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Christmas crackers

So the apocalypse failed to show on cue. It has a habit of doing that. It was also supposed to take place on December 12 (12.12.12 and all that), but it finally made an appearance on the evening of December 22, when the backside of Saint Iker Casillas was announced by Chendo, an ex-player and now club delegate, as the new occupant of the Real Madrid bench for the game in La Rosaleda, Malaga. Reserve goalie Antonio Adán - 'Adam' in English - was there at the beginning, and thus it shall be at the end. The runes have spoken.

The collective intake of breath in the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal was involved in the decision too) caused a drop in oxygen levels hitherto unmeasured by science, and the media fuss caused by José Mourinho's little stunt will continue to affect the media's Richter Scale for some time to come. It was almost as if Mourinho had decided to define his legacy on his own terms, as the man who will be remembered in Madrid for dropping Casillas, who is the latest in a longish line of Bernabéu untouchables who have served the club with distinction but who have also crossed the line when it comes to limiting their roles as player and captain.

I don't wish to judge what I cannot really know (I don't have access to the Bernabéu dressing-room) but it was clear from the very first days of Mourinho's reign that the sparks might fly. It was actually in the first weeks of training with Mourinho that Casillas was sent as delegate to the manager to ask him if the team could cut the hated practice of the concentración, where the players get together the night before a match in Madrid in a hotel, separated from wives, girlfriends and boyfriends. Casillas told his new coach that "the players would prefer to be with their wives and kids". Mourinho replied: "And are you married with children, Mr Casillas?" The latter replied in a quiet negative. The little exchange was a rehearsal, a quiet sharpening of the knives for future disputes to come.

There is always a player at Real Madrid who is considered to be the 'symbol' of its beating heart, the flag-bearer of madridismo and its symbolic partner españolismo. He is normally the captain, was probably, but not necessarily, born and raised in Madrid, and most important of all, he will have won the unconditional respect of the Bernabéu. They are never dropped, a theory to which Saint Iker's ten-year run as first-choice goalkeeper attests. The Spanish use the word indiscutible (unquestioned), and this line of players stand, as it were, for the fixed traditions and standards of the institution, above and beyond its seasonal vicissitudes. Luck comes, luck goes. Barcelona triumph, the shadows lengthen in Madrid, then fade again. Presidents come and go, as indeed do managers rather more frequently, but these iconic players are a fixed value of calm above the chaos on the Stock Exchange floor.

Before Casillas there was Raúl, before Raúl there was Emilio Butragueño, Manuel Sanchis, José Antonio Camacho... the list fades back into Spain's footballing history. Barcelona's story is similar, but the club has been a tad more reluctant to put all its eggs in one basket and to trust the club's destiny to a single player, at any moment of its history. This is part of Catalan seny (common sense), evident in the way that the community embraced Johan Cruyff but never quite trusted him, either as a player or a coach. The Catalans are wary of dictators. They're more tolerant of them in Madrid.

Florentino Pérez seemed happy to allow Mourinho to see off all and sundry - Jorge Valdano, Zinedine Zidane, even the club doctor and the head cook, but this latest dart thrown in his direction will be hard to stomach. Casillas wasn't playing well by his own high standards, but to call the inclusion of Adán a 'technical decision' is the best euphemism I've heard since the Americans decided to call toilet paper 'bathroom tissue'. And of course, the 3-2 defeat in Málaga - which leaves Real Madrid 16 points shy of the leaders and seven points behind neighbours Atlético - leaves open the question that the Madrid press would prefer not to ask: will the club enjoy playing in the Europa League next season? Málaga, led by a calm and collected manager who was sacrificed to make way for Mourinho, are now only three points behind them. Maybe it's just the Andalucía effect. Madrid have now succumbed to Sevilla, Betis and Málaga this season, and by Christmas have dropped more league points than during the whole of the last campaign.

