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Feb 18, 2013

Madrid looking for Bale out

There's been a lot of talk about Tottenham's Gareth Bale this week in the Spanish press. Most of it has come from the country's capital, some of it has come from Catalonia, and the rest has come more timidly from Munich. It's February, the league has Barcelona's name on it - barring miracles or a decent-sized meteorite - and Real Madrid are in distinct danger of seeing their season fizzle out on a very damp fuse. Their chances of continuing in the Copa del Rey and the Champions League look somewhat slimmer after the two 1-1 draws in the home legs of both competitions, and whilst there are obviously possibilities, the Madrid press has decided to open some alternative pages of interest to the merengue faithful, in case the other books snap shut. Nevertheless, despite the familiar pattern to these events, the topic of Bale is an interesting one.

Bale himself was reported to have said last week that he thinks Cristiano Ronaldo is a more complete player than Leo Messi, and that his dream is to play alongside the Real Madrid forward. This is the sort of thing that folks like to hear in Madrid. Bale failed to add that he is more accustomed to playing in white than in the blue and scarlet of Barcelona, but maybe it wasn't necessary. This would also have been problematic vis à vis the third alleged suitor, since Bayern Munich's home colours are the same as Wales (well, more or less) and their away colours are the same as Tottenham's - a far more auspicious coincidence.

Whatever, it seems that Madrid are clutching at the alleged straw that Bale is dying to play for them next season, and that therefore all is all right with the world. The 'rebuilding process' has begun, despite the fact that Florentino Perez will have to dig deep to find €60 million (Bayern have apparently intimated that they will pay €50 million), and with Jose Mourinho on his merry way, it's an open question as to who at the club will be handed the onerous task of sorting out the summer's comings-and-goings.

Some players will have to go, if Bale is to arrive, and not just Kaka. It's a complicated merry-go-round, but with no director of football as such, and Mourinho presumably uninterested in the club's destiny next season, the purchase of Bale will not be completed with a simple smile and a handshake. Perez already knows how tough a negotiator Tottenham's chairman, Daniel Levy, can be - rewind to the agonising process of signing Luka Modric - and will not be looking forward to further negotiations without the help of a director dedicated to that very role.

It's interesting that Perez, a skilful operator in the world of business (he heads ACS, a property conglomerate), has shown a distinct inability to delegate powers efficiently at the Bernabeu, preferring big-gesture unilateral actions punctuated with inexplicable miscalculations, such as conferring total power in the hands of a martinet like Mourinho, a man, as they say, with 'a bit of previous'. And so Emilio Butragueno, a man too smart to get caught in the crossfire, spends his days at the club smiling ineffectually in his role as 'head of institutional relations' (whatever that means), and Miguel Pardeza, in the equally vague role of 'technical director', spends his days in his office looking grumpy. I know this because I've been in his office. And he was extremely grumpy.

Looking at the issue from a strictly footballing perspective, however, Bale is more of a Madrid type than a Barcelona one. Barcelona tend to require the players they sign from outside the church of La Masia to fit into the mould, and if necessary, to subordinate some of their natural instincts to the service of the collective. Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and even David Villa have been recent victims of this, and the prodigal son Cesc Fabregas has not found the transition from undisputed big fish to often-disputed smaller one an easy ride.

Bale is a wonderful player - a spectacular combination of power, conviction and technical prowess, but he is a something of a lone wolf. His frenzied gallops down the left-hand side of the pitch would be unlikely to impress the Camp Nou faithful, accustomed as they are to the clockwork efficiency of the system. The system feeds Messi, and Messi gorges on it, like some monstrously precocious infant. There is no room for a player like Bale, who would end up curtailing the progress of Jordi Alba, for one. Bale, like the worst version of Ronaldo - the player he most admires - too often takes it all upon himself. In the Premier League, with its biff-bang anarchy (it's improving, I know), Bale bestrides the chaos like some latter-day Glendower. He would improve in La Liga, but not at the Camp Nou.

