Monday, 31 March 2008

Playing a dangerous game


It's hard to know what to believe. Almost since Ramón Calderón became Real Madrid president, one José Antonio Abellán, a journalist and presenter of the popular late-night radio sports programme El Tirachinas has been conducting a relentless campaign accusing him of all manner of irregularities and possibly even illegalities in his running of the club. Is it a personal vendetta? An attempt by a self-confesed Atlético supporter to destabilise Real Madrid? Or perhaps a well-connected investigative journalist trying to counter the output of a fawning Madrid sports press?

Back in February 2007, Abellán challenged Calderón to appear on his programme to answer a number of allegations for which he had "irrefutable proof" and, should he fail to do this, he would pay 1 million euros to a Real Madrid charity and never work as a journalist again. Needless to say, Calderón declined the invitation. The allegations were:

  • That the board had discussed Fabio Capello's resignation on February 19th.
  • That the president and his directors had "abused" the waiting lists for season tickets to offer them in return for votes during the presidential campaign
  • That Calderón had obtained for three of his children, state-subsidised housing intended to help people on low earnings get on the property ladder

Abellán has both fervent supporters and loud detractors; his shock-jock style guarantees a polarised response. His attacks on Calderón and his directors don't border on the personal; he overshoots the boundaries of decency by a good margin. Nonetheless, neither the club nor Calderón have taken Abellán to court. Calderón's children did take him to court and lost.

The latest salvo in this war of words concerns the allegation last Thursday on El Tirachinas that Calderón and one of his closest collaborators, Alfonso Carrascosa, are planning to manipulate the selection of those Real Madrid members empowered to vote at AGMs, the so-called socios compromisarios. For an explanation of how this "works", see this previous article of mine.

The manipulation involves asking those members who were granted season tickets during the presidential campaign to nominate as their representatives hand picked compromisarios who will approve Calderón's accounts at the next AGM and vote for his proposals. Carrascosa's own company, Legalitas is paying for all the letters sent to Real Madrid members, using an up-to-date membership list obtained directly from the club. To top it all, Carrascosa himself defended his actions on Abellán's programme as "not very ethical but definitely not illegal" and that the club had "always done things this way". Not much of a defence you might say. The club itself was unavailable for comment and has made no official statement on the allegations.

From As, for some the club's official mouthpiece, not a word on the subject. However, Marca does go into some detail, as it has been waging its own personal war of words with Calderón over the last few months, though not with the ferocity and persistence of Abellán. Some Spanish Real Madrid bloggers (here, here, and here) are understandably incensed and demanding Calderón's resignation.

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Back on top

The Madrid press was all abuzz with excitement following yesterday's 3-1 defeat of Sevilla. What with Barcelona throwing away a 2-0 lead at Betis the day before, they are now touting second-placed Villareal as the ones to watch in the run-in to the title. Without taking away from what was a much improved performance, it is still far too early to clay claim to the title, especially given how irregular Real has been in 2008 (won 9, lost 9).

Although much is being made of Higuaín scoring at last, he only managed to put away one of at least three clear-cut chances, and his team-mates seemed to be losing confidence in him. Another much-mentioned anecdote is Raúl scoring his 290th goal for the club, putting him neck-and-neck with 70s and 80s legend Santillana and second only to the great Di Stefano (307). Howerver, the keys to yesterday's triumph lie in the great display from the back four (especially Cannavaro, who's come in for a lot of criticism in recent days) and the return of creativity in midfield from the likes of Guti and (yes, it's true) Sneijder.

Real had to start without Pepe through injury, but they barely missed him, and his replacement, Gabriel Heinze, not only ably supported Cannavaro in the rear, but also opened the scoring for Real with a header off a Sneijder free kick. The Dutchman added a second assist when he found Raúl in the area. The captain controlled the ball, jinked around two defenders and blasted it far from the hands of Sevilla keeper Palop. This came barely two minutes after Kanouté, in a rare attack for Sevilla in the first half, hit a beautiful volley to put the scores level.

On past performances, a one-goal lead wasn't going to be enough, even if it didn't look like it was going to be Sevilla's night. Half-way through the second half Sneijder found Guti, who played it back Higuaín, who finally managed to put the ball, and the game, away.

Real's 6-point lead over Villareal means the boys from the "Yellow Submarine" will need to accumulate at least 7 points more than the men in white, given the head-to-head results between both teams.

