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Oct 26, 2009

Crisis in the capital

A mixed week for Spanish fortunes, with the country's leading European lights (at least in statistical terms), both slipping up in the Champions League, although Sevilla continued to make it look like child's play with a 3-1 win at Stuttgart. Champions League? They're 'aving a laugh. Chelsea had one as well, predictably stuffing Atlético Madrid 4-0 and condemning their manager, Abel Resino, to the social security queue.

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In the sea of Europa, Villarreal continued to scrape the seabed, Valencia managed a draw and only Athletic Bilbao kept up appearances with a 2-1 win over the mighty Nacional de Madeira. The accompanying chorus to a week of European action - that teams invariably suffer in the aftermath - was then only partially endorsed when poor Zaragoza had the misfortune to be the first team to play Barcelona after the European champion's surprising defeat at home to Rubin Kazan, and were subsequently thrashed - as if Barcelona had a point to prove.

If Real Madrid had one to prove too, they were less convincing in their 0-0 draw at Sporting de Gijon, although they can point to the fact that all their strikers save Raúl were injured. Poetically, therefore, they failed to score for the first time in 19 matches, a run that included eight league games and eleven pre-season encounters, all under Pelligrini. Sevilla did struggle, however, and came up against a determined Espanyol defence in the Sánchez Pizjuan, with a 0-0 draw looking strangely on the cards from the early stages of the game. Valencia, also on duty in midweek, took full advantage and moved threateningly into fourth position with a big 0-3 win at Almería, manager Unai Emery showing no pity for his former club - the one that launched him into the big time.

Do the defeats of Real Madrid and Barça in midweek require analysis, as if they were symptoms of some creeping malaise? I don't think so - at least in the case of Barça. The laws of probability state that they have to lose occasionally, but it was indeed a shock to go down to the relatively unknown Russians. As Xavi suggested in a post-match interview, it was a blip and nothing more. Ultimately, the 6-1 win over Zaragoza seemed the best answer, Keita scoring a hat-trick.

Nevertheless, it would be folly to assume that Barça's defeat will not worry them just a little, given the suddenly open state of their group, but at least it's kept things interesting. Real Madrid, on the other hand, seem to have some sort of neurosis when it comes to Italian teams, and Milan cannily exposed the frailty at the heart of Madrid's tactical universe. The 2-3 defeat may knock the wind out of their sails, largely because it was so galling to see an ex-player from the previous century, Clarence Seedorf, outthink his former club and have ultimately more influence on the result than the faltering Milan export, Kaká. And what is worse? To go down unexpectedly to a little-known force, or to lose whenever you come up against anything decent, which seems to be the case so far with Real Madrid.

In terms of their capacity to react, the game at Gijon was always going to be a tough one, without any of their first-choice strikers (with apologies to Raúl) but the 0-0 result was as uninspiring as it was efficient. However, the reaction of the Spanish press on the Sunday morning, as if this, and not the Milan game, were evidence of the crushing failure of Pelligrini to manage a top-class side, was curious to say the least. Whoever said that a visit to the Moliñon was an easy one that guaranteed three points to the visitors? Such nonsense shows a lack of respect for one side and a set of overblown expectations on behalf of another. It's the paradox at the heart of Florentino's new empire, you have to suppose. In strict footballing terms, Madrid's draw was a decent one - but since so many millions have been so casually spent, the obligation is to win every week, and to do it in style. The pressure on the players is enormous, for which they are paid equally enormous salaries, of course - but the reactions to the 0-0 draw did neither team any favours. Sporting are far from being canon-fodder, and Madrid are clearly far from being invincible. That's all that needed to be said. The defeat at home to Milan may prove to be far more serious, unless Ronaldo's latent re-appearance proves to be the simple antidote to this other alleged 'mini-crisis'.

Where there is a real crisis in the capital, it is over on the banks of the Manzanares, where Atlético Madrid stagger around the abyss of their own making. Spanish is particularly rich in phrases that describe 'rock bottom' scenarios, and they have all been prominent in the discourse of the sports' pages this weekend. 'Tocar fondo' (To scrape the bottom of the barrel), 'Peor imposible' (Worse, impossible) and my personal favourite 'Hacer el ridiculo' (make an arse of yourself) were all to the fore on Sunday morning after Atlético's bizarre 1-1 home draw with Mallorca.

