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By ESPN Staff

Visit to the Sardine Can

According to anthropologists, most men, given a certain amount of training, can be taken back to a primal state of physical efficiency. This would enable them, for example, to track a wild boar (assuming there's one around) for the best part of two days, then kill it with a throw of a spear from some sixty metres. However, the average contemporary member of the male species, when searching for his favourite purple underpants in the bedroom, will eventually depend (via a question) on his female partner to establish the whereabouts of said undergarments. Female partner will normally reply, 'In the drawer in front of your nose, you dork'.

This is a roundabout way of explaining that I managed to be seated in the press box of the Sardinero Stadium in Santander on Sunday night until about the 35th minute before realising that Real Madrid were winning 0-1. This despite the fact that the electronic scoreboard was clearly signalling 0-1 and I had been staring at it for some time. It's the underpants syndrome, added to the fact that at the moment Raul had put Madrid into the lead (in the 13th minute) I had been doing my ablutions in the small room of the press area. As Murphy's Law states, 'The probability of a goal being scored bears a direct proportional relationship to the occasion on which a toilet is visited'.

Ah, but the Sardine Can! There's nowhere quite like it on Earth, and few clubs as good-humoured and realistic about themselves as Racing Santander. I haven't been for some time, but the temptation of witnessing either one of two significant events - Real Madrid more or less sewing up the league or Racing storming into a Champions League place, proved too much to resist. Added to which, the newish motorway west of Bilbao now makes it a relatively easy drive from the Spanish side of the French border, which is more or less where I reside.

It used to take as long to get to Santander as it did to track and kill a wild boar, but now you can do it in two hours. My mate Kevin lives there, added to which, the press officer of the club, Alberto, is one of the nicest guys you could wish to meet - in stark contrast to the majority of the breed.

Press Officers ('Jefe de Prensa' in Spanish) are a difficult lot, and of course have to be treated carefully. Upset them once, and you'll never get that press pass again. Understandably, you learn to never ring them on a Monday (their one day off) and you learn that Tuesday will be the day to begin your bidding, along with the rest of the country. If you haven't heard by Friday, forget it.

But they do an extraordinarily complex job, and are sought by everyone, day and night. They have to be rude and polite in equal measure, learning as they do the complex art of distinguishing a genuine blag from a phoney one. They have to make sure that the VIP's feel Vipped, that the President gets his cigars on time, and that at the post-match conference neither of the managers escapes to the team-bus before they have sat dutifully in front of the journalist hordes and responded with the usual weekly clichés.

Alberto at Santander is tops, however. Nothing's too much trouble, and the ticket pass is always nicely packaged along with a programme, the club stats, a club pen and some little gift or other. A question of detail, as the famous hotel chain says. He has that special ability to make you feel as though you're the only person going to the game, despite the fact that the Sardine Can was bulging at the seams on Sunday night.

I could name and shame others, but I'll resist. Santander, Bilbao, Huelva, Real Madrid and Valladolid, in my experience, are the top five for polite cooperation. One club (let's say they're from Seville) once moved me to use the NRT (No Return Ticket) phrase of: 'Estas hablando conmigo o con tu perro? (Are you talking to me or your dog?) which at least got his attention.

As did the scoreboard, eventually. But it was that kind of game. It could easily have been 0-0. Real Madrid, who could actually now win the title next week if Villarreal and Barça lose and they themselves win, have developed the art of winning games with the least effort possible - a strategy based on their ability to disrupt the pattern of their opponents' play and to keep the ball for a reasonable amount of time themselves.

It's not great, but it's a minimalist strategy that has met with only token resistance this season, hence the imminent league title. It's not what Schuster promised, or what President Calderón promised Schuster would promise, but it's worked.

On Sunday night, they faced a potentially tricky match, and although Barcelona had failed for the umpteenth time to reduce distances (they drew lamely at home in the Catalan derby) a win by Villarreal coupled with a defeat in the Sardine Can would keep the league alive. Madrid's mission was to kill it.

Racing Santander, of course, are enjoying their jolliest season ever, since their foundation back in 1913. They were one of the ten founder members of the first professional league tournament in 1928-29, of which they finished bottom - kind of setting the tone for things to come. They escaped relegation, however, because the league's administration could not agree on a system of promotion and relegation, and by the time they had agreed on one (1930-31), Racing were storming to their best ever finish, runners-up to Athletic Bilbao. It's a finish that remains their finest, despite a further 37 seasons in the top flight.

This season's remarkable rise to the top six had been looking no further than a place in next season's UEFA Cup when lo and behold, Atlético Madrid, who have occupied the attainable foruth place more than any other club this season, began to stutter. And they stuttered again on Saturday, losing 1-3 at home to Betis and opening the door for a bid from rampant Racing.

Well, not so much rampant as reliable. The statistics point clearly to the key to their success this season (apart from the fact that Marcelino is top of the up-and-coming managers' list) - third best defensive record with only 33 conceded, but only 37 scored - too few for these sorts of heights.

Their top player this year, and the man most likely to swell the club's coffers in the summer is centre-back Ezequiel Garay. And talking of heights, their star last season, Zigic, ducks down to sit onto the bench every week at Valencia, and his replacement, Tchité, for all his running and his goals, lacks the decisive sort of movement and imagination required to pick the locks of the very top sides. Little Captain Munitis struggled gamely to create some space for him, but time and time again Racing's good intentions foundered on the rocks of Madrid's defensive solidity.

Although there is nothing wrong with Cantabrian cuisine, as I stared down onto the pitch on Sunday night, Madrid simply looked better-fed. Apart from the tiny Cannavaro, who tickles and tackles like some infuriating little bug, never leaving the opposing forwards alone, the rest are fairly hulking dudes.

Pepe is scarey, and is beginning to look rather good. Sergio Ramós is no shirker, and Heinze is more physical in his approach than the average Spaniard. And then there's Diarra, protecting the back line anyway. Nothing much gets past him, and I fail to see the problem that the Madrid press has with him. Particularly in away games, where there is less obligation to win with a bit of style, Diarra is the perfect player to have in your ranks. The fact that he's about to win his sixth consecutive league title (four with Lyon and one last year with Madrid) does rather suggest that he might have had something to do with those successes, and he does the simple things right - cutting out any passes that stray into his zone, dispossessing anyone who tries to run at him and then playing the ball either short or long with more accuracy than he is credited with.

Colsa tried to do the same for Santander, but he just wasn't up to it. Diarra made it look simple, which is the difference between the side that will win the title and the side who might, still, manage a fourth-place finish. I hope they do, if for nothing else but to reward their long-suffering supporters, who after so many years of drudgery have expectations so low they are now simply frothing with pleasure at the whole unexpected scene. They applauded every move, howled at every decision given against them, and awarded ovations to the players who were substituted that wouldn't have been out of place at the end of a star-studded opera.

And talking of applause, Barça's nightmare edges ever closer. This is the growing possibility that by the time they come to play in the Bernabéu on May 7, that game will be: (a) the one which follows Madrid's clinching of the title, which will require Barça to 'hacer pasillo', the annual ritual whereby the champions are applauded onto the pitch, or (b) the game that Madrid need to draw or win to take the title. Which is worse? Difficult to say. But it's looking like the Catalans are in for a humiliating end to the season, unless they can manage to beat Manchester United on Wednesday night.

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