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Friday, 28 March 2008

It's coming home

The UEFA Executive Committee, meeting in Vaduz, Liechtenstein earlier today, picked the Santiago Bernabéu to be the venue for the 2010 Champions League final. This will be the fourth time the stadium has hosted the final of the top European club competition, with the three previous occassions in 1957, 1969 and 1980. The 1957 final saw Real beat Fiorentina 2-0 in front of a crowd of 124,000.

This decision follows the addition last November of the Bernabéu to UEFA's Elite Stadium list. The other candidate stadia to host the final were London's Wembley, Munich's Allianz Arena, Berlin's Olympiastadion, and Valencia's Mestalla. UEFA president Michel Platini hinted that Wembley may have been passed over because of insufficient assurances that players competing in the final would not be taxed by the British government. Such taxes would not apply in Spain and the German government had assured UEFA that it would not seek to impose them. Perhaps this is also why the UEFA Cup final for 2010 was awarded to Hamburg stadium in Germany.

The 2010 Champions League final will mark a departure from tradition, as the game will, for the first time, be played on a Saturday instead of a Wednesday.

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Tuesday, 25 March 2008

See-saw

Is it lack of confidence? Is it bad luck? Is it Mijatovic wasting over a hundred million on signings that are not pulling their weight in the squad? Is it fair to call this a crisis when Real Madrid are still four points ahead in the league while in England, Manchester United are five ahead and Alex Ferguson is trying to dampen the euphoria?

The reasons for the slump are probably many and inter-related: there is a lack of confidence in the side, the "bad" luck in this half of the season merely balances out the good fortune in the first half, and the less said about Brylcreem boy, the better. But, all in all, while "crisis" may be overstating the case a smidgeon, the situation is drawing dangerous parallels with last season's run-in, except the other way around. The famous "cagómetro" (lit. shit-meter) is making a reappearance, as Real are facing their own brown-trouser time. One can't help but see the looming spectre of the 3rd last game of the season, the Clásico at the Bernabéu, which, due to the ridiculously tight Spanish fixture calendar will be played in mid-week instead of at the week-end.

Back in Sunday's game, it was interesting to note that when Raúl had scored his second of the night (and 15th of the season) and put Real ahead, the Bernabéu was echoing to the cries of "Raúl, selección". But Luis Aragonés has made his bed and will likely lie in it: his last squad selection before the European championships (for a friendly against Italy on Wednesday) did not include the former captain. It did include, however, the other brace-taker on the night, David Villa, who is preferred because "there are better players than Raúl".

Villa's league tally? 10.

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Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Depressing

After a two-week hiatus (don't ask) I come back to this blog with the distinct feeling that I'm not going to enjoy what remains of the season. It may seem strange, with the team top of the League and with a seven-point cushion, but the feeling remains nevertheless. Some of this ennui may be attributed to Real's ignominious, though deserved elimination from the Champions League by Roma a couple of weeks ago. Enough time has passed that I can safely say it's not just the temporary disappointment of getting dumped out of Europe's premier competition, at the last-16 stage, for the umpteenth year running. The malaise runs deeper than that.

It's just that we're now left with 10 games in a competition, that, frankly, nobody seems to want to win. At Riazor, a venue that Real has not managed to crack in the last seventeen years, the visitors were undone by an own goal by Pepe. Ironically, this was Real's only shot on goal in the whole game; it's just a shame it was the wrong end. The previous week's effort, at home to Espanyol, was barely any more watchable, and victory was once again partly due to a dodgy penalty that Raúl put away for his 200th league goal.

So what's wrong? After all, this time last season Real was in the same situation vis-a-vis the Chmapions League and the Cup and with 14 fewer points in the league. I think the fault lies partly with unreasonable expectations, partly with Bernd Schuster's high-handed approach with the media which draws unneccesary contempt from many quarters and the pair of jokers running the club who don't seem to have the first inkling of a medium-term strategy.

By unreasonable expectatinoons I mean my own. We have become used in recent seasons to Real doing well, especially in Europe. And even when the play was irregular (as it was throughout the galáctico era), the team were almost invariable exciting to watch. All football goes in cycles, and Real is not exempt from this rule. In fact, I am convinced the period over the last 8-9 years of Spanish domination in European competition is well and truly over (UEFA coefficients notwithstanding), if it wasn't already the case last year, and England's Premiership has not only taken the lead, but is streets ahead of the rest. So maybe I should just grin and bear a few fallow years and wait our turn.

