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Next
May 5, 2008

Singing in the Rain

In the end it was all fairly dramatic, as the rain poured down from the dark Pamplona sky. The owner of the bar where I decided to watch the second half of the Osasuna v Real Madrid game is from Navarre, and he adorns the walls of his hostelry with team photos of Osasunas past and present.

No sooner had the second half started than Cannavaro received his marching orders, prompting an exultant 'That's the end for the sons of bitches! Now they'll lose to Barça on Wednesday and start to crap themselves!' (or words to that effect). He looked to be right when, in the 82nd minute, Puñal mishit a penalty but saw it go in nevertheless, Casillas going marginally the wrong way. Guti - injured and not in the squad for the trip to Pamplona, could afford himself a wry smile up in the stands, since his stated desire to win the title in the Bernabéu was looking the more likely scenario.

A dumb thing for Guti to say perhaps, but Guti has said lots of dumb things in the past, and was probably the only Madrid player dumb enough to admit what several of the others were probably thinking too.

But neither Robben nor Higuain had read the script, and Madrid had actually played better in the second half with 10 men, as if the trench warfare stuff had finally got to them.

All week the game had been under the scrutiny of the press, with Madrid's sport tabloids and radio stations dedicating themselves to a detailed critique of the hostility traditionally shown to them in Pamplona, as if this were somehow news. As Casillas sensibly observed last Thursday at a press conference, the stadium in Pamplona ('El Reyno de Navarrra', formerly known as 'El Sadar') is right on top of the players, there is hardly a metre of cinder-track and the locals have enjoyed themselves in the past as regards target practice, felling goalkeeper Paco Buyo in 1989 - an infamous incident which led to the suspension of the game and the subsequent closure of the ground, and then working on a replay last season when a supporter managed to hit Casillas on the head with a cigarette lighter.

Even worse was 1990 when the side travelled up to Navarre with John Toshack as manager and the league title already won the previous week. The home players failed to observe the traditional 'pasillo' (tunnel) accorded to the champions, and were roundly attacked in the national press for their anti-gesture.

Of course, all this was dragged out into the light in order to pressurise the referee into remembering, lest he forget, that poor Real Madrid often suffer in the wild provinces, where the savage and disrespectful locals just don't get it.

The referee in question was the Andaluz Medina Cantalejo - the same man who sent off Zidane in the World Cup Final and who was in charge of the famous suckling pig game at the Camp Nou, when Luis Figo came in for a little but of stick. In short, a chap seemingly able to deal with a crisis, a point he underlined when surprisingly giving an interview the Friday before the game.

Osasuna, to whom the 'the pressure won't get to me' comments seemed most aimed, were furious at the implication that they were guilty before proven innocent, especially given the fact that they now lie third from bottom of the league, courtesy of Zaragoza's late show against Deportivo (1-0, in the 94th minute). So, just in case anybody accused him of handing Madrid the league, he sent Cannavaro off for what looked like a fairly innocent challenge, and set things up nicely for the Bernabéu.

Enter Robben, who actually scored with a header (a rare museum piece), and then Higuain two minutes later - two unlikely fellows to seal the league title, but there you go.

It's Madrid's 31st title, and the first time since 1990 that they've won consecutive leagues, a fact that might encourage Madridistas far and wide to believe that a new cycle of dominance is within their grasp, with the accompanying glint of the present Barcelona team, so widely tipped to be the new Dream Team, well and truly robbed of its shine.

And so to the celebrations. You have to understand that the winning of a league title in Spain is substantially savoured by the media whoever wins it, but when Real Madrid take the title the rituals go into overtime.

The Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid, prepared since the previous week for a possible invasion of supporters should Madrid win (or Villarreal fail to) suddenly took centre-stage as the TV 2 evening programme prepared its post-coital second-by-second breakdown of the aftermath.

