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Alarm bells sounding for Everton

Everton
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What's the time, Mr Wolf?

The break in the league programme this weekend means that the Soccernet column can stray down other alleyways, whistle in the dark and even lift up a few dustbin lids. Where shall we start?

Well perhaps in Madrid last Tuesday, where the 'Tormenta Blanca' book presentation was shored up by the welcome presence of several ESPN readers. Thanks for reacting to the clarion call and coming along guys. Later, invited onto a TV football programme called 'Punto Pelota', I meet 'Lobo' (the wolf) Carrasco in the make-up room, before going to the studios for the live midnight show. Carrasco used to play up front for Barcelona in the 1980's, and was capped over 50 times for Spain. Now he turns up occasionally on football chat programmes, of which there are several dozen each week in Spain. The Spanish like to talk, and to disagree with each other. It's the national art, and it makes some of the country's citizens a decent enough living. But Carrasco has always struck me as being a nice bloke, on the telly. I wonder if he'll tolerate the fact that I have come along with a book about Real Madrid under my arm.

Caked in make-up and lying in a semi-comatose position, Carrasco greets me in reverse perspective through the huge wall mirror of the brightly-lit room. "Hi there!" he intones (in Spanish). "So you're English?" I nod into the mirror.

"How's Gary?" comes the next question. This is the direct result of something I've noticed before about famous people - in that they always assume that if you're sharing the same space as them, you must be famous too. I guess it's some kind of defence mechanism, but Carrasco, I presume with a little trepidation, is enquiring as to the health of Gary Lineker. I have to think quickly, but have already discarded the alternative possibilities (Gary Glitter, Gary Megson, Gary Cooper,) before coolly replying, "He's absolutely fine. I see him every week". Carrasco sits up at this news, and even turns to look at me. His face is buried beneath mounds of dust and cream.

"You see him every week?" he asks, now genuinely interested. "I haven't spoken to him for a while now" he continues, "but any time he's over here we often meet up. And Mark too" he tells me. I assume he means Mark Hughes, who was also at Barcelona when he was there.

I decide to come clean. "I mean I see him every week on the BBC, on Match of the Day. Never met the guy in my life" I tell him, as I'm ushered into a make-up seat. For some reason Carrasco finds this hysterically funny, and I have a new famous friend for the evening - which is just as well, because I'm crap at chat-shows and find that my Spanish falls to pieces under the pressure of live questions, despite having spoken the lingo for 25 years or more. There are others invited onto the show. Jorge D'Allesandro, the former Argentinean goalkeeper who played for Salamanca for several seasons and who managed various La Liga clubs, the journalist Iñaki Cano, Elias Israel the ex-boss of Marca and a host of others.

As the cameras start to roll, we are all thrown a football by the back-stage staff and are forced to run onto stage dribbling the ball in front of us. Carrasco sets off boldly into the glare of the lights and I follow, desperately trying not to trip over the camera cables or to lose control of the ball. Finally, safely seated, ball under foot, the programme hammers along largely ignoring me, save for the occasional close-up of the book I've taken along. Carrasco is the kindest, constantly reminding the host, Josep Pedredol, that I haven't been asked anything for the last few minutes - but it's ok. The less attention the better.

It is remarkable how little of any significance can be stretched over a two-hour period and be watched by a decent percentage of the night-bird nation. Later, at about 3.30 a.m. in some night-hawks-at-the-diner Madrid café, we are still seated in a huddle discussing Sevilla's defeat of Real Madrid and Joan Laporta's right to get political whilst still president of Barcelona. Lobo Carrasco is now re-living old glories, and is trying to tell us about when a Juventus defender elbowed him in a European Cup match. I just nod and sip my orange juice. What's the time Mr Wolf? Way past my bedtime. A chap staggers across, clearly having seen the programme earlier, and tries to take issue with Iñaki Cano over something he said about Pelligrini two hours ago. Cano ignores him and when the man threatens to get nasty, a waiter intervenes and leads him away.

