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Dec 10, 2012

The corridors of power

I was intent on starting with other matters this week, but circumstances have prevailed. Leo Messi made it at last, down at Betis, twenty-five minutes into the game following the one against Benfica where he was carried off on a stretcher before a hushed Camp Nou. But records, like rules, are there to break, and you somehow got the feeling that only an outbreak of bubonic plague might stop the little flea from overtaking the torpedo.

I guess we should frame the moment for ourselves, whether we're fans of Barcelona or not. In years to come, I can imagine regaling my grandchildren with tales of Messi, and how we always knew he was an orphan from the Planet Zarg, rocketed out in a capsule just as the planet was about to explode. Messi would finally admit this on his retirement in 2037, on his 50th birthday, when persuaded to hang up his boots to give someone else a chance to win the Ballon d'Or after picking up the trophy for twenty-nine consecutive years.

Radamel Falcao would still appear to be terrestrial, but his five goals against Deportivo in a 6-0 win threatened to temporarily compete with the Messi-Muller headlines. Interestingly, Falcao thus becomes the first Atletico player to ever score five in a league match, in a game where his team scored half a dozen for the first time since 1994, when Valladolid were the victims. For all those data-lovers out there, he is the 22nd La Liga player to score five in a league match since matters began in 1928, but only the second to manage it post-millennium. I hate to sound too clever, but the last guy to score five was Fernando Morientes for Real Madrid at home to Las Palmas in 2002, and I was at the match, researching material for my book on the club, 'White Storm'.

Less well-known is the fact that Morientes also missed a penalty in that game, which if he had scored would have elevated him into much more exclusive company. Only two players have scored six, and only two have managed seven, Bata and the legendary Ladislao Kubala. Bata (Agustin Arana) scored his against Barcelona in a 12-1 win for Atheltic Bilbao in 1930, still the Catalans' worst defeat. Kubala got his in a 9-0 win against Sporting in 1951. So there's something interesting in the difference between five and six goals. Why do so few manage to get past five? There's probably a Doctoral Thesis in Pure Maths on that one, just waiting to be written.

Just to stay with the goals theme for a moment, there was a record glut of made-in-Spain net bulges at the weekend in England too, with Michu, Fernando Torres and Mikel Arteta all scoring twice, and Juan Mata getting in on the act with the other for Chelsea. Michu is now the Pichichi of the Premier League, after moving from Rayo for £2 million pounds. The Swansea fans have been swotting up on their Spanish and are now chanting "Michu selección!" (Michu for the national team!), which of course has been looked on with some amusement here in Spain – not because of the Spanish (which is correct) but due to the idea that Michu might be picked for La Roja. But you never know. Stranger things have happened, and you could argue that it's more of a feat to score regularly for Swansea than to do it very occasionally for Chelsea, but hey, Torres is better-looking.

Anyway, what was that novel called – 'We need to talk about Kevin'? Well, we need to talk about Real Madrid. I was asked on a live radio programme in the States on Saturday evening (well, lunchtime there) who I thought would replace José Mourinho as Real's manager. The phone-in question was framed in such a way as to suggest that this was a fait accompli, and indeed, even the Special One himself has been more or less explicit about his departure at the end of the season, with or without La Décima (the 10th Champions League/European Cup for the club). Whatever, the answer was not an easy one. Ever since the amicable divorce between Florentino Perez and Mou was recently announced (or given the go-ahead by the White House to be publicly stated in the media), the speculation has been more centred on where Mourinho will go rather than who will replace him. Even so, the prospect of a Mou-less La Liga will disappoint those who make capital from his permanent volley of sound-bites, but will delight those who have tired of his apparent cynicism.

