Well, they did say a week is a long time in football. How relevant that statement is for Real Madrid. After losing 3-4 at home to a Sevilla comprehensively dismantled by Barcelona the week before, and the manager Bernd Schuster intent on relieving himself of his duties by claiming there is no hope of even at draw in the Nou Camp, the fans of los Blancos had the handkerchiefs out in force.
Then Captain Raul went out and publicly, with the support of sporting director Pedrag Mijatovic, contradicted the pragmatism of his soon-to-be ex-manager, by claiming the white shirt can win anywhere. The result: Schuster found his escape route out of the Bernabeu, agreeing with Mijatovic to keep the decision away from President Ramon Calderon, who was bound to blurt out the news to the press in his usual comedic manner.
The signing of Juande Ramos happened quickly and suddenly there was an epidemic of optimism (to borrow a phrase from Mr. Rushdie), as Madrid beat Zenit St. Petersburg 3-0, the best of the goals being Raul’s cheeky chip over Malafeev.
With a huge 15 goals conceded in a mere 7 games, there is a lot to be done as only Sporting Gijon has a worse record. A pairing of Metzelder and Cannavaro will hardly strike fear into the hearts of the Barcelona forwards, while Sergio Ramos is in a spell of poor form, and seems to be unable to provide any cover for his centre backs. On the opposite flank Marcelo, lacks any defensive capability, highlighted by his absurd decision to take up the left wing spot, after Robben was sent off and Madrid had clawed back to 3-3 from a two goal deficit. The result? Sevilla scored the winner, from a cross from their right flank – the area which Marcelo was supposed to patrol.
To cope defensively, Ramos is considering promoting some Castilla players to the first team squad to add some solidity. Left back Chema Anton and striker Alberto Bueno joined the squad of 18 for the Zenit game and many be involved once again in El Clasico. Despite signing for only six months, it is clear that the former Sevilla boss is anticipating a longer stint, especially in regards to his response to the media about how he is set to approach the challenge of a Madrid in disarray. A change from 4-3-3, to 4-4-2 will help to attain defensive stability, something with Madrid have lacked this season.
Apparently a deal for Benfica winger Angel Di Maria has been agreed in principle, while Ramos also wishes to bring in Andrei ‘el magico’ Arshavin and shockingly Didier Zokora, who lacks any sort of positional sense, the capacity to pass or track runners. He does have some stamina though. An adequate replacement for the injury-stricken Diarra, he will never be.
And with Mijatovic his superior, one can practically guarantee that Ramos will buy his desired targets. Schuster had the same problem. Calderon’s love affair with Cristiano Ronaldo catalysed the loss of Robinho, and failed to bring in the required reinforcements.
Now the Madrid supreme is blaming his object of desire for the whole saga, claiming it was Ronaldo’s wish which forced Madrid to act. And of course the media were another excuse for amplifying the speculation. Of course Calderon’s gift of an Audi to Ronaldo as a sweetener to seal the deal had nothing to do with it (forgetting that with Ronaldo acting as an ambassador for the German company, he could have had all the free cars he wanted).
Raul reportedly refused to sanction the signing of David Villa (though the Madrid legend later denied such claims), as it would spell the end of his role as first team starter. Many critics of the Spanish club have also commented on the influence of the old guard in Raul, Guti and Salgado. All three have a huge say in political matters of the club. Their votes are equivalent to 50 of the normal socios, thus making them the playing equivalent of the club directors. This means the trio can effectively oust the coach if desired. The timing of Raul’s statement to contradict Schuster’s claims only adds to the theory of wanting to remove the German from his role as coach. Salgado is married to former president Florentino Perez’s daughter; Raul is the nephew of another ex-president in Lorenzo Sanz and Guti is the best friend of the two giving him equal influence.
In such a club, the coach is seen as expendable, while these power-players will become a part of the Bernabeu furniture, much like Hierro and Butragueno, they will take up other roles in the club. Yet, this isn’t the only issue in the dressing room. Reports (likely to be tentative) have claimed there to be a divide between Casillas and Raul, while the Dutch and Argentinean factions appear to be vying for influence too. Over in Catalonia, FC Barcelona seems to have no such problems. Last year and the 4-1 thrashing in the Bernabeu is a distant memory, as the disruptive old guard were sold.
The rotation policy employed by boss Pep Guardiola has kept everyone on their toes and added a competitive edge, which has seen their fellow title challengers swept away with considerable ease. The defeat in midweek at home to Shakhtar Donetsk ended an unbeaten run of 21 games, bearing in mind Barcelona put out practically a reserve team, full of cantera players, and the fact that top spot in their group was assured. The side has scored 64 goals in a mere 22 games in the three main competitions, and conceded only 17 goals. The depth of the squad is also a reason for los Cules to be proud, especially, when a player of Aliaksandr Hleb’s calibre can come in for Messi, and Henry can shift inside if Eto’o is unavailable.
The integration of young Catalan players, such as Busquets, Pedro, and continuing from last season, Bojan Krkic, has given even more joy to fans, who seem to be so confident in their side, that Nou Camp attendances have been dwindling of late. With one side in the ascendancy and the other submerged with in-fighting and politics, the typical fan would predict only one outcome. But ‘el clasico’ derbies aren’t decided on form, with Capello’s Madrid gaining a 3-3 draw at a time that was thought to be a low point in that campaign. It was the turning point of their 2006/07 season, and set a trail for the title, and only a late moment of magic from Lionel Messi rescued a draw for Barca back then.
At the risk of being hopelessly wrong, here is a prediction for the biggest derby in world football: Barcelona 4-2 Real Madrid. All the politics and regional differences will be forgotten as Madrid look to claw back a nine point deficit and Barca look to cement a seemingly insurmountable lead at the top of the Primera Liga. All signs point to a Catalan victory, but knowing this derby, Madrid could spring a surprise under the guidance of former Barcelona youth coach Juande Ramos.
The author writes at Libero Football.
Also see – a short history of the Super Clasico.