Sunday, 8 March 2009

Derby Doldrums

You have to go back to 1999 for the last time Atlético beat neighbours Real Madrid, and, on the evidence of last night's performance, they may well have to wait another ten years to do so.

Not that Atlético did not deserve to win; they did. But if they're going to waste that many opportunities to score, then it will be a long time before they can slay their particular bête noire.

Real can count themselves lucky that they were not three goals down at the break. Pepe's suspension for an accumulation of bookings, meant Juande Ramos had to rearrange his back four. The last time Pepe was missing, Real Madrid lost a league game, at Barcelona, and it looks like Juande made a couple of tactical mistakes.

His first, playing Lass as right back and putting Sergio Ramos alongside Cannavaro in the centre of defence unbalanced the side and showed why Lass's presence as a defensive midfielder is crucial to Real Madrid's success. Everyone knows Salgado is not my favourite defender, but when Juande rectified in the second half and brought him on, the difference was palpable. Surely he should have picked either Salgado or Torres at right back, or even Metzelder in the centre and Sergio Ramos in his usual spot?

The other tactical error was leaving Higuaín out of the side. Though the young Argentine has not scored for a few games, he does lead the side in assists in the league, and soon after coming on for Guti he provided Huntelaar with his equalising chance, though he was admittedly offside.

Atlético fans will not just rue the many missed chances by Agüero, Forlán and the rest, they can also point to a poor performance from the referee, who not only missed Real's offside goal, but also disallowed a perfectly good Atlético goal and wanted nothing to do with a penalty on Agüero.

Real, on the other hand, will pack their bags for Tuesday's game at Liverpool knowing that Pepe should be the rock at the centre of defence and hoping that their creative players can find that spark they so sorely needed on Saturday.

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Monday, 2 March 2009

Imperfect Ten

Real Madrid recorded their tenth consecutive league victory on an away trip to Espanyol. This result, combined with Barcelona's inability to hold onto a two-goal lead at Atlético Madrid the following evening, puts Real four points behind the leaders. It's hard to believe that this difference was twelve points a mere three weeks ago.

And yet, while much credit has to be given to Juande for turning the team around defensively (3 goals conceded in the last 11 matches), there is still much work to do to make Real Madrid the well-oiled machine in attack that the individual quality of its players would suggest.

The first half saw both sides "abuse" the midfield to the exclusion of both areas. Sneijder, who hasn't had the best of seasons, did not really perform well as playmaker, wasting innumerable passes to his colleagues up front, with Huntelaar looking especially isolated. Fortunately for the visitors, Lass swept up most of Espanyol's attacks, turning in another impressive display.

What Lass could not mop up, Pepe and Cannavaro did, with Casillas making the odd miraculous save that no longer gets headlines (he was much criticised early in the season for a few uncharacteristic mistakes).

Juande changed tack in the second half, bringing Guti in for the ineffectual Sneijder and Marcelo in for Higuaín to try to give the squad some balance and some width. Raúl tracked back to help out in midfield and the changes injected a little more urgency to Real's play.

Nevertheless, it was a whole 67 minutes before the deadlock was finally broken, as Guti was brought down outside the Espanyol area. The veteran Real Madrid midfielder, who recently announced he will leave the club in 2011 at the latest, slotted a perfect free kick into the top left hand corner of Espanyol's goal.

Five minutes later, Raúl effectively finished off the game as he timed his run perfectly to latch onto a half-mishit Marcelo cross and put the ball beyond goalkeeper Kameni.

As in midweek, the team who made the least number of errors won the game. Unlike then, this time that team was Real Madrid.

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Thursday, 26 February 2009

It's a different League

Yossi Benayoun's header brought Real Madrid's run of nine consecutive victories to a crashing halt as Liverpool took the lead at the Bernabéu in their last 16 Champions League encounter with Real Madrid.

The result was testament to Rafa Benítez's technical and tactical abilities, especially in cup ties. While Real Madrid started more brightly and played more fluidly, they crashed time and time again into Liverpool's carefully crafted defence.

