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Mind(less) games?

There's a kind of perverse delight to be gained from reading the sports tabloid Marca, Spain's best-selling newspaper. Since it's everywhere, you might as well read it.

It's in the cafes, in the hotels, on the buses, in the toilets. Open your hotel drawer to pull out the Gideon's Bible (as you do), and out pops Marca.

There are those who claim that they never stoop so low as to open its devilish pages, and in certain institutions the paper is openly looked down upon. When I drop down from my office for my mid-morning café con leche and tortilla in the sacred 'Little Fountain' café across the busy road here, I swear that I can see colleagues looking down their noses as I pass through the corridors. Some people just won't come close to the publication, as if it might leave them with radiation burns.

But with up to ten million copies being read every week, they must be doing something right. The great strength of Marca resides in its openly political nature.

Its hostility to all things Catalan is disguised in more diplomatic language than the Catalan press itself employs when talking about Madrid, but everyone in Spain understands the references, picks up on the political nuances, and knows exactly when the knives will be pulled out or sheathed.

This weekend, for example, was a classic. Like The Sun in England, the writing team at Marca is expert in provocative and eye-catching headlines - but without the vicious bile of the English paper.

Attempting to begin a psychological mind-game with Barcelona after a week in which the team suffered its first defeat in several aeons at Zaragoza in the King's Cup, Saturday's header announced that 'El Barça flojea' (Barça are weakening) with a series of accompanying subtitles that informed us (according to the sagacious Guti) that 'They're not playing like they were', 'They're winning games by the skin of their teeth', 'There's still time to catch them'.

Rijkaard, the cover added, had begun to be criticised, chiefly for leaving Puyol out of the side (Zaragoza won 4-2), without going quite so far as to suggest that he might be sacked if they lost another game in their next eighteen.

Having ventured inside, the reader was then regaled with an article entitled 'What a coincidence!' which catalogued the alleged favours that referees had been granting Barcelona all season.

'Of course', disclaimed the wonderfully named Fernando Porrero, whose surname translates roughly as 'joint smoker' (he would appear to have been smoking something before he wrote the piece) 'no-one is saying that Barça haven't been good this season, but...' and proceeded to list these crimes against humanity.

Barça have been awarded more penalties than any other sides this season, they have been shown the least number of yellow cards, have only had two men sent off (as opposed to the seven from Madrid who have been seen red) and they are second only to Villarreal in the fewest amount of fouls committed (331, in case you're interested).

Anyone see a problem with that?

Apart from the occasional historical exception, such as the Atlético Madrid side that hacked its way to the double in 1996, and the Butcher of Bilbao-led side that won two titles in the 1980s, there would seem to be a logical connection between those sides who are successful and the sort of statistics outlined above. Or put it another way, sides that fall foul of those criteria are usually the ones that are struggling.

It's maybe a case of the chicken or the egg, but the fact that Barça have won so many penalties might just be evidence of their vivacious attacking play - for instance. And the fact that they try to play football means that they have less time for kicking lumps out of people - although they have players (Puyol and Marquez come to mind) who are perfectly capable of looking after themselves.

And was the defeat at Zaragoza evidence of the beginning of a slide? I don't think so, certainly not on the evidence of the 0-3 result at Mallorca no Sunday. It's true, of course that in midweek the Catalans were handed a lifeline in the cup by the awarding of a dubious penalty on Messi, but the whole article on Saturday was a juicy piece of irony. Marca complaining about Barcelona being favoured by referees! Ah!...The poor Generalissimo must be turning in his grave.

Add to that the fact that the Prime Minister of the country supports Barça too, and well - things just ain't what they used to be! It reminds me of that speech in Shakespeare's Macbeth where after the king has been murdered, a chap complains that he saw a sparrow eat an eagle, and a bunch of horses resorted to eating each other for breakfast, or something like that.

Barça being favoured by the refs? O brave new world, that hath such people in it!

Mind you, there is life at the Bernabéu yet. Since the turn of the year, things have been looking decidedly rosier, with six wins and a draw in the last seven, and a place booked in the semi-finals of the King's Cup, where they may be due to meet Barça. First the Catalans have to reverse the 4-2 defeat at Zaragoza, in the event of which they would meet their eternal rivals on February 15. That would make an interesting few days for the league leaders, due to meet Chelsea six days later.

What's behind Madrid's perkier form? They're still miles behind the leaders, of course, but at least they're beginning to fire on all cylinders again. Caretaker manager López Caro has obviously had something to do with it, and as Zidane remarked in midweek, they're playing better because 'we're training better', in an indirect swipe at the lately departed Luxemburgo.

Since the Frenchman himself is playing once again like the genius we all know, the comment has to be taken seriously. More significant though, is that the turn-around in fortune has been achieved largely without Ronaldo, and totally without Salgado and Raúl.

In fact this very weekend, López Caro left Ronnie at home, despite the fact that he was fit again - and flew to Celta without him. The result? Another win, in difficult circumstances, with Celta putting up an excellent fight. What seems to have returned to Madrid is the collective, the work ethic.

Once that is back in place, Madrid can look pretty scary. Where once all was woe, suddenly it all looks like an efficient machine again.

Robinho has knocked in five goals since the new year began, and made several others. The jury's still out on whether he can maintain it, but he suddenly looks to have got the measure of the Spanish game, with its stop-start rhythms and its often hidden physical nature.

And Salgado who? Probably the team's best performer whilst all was falling about its heads, he now finds his position covered more than ably by the extremely interesting Brazilian Cicinho - a player who has already put the Bernabéu in his pocket. He looks the kind of guy the Madridistas like. Fast, skilful and lethally committed, he may turn out to be the best signing of them all.

Michael Laudrup claimed this week in an interview that Madrid had 'no strategy' behind their policy of signings. He was referring by contrast, of course, to Cruyff's deliberate construction of the Dream Team and of Rijkaard and Beguiristain's present coherence in the context of team-building.

That may be so, but sometimes the random game pays off. Woodgate, for example, can still be an important piece in the jigsaw if he finally manages a run in the team, and Sergio Ramos has been consistently brilliant - balancing the fact that his ex-Sevilla team-mate, Baptitsta, has not really looked the player this season that everyone thought he was.

Pablo Garcia too has generally performed well, and Beckham, though the English press seem reluctant to mention him these days unless there's a whiff of scandal in the air, is actually playing excellently.

Guti seems to be having one of his better spells too, all of which is keeping Marca's scribes reasonably happy. Even Atlético are beginning to improve, also under local caretaker manager Pepe Murcia. Making his home debut in the dug-out, Atlético won an exciting home game (their first in two months) 3-2 against Deportivo, who themselves seem to be stuttering again.

And finally, if you get the chance to see a rundown of La Liga's goals from this weekend, don't miss Messi's second against poor Mallorca. The speed of thought and the execution of the delicate chip to beat the onrushing Moya was not the stuff of ordinary mortals. So Barça are 'flojeando' eh? Tell that one to the birds.

  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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