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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