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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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An evening in Madrid

It's always interesting to visit the 'Bernabow', whether the hosts are ten points adrift of first place or ten points ahead. There's always a feeling, as you mingle outside with the crowds (as long as you're not robbed in the style of Harry Redknapp) that you're at the centre of the universe, and that no other place can be quite as significant.

The pomp and circumstance of the main façade, the one that stares out over the Castellana, never fails to impress, whatever your views on the club. And having promised my son Harry the Chelsea v Bolton game at Christmas and not delivering, I felt that it was time to make good on a long-unfulfilled vow to take him to the 'Bernabow', despite the tricky logistics.

He had an important game for Antiguoko (Sociedad's feeder club) away at Alaves (remember them?) on the Saturday (won 1-0 away, in freezing fog), and so it was a question of getting down to Madrid on the Sunday for 19.00 hours. The train duly delivered us, and it's a nice ride down from the north, through the green mountains of the Basque Country, snow-capped against an icy-blue sky, rumbling along into more parched-looking lowlands and then climbing again up to Madrid. We fly back some eight hours after writing this introduction, so he can be back at school mid-morning. Football's the priority? How could anyone possibly think that?

The trouble with buying tickets supplied to the away club, in this case Real Sociedad, is that although they come much more cheaply than their online equivalents, you always get the worst of the worst. It's almost impossible to know where you are going to be herded, but you can bet that it's up in the gods, in some forsaken corner where the light rarely shines. It was indeed thus, to the side of the Fondo Norte, with the players subbuteo-size on the green baize below, with the view further blocked by netting draped down to protect people from falling over the giddy walls, presumably. The safety measure is necessary, of course, but the crappiest seats are always reserved for away supporters, who pay their €45 and suffer in silence. I really found it hard to see the Fondo Sur goal, and of course, four of the five goals were scored there.

Nevertheless, it was nice to see my son's breathing temporarily seize and his eyes open wide as he walked through the wonderfully-named vomitorio into the white-light vastness of the arena. It's hard not to be stunned by the sheer size and grandeur of the place, despite the absurdly operatic welcome always given to the home side, with the song Hala Madrid belted out by Placido Domingo. It makes you feel small and insignificant, which I guess is the idea. Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Well, I only despaired after eight minutes, when Kaka scored the first after a mistake in the visitors' back line, and then a little later as Ronaldo scored a wonderful second, admittedly encountering little resistance. Raul Tamudo, Madrid's favourite Catalan, had just blown a chance to equalise, upon which Madrid waltzed down and scored. Thus it goes against the better sides. Miss your chance, but they won't miss theirs. By half-time it was game over (3-0) and Madrid weren't even having to sing for their supper.

It's a while since I've sat in the away end at a game, and felt the solidarity you get amongst a varied bunch of people thrown together for an evening, with no other motive than to revel in their shared cultural identity, forgetting the other complications of their lives for 90 minutes. The Madrid fans to our right indulged in some anti-Basque banter from time to time, but it was fairly harmless stuff. They only seemed to get cross when we sang Así, así, así gana al Madrid (That's how Madrid win) after Sociedad had a penalty shout ignored by the ref. They still seem baffled by this chant, especially as they now consider Barcelona to be the 'regime team'.

At the other end, the Ultra Sur unfurled a banner whose message I found so ludicrous that I refuse to repeat it here, but I thought I'd just mention it in case anyone thought I was avoiding the issue. The supporters who gather behind the south goal have become experts in recent years at writing large provocative messages, mounted on large separate posters, and smuggled into the ground (presumably) by teamwork. The messages are then unfurled and shown for around 30 seconds or so, then taken down. It's all done with military precision, and is carried out too swiftly to allow the stewards to intervene, assuming they want to. The television cameras avoid the messages, and it is almost as if there is a signal sent to tell them to look away. It's tawdry stuff, and unpleasant when your collective is the target of the sentiments. Oh well - it's all part of the scene I guess. All in a day's entertainment. Madrid is in fact a friendly place, and I always enjoy a visit. Shame about a few numbskulls, but they're hard to avoid nowadays, wherever you may go.

Brought up on the life-saving policy of hiding my team shirt when I visited away grounds in England (as an adolescent), I was interested in my son's awareness of the impact of 'showing the shirt' and the feeling of identity it engenders in potentially hostile territory. I'd suggested to him that it might be sensible not to overdo the shirt thing outside the ground, but since most of the Sociedad supporters we encountered were doing it, my son insisted on a photograph outside the Fondo Norte, kissing the badge and simultaneously holding onto his Barcelona FC wallet. This symbolic double whammy offensive to all that a madridista holds dear was enough to open the clouds and send down a meringue-coloured thunderbolt to singe my son's sinning head, but fortunately the gods were otherwise occupied, probably by the live Chelsea versus Liverpool game on their celestial channel (Sky?).

Real Madrid shouldn't read too much into the 4-1 result. The visitors committed footballing suicide by playing to their own strengths - an unfair phrase maybe, but in the 'Bernabow' you need to be a little more prudent. Real Sociedad possess three wonderful midfielders in Xabi Prieto, Antoine Greizmann and David Zurutuza - the latter a strange stop-start version of Cesc Fabregas - but there is nothing behind to protect them. The old warhorse Diego Rivas is an excellent defensive pivote, but with Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Kaka & Co you cannot possibly be expected to stem the tide alone. Real Sociedad's defence was thus practically non-existent, and Madrid attacked at will. They looked good, sure, but were nevertheless susceptible to the visitors' breaks, once the good guys had the ball. Madrid's sea always parts too easily when classy opponents are in possession. Casillas saved his side's bacon twice, but the headlines will be all about CR7 etc.

The good news that Madrid might take from the game, however, was the re-introduction of Kaka from the start, and the alternatives that Emmanuel Adebayor might bring them. Like Benzema (whom he replaced from the start) he is not a classic centre forward, but his speed and technique look more suited to La Liga than the Premier League, where his subtlety was at times bypassed by the sheer physicality of the scene there. Not that he is a rag-doll, but his ability to drift between the lines and worry teams with his pace gives Madrid another alternative. Benzema is a better passer, but puts himself about much less. The Madrid fans seem to like their new man, and of course he scored again for the second consecutive game.

Talking of scoring, Ronaldo now heads the historical list of the quickest Real Madrid players to have reached the 50-goal mark. He now has 50 in 51 games, pushing the great Ferenc Puskas into second place (50 from 54) and Alfredo Di Stefano - to whom he was compared this week by Jorge Valdano - into 3rd (50 from 56). Hugo Sanchez required 68 games and the legendary Raul 113.

The whole goalscoring thing is becoming mildly interesting this season, and helps to divert attention from the problem of the duopoly. Ronaldo (24) is level on goals with Messi, despite the latter's hat-trick against Atletico Madrid on Saturday night - an unusually bland affair, by the way, given the torrid and goal-rich history of that particular fixture. Whatever - both Messi and Ronaldo are on target to beat the all-time record of 38. Who will get there first? Fasten your seat belts.

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