Monday, 28 April 2008

Just the two of us

The number two features highly following the league results at the weekend: two points out of the next four games are all that Real Madrid need to clinch their thirty-first league championship. Two is also the number of teams still in the race, as Barcelona dropped out of contention after going 2-0 in Riazor against Deportivo on Saturday. Only Villareal now have a mathematical chance of preventing the Real faithful congregating at the Cibeles fountain in Madrid to celebrate victory and they need to win every single one of their remaining games (at home to Getafe and Espanyol, and away to Recreativo and Deportivo).

In fact, as Villareal's home game against Getafe will finish before Real's away tie in Pamplona (against Osasuna), the merengues could find themselves champions before they even kick a ball. They already knew before their game this Sunday that Villareal had denied them the chance of singing the alirón (a word of disputed etymology, but you could say it is the equivalent of singing "We are the Champions"). Though the Yellow Submarine had torpedoed Betis, the Madrid players nonetheless came out determined to show their mettle.

Schuster lined up Saviola from the start, allegedly because he'd been training well and had not had the chance to come on in previous games when he had spent some time warming up. More suspicious minds may conclude that Real wants to give him a bit of an outing to improve his selling price come the summer. Regardless, the diminutive Argentine showed flashes of his class in his first league game since December 1st and pounced on a rebound from the Athletic keeper to put Real ahead after 13 minutes.

If the final result looks like a comfortable win, it is fair to say that it was only possible through the acrobatics of Iker Casillas. He may claim a lack of interest in winning the Zamora trophy, but he put paid to Athletic's hopes of getting back into the game with a crucial penalty save in the first half, and two more excellent stops later on. Athletic looked deflated and Schuster brought on Robben and Higuaín part way through the second half to finish them off.

And finish them off they did. Higuaín sped down the right wing and threaded it through to Robben for a simple finish. Barely two minutes later, he got himself on the scoresheet by latching onto a throw-in and sending goalkeeper Armando the wrong way.

The omens, if you believe in omens, are good for next Sunday's game against Osasuna. Real have won in their last three visits and have not lost at El Sadar (or Reyno de Navarra, as it is now known) since February 2003. Should they win the league title there, their next opponents will make the traditional pasillo welcoming the champions onto the pitch of the Bernabéu in a game that's already sold out. The identity of their next opponents? Barcelona.

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Thursday, 24 April 2008

The promise of true reform

After the Annual General Meeting in December 2006 ended with no changes to the shambolic electoral process that blighted the last presidential election, a "Reform Commission" was set up in June 2007 to look at redrafting the club's statutes. It is particularly appropriate that they should choose this week to present their findings and proposals, given the recent controversy about the selection of socios compromisarios.

The reportedly independent commission is composed exclusively of 20 Real Madrid socios from a number of areas of expertise: legal, academic, political, former players, etc. Their final draft, which was presented to the board for approval, is expected to be the main agenda item at a forthcoming Extraordinary General meeting, where the members will get a chance to vote on it. Some of the main proposed changes are as follows:

  • Electoral process: This will be modified to abide by similar rules as those enshrined in law for Spanish general elections. In particular, as regards the postal vote, the Spanish Post Office was approached to jointly come up with a process that "guarantees honesty, transparency and security".
  • Selection of socios compromisarios: The subject of much controversy recently, the new process would ensure that all those who presented themselves as candidates could do so as long as they were witnessed by a notary, up to a maximum number of 2,000. If more candidates presented themselves, the choice would be by a notary-witnessed public lottery. This is much preferable to the previous model.
  • Disciplinary code: This has been applied inconsistently over the years, so the penalties for disciplinary offences (by players, for example) would be defined in the statutes

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Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Dudek's chance?

So far this season Jerzy Dudek has only featured in the 4 Copa del Rey games played by Real Madrid. For the remainder of the time he has warmed the bench and watched Casillas from the sidelines. This was to be expected when he signed for Real Madrid in the summer, although he was nevertheless surprised last week to learn that he had not been named in the provisional 31-man Polish squad for the 2008 European Championships. However, an article in Marca claims he may get a chance in some of the remaining league matches, and, who knows, may even force the Poland manager (Leo Beenhakker, former Real Madrid manager; it's a small world!) to reconsider.

It all hinges on the Zamora trophy, awarded (by Marca, no less) to the best goalkeeper in the league every year. No Real Madrid keeper has won this since Paco Buyo back in 1992, but, right now, Iker Casillas is leading the standings with 30 goals conceded in 33 games.

