I am fully aware that Mallorca are actually called “Real Mallorca”. For simplicity’s sake, and in order to avoid repeating “Madrid”, I have used “Real” to refer to “Real Madrid”, as is often the practice in the English media.
With stars such as Rafa Nadal (a true champion) and Tom Cruise in attendance, Real Madrid offered up a spectacle befitting an overwhelmingly exciting last day of La Liga, as David Beckham and Roberto Carlos, two real (no pun intended) Madrid legends, signed off in style, ending Real’s longest trophy drought in half a century.
Just four minutes into the first half, Real were given a warning that the script written by the press and by the president was by no means settled. A depleted Mallorca forward line (their top striker, Bosko Jankovic, was in Holland representing Serbia U21 against England, an interesting subscript considering the sizeable efforts employed by Calderón et al to ensure the participation of Diarra and Robinho, against the wishes of their respective national associations) cut through a wayward Real defence, with Arango, the talented Bolivian striker, crashing a low drive against the post.
However, amidst justified accusations of complacency — papers such as Marca were full of the details of the title celebrations that had been (somewhat prematurely) arranged, and, to the consternation of many, Calderón had led the Real squad on a lap of honour following the draw with Real Zaragoza last week — Madrid failed to heed this forewarning. Following a lethargic start by the madridistas, a lukewarm Bernabeu was silenced by a quick Mallorca counter-attack, with Fernando Varela converting after a superb through ball, Roberto Carlos’ marking found wanting in his final game for Los Merengues.
Real huffed and puffed for the rest of the first period, without really troubling the Mallorca backline, and suffered an enormous blow when Ruud van Nistelrooy, whose form had been electric in recent weeks, was forced off the pitch with a suspected pulled hamstring, destroying in turn van Nistelrooy’s opportunity to take home the European Golden Boot. HiguaÃn, a player with qualities entirely different to the cutting-edge ruthlessness of the Dutchman, was brought on, and Real stuttered towards the break.
With news of Barcelona’s comfortable lead over Gimnastic Tarragona flooding into the stadium, the prospects looked extremely bleak, with only the passionate and commanding performances of Michel Salgado, Sergio Ramos and Roberto Carlos to breathe life into Real hopes. Carlos in particular looked determined and energetic, and frequently broke forward, only for the final pass to be lacking.
The second half saw the introduction of Guti for the underwhelming and pedestrian Emerson, who has surely played his last game for Real. However, even Guti — a player with vast creative skills, if a little suspect in the defensive department — failed to catalyse the Real attack, with only Beckham’s set pieces — one of which, a lingering cross-shot on 57 minutes, struck agonizingly against the upright — posing a threat to MoyÃ ‘s goal, a threat greatly reduced by the absence of van Nistelrooy in the penalty area.
Indeed, had Varela been as clinical as he had been during the first half, he might well have put the game beyond Real. However, Beckham’s swansong was brought to an early end just after the hour mark, with Capello making the seemingly questionable decision to replace the talismanic Englishman with the often ineffectual José Antonio Reyes, who is still without a club for the coming season.
But, these doubts were put to bed just a few minutes later — a beautifully worked move resulting in the equalizing goal which would give Real the belief to go on to win the match. A pass out to Robinho on the left flank appeared to have killed the attack. However, the Brazilian — one of Real’s best performers on the night, and who finished the season very much in the ascendancy — worked tirelessly to fashion an opening, before threading in a perfect ball to HiguaÃn on the edge of the box. The Argentinean in turn relayed the ball to Reyes, who with a cushioned right foot sent the ball into the back of the net.
This quintessential change of tactics — gone were the long, searching high balls from the foot of Beckham, replaced with intricate passing between Brazilians, an Argentine and Spaniards — had by now paid off, though Real’s second goal came, somewhat ironically, from a corner, one of many won over the ninety minutes. Reyes floated the ball into the box, and Diarra powered a superb header towards the goal. However, as is often the case in situations of such intensity, Real’s victory was not without a shade of fortune, MoyÃ getting a hand to Diarra’s header, only to see the ball rebound tantalisingly off team-mate Basinas and into the net, sending the Bernabeu into raptures.
The final 9 minutes were played out with great commitment from all of the Real players, and when Reyes stroked home a curling drive from 20 yards (doing his chances of staying at the Bernabeu no harm whatsoever), the hankies were out — a sea-change since the days of the pañuelada of February, with which the fans protested against the leadership of Capello — and the party had started.
All in all, this was an exceedingly exciting occasion, in what was one of the most captivating La Liga finales for quite some time. Much credit must go to Capello who, despite his relative unpopularity, has cultivated a spirit among the team and mental strength which had been lacking in the days of Luxemburgo and Queiroz, amongst others. We must also commend the fitness regime implemented by the Italian, the effectiveness of which was manifested by the numerous times in which Real came back to win matches late-on (including injury-time winners against Espanyol and Sevilla).
El futuro — sólo Dios sabe
However, the euphoria of this evening should not serve to paper-over the numerous problems which beset the now-champions. Real’s defence is as porous as ever — one of the reasons why they continually found themselves in losing positions — and the cloud of politics over the club remains extremely thick.
With the future of Capello up in the air (the concept of job security clearly not subscribed to in the Bernabeau boardroom), Real find themselves facing a crisis of personnel of sorts: Beckham and Roberto Carlos are certain departures, but the futures of Reyes, Emerson, Salgado (against my preference, I might add), Cassano, Cannavaro, Raúl Bravo and Pavón (the deadweight) are all under question, in what is already a fairly small squad of experienced professionals. E
Even the promise shown by certain canteranos (namely the excellent Granero, targeted by Liverpool if the reports are to be believed, as well as Mata), and the guarantee of improved showings from Gago, HiguaÃn and Diarra in the following campaign, will not be enough to assuage the worry that Real’s future is still far from rosy. No doubt Sr Calderón will address the public with a series of soundbites, promising the signing of an array of stars. However, not only is the galactico policy partially to blame for Real’s relative lack of success in recent years — hence Capello’s turn to players for the future, with the signing of HiguaÃn, Gago and Marcelo — but Calderón also finds himself pursuing targets whose acquisition may prove extremely troublesome, in Kaká, Robben and Fabregas.
As a lifelong Madridista I cannot hide my anxiety at the fact that the media has yet to link Real with many realistic targets, aside from the probable arrival of Metzelder, and the long-touted (and still extremely, extremely unlikely) arrival of Mexes and/or Chivu from Roma. Still missing a second out-and-out goalscorer — a fact advertised when Van the Man was forced to leave the pitch — as well as defensive solidity and general strength-in-depth (it is undeniable that a team forced to field Pavón is severely lacking in depth), Real are by no means odds-on to retain their title next season, especially given the expected improvement of Barça next season.
Eto’o, if he stays, will be far more potent and far fitter, Henry could join the fray, and the squad as a whole will hope to be more united and consistent — the Blaugrana having handed out a 5-1 whooping to Gimnastic Tarragona. And with Sevilla and Valencia improving every year, we are already set for another exciting season!
So, ¡gracias afición!, but ¡a no dormirse en los laureles!
P.S. I am conscious that a few months ago I wrote an article on the mediocrity of this La Liga season. To avoid smacking of hypocrisy, I can only admit that I was absolutely wrong – I had not accounted for the sheer volume of goals and fight in the Real camp, as well as the slip-ups afforded by Barça en el camino.
Match highlights (including all the goals)