Wednesday, 30 January 2008

The curse of the central defender - Part II

In the latest twist to the problems afflicting Real Madrid central defenders Metzelder has suffered a relapse of the plantar fasciitis he had nearly recovered from. All told, he's been unavailable for selection through injury or lack of fitness for most of the season, featuring in only 7 of 21 league games so far, and runs the risk of going the way of Jonathan Woodgate (though not quite as expensive).

Another central defender who is no stranger to the treatment table this season is Pepe, who has suffered a similar catalogue of injuries (some possibly due to being rushed back into action) and is currently recovering from a torn muscle in his right leg. With Cannavaro as the only fit 'true' centre back, Schuster has been forced to partner him with Sergio Ramos, a position he's not most comfortable in, and which has probably increased Iker Casillas's already overloaded work rate even further. It is probably fair to say that Cannavaro is looking a lot more settled this season than last and thus far remains unaffected by the 'curse'. But the fact that Real Madrid has not played with the same back four for more than two games running this season must be a source of worry for the manager.

On the plus side, the elimination of Mali from the African Cup of Nations means that Diarra is on his way back to Madrid and likely to feature in next Saturday's game at Almería, especially given that his replacement over the last month, Fernando Gago, is suspended for that match.

Another player rumoured to be returning to the Real Madrid fold is Zinedine Zidane. He was spotted meeting Mijatovic and Calderón in a Madrid restaurant yesterday and As insisted he had offered his services to the club. His young sons play in Real's youth sides and he was said to be interested in "helping out". However, today, his agent, Alain Migliaccio denied this version of events, stating that "We had lunch with president Calderón because he had made the request, and Zidane accepted to show the respect he has for the president and the club. However, at no time and in no way during the meal did Zidane offer his services to Real Madrid". Curiously, Marca has spun this against Calderón by adding that Migliaccio stated his disappointment and sadness that the club had leaked the story. More reputable news media merely say that the disappointment was with As over their poor sources.

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Monday, 28 January 2008

Cashing in on Cassano

Antonio Cassano, that troubled yet talented footballer, has found a new lease of life at Serie A outfit Sampdoria, exceeding all expectations to become a key component of a side battling for a Champions League spot. His goal against lowly Siena on Saturday put Sampdoria 6 points behind the 4th placed team in the Italian league and the Genoese side is now looking to make his loan from Real Madrid permanent at the end of the season. Even more surprisingly, Cassano's performances have not gone unnoticed by Italian national coach, Roberto Donadoni, who hinted he may "take him into consideration for the future".

This is more than Real Madrid could have hoped for. Cassano, with a history of falling out with both team-mates and managers at every club he's graced with his presence, was bought from AS Roma for 5.5 million euros in 2006, during the January transfer window. He's notched up a total of 19 appearances, scoring two goals, hardly justifying either his transfer fee, or his salary, reportedly worth about 4 million euros a year. Getting Sampdoria to take him off Real's hands and pay about 1/3 of his salary seemed little consolation in the summer, given that the spectre of having to "welcome" him back at the end of the season was too horrifying to contemplate.

Reports from Italy suggest Sampdoria are keen to get together with Real Madrid when the Spanish side visit Rome for their Champions League quarterfinal in February. The terms of the loan agreement state that the Italians will have an option to buy Cassano from Real Madrid for around 5 million euros, but that they are looking to negotiate that sum downwards. Frankly, if Real can get even half that for such a troublesome player, they should thank their lucky stars, because 6 months ago they would have had to pay people to take him away. As long as Antonio keeps his temper in check for another 6 months, it may even be possible to make something out of the deal.

There is a possibility, however remote it may seem now, that Cassano could grow up and demonstrate the talent he has always hinted at, a bit like Anelka (another wild child who seems to have finally decided to show us what he's capable of). Real Madrid, however, is not the place for him to do so. There were enough problems keeping egos (and highly inflated salaries) in check during the galáctico era. If he does mature and make a tidy profit for Sampdoria in the future, good luck to them both.

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Breaking away

Real Madrid showed a refreshing lack of complacency and bags of self belief to beat Villareal and extend their lead at the top of the standings to 9 points. Contrast this with their closest rivals, Barcelona, who failed to hold onto their one-goal lead in Bilbao and ended up dropping two points. All the participants agree that the championship is not yet over (Real had an even bigger lead over Barcelona in 2004 and ended up throwing the league title away), but the way the players pick themselves up when things don't go their way is very encouraging.

Guti had a day to remember, providing added verticality to an already aggressive attack; however Robinho was the true star of the team with his clinical finishing on two occasions. Villareal for their part never flagged, giving the encounter added flavour and excitement, and they managed to pull the scoreline back twice, setting up a frantic last quarter of an hour.