The rules state that the keeper with the lowest goals to games coefficient wins the trophy, as long as they have played 60 minutes or more in 28 matches throughout the season. The current table looks like:

CasillasReal Madrid30330.91

The argument is that Schuster may rest Casillas once the league title has been won (which could be as early as this coming weekend if Real wins and neither Villareal nor Barcelona get all three points in their respective away ties) to help him win this personal accolade and 'lock in' his low coefficient. Although Racing de Santander's Toño has a lower coefficient (he's one shy of the 28 games required, hence his position on the table) his team is in contention for a Champions League place so he's expected to play in every one of their remaining games (Mallorca, Murcia, Sevilla, Athletic and Osasuna).

Personally, I find this scenario rather unlikely. Casillas may very well want to win this trophy, but I think that keeping his match fitness in the run-up to Euro 2008 is far more important, so he may take the risk of conceding less goals than Toño and his other pursuers. Still, it would be nice to give the 'hero of Istanbul' a run-out once or twice before the season is out to reward his patience.

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Monday, 21 April 2008

Within striking distance

The best Racing side in living memory went into their clash with Real Madrid on Sunday knowing that a win would lift them up to fourth in the table and into Champions League territory. Atlético's surprise defeat at home to Betis on Saturday motivated the Cantabrian side to come out all guns blazing, much like one of those Atlantic gales that regularly hit Santander. Real, on the other hand, knew that Barcelona had failed to subdue Espanyol the previous day, and that Villareal had just beaten Valladolid 2-0, leaving their pursuers 8 and 7 points behind respectively before they'd kicked a ball.

Despite Racing's initial onslaught, it was Real who would score first when Raúl got the merest of touches on a goal-bound Robinho cross. The captain, who is almost certain to get a break from international duties this summer despite being the second-highest Spanish goalscorer in the league, increased his personal tally against Racing to thirteen goals, making it his second-favourite team to score against, after Valladolid.

The other element of Real's success on the night was the excellent work from the back four, in particular Heinze, who is giving Sneijder a run for his money as Real's most valuable signing of the season. The Argentine was not only exemplary in his defensive duties but also linked up well with Sneijder to relieve the pressure when most needed. Added to the back four, the excellent performances of Gago and Diarra meant that Racing could only reach Casillas's area with aerial balls from set plays.

The only fly in the ointment was that, despite Raúl's early goal, the forward line was not as effective as it could have been, and a couple of clear chances, one each from Robinho and Robben, went begging. The Brazilian is not showing the sparkling form of earlier in the season (is it fitness, or is it confidence?) and was substituted by Higuaín in the second half. Robben, while showing an excellent level of fitness, also struggled to make an impact, and Schuster decided to bring Balboa on for a few minutes at the end of the game.

The youngster played his part in Higuaín's goal, which, coming as it did in the third minute of injury time against an exhausted Racing side, was probably too much reward for Real's efforts. However, this now means that Real Madrid can mathematically win their thirty-first league title next week at home to Athletic Bilbao if both Barcelona and Villareal fail to win.

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Thursday, 17 April 2008

Keeping an eye on the board

The running of a football club involves a lot more than those elements that the ordinary fans are concerned with on a day-to-day basis: players on form, or injured, competition standings, what the rivals are up to, who's going to be bought or sold. Occasionally fans look more closely at institutional or financial matters, to see whether the club will have enough money for players or new facilities. They rarely think, however, about the dark murky doings of club officials looking to get reelected. Perhaps they should.

On Monday, I wrote about the Real Madrid board's announcement that they were putting a halt to the current activities regarding the selection of new socios compromisarios (those who can vote at AGMs) following complaints from a number of socios about irregularities in the process. This followed allegations about said process first announced on a radio programme.

It seems both the original allegations, as well as the subsequent complaints, were raised by Plataforma Blanca, a group of around 600 Real Madrid socios who have appointed themselves guardians of transparency at the club. A good thing, but still too small a proportion of members to influence policy. Their aims, in the short term at least, are:

  • Introduce a code of ethics and good governance (obviously they don't think much of Mr. Calderón)
  • Reform the postal vote along the lines of large corporate organisations, and explore the possibility of online voting
  • Clarify the election timetable, as the last elections were the subject of heavy controversy and they don't think the president is fully legitimised (they really don't think much of Mr. Calderón!)

