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Nov 5, 2012

Number crunching

It's been a numerical sort of week, if that doesn't sound like too daft an opening. There have been lots of numbers, statistics and records floating on the breeze, some of them of mere historical interest, others seemingly mystical, and the rest more centred on real issues concerning the day-to-day of La Liga.

Shall we start with the mystical? I'm embarrassed to admit that I did seek to verify all this nonsense about Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, their respective sons, and the magical number of 869 days, which unfortunately would appear to be true. It's interesting to note that the fuss made over the birth of Messi's son Thiago, on November 2, has been the most commented-upon birth in history, certainly surpassing that of Cristianito, some two years ago. Just in case you were unaware - because you've been hiding in a nuclear shelter for the last few days - the two sons of the two best players on the planet (with apologies to Andres Iniesta) were born 869 days apart, as were their fathers. One of them is called Messi, which is only two letters away from Messiah - spooky, eh? Which is like saying if you add an 's' to my surname, you'd sum up the whole business quite concisely, but there you go.

Some fellow with far too much time on his hands went to the trouble of finding all this out, and, although it is mildly interesting, I would prefer a mathematician to tell me what the probability of this outcome actually is. I'm sure someone out there can shed light on this, because, meanwhile, I'm convinced that the true 'second coming' is in fact the issue of Sergio Aguero, mixed as it is with the blood of grandpa Diego Maradona. That is a frightening combination, and I'm sure that the kid is already signed up to Real Madrid.

I mention Real Madrid (and not Barcelona, yet) for various reasons connected to this numerical theme, since I wouldn't want you to think that I was automatically favouring them over Barcelona for the signature of Kun 2. Real Madrid, like all financially powerful sides, have an extensive scouting network and escuelas (schools) of football that go right down to unfeasibly embryonic ages - a practice that is banned in certain regions of Spain but which can nevertheless continue to thrive at the so-called 'summer schools', to which promising kids are invited under the premise of a jolly get-together with other kids at a summer camp.

My own son was invited to one of these by an English club when he was 13 and, when I worked in Qatar for six months back in 2009, he trained with an expatriate football academy in whose midfield ranks he coincided with an English boy called Niall Mason, who caused a storm in the English press back in 2004 when he was signed by Real Madrid at the age of seven. His father will forgive me this public mention of the boy since, at the time, he was attracting more headlines than David Beckham, who had gone to Madrid some months earlier. He is now on the books of a Championship side in England, and was worth the hype, it would seem.

But Real Madrid, accused back then of going to ridiculous lengths to secure Mason's signature, have found themselves embroiled in a controversy that questions their youth and reserve team policy for the opposite reasons. Briefly, the Copa del Rey last week saw Real Madrid beat Alcoyano (from the Segunda Division 'B') 4-1 at the minnows' ground in the first leg - standard practice now in the cup here. These games, particularly at this stage of the competition, allow top-flight managers to give their less habitual performers a whole game, mixed in with a certain percentage of first-teamers. The same happens across Europe now, for better or for worse. But one of Real Madrid's scorers, and the best player on the night, was the 17 year-old 'juvenil' Jose Rodriguez, who curiously enough does not actually get many games for Real Madrid's reserve side, Castilla. Jose Mourinho, himself so often accused of not being interested in the youth set-up (la cantera), suggested to Castilla's manager, Alberto Toril, that he should give Rodriguez more playing time and that, in general, the average age of RM Castilla was too advanced - its oldest player being 25-years-old.

The Madrid press rounded on Mourinho for this one, and there was condemnation from almost all the main writers, most damningly from Marca's Santiago Segurola, whose position as the most respected writer on Spanish football makes his views - carefully chosen for their political impact - a litmus test on a manager's status within the club. But Segurola is no puppet, and refused to join in with the public lynching of Manuel Pellegrini over two years ago. Here, he found Mourinho's abuse of power over the less powerful manager of Castilla dictatorial, especially considering Toril's success with the team, last season getting them into Segunda 'A', after too many seasons languishing in the leagues below.