A couple of early chances and a goal disallowed for offside were all Real had to show for in the first half, as the visitors slowly took control and even had the better of the period with Casillas keeping out shots from Torres and Benanyoun as well as a spectacular long-range effort from Xabi Alonso.

Juande Ramos brought Guti on for Marcelo after the break in an attempt to inject some fluidity into Real's attack, and perhaps hoping the Real Madrid veteran could find that killer pass that would unlock the Liverpool defence. It was all to no avail.

The side that had coolly slotted six goals past a hapless Betis in one half on the weekend, found Liverpool and the Champions League an altogether tougher proposition. Only long range shots from Robben and Higuaín troubled Pepe Reina, and not much at that.

With the game finely poised at 0-0, Heinze unnecessarily brought down Dirk Kuyt on the edge of the area. Fabio Aurelio curled in the resulting free kick and an unmarked Benayoun headed the ball past Casillas.

Expect two weeks of talk of "epic comebacks" from the press and the fact that everything is not lost. It's not an insurmountable task, but it will take several flashes of genius for Real Madrid to triumph at Anfield and move into the quarter finals.

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Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Juande vs. Rafa: A tale of two personalities

An article in El País contrasts the character and personality of the two coaches in tonight's Champions League clash between Real Madrid and Liverpool.

Four players who played under both men give their opinions, and it makes for fascinating reading, especially if, as has been rumoured on occasion, Rafa Benítez makes the move at some time back to Spain to coach Real Madrid, where he spent over a decade as a player and then coach of the youth teams.

José Miguel González, Josemi, spent six months recovering from a knee injury in his only season at Liverpool in 2004-05. Rafa Benítez never asked how he was. However, Juande Ramos, who coached him at Málaga used to talk to him constantly.

"Juande is a better person", says Josemi, now at Mallorca. "Rafa does his own thing. He worries about the game, studies the opponent's moves... but he doesn't do much on a day to day basis with his players. With Juande, those on the subs bench are happier, because he looks after them and constantly makes comparisons to put pressure on the starting eleven."

"Rafa used an expression we found painful: 'A substitute with a substitute is more of a substitute', says Palop, who played under Benítez at Valencia before ending up at Sevilla under Ramos.

"Benítez is a great coach, but on a personal level I felt I didn't exist; I was only there to train. Never a word to see how I felt. He would surround himself with the most important players and completely ignore the rest." Palop adds that this contrasted with Juande who "bonded with the players and was ready to give a chance to everyone without making a distinction".

The Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, shares this view in his autobiography: "Benítez is not cold towards me, just detached. Rafa doesn't think he needs close bonds with players, even the captain. But respect flows naturally between me and Rafa: he's the manager, I'm a player. Everything Rafa says and does is designed to strengthen Liverpool. Twenty minutes after I lifted the FA Cup, Rafa was downstairs talking to the press and telling them Liverpool could have won it without me. 'I don’t think we would have lost if we didn't have Stevie,' he said, 'because we have played a lot of games without him.' I'd scored two good goals and banged in a penalty, which was not a bad afternoon's work, but I understood Rafa. The gaffer was not belittling my contribution, as some people thought, he was just saying that the team is everything, that his number eight is simply a cog in the Liverpool machine. Fair enough."

"Juande gives you a lot more freedom, both inside and outside the pitch", adds Mallorca midfielder Martí who played with Benítez in his stint at Tenerife and then with Juande at Sevilla. "They're both natural winners, incredibly intelligent and able to adapt to their squad and their opponents. Juande always wants to score a second after the first, whereas Benítez is more calculating."

Palop says that Benítez "does not miss a thing. He gives you a lot of information, sometimes too much. One day he told us everything about the Basle keeper. Juande tells you what you need to know and no more. But Benítez always had an ace up his sleeve with his line-ups. Juande is more predictable".

César, the Valencia goalkeeper is grateful to Benítez for giving him his Primera División debut at Valladolid. Juande on the other hand brought him to Tottenham Hotspur for his Premiership debut. "They're both extremely hardworking," he says "I met Rafa when we were both very young. He was ahead of his time, both with his analyses and in his use of the computer."

