Friday, 30 May 2008

Cassano stays at Sampdoria

Sampdoria are probably very glad to have got themselves a bargain in agreeing a free transfer for Antonio Cassano from Real Madrid. The troubled Talentino has been on loan with the Genoese side since last August, and, as expected, won't be coming back to Madrid. His successful season at Sampdoria has resulted in a call-up from Roberto Donadoni for the Italian squad in Euro 2008 and some observers were suggesting that Real Madrid would wait until the end of the championship to maximise their asking price for the striker.

However, it seems that Mijatovic and co. do not want to take any risks with Cassano and his €4 million annual salary and have agreed to let him go on a free with a few strings attached. Should Sampdoria decide to sell him on within the year (Inter are said to be interested), Real will receive around €7 million. This figure drops to around €5 million if he's sold on in the next three years. So, it looks like Real have waived the fee agreed between the two sides last year (around €5 million) in return for a potentially larger pay-out in the event that Sampdoria are looking to make a quick profit, plus a guarantee that they will take the troublesome striker off their hands.

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Holiday season - for some

Thursday saw the last training session of the season for the Real Madrid squad members not already with their national teams. A total of seven first team players (Raúl, Michel Salgado, Saviola, Balboa, Soldado, Codina, and Miguel Torres) said their goodbyes (Guti, with special permission from the club, did so the previous day) and will reconvene on July 14th to spend a week in the Portuguese Algarve.

The following week, the squad will fly to the Austrian town of Irdning for preseason training before moving onto London on August 1st to take part in the Emirates Cup trophy. There they willface the hosts, Arsenal, as well as German side Hamburg. They will then move onto Colombia to play against Independiente de Santa Fé on the 7th, nipping back to Frankfurt to play Eintracht on the 12th.

The rest of the preseason is yet to be defined, although Real Madrid will have to take on Valencia for the Spanish Supercup before the start of the new season. The final friendly of the preseason will be the Santiago Bernabéu trophy scheduled for August 27th against Sporting Portugal.

Some members of the squad will get less holiday time as they are involved in games with their national sides over the summer: Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Cannavaro, Metzelder, Robben, Sneijder and Van Nistelrooy are involved in the Euro 2008 championship; other players with international commitments are:

  • Marcelo, Baptista and Robinho are in the Brazil squad involved in friendlies and World Cup qualifiers over the first three weeks of June
  • Heinze and Gago will similarly be with the Argentina squad
  • Higuaín and Drenthe will take part in Olympic qualifying with Argentina and the Netherlands, respectively
  • Diarra will captain the Mali side in World Cup qualifying games

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Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Cristiano Crusade

You cannot pick up an issue of either the British or the Madrid sports press without reading some story about Cristiano Ronaldo's proposed transfer to Real Madrid, each more outlandish than the last: 80 million euros, 50 million euros plus Ramos, Diarra and Robinho, 30 million euros plus a treasure map to the mythical Eldorado (only one of those is made up, by me anyway). It's getting increasingly tedious and with over 3 months left until the closing of the transfer window on 31st August, it can only get more so as the summer progresses. Regardless of the level of truth in these reports, the real question that should be posed concerning the motives behind such an environmentally unfriendly waste of trees and ink is: cui bono?

First and foremost, those who stand to profit either way are the press: it's in their interests to keep this going as long as possible, so people can keep buying papers in the lulls between seasons. Expect it to be particularly intense between now and the start of Euro 2008 on 7th June, and to pick up either immediately afterwards (29th June) or as soon as Spain is knocked out of the competition. However, while the press clearly manufacture stories to continue whipping up interest (the one about an official Real Madrid club car with some documents with Cristiano Ronaldo's name on them is particularly clumsy), there would be little to keep this going without the collusion of other characters adding their little bit of fuel to the fire.

The principal suspect in this is Cristiano Ronaldo himself (or his agent). Although he signed a new deal tying him to Manchester United until 2012 just over a year ago, his impressive season (he has scored a whopping 42 goals in all competitions) means he may be trying to capitalise and strike (no pun intended) while the iron is hot. His current deal at United includes an annual salary of over £6 million for the next four years. However, the recent Webster ruling means that he can leave in 2010 by compensating United for one year's salary if he doesn't renew his contract (under the rule, any player aged between 23 and 28 can walk away from his club, as long as he has served three years out of a four or five-year contract). Ale, at The Offside, puts it best with: "Ronaldo, as usual, spent his day frustrating everyone again with claims of 'I dream of playing for Real Madrid' and 'My head is in Manchester.' Just come out with it and say 'I want a new contract or I go to Madrid.' Problem solved."