At the Bernabeu, he would be welcomed for what he is: a leader of men, a fearless predator. Ronaldo is a good example of this. For all his apparent egomania, he has finally convinced the Madrid hardcore that he is committed to the cause - unlike his mercenary manager, a man who has brought some trophies and restored some self-belief at the club but who is ultimately only interested in his own trajectory. Bale has that vaguely indestructible air of Ronaldo about him - übermensch, as they would say in Munich. He would fit in perfectly, at least as far as his playing style is concerned. How exactly Madrid's new manager would accommodate him is another question that needs to be answered before they splash the millions on his transfer though. Assuming Marcelo can shed a few kilos and become the player he was until recently, the left side of the park is reasonably well covered, although you could argue that Fabio Coentrao would be one of the players that Madrid would want to make a few euros from in the summer, leaving some room for a player of Bale's characteristics.

Then again, you could also argue that Madrid's future cannot be built on these permanent money-splashing signings. Modric was going to make Madrid the complete team, according to the local press, but he has not really adapted to the 'smaller fish' syndrome. With Tottenham he looked fantastic. At Madrid he's just okay. And, surely, there are other areas to strengthen? David Silva or Isco would take a lot of the creative pressure from Xabi Alonso's tiring shoulders, and a more marauding right-sided full-back wouldn't go amiss. There are rumours as to the futures of the twin pillars, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas, but with the departure of Mourinho one assumes that they will revert to their former state of badge-kissing happiness. Ramos isn't exactly cock-of-the-walk at the moment - blamed for Danny Welbeck's goal in the Bernabeu last week, and sent off in the 2-0 derby win against Rayo this weekend, after receiving two yellow cards in the space of 44 seconds. A record perhaps? And there are rumblings of discontent with Gonzalo Higuain as well this season, not to mention the worrying loss of form of Karim Benzema, whose performance against Manchester United was indescribably poor. Alvaro Morata (a madrileno, born and bred) scored for Madrid against Rayo on Sunday. He only lasted 27 minutes, courtesy of a tactical substitution after Ramos' sending-off but, in terms of team selection, could this be the start of something new?

I did stay faithful to my pledge to remain at home this weekend, but still ventured out in the rare sunshine to watch Real Sociedad v Levante on Sunday lunchtime. I witnessed a disappointing draw, although it took Sociedad into the Europa League places, but also witnessed the bizarre event of yet another sending-off against this team, making it eight consecutive games for the Basques against ten men. The previous league record was five, so something is slightly strange here.

The initially odd thing is that local folk memory is imbued with the idea - not without justification - that the refs are generally against Real Sociedad for politico-cultural reasons. History rather suggests that they may have a point, making the present scene more extraordinary still. It's certainly something new, to read on the forums that the refs are on Sociedad's side. It's actually quite amusing, but the explanation lies partly in the way they are playing, with several players unafraid of running at defenders with the ball just that little bit advanced, twixt attacker and defender. Carlos Vela, the arch-proponent of this trick, has already forced five of these red cards, and got himself a penalty on Sunday in very much the same way. Nevertheless, it is a mind-numbing statistic, and one that ultimately defies logic. If they get a ninth in San Mames this Friday in the derby - a ground where they have traditionally been handed nothing but crumbs - I will start to scratch my head.

Elsewhere, Barcelona conceded a goal for the ninth consecutive game but still beat a plucky Granada. With Messi scoring his 300th and 301st in 365 competitive games for his club, he also scored for the 14th consecutive game and reached 37 in the league (36 according to Marca!), which after 24 games is simply stratospheric. For so many years the barrier of 38 seemed insurmountable, but now Messi (and usually Ronaldo) pass it with impunity. Talking of Barcelona, I'm nipping over on Thursday night and should be there until Sunday, which means I might just have to take in the Saturday-night game in the Camp Nou against improving Sevilla (sigh - it's a hard life). Before that, the Catalans have the significant task of taming Milan at the San Siro on Wednesday, but I'm sure they'll have recovered by Saturday to keep the entertainment up. I'll be inspecting that left side to see if Bale could fit in after all. Watch this space.

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