"Juande is a great guy. Over two legs he's very dangerous, as he showed at Tottenham, winning the Carling Cup, and at Sevilla, with back-to-back UEFA cups. Real Madrid will be making a big mistake if they let him go," concludes César.

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Monday, 26 January 2009

Workmanlike win

The Bernabéu "faithful" were treated to another night of tedium as Real Madrid edged Deportivo la Coruña by a single goal. What was remarkable was that they could not get worked up about the mediocre fare on offer when the average seat price is around €100.

On the other hand, they decided to greet the substitution of Raúl for Drenthe with audible booing for the young Dutch player. Drenthe later said that the reception made him "depressed" and it showed in his level of confidence on the pitch, where one of his attempts at running past Deportivo players ended with him slipping and falling.

Drenthe, as well as Marcelo, have recently been singled out for this sort of treatment by the piperos at the Bernabéu, so named for the copious amounts of sunflower seeds (pipas) they consume during home matches.

If this sort of behaviour is aimed at sending a message to the management to invest more in the youth teams, then it is poorly directed. The last thing these youngsters need (wherever it is they come from) is to bear the brunt of questionable strategic decisions by the club.

Towards the end of the reasonably entertaining first half, Raúl barely deflected a cross from Lass with the side of his head, but this was enough to fool the Deportivo goalkeeper. As the Madrid press are so fond of reminding us, this was the captain's 306th goal for the club, putting him just one behind the total scored by the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano.

The second half, however, must have convinced Barcelona that there really is no way they can lose the league now, even with another 18 games yet to play. How can Real Madrid be clear in second place in the league standings yet play so poorly on their own turf?

Juande Ramos decided to make the game safe and wait for the counter. With Gago and Lass making almost superhuman efforts in their defensive midfield tasks, the back four absorbing most pf the pressure, and Casillas stopping anything else that got through, it became clear how dependent Real Madrid is on Arjen Robben.

Any attack with any venom in it came from him. No wonder rumours still abound about Juande Ramos pleading for a winger before the end of the January transfer window. Real are still playing the price for the appallingly bad way that transfers were managed last summer.

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Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Boluda: I don't want to be president after the next election

New Real Madrid president Vicente Boluda was interviewed on radio on Monday night to explain what he intends to do at the club until new elections are called.

How are you handling all these interviews?
Not very well. I don't really like being in the media spotlight, getting recognised.

How did you become a director?
I've had a season ticket sat next to [Real Madrid director] Pedro Trapote for many years. He called me one day and asked me if I knew Calderón and that's how it all started. I'm glad to have been a member of his team.

On Thursday when you left Calderón's house, he had no intention of resigning. Did you go to the Bernabéu on Friday thinking you would become president?
No, never. We were in his house the previous day and he was adamant he would remain.

Did you or any of the other directors force him to resign?
Nobody forced him to do anything. Some directors think one way and others think another. Calderón made the right choice in thinking of his health and what's best for the club. The directors were nearly unanimous in deciding that we would respect whatever decision Ramón took. I think his resignation was courageous, not cowardly and he has put his personal prestige on the line.

On Saturday morning, as the new president, what did you say to Juande Ramos? Did you know him from before?
I went to Valdebebas [the Real Madrid training ground] and said a few words to him. I am friendly with him. I said I had confidence in him and that I liked the way he worked. To the players I said not to worry, that we had confidence in them and that we needed them to fight on the pitch.

Were you one of those who recommended Juande for Real Madrid?
They asked me and I said I liked him and thought he was perfect for this club.

You have said that you will leave the club with clean accounts. Can we interpret that as a dig at Calderón?
The accounts are clean right now. All I have to fix is to bring all parties together so that there is peace at the club, for the next four or five months and that we fix outstanding items like the postal vote.

You will reconvene the AGM. Are you sure that Calderón knew nothing of what was happening at the last one?
We have to reconvene the meeting because of what happened. I can assure you that nobody knew anything, not even Ramón.

You are now the Real Madrid president and the next day you gave an interview to the paper that has been most responsible for the persecution [Marca]. Do you think Calderón may feel betrayed by that?
I have to bring a measure of peace, otherwise what am I here for. I have to talk with everyone. That's what I've always done and I will continue to do so. Calderón was not angry, perhaps a little hurt.