Gago has benefited from Diarra's absence in the African Nations Cup and picked up his game impressively in recent weeks. Aside from his defensive efforts, which were many, he was also responsible for the assist to Sneijder which ended up in Real's winner, barely a minute after Villareal's second. The Dutchman had only just come on for Baptista, and the goal must have done his confidence no end of good, given the lacklustre string of performances in the past few months, following a very bright start to the season.

Simon Baskett, over at Reuters, argues that Real's successes this season are largely due to the 'old guard' and that the new signings have not yet made a significant contribution.

Villareal demonstrated that the 5-0 result earlier in the season was a mirage and they are worthy occupants of the 3rd spot in the league, but the 15 points separating them from the leaders are almost unprecedented at this stage of the season.

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Wednesday, 23 January 2008

A man of few words

A recent article in El País sheds a little light into the kind of coach Bernd Schuster is at Real Madrid. Since joining the club last July his public statements to the press have been characterised by his heavy use of irony and off-the-cuff pronouncements. He is often misinterpreted by the press, probably intentionally, but essentially he remains a fairly enigmatic character. Las Saturday, before the local derby against Atlético he was asked about his lack of humility. "I am very humble," he said "otherwise I would have never become so great."

And yet with the players he's a different man. He will goad them to get the best out of them, but they seem to be clear on why he says what he says, however seldom that is. He gets involved during the training matches, leaving the running of the session to Manolo Ruiz, his second in command. Schuster will get involved in tackles and gets tackled, sometimes hard, but he still says very little. And yet, sometimes he'll thread an inch-perfect pass that reminds those old enough to remember of his playing days and earns his players' respect.

His tactics talks are short and to the point, like Capello's, but there the similarities end. Where Capello did not really trust Robinho, Schuster made a point of selecting him even after the wild partying allegations in Brazil last October. The military discipline at the club has been replaced by a more permissive approach: the players can wear what they like, bring their mobiles into the dressing room, listen to whatever music they want to. Robinho has blossomed this year. As Tim Stannard says, he's 57 times the footballer he was.

"There's a little more happiness around," says Marcelo. "Capello was tougher, more defensive-minded. Schuster wants us to play for the fans. And the fans want to see Robinho do his step-overs".

He leaves most of the set play tactics and communication of player responsibilities to Manolo Ruiz. Schuster own take on what his real job is that "the main task of a Real Madrid manager is as psychologist".

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Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Weight of history hurts Atlético

The press had been building up this game as the most exciting Madrid derby in years. Atlético finally were playing like a team that deserves to be in the Champions League spots and Real, though in front by a considerable margin, had just been knocked out of the Copa del Rey and their win at Levante the previous week had been rather a lacklustre affair. On the night, it took Raúl (yes, him again, they really must hate him at the Calderón) just 31 seconds to put Real in front, after Robinho had robbed Pablo of the ball twice by the touchline and played it back for his captain to fool the keeper with a trademark goal.

It was not all plain sailing for Real in the first half. The home crowd egged their team on with an enthusiasm rarely seen at the Bernabéu and Casillas had to once again don his saintly garb to keep Agüero out either with his hands or with the help of the woodwork. Pepe suffered a recurrence of his injury early on and had to be replaced by Ramos in the centre of defence, with Salgado (why, oh why, oh why) coming on for the Brazilian.

But, at the time when it hurt the most, just before half time, Van Nistelrooy pounced with a half-hit half-volley that put the game beyond the locals' reach and took the wind out of their sails (except for Agüero) for the entire second half. If Guti had had a better day, there could have been a couple more goals, but the scoreboard stayed put and the home fans went home with the certainty of another defeat at the hands of their bitterest rivals, making it 9 years since their last win over the blancos. At least they have the consolation of not having to face them again this season in their fight for a CL spot.

This win keeps Real firmly at the top of the standings, still seven points over Barcelona, whom they can't quite shake off, and twelve points over the third placed team and next Sunday's rivals, Villareal. The list of all the teams Real Madrid has beaten away from home so far this season makes for interesting reading:

  • Barcelona (2nd)
  • Villareal (3rd)
  • Atlético (4th)
  • Valencia (8th)
  • Getafe (12th)
  • Athletic (15th)
  • Levante (20th)

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Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Ruud renewal

The man they call Van Gol has tied his fortunes to Real Madrid until 2010, the club announced earlier today. His contract was due to expire at the end of the current season, although it included a clause extending it for one further year if he made 35 appearances for Real Madrid. He left his previous club under a cloud, reportedly having fallen out with Sir Alex Ferguson, even though he had scored 150 goals for the club (38 of them in the Champions League, still a Manchester United club record).

Ruud joined Real Madrid in the summer of 2006 for 18 million euros and found success in his opening season by becoming pichichi, the league's top scorer, with 25 goals. Four of those were in the same game, against Osasuna, a feat not often achieved. In all, Van Nistelrooy has scored 46 times in 67 appearances for Real Madrid, so he's unlikely to top the 150 goals he scored for Manchester United by 2010 (it is one less season than the five he played for the Red Devils, after all).

