Sunday, 30 November 2008

It's all uphill from here

It's hard to win a game where they score against you in the first few minutes of each half, said Guti, summing up the impotence felt by Real Madrid at Getafe.

More importantly, it illustrates why the recent mini-run of two 1-0 victories (against Recreativo and BATE) was a mirage and bodes extremely badly for the next lot of league games against the top-placed teams.

The week has been somewhat overshadowed by Ramón Calderón's announcement that a couple of "young, promising" players will be signed in January when the transfer window opens, plus two top stars in the summer. Given that he's clearly trying to shield himself from the ire of the socios at the upcoming Annual General Meeting next Sunday, this really does very little for the current squad in the current season.

Add to this the plague of injuries decimating the side (Sneijder and Torres had to be substituted in the first half hour) and the next few weeks, or even months, look very bleak. The medical staff and physios have been added to the close scrutiny everyone else is under.

The Spanish league this season has been likened to the Tour de France, and December sees the Alpine stages as many of the "top" teams face each other. Next week, it's Sevilla, followed by Barcelona, Valencia and Villareal. Barcelona have already made short work of Sevilla with a 3-0 away win and look to be running away with the Championship. The shape that Real Madrid is in means that they'll struggle to compete for a Champions League place come next May.

Things have got so bad that Casillas had possibly his worst game in years. He looked insecure every time he came out for the ball and was particularly uninspired in Getafe's second goal. He even conceded a penalty that the referee did not see (or maybe he took pity on him).

And yet, even after going two down at the beginning of the second half, Real might have got back in the game as Guti found Saviola for his first league goal for his team. Getafe looked shaken for all of five minutes when Raúl could have equalised.

It was not to be (nor would it have reflected the relative merits of both sides). Eight minutes from time Uche made it 3-1 and means Real Madrid is losing sight of the leading rider as they are slowly absorbed into the ranks of the peloton.

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Monday, 24 November 2008

Much needed win is scant consolation for more injuries

There were a few positives for Real Madrid following the weekend's action in la Liga. A win against Recreativo de Huelva when the top three teams all dropped points means Real Madrid climbed to second place, three points behind leaders Barcelona.

It was also the first clean sheet since the 2-0 away win at Racing back in September, and, surprisingly, Real Madrid is now the best home side in the league, with sixteen points out of a possible eighteen. Aside from the purely statistical though, there is little joy to take from this game, and the patient is still languishing in intensive care.

There was so little football that there is barely any need to recap the game, if only to note that Sneijder's goal, six minutes before half-time, was the only one of a handful of chances to go in, helped in some measure by the wicked deflection it took on its way into Riesgo's goal.

Injuries to Cannavaro end Heinze forced Schuster to make Pepe and Ramos his pair of central defenders, and, to be fair, the squad looked a little more solid at the back than in recent weeks. Whether that was also because the opposition was not particularly ambitious in their attack is another matter. Miguel Torres, returning from injury, was an able substitute on the right flank and even Marcelo was less accident prone than thus far.

However, the lack of a true centre forward forced Raúl into a position he's uncomfortable in, and it showed. Even Higuaín managed to miss an open goal before having to be stechered off with an ankle injury that may keep him out for up to ten days.

To the already large injury list Real also added Sneijder's name. He was replaced by Van der Vaart, who will likely start in Tuesday's Champions League game against BATE Borisov. He is also likely to be joined in the starting line-up by either Saviola or youngster Alberto Bueno, both of whom had a few minutes late in the game.

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Wednesday, 19 November 2008

And the scales tip yet again...

It's obvious, but perhaps it needs to be stated from time to time, and Xavi, the Barcelona and Spain midfielder put it succinctly the other day when he said that "Barça and Real are like a set of scales, when things go well for one, they go badly for the other, and viceversa".

Just think back six months: Real Madrid were running rampant in a league championship they eventually won with an eighteen-point lead over Barcelona. When the Catalan club visited the capital, Real had already won the title and the Barcelona players had to do the traditional pasillo.

Key players like Eto'o were accused of forcing a yellow card in their previous game so they wouldn't have to face the humiliation in Madrid. Barcelona went on to lose the game 4-1. Club president Joan Laporta had to face a motion of confidence, which he narrowly defeated.