You said that Florentino was a good president. Have you spoken to him recently?
Not for some time. My relationship with him is good and we have spoken many times, but note recently.

If he invited you to form part of his candidacy, would you accept?
Not at this moment. I have said that I won't be part of any candidate's team.

Have any of the other candidates called you?
No. I know what is being published, but other than Villalonga, nobody has stated their intention to stand.

Are you sure you won't stand. What if the team wins the Champions League, would you change your mind then?
I won't stand. That is clear. If they win the Champions League, it will be to the players' credit.

Would you like to stay in football in the future?
I'd love to. Maybe in the future I will get involved, but only as a non-executive director, never as president.

Why is Real Madrid in this situation?
It all starts with the club's statutes, we have to make them relevant to the 21st century. It cannot be that the last four or five presidents have left the club in awful circumstances. We are a laughing-stock and we have to change the rules, starting with the postal vote.

How are you proposing to make these changes?
Voting has to be transparent and not able to be manipulated. We already said that we wanted the postal vote to work in the same as Spanish general elections, but it was not approved. We will have to fix this.

What will you decide about the manager's future? Will he stay on next year?
I think Juande is a great manager and that he will stay at Real Madrid next year, because there is a clause in his contract that gives him an extension if he wins a title.

That's not going to happen the way Barcelona is playing...
We will see; there's a long way to go and there's also the Champions League.

You have said you prefer Robben to Messi. Would you not swap them?
Robben is more fun to watch and I wouldn't swap him for Messi. He is a more electrifying player

You will have to plan the next preseason...
That's already arranged. It will be at the same location as the last few years. We are not going to change because I don't think it's necessary.

What about signings for next season. Do you not think that starting to look at these in July will be too late?
[Ironically] Don't worry, all the presidential candidates will come with seven or ten players signed up...

Wouldn't it be better if the elections were in May instead of July?
We have to close the accounts for the year and get them audited; that's how you bring normality to the club and the way it's always been done. We will look at the possible dates, but the election will have to take place after the accounts have been closed.

What things do you want to fix at the AGM?
I would like there to be a new discussion point to amend the postal voting rules.

Will Real Madrid appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport about Lass and Huntelaar?
Yes, because every socio would demand that we do everything in our power to defend Real Madrid's interests.

Will there be repercussions over the signing of these two players?
First we'll have to determine who's to blame. There is a commission to analyse everything that's happened. They were two players we were very interested in and it was also easier to sign them at this time. The fact that only one of them can play in the Champions League is not as important as the fact that they have signed five year contracts.

Will Mijatovic keep his job?
Pedja knows a lot about football. At this point we don't need to either buy or sell any players. He is a former player of Real Madrid and he can be helpful. Whether he stays or not also depends on him.

What will his job be until the election?
Leave everything in order for those who will come afterwards and to help ensure there is peace until then.

Will you be involved in trying to sign Cristiano Ronaldo? I assume you will reply that that is up to the sporting director...
Exactly. Real Madrid is working on a number of things that will have to be concluded.

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Monday, 19 January 2009

Referee's mistakes help Real to win

It's part and parcel of being a football fan: referees are either useless or they are conspiring for your side to lose. Well, I don't hold much stock in conspiracy theories, especially since the only way three people can keep a secret is if two of them are dead.

Osasuna supporters may well feel aggrieved at the way referee Alfonso Pérez Burrull dismissed their most influential player Juanfran with two yellow cards. Both came "for diving in the area" when TV images clearly showed that a penalty should have been given in both instances. To add insult to injury the referee told Juanfran as he gave him his marching orders that if he was "going to dive, at least do it properly".

Real Madrid's first game under the new presidency of Vicente Boluda ended in a 3-1 win for the home side, the fourth in a row. However, it looks like the players have not been unaffected by all the goings-on at the club. With an unsuccessful penalty appeal under their belt, Osasuna still managed to go ahead after 19 minutes through Nekounam and managed to keep Real Madrid at bay for most of the first half.

