Friday, 22 August 2008

Burning Bridges

He's been unsettled all summer. Who would have guessed that Real Madrid's chasing of Cristiano Ronaldo would have the effect, not of bringing the Portuguese winger to Madrid, but of driving away one of last season's fans' (and the readers of this blog's) favourites?

It's been on the cards since Wagner Ribeiro, Robinho's agent, said last month that the player felt "undervalued" and that there was interest from Chelsea. However, Robinho himself has kept quiet on the issue, at least in public. Until today.

In an interview with Spanish news agency EFE, Robinho has finally said publicly that he wants to leave Real Madrid for Chelsea. In a move calculated to put pressure on the Real Madrid president and board, he will soon have the fans asking for him to leave with statements like:

It's not for money. My personal objective is to be the best player in the World and that is not going to happen at Real Madrid. That's why I've set myself the target of playing in the English Premiership next season.

I think my time at Real Madrid is at an end. I hope that the management reaches agreement with Chelsea to resolve my situation as soon as possible.

I've never missed a training session at Real Madrid. I've trained every day and I will continue to do so. Whether I play or not
[against Valencia in the Spanish Supercup this Sunday] I don't know, mainly because if I don't have a good game people can say it's because my mind is elsewhere. To avoid those kinds of comments, it's better for Schuster to pick other players.

My message to the fans is thank you for your affection and the way you've treated me

So now the ball is firmly in Calderón's court. He can keep Robinho at Real against his wishes, but, after such a public statement, neither the fans nor his team mates will be very happy with him in the squad. All of which plays to some extent into Chelsea's hands. Wagner Ribeiro said earlier this week that Real Madrid would be willing to sell Robinho to the London club for €40 million. I wonder if his price has now dropped somewhat.

This blog will be on hiatus for the next two weeks and will return the week before Real Madrid's second league fixture against Numancia.

Continue reading this article »

Monday, 18 August 2008

Valencia strikes first

The season can be said to have officially kicked off with Sunday evening's first leg of the Spanish Supercup at Valencia. And evening it was, with a kick-off at 10:00pm local time, which must mean that everyone in Spain must be on holiday, or that Spaniards need less sleep than the mere mortals who watch other leagues.

Whatever the case, there was a certain sleepiness about Real Madrid, especially in the middle of the pitch and the makeshift defence, belied by the fact that they went ahead through Van Nistelrooy. The Dutchman showed that he has lost none of his killer instincts, latching onto a De la Red pass to slot coolly past Hildebrand.

Together with Casillas, who had by this time already made a couple of trademark reflex saves - one from Villa and a deflection by Salgado - they were Real's best players on the night (plus ça change...). Van der Vaart, making his official debut with the club, did look bright at times, especially on set pieces, which is a relief, given that Sneijder won't be back for a while yet.

By contrast, Schuster identified the trio of Salgado, Raúl and Robinho as the game's worst performers by substituting them part-way through the second half. Salgado, as has been the case for some years now, just does not have either the speed, nor the positioning to merit a spot on the starting eleven (if only he'd gone off to QPR...). Raúl just seemed to be suffering particularly badly from the generalised somnolence displayed by most of his team-mates and Robinho, despite loud assurances from all quarters, did look to have his mind elsewhere (South London perhaps?).

Valencia turned the game around with two goals in three minutes shortly after the break. The first, to Real's chagrin, was scored by Juan Manuel Mata, a product of Real's youth policy who was sold to Valencia last year. The second came from a header by Villa after an inch-perfect cross from that man, Mata.

Schuster brought Robben on, with almost immediate effect. A thundering run down the left flank, followed by a cross into the heart of the Valencia six-yard box saw his countryman, Van Nistelrooy, volley it past Hildebrand and draw the scores level once more.

But it was not to be. Ten minutes from time, Vicente, in a struggle with Ramos in the Real area, got his foot to the ball first and ensured Valencia travel to the Bernabéu next Sunday with a one-goal advantage.

Continue reading this article »

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Bye Bye Brazil, Hello Holland

Real Madrid's love affair with Brazilian footballers seems to be slowly coming to an end. At its height, back in Florentino Pérez's last season as club president, the squad boasted five Brazilians in its ranks: Roberto Carlos, Cicinho, Baptista, Robinho and Ronaldo. As of today, with the sale of Julio Baptista to Roma for €12 million, this number now stands at two: Robinho and Marcelo. If you listen to the sports press, and Robinho does end up in Phil Scolari's Chelsea, it could soon be just one.

There could be two factors at play in this changing trend: the most plausible one is that, Marcelo aside, all of the other Brazilian players were signed before Ramón Calderón's ascent to power at Real Madrid. And, apart from Roberto Carlos, they were all signed in Florentino Pérez's era. Calderón has not bothered to hide his dislike for his previous boss and has even gone so far as to accuse him of meddling in the affairs of the club following his resignation. He may be thinking of putting his own stamp on the squad by getting rid of those who arrived under Florentino. The second possible factor is the growing perception at Real Madrid of Brazilians as "problematic". In other words, a fondness for the party life and complaints when not selected in the starting 11.

It is no secret that Robinho is unsettled at the club. Marca goes so far as to suggest that he has told Calderón in person that he wants to leave, although the president has so far refused to entertain any offers from Chelsea. This contrasts interestingly with some of his statements during the Cristiano Ronaldo saga to the effect that he would never keep anyone at the club who was unhappy there.