Fast forward to the last few weeks and you can see the scales have truly tipped. After six wins on the trot in September, Real Madrid have lost both Champions League ties against Juventus, been dumped out of the Copa del Rey by a third division side, and have managed just three wins in their last six league games, conceding ten goals in the process.

Conversely, Barcelona are riding high, with a five-point lead at the top of the standings, and a truly breathtaking start to the championship. They have scored thirty-six goals in eleven games and Eto'o is the current pichichi with thirteen. Confidence is clearly with the men in red & blue as the two sides look to their first meeting of the season in mid-December.

It's always been thus, but the roots of this particular debacle can clearly be traced to the disastrous way Real Madrid managed their summer transfer campaign. Having won the league early, and being in the enviable position of planning for the coming season with several months in their back pocket, they decided to base their entire strategy around the signing of one Cristiano Ronaldo (remember him?).

Ramón Calderón has always felt the long shadow of his predecessor, Florentino Pérez, and his failure to match the galáctico-signing antics of the Florentino years has always weighed heavily on this much-criticised president. Only yesterday, he hit out at Florentino's being photographed at a charity match organised by Zinedine Zidane: "It's sad. I would have loved to have seen that photo when we won two league titles and the supercopa. It illustrates that badly kept secret that he has spent the past two-and-a-half years obstructing and trying to discredit the Real Madrid board. He only thinks of his own personal gain."

Calderón must have reasoned that the only way to make people forget about Florentino was to secure the services of one of the most sought-after players in the world. Well, we all remember what happened, which is that not only did Real Madrid not manage to sign the tricky Portuguese winger, but they also managed to enrage their most creative player (Robinho) to such an extent that he upped sticks and left them for Manchester City.

In all of this, Mijatovic has aided and abetted his boss, and Schuster claims to have been a mere spectator. However, while he may have a strong case to claim he has been handed an unbalanced squad, and taking into account a number of injuries in key positions, Schuster still cannot expect to be seen as purely innocent.

There is no excuse for conceding six goals and being eliminated from the cup by a third division side, not with this squad. There is no excuse for claiming he has "no idea" why his side is letting in a record number of goals.

We knew what we were getting when Schuster was signed. He's always been temperamental and difficult with the media, but when you barely get involved in a game you're losing and then go AWOL for several days without explaining what your strategy is to get the team out of the mess it's in, then, frankly, it's all downhill from there.

So the recent vote of confidence in the coach from the Real Madrid board is as convincing as Mijatovic's press conference to announce it. Fielding a question about what would happen if Real lost again this weekend at home to Recreativo, he avoided saying that the result was not linked to Schuster staying at the club: "I can't be certain as to what would happen. We would have no problem in taking difficult decisions if we have to, but we won't rush into them".

We just need to keep watching to see whether the scales have any further to tip before they start heading back the other way...

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Saturday, 15 November 2008

That sinking feeling

With talk of this game being make or break for Bernd Schuster, you would think that both coach and players would make that extra effort to show everybody that they are worthy holders of the league championship they conquered last year. None of this was in evidence as an extremely poor Real Madrid fell to a not particularly inspired Valladolid. Not even their goalscoring prowess came to the rescue this time, as they failed to score for the first time this season.

Perhaps they were really missing Ruud van Nistelrooy, who was earlier this week diagnosed with a serious knee injury that could keep him out for up to nine months. The players wore tee-shirts with messages of support to the Dutch goal-magnet as they stepped onto the pitch.

Schuster's approach to this game was visibly cautious, with the more defensive Javi García in for Wesley Sneijder in midfield, waiting for openings in the Valladolid defence, instead of taking the initiative. Guti, often the player others look to, was totally uninspired and Real felt flat, with no depth or width, and none of the self-belief that has got them out of trouble in other games this season.

Though Valladolid have not been prolific in their scoring thus far, they had one chance just after the half-time break and took it well through Canobbio.

The expected reaction did not come. Sure, they had a couple of chances to put the game level, and perhaps they should have taken them, but did they look like a winning team out there? No, they looked like little lost sheep, scared to show what we have seen they are capable of.

Frankly, the fixture list for November is not as complicated as the one that closes out 2008, and yet Real Madrid are making a meal of every game. You have to wonder whether Calderón and the board will have to get rid of Schuster sooner rather than later, especially given the fact that no reaction seems forthcoming from the players.