After the break, Juande brought on Van der Vaart for Cannavaro and Huntelaar for Sneijder. This meant that Sergio Ramos had to move to the centre to cover Cannavaro's position and Lass filled in as right back, changing the formation from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3. Unorthodox substitutions perhaps, but it seemed to give impetus to Real Madrid who took a mere four minutes to equalise when Ramos (with a little assistance from Osasuna goalkeeper Roberto) thundered the ball in from outside the area.

Had it not been for the referee, Roberto might have found himself the infamous protagonist of the game, as his suspect positioning made Real's task somewhat easier. Robben somehow managed to thread a pass (or was it a mis-hit shot?) through the Osasuna defence to Higuaín who put away his 12th of the season.

Osasuna, though last in the league standings, was not about to give up. Their manager, Camacho, a former Real Madrid defender and manager (though not for very long!) is known as a tough cookie and instils that attitude into each squad he manages. But even they could not fight against the referee's whims and their unfortunate 'keeper. In the dying seconds, Roberto completely missed a seemingly docile shot from Robben for the definitive 3-1 scoreline.

The referee's actions have gained him a great deal of notoriety in the Monday editions of the Spanish press and he has been withdrawn by the Referee's Committee for the Copa del Rey quarter-final between Espanyol and Barcelona on Tuesday. Less attention has been given to Pérez Burrull's report of fascist gestures from a small contigent of Real Madrid fans. If the new Real Madrid president wanted to make a good impression, he could start by clamping down on these undesirables.

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Friday, 16 January 2009

Going, going... gone

On Wednesday he said that to resign would be "cowardly". On Friday, he resigned.

On Wednesday he had the full support of his Board of Directors. On Friday, they deserted him.

On Wednesday, he swore on his "honour" that he had nothing to do with the shady goings-on at last month's AGM. By Friday, those who took the fall were pointing the finger of blame in his direction.

Vicente Boluda, vice-president of Real Madrid, will take over as interim president until new elections take place in the summer, after the current season ends.

Ramón Calderón has had a turbulent few days, ending with his resignation as Real Madrid president. But he has been sowing the seeds of his own destruction from the moment he was elected:

July 2006: Wins the presidential elections, promising to bring Kaká, Cesc and Robben to the club. Out of these three, he only managed to sign the Dutchman, over a year after the promise was made.

October 2006: One of the failed candidates for the presidency, Juan Miguel Villar Mir, takes the club to court to have the postal vote (annulled at Calderón's insistence) reinstated.

December 2006: Calderón's first AGM ends with a rejection of his proposals to reform the postal vote, amid calls by angry socios for new elections to legitimise the presidency.

January 2007: In probably the worst of his many foot-in-mouth moments, Calderón is recorded by a journalist as he makes a number of unflattering remarks about his players. He later has to apologise to the entire squad.

February 2007: After a number of court appearances, a judge rules that the Real Madrid electoral process, especially those statues regulating the postal vote, are invalid, and therefore the election result must stand. However, the process has, to date, not been reformed.

June 2007: Despite winning Real Madrid's first title for four years, Fabio Capello is sacked as Real Madrid coach. Two weeks later, Bernd Schuster is installed as his replacement, in what Calderón terms "a search for excellence". Well, we know how that ended.

September 2007: Another AGM, another failure to institute any meaningful reform.

March 2008: Calderón is accused by journalist José Antonio Abellán of manipulating the selection of socios compromisarios: Real Madrid members empowered to vote at AGMs on behalf of the whole membership. He had previously accused him of "selling" season tickets in exchange for votes at the presidential election. Neither allegation has yet been challenged in court.

May 2008: Calderón fails, once again, to reform the club statutes (which are, remember, legally invalid) in an Extraordinary General Meeting.

August 2008: After chasing him all summer, Real Madrid fail to sign Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United. Worse, the club sells Robinho to Manchester City and does not find any suitable replacement in time for the start of the season.

October 2008: Calderón is accused of using the club's credit cards to fund his own lifestyle. There is little substantive proof, but the allegations about the president's tax affairs are quite damaging.