The focus at the club, quite possibly heavily influenced by Bernd Schuster, has now shifted towards players perceived to be more solid, more reliable. This has resulted in an unprecedented number of Dutch players being signed. Van Nistelrooy was signed in 2006 (under Capello), followed by Robben, Sneijder and Drenthe last summer. The recent addition of Van der Vaart to the squad brings the total number up to five. The only nationality with a larger representation is, obviously, Spanish.

The Dutchmen have all, so far, integrated well at the club, and there are no obvious cliques being formed. Without generalising about national traits (a futile exercise, in any case), there is a feeling that these signings are contributing to building a more compact, resilient squad. More of a team than a bunch of talented individuals, in other words. And that can only be a good thing in the long run.

Continue reading this article »

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The waiting is over... for now

As the Real Madrid squad fly out to Colombia for a (presumably) lucrative friendly against Independiente de Santa Fé, the news filtered out that the long-running saga around Cristiano Ronaldo is over, at least for this summer.

In an interview with Portuguese daily Publico (reproduced in full and translated to English in The Guardian), the Manchester United winger finally declared his desire to "fight and honour the shirt with the same desire and dedication I always have".

It has taken a lot longer than the "couple of days" he needed to sort out his future after Portugal was dumped out of Euro 2008 back in June. This delay, however, was not covered in the questions in the carefully crafted interview. The player now claims he's listened to Alex Ferguson's arguments and has been persuaded to stay at Manchester United. Crucially, Ronaldo says he will be playing at United "next season", rather than any more concrete statements about seeing out his contract. This has fuelled further speculation that there is some sort of understanding between Manchester United and Real Madrid to resume negotiations after the season is over.

Cristiano took the blame upon himself (although "wholly unintentionally") for the tense relationship between the two clubs, and has not ruled out playing for Real Madrid at some point in the future, as he would like a "new challenge" and "the chance of being an hour's flight" from his family in Portugal. What he does not make clear is whether he is now persuaded that Manchester will give him the challenge that he is looking for.

He does not fear the potentially hostile Manchester United fan base on his return to Old Trafford, saying that "people can't be upset about me fulfilling a childhood dream", which is either naive or disingenuous. Given that he's probably out injured until October, tempers may have cooled enough by that time to help ease his way back into the team relatively smoothly.

All this leaves Real Madrid, and especially motormouth president Ramón Calderón, without their summer star signing (for the third year in a row). In and of itself, that is not necessarily a bad thing, as I've argued several times that Ronaldo was perhaps not the best fit, either for squad balance, or from a team-morale perspective. However, the whole saga has unsettled Robinho, who's been asking to be sold to Chelsea to join Scolari's new project there.

On top of that, all of Real Madrid's transfer plans have been dependent on this one huge deal, which have meant very little movement in June and July, other than the signing of Van der Vaart (probably accelerated - and made more expensive - after Schuster's outburst last week). The one silver lining is that there are still over three weeks left of the transfer window, but Calderón has already intimated that there may not be any more signings this summer. I guess this all depends on any players leaving, and the squad looks a little light in the centre forward stakes.

Continue reading this article »

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Emirates Cup Review and Van der Vaart

A recap of the events of the last seven days saw Real Madrid play two friendly games in London for the Emirates Cup with contrasting results, a serious knee injury to one of its most in-form midfielders, the announcement of a signing that had been widely heralded, and the retirement from international football of one of the top strikers in the game. The last three all involved Dutch players, or "Tulips" as the Spanish sports press is fond of calling them.

Real defeated Hamburg on Saturday with goals from Van Nistelrooy and Parejo. Yes, that's one of the youngsters Schuster has decided to take with him for the preseason and who the following day announced his deal with Championship side Queen's Park Rangers (QPR) for a one-year loan (which could be extended to two). Parejo had already had a decent performance against Linz in Real's preseason opener. His winner was a header from a cross by another one of those youngsters, Juanmi Callejón.

The following day Real faced up against the tournament hosts Arsenal, and found themselves on the back foot for most of the game. They did not look as fit or sharp as their London counterparts (whose league championship kicks off two weeks earlier than the Spanish one) and succumbed to a well-taken penalty by Adebayor. More important than the result was the serious injury sustained by Wesley Sneijder following a nasty (or clumsy, depending on your viewpoint) tackle by Abou Diaby. It was initially feared that Sneijder's cruciate ligament was affected, with an estimated recovery time of 6 months. Subsequent tests showed that the Dutchman will avoid surgery, but will still be away for an estimated three months, a serious blow to Real Madrid.

Coincidentally or not, Real then moved very swiftly to secure the services of another Dutch midfielder, Rafael van der Vaart, making the official announcement on Monday. Real had already reportedly offered €6 million for him and the fact he did not play for Hamburg in their Emirates Cup game against Real Madrid hinted that the deal was very close. In the end, and perhaps because of Sneijder's injury, Hamburg managed to extract €13 million for the transfer plus two more million depending on results. Not a bad deal for a player who could have left at the end of the season for €1 million, and whose transfer from Ajax originally cost Hamburg in the region of €5.5 million. Van der Vaart signed a five-year contract with Real on Tuesday. I think this is an excellent signing, potentially better for the team structure and balance than a 'star' like Cristiano Ronaldo. It's a shame we won't see him play with Wesley for a few months yet, but perhaps this will for Schuster to use him from the beginning and give him the confidence he needs to gel properly with his new team-mates.

On Monday, Ruud Van Nistelrooy announced his retirement from international football: "Given the physical effort you need to perform at this level, I had to make a choice," he said in a statement released by the Netherlands' Royal Soccer Association. "The combination of Real Madrid's competition, cup and Champions League games on the one hand and the Netherlands team on the other, would be too heavy a burden for me."

Continue reading this article »