LOS ANGELES, Calif. - If any Real Madrid players had been entertaining hopes that Monday night's exhibition game against the Galaxy would be a laid-back affair, then those thoughts would have been quickly dashed in the opening minutes when the Galaxy's Pando Ramirez scythed down Michel Salgado and Zinedine Zidane in quick succession.
The tackles drew the ire of the Madrid players, motivated Danish enforcer Thomas Graveson to intervene and spurred the Madrid team into action (they scored shortly after). Ramirez's take on his tackles? "They were 50-50 balls and this is our home turf. We have to protect our territory." You have to admire Ramirez's gumption.
Speaking of attendance, to no surprise, the Home Depot Center was packed to the roof. The crowd was officially announced as 27,000, but it felt like more. The general vibe throughout the night was electric and, frankly, would not have been out of place in a European setting.
Whether it was the crowd that galvanized them or their athletic pride to win, the Real players certainly came to play. They showed no signs of the laconic attitude that had pervaded their training session and disappointed fans on Sunday night. It's also important to note that contrary to rumors, Real did not spend Sunday night partying away at Hollywood hotspot Prey. The team did attend Prey that evening but only for a formal dinner hosted by the Galaxy on their behalf. By 11.30 p.m. the Real players were already on a bus back home to their hotel. The fans needn't have worried; the Real stars (minus an injured Ronaldo) came to play and were all business.
This could be seen in goalkeeper Iker Casillas, showing up on the field a full 30 minutes before the rest of his teammates to take shot-stopping practice. It could be seen again in the brief spat that Gravesen and Zidane had in midfield after a lapse had let the Galaxy in for one of its few first-half chances. Finally, if that weren't enough to convince people they were serious, the sight of Michael Owen tracking all the way back to the edge of his own penalty box on several occasions to dispossess the Galaxy's Ramirez probably did the trick.
For the Galaxy, what was impressive was their collective calm and composure from the onset. Although they struggled to create many clear-cut chances and often looked hesitant to pull the trigger when faced with shooting opportunities, this was a team clearly not in awe of Real Madrid. At the same time, the Galaxy maintained a healthy level of respect for Real. After the game, Coach Steve Sampson admitted that all along, he would have considered it "exceptional to have been able to score against Real Madrid."
As for Real, one could argue that the match proved tougher for them than had been expected. Entering half-time with only a 1-0 lead was probably not something that Coach Vanderlei Luxembourgo had anticipated or hoped for. Despite the widespread assumption that wholesale changes would be made at half-time, Real wheeled out its starting lineup intact for the second half. While they certainly wouldn't have been concerned at the possibility of actually losing the game, Luxembourgo's decision clearly indicated a desire on his part to consolidate the game and, perhaps, to stretch the lead.
When asked after the game if he was surprised that he and the other starters opened the second half, Beckham replied, "Yes, but you know, it's nice to stay on and be able to play some more, although maybe with my injury, I should have come off."
Here are some other observations from the game:
1. Kevin Hartman's great double-save from Luis Figo and Michael Owen aside, the two players that stood out for me were Chris Albright and Paulo Nagamura. Nagamura, in particular, was the pick of the Galaxy players on the night, looking composed throughout and playing very tidy soccer. As for Albright, considering he has just returned from injury, his energy level and workrate down the right were impressive. Clearly, he made an impression on his more illustrious opposite number, Roberto Carlos. Speaking with Albright, he mentioned that Carlos had caught up with him after the game and joked that "he should stop running around so much." Although Real Madrid players were reluctant to single out impressive individual Galaxy players, they admitted that there were at least a couple players who had caught their eye and had given more than a good account for themselves.
2. The Galaxy clearly missed Landon Donovan in the offensive third of the field. That, of course, will come as no surprise to anyone. Having said that, Herculez Gomez continued to raise eyebrows. After the initial 30 minutes of the game, where he looked completely out of his depth, Gomez seemed to recover from whatever stage-fright ailed him and started to make an impact. His and the Galaxy's night would have been memorable if his dribble run and shot in the second half had not gone agonizingly inches wide.
