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More grey required

Not a great week again for sunny Spain. Of the group of teams that aspired back in September to reach for the stars in their European ventures, only Barcelona and Getafe survive. On top of that, Barcelona's victory was tempered somewhat by the loss of Messi for six weeks, which may impede their further progress.

Call it fatigue or call it Messi-dependency, but the 1-2 defeat at home to Villarreal on Sunday night was hardly the stuff of European champions elect, nor of Spanish ones either. Villarreal can now aspire more plausibly for second spot, whereas Barça's hopes of catching Real Madrid, briefly re-ignited in recent weeks, seem to be fading once again.

Real Madrid and Sevilla were also knocked out of the Champions League, making it four years on the trot that 'the team who made the trophy their own' have fallen at this premature stage. The kiss of death was supplied by this column last week, in which it was foolishly asserted that neither of them would encounter too many problems in their second-leg matches.

Sevilla were outplayed and out-thought by a Fenerbahçe side who always wanted to win the game more. Sevilla, unaccustomed to such boldness, simply fell apart and looked very ragged-arsed indeed. In truth it should never have even gone to penalties.

Real Madrid were also outthought by a Roma side who, in classic Italian fashion, looked a better side away from home. Madrid should have sealed the tie in Rome, but failed to put their chances away. In Madrid, everything that could have gone wrong did, and no-one performed on the night. The Italians were too smart to let Guti have the ball, and anyway, they decided to keep it to themselves. When Pepe was sent off, it was effectively game over.

The cumulative effect of last week has left a pall hanging over Spain, almost as if the national side had failed to qualify for the World Cup or something equally disastrous. In truth, because so many people consider Real Madrid to be Spain's real flagship, their failure to progress is allegedly some sickness in the body politic, some problem in the roots of the soil.

But it's probably more about grey zones - the things that the Spanish find hard to focus on. Show a Spaniard some black and white, and he'll rise enthusiastically to the occasion. Show him some grey and he'll walk off swearing.

Until Real Madrid managed to beat Espanyol 2-1 on Saturday night (coming back from a goal down) and Raúl conveniently scored his balsamic 200th goal to divert attention from the greater ills at large, the press had been full of speculation as to Schuster's future, of Mourinho's availability and of the fact that the German's teams always seem to run out of fuel in the second half of their campaigns.

This pattern is indeed a feature of Schuster's career in management, but the reasons for it have never been satisfactorily analysed by any of Spain's more prominent football scribes. Perhaps they should ask Schuster himself, but then again Schuster is a man from the Mourinho school of declaration.

At the press conference on Wednesday night, the German declared himself happy with his team's performance, and that the 'defeat' was not actually a defeat. It was just an accumulation of circumstances - or something equally existential. As one famous existential (Camus) remarked: 'Everything I've learned I learned from football', but it would seem that for Schuster a 1-2 result is not a defeat. Interesting.

Suddenly, the prospect of Schuster being handed a contract for life (there had been speculation) seemed somewhat less likely. Ramón Calderón always wanted him at the helm (and not Capello) but Mijatovic always suspected that his return to the Bernabéu would eventually end in tears. He may have been right, and his non-relationship with the German is proving an added stress factor at the heart of matters.

The truth would seem to lie in the absence of grey. Madrid were never as good as people were saying before Christmas, and Schuster's hand in it all was much less than was being suggested (white). And now, of course, his responsibility for the team's failure to progress is not as total as Ramón Calderon's facial gestures at the game would seem to have implied (black).

The club seems to swing alarmingly from one mood to another, like a manic depressive. It's all about polarities, instead of considering the bits in the middle (grey). Barcelona, for all their other faults, do not fall into this trap, and attempt to hang onto continuity, for as long as is humanly possible. Rijkaard is still there, as is Txiki Beguiristain, the Technical Director. Folks have left Laporta's ship, but the president's still strong.

The other thing, of course, is that if you look at Schuster's past, you see a man whose CV is littered with conflict. As a player he wandered through the changing-rooms of life more respected than liked, and as a manager he has never managed to really maintain a relationship with a president, save Angel Sánchez Getafe. But even he was forced to throw a few barbs in his ex-employees direction in the end.

With Schuster you're not going to get an easy ride. He's never taken well to criticism, and has treated the press with a sort of quiet, sardonic contempt over the years that the Spanish have never quite understood. They've never got to the bottom of what forces control barmy Berndt, and they're still not quite sure what the hell he's doing installed in the driving seat of Spain's flagship automobile. To many, it seems like an accident waiting to happen.

The joke is, some see Mourinho as his successor, as if the Portuguese were the embodiment of emotional stability. But you never know.

Meanwhile, Raúl scored the 200th goal of his career and continued to annoy everyone by making that daft two-handed gesture to the back of his shirt. I've never quite understood the point of that one. Is Raúl trying to say that he is Raúl (since the back of his shirt tells us as much), or that he is Über Raúl, a creature from a separate time-continuum who merits greater attention from Luis Aragonés, the national manager? I dunno, but I guess his achievement at scoring all those goals is worthy of comment, since it moves him into some very elevated company indeed.

In years to come he can now be spoken of in the same breath as the other five players who have broken the 200 barrier in league goals, Zarra (251), Hugo Sánchez, Di Stéfano, Santillana and Pahiño. Di Stéfano scored 216 for Real Madrid and remains their top scorer of all time. Since Raúl has now been handed his 'life contract', it seems fairly likely that he'll overtake the old grump, barring bubonic plague or nuclear war.

Whether he'll get to Zarra or not may become a subject of speculation for the next five seasons, but meanwhile it does seem incredible to consider Raúl's various achievements. He's Spain's leading scorer with 44 goals (even if he isn't playing for them any more), the Champions League leading scorer with 61, and scored his 100th and 200th goals for Real Madrid from the penalty spot. Now there's a good one for trivialists.

But he has also suffered from being considered in black and white terms. Loved and hated in equal measure, both for his quiet but firm political convictions and his strength of personality, his achievement as a player has been to extract the maximum results from the minimum of gifts.

He's not particularly fast or strong, and has no obviously crowd-pleasing virtues like dribbling, hard tackling or long measured passes. But he has a curious ability to disguise a short pass, to see the way through in an instant, and to resolve with a cool head whilst all around him are flailing.

Apart from that, his arrival in the pantheon of La Liga's gods is a strange one, although he has been around since 1994 and is still only 30. He has never really been recognised by the elite of Europe's press, and when he was really in his prime, it seemed a scandal that he never received the Ballon D'or. And now he never will, which seems a shame. He'll also have to wait for the legendary 10th European Cup, rapidly becoming something of a chimera.

It will be for Barcelona too, unless they can get Messi back, and quick.


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