December 2008: Real Madrid sign two players in the winter transfer market, Lass and Huntelaar, only to find that UEFA rules mean only one of them can be registered to play in the knock-out stages of the Champions League. The youth director resigns and accuses the president of "lack of knowledge or interest in the youth teams". At the AGM, Calderón manages to have the accounts and budget approved, albeit with a slim majority, amid many calls for his resignation. He then fires the coach, Schuster, and replaces him with Juande Ramos.

January 2009: Marca publishes allegations of vote-fixing at the December AGM, finally resulting in Calderón's resignation as president. Allegations about fraudulent commissions in the signing of players like Van Nistelrooy and Cannavaro.

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Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Calderón hangs on... just

Ramón Calderón has managed to survive the 24 hours following the initial allegations of vote fixing at last month's AGM by Marca.

Late last night he gave a radio interview in which he denied any knowledge or collusion with any voting irregularities, and indicated that he was "tired" of the constant attacks and might not seek re-election to a second term.

In what is now starting to look like an orchestrated campaign, Marca today published the names and photographs of ten people at the AGM who were either socios with no voting rights, or not Real Madrid socios at all. In a cruel twist, one of them turned out to be a socio of local rival Atlético de Madrid!

Where yesterday it was the director in charge of the membership, Luis Bárcena, who read a brief statement announcing an investigation, today the president himself called a press conference and faced questions for over an hour, accompanied by his entire Board of Directors.

In a performance worthy of Richard Nixon during Watergate, Calderón fired the aforementioned Bárcena as ultimately responsible for the organisation of the AGM, but, more interestingly, he also fired another club employee who admitted responsibility, one Mariano Rodríguez Barutell, also known as Nanín.

Nanín was part of Calderón's election campaign and has been linked with serious irregularities during that campaign (though nothing has been proved) and was instrumental in getting the postal vote annulled by a judge. Most observers agree that had the postal vote stood (though it was probably corrupted), Calderón would not have won the election.

Ramón Calderón once again rejected calls for his resignation or for new elections, saying they were not necessary and that an investigative commission would be set up to determine what happened during the AGM. He also said that he would look for the AGM to be repeated, but that this was legally not a decision that the Board of Directors could take.

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Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Calderón in new vote-fixing allegations

Ramón Calderón must have spluttered over his morning café solo as he read the allegations in Marca regarding his "theft" of the club's AGM last month.

The paper claims that Calderón "infiltrated" significant numbers of people into the Assembly meeting who had no right to vote to ensure that last year's accounts and next year's budget were approved. The motions were passed (the accounts fairly narrowly, with 55% of the vote) thus ensuring the president's continuity at the helm.

This turns up the heat on Calderón by yet another notch. Marca is by far the most mainstream and, in principle, friendly publication to Real Madrid, and for them to put this on their front page is basically a declaration of war on the president.

In response, the club's director responsible for the membership, Luis Bárcena, made a brief statement to the press:

Before I begin, I wish to make it clear that both the President and his Board of Directors delegated the organisation of the Assembly in this general directorship, so any responsibility regarding the outcome of the Assembly is solely mine.

The first thing I'd like to say is that my first decision was to control access to the Assembly by making Members present their ID cards at the entrance of IFEMA's Palacio de Congresos. I did this in order to add transparency to the Assembly. It was an historic decision, given that nothing of the sort had ever been done.

The second and final thing I'd like to say is in regard to those people who supposedly infiltrated themselves in the Assembly with the purpose of destabilising it. We have decided to investigate on the matter and we have asked the Club's Commission for Social Discipline to confirm these facts and, in the case of finding any Club Members implicated, to immediately expel them from the Club.

Given Real Madrid's archaic voting system at AGM's, all the votes were counted by shows of hands, rather than by using ballot boxes. This means that anyone who was already in the room could vote and there is no paper trail of who cast which votes. There were calls during the assembly to change the system, but the petition was denied.

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Monday, 12 January 2009

Three in a row

It's back to some semblance of order at Real Madrid: the best run of consecutive wins since September, the first away win since October, the best run of consecutive clean sheets since April. This is what Juande Ramos has achieved since he arrived almost exactly one month ago.