Let's not forget however, that others may seek to benefit from all this media mayhem. Real Madrid, or to be more precise, president Calderón, has had a bit of a torrid time recently despite being at the helm of a side that's won back-to-back league championships. Add to that the fact that certain sectors won't let him forget that of the three players he promised as part of his electoral campaign two years ago (Robben, Cesc, Kaka), he has only managed to deliver one to Real Madrid. While he mounted an ultimately unsuccessful media offensive for Kaka last year, he may have decided to deflect attention by continuing to feed the press little snippets about how welcome Cristiano would be at Real Madrid.

Finally, and this may be a little bit of a stretch, Manchester United may be using the whole affair to keep the British press occupied while they quietly go about building up their squad for next season. They did well on the transfer market last summer by signing up a couple of highly rated Portuguese youngsters (Nani and Anderson) catching everyone else on the hop. I suspect however, that if this is happening, it's more of a case of taking advantage of the current situation than of the club trying to manipulate events. Alex Ferguson's recent tirade against Real Madrid is just the Scot being his usual prickly self (and there's plenty of non-Manchester supporters saying this is just a case of the pot calling the kettle black).

Ultimately, I believe this is all so much summer hot air. Real don't need Cristiano (certainly not at the prices being quoted) and Cristiano doesn't need Real Madrid: he has just won the Champions League with a relatively young side and would his international profile really be much bigger at the Spanish club? There would probably be more chance of Real launching a ridiculous bid for him if they had not won anything for a couple of seasons or if they were in the middle of presidential elections. As it is, their money would be better spent on reinforcing the squad and offloading some of the underperforming players.

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Monday, 19 May 2008

Garay in, but who's out?

With the Bernabéu not yet cleaned of the many tons of confetti poured from the stands following Sunday night's celebrations, Real Madrid have been quick off the mark announcing a new signing. Ezequiel Garay, Racing de Santander's highly rated Argentine central defender, is set to join Real for a cool 10 million euros in cash. What is currently not clear is whether he will be joining the squad this season or the next; the reasons for this will probably become clearer as the summer progresses.

Real Madrid currently has a potential surfeit of players in the central defender role: Pepe, Metzelder, Cannavaro, Heinze (who also doubles up as left back) and Ramos when there's noone else. Buying a new, young player (Garay's 21) makes sense if you're thinking of easing out one of your veterans, or someone who's simply not working out. Of the five above, it looks like only Cannavaro and Metzelder fit the bill. The Ballon d'or and World Cup winning Italian captain has one more year left on his contract. Metzelder, on the other hand, has a further two years left to run on the contract he signed last summer, plus he's had a bad run of injuries this season which have prevented him from really showing whether he will fit into the squad.

So it looks like Real will either try to sell Cannavaro over the summer and try to recoup a portion of the 15 million euros spent on him, or else see out his contract and pick up Garay in 2009. For his part, Garay joined Racing de Santander for a measly 2 million euros in 2005 as a 19-year-old and has proved to be a regular starter for the Cantabrian club, scoring several goals per season. He has been capped once with the senior Argentina squad, in a friendly against Norway in August 2007.

Garay was the subject of transfer speculation earlier in the year, when clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Lyon and Tottenham reportedly interested in bidding for his services. It then looked like a done deal with Barcelona as Racing president Francisco Pernía claimed that "he would be really surprised" if Garay joined any other club over the summer. However, the 18 million euro price tag proved too rich for Barcelona and the deal collapsed. With Manchester United still in the hunt, it's somewhat surprising that Real have managed to close a deal for 10 million euros, although perhaps this has something to do with the fact that it's "cash in hand" rather than over several instalments.

The signing of Garay was recommended by both Pedja Mijatovic and Miguel Angel Portugal. Portugal has a much lower public profile than Mijatovic, but as much, or possibly even more influence at the club. He is also the former coach of Racing de Santander, which means he has first-hand knowledge of Garay's abilities. Jpx, calling Portugal's approach 'the art of silence', argues that it makes a refreshing change to see someone being signed for a reasonable price (given the market) and without all the speculation and fanfare that ussually accompanies these things. I couldn't agree more.