But the problems with the manager and the club "leadership" give little cause for optimism. Granted, this could have been sold as a "transitional" year, and the club's early domination in the league may have worked against that to some extent. However, the lack of any clear vision, of any style of play, does not bode well. If Schuster cannot be bothered to tell us what he's playing at and how he intends to lead this squad over the next couple of seasons, why should we be bothered to listen to him?

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Thursday, 6 March 2008

Stats Corner: Real Madrid vs. A.S. Roma


Previous Head-to-head Results

CompetitionDateScore
Champions League - Last 1605-Mar-2008Real Madrid1-2A.S. Roma
Champions League - Last 1619-Feb-2008A.S. Roma2-1Real Madrid
Champions League - Grp. Stage08-Dec-2004A.S. Roma0-3Real Madrid
Champions League - Grp. Stage28-Sep-2004Real Madrid4-2A.S. Roma
Champions League - Grp. Stage30-Oct-2002Real Madrid0-1A.S. Roma
Champions League - Grp. Stage17-Sep-2002A.S. Roma0-3Real Madrid
Champions League - Grp. Stage24-Oct-2001Real Madrid1-1A.S. Roma
Champions League - Grp. Stage11-Sep-2001A.S. Roma1-2Real Madrid

Totals
PWDLFA
8413159

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Monday, 3 March 2008

The Robinho Show

Robinho returned to the Real Madrid side in triumphant fashion as he rescued his team from a tricky situation in Huelva by scoring two goals in his 18 minutes on the pitch. The trip to the Colombino was no picnic, and Recreativo had the better of the play at times, belying their 18th place in the standings. In fact, they went ahead on 16 minutes through central defender Cáceres from yet another set play. It is a worrying trend, as the number of goals conceded by Real Madrid from this type of play in recent weeks seems to be on the increase.

Schuster played Baptista up front, just behind lone striker Raúl, given Van Nistelrooy's ankle injury, sidelining Soldado yet again, with Gago in Guti's usual role. While it's generally acknowledged that the absence of these two players is a blow to Real Madrid (last night saw far fewer shots on goal than recently) it is a fact that this season, Real has won every game where one or both of them have been absent. Until Raúl's offside goal on the half hour, Real barely showed any signs of getting into the match. The offside position was marginal, but it was only the start of referee Iturralde González's protagonism in this game.

To Beto's expulsion after 51 minutes for striking out at Heinze (though he was provoked by the Argentinian), the referee added that of Sergio Ramos 4 minutes later. Recreativo found themselves a man down after 68 minutes when Quique Álvarez hacked down Robben, putting him out of commission for about a month. While it's hard to argue with any of the sendings off per se, the heated atmosphere during most of the game owes much to the referee's general attitude and, dare I say it, incompetence. A referee commands respect from the players not because he has a pair of coloured cards in his shirt pocket, but because he controls the game from the very beginning and sets very clear expectations of the behaviour he expects. Erratic decisions are always seen as 'unfair', no matter who they benefit.

Thus it was, with Real's 10 against Recreativo's, that Robinho came on for Cannavaro (!) and he changed the tenor of the game from his first touch. His first came from a terrific finish after picking up a loose ball on the edge of the area. His second was a neat lob over the keeper after Gago found him unmarked with a pass Guti would have been proud of, right on the edge of normal time. Real still had time to sweat, as Martins pulled one back 2 minutes later with a curling free kick (yet another set play!) which beat Casillas, but it was too little too late. Barcelona's 4-2 defeat against Atlético in a match that was being played at the same time, puts Real's lead once again, at five points, but the alarms have been sounded, and this is by no means definitive, merely a slightly more comfortable cushion. Pepe returned in the final few minutes and finished unscathed, so he will likely start against Roma on Wednesday.

Schuster still had time to grab headlines for himself after walking out of the post-match press conference, annoyed at being repeatedly asked to comment on the referee's performance. Given that he's not been backward in coming forward when he perceives the referee has damaged his side's interests, many accusations of hypocrisy are being levelled at Bernd over this latest 'outburst'. I'd rather he shut up about the refs completely, but I suspect he will pipe up again when he feels like it.

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