But you never know. The Christmas break has a funny way of changing the horizon, depending on what is happening at any particular club. Málaga are an interesting example themselves. Fourth in the league but perfectly capable of climbing higher, still in the Copa del Rey and the Champions League, handed the prestigious 'Golden Boy' prize adjudicated by Italy's Tuttosport to the continent's most promising young player in Isco (Messi, Fabregas, Rooney and Agüero are previous winners), everything would have been fine on the farm if it were not for the awkward little business of UEFA's recent sanction, banning them from participation in Europe the next time they qualify within the next four seasons.

It may strengthen their resolve to win the Champions League this season (stranger things have happened - see Chelsea), but as far as Christmas goes, it's like putting the turkey in the oven early morning and only discovering, eight hours later, that you forgot to turn it on.

Málaga, in classic Spanish style, will challenge the decision, and although one could argue (and the Spanish have) that UEFA is making an example out of various lesser clubs - Málaga being one of six thus punished - it seems odd that a club with such easy-to-tap reserves has failed to avoid what it must have seen coming. One finds it difficult to believe that the Al-Thani family has a cash-flow problem, although you never know.

Málaga have gone overboard on the righteous indignation adjectives, calling UEFA's decision "incomprehensible and abusive", but their failure to pay a whole list of creditors (players included) by last week might also be seen as worthy of a few interesting adjectives. It is also true, nevertheless, that UEFA's criteria for excluding clubs or withholding payments earned from previous competitions are somewhat muddy. But if you've got any nous at all, you keep the books clean. Real Madrid and Barcelona may indeed be massively in debt, but their creditors (the banks) will never call them in whilst their massive collateral in stadia and players stand as witness to their basic wealth. Málaga have an unfeasibly rich owner, but it ain't quite the same. Rich owners disappear. Stadiums occupying vast tracts of valuable land do not.

Talking of vast stadiums, Old Trafford, the Bernabéu, San Siro and the Camp Nou will all have received the Champions League draw with considerable pleasure. Sorry to go on about Madrid, but despite the attractions of the Milan-Barcelona draw, the very sound of Real Madrid v Manchester United is enough to help you bathe in the warm glow of the wonder of football, and its perennial ability to improve our otherwise grubby lives. As they say, it's one for the neutral, with the not-inconsiderable attraction of Cristiano Ronaldo's return to throw into the mix. At a time when all is woe for Mourinho, at least he'll get a warm reception from Sir Alex, with whom he apparently shares a good nose for a vintage red. Ronaldo himself has vowed not to celebrate when (as opposed to 'if') he scores a goal, and Mourinho will have an opportunity to take in the new improvements at Old Trafford and to ponder further on the vexed matter of whether he should plump for the blue or the red of the city in some not-so-distant future. That may well be the topic of conversation over the vintage red after the game. Fly on the wall? Wouldn't you just love to be?

So who's in for a miserable Christmas? Athletic Bilbao lost at home to Zaragoza (2-0) and will at least spend their holidays with the same mind-set as they've spent the last four months, so no big mood swings there. Osasuna, after looking as though they were improving, succumbed at home to fellow strugglers Granada on Saturday night, and sank to penultimate spot. It was my fault. Dropping in to an empty bar for a quick wine before going to watch The Hobbit, I asked the barman if he could switch to the football channel. He obliged, and almost immediately Granada scored the equaliser - their first goal in five games. Spooky, eh?

Mallorca also won at Betis, ending a run of three months without a win. It certainly saved Joaquin Capparrós a visit to the dole queue over Christmas, so he'll be smiling, as will Valencia, who managed to put their league form back on track with an entertaining 4-2 win at home to Getafe, who won't be over-depressed by a defeat in an otherwise decent campaign so far. Deportivo, bottom of the table, will know that after Christmas the only way is up, a philosophy being actively practised by their conquerors Espanyol, who have improved markedly since the arrival of coach Javier Aguirre.

Anyway, I'll finish there. It's Christmas, and La Liga takes a break until the first week of January, when I'll be eyeing the Real Madrid v Real Sociedad fixture, although it's being played a wee bit too late for me to catch a flight north, post-match. Any offers of a private jet gratefully received. I'll also be at Fulham v Southampton on Boxing Day (December 26), but that's a long story. Grimsby Town sit atop the Conference National in England, so all is basically well with the world. Happy New Year!


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