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Sunday, 18 May 2008

Party night

It was more than the kickabout that was feared when the Levante players went on strike earlier in the week, though there was not a great deal of tension on the pitch with nothing competitive to play for from either side. The game was on, the party atmosphere was palpable from before kick-off and continued until the final whistle. Seven goals later, the party itself could start: the lights, the music, the fireworks...

Levante played with more verve and vigour than might be expected of a squad not just worried about where their next paycheque could be coming from; they also did not train all week, as they made it clear they would not be deflected from their intention to refuse to play if no agreement was reached. In fact, the kind of spirit they showed against Real Madrid makes one wonder if their results were more conditioned by their psychological state than by any intrinsic lack of talent compared to the other sides in the Primera División.

On the day however, the difference between first and last was too much for Levante: a brace each from a clinical Van Nistelrooy and an exuberant Sergio Ramos, plus an absolute scorcher of a free kick from Sneijder that was as good as, if not better, than anything David Beckham could have done. Levante's goals were both by Geijo, although it was the provider on both instances, Courtois, who should take most of the credit. This is not to take anything away from the young reserve keeper Jordi Codina, who acquitted himself well and shows that there's plenty of Spanish goalkeeping talent coming up through the ranks.

The next few days and weeks will see the usual media speculation about who's going, who's staying , and who's joining, with a 3-week hiatus in June for Euro 2008. For now, however, it's time to celebrate the first back-to-back titles in 18 years. Coincidentally, Bernd Schuster was a Real Madrid player for those two seasons between 1988 and 1990 and this hat-trick makes him the fifth person to win the title both as player and coach. He joins the illustrious ranks of the legendary Miguel Muñoz, as well as Luis Molowny, Jorge Valdano and Vicente del Bosque.

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Reform proposals rejected

If after winning two consecutive league titles, Ramón Calderón cannot ease through his desired reforms to the club's statutes, it is hard to see whether he will ever be able to. At today's Extraordinary General Assembly, the proposals were heavily rejected (by 682 votes to 150, with 34 abstentions) by the current raft of socios compromisarios. Many of those present called for the president's resignation, criticising him for "dragging the club through the courts".

In a tense three-and-a-half hour meeting, the legality of the proposals was questioned, and they were criticised for giving too much power to the board of directors at the expense of the socios. As this was an all-or-nothing vote, it was not possible to at least address the serious issues regarding the electoral procedures that caused all the legal problems following the last presidential election. However, as the current process has been deemed to be illegal by a Madrid court, something will have to be done before any new elections can take place (in theory, not due until 2010).

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Game On

The Levante players confirmed at a press conference today that they had called off their strike and would play the last game of the season at the Bernabéu tonight. The players, who have not trained all week, have been asking for all their unpaid salary contributions over the past couple of seasons to be guaranteed and were using the game against Real Madrid as a very visible platform for their demands.

Earlier in the week, Bernd Schuster had said that the striking players had probably not picked the best game for their protest, as it would have been better to target games where there was something in play. Some intense negotiations, however, seem to have resulted in an agreement, described as "in extremis" by Levante captain Luis Manuel Rubiales. This agreement includes at least one and possibly two fundraising games (the first planned for next January) between the Levante squad and a selection of players from the Spanish league. Rubiales praised Real Madrid who had agreed to allow the Bernabéu to be used for the games at no cost and the players of both Real Madrid and Barcelona who made commitments to take part in the matches.

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Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Who will play on Sunday?

Real Madrid president Ramón Calderón gave his support to the Levante striking players in a radio interview, describing the situation as "sad, because the players have shown professionalism, honesty and dignity playing a great many games when they had not been paid. They have beaten sides who did not have those worries and they have all my respect, affection and support and that of Real Madrid".

He also hinted at possible alternatives should Levante not field a side for the last game of the season on Sunday: "we will look for an alternative, although we would prefer that Levante's problem was solved and that they could play. We are looking at options. At the moment only the Portuguese and English leagues have finished. We want the fans to be able to enjoy a football match. We have to be realistic. If those who can solve the issue have not done so by Friday, a solution looks difficult. However, we have not spoken to any other clubs."

Marca reports that the end of season finale will include the usual fireworks and light and sound extravaganza, with the added promise of an equestrian display and Raúl will once again pretend to be a bullfighter (sigh). On Monday, the team will fly out to Saudi Arabia to play in a testimonial for Majed Abdullah, Al Nasr's legendary striker. There is some controversy surrounding the game, as women are not allowed at Saudi football matches, potentially affecting any travelling Real Madrid directors, fans, wives and girlfriends. After that commitment is satisfied, the players will not be required to return for preseason training until July 20th.

