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Apr 29, 2013

Changing of the guard?

What a week this was. The unemployment figures went over the six million mark last Thursday, for the first time in Spain's history. That represents 26% of the active population, and normally, football would offer itself up as the opium of the people - a role that the game successfully played during Franco's 40-year regime. It seemed to help in keeping revolution at bay. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, born in Galicia but a Real Madrid supporter, must have been suffering a little last week when Spain's two semi-finalists in the Champions League both failed miserably to deliver the opium. A week earlier, Rajoy had presented the new Pope with the Spain national shirt, signed by all the players. The Pope declined the invitation to slip it on, but he looked very happy, even though I'm sure he'd prefer Argentina to win the next World Cup.

Ah! Forever lurching from joy to despair and back, with nothing in-between, the Spanish are now wailing to the four winds that the failure of their two flagship clubs in Germany last week also signals the end of Spain's Golden Age, as in the year 1700. The conquistador money has all been spent, Charles II has died without an heir, and Pep Guardiola is going to Bayern. It doesn't get much darker.

To cut a long story short, there has been much gnashing of teeth in the Spanish press this week, as you might have expected. Most of it has been apocalyptic in tone, and much of it has carried the rather simplistic message that Barcelona are done for - semper et in omne tempus. The 4-0 scoreline has symbolic overtones, mirroring as it does the famous drubbing that the Dream Team received in 1994 in the final against Milan, a game that signalled the end of the Cruyff era as their guru and lucky charm.

Four-nil was also the score last month when the two sides met again in the last-16, this time in the Catalans' favour, and of course, the latest appearance of the result was last week in Bayern's intimidating Allianz Arena. The Spanish are nothing if not superstitious, and their attitude towards the 4-1 that Madrid received in Dortmund has been similarly surrounded by runes and magic. Permit me to explain.

The tabloid Marca ran a headline on Saturday which was intriguingly obscure. Only Madridistas of a certain age and foreign nerds such as myself will have picked up the reference. Referring to Saturday evening's derby in the Calderón with Atlético, the header screamed "Derbi…County". Now there's a cryptic clue, if ever I saw one. What the author of this header meant was that Real Madrid were about to play a derbi (derby) in Madrid but were also facing a situation identical to the one they had faced in the 1975-76 European Cup (last 16) when they lost 4-1 to Brian Clough's Derby County on an October night in England. Charlie George scored a hat-trick, and I can remember watching the game on the TV in the university common-room. Madrid were stuffed, but Pirri scored the vital away goal (read Cristiano Ronaldo in Dortmund), and in the return leg Madrid won 5-1, Santillana applying the coup de grace in extra time. Marca's journalist didn't even bother to explain the headline, since for a certain generation the game marked a turning point in the club's history.

The first half of the 1970s had seen the dominant side of the 1960s slip into a lower gear. Some of the strut had gone from the Bernabéu, and the Derby County match began the new era of the remontada (comeback), a mythical word in Real Madrid's history now but one more associated with the post-1975 period than with the previous era. Indeed, although back in that year Jorge Valdano was a rather obscure Argentine forward playing in the Basque Country for Alavés, it was the Derby County game that prompted him later to refer to the Bernabéu effect as 'miedo escénico', a paraphrase of a line by Gabriel García Márquez which basically means 'stage fright'. He meant stage fright for the visitors, but that's where the present situation starts to look a little silly.

It's true that Ronaldo's goal gives Madrid some hope of fulfilling their décima (dream), but the miedo escénico was exactly what happened in Dortmund, and perhaps to a lesser extent in Munich. Dortmund's ground, the Westfalenstadion (or more recently, the rather more naff-sounding Signal Iduna Park) is the biggest in Germany and its terrace, the Südtribüne, is still the largest standing-only area in European football - even if seats are bolted in for European competition. It looked awesomely terrifying on Wednesday night, and Madrid just never seemed to cope with its capacity to intimidate.

