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White Crisis

It's been said before, but as Barça's Xavi Hernandez put it at the weekend, you can never have a situation in which both Real Madrid and Barcelona are doing well.

The success of one must become a natural counter-balance to the other. To say that Real Madrid have had a bad week is somewhat stating the obvious, but let's get that out the way. Two 4-3 wins before they finally fell to lowly Valladolid doesn't sound like the stuff of crisis, but the second of those wins, a 4-3 debacle at home to Real Unión from Segunda 'B', meant that they kissed goodbye to the Cup (which they last won in 1993) and allowed the rest of Europe to see just how thinly spread their meringue is this year.

On the other side of the politico-cultural frontier, Barça continued their happy run, making it seven wins on the trot with a 0-2 victory at Huelva - a side down on their luck but one with a half decent defence. It didn't seem to bother the Catalans much, who could have won by more, but who settled for the points in a low-key but efficient performance - one that takes them three points clear at the top and five points clear of Real Madrid.

Not that Madrid should be their main concern at the moment. Improving Sevilla and Villarreal continue to look like the only sides who can really threaten them this season, but even that is in the lap of the gods. Valencia succumbed 2-3 at home to a resurgent Sporting Gijon, who seem to have found their top-flight feet, and Atlético's win at home to much-improved Deportivo still means that Madrid's second side are eleven points adrift of Barça, in the middle of November. It hardly constitutes a challenge.

What's up with Madrid? Well, the first thing to say is that Real Unión were winning trophies long before Real Madrid were, but history only has so much relevance. We're talking almost a hundred years ago.

The flimsy structure of the Copa del Rey means that the two-legged games ensure a get-out clause for the bigger clubs, who can afford to field their substitutes for the away game, then fill out the line-up a little in the second leg if things went awry. In Villarreal's case, the 5-0 defeat at Poli Ejido was a step too far, and their second-leg apology (1-1) suggested that they'd decided to concentrate on the league and the Champions League instead. How unambitious of them.

There were few other shocks, perhaps the only other one being the fact that Osasuna scored a goal (and won, against Getafe), which seems to prove the point that the bigger sides can usually get away with a bit of tinkering, and it guarantees a competitive run-out for their friskier ponies.

But Madrid's aggregate defeat, coming as it did with a goal conceded in the final minute in the Bernabéu, has focused attention on the club's 'crisis' in a way that has not been the case for Villarreal.

The latter's defeat was seen as an aberration, a hiccup along the way. Their conceding of a goal in the last minute at Málaga this weekend might also have been seen as a possible crisis there too, but nobody seems keen on pushing this particular line. Rather it's the question mark over Schuster's future that seems to be occupying the media minutes this weekend.

Is Schuster to blame, and is there really a crisis? You could probably say 'yes' to both those questions, although as ever with La Liga, it's never quite so simple.

As far as the Schuster issue is concerned, it was significant that Marca's lead writer, Santiago Segurola, decided to put the boot in on the German after the defeat in Valladolid. I say 'significant' because Segurola is a respected writer on all things Madrid, and his influence has been substantial in the past, when he was the lead writer for El País.

Now he has lent some dignity and style to Spain's most (in)famous tabloid, but his sharply perceptive insights can make or break a manager's career. Segurola's damning report on the Valladolid defeat read like a school-report failure at the end of term - although of course it's only November.

The journalist wrote that a great manager can always be identified by his ability to rise to the occasion when things are going wrong. This is because in football things always do go wrong, and it the measure of greatness to be able to improvise solutions, to inspire, to change things around. Schuster seems incapable of any of these things, and worse, is getting it wrong from the start.

It did indeed seem odd that he left Sjneider on the bench, one of the few players at Madrid who are playing well at the moment, preferring to trust in the inexperienced Javi Garcia. When the Dutchman finally came on, it was too late.

So Madrid have a lot of players injured? That's true, but the injury to the most significant of their players, Ruud van Nistlerooy, could be seen coming, even in this column. This is not Schuster's fault, and the fact that Real Madrid spent their summer annoying Sir Alex Ferguson in an impossible pursuit of Ronaldo was proof that the ship is still suffering from steering problems.

Van Nistlerooy was never likely to last the season, and Higuaín, good though he is proving to be, is not a 30 goal-a-season striker. He has other virtues, but Madrid's strike-force always looked to be potentially thread-bare.

Then again, it was their defence that seemed so hard to crack last year, but with Pepe injured, Sergio Ramós sulking, Marcelo all over the place and Cannavaro suddenly looking his age, even Casillas is beginning to look mortal. Raúl and Guti are great servants, but their powers seem increasingly limited. Van de Vaart and Drenthe were always unlikely candidates to re-float the ship this season, but you never know.

Over at Barcelona, the riches seem unlimited. Guardiola, despite his inexperience, appears to have a clear enough game plan. Schuster, despite his experience, seems to be another great player who cannot, in the end, understand why players less talented than himself are unable to carry out his orders.

Something similar happened when Di Stéfano tried for several years to manage. What he could communicate on the pitch invariably died when he tried to communicate from the sidelines.

Schuster always starts well, but fails to follow through. He has not been helped by the obvious lack of a planning policy from above, but much has been invested in his being a long-term occupant of the Bernabéu hot-seat. Both Mijatovic and Calderón stand to suffer if the crisis continues. The obvious solution would be to invest in David Villa and see if Carlos Tevez can work his enthusiasm on the post-Christmas scene, but neither of these signings will be easy to pull off.

It's difficult to see Schuster being sacked in the short-term, if only because too many people stand to lose face in the event of that happening. Madrid really thought that a new period of stability had been ushered in and that Barcelona were falling apart. It certainly looked that way, but the tide has turned yet again.


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