There's no reason, other than injury, why he should not continue to score goals at the same rate until his new contract expires, as he will only turn 34 the following day. I suspect very few will disagree with the club's decision; readers of this blog voted him Player of the Month in December.

The contrasting fortunes of Ruud's fellow Dutchman, Arjen Robben, mean he has once again injured himself, the fourth time since he joined (already injured) from Chelsea. He truly is earning his nickname man of glass. Curiously, Bernd Schuster opted to pretend the injury hadn't happened in his press conference today in advance of the Copa del Rey tie tomorrow at Mallorca. The injury doesn't look serious and Robben should be back fit quite soon, but he's not going to get much of a chance to displace any of the other starters if he keeps getting injured.

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Monday, 7 January 2008

St. Iker saves

...and Zaragoza did not score on the rebound. Casillas spared his side from a potentially embarrassing defeat by saving at least 10 shots on goal by Zaragoza. His providential reflexes (and the woodwork) kept Real in the game long enough to enable the clinical finishing of first Van Nistelrooy and second Robinho, to put paid to Zaragoza with two goals from the three chances Madrid had all night. This result keeps the Madrid side seven points clear at the top of the table.

Casillas also notched up his 300th league appearance for Real Madrid and beat his own record for keeping his goal intact in league games; this now stands at 378 minutes and includes 4 consecutive clean sheets.

Only 16 minutes into the game, Heinze suffered a strain on his left thigh (later confirmed to be a tear, sidelining him for 6-8 weeks). Schuster partially blamed his side's "loss of focus" on the injury to the left back, which supposedly allowed Zaragoza to dominate for large swathes of the match. As is ever the case with Bernd, he does not tend to criticise his players in public and comes up with ludicrous reasons/excuses for their performance. The former is a good thing; the latter is an insult to everyone else's intelligence. Schuster also had some words of praise for his keeper, calling him "the best in the world". This makes an interesting contrast to Capello, who always emphasised the team's performance rather than Casillas's, preferring to dwell on Real's defensive frailties instead.

Zaragoza's strike force of Oliveira, Sergio García (no, not the golfer) and Diego Milito terrorised Real's defence (Sergio Ramos moved from the right to partner Cannavaro in the centre of defence, and he did not look comfortable all game) but could not get past Casillas. Their lack of luck or effectiveness in front of goal was to cost them dear as Schuster brought on Guti for an ineffectual Sneijder. Twenty minutes later, Real were two up and the game was all but over.

Diarra had a poor game and probably had his mind on joining his national side in the African Cup of Nations competition in Ghana. The Mali captain will be away at least all of January, as the group stages finish on the 19th. If his side reaches the final, he could be off until February 10th. Given Real's January schedule, this could prove problematic, as neither Gago nor Guti fill the same role as Diarra.

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Thursday, 3 January 2008

Reserves fail to impress

A last-gasp goal by Guti spared Real Madrid's blushes and prevented the indignity of extra time at the Bernabéu against a side currently playing two divisions lower. In a devalued competition where the odds are stacked in favour of the bigger sides with the return legs of ties being staged on their turf, there are question marks about the depth of Real Madrid's squad.

Coming so soon after certain triumphalist statements in the press about aiming for the "treble" (League, Cup and Champions League), it highlights that one good game does not make a season, and one bad game can help ruin it. This is not the same side that played against Barcelona. It featured precious few of the same players. As in the first leg in Alicante, Schuster provided an opportunity to some of those players getting less minutes in the league to show that they are a valid alternative to the starting eleven. Given their performances at Madrid and Alicante, the manager will have to reconsider if he truly wants to give this competition a chance.

The headlines should have all been about Arjen Robben's first goal for Real Madrid. His technical qualities have been overshadowed by his physical fragility and he has been threatening to turn into an expensive mistake on the scale of Jonathan Woodgate (whose time at Middlesbrough has been recently hampered by mysterious bouts of cramp). The goal came from a delicate chip from Higuaín over a defender to set up Robben for a good finish.

Instead, it was a catalogue of missed opportunities (Soldado was clearly trying too hard to impress; we know he can put those kinds of chances away) and a lack of commitment and focus once they'd scored, that allowed Alicante to fight their way back into a game they should never have had a hope of winning. The usual headlong rush in the last half-hour to get a winner almost let the visitors maintain their hitherto unbeaten record against Real Madrid, but Guti's touch of class 10 seconds from extra time served to paper over the cracks. As would have you believe that the reserves did their job well. It must be said that a couple (Balboa, Higuaín) had decent performances, but, as for the rest... well, As must have been watching a different game.

The draw for the next two rounds is on Friday [Update: Real will face Mallorca, first away and then at home], and the ties will be played in mid-week for the next 4 weeks to determine the semi-finalists before January is out. The treble is on... but only just.

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