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Bewitched, bothered and bewildered

There are several ways of saying 'bewitched', or 'under the spell' in Spanish. I particularly like the words hechizado and embrujado. These words form part of the reason Real Madrid seem unable to function when they come to play Barcelona. Bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

Since you'll have already read plenty of reports on the event by now, I won't seek to add anything radically different to most of the media's conclusions, but maybe proffer a two-pronged theory as to the eternal sand in Madrid's vaseline. Jose Mourinho thought that Barcelona were 'lucky', but that isn't really good enough. You know what he meant though - in the sense that if you simply consider the game as a series of events, Madrid could easily have won. The astonishing start - the fastest goal in the history of the clásicos, on 22 seconds, was itself a rather lucky event - although Mourinho seemed reluctant to include it in his thesis. Before we go any further, I'm sure you'll want to know which was the fastest goal before Benzema's, and we can deliver. It was after 40 seconds in the clásico in 1940, and it was scored by Chus Alonso in the Bernabeu. He was no relation to Xabi Alonso, in case you were wondering.

But back to the main point. At 1-0, with Barcelona on the back foot and the smell of regime change in the air, Cristiano Ronaldo scuffed a shot wide when he really should have done better. He could even have squared it, I think to Di María. You got the distinct impression, at that moment, that the visitors might not look back, and on the half-hour the impressive Alexis scored a cracker that confirmed the suspicion and eventually turned the game around, mainly because it put a damper on Madrid's temporary fantasy that everything was finally going their way. But it wasn't lucky. It was a great goal. Xavi's for 2-1 had more of the look of fortune about it, but it was the culmination of a good move. Then, with the goal at his mercy, Ronaldo inexplicably headed wide Xabi Alonso's deadly cross, and you knew what was going to happen next. Alves, Fabregas - goal and goodnight.

I don't see where the luck factor comes in. For me, the main difference now between the two sides is in their competitive mentality. Barcelona always feel that they can do it, that they can turn the tide around, and they never waver from their style. To go to the Bernabeu, with their opponents on a 15-match winning streak, and play with three defenders says it all really. Real Madrid are fiercely competitive too, but not all of them to an equal degree. If you want to beat Barcelona, you have to make them question themselves, worry them by your sheer competitive edge. Few sides achieve it, and it's an aspect of this great Barcelona side that is rarely cited. But you look at Madrid, and when it mattered most, Mezut Ozil and Marcelo went missing in action. It's enough to lose you the game, against a side that presents you with no fissures.

Then there's the 'lose-your-head' syndrome that always seems to affect Pepe, Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos in the clásico. Their hatred of losing is admirable, but their fear of losing to Barcelona seems to bewitch them, and turn them into temporarily dysfunctional players. The home crowd even began to timidly whistle at Ronaldo later on, but so poorly did he play - like a headless chicken - that he should have been substituted. But Mourinho, for all his ballsy bluster, would never court that sort of controversy. More's the pity for Madrid. Ronaldo is a fantastic player, and without him it is unlikely that his team would have been leaders at the start of the match, a fact that the whistlers should bear in mind. But such has become the importance of this fixture that everything that precedes it has taken on the status of a practice match, a sort of sparring before the real thing. And if you fail at the real thing, you join the ranks of the unforgiven. It's tough at the top.

Madrid's approach to the game was similar to the performance in their last victory over Barcelona, in the Copa del Rey final. Play a high line, attack any player with the ball at his feet before he has time to compose himself, and then launch counter-attacks at a speed giddy enough to panic the three guys hanging out at the back. For 20 minutes or so it worked, and Barcelona were uncharacteristically losing a lot of possession, but when will Mourinho learn that you cannot keep up that kind of off-the-ball hassling for more than half an hour? Surely, it is what you do when you have the ball that ultimately determines the result - and Madrid's attacking play was imprecise, precipitated and horribly uncoordinated. Di María never quite knew where he was going, Ronaldo made all the wrong decisions, Ozil seemed uninterested, and only Karim Benzema seemed capable of bothering the visitors. You could see the Barcelona defenders relax when Ronaldo got the ball and set off on another pointless gallop over the horizon. But when Benzema was on the ball, Carles Puyol and company visibly tensed.

Oddly enough, Mourinho hasn't seen the obvious reason his team continue to lose to Barcelona: it's because the players from each team know each other too well. So why doesn't that affect Barça, you ask? The obvious answer is that they almost always win, and thus it continues. It's a kind of positive domino effect, or a mathematical exponential. The more you win, the more you will continue to win, and if it's always the same personnel involved, the psychological scars gathered on the way are considerable for the losers. The only way to shift the dynamic is to introduce new players to the circus - ones who are less scarred, less bewitched. Kaka for example - notice how he immediately made Madrid look more fluent, simply because he has not figured in so many of these events. Barcelona weren't sure what he was going to do, stood off him, and he almost scored (Valdes did get lucky that time). Jose Callejon has been playing well recently too. Why not throw him into the fray? He has none of the accumulated neurosis that most of his colleagues possess. How about Nuri Sahin?

Madrid (and crucially Alonso) also lacked any support down the flanks from the full-backs, partly because Marcelo was on the planet Zarg, but also because Fabio Coentrao is more comfortable on the left. He actually played quite well, but was clearly reluctant to venture anywhere further than the half-way line. Contrast that with the wonderful Dani Alves, who played like a winger and terrified Madrid every time he got within crossing range. Why didn't Madrid revert to a three-man defence too, move Ramos to the right (to overlap) and free Alonso from defensive duties? I'm not sure. Perhaps Mou was bothered and bewildered too.

Down on Planet Earth, below these galactic happenings, other games were played, funnily enough. Perhaps the most eye-catching result was Betis' 2-1 win at home to Valencia. The week has not been a kind one for the latter, but Betis were going into the game having only gained one point from the last 30. In the words of Jack Sparrow - 'not good'. They last won (4-3) at home to bottom club Zaragoza on September 20th. It's been a miserable run, and it looked like continuing until Ruben Castro scored twice in added time to almost certainly save his manager Pepe Mel's neck. Mel has actually been a bit unlucky, and isn't particularly blamed by the home fans, but it is rare nowadays that a manager can survive with only one point in 33. Now it's four - and he's still standing.

Pre-Christmas sacking rumours continue to grow for two other candidates - Javier Aguirre at Zaragoza and Gregorio Manzano at Atletico Madrid. The latter lost in midweek to Albacete (now in Segunda 'B') in the cup, and followed that with a 4-2 whipping at Espanyol. With open warfare between Manzano and Jose Antonio Reyes, left at home for allegedly negotiating with Galatasaray, the ex-history teacher's days are looking numbered. And Zaragoza, with one point from the last eight games, are at the bottom of the pile with a less sympathetic public in tow.

The interesting thing, with one game to be played now before the Christmas break, is that everyone can continue to dream. Sporting de Gijon are third from bottom (18th) with 15 points but remain a mere three points behind Mallorca, in 11th place. Athletic Bilbao, apparently having a decent season, are only four points off the relegation spots too. They could also argue, with some justification, that they are also only five points shy of a Europa League placing. All to play for, basically. And if Real Madrid can shake off the three Bs (see the title) and win at stumbling Sevilla, they'll be three points clear of Barcelona while they eat their Christmas lunches.


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