3. Jovan Kirovski also looked classy and was at the centerpiece of many of the Galaxy's most threatening moments. He was less influential in the second half, but that may have also had something to do with the introduction of Ednaldo Conceicao. The two of them just don't seem to link well or be on the same wavelength offensively.
4. Pando Ramirez and Peter Vagenas were disappointing. Ramirez needs to work on having some semblance of a left foot. He's entirely too dependent on his right foot at present. Currently it's a safe assumption that he'll be cutting to his right 99 per cent of the time after he receives the ball. He also needs to work on his decision making. He seems to try to shoot when he should pass and pass when he should shoot. As for Vagenas, he was largely peripheral during the night and may have just been guilty of trying to keep it too simple.
5. For Real, it was a solid preparation game. Zidane looks to be in midseason form already and stood out even among his superstar teammates. However, the hamstring injury suffered by Beckham in the first half has to be of concern. Even though Beckham soldiered on gamely, he was obviously hindered for a large portion of his time on the field. Of note to Beckham followers - in the first half, he displayed a nifty stepover move followed by cutting inside to his left and unleashing a left-footed drive from outside the box straight at Hartman. If there were ever any doubts that he hasn't improved technically during his stay at Madrid, they were erased right there. Beckham's injury didn't stop his sense of humor though. He told me after the game that during the match he'd been joking with Cobi Jones. "I told him that I had watched him in the World Cup in '94 and I think that put him off his game since it was so long ago."
6. Thomas Gravesen continues to do a passable imitation of Claude Makelele. He also took on double-duty by replacing Michel Salgado as the team's official "hard man". Whether it be racing up to shove Ramirez after a crude tackle on Zidane or later administering further 'justice' by hacking down Ramirez and earning himself a yellow card, Gravesen is clearly the team's new enforcer and reveling in the role.
7. Raul continued his perplexing slump. Yes, it's only preseason, but the Madrid captain still looked sluggish and influenced by the malaise that affected him for a large part of last season. Right now, he just doesn't look sharp and nothing at all like the free-scoring striker he normally is. On current form, Real needs to think seriously about starting Michael Owen over Raul if they go with a two-striker set.
8. Any concerns Madrid fans have about Luis Figo's attitude for this season can be allayed. Figo looked energized throughout the team's two-day stay in L.A. He was the only Galactico to take active part in the playing drills in Sunday's training session (netting several times) and was the primary cheerleader in circling the field and acknowledging the fans. On Monday, he was clearly keen to play. Despite not being in the starting lineup, Figo stayed on the field during the entire halftime break to work on drills with several other Madrid reserves. Although his status with Madrid remains up in the air, you have to admire Figo's professionalism.
9. Madrid's insistent usage of comedy defender Raul Bravo continues to be perplexing. He has become to Real Madrid what Roque Junior is to Brazil (and funnily enough, both players failed at Leeds). Any outlandish thoughts of a Galaxy comeback could only be entertained while Raul Bravo was on the field in the second half. Sure enough, Bravo did not disappoint and conspired to miss an open goal from six yards out when he headed Figo's cross over.
10. Real's depth (or lack of it) should continue to worry its fans everywhere. The organizations 'Zidanes and Pavons' policy has left the team threadbare at every position save striker. This was a team that, only a few seasons ago, could call upon the likes of Fernando Morientes, Savio and Santiago Solari off the bench. In its present incarnation, any injuries to the dream-team starting lineup will represent a massive drop in quality. Compared to other powerhouse teams such as AC Milan and Chelsea, Real's depth is negligible.
In summation, there's no doubt that the evening was an unqualified success for both parties. Obviously at present, Real is nowhere near its typical midseason form, but playing such a competitive preseason game against the Galaxy can only help accelerate them to the team's usual level. In terms of establishing a presence in America, it's also safe to assume that a whole new generation of Madrid and Zidane fans were born yesterday.
For the Galaxy, general manager Doug Hamilton was more than pleased with his team's performance and felt that they had acquitted themselves well. More importantly, however, was the impression the Galaxy had made on worldwide observers for the first time. "It's important to show the world that America 'gets' soccer and I think we did that tonight," stated Hamilton. " I also believe that we showed that the gap between MLS and European soccer is not as vast as some people believe." I'd have to agree.
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org