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Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Irún puts Real Madrid in intensive care

The word crisis, whispered in the last few weeks, has now reached a crescendo at the Bernabéu, as Real Madrid were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by a third division side. A repeat of the 4-3 weekend scoreline was not enough to subdue a Real Unión de Irún squad that ran rampant for large stretches of the game, as if the venue or their opponents were of no consequence. Not even a hat-trick from captain Raúl was enough to bring his half-dead team back to life.

The first half was symptomatic of everything that ails Real Madrid at the moment. This is a side split in half to such an extent that they seemed at times to have completely abandoned the midfield to the opposition. It's not just that the defenders are sometimes slow to react and badly positioned, there is just no support from most of their team-mates.

But the lack of players tracking back to defend was also in evidence when the team had the ball. It's not in Real's genetic make-up to play long-ball football, but that is exactly what the local crowd were treated to for most of the first forty-five minutes.

Raúl, the busiest player by far on the night, acted as link-up man, even though he was nominally one of the two strikers, the other being Saviola. This seemed to change in the second half as Sneijder dropped back more often, but just exactly what are Schuster's tactical instructions at the beginning of the game? Asking Metzelder to make runs on the left wing was a first, and what Real gained in attack they more than lost on defence.

The visitors went ahead through Abasolo after 13 minutes, after Salgado failed to deal with a cross on his wing and left Dudek with little chance of making the save. It took a mistake from Eduard, the Irún goalkeeper, to allow Real to equalise, with Raúl easily heading the ball over the advancing goalie after a cross from Marcelo.

Saviola could then have put his side ahead but his goal was disallowed on the stroke of half-time when he was clearly on-side. That was the linesman's fault, but someone needs to take the referee aside and explain to him how to apply the advantage rule, though his failures in this respect affected both sides equally.

Schuster swapped Cannavaro for Javi García during the break for no apparent reason, other than the Italy captain was not having a very good night - but then, neither were any of his colleagues in the back four. Three minutes in, García and Metzelder were not fast enough to catch Salcedo,though it must be said, they had precious little support from any of the midfield players, who were all far too far upfield.

Fortunately for Real, Irún's lead lasted just over a minute, as Raúl got his second after Saviola's pass had found him free in the area.

With the game at 2-2 fifteen minutes into the second half, Schuster brought Alberto Bueno on for Drenthe. The player from the Castilla reserve side only had two minutes on his debut in the first leg in Irún. The promising youngster impressed with his energy and talent and went on to score the goal of the night to put his side ahead and even the tie.

Raúl then thought he had put his side through five minutes from time with his third of the night from a free kick intended as a cross which none of the other players got a touch on. It was the first time all night that the home side was mathematically in the last 16 round of the Copa del Rey.

In a heart-stopping finish to the game, Real Unión took advantage of yet another defensive blunder to score their third in the 89th minute and put Real out of the competition on away goals.

Real Madrid have shown all season that they have the talent up front and the self-belief to enable them to claw their way out of adverse scorelines. However, this is a side so unbalanced on the pitch that any team with a modicum of tactical nous can control the game at their leisure. We haven't seen Bernd Schuster do anything to remedy this over the last few weeks and, as he admitted in the post-match press conference, it's now looking like he doesn't know how to.

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Monday, 10 November 2008

Real needs four from Higuaín to win

There is a school of thought that holds that the only objective in football is to score more goals than the opposition. Real Madrid's performance against Málaga was an exemplar of this, coming back after being down in the match three times, playing one man down for all of the second half, and still managing to win the game with all four goals scored by the same man: Gonzalo Higuaín.

Last time a Real Madrid player scored four goals in the same match was two years ago (almost to the day) when Van Nistelrooy bagged all four against Osasuna.

Diego Armando Maradona, Argentina's recent appointment as head coach of the national side, had earlier told El Pipa Higuaín that if he wanted to make his team he had to become "more involved" in games. Higuaín must have taken his words to heart, as the great man watched from the stands in the Bernabéu.

Málaga played some great one-touch football, ably assisted by Real Madrid's hapless defence. It is astonishing to think that virtually the same line-up that conceded the least number of goals last season (thirty-six) has now let in sixteen in ten games. The first came after a mere six minutes, as Eliseu toyed with Marcelo on the left wing, played it back from the touchline and then picked up the rebound to score.

