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Nobody here doubts Ronaldo - Carvajal

Real Madrid

Fanning the flames

There's a little bit of a breach opening up between the Auld Firm and the rest, although La Liga continues to be of interest.

Real Madrid and Barça going head to head is hardly a new phenomenon, but it's comfortably routine and engaging enough to keep the folks' attention. Just in case the public gaze ever threatens to wander, or the fire begins to fizzle out, Spain's football press are most adept at pouring the petrol can and then fanning the flames.

Take this weekend's events, for example. It's almost a year to the week since the famous 'political penalty' at the Bernabéu, when Real Madrid were awarded a more than questionable penalty in injury time to save them from a home defeat against Valencia, at the time their greatest threat.

The adjective 'political' was actually used by Valencia's defender Albelda the next day, in allusion to the fact that the then Prime Minister, José Maria Aznar, was in the VIP box along with several of his ruling party's ministerial bigwigs, all of them Real Madrid supporters.

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, references to past and present conspiracies, with the general insinuation that the Bernabéu and the Body Politic were basically as one.

Several sports newspapers such as Marca and AS predictably demurred, agreeing that there had probably been no foul on Raúl but that the long-term victims were likely to be Real Madrid, since the referees would subsequently be more favourable to their rivals, for fear of further fuelling the favouritism theory. Lots of 'F' words there, but never mind.

Real Madrid's season collapsed soon afterwards, so either the political penalty was a suspension of the inevitable or else it really did work against their interests, ultimately.

As ever in Spain, it depends on which side of the fence you sit, pro or anti-Madrid.

It's the surface simplicity to the whole caboodle which lends it its fatal attraction. Real Madrid are no longer the 'team of the government' because Aznar's Popular Party fell precisely five weeks after that game, and the President of the Spanish Socialist Party who suddenly and unexpectedly took over is a Barcelona fan - though he is not a Catalan.

Neither does Mr Bean look-alike José Zapatero share his predecessor's taste for old pals' networks and extra-curricular power games played out in the corridors of sport, but you never know.

Power corrupts, and only last week it was revealed that Mr Zapatero had threatened to sack any member of his staff who revealed to him the result of the Barcelona match before he had had chance to see the evening's highlights. Nervous laughs among the civil servants, but no-one went so far as to find out if he was being serious.

Anyway, to the point.

On Saturday night Barcelona won a very tricky looking match at in-form Sevilla, by the impressive score of 0-4. But the headlines in most of the non-Catalan press on the Sunday morning were in reference to the three penalties that referee Turienzo Alvarez failed to award to Sevilla, particularly a hand-ball by Belletti in the first half, which, if given, might well have changed the direction of the game.

Albelda: Valencia captain
Albelda: Valencia captain

Sevilla were on top and playing well, but in the second half, Barça hit them with the sucker-punch of three goals in nine minutes and killed the game. The word 'manita' (little hand) was used in a Marca Sunday headline, a word that has a particular resonance in Spanish football because of its turbulent political history.

The hand is not necessarily Belletti's but the referee's, the implication of 'little' being that it is an unseen favour, under the table and therefore conspiratorial.

A year or so ago, a colleague of mine interviewed Marca editor Elias Israel about the political slant of the tabloid, to which the supremo replied that his paper was apolitical, and that its policy was not to mix sport with matters of the State. Pull the other one.

In a clear attempt to discredit Barça's excellent season so far, the paper was implying that the corridors of power were now exercising an influence of a different colour, or something along those lines.

And in the Sánchez Pizjuan itself there was a large banner, longingly stared at by the TV cameras, which asked the million-dollar question of when Barcelona were finally to have their ground closed for the incidents of two seasons ago - the famous 'Pig's Head' affair.

Barça's rather dodgy legal challenge to the two-match sentence, still residing in the in-trays of various lawyers' offices, is of course a disgrace, but it is interesting that the media is beginning to drum up the issue again, just as Barça begin to look as though they might stay at the top of the league. Coincidence?

Then again, in pure footballing terms the papers had a point - Sevilla wuz robbed and even contributed to the eventual thrashing by scoring one of the best own goals of the season - a header by the unfortunate forward Baptista powering into the wrong net from a corner knocked in by Xavi.

Quite what he was intending is anyone's guess, but either side of the event the leaders scored two sublime goals which no politician can ever conjure up.

The opening goal by Eto'o owed everything to Ronaldinho's razor-like perception and speed of thought, passing the ball with a sudden and meticulous precision just far enough behind two Sevilla defenders to give Eto'o the chance to accelerate forward, round the keeper and tap in. It looked simple, but it wasn't. Neither was the Brazilian's goal nine minutes later, when amongst the chaos of falling bodies and a rebounding ball he turned his leg to sidefoot the ball high into the net, in the only part of the goal that was not covered by flailing arms and legs.

Maybe it's just a biological thing, and Ronaldinho's brain simply gets the messages to his feet quicker than does the average human being. However he does it, it makes for a great spectacle.

Over in Valencia, last season's victims of the PP (the political penalty, not the Partido Popular) were scraping a home draw to Athletic Bilbao and falling further behind the top two. They are now fourteen points adrift of the leaders, and looking unlikely to stage a second-half rally to the season. They look more likely to be caught up and overtaken by their near neighbours, the excellent Villarreal, who continued their eight-match unbeaten run by slaughtering Real Sociedad in the other 0-4 of the weekend.

Manchester United supporters will continue to rub their eyes in disbelief, but Diego Forlán now has 13 goals to his name this season, after two more in Anoeta.

Belletti: The Brazilian will solve Chelsea's right-back crisis.
Belletti: The Brazilian will solve Chelsea's right-back crisis.

He set one up too, for his partner-in-crime Riquelme. I know I keep going on about this chap, but he's been simply sensational this season. Still on loan from Barcelona, it beggars belief that they don't want him back at the end of the season, as they have already announced. If that remains the case, then watch out for bids from some of Europe's biggest clubs, come the late Spring.

The way they're playing, Villarreal could easily be in the Champions League next season, but probably without their best player. It would be nice if he stayed, and returned the club the favour of their faith in him, but money will most likely talk.

If the two-horse race hots up, as well it might, the 'apolitical' figures among Spain's footballing press will continue to niggle away at Barcelona, testing their psychological resolve.

Managers don't need to do it here, because the newspapers do it for them. It's all part of the mix, of course, but sometimes you wish they'd just let the teams play their football a little less close to those dancing flames.

  • Phil's latest book, An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure, is out now.

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

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