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Dec 11, 2006

Two horses or three?

I suppose it's in the nature of things these days to have two-horse races. There's plenty of money swishing around Europe's various football leagues, but only the privileged few can count on the megabucks that separate the thoroughbreds from the also-rans.

It's a paradigm that people accept, and in a perverse sense the only thing that retains our interest, as neutrals, is the possibility that in some way, somehow, the duopolies of the European leagues (or occasional triopolies - now there's a word) can be broken. Hence the fuss when Napoli did it in Italy, Deportivo in Spain etc. There are other examples, but you're here to read about Spain.

On Saturday night there was the fascinating sight of the new third horse coming up along the rails, a third horse very much on the outside of the various TV-fuelled bonanzas which have further swelled the big two's bank accounts for the foreseeable future.

Sevilla have had plenty of mention in this column before, but Saturday night's game in the Sánchez Pizjuan against Real Madrid was bursting with issues, veritably frothing with needle and partisan interests. Neither did it disappoint when the actual game got under way, since both sides were determined to prove that they were the most plausible second horse, the one who was best equipped to go about the task of dethroning Barcelona, should the champs stumble.

Real, as a rule, tend to consider themselves above such posturing, and let it be taken for granted that in the event of a Catalan collapse, it is they who are the champions elect. But not this season. Three years without a trophy seems to have humbled them slightly - either that or they simply fear the Capello version of the hairdryer.

As a result, it appears that everyone got it wrong about Madrid. They lost to Sevilla, but in doing so ironically boosted their image as regards the possibility that they might regain the title at the end of the season. With Barça gallivanting off to Japan this week to take part in the 'World Masters', or whatever they call it, the winners of this game knew that they would be exerting maximum pressure, storming in along the rails. It made for fascinating viewing.

With Diarra out suspended, Capello brought in Beckham to play alongside Guti and Emerson in midfield, thus dispensing with the 'double-pivot' that has so annoyed the Madrid press this season. Whilst they are beginning to accept that Emerson is maybe a better player than they thought he was, they remain sceptical about Diarra, seeing his pairing with Emerson as an overdoing of brawn and a tragic neglect of brain. And magically, with Emerson freed to do the hod-carrying all by himself, and Guti and Beckham passing Sevilla to death in the first half, Madrid suddenly looked like a decent side again.

The end of Ronaldo, Carlos, Beckham and Raúl? Their deaths have been announced on numerous occasions over the past twelve months, but in the first half at least, you had to sit back and admire their energetic refutation of such nonsense - much of it written in this column.

Ronaldo was restored up front, playing slightly behind Van Nistlerooy, and every time he got the ball the Sánchez Pizjuan, not an easy place to keep quiet, seemed to undergo a deathly hush. It was simple enough - but Real Madrid were playing football again. Beckham scored a cracking free-kick, but it wasn't just the goal that caught the attention, nor the fact that with this game he overtook Gary Lineker to become the Englishman who has played most games in the Spanish top flight. Steve McLaren really should think again, since it seems insane to deprive England of their best passer. So Beckham's not quick. So he doesn't take people on. So what? His use of the ball, in the first half particularly, was a wonderful example of how technique and positioning are all that's required.

Having Ronaldo up front helps too. Beckham has always benefited from forwards who like the ball played into space in front of them, or who like the ball played in quickly to their feet. It's not about his crossing ability, because it's too easy to set up your left side to stop him getting into those positions. But the speed at which he and Guti (picking up the scraps from Emerson's tackling) repeatedly hit Ronaldo and Van Nistlerooy, then got forward to support them, completely put Sevilla off their stride. With both Roberto Carlos and Salgado's overlaps stopping Sevilla's own marauding defenders from getting forward, it really was - for half an hour at least - time to think again.

The end of Ronaldo, Carlos, Beckham and Raúl? Their deaths have been announced on numerous occasions over the past twelve months, but in the first half at least, you had to sit back and admire their energetic refutation of such nonsense - much of it written in this column.

But let's not get carried away. It only took Sevilla four minutes to cancel out Beckham's 13th minute strike, so they can't have been doing things so badly. And for all Salgado's attempts to get down the right-hand channel and support the forwards, he was badly caught out on a couple of occasions, and is no longer the sprinter he once was. The nimble Adriano left him for dead, and with a yellow card already to his name, Salgado was lucky not to go after pulling the Brazilian's shirt in a one-to-one tussle just before half-time.

Such is the noise and pressure exerted by the Sevilla fans - much more so than any other stadium in Spain - that Capello knew his options were limited for the second half. Salgado had to come off, and sure enough, he was replaced by Mejía in the second half, a competent enough fellow, but one not quite prepared for the white-hot furnace that is the Sánchez Pizjuan.

Slowly but surely the tide of the game turned, in a fascinating and often ill-tempered encounter. When Ronaldo failed to put away a one-on-one with Palop on 60 minutes, the third horse won it with another 'Chilena' (overhead kick) almost as spectacular as Ronaldinho's from the other week, effected by substitute Chevanton after a subtle little push on Mejía had removed the defender from the flight path of Navas' cross.

There were other things to watch apart from the high-speed tactical chess that the game often resembled. Real brought back the excellent Sergio Ramós and José Antonio Reyes, the latter starting the game on the bench. With Julio Baptista, another Sevilla ex lost somewhere in north London, Real Madrid were bringing back a couple of prize spoils, the policy incarnate of Sevilla over the last three seasons, in which they have sold wisely, balanced the books (although there are some who dispute that) and invested in smallish-name players almost all of whom have proved to be winners.

At the present time, full-back Daniel Alvés is turning up on the Christmas shopping lists of at least five of Europe's major big-spenders, with Manchester United the latest to be quoted as 'interested'. I'm sure they are. Rafa Benitez is also said to be an admirer, and with the possibility of Liverpool about to be converted into England's third horse by a man even richer than Abramovich, Sevilla might be tempted to cash in yet again. They seem to have plenty of back-up in their squad anyway - another reason why their title aspirations cannot be easily dismissed.

Madrid's own title aspirations - and they always claim to have those - are probably more founded on Ramos' excellent all-round game than on Reyes' occasional flashes of inspiration. He's looked a little out of sorts since returning from Arsenal, as if the pragmatism of Capello's usual approach has left him stymied, unable to run at people with the aplomb that he seemed to demonstrate in England. Or perhaps it's just that defences are generally less naïve here in Spain. Discuss.

Meanwhile, Barça beat bottom-of-the-table Real Sociedad with a goal from Ronaldinho that should never have counted, Gudjohnsen standing miles offside. Zaragoza beat Santander to move into the top four, although whether this represents a fourth horse only time will tell. And Christmas is coming, traditionally a time when teams like to put their feet up for the fortnight break with a smile on their faces - with a stocking-full of points to see them through at least until Easter.

But it's looking good, with the more horses in the frame the better. Some are chewing on much thinner grass, but up to now it doesn't seem to have made a lot of difference. If it results in games like last Saturday's, may it continue thus!


  • 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