Nevertheless, although he should have expressed it privately, Mourinho has a point. Castilla, formed in 1972 but derived from a set-up that began back in 1946, are almost a club in their own right, and of course made history by reaching the Copa del Rey final itself back in 1980, when they lost 6-1 to Real Madrid's first team, and then qualified for the old European Cup Winners' Cup, losing to West Ham United over two legs. Although the Spanish federation took its time (it tends to), the incident led to a change in the rules, and affiliated reserve sides were no longer allowed to enter the Copa del Rey. And of course, if they win the Segunda Division 'A' title, they cannot be promoted to the same league as their senior partners. Accordingly, they must drop a division if the seniors are relegated, which happened this season in the case of Villarreal.

But what is their function? Well, clearly, it is to provide the first-team with new flesh, and local flesh if possible. However, if the team retains too many players of first-team age - as is the case with Castilla - then the logic of this objective is clouded. The conundrum is, however, that it is better for the reserve team to be playing at the highest level possible. If they are in Segunda 'B' or the bafflingly regional depths of 'Tercera' (Third Division) then the step-up to the first-team is much more difficult. As a consequence, as Alberto Toril would argue, you need to keep a decent amount of experienced players in the squad. The Segunda A and B in Spain are populated by town and city sides with experienced and hairy old campaigners who eat 17-year-olds for breakfast. It might make a player, but it might break them too. And despite the obvious quality that comes with playing for a top team's reserve side, it's significant that very few of them make it to Segunda 'A'. This season, only Barcelona B and Castilla are up there, with the rest of the top flight's reserves scattered around Segunda B.

In Real Madrid's case, perhaps more than Barcelona's, you must also remember that the Madridistas' secret dream is to repeat the events of the mid-1980s, and forge a side from local stone with the same qualities as the mythical "Quinta del Buitre", the vulture squadron led by Emilio Butragueno and his local buddies (although one of the five, Miguel Pardeza, was from Huelva). This legacy haunts the club in many ways, and forces them to pretend that, in some not-so-distant future, the galacticos will return to their planets and the reserve side will supply a never-ending batch of spunky local youngsters, all up for the cause like Raul (who was actually brought up at Atletico, but never mind) and Michel, to quote just two. This truth is an ironic one, given the post-millennial notion that Barcelona is the cantera (youth set-up) and Madrid the cartera (wallet), when the reality of Barcelona's traditional mind-set was that of their cosmopolitanism, as opposed to Madrid's paternalistic Spanish outlook. You'd have to ask an older culé now what they think of all this. Famous Catalans have of course been present throughout the club's history, but it is only recently that the club has started to make a public virtue of this, probably to draw attention to Madrid's own lack of a youth policy. It's a touchy subject, and I'll leave it there.

Getting more explicit about the numbers this week, Mourinho was handed his 100th win since joining Real Madrid, courtesy of a rather flattering 4-0 defeat of Zaragoza. Barcelona made it the best start in their gilded history by defeating Celta 3-1 and reaching 28 points out of the first 30 - a new record and just about the only one that Pep Guardiola didn't manage to either set or break. Tito Vilanova's stock at the moment is sky-high, whilst his ex-director Txiki Begiristain's move to Manchester City has sparked a thousand rumours about Guardiola's next destination, as he sits in his plush New York apartment receiving daily delegates from the clubs with the fattest wallets.

Another interesting fact about this weekend's games was that it was the first time since October 26 2011 that a La Liga jornada took place without one of Messi, Ronaldo or Radamel Falcao being on the score-sheet. That is pretty weird and, again, perhaps some mathematician could provide us with the probability figures on that one. Only Atletico were seen to suffer the consequences, however, going down 2-0 to improving Valencia in the Mestalla. This was Atletico's first defeat in any competition this season (they won midweek in the Copa del Rey) but they still played pretty well.

Anything else? Well, Espanyol won away from home for the first time in 11 months, but since I was forced to suffer this first-hand in Anoeta I'd rather not go into the details. Rayo Vallecano also won at Malaga for the first time in their lives, and despite the recent performances of the latter team, you wonder how long their players will really accept not being paid, particularly by an owner who isn't short of a bob or two. That's more of a case of accountants than mathematicians but, anyway, on the occasion of my 432nd article for ESPN, I cannot let you go without informing you that this number equates to the ideal amount of dimples on a golf ball. Not sure what that means, but it could be life-changing.

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