Two minutes later Real were on equal terms as Higuaín found the ball almost rebounding from his boot into the back of the net following a save from Málaga goalkeeper Arnau.

More defensive shambles were at the heart of Málaga's second goal, especially from Heinze, who seemed to allow the ball to go past him and through to Baha for the goal, when he could have easily cleared it.

One again Higuaín pulled the home team back, this time from the penalty spot, following a handball in the area. Though the Argentinian is not a natural pick for taking spot kicks (Van Nistelrooy, Raúl and Van der Vaart are preferred by Schuster), his heroics in the Madrid derby last month meant that it was he who took the responsibility (that and the fact that Raúl was on the bench and Van Nistelrooy could be out of action for at least a couple of months after aggravating a knock on his knee -however, Van der Vaart was on the pitch).

With four goals scored, the half was not yet over when Sergio Ramos decided incomprehensibly to stamp on Eliseo while the Málaga player was on the ground following an earlier tackle. The result was his eight dismissal as a Real Madrid player.

Schuster brought on Salgado for Sneijder after the break and Málaga scented the chance of a famous victory. They must have thought they were there when twenty minutes from time Gago bundled a Málaga player over for a penalty which Apoño converted.

But it was not to be, as Higuaín responded with a superb effort from outside the area barely a minute later and then followed it up with his fourth of the night from the penalty spot. Strictly speaking, his final goal was not a penalty kick, as Arnau saved it and Higuaín put away the rebound. There was also the whiff of a dive by Higuaín for the penalty award, but that wasn't going to stop him celebrating.

The plan was to put behind the disappointment of the loss to Juventus in midweek by putting together a convincing performance against Málaga and follow it up with a win over lower division Real Unión on Tuesday. Morale was perhaps bolstered by the "epic" nature of the comeback, but it does nothing to allay the fears for the erratic way the squad is defending.

Adding to those fears is the growing number of players out with injuries. As well as Van Nistelrooy, Robben is out for up to six weeks, De la Red is out for an indefinite period following his loss of consciousness last week, and Diarra picked up a knock in the dying minutes of the Málaga game, while Pepe is expected to return for the Copa del Rey game on Tuesday.

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Friday, 7 November 2008

Beaten up by the old lady

If Schuster thought he had been having trouble with the Madrid sports press recently, he had better think again, as both they and the Bernabéu faithful are laying the blame squarely on his shoulders. The latest defeat against the 'Old Lady' of Turin, Juventus on Wednesday, proved too much for the home crowd who booed the German coach after Alessandro Del Piero's free kick put the game beyond Real Madrid.

The Bianconeri secured their passage into the knockout stages of the Champions League, but Real still has some work to do to see off the challenge of Zenit St. Petersburg for the other spot in Group H.

It could not have started worse for Real Madrid, as Arjen Robben tore a calf muscle during the warm-up and had to be replaced by Royston Drenthe. He could be out for up to six weeks.

Though Schuster can perhaps point to a host of missed chances and a couple of debatable penalty decisions, it was nevertheless the Italian side who had the better of the encounter. Their coach, Ranieri, put together the sort of solid defence that Real must be hoping to ape at some point soon: this is the ninth game on the trot that they have failed to keep a clean sheet.

The contrast with last year's defensive solidity, which enabled Iker Casillas to lift his first Zamora trophy as the best goalkeeper in the league, are striking, all the more so because the line-up hasn't changed. Del Piero's second goal came from a poorly set-up wall, which Casillas later took responsibility for.

Del Piero had the sort of magical European night his Real Madrid counterpart, Raúl, has been dreaming of for some time. It had been 46 years since either of the two sides managed to win at the other's ground. Real Madrid failed to improve on that statistic two weeks ago, but, inspired by their rejuvenated captain, Juventus made history at the Bernabéu. As Ranieri substituted Del Piero in the dying seconds of injury time, the local crowd gave him a standing ovation, much as they did for Ronaldinho when he led Barcelona to victory against Real back in 2005.

Real Madrid will look to two home games in a row against (on paper at least) 'weaker' opposition to bolster their much battered morale. The first is against Málaga this coming Saturday, followed by the return Copa del Rey fixture against Racing Club de Irún on Wednesday.

