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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Thursday, 25 September 2008

Lucky Seven

Poor Sporting de Gijón. Ten years out of the top division and on your return you have to face Sevilla, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Villareal one after the other in your first five weeks. On Sunday, Barcelona put 6 past them and on Wednesday night Real Madrid went one better, making them the worst defensive side in La Liga in over 50 years.

Given the packed nature of Real's fixture list in September (they face Betis on Saturday and then Zenit on Tuesday in the Champions League), Bernd Schuster decided to give Ramos, Heinze and Van Nistelrooy a rest. With Guti injured, De la Red and Van der Vaart took over the offensive midfield, and the Dutchman took his chance with gusto.

After a tentative first quarter of an hour, Van der Vaart latched onto a delicate header from Raúl to put the first goal past the hapless Sergio Sánchez. He followed this up fifteen minutes later with a spectacular backheel as De la Red's pass had ended up too far behind him. He completed his hat-trick two minutes into the second half, with Raúl once again providing the assist, and is now the league's leading goalscorer with four.

In between these goals, Higuaín notched up his second goal of the season, courtesy of a great cross from Robben. The Dutch winger got Real's fifth of the night himself and then had his shot off the bar picked up by Raúl for a simple tap-in for the sixth.

The captain celebrated his first goal in official competition since last May by scoring another, this time with a beautiful lob while running full-tilt at the keeper. It was noticeable that in both his goal celebrations he kissed his wedding ring, as he used to do before last season, when he decided to point to his shirt number (7). Given that this did him no favours in getting picked for the Spanish national team in the summer, perhaps he's wisely decided to go back to a more subdued type of celebration.

The 1,500 Sporting supporters in the Bernabéu did not cease to support their side all the way to the final whistle. They certainly get a '10' and must be lauded as an example to the vast majority of the football fans in Spain, most of whom never travel to see their side play.

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Wednesday, 24 September 2008

The Myth of Raúl

Few, if any, players in Spain excite as many contradictory opinions as the Real Madrid (and formerly Spain) captain, Raúl González Blanco. Many idolise him as one of the greatest Spanish players of all time, publicly berating Luis Aragonés (then national coach) for not including him in the Euro 2008 squad. Just as many criticise him for his seemingly unfailing inclusion in the starting line-up regardless of fitness or form. This is not unusual or even unexpected in a player who has achieved so much, but is inexorably nearing the end of his career. What is uncommon are the rumours, insinuations and even allegations of the power he wields over pretty much all aspects of the running of the club.

Even the lack of any direct evidence seems to give weight to the allegations (they must all be scared of him if nobody says anything, right?). Here is just a sampler:

Raúl effectively works as the sporting director from the shadows. He approves all the important decisions taken by the management. He is the man who talks most often with Calderón and Mijatovic. As there's nobody with more influence, he will discuss possible signings, prevents the medical team from publishing reports about his fitness or decides that team training sessions should be closed to both fans and then press.

Raúl never wanted my son to play for Real Madrid, ever. He didn't like Portillo because he could make him look bad.

Raúl does not approve of Real Madrid signing David Villa. Together with Guti and Míchel Salgado, they cannot forgive Villa the way he has appropriated the number 7 jersey with the national side. In addition, Raúl sees Villa as serious competition in the starting line-up.

And there's plenty more where that came from. I have purposely not included any articles from the traditionally anti-Madrid press (i.e Sport and Mundo Deportivo)) to highlight that this is not just an exercise in muck-raking for its own sake.

Despite a pretty good last season, Raúl has been a shadow of his former self over the last 4 years or so. Nevertheless, I find it very hard to believe that a single player can have that much say within such a huge football club in successive administrations. It just does not compute. Sure, he's the club captain and has been there longer than any other player. That means he has influence and an important opinion that should be taken into account, but to suggest that he has to play just does not make sense to me. Furthermore, to even suggest that he can have the power of veto in whether a player gets signed or not just sounds crazy.

If any of this were true I would expect to see a long list of disgruntled former players, club employees, etc. laying into the Real Madrid captain. Other than Portillo's father, there's nothing. And in that case, time has shown that he really was just not good enough to make it in Real Madrid, irrespective of how good he was in the youth teams.

When Fabio Capello left the club, he said nothing about Raúl, but he had plenty to say about Mijatovic and Calderón.

Raúl himself has finally given his version of events in an interview on Tuesday night with Radio Marca. He admits that he would like to see out his contract (which has another three years left to run) but that he expects to spend increasing amounts of time on the bench. He rejects any notion of his having any say in who leaves or who stays, and that he would have loved to play with David Villa. He concedes that playing his way back into the national side will be tough, but that he'll keep on trying.

I'm sure the man is no saint; we all have an ego to feed, but, personally, I find his side of the story much more plausible than some overarching conspiracy with Raúl's influence extending everywhere. What do you think?