One topic that was discussed after the programme was, however, far more interesting than several that made it onto the live forum. The fact that several high-profile clubs are in a tizzy about the possibility of their star men not making the World Cup is a new twist to the saga of club power. It all started with Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, and the fact that if Portugal fail to make it to South Africa, he will suffer from gloom and a lack of motivation that will affect his club performances for the rest of this season, poor chap. Not only that, but Real Madrid have calculated that Ronaldo's annual worth in media-related income is close to €90 million per annum, a sum that will dwindle considerably if he is not participating in the World Cup. That sounds like idle speculation, but you never know.

Messi, though he has his value too, is worth less in marketing terms to Barcelona for the simple fact that he's not quite so Armani - but Argentina's game at Uruguay now takes on a potentially high significance for both Barça and Atlético Madrid, the latter who would like both Diego Forlan and Kun Agüero to be representing them on the media stage, but who may have to settle for losing one of them to gloom and doom. The general media themselves, of course, will feel that a part of their investment has been taken away if Messi fails to make it, and they may be right. Barça might also have cause to regret the poor form of Sweden too, since Ibrahimovic might now also be subjected to attacks of depression at the prospect of a summer with his feet up on the sofa watching the telly.

Nevertheless, were professional players always like this? Alfredo Di Stéfano, placed on the Number One-of-all-time podium by no less a figure than Pele last week, never played in a World Cup (although he travelled to Chile in 1962 with the squad), but it didn't seem to affect him much. George Best never did either, but nobody ever put that forward as a reason for his hitting the bottle.

The trouble is that having Messi and Ronaldo in the World Cup is becoming such a media-led necessity that you begin to fear for the cleanliness of the qualifying competition. Somewhere, there must be somebody out there who has contemplated a (dodgy) set of measures that would ensure, at the very least, the presence of one of these players. Portugal look to have the easier ride, at least to the play-offs, but their victory over Hungary was achieved with Ronaldo on for the first 27 minutes, despite his suspect ankle. Now he's out for four weeks, to the frothing indignation of the powers that be in Madrid. But they can't have it both ways. Presumably the presence of Ronaldo in the Portuguese side against Hungary was simultaneously helping the national and the club cause, but now the headlines are that Carlos Quieroz did it on purpose (eh?) and that he doesn't care about Real Madrid because they treated him badly when he was (briefly) manager there.

Over in Armenia, Spain won 2-1 in a game whose result failed to reflect the utter dominance of the visitors - that despite the fact that Armenia equalised at one point (thereby scoring against Spain for the first ever time) and celebrated the goal as if they had just won the national lottery. Valencia's Juan Mata restored some sanity with a penalty soon afterwards, but Spain looked as if they could hardly be bothered for most of the game, and simply passed it among themselves for long periods, with the Armenians running around in a daze, unsure of what to do.

The win made it nine out of nine for Spain, the longest consecutive run of group wins in World Cup qualifying history. They may have their work cut out to make it ten in the final game in Bosnia in midweek, but the astonishing fact is that the Spanish have now gone 42 qualifying games without defeat - the last one coming in 1993 in wonderful wonderful Copenhagen (1-0).

In Segunda 'A' there was a full programme, and I'm happy to report that Real Sociedad went top after beating Salamanca 2-0 at home. I went to the game and was surprised at the quality on offer, in front of a 19,000 crowd, buoyed by the long weekend because Monday, October 12, was a national holiday. Last season's 'silver' campaign was dominated by the three sides who eventually went up, leaving little option in the end for the chasing pack. This season it looks rather more open, especially after Real Sociedad put Numancia - theoretically this year's favourites to go up - to the sword in Soria last weekend, following it up with this impressive performance against Salamanca - a side who have also been a historically significant one in La Liga.

Waking up on Tuesday morning and opening the papers to see your side top of the league always makes the day more bearable somehow, despite the inevitable rain. The club is still technically in administration, and doesn't have two pennies to rub together, but the sudden emergence of a small group of players from the youth system this season (there were ten locally formed players in the starting line-up again on Monday)- some of them unexpected in their progression - has lit the fires of optimism again.

Next weekend it's back to the bread and butter. Watch out for the Valencia v Barcelona game, despite the absence of David Villa. It looks like the pick of the fixtures.

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