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Alarm bells sounding for Everton

Everton
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Smallest book in the world

There used to be a rather daft series of jokes hanging around when I was a youth, entitled 'The Smallest Book in the World'.

There remain a few standard classics to the series, like 'The Book of Interesting Tories', 'The Book of Grimsby's Renaissance Buildings' or 'The Book of Long-Lasting Bolivian Presidents' and some rather more offensive ones that can no longer see the light of day in the post-modern world of political correction.

However, a new one was added to the football-related list yesterday, namely the 'The Book of Claude Makelele penalties'. This new addition swells the list of classics which also contains such tomes as 'The Mourinho Book of Modesty' and the 'The Craig Bellamy Book of Self-Awareness', but let's not get carried away here.

It was interesting, nay downright surreal to see the tiny French midfielder scoring from the spot against Charlton, and equally touching to see him mobbed by his team-mates once he'd sliced in the rebound with his left foot. Makelele doesn't do goals. They're not his thing. He hadn't actually scored one since 1999, when he was playing in Spain for Celta Vigo.

He once got carried away in the 1996-97 season when playing for Nantes, scoring five goals, but he has since seen the error of his ways.

Of course, there are plenty of folks around who date Real Madrid's decline from the departure of young Claude, and this column would not disagree.

Florentino Pérez once seemed a man of sense and equanimity, until faced with the issue of the midfielder at the beginning of his third year in office.

Makka, feeling a little light of wallet compared to several of his team-mates, went on strike during the Beckham summer in an attempt to bring his wages into more of a galactic line, and was shipped off to London for his pains. Pérez, in a subsequent press-conference, came out from behind his specs for the first time in his presidency, and revealed himself to be rather less sagacious than he looked.

'Isn't it a bit of a risk, transferring Makelele?' asked one journalist. 'Not at all' replied the master tactician-president. 'We've just transferred a player who can only pass the ball four yards and bought another [Beckham] who can pass it forty'. It was at that precise moment that you knew Pérez had lost the plot.

But it also makes one reflect on the way that the media views football, and even the players themselves. It was fantastic to see Chelsea's players mobbing Makelele, but the truth is that players like him will never win the seasonal awards.

No disrespect to John Terry, who is indeed a fine centre-back - but it is interesting to note that he has only really been considered as such since the arrival of Makelele. The same has happened in reverse at Madrid.

Where once the pairing of Ivan Helguera and Fernando Hierro was seen as the match made in defensive heaven, it was clear that once the Makelele protective shield was taken away, Helguera would be exposed for the rather leaden-footed ordinary guy that he is.

Hierro decided not to hang around, and wandered off to the rather less demanding environments of Qatar and Bolton to ply his trade, whilst poor young Pavón was shoved up out of the trenches to be mercilessly exposed to the enemy fire.

Makelele is the black Nobby Stiles, the best player in the world in his position. Terry is ok, but he would never have won the award without the ball-winner in front of him. Frank Lampard's emergence has also suspiciously coincided with the freedom that the ex-Madrid player has afforded him.

I think it would have been great for a destroyer to have finally won the recognition he deserves, which would have shown an appreciation of the wider aspects of football. It's rare enough for a centre-half to get the PFA Player of the Year, but a defensive midfielder? One day maybe, in a more enlightened age.

Claude Makelele scores a rare goal in Chelsea's Saturday coronation.
Claude Makelele scores a rare goal in Chelsea's Saturday coronation.

Makelele is a brilliant example of self-discipline, of private sacrifice to the cause. Not only that, but he's the supreme example of how less can be more - of how the four-yard pass can be more effective than the forty-yard version, for example.

Real Madrid have realised too late, and bought Gravesen - I was going to say a pale imitation of Makelele but perhaps I'd better rephrase that. Actually Gravesen's pretty good, and the team have definitely improved since his arrival - but too late was the cry.

The man at the other end of the scale, the man who would argue that 'more is more', was up to his tricks again this weekend, virtually ending the league programme for this season.

Ronaldinho hit another stunner, this time into the left-hand top corner of Valencia's net to open the scoring for Barça on Sunday, in a game they had been widely predicted to lose.

But there was something in their strut and poise in the Mestalla that suggested that if they can keep the nucleus of this side together, they could go on to dominate La Liga for several seasons.

At one point in the second half, after a series of feints, flicks and fireworks from the Brazilian, all of them pulled out of his hat of seemingly endless tricks, Barça won a corner over on the right.

As the ball fell fast from the sky to the edge of the area, Ronaldinho leaned back and brought his right leg over and across the ball with amazing grace, connecting with a volley of outrageous difficulty and sending the ball whooshing past Valencia's right-hand post.

The home supporters, normally a voluble and aggressive lot to visiting teams, simply remained silent. It was a telling moment, a collective acceptance of the fact that they were witnessing greatness. You don't jeer at greatness, because it doesn't come along very often.

He hushed the Mestalla - no easy feat in possibly the noisiest stadium (and city) in Spain. Next week Barça return to the city, to take on struggling Levante - on the surface a much easier game.

Levante need to win to prevent an improving Mallorca from catching them up, but if Barça win they will take the title. Even if they lose, it's difficult to see them blowing it now.

Poor old Madrid. Just as they were beginning to get their act together, it all comes to nought. Even Raúl played well on Saturday, at home to Santander. Things are looking up.

David Beckham: Clashed with Toda
David Beckham: Clashed with Toda

'Derbi' day in Seville it was too, and Betis deservedly took the points in the bi-annual civil war that goes by the name of a football match. Next week, Sevilla, who are still very much on for a Champions League spot, entertain Real Madrid in a clash of the season's secondary titans.

It's difficult to see the boys from the Bernabéu emerging from that one with all three points, which means that it's probably all over bar the shouting. By this time next week, the Catalans will surely have won their first league title since the previous century - 1999 to be precise.

The Van Gaal ghost would finally seem to have been lain to rest, and it couldn't have been done by a nicer bloke than Frank Rijkaard. All power to the good guys. It certainly makes a pleasant change.


  • 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