For La Liga watchers - and I must admit that after 20 years I've become sensitive to the signs - Mourinho's latent departure has changed the tone of various media outlets towards him. Marca's head writer, the brilliant Santiago Segurola, is now making his contempt for Mourinho more obvious than before, but as ever by subtle means. Segurola cut his teeth on the quality papers in Spain, rising to the ranks of the hierarchy at El Pais, the country's best newspaper, before he tired of the position and decided to accept the easier role of Real Madrid's main match reporter with Marca, a job that he does with surgical precision. Segurola is actually from Bilbao, but lives about 50 metres from the Bernabéu. He once said to me that it was "biologically impossible" to support both Athletic and Real Madrid, and I believe him, where thousands wouldn't. As such, he can report on them with authority, but with the necessary distance that a non-supporter's perspective can always provide. Basically, people still take notice of him. What he says matters.

On Sunday morning, he praised Ozil lavishly for his two goals and general performance, but you got the feeling that it was a back-handed swipe at Mourinho's recent treatment of the German, and of Segurola's own fear that this may have contaminated the Bernabeu´s view of the player. He said the same about Benzema in his first season, defending him staunchly when all the rest were laughing at Mourinho's infamous "hunting-cat" metaphor. He also poured scorn on Madrid's tendency of late to try to play their way out of trouble with long balls, effectively cutting out the playmakers, instead of reverting to the football that they are eminently capable of producing. To end the always implicit attack, he wondered how 50% of the goals conceded this season by Real Madrid could be from dead-ball strategic situations, when the team has players of the aerial capability of Sergio Ramos and Pepe. Iker Casillas not coming off his line? Possibly - but apparently Casillas doesn't listen much to Mou anyway.

But who will replace the Portuguese Man o' War? There are no obvious candidates, but Perez must surely look to bed someone in on a more long-term basis. That would cut out the Ancelloti-Hiddink-Capello sort of 'ship-steadying' type of manager profile, and since there is no-one to come up from the ranks below - another condemnation perhaps of Perez's so-called strategic thinking - a young manager with less predictable qualities than an old-timer, one not afraid to experiment and one perhaps less enamoured of conflict might be the answer. No manager of this type has ever walked the gilded halls of the Bernabéu since perhaps Carlos Quieroz, but that was an ill-fated experiment. Before that you'd have to go all the way back to Benito Floro in 1992 to find Madrid investing their hopes in a bright young manager, if we exclude Jorge Valdano from that description. Now that Michel's chances of taking over seem to have been clouded by his recent record at Sevilla, Joachim Low might fancy his chances, as might Jurgen Klopp, but it's a foggy future in store. I suppose he should have stuck with Manuel Pellegrini, but we all know the story behind that one.

There'll be plenty of time before summer to write the Mourinho obituaries, and as they say, a week is a long time in football, but the rumours of his departure are likely to further hinder Madrid's desire to win trophies this season. A manager's authority comes down a peg, and certain players will always take advantage when they know he's on his way. Indeed, in the end, an analysis of Mou's downfall might conclude that he misunderstood the power of an institution's own icons. Instead of trying to get Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos on his side, he locked horns with them from the beginning, underestimating their influence on the dressing-room and on the terraces. Add to this his back-stabbing of Valdano, and his obvious contempt for Emilio Butragueno, another 'untouchable' who stood between him and total power, and you might conclude that these factors have eventually brought him down, in almost Shakespearean fashion. Et tu Emilio? It'll make good material for the biography, or 'Real Madrid, the Mou years'.

Was Perez wrong to employ him? I don't think so. Last season's league title remains a significant sweetener in the bitter landscape of Barcelona's hegemony, and it put a smile back on the Bernabeú's face. Perez and company were also quite happy with Mourinho's pugilistic approach, but in the end they've tired of it. When all is said and done, Perez is a powerful businessman in a sub-culture that demands suits, ties and dodgy handshakes. He cannot be seen to be a promoter of aggression and lip-curled one-liners, however ingenious they might be. Spain is a country that remains doggedly traditional in its corridors of power. Perez needs to restore a bit of dignity, but Mourinho has served a certain purpose. Now he'll probably go on to serve a similar one at the Etihad Stadium.

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