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Oct 11, 2009

The good, the bad and the disproportionate

A first defeat in six league games and criticism towards Real Madrid has hit the galácticos hard. Accusations of Ronaldo-dependence ring in Manuel Pellegrini's ears, but whether they are well-deserved or disproportionate is the question that must be answered.

It would be a minor miracle for a new project to be truly invincible during a nine-month long season and judging by the harsh criticism directed at Real Madrid's performance against Sevilla FC last weekend, that's exactly what was expected from the galácticos this term.

"Our start to the season has been very positive, but we have just started a new project; we have new players who have yet to adapt to the club, that and a new coach with new ideas, so I don't think you can expect more than what we're doing." Those were the wise words of captain and all-time record goalscorer Raúl González. A quote which sums up the feeling in the dressing room after the front-page criticism which followed the 2-1 defeat at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán.

Sunday morning's papers predicted the first Merengue slip-up. News about Cristiano Ronaldo not being fit to play against their, up to now, toughest contender in La Liga ushered in a cloud of pessimism over the Madrid press and fans. Five goals in five games in the domestic championship installed the Portuguese midfielder as the main man at Madrid and, in his absence, it was time for a true test for Pellegrini's men. It was one they failed to pass.

Undoubtedly, Sevilla were the better team and Real's feeble defence was exposed to a greater degree than in any of their previous league encounters. Raúl Albiol hastily explained that "we can't dramatize the situation. We have to put it behind us and concentrate. The rest of the season is still ahead of us so we can't start seeing ghosts everywhere; we need to keep calm and be patient."

But surveys conducted by the sport press revealed that almost 60% of Real Madrid fans do believe in the Ronaldo-dependence factor. A couple of months ago the feeling around the most expensive signing in history was that he wasn't performing as well as expected. Anxiety and a lack of adaptation were the reasons behind his discreet summer showing, and even the club admitted it. But since the season kick-off, Ronaldo has proved the opposite, to the point that now not even Kakà, Benzema and Co can keep the good run going, or so it seems.

"With Cristiano things could have possibly been different; he's a great player and it's obvious he makes a difference. To tell the truth, he would have come in very handy against Sevilla," said defender Sergio Ramos, touching on a sore point. While the club reminded the Chilean coach that he still has time to correct mistakes, it goes to show how one defeat - and one against the most serious contender Real have faced so far - has shattered the positive atmosphere and enthusiasm around the club.

Not just that, but Real's slip-up in Sevilla has also placed Manolo Jiménez's side in the title picture. To see the giants fail to win has spread optimism amongst Sevilla followers. "If we carry on like this, we could even beat FC Barcelona. Sevilla is a candidate for all titles, so the pressure is on Barça and Real Madrid," said Sevilla's Adriano Correia, while his coach was quick off the mark to point out that "we haven't done anything at all yet, we've only beaten Real Madrid and the season has just started."

Clearly, the Spanish Liga is one of contrasts. With Real Madrid and FC Barcelona as eternal favourites to win every season, the rest of the Spanish clubs play in a league of their own, and not just that, but the mood around Real and Barça twists and turns week-in and week-out: from glorified exquisiteness to a plague of doubts.

This time the tables have turned against Madrid. But what will happen when - and it will happen - Barcelona lose their first match? As Raúl said, Real are adjusting to a whole new period. But the Catalan side are as solid as can be. Reigning champions in the top three competitions, happily crushing records and displaying delightful football. But there will come a time when all that fails. How will that hit the spoilt press and fans? Probably not that well at all, taking into account the hiding Madrid have had. So, Pep Guardiola and his men have to prepare themselves for their share of excessive criticism when the time comes.

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