Following a widely anticipated loss at Barcelona which was nevertheless tempered by improved, if somewhat over-aggressive, defending, the former Tottenham boss has managed to extract six points from direct competitors (Valencia, Villareal) and win convincingly away from home for the first time in months.

Before getting too excited about the magnitude of that win, it is important to note that Mallorca are a team on the brink. Already in the relegation zone, they did nothing to suggest that they may be able to dig themselves out of that hole come the summer. Nonetheless, after some of the trouble Real Madrid has had this season to subdue allegedly weaker sides, there is no doubt that improvements have been made on Schuster's tactics and team selections.

Real were seemingly not hampered by being unable to train properly on the last day before flying out to Mallorca following the largest snowfall in Madrid for 30 years. Admittedly, scoring a goal after just two minutes does help, and it is Real's man of the moment, Arjen Robben, who grabbed the initiative, latching onto a quick counter-attacking move and squeezing the ball between the Mallorca 'keeper's legs.

Mallorca had set out five men in the defensive line, but, for all they did on the opener, they may as well have still been thinking about Christmas dinner. And they did not get better as, on the quarter hour, Higuaín jinked past several to lay it off for Raúl to cleverly backheel it into the net.

The Real Madrid captain was also celebrating his 500th league appearance, the sixth man ever to do so, and his goal (his 212th) effectively finished off the locals. It's staggering to think that, in his 15 seasons, Raúl has scored 20% of his side's total goal tally.

Nonetheless, that Casillas had so little work to do means that everyone else did their job properly. Lass looks like he has adjusted to his role and position admirably in just two games and ably assisted Gago in the holding midfielder roles.

Their positioning (why was it so difficult for Schuster to get this right?) meant that Pepe and Cannavaro could do their job in central defence, and even meant that the other two defenders, Heinze and Sergio Ramos, could get forward, adding width to the attack.

It was Sergio Ramos who scored Real's third in an offside position and made Juande Ramos comfortable enough with the eventual outcome, that he could afford to rest Robben and Raúl to give some minutes to Huntelaar (who could have scored a fourth) and youngster Palanca.

The result puts Real Madrid up to second in the standings, still twelve points behind runaway leader Barcelona, ahead of a seemingly simply home tie against last-placed Osasuna next Sunday.

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Thursday, 8 January 2009

UEFA postpones decision on Huntelaar and Lass

UEFA's Control and Disciplinary committee did not finally make any pronouncements today as had been expected, regarding the registration of both 'Lass' Diarra and Huntelaar as Real Madrid players for the knock-out stages of the Champions League.

The story has been brewing for a couple of weeks now, ever since Real Madrid signed Lass from Portsmouth and then 'discovered', via the press, that UEFA rules state that of a maximum of three new players that can be registered for the knock-out stages by February 1st, only one can have played in another European competition, such as the UEFA cup.

Admittedly, Real Madrid have found themselves in a fairly unusual position, having lost three players for the remainder of the season before the year was out. However, UEFA rules are quite clear on this point, and have been for some years. Protestations to the contrary cannot disguise the fact that the club's sporting director, Predrag Mijatovic, or one of his team, should have known. The chances of a resignation, or, at the very least, some sort of apology for the mistake, are, shall we say, remote.

Mijatovic & Co. have tried to deal with this in typical fashion, acting as if it is someone else's fault. In this case, they argue that UEFA's rules are ambiguous and contradictory, given that third placed teams in the Champions League group stages then go on to compete in the UEFA Cup, and say they are prepared to appeal all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Besides the fact that it is unlikely that there is enough time for the appeals process to complete before the 1st February deadline, Real Madrid's directors are being at best disingenuous (and thus once again incompetent) or at worst just going through the motions for appearance's sake. The rules are quite clear (articles 17.17 and 17.18 if you want to look them up) and Real will have to pick one of their two recent acquisitions (probably Lass) for registration. Whether the rules are "fair", given Real Madrid's injury situation, is irrelevant, and UEFA may very well decide to alter them, but only in time for next season.

Update: UEFA finally announced late on Thursday evening that its Control and Disciplinary Body had rejected Real Madrid's request and that any appeals would be heard next week.

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