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Monday, 22 September 2008

Capello would be proud

You have to feel some sympathy for Bernd Schuster. That's a strange statement to make about a man in charge of one of the most prestigious football clubs, and the current Spanish championship title holders. However, he faces a long and difficult season with a squad clearly split in half.

The defence, now back to full strength following the return of Ramos and Cannavaro, shows signs of being as confident and solid as in the latter part of last season and has just notched up its second clean sheet in a row. Schuster's attacking options, now that's another matter altogether.

Looking at Sunday night's 2-0 win over Racing Santander you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. After a tedious first half, De la Red put the visitors ahead eight minutes after the break following a swift counterattack by Gonzalo Higuaín. Van Nistelrooy made the game safe seventeen minutes from time with a typical clinical finish.

And yet, the prospects for the aforementioned long season don't look that rosy. The loss of Robinho has left Real Madrid with a distinct lack of options on the wing. Robben is very much in form, but his propensity to get injured may have prompted Schuster to decide to use him sparingly, bringing him on in the second half to overwhelm tired defences with his speed. The fact that De la Red is starting to click with this team is a welcome sight, but his game is distribution, like Guti, and the latter's injury may result in more playing time and pressure for the youngster.

Up front, you cannot fault 'Van the Man' for effectiveness, and Higuaín is coming out of his shell to contribute speed and a desire to run at defenders. But that is where the options start and end.

Raúl is unrecognisable from the man who scored 16 goals last season; he's the invisible man in the squad. It's no longer a question of whether he should be selected for the Spanish national side; rather, questions are beginning to be asked about whether he should be in Real Madrid's starting eleven. Saviola, for whatever reason, just does not feature in Schuster's plans, which leaves nothing in reserve.

So, as per the title of this entry, why would Capello be proud? Well, Schuster has clearly eschewed any pretensions to elegant, free-flowing football for an approach purely designed to get results. If, in his own words, nobody listens to his requests for reinforcements and he has to work with what he's given, he's doing exactly that. The questions is whether this will last out the season. Mijatovic may claim the club has no intentions of scouring the transfer market in January, but, if results don't go Real's way, he may have to spend some of the millions from the sale of Robinho.

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Thursday, 18 September 2008

At a canter

The 60,000 fans at the Santiago Bernabéu, expecting a sackful of goals last night, went home disappointed after Real Madrid only managed to put two goals past their opponents. BATE Borisov, making their debut in the Champions League, are Real's first Belarussian opposition and showed why they're likely to be the whipping boys of Group H.

The game showed promise after the early first goal (11'), born of a cleverly executed set play. Van der Vaart's corner kick was picked up and swept across to the right by Guti, for Sergio Ramos to calmly side-foot it into the net. However, what followed was a catalogue of missed chances as the pace of the game dropped to a saunter.

It felt more like a training session or a preseason match than a competitive game. Given Real's effectiveness in front of goal against Numancia at the weekend, the best explanation for the lack of accuracy (2 goals out of 22 shots, 10 of which were on target) must be the lack of tension - and it is the job of the coach to instil this into the players.

Compounding Real Madrid's misery, Fernando Gago picked up a hamstring injury after 35 minutes and had to be replaced by Diarra. He could be out for up to four weeks, according to the club's medical services. Cannavaro, returning from injury, managed to get through the 90 minutes without incident.

The second goal arrived 10 minutes into the second half. Raúl's shot on goal was parried by the BATE keeper, Veremko, and the defender's attempted clearance merely founds its way to Van Nistelrooy, who only had to tap it in. The Dutchman added to his tally of 53 Champions League goals, bringing him one closer to team mate Raúl's record of 61 strikes in the competition.

A few minutes later, BATE found themselves one man down, after Anri Khagush was sent off for a second bookable offence. Still, Real Madrid could not find a way through, though Higuaín came closest.

Schuster seemed content with the three points and only expressed mild disappointment in the post-match press conference: "I’m a bit unhappy about having scored only two goals. We deserved more. I did not put the brakes on the game, the players did." Contrast this with Phil Scolari's words on Tuesday, showing his disappointment with his Chelsea players, even after a thumping 4-0 defeat of Bordeaux.

Real Madrid travel to St. Petersburg in two weeks' time to meet current UEFA champions Zenit (of Arshavin fame). They made life difficult for their hosts in their away tie to Juventus, but finally succumbed to a Del Piero free kick 14 minutes from time and will prove a much sterner test for Real.

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Monday, 15 September 2008

5000 goals, but still too many holes

Real Madrid kicked off their league championship at home with a victory, but failed to convince the local fans that they have reinforced the squad sufficiently over the summer. They left the pitch to a mixture of boos and applause barely having managed to subdue a rival that has only just been promoted to the top division. On the other hand, Numancia did beat Barcelona in their league opener two weeks ago and clearly have the motivation and possibly the talent to stay up this season.