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Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Calderón claims Florentino abandoned Real Madrid

Motormouth Real Madrid president Ramón Calderón took advantage of an interview on the financial TV channel Intereconomía Televisión to announce the club's general assembly will be on December 7th and to criticise former president Florentino Pérez for leaving the club.

"He is the only president in the history of the club who left half way through a season. The only one to abandon the club, leading to four presidents in the space of six months. The only president who spent three years without winning a trophy. It would be very hard for him to have to explain all that", Calderón said, alluding to the rumours that suggest Florentino may stand at the next presidential elections, which will take place by 2010.

Calderón added that Florentino left not through illness or other problems, but "because the team wasn't winning. It would be very hard for me to have to say that face-to-face to a person whom I helped so much to become president. I am proud of having helped him, but he hasn't behaved well towards me".

He once again showed his anger at recent accusations that he was using the club's money for personal purposes. "A Real Madrid president cannot spend every single day denying whatever the press decides to publish, but this time they went too far. They manipulated information to say I'm a thief, and attacking the club's honour. I have not spent 1000, or even 600 euros of the club's money. I've worked 30 years as a lawyer with some success and I've managed to pay off most of my mortgage".

Commenting on the radio journalists who first published the reports on his show, he added "I would not meet Abellán (who published the reports on his radio show) face to face because I prefer to spend my time with human beings. Based on what I hear him say, he cannot do what he does and have a human heart. It's impossible for anyone to have that much evil inside them, that much bile to pour on me".

The Real Madrid president also came out in defence of coach Bernd Schuster, who has been the target of recent criticism by the media for his sometimes erratic behaviour at press conferences. "He is a great guy, but it's not easy to have to face 30 or 40 journalists every day. It would be perfect if he was really friendly with the pres, but I'd rather have a coach who does his job properly".

Calderón could not help weighing in once again into the recent spat with Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, with some unnecessary ribbing at the Scotman's expense. "He's a little bit envious of Real Madrid's nine European Cups. He realises that he won't have time to reach that figure. When I said he was a bit senile it was a bit of a joke to try to show how unimportant the words of a man who looks like he is jealous of a great club with the kind of success he hasn't had"

He was a lot kinder in his words towards rival club Barcelona. "When they play well I enjoy it like any other football fan. Envy is a ridiculous feeling; you have to admire those who do their job well".

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Monday, 3 November 2008

Off the pace

Real Madrid put paid to a lacklustre last few games with a draw at Primera División newcomers Almería (this is only their second season ever in the top flight). This leaves them still lying in third place in the league standings, two points behind leaders Barcelona, who have had a particularly impressive run of form recently, scoring fifteen goals (including five against Almería) in their last four encounters. Almería's late equaliser left Real feeling like they'd "let two points escape", as Bernd Schuster put it.

It was a particularly tedious first half, with no shots on goal from the local team, and not much more from the visitors. The only bright spot was Raúl's goal, which came from a great bit of skill from Higuaín on the wing, crossing the ball for the captain to deflect it past the keeper in a diving header. It was Raúl's first goal away from the Bernabéu since the one he scored against Racing Santander last April and his fifth in the league so far.

If anything, the second half was even more depressing from a Real Madrid standpoint, as the players (and coach) obviously had their minds on the clash with Juventus on Wednesday and decided to "secure" the win. Inevitably, this led to a lack of depth (to add to the general lack of width in the side), with lots of losses of possession. Almería grew in confidence and self-belief as the half wore on, and it was only a matter of time before they scored.

Sergio Ramos, who had otherwise had an acceptable game, gave the ball away with a header into no-man's land. A lightning-quick move from Almería caught him and the other defenders napping and gave Casillas no chance. Almería even had the chance to walk away with all three points, and it would not necessarily have been an unfair result.

To add insult to injury (or should that be injury to insult?), Pepe limped off three minutes into the second half and is doubtful for Wednesday's Champions League game. Another player certain of not being selected is Rubén de la Red, who fainted in Real's midweek Copa del Rey clash and who is out for an indefinite period until the doctors can determine what caused his loss of consciousness.

All in all, this game is best forgotten. One hopes that Real has plenty more up their sleeve against a Juventus finding their form, otherwise their chances of qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages (not to say anything about getting further in the competition) may be in jeopardy.

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