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Of buckets and the Bernabéu

I recall reading the music magazine 'Mojo' a couple of years back, in which a new album by Neil Young was reviewed. The author gave the album maximum marks of 5 stars, and was rather over-fulsome in his praise. The next month, a reader wrote a short piece in the letters section asking the question: 'If Neil Young pissed in a bucket, would you give it 5 stars?' to which the editor, replying in italics at the bottom of the letter replied, 'We'd have to hear it first'.

I thought this summed up rather well the present problems at the Bernabéu, if not the whole history of the club. Real Madrid have now lost four out of the last six, and at this stage of the season have never in their history scored so few goals at home. And yet when they win the occasional game, the press reacts as if order has been restored, and we can all sleep safely in our beds. It's the Neil Young-in-the-bucket syndrome.

As in Shakespeare's Macbeth, when after the king is murdered things seem to go rather topsy-turvy, with a bunch of horses eating each other and a falcon getting eaten by an owl, the order of the universe seems put out of kilter by strange results at the Spanish Theatre of Dreams, or was that the Absurd?

When they win, the Trade Winds blow and the effects of global warming recede. Capello's alright after all, and President Calderon never fixed those postal votes at all - perish the thought! It's a kind of schizophrenic dialogue, as inconsistent and confused in its short-term vision as the whole of the club's strategy has been over the last year.

Ex-Madrid manager John Toshack, writing in a regional Spanish paper last week, put it nicely when he pointed the finger at the current Football Director Pedrag Mijatovic. 'I love it!' he wrote (in Spanish). 'And Real Madrid wonder why they've got problems? They've put a guy in there [Mijatovic] without any previous experience of doing such a job, and anyway, he wasn't exactly Mr Clean Nose when he played for them. It's great eh? The Ferrari Boy is back, putting the Galácticos back into line.'

No wonder the home fans proffered them a 'pañoloda' (hanky-waving) this Sunday, after their latest capitulation to mighty opposition, this time in the shape of struggling Levante. The Valencian side have never before won at the Bernabéu, but now seems a good time to add three points to your tally and wipe away decades of non-achievement. Who are we playing next week? Real Madrid? Oh goody! But beware the pañolada.

Unless things change very quickly, the hankies are often the beginning of the end. Their symbolism is understood only too well by the Spaniards, and for this reason the hankies don't come out until things are really desperate. Real Madrid, despite everything, are still in fourth place, a mere five point s behind Barça, and still in the Champions League. But it's not good enough. Something is still rotten at the core of the club, and the Madridistas know it.

There has been a clean-out, but as clean-outs go, it was merely a swish of the broom. Ronaldo has signed for Milan (although his debut was frustrated at the weekend by the disturbances - so an extra week to shed a few kilos) but Becks still sits in the stands (he left ten minutes early on Sunday, like a good half of the crowd), Cassano is still around, and so are Raúl and Guti - two players that the Madrileño press continue to worship whilst all around them burns.

On Sunday morning, Marca led with the curious headline, 'Capitanes, al ataque!' (Captains - to the attack!) accompanied by a picture of a rapturous Guti and Raúl embracing in a love-jig from some forgotten period of history. Ah, those were the days! Those were the sepia cloth-capped Sundays when you could look up over your bocadillo de jamón (ham sandwich - not a prawn in sight) and watch these two players striding the league like a colossus.

Times have changed. Both of them are crap now, and should have been swept out with a rather bigger broom during the summer - but Mijatovic didn't have the guts. 'Ferrari Boy' he may no longer be, but his biggest mistake was to dither over the Year Zero policy. Plenty of clubs would have queued up to buy these players (Atlético were after Guti in the summer, and Rafa Benítez would have snapped up Raúl) and the remainder that were left would have picked up the baton - knowing that it was up to them, and that the management believed in them.

Madrid's problem is scoring goals (28 compared to Barça's 43) although it has to be said that their defence, whilst not spectacularly good, looks much better than in recent seasons. But this week's decision to sell Woodgate back to Middlesbrough shows just how weird their thinking is. Since they paid £13 million for him, they might as well have got their moneysworth, especially given the fact that he's only started nine games for them so far.

Now he's playing wonderfully in England, they decide to get rid of him, when there is precious little cover for Cannavaro and when it is obvious to even the most devoted of fans that Ivan Helguera cannot defend to save his life. Woodgate is exactly what Real Madrid need now (and a goalscorer) - but maybe they've decided that he's not worth the risk.

That may be true - but at the time of writing, I don't see Middlesbrough paying £13 million for him. Woodgate is an excellent centre-back and was well-spotted at the time - particularly when no-one was giving much of a fig for him in England. Now he's coming good and they give him back, at a massive loss (one assumes). Don't understand it myself.

Meanwhile, all is hardly bliss and harmony around them. I refer to the stuttering form of former leaders Sevilla, for whom superlative adjectives were simply not enough before Xmas, but for whom the festive break obviously came at the wrong time. Like a tennis player who had worked up the rhythm and could do no wrong, suddenly rain interrupted play, and when the skies cleared he never regained that magical fluency. Or maybe it all went to their heads.

Certainly their draw at home to struggling Real Sociedad was a surprise, but no great harm was done (save to their morale) since leaders Barcelona again failed to win, drawing 0-0 at Osasuna. You got the feeling that although they could have won it, they were actually quite comfy with the draw - Osasuna being the sort of place that anyone can lose at. It's that 'comfy' aspect that seems to have crept into their play, even with the re-appearance of Samuel Eto'o.

The in-form team of the moment is Valencia, now up to third place and looking ominously efficient, beating Atlético Madrid on Saturday without breaking too much sweat. Four attacks, three goals. It's like the Valencia of old, hard to beat, hard to grind down. This is a side who in the past six years have won two league titles and reached two Champions League finals, let's not forget.

They're not without their internal problems of course, with both David Albelda and Santiago Cañizares making public their complaints about their contract renovation offers - a further example that there are various drops of bad blood between the Director of Football, ex-icon Amedeo Carboni and several of his old team-mates, not to mention tense relations with manager Quique Sánchez-Flores.

But it doesn't seem to be affecting them out where it matters, despite their injury-plagued year. Asier Del Horno still hasn't made his debut, Joaquín has been intermittent but Fernando Morientes has been excellent, Vicente is beginning to look good again. Villa is class, and Miguel Ángel Angulo never gives up, never stops running. No-one likes playing them. I may be repeating myself, but they could easily win the league, the way things are going.

Last but not least, England v Spain on Wednesday. Well - let's not make predictions, but Spain may not be up for it. To prepare for the next game against Denmark in the Bernabéu, Sergio Ramos and Carlos Puyol are likely to be sacrificed at Old Trafford, since they're suspended for the Denmark encounter.

Their places are likely to be taken by Javi Navarro and Antonio López, hardly the most exciting of defensive pairings. The presence of the Butcher of Sevilla, Navarro, will make interesting reading for Wayne Rooney, should he be fit. If he is, the best way to avoid being taken out is to just run as fast as possible. Javi, he of the killer eyes, ain't very fast.

Still, you look at Spain's midfield riches, and you wonder what the problem is: Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Andrés Iniesta, David Silva and Mikel Arteta can't even get a game. The weakness may lie, as ever, in the balance. There's not much tackling there, not much physical stuff (until they get to Navarro) in the middle to put the Englishmen off their stride.

It's always interesting to see the two countries play though, and always a great contrast in styles. It would also be nice of all the recent nonsense between the two could be put to rest. Let's hope so.

  • 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.

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