The worrying thing for the home side was that their defence, which it was felt needed the least tweaking, was at fault in the three (yes, three) goals that Numancia managed to put past Iker Casillas. To be fair, a back four composed of Salgado, Metzelder, Pepe and Marcelo would not perhaps be Schuster's first choice. With Sergio Ramos nursing a knock from his international appearance in midweek for Spain and Cannavaro still not fully fit, this was something of a second-string defence. I suspect, however, that Schuster was not expecting Numancia to play as offensively in the Bernabéu as they did.

The two central defenders did not seem to be able to cope with Numancia's tactics on the pitch and were frequently caught out of position, and the whole of the back four were all at sea on set plays. It was thus no surprise that Numancia's first came from a corner, as Moreno was allowed a free header just 6 minutes into the game.

However, where Numancia were tough on attack, they were equally soft on defence. They managed to shut out Barcelona on their first league game, but Los Pajaritos is a very small pitch where it's relatively easy to close down spaces. In the Bernabéu there was plenty of room for the likes of Guti, Van der Vaart and Robben to get the ball through to Van Nistelrooy and Higuaín. It would be Guti, however, who would get the equaliser, with the help of a deflection from Boris. It was also a landmark goal, Real Madrid's 5,000th in the Spanish league.

Just three minutes later, in the 21st minute, Numancia edged ahead again with a spectacular strike from Barkero, who had easily beaten Metzelder for speed. The scoring was not over in this half characterised by poor defending, as Higuaín levelled the scores, followed by two more goals from Van der Vaart and an own goal by Cisma to put Real 4-2 ahead before the break.

Real Madrid may have thought this would put paid to the upstarts from Numancia, but 10 minutes into the second half, Moreno got his second from a free kick that Casillas may have been able to deal with a little bit better. Guti seemed to lose his way a little and Numancia even got close to an equaliser in the dying seconds, but Real managed to hold on to their three points.

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Friday, 12 September 2008

Liar, Liar

He's been called President Pinocchio, Tourettes and Motormouth (that last one's mine), but if there has been one person on Ramón Calderón's case since he became Real Madrid president, that is José Antonio Abellán, a journalist and presenter of the popular late-night radio sports programme El Tirachinas. His recent tirades have proved too much for old Ramón and he has decided to take the pesky journo to court for lies and slander.

Abellán has certainly found a rich mine in Calderón's frequent escapades in front of the various media, often without seemingly thinking through what he was going to say first. Early in his presidential stint, Calderón announced that Real Madrid had signed a massive TV contract with Catalan production company Mediapro, but he couldn't get his figures straight. Initially worth 800 million euros, he added an extra 300 million to the sum less than a week later.

The non-transfers of Kaká, Cesc and Cristiano Ronaldo, plus Robinho's move to Manchester City have been covered to death in recent summers, so I won't recap them here, except to say that whatever he says one week, he denies the next, and then he contradicts himself again... and again.

Most recently, and what the president seems to have taken issue with, Abellán has accused him of fiddling the waiting lists of season ticket holders in favour of friends and acquaintances. If and when this goes to court, the thought of Abellán giving evidence must have every journalist in the land slavering at the mouth. I can't wait.

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Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Few surprises

Having switched off from football for two weeks (hey, we all need a break from time to time), I return to find Real Madrid has, in that time:

  • won the season's first title in contention (the Spanish Supercup against Valencia)
  • lost the league opener away to Deportivo
  • sold Robinho to Manchester City for a club record €40 million.

Which of these is the most surprising news item?

At first glance you might think that Robinho's last-gasp record-breaking move to the English Premiership would fit the bill. And I must admit at an initial level of disbelief on hearing the news. This was then followed by relief (that it was all finally over) and finally, glee.

Because despite Real's disastrous transfer policy over the summer after having an almost unprecedented three months to shape the squad for the coming season, the club managed to get full market price (if not somewhat above) for a player who was unhappy, and who had lost the confidence of his manager and his colleagues. They also avoided selling the player to a direct rival in the Champions League who had gone so far as advertising Robinho replica shirts on the club's website.

But, although the destination was surprising, the fact that Robinho left was not. He had burnt his bridges two weeks ago with his first public statement on the matter, and compounded it on the last day of the transfer window by calling a press conference to express his unwavering desire to join Chelsea.

This leaves Real Madrid with just one Brazilian player on their books (Marcelo), confirming the club's recent trend in signings.

Real's loss away to Deportivo was also unsurprising. With Sneijder (injured) and Van der Vaart (suspended) missing, the midfield struggled to create and contain. Riazor is also somewhat of a "cursed" ground for Real Madrid, who have not won there since 1992 and last managed to get a point in November 2002.

Hence Real Madrid's triumph in the Spanish Supercup must rank as the most surprising news item of the three. After a narrow defeat away to Valencia in the first leg, Real left themselves a mountain to climb after conceding first (Silva, in the 33rd minute) and losing Van der Vaart 6 minutes later when he was sent off for a nasty challenge on Mata. Despite equalising early in the second half, Real then found themselves with nine men after Van Nistelrooy was dismissed for a second bookable offence. Nevertheless, they still managed to outplay Valencia with three more goals to put the game beyond them.

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