Earlier today, the electoral commission, heavily criticised by the board in their Monday statement, retorted that the board had no jurisdiction over the electoral process (according to article 56 of the club statutes) and therefore could not suspend the current selection process, which would continue for the benefit of those candidates whose selection process was above board. In their letter to the board, they urge them to "stop avoiding their responsibilities" and initiate an investigation into the alleged irregularities.

So, it's now up to the board to respond once again to the allegations that they are passing the buck, presumably because they don't want anyone to find out what some of their members have (allegedly) been up to.

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Tuesday, 15 April 2008

What might have been

This weekend's Sunday Telegraph has an interview with Carlos Queiroz, in which he reminisces about his year in charge at Real Madrid in between stints as assistant coach to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. In the wake of the usual end-of-season transfer speculation which has Real considering whether to make an offer of up to £100 million to United for Cristiano Ronaldo's services, Queiroz reveals that his young countryman was at the top of his wishlist when he made the move to the Bernabéu nearly five years ago. Given that United snapped him up soon afterwards for a "measly" £12 million (also indirectly through Queiroz), Real Madrid can only wonder what might have been.

Earlier this week, French sports daily L'Equipe reported that Mijatovic had recently been in the UK to talk to Queiroz about Cristiano. The Real Madrid sports director reportedly put 120 million euros on the table to make him the player to spearhead Real's assault on the Champions League. Queiroz is said to have retorted that "at that price, the striker will be with United next season", which, if the quote is accurate, suggests there is room for negotiation.

Of course, the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo has matured into the kind of player everybody wants must owe something to the way Alex Ferguson runs his Manchester United squads. The relative freedom from internal politics and his unchallenged status inside the club means that no player is more important than the squad and internal cliques and dissension are generally quashed before they can take hold. Whether he could have flourished in that way at Real Madrid is something we'll never know.

Ironically, it was Ferguson's intransigence in this regard that eventually led to media maelstrom David Beckham joining the rank of the galácticos at the same time as Queiroz. However, as Queiroz recalls, the seeds of destruction that resulted in three years without a trophy, including his one season at the club (the Spanish Supercup does not count) had already been sown. Real's president, Florentino Pérez, decided that "he knew something about football" and commanded that Makélélé be sold to Chelsea. This was "a criminal error, the president's worst decision. Makélélé wanted to stay. He told me and he told [Jorge] Valdano (then the club's general manager). But, in the president's mind, releasing Makélélé vacated a position in which David Beckham could play. He was worried that, with Makélélé in the team, Beckham would be blocked out. But of course we could have had both."

Queiroz also analyses Real's Zidanes y Pavones strategy: "the policy was to surround the galácticos with players from the academy, the cantera, as much as possible. It was a great idea and could have worked - except that the cantera could not deliver its requirements. The young players were not there. On top of that, the club had let some of the best go the year before - like Samuel Eto'o. He was a Real Madrid player before he went to Barcelona and emerged as world-class. When the season started, I gave an interview to Marca and said that, although it was true Real Madrid was a Ferrari, you could not win a race if the car had no wheels. Sad to say, I was proved right."

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Monday, 14 April 2008

Exercise in translucency

Real Madrid's new-look website (welcome at last to the 21st century!), under the headline "Exercise in transparency", spells out in full the club's PR response to the allegations a couple of weeks ago about irregularities in the selection of socios compromisarios by Calderón and his associates. Thankfully, the president has chosen to avoid making public pronouncements on the matter and left the issue to the professionals. It's a wise move, given his past record. Curiously, the dry-as-a-bone communiqué has some tantalising references to a potential power struggle within the club.

The press release does not refer to the allegations as originally reported in José Antonio Abellán's El Tirachinas radio programme. Instead, it states that the presumed irregularities were brought to the attention of the board of directors by a number of Real Madrid socios. It then goes on to say that the electoral commission, which oversees all matters relating to elections at the club, has "dismissed the allegations in their totality" and has chosen to continue with the current process as any investigation "is outside their area of responsibility". This, it says is "unjustified, inexplicable and incoherent" and accuses the commission of acting "outside any legal rationale, as in previous occasions".

Consequently, the board has decided to suspend any current activities relating to the choice of socios compromisarios for the next AGM and proposed a change to the process. The changes are not detailed, but they are likely to include ensuring all applications and selections are witnessed by a notary.