Again, to do Mallorca credit, nobody was suggesting that this would be an easy game, but it was certainly a more promising one than the visit to Stamford Bridge in midweek. Staying faithful to the tradition of this column, I would be reluctant to even say that Chelsea thrashed Atlético in London, because there were spells in the game where the Spanish put together some decent football, and in truth they should have scored a couple themselves. But they were undone by their toothless defending and by the inability of their midfield to protect the centre-backs.

This has been the case from the beginning of the season, and Abel Resino's inability to put it right meant that he had to go, perhaps with some justification. The Chelsea result was simply the final straw, and all the evidence suggests that the club hierarchy had already decided that he would go, even before the game. Their unsuccessful and clumsy courting of Michael Laudrup suggested that they were hardly wringing their hands with indecision as to Resino's fate, and they had clearly lost confidence in him. As such he is the first top-flight managerial victim this season, after almost two months of combat.

Whatever - the perennially wonderful thing about Atlético is that they always mess up in style, not with a whimper but a bang. Diego Forlán, no doubt fatigued after so much recent travelling, missed a penalty, but was later handed another one by referee Muñiz Fernández, who seemed to have assumed the role of the home side's twelfth man. Forlan managed the second time, and the fans had even more cause to believe that the club's luck was turning when Mallorca had two defenders sent off. But instead of surging forward and killing off the game, Mallorca were handed their escape clause and duly equalised in the final seconds, sending the Calderón into a negative and ugly frenzy.

The folks at Atlético aren't happy, and have been making their feelings felt for some time now. They're none too keen on either the president, Enrique Cerezo, or the owner, Miguel Angel Gil Marín, and only partly because these two are not particularly keen on each other to boot. In fact their non-relationship makes the goings-on at Liverpool look fairly mild, but the Atlético hard-core have long since lost patience with the last vestiges of the Jesus Gil empire, and would prefer the club to be finally free of its pernicious influence. Gil Marín, Cerezo and the little mourned Jesus Gil were found to have fraudulently acquired the club anyway when it was originally turned into a plc, none of which has prevented the former two from holding onto the reins.

Jesus García Pitarch, the long-suffering but hardly innocent Sporting Director tried to leave this week, but was prevented from doing so by Cerezo. Meanwhile, a new manager was finally brought in, but only until the end of the season. Quique Sánchez Flores, who was last seen walking out on Benfica, is not the most inspiring of choices to get the team out of its present crisis of confidence, largely because he has a less than impressive record and partly because he bears an uncanny resemblance to Doctor House - at least when he effects that wide-eyed stare of his. He was in the stands for the Mallorca game, and was indeed seen to stare (into space) at the end. One wonders what Dr House's diagnosis will be. Probably something along the lines of 'What the hell have I let myself in for here?'

Indeed, just to confirm any fears he might have had, Atlético's training session on the Sunday morning was interrupted by a small phalanx of the charming 'Frente Atlético', the supporters' organisation famed for its left-leaning and democratic pacifist tendencies. The club's relationship with this group has always been rather questionable, and once again their lobbying power gave them access to a closed training session - the argument from the club being that it was safer to let them in than to have them pounding on the gates from the outside. Hmmm. Once in, their esteemed leader led the delegation over to a group of the players where they had a cosy little chat about something or other, perhaps their favourite records.

The players may have performed poorly, but surely deserved better than this. The precedent is alarming, and one wonders what the Frente actually thought they might achieve - unless it was to offer the players their undying support. Perhaps they were suggesting a new tactical approach, or maybe the hierarchy of the club, in the absence of an officially acting manager, had asked them to go along to the session to help out. It could start a new trend. Clubs around Europe could invite their most violent supporters to a weekly meeting to discuss tactics and to pick the team. Even Platini might like that. He likes to encourage innovative ideas.

Anyway, given my successful annual blag to visit Bilbao once a season, next week sees the column heading west down the motorway to watch Atlético in the flesh, in the anti-Madrid cauldron that is San Mamés. Should be fun.

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