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Monday, 12 May 2008

Doubts about season finale as Zaragoza face the drop

Real Madrid's clash against Zaragoza on the weekend could be the last of the season, at least for the team from the capital, as it emerged that next Sunday's match may not go ahead. The relegation-bound Levante players have decided to go on strike, as they have not been paid for several months, thus potentially spoiling Real's planned end-of-season party. For their part, the Zaragoza players have bigger problems to worry about, as the 2-2 draw with Real Madrid leaves them in the relegation zone. Their destiny, however, is still in their own hands, as a win away to Mallorca would ensure survival.

Schuster decided to leave both Raúl and Casillas, who had not missed a league game all season, as well as Pepe, back in Madrid to give some of the less used players a run-out. With Dudek in his first league game of the season, and Metzelder back from injury for his first of the year, the Real coach opted for an offensive approach which yielded plenty of chances for either side.

The Zaragoza players' desperation was evident, however, as chance after chance went begging, many of them thwarted by Dudek's spectacular reflexes. The Pole may or may not see out his second year of contract, but he proved himself to be an able substitute for Casillas (although his positioning wasn't always ideal). It's just that, barring injury, there will be precious few chances for him to occupy the goalkeeping position. The omission of Casillas in this game (and probably next weekend as well) guarantees him the Zamora trophy for the best goalkeeper of the season. This is an accolade he has not won in 9 years of trying and which has not been won by a Real Madrid keeper since Paco Buyo won it in 1992, a legacy, perhaps, of Real Madrid's obsession with attacking football.

Zaragoza opened the scoring after 19 minutes, with Sergio García, easily their best man on the night (even with the dodgy pony-tail), making short work of Marcelo on the wing and crossing it for Oliveira's simple tap-in. It was not to last: although Higuaín had a rare start, he did not manage to maintain his four-game goalscoring streak; instead he threaded it through for Robinho, who was denied in his one-on-one with the keeper, only for Van Nistelrooy to pick up the rebound: a typical poacher's goal. Robinho himself put Real ahead with a well judged lob with just over 10 minutes to go, leaving Zaragoza to stare into the abyss of Segunda División.

Their desperation showing may have moved some of the Real players to pity them, at least if you believe the As match report. More likely it was the difference between a side playing for survival against a side with little to prove. As it was, Zaragoza's insistence eventually paid off and Sergio Fernández's clinical finish made it 2-2, matching the scoreline from last year's fixture, leaving them with a chance to save themselves next weekend.

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Thursday, 8 May 2008

Hail to the Champions: Do the Pasillo

It's one of those unwritten rules: after a side mathematically become league champions, their opponents in all remaining league games will applaud them onto the pitch. It's called the pasillo after the corridor the squad paying homage make and it has stirred up some interest in recent weeks after it became increasingly possible that Barcelona would have to do it for Real Madrid in their visit to the Bernabéu. Fortunately for all concerned, both sides demonstrated their sportmanship with Barcelona complying with tradition and Real not making a huge deal out of it in order not to "rub it in". You might think that this was the first time this had happened between the two clubs, but there have been precedents:

30th April 1988, Nou Camp: Barcelona did the pasillo and went on to win the game 2-0. Real's current coach, Bernd Schuster was a Barcelona player at the time, although he joined Real Madrid the following season.

8th June 1991, Santiago Bernabéu: Real did the pasillo themselves for Barcelona for the first time and went on to win the game 1-0.

7th May 2008, Santiago Bernabéu: Barcelona did the pasillo for the second time and lost the game to Real 4-1.

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Wednesday, 7 May 2008

The party continues

What some madridistas feared did not come to pass: Real Madrid came out to meet Barcelona with their minds fully on the task at hand and there was no indication that there was any residual hangover from the league celebrations on Sunday night. In fact, if anything, it was their rivals who looked a little lost at sea, though they had, in theory, more to play for. With Villareal's earlier win away to Recreativo, they needed at least a draw to have an outside chance at the runner-up spot.

Schuster lined up a strong midfield, with both Gago and Diarra on defensive duties, and Guti, Sneijder and Robben providing width and creativity up front, leaving Raúl as the lone striker. At the back, the reprieved Heinze (his booking was overturned on appeal) replaced the suspended Cannavaro in the centre with Pepe, and Ramos and Marcelo as right and left backs.