There are some hard-bitten warriors in the Madrid side, but they were rolled over by a combination of noise, tactical nous and sheer physicality. By contrast, the Bernabéu these days resembles a middle-class theatre for prosperous happy families, unwrapping their prawn sandwiches politely at half-time (dixit Roy Keane of Old Trafford's similarly bland post-modern atmosphere). I exaggerate. But the Bernabéu is unlikely to unhinge Borussia Dortmund in the same way. What Madrid will need to do is to re-think their approach, and try to unleash their ace cards onto a side that can still be beaten. Madrid can win it by dint of the various exceptional individuals in their side, but to do that they will need to ensure, this time around, that Xabi Alonso gets more protection. Like Bayern did to Barcelona, Dortmund not only harried him physically, but they cut out his supply lines, time and again, anticipating the intention of his passes and launching counter-attacks even speedier and more deadly that those with which we now associate Real Madrid.

Any more runes for the occasion? In the 1985 UEFA Cup, Borussia Monchengladbach (note the first name - spooky eh?) beat Real Madrid 5-1 in the first-leg, but Madrid turned it round 4-0 in the return tie. This time Valdano was playing, and he scored twice in the Bernabéu. Saturday's 2-1 win at Atlético Madrid will have done no harm to Madrid's cause, certainly in terms of lifting their morale. Almost everyone was assuming that Atlético, in the rehearsal game for the King's Cup final at the Bernabéu on May 17, would win, given the 'B' team that Mourinho was always likely to send out and the fact that Atlético were much more pumped up for the game. But no. It ended up the same as it has done for the last 14 years. Atlético still haven't beaten their neighbours this century, and lots of key players took a rest for Tuesday night. Cristiano Ronaldo is allegedly struggling, but it sounds like phooey to me. Send out some smoke signals, and confuse the enemy? I don't think Jurgen Klopp is taking too much notice.

Barcelona's horizon is cloudy too, but it lacks the away goal to give it a potential silver lining. But I think it's a bit soon to write them off as an institution, as a concept. Was last week the death of tiki-taka? I think not. It's far too simplistic to assume that one game - in which Bayern exposed Barcelona's lack of height and current stamina - spells the death of one paradigm over another. I'm still not sure as to what the new paradigm is that Bayern are allegedly offering. Bayern won because they played wonderfully, the wind was already in their sails, and Barcelona were just unable to produce yet another magical night. They looked pale and child-like, with the world's best player reduced to anonymity. Bayern's fitness was astonishing, and their pressing game mirrored the tactic that the Dream Team 2 have been employing so effectively for the last five years. It's not as easy as it looks, and everyone has to be up for it. Barcelona weren't, and they made mistakes, both in the choice of players and in their tactical preparation for the game. But the mighty midgets aren't finished yet.

I also disagree with the idea that, despite the two goals that should never have been given, Bayern deserved to win anyway - and so it doesn't matter about the illegality of the goals. Of course it matters! Two-nil is very different to 4-0. Had those goals been disallowed, I'm not sure that we would have heard all this hysterical talk about the end of an era. I doubt that Barcelona can turn it around, but I suspect that they might wish to make a few points on Wednesday night. Remember the slogan of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Don't panic! Indeed.

Barcelona actually had a rough night in San Mames (2-2) and failed to win the title that could have been theirs by now, had Real Madrid succumbed two hours later. They can wait a little longer. It's not a problem. And as ever, at this stage of other competition, the teams threatened with relegation begin to wake up and smell the hummus. Zaragoza won for the first time in 16 games, beating fellow-strugglers Mallorca in a 3-2 epic. The sounds of Si se puede! (Yes we can!) are now ringing around more stadiums than simply that of Deportivo. Depor's Galician rivals Celta are also smiling again, having won 1-0 away at stuttering Levante, and Granada won 1-0 at Espanyol, another surprising result. That's Granada's first win nine games, since February when they had that brief happy run of beating Madrid and Deportivo 3-0 away.

To finish, I just got back from Real Sociedad versus Valencia. It was another wonderful performance from the home side, coming back from 1-0 down to pummel a very good Valencia side, 4-2. La Real now sit in fourth position, five points clears of both Valencia and Málaga. Don't forget - this is the most home-spun squad in La Liga, more so than Athletic Bilbao. My son summed it up nicely on the bus back home: "Dad - I was born here, and I've never seen this lot do anything. Champions League? I can't believe it. This is just... awesome!" Absolutely. Just a shame that Grimsby lost to Newport County in the Conference semi-final play-off. It would have made the day a perfect one, and I was about to book a flight to London to bring ESPN an exclusive for next weekend. Oh well, next year then.

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