The board also states its intention to convene an Extraordinary General Meeting "in the near future", ostensibly to discuss the above changes, as well as other proposed changes to the postal voting system, which were not approved at the last AGM. When Real Madrid were flying high in the league back in January, with a nine point lead over Barcelona they have only just regained, there was speculation of an EGM being called as soon as the championship was mathematically won, to announce a snap election which Calderón hoped to win and thus finally put paid to all the controversy which has dogged him since he became president.

What is difficult to discern, as little or nothing is in the public domain, is who runs the electoral commission, and, more importantly, how they are appointed. At the last election, one José Eulogio Aranguren, a 96 year-old who is also Real Madrid member number 2, was the president of the commission. One can but wonder whether the thinly veiled attack by the board is but a smokescreen to disguise their involvement in any shady activities. There is a long road ahead before anyone can claim "transparency" in anything related to Real Madrid.

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Learning to park the bus

Former Spain coach Javier Clemente made his intentions clear prior to Murcia's visit to the Bernabéu on Sunday: they were going to "park the bus" in front of their goal and hope this was enough to keep Real out. While few would argue that second from bottom Murcia did not truly expect to win in Madrid, it is perhaps not the best strategy for a team facing relegation. Clemente set out his stall with what looked like a 7-2-1 formation at times and did not change it even when Torres was sent off for a terrifying challenge on Aquino which left Real with 10 men for the best part of 70 minutes.

Refereeing blunders aside (apart from the sending-off, Iturralde González did not cover himself in glory, waving away several possible penalty decisions for either side), Real with 10 were better than Murcia with 11, but it still took about 40 minutes for the first shot on goal. Raúl is not the best choice for centre-forward, especially with the opponent's area as crowded as it was.

After the sending off, Schuster decided not to replace him with another defender to try to maintain an attacking formation. Though proved right, it was clearly not Robinho's day: he looked uninspired and even occasionally drifted from his wing to the centre, where he just got in the way. Guti, who earlier in the week joined the other 'lifers' in the squad, provided some class in the midfield, ably assisted by a much better performance from Sneijder, who not only raced back to prevent a rare Murcia shot on goal, but also took advantage of a defensive error to coolly put away the winner. At this point Schuster took off the ineffectual Robinho and brought Salgado on to assure the final result.

Real knew in advance that Barcelona had stuttered on their visit to Recreativo (with their minds more likely focused on the Champions League than the championship), and the win increased their lead to nine points. Following Villareal's loss away to Almería, this points difference remains and it will take a disaster of epic proportions for the league title to be won by anyone else.

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Monday, 7 April 2008

Heavenly Help Required

Mallorca, the team responsible for dumping Real out of the first of three competitions this season, caused motormouth president Calderón to ask for help from on high (presumably the Spanish Federation and referees are not trustworthy enough): "I am afraid of all our opponents. It's very hard to win in Mallorca an I'm very happy with the draw because this point could prove to be very important at the end of the season. I hope that Divine Providence goes easy on me this year".

What he didn't know of course, as Real played on Saturday, is that both Villareal and Barcelona would drop points the following day (losing and drawing respectively), so that Real's lead is now seven points with seven games to go. Mallorca were invoking more earthly reasons for the result, and criticised referee Daudén Ibáñez heavily for a disallowed goal (blowing for a dubious foul just before the goal was scored) and a dismissed penalty appeal for Cannavaro's handling of the ball in Real's area (though this looked to be involuntary).

Real are themselves not altogether that keen on the referee's performance, as Mallorca's equaliser found them with 10 men on the pitch following Sergio Ramos' third dismissal of the season in the league (he's also seen red once in the Champions League). As of the time of writing this, the club are appealing Ramos' second yellow card (with some justification, having seen the replays), which, if successful, would mean the right back would miss the next home game against Murcia, as he was on 4 yellows before the game, and his first booking took him up to the automatic one-match ban limit. If the appeal is not successful, Ramos will still miss the Murcia game and continue to be one card away from a further suspension. Ramos claims that referees seem to have it in for him (much as Cannavaro complained last season), but his frequent dismissals have caused at least one Real Madrid blogger to call for his sale to Milan and to buy Sevilla's Dani Alves with the proceeds.

Schuster must however also face some criticism with his incomprehensible reaction to Ramos' red card. Instead of bringing on the natural replacement of Torres, he substituted Higuaín for Diarra, making the latter play at right back. It was the lack of cover on the right flank that was directly responsible for Mallorca's equaliser. Things could have turned out even worse had it not been for Heinze's excellent work at the back. The Argentine is likely to keep his place, either in the centre or at left back, when Pepe makes his return.