From the studios we were whisked to the excitable figure of Marta Solano, TV2's travelling cliché-monger, standing above the Cibeles and screaming into her microphone as if surrounded by hundreds of thousands of celebrating hoodlums, when in fact the camera shots behind her head revealed the presence of some five Madrid supporters, gathering in the gloom.

Clearly, with Puñal's goal coming in the 82nd minute, most Madrid-based supporters had put their slippers on and donned the dressing-gowns, resigned to staying in for the night. TV2's camera crews had probably concluded the same, only to find themselves following the players from the changing-rooms to the bus to the airport in Pamplona, whilst all the time we were breathlessly informed that the team would touch down in Madrid at around 01.30 in the morning, and be in the Cibeles by 01.50.

Schuster, appearing bedraggled in the press conference after a dunking in the showers to celebrate his first title as a manager (he got lots as a player) admitted that he was happy to have won it because of the 'hostility' traditionally shown to his team in the city, but was then diplomatic enough to add that the Osasuna fans had actually been 'bien' (alright).

You could see him smiling on the inside, picturing Wednesday's tunnel from the Barcelona players. It's going to be tough for the Catalans to smile on the outside, as indeed it has been for most of the season.

Real Madrid's winning goal says a lot for their title this season. As if they have become accustomed to the epic and the struggle - as opposed to the spectacle - they have won in large part due to their physical commitment and the practical, pragmatic nature of the squad that has been put together.

First Diarra then Ramos won balls that were 60-40 in favour of the nearest Osasuna players, then moved forward as if they believed they could still win. Ramos played a messy one-two but just managed to win the ball and poke it to the right, into the path of the onrushing Higuain, who smacked it exultantly into the net - rather as he had in Santander two weeks ago. Ramos simply never stops, and has been criticised at international level for it, but there are few teams that can cope with him in the latter stages of games.

Higuain scoring the decisive goal has its poetry too, as if it represents the triumph of the club's new, non-galactic tendency - whilst over in Barcelona the club seems to have stumbled over its own treasure trove, weighed down by its own weight in gold. Real Madrid's players also seem, by and large, to get on with one another, and this has undoubtedly been a factor in the club's success this season, despite the obvious distance that exists between Calderón and Mijatovic.

But the two managers that the two men wanted - Capello (Mijatovic) and Schuster (Calderón) have both won league titles now and so it's honours even, one assumes. There's little room for conflict now, given the double success.

Both men are still quietly disappointed not to be in Moscow on May 21st, but that is the challenge for next season. The talk of signing Valencia's David Villa would seem to be the first step on that particular ladder. But the main difference between this season title and last year's last-gasp epic is that the players under Schuster have looked less intent on trying to prove their manager wrong (Capello) and more intent on rewarding Schuster's general confidence in their abilities. Gago, Diarra and particularly Raúl would surely echo that sentiment.

Barcelona's display at Old Trafford - pretty but ineffective - and their subsequent thrashing of Valencia 6-0 in the Camp Nou on Sunday proved an interesting counterpoint to Madrid's success. Now they can only hope to poop the party when they meet this week and try to stop the excellent Villarreal from finishing second and taking the automatic Champions League spot.

In the final analysis - and that will have to wait for another three weeks - it will be Racing de Santander and Villarreal who will take the main plaudits from a strangely muted season, and one in which Getafe will hope to be included, assuming they can escape from the relegation mire in which they are now most definitely involved.

Whatever, hats off to Madrid and to Raúl, a player seemingly finished but who has confirmed his greatness in a more muted way by picking up yet another two titles, much to the surprise of his detractors. Since he has no more points to prove, he won't be in Austria in summer, as Spanish football will attempt to paper the cracks over a season that has seen the domestic scene overshadowed by the English Premier League and its two representatives in Moscow.

Meanwhile, Raúl and his flock can crow from the scaffolding in the Cibeles tonight, and begin to think, as they dance in the dark, about how they can turn their efficiency into something more substantial for next season.


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