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Dec 15, 2008

Camp Nou catharsis

In the end, after a week of much wailing and gnashing of Madrid-based teeth, the clásico was a good 'un. It didn't tell us anything new, but it served to confirm the fact that as Schuster said, 'This is Barça's year'. However, the difference between Schuster and the new incumbent, Juande Ramos, is that the latter is not given to media soundbites, and as such is a good choice for Real Madrid, at least until the end of the season. As Prime Minister Asquith said, 'Wait and see'. But as Asquith never said, 'Don't make defeatist comments to the press about not being able to win in the Camp Nou'.

Given the obvious chasm in general playing resources between the present Barcelona and Real Madrid, Schuster's comment was of course a fairly accurate one. In case you don't know (because Schuster's sacking post-dated last week's column by 12 hours), the German decided on the suicidal course of announcing to the press that Real Madrid couldn't win in the Camp Nou this last weekend, for which he was deservedly given his marching orders. President Calderón was still prepared to keep him on, despite the heresy committed (of which Schuster was keenly aware) but when a delegation of players asked Calderón to end their agony, the axe fell. When the dressing-room heavyweights say enough is enough, no manager can expect to stay.

If Schuster had said that Real Madrid couldn't possibly win at Recreativo in the present circumstances, it would have been taken as another example of the German's particular sense of humour. But to throw in the towel before the clásico was a sin never previously committed, even in Madrid's darkest days. Most street opinion here in Spain agrees that this was Schuster's cry for help, a clear but implicit 'Sack me please!' He was granted his wish, and the trifling sum of seven million euros in compensation. Poor Bernardo. I'm sure there'll be a good home for him. Meanwhile, he can relax for a while on the golf course.

Should the axe have fallen on Mijatovic first? Well that would have been a bold and perhaps equally popular move. Mijatovic had obviously been talking to Ramos for some time prior to the sacking, and Schuster would have seen the smoke signals. Mijatovic, in making Schuster's position impossible, has saved himself for the time being but you get the feeling that his days are numbered too, unless there is a vast improvement in the general atmosphere surrounding the Bernabéu. A lot may be resting on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar's young shoulders, Real's signing for the new year.

And so the clásico was clearly steeped in even more interest than usual on Saturday night, and it was always going to be more focused on the visitors than on the hosts. In midweek, Juande Ramos made his managerial bow with an easy win over an apathetic Zenit, who rolled over and died with the minimum of resistance. It was the perfect start, and a convenient way to lift the gloom at the Bernabéu after a 'semana horribilis'. To some extent, it stopped the press speculation about how many goals Barça were going to score, the result having been decided upon the moment Schuster opened his mouth. Guardiola, instead of facing a team of no-hope victims, was suddenly presented with a potentially different game, planned by a man whose approach to the game was in general similar to Schuster's, but who was unlikely to risk an all-out offensive attempt to bring down Castle Camp Nou. To do that, you have to have some weapons. Juande Ramos' attacking instincts have always been tempered by pragmatism when it is needed. But at least he kept the press and Guardiola guessing.

In the end, it wasn't difficult to see what Real Madrid would do. Keeping nine men clustered around the last third of the pitch they allowed Barça to advance and then worked very hard at breaking down their patterns of play. They also worked hard at assaulting Messi, and Sergio Ramós was aided and abetted with some enthusiasm by a whole bevy of his work-mates. Messi flitted and fluttered, but apart from a couple of shots in the first half his influence was minimal. Much to his credit, however, he kept trying. The bully-boy stuff failed to dampen his desire to win the game, and win it well.

Xavi also came in for some rough treatment, and although Barça saw plenty of the ball and dominated possession, Madrid's refusal to come out and tackle them before they reached the last third seemed to confuse their strategy, and isolate Eto'o from the action.