While Sneijder's goal was a simple tap-in after Robben had done all the hard work, it is becoming clear that Real are struggling to score without Ruud van Nistelrooy in the side. Raúl is keeping the numbers up, but he was mostly absent in Mallorca, much like Guti. Higuaín is not a natural striker and misses more chances than not, but as, an article in El País claims that he was signed as a promising 19-year old, not a seasoned veteran, and he has received little in the way of technical direction from the coach. Schuster does not give him any more attention than the other forwards in the squad, which perhaps does not augur well for all the other youngsters (e.g. Marcelo) that the club is hoping to build the next generation from.

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Thursday, 3 April 2008

Transfer boredom

Given the week-long gap between games at this stage of the season, press reports on Real Madrid during the greater part of the week have been concentrating on possible transfer movements during the summer. I normally don't bother reporting 90% of this stuff as it's more often than not concocted out of thin air, so I tend to wait till it's either officially announced, or the buzz is so insistent that there's a good chance it will happen. But I thought it would be at least amusing to record what is being said and then come back next September, after the transfer window closes, to see whether there was any truth in any of the stories.

The list of possible additions to the squad includes the following:

  • Diego: His transfer was already hinted at after his display against Real Madrid for Werder Bremen in the Champions League earlier this season. In recent days, his father (and manager) confirmed a number of clubs, including Real, have expressed an interest.
  • Huntelaar: As insists Chelsea and Real will fight it out for the Ajax striker.
  • De Rossi: Mijatovic was in Rome this week to watch Roma and Manchester United in their Champions League quarter final tie and allegedly ask about the contractual situation of a number of players. De Rossi would theoretically be a replacement for Diarra, but with more technical ability.
  • Aquilani: Mijatovic also looked at this more attack-minded Roma midfielder, although it is hard to see where he would fit in given the large number of players able to fill this position.
  • Vucinic: The third Roma player allegedly in Real's books, although supposedly as a back-up striker should other options not pan out.
  • Garay: Supposedly going to Barcelona at the end of the season, the Catalan club's interest has reportedly cooled following an injury that will keep him out until the end of the season. Real may therefore join the bidding, while Spurs and Liverpool also expressed an interest earlier this year.
  • Luis Fabiano: Interest in the Sevilla striker seemed to wane after his performance at the Bernabéu last Sunday, where he was even less able to slot one in the back of the net than Higuaín.
  • Drogba: Sport claims he would follow Mourinho to his next club, and they're convinced that Schuster won't be at the helm next season, so there you go...
  • Quaresma: If FC Porto, at the centre of a match-fixing scandal, is relegated, some of its stars may seek clubs with Champions League potential. This is what happened when Real scooped up Cannavaro and Emerson from Juventus, although in the latter's case, it did not have much of a happy ending.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo: His name is mentioned in connection with every major European club pretty much every week, although As did manage to trick his mother into posing with a Real Madrid shirt and say her son had always wanted to play for the club.
  • De la Red: His agent has stated that Real will exercise their 4.5 million euro buy-back clause with Getafe in the summer, presumably with a view to selling him on for a profit elsewhere.
  • Javi García: He has the same agent as De la Red, and the story is the same, although the club involved is Osasuna.

In terms of those leaving the club, elconfidencial claims there is a "blacklist" of players who will be put up for sale in the summer. This includes Dudek, Salgado, Metzelder, Cannavaro, Diarra, Baptista, Saviola and Soldado. I'd be surprised if both Cannavaro and Metzelder leave, as this would leave the centre of defence rather short of players, even if Garay was signed to replace one of them. Also, from a performance perspective, Cannavaro has had a solid if not brilliant season (regardless of his detractors) and Metzelder has been blighted by injury, so Schuster may give him a chance if he recovers and starts the preseason well. On the striker front, both Saviola and Soldado have been massively underused, so it's almost a given that if clubs are found to take them they will leave.

elconfidencial also claims that an additional four players will be loaned out to let them gain additional experience: Marcelo, Gago, Higuaín and Drenthe. I'm skeptical about this; I think one or at the most two may leave, but not all four.

Sport would have us believe that it is Ruud van Nistelrooy's dream to be a top scorer at each of Europe's main leagues, and thus he is eyeing a move to Italy (more specifically AC Milan) while he can still cut it at the top level. Though the report was published on April 1st, I suspect this is more of a flight of fancy than a April Fool's story (especially since the Spanish "celebrate" this in December).

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