Rijkaard, with the threat of being sacked hanging over him all week, could not comply with Laporta's request of a 0-5 result that would see him "win a bet with a friend". Even that would probably not have been enough to save him; the days of a season being rescued by beating the 'auld enemy' convincingly are long gone. Worse still, the Barcelona manager must have realised his tactical line-up was leaking water everywhere and replaced Gudjohnssen with Giovani after a mere 23 minutes.

By this time, Real were already 2-0; the first through one player who loves the big occasion: Raúl, and the second from another Robben header, who seems to be making a habit of it recently. Though there was a foul by Guti on Márquez in the lead up to the first goal which the referee did not see, and a doubtful free kick award which resulted in the second, there is little doubt about the validity of the final result. Having said that, the referee was appalling and if Barcelona had been anywhere near Real's equal on the pitch, they'd be talking about his performance for years to come.

Higuaín came on in the second half for Robben and scored his fourth goal in as many games barely two minutes after coming on; the lad seems intent on answering his critics after being accused of having trouble putting it away. There was a nice return from injury too for Ruud van Nistelrooy who stepped up to take a penalty kick in the last quarter of an hour just after coming on for Raúl and put Real four up. The much vaunted "humiliation" of the pasillo before the start of the game paled into insignificance when faced with the real humiliation of a team on its last legs.

Henry's late consolation goal was more than enough reward for Barcelona's efforts on the night, marred by Xavi's sending-off in injury time. They are a team who've lost their way and will need to find it again before next season. The parallels with Real's galáctico decline (remember the Fantastic Four, anyone?), exemplified by a Ronaldinho-led 3-0 rout at the Bernabéu in November 2005, are obvious and a root-and-branch reform is needed. Twenty-five years have passed since the last time Real Madrid beat Barcelona at both home and away league ties. One wonders whether Laporta will survive the cull.

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Sunday, 4 May 2008

Epic Finish

Despite playing almost the whole of the second half with 10 men (and a few minutes with nine), Real Madrid managed to overturn a 1-0 deficit with less than 10 minutes to go and win their thirty-first league title. It's the first time they have won back-to-back titles since 1990 (though that was the last in a run of five consecutive champioships), when John Toshack was in charge. Robben, with a header from a free kick, and Gonzalo Higuaín (let's give my namesake his full name here) with a powerful volley, means they'll be partying in Cibeles until the early hours.

A few minutes earlier it had looked like Real would have to wait at least one more week to clinch the title, after Heinze had been judged to handle the ball in the area, and Puñal converted the resulting penalty. The handball was unarguable; the ball hit Heinze so hard that his hand started to bleed and he had to leave the pitch for a few minutes to seek treatment. Though Schuster had said in his press conference before the game that he'd like to win the Championship at home to Barcelona next week, his players still looked like they wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.

The first half was edgy and tough ("muscular", some would say), with few chances and an extremely hostile crowd, but the game opened up after Cannavaro was sent off seconds after the restart for a misjudged tackle from behind, which forced Schuster to bring off Saviola, in his second start in as many games, and bring on Torres. Osasuna sensed they had a chance to win at home to Madrid for the first time in five years, and yet it was Real who had the better chances, with Sneijder hitting the bar from a looping deflected shot.

Puñal's converted penalty had some of the faithful leaving Cibeles, when Higuaín, having come in for Raúl, floated a perfect free kick right to the side of Robben's head which left the keeper no chance. It's Robben's first headed goal for Real and something of a rarity elsewhere. It's hard to say whether he looked more surprised than elated. But there was no time to waste. Real scooped up the ball from Osasuna's goal and piled on the pressure in the dying seconds. Diarra powered towards the Osasuna area but found his way blocked by one too many defenders; the loose ball found its way to Sergio Ramos, who threaded it through three Osasuna defenders to Higuaín. The Argentine chested the ball down, let it bounce once and connected with a powerful volley inside the near post and scored his third goal in as many games, though this one was worth the league. The game was all but over. A couple of minutes later the celebrations began and continued until the early hours when the players returned to the capital and the captain dressed the Cibeles fountain with the obligatory Real Madrid scarf.

Real will miss both Heinze and Cannavaro through suspension in the Clásico against Barcelona (who'll be missing Deco and Eto'o for the same reason) on Wednesday, but the game is likely to turn into one big celebratory party that the Catalans will try their best to spoil, as they fight Villareal for that elusive second place and automatic qualification for the league stages of next season's Champions League.

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