Interestingly, Ramos picked Royston Drenthe and employed him almost as a lone striker, dressing marginally to the left. The idea was to exploit his pace to scare Barça on the counter, and to give Dani Alves - Juande Ramos' great apprentice, something to think about to stop him from joining the attacks. It worked rather well, not because Alves stayed back but because he is a player who takes risks, and then hopes that his pace will get him back to his defensive position in time. When Raúl played in a lovely diagonal pass to Drenthe in the first half the Dutch player was away, Alves missing in action. He should have scored, and the result might have been different. Valdes did well to stand up to him, as he did later in the game when the young substitute Miguel Palanca was played in behind the defence, again by the excellent Raúl. Apart from that, and a snap-shot by Sjneider, Madrid's virtues were all defensive ones - which is saying something when they seem to have had their goal peppered all season so far. Even Michel Salgado played quite well, given that Henry was in threatening mood all night.

It was also interesting to see Cannavaro play so well. Give him a clear game-plan, as in his catenaccio days of yore, and he responds with the instinct of a pure-bred Italian defender. In a destructive sense, he was the best player on the park.

In short, Madrid recovered a bit of dignity on the night, but Barcelona looked enormously superior, with an embarrassment of riches that bears testament to the stability of their planning department, despite some of the internal problems that it has also suffered in the past few years. Twelve points distance from Madrid at this stage is a distance that previous Barça squads, with their tendency to indiscipline, might have thrown away. But this squad has a keener edge to it, a competitive instinct that was evident in the way that they too scrapped for every loose ball on Saturday night. The game was in fact more an example of commitment and fight than of fine flowing football, won in the end by the side with the greater quality. Madrid's top players - the few of them on the pitch, shone in the Camp Nou more than under Schuster's most recent regime, and Saint Casillas, questioned of late and dropped by Ramos for the Zenit game, responded in the appropriate fashion, with a five-star performance that included a penalty save from Eto'o.

Madrid's next two home games are against what would appear to be two rather more feasible aspirants to this year's crown, Valencia and Villarreal, but in a sense who cares? Stuck down in sixth position, below their neighbours Atlético, Real Madrid could even have been out of the UEFA positions this weekend if Deportivo had won at Valladolid. Barça are eight points clear of Valencia and Sevilla and cruising.

Things could still go wrong, Messi could get injured, and of course Barça will have an 'off' period, but the sheer variety of their resources on Saturday night was awesome. And that was without Iniesta, their best player last season. Interestingly, Gudjohnsen, for all his work-rate and passing, was instantly forgotten when Sergio Busquets replaced him with half an hour remaining. The youngster's immediate understanding of space and first-time passing gave Barça an extra gear, just as Madrid began to tire. With Guti and Sneijder gone, there was no-one left to hold the ball up for Madrid, reducing the likelihood that they would hang on. And they didn't.

Juande Ramos' tactics may now be repeated by other sides at the Camp Nou, but they'll need to have a Sergio Ramos and a Cannavaro to pull it off convincingly. As for Juande, he has until the end of the season to make something of his position, and at the same time to stifle the doubts that have arisen about him following his failure at Tottenham. In a sense he can't lose, because the club's season surely cannot get any worse. The only way is surely up, but probably not very far.

A continued run in the Champions League wouldn't do him any harm, but his position might also be conditioned by what happens at the top. The new rumours sweeping the streets of Spain is that Florentino Pérez is poised to carry out the 'reconquista' when Calderón inevitably falls, and that he will bring with him two saints from the past, Zidane and Valdano to sit on either side of his throne. This may be complete crap but it's certainly a penny for our thoughts.

And last but not least, next week's column will be my final one for the present season. Cue cheers and popping of champagne corks. It's not that they've done a Schuster on me (although seven million would be nice) but rather that I've accepted a job in the Middle East for the next six months and am taking the family out for a temporary change of scene. Of course, I fully intend to watch La Liga with the aid of my trusty digibox and satellite dish, but reporting on things from afar wouldn't be quite the same. I've been writing this column non-stop now for eight years, and my only objective has been to try and reflect what it's like on the ground here. Spain is a special place, and Spanish football contains spices that you simply cannot taste if you're not here. That's all I've tried to do over the years - convey the taste in words. I'm afraid that I won't be able to do that from my desert hideaway.

So I'm taking a sabbatical, and if they'll have me back, the column will start up again on the opening day of next season. I promise to write the occasional piece from the desert, especially when Villarreal make it to the Champions League final. Next week, if you'll excuse the indulgence, I'll do a retrospective of these last eight years. Hasta la vista, or at least until next week.

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