures?
We are against approving the accounts. If that happens, it would be the first time in the club's history and the club would be effectively paralysed. A similar situation happened when Ramón Mendoza resigned as president [in 1995]. Ironically, it was Calderón who urged the socios to reject the budget, ending with Mendoza leaving and Lorenzo Sanz becoming president.

So Calderón could go from executioner to executed.
If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

Is Calderón frightened of the socios?
It's understandable, given how they rejected his proposed reforms last May and asked for his resignation.

Will you ask for him to resign?
I will request it at the next Assembly, and if he does not, we'll have to consider a censure motion.

What is needed for a censure motion to succeed?
Half of the members present at the Assembly plus one. If Mr Calderón has any remaining self-respect, he should leave the club.

You have begun a civil suit alleging irregularities in the election of Socios compromisarios.
We are accusing Calderón and his friend Carrascosa of manipulating the database of socios in order to gain control over the Assembly. We do not intend to take the club to court, unlike Calderón himself did over the postal vote.

Is this just a few dissenting voices, or are Plataforma Blanca the tip of the iceberg? According to club rules, Calderón has until the end of December to convene a General Assembly and get the accounts approved, so we won't have long to wait.

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Monday, 6 October 2008

Raúl brace not enough to beat Espanyol

Espanyol put paid to Real Madrid's run of six consecutive victories in September and stole a point from the Bernabéu. The Barcelona club won the battle in midfield and frustrated most Real Madrid attacks with solid defensive work.

For their part, the Real Madrid back four did not have their best night. Heinze's clumsy challenge on Espanyol captain Raúl Tamudo resulted in a penalty, which Tamudo then expertly put away for Espanyol's first.

The lack of width in the Real Madrid midfield probably persuaded Sergio Ramos to join in the attack. His beautifully weighted cross was met by Raúl as he broke away from his marker. The captain has clearly benefited from being rested in midweek and is clearly most comfortable playing at home.

The equaliser did not seem to give Real Madrid any additional impetus. Poor defending from Heinze allowed Román Martínez to get the ball across Casillas' goal for Luis Garcia to put the Catalans ahead once more.

Deep in injury time in the first half, Raúl came once again to the rescue. The Real Madrid captain showed a clever bit of skill, taking advantage of a muddle in the Espanyol area to shift the ball quickly between his feet and put the ball beyond keeper Kameni. This makes a total of 16 goals that Raúl has scored against Espanyol in the Spanish league. Together with Valencia, Espanyol is the club that Raúl has scored most goals against.

The second half gave us more of the same, and, although Schuster brought Robben on for Van der Vaart to give his side some much needed width, the Dutchman only lasted 20 minutes before limping off with a pulled hamstring (though on Monday it was reported to be unlikely to be serious). Wesley Sneijder returned briefly from his preseason injury, but is clearly not yet fully match fit.

There were possible penalties at either end, and Van Nistelrooy could have grabbed a winner, but Kameni's reflexes saved his side. Diarra has been getting progressively better and was probably Real's best player in midfield. On the other hand, the Real Madrid forwards, other than Raúl, showed none of the accuracy which has been characterising the side in recent games. Higuaín was especially selfish, shooting several times from outside the box with little danger.

With the draw, Real Madrid drops to fifth in the table, just behind Barcelona on goal difference, who clearly stated their intentions this season with a thumping 6-1 demolition of Liga hopefuls Atlético Madrid (Real's next opponents on October 18th).

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Tuesday, 30 September 2008

The Siege of St. Petersburg

Real Madrid beat UEFA Cup and Supercup holders Zenit St. Petersburg 2-1 to win their first away game in Europe in two years. It was also their second successive win in Russia after beating Lokomotiv Moscow in 2003. The game was played at breakneck pace, especially in the first half, resulting in a very open attacking encounter with a large number of chances from both sides.

Real Madrid laid siege to the Zenit goal in the opening minutes with very fast one-touch football. The pay-off was not long in coming as Van der Vaart crossed into the area for Hubočan to turn it into his own net when trying to clear.

Dick Advocaat's men reacted to the shock of going behind by taking control of the game, with Real struggling to maintain possession. The constant pressure paid off as Danny inched ahead of Heinze to put away a cross from Arshavin after 25 minutes.

Real nearly struck back immediately as Van der Vaart had a shot blocked by Zenit keeper Malafeev. In the end they had to wait another six minutes to regain the lead as Van Nistelrooy pounced onto a loose ball in the area and put it away in typical fashion.

The first half was far from over: Higuaín, who got the nod from Schuster ahead of Raúl to start the game, missed two clear chances (one off a clever backheel by Van der Vaart and the other from a quick counter led by Robben). Casillas, in the other half of the pitch, also had plenty to do with a couple of important saves to keep his side ahead.

The second half started controversially with Hubočan booked presumably for handling the ball in the Real Madrid area when the replay suggested Sergio Ramos was the more likely culprit.

On the hour mark, Schuster brough Javi García on for Van der Vaart. The Spaniard was intended to provide additional cover for Diarra in midfield and to follow the dangerous Danny around, but, if anything, the pressure from Zenit increased in the first few minutes after he came on, and Casillas was again forced to intervene several times.

Real could have made it safe fifteen minutes from time but Higuaín was perhaps too greedy and decided to go for goal when laying it off to Robben may have been the better option. Just three minutes later Arshavin should have equalised but the post denied him when Casillas couldn't.

The last 10 minutes saw Real Madrid suffer to maintain their lead, as Zenit besieged their area to try to get their first point in the Champions League. Drenthe and Saviola came on for Robben and Higuaín but they could contribute little up front. The four minutes of injury time ticked off agonisingly slowly for Schuster's men, but the two goals in the first half in the end proved to be enough.

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Sunday, 28 September 2008

In Extremis

Real Madrid have not lost the killer instinct they demonstrated to devastating effect in the first half of last season and which effectively gave them their second successive league title. Playing one man down for most of the second half they saw Betis equalise their early goal and then lay siege to Iker Casillas's goal.

But Real were not to leave the Ruiz de Lopera stadium with a single point, not if Ruud Van Nistelrooy had anything to do with it. Having hardly featured in the game, he rifled in a shot past the Betis keeper following a lightning-speed counter and ensured Real Madrid have won every game so far in September.

It was Ruud's 60th goal in 97 games for Real Madrid, a fabulous statistic which more than compensates for his looking like Robinson Crusoe in his island for most of the match.

Real went ahead on 18 minutes with a powerful header from Heinze (it seems Schuster makes up for his lack of strikers by having everyone else score) off a Van der Vaart free kick.

Schuster made some changes to his starting line-up from the midweek game. Out went Cannavaro and Torres and in came Heinze and Sergio Ramos. The midfield was unchanged and Van Nistelrooy returned for Higuaín.

Real clearly dominated throughout the first half and should have made the game safe as they headed to the changing rooms for the break.

Marcelo, who has been criticised recently for his defensive frailties, did not further his cause by getting sent off for giving away a clear penalty on 54 minutes. Casillas saved the resulting kick from Sergio García, but the diminutive Spanish international made sure from the rebound to put Betis level.

Schuster rearranged his troops by bringing off Raúl and replacing him with Torres, but the impetus was lost and Betis took over the running of the game, with limited success. With ten minutes to go, the two sides were again equal in strength as Sergio García was sent off for a second yellow card following a foul on Drenthe. This finally enabled Real to start pushing forward until Van Nistelrooy scored in injury time.

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