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The Emperor's new clothes

You'll know the story about the little boy, standing with his dad in the crowd to watch the naked Emperor pass.

Well - the new version of the tale took place this weekend in Bilbao, where the folks had paid through the nose to see the gallery of galácticos, fresh from their cup final defeat at the hands of Zaragoza in midweek.

Towards the end of the game, the little boy turned to his father and whispered 'But daddy! Real Madrid don't have any defenders!'

Carlos Quieroz, so far a discreet and diplomatic figure since his move from the shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson, had said as much in the immediate aftermath of the King's Cup defeat on Wednesday, although he put it rather differently.

His point was that if you seriously aspire to the elusive treble of league, cup and Champions League - a feat not yet managed by any Spanish side - you have to build the sort of squad that is capable of scaling such heights.

But the truth is that once you look beyond the Emperor's procession at Madrid, the rest begins to look a bit threadbare. On Wednesday, to put it bluntly, Madrid looked knackered - unable to rest their most influential individuals (apart from Casillas), sorely missing Ronaldo's threat, and incapable of turning over an opponent reduced to ten men.

To really rub salt into the wound, Zaragoza's two best players were the Brazilian Savio, who led them a merry dance, and more significantly the centre-back Milito, whom they rejected in summer due to a failed medical.

Milito himself disputed their doctor's findings, but if the rejection came about because the real target was Valencia's Ayala, then there must have been some red faces in the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday.

But you always have to look beyond the hype, or at least try your very best. The idea that by a mere phrase, 'Zidanes and Pavones', Real Madrid were somehow going to get through this season unscathed, was surely fantasy.

Once Makelele went to Chelsea, Beckham could show himself to be a hard worker, but he lacks the positional instinct of a truly defensive midfielder. It was all very well for Valdano and his friends to congratulate themselves on unearthing the noble 'building-site labourer' in Beckham (as one Spanish journalist put it) and on hurriedly converting Raúl Bravo to centre-back after his return from Leeds - but the little boy remained unconvinced.

The Emperor may have at least been wearing M & S boxers at the beginning of the season, but even they are round his ankles now. Pavón himself, a rather diffident young defender whose name has been converted into a concept which the player himself is failing to fulfil, is now conspicuously absent from proceedings.

A 'creesis' for Iker Casillas and co?
A 'creesis' for Iker Casillas and co?

On Saturday they could really have done without a visit to San Mames in Bilbao, the sort of hostile ground that requires a fresh-legged squad. And they lost 4-2, with a display of defending that would have shamed a schoolboy match.

Suddenly there's a crisis, or 'creesis', as they pronounce it here. The nine-point lead has been cut to just one, with Valencia hammering Mallorca 5-1 and worse, with Barça winning their ninth consecutive game - albeit at the last gasp - and moving to within six points of their deadliest enemy.

Before Christmas it was all Beckham this and Beckham that, with Barcelona unable to get out of first gear and Ronaldinho promising but intermittent. Now Becks has disappeared, presumed missing in combat, and Ronaldinho is being hailed as the new Zidane, with performances every week that are a joy to watch.

The modern synergy between the two clubs is being acted out yet again, with the two of them like rival siblings who seem to thrive best out of the adversity of the other. When one is down, the other is exultant.

If things carry on like this, with Madrid to face a useful-looking Monaco side in midweek, Quieroz may live to regret the mention of the treble as all three trophies begin to fade before his impassive eyes.

But Ronaldinho is simply sensational. It wasn't just the outrageous free-kick in the dying seconds that won the new government's team its latest game, but his general performance. He really has got the lot, and poor Sir Alex must be wondering why and how he let him slip away.

Like Maradona in his heyday, there seems no way of stopping him. He has power, aggression, vision and skill - the four elements necessary for greatness, but he also has the fifth - imagination.

According to the man himself, Johan Cruyff, this is the most crucial element of all. And Cruyff should know. Since the arrival of Davids from Juventus, the Brazilian has been freed into a roaming role that suits him down to the ground, and between the two of them they have pulled Barça up by the bootstraps.

Beckham, on the other hand, seems more and more to resemble the urban spaceman. He doesn't really exist. He's a fine player, of course, but he can only supply others with the ammunition. If the foot-soldiers have taken extended leave, he's an officer without a mission, a pony without a trick - give or take the odd free-kick (he opened the scoring on Wednesday).

He's also getting a lot of stick from opposing midfielders, and is beginning to wear a permanent frown above those chiselled chops. After the cup final, he was the only player not to be consoled by his partner. Victoria was over in the States again, our man being left to grieve alone.

Becks (far left) is nonplussed as Bilbao score at San Mames on Saturday
Becks (far left) is nonplussed as Bilbao score at San Mames on Saturday

Although he's definitely a nice bloke, for which reason you want him to do well, he is nevertheless experiencing what many predicted would eventually happen - a bout of delayed culture-shock, sheer physical overkill and a downward swing in the novelty factor.

Stuck behind the steep walls of his CCTV reality he's probably beginning to miss those family barbies over in friendly and uncomplicated Sawbridgeworth. He'll get over the blip. His principal virtue is his ability to get knocked down and then get up again - but at the moment it's a bit painful to watch. Whatever the feel-good platitudes that he is obliged to mouth to The News of the World every Sunday, England's biggest export is not a happy bear.

Meanwhile, the league has opened up. Valencia are now a mere one point behind, and even fourth-placed Deportivo, still eight points off the top spot, must feel that everything is still to play for.

Zaragoza, the true protagonists of the week's events, were held to a home draw by lowly Espanyol, but have nevertheless confirmed themselves as the cup side non pareil of recent years.

Since 1994 they've won the trophy three times (plus the Cup-Winners Cup in '95), whereas it had taken them the previous 55 years to win it an equal number of times.

They're not doing particularly well in the league, but with those two players whom Real Madrid would ironically love to have back in their wounded and tiring ranks, they have the quality to survive.


  • Read White Storm, Phil's brilliant book on Real Madrid. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.

  • If you've any comments for Phil, email the newsdesk