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Monday, May 28, 2007
ESPNsoccernet: May 29, 2:15 PM UK
Last Lap Delay

Phil Ball

You can think of as many metaphors as you like, sporting or sexual, but arriving at this point of the league campaign in Spain with two games to go, the whole country transfixed on the wonderful struggles going on at the top and the bottom and everything rushing headlong to a wonderful climax (sorry), then... everything stops for two weeks due to internationals.

Ho hum - the Spanish are complaining, of course (it's a national sport) but then again the Spanish give their players a fortnight off over Christmas, when most of Europe continues to play. Foresight or hindsight? You tell me.

The tabloid Marca compared the situation to Fernando Alonso stopping his car on the last lap and going for a stroll, to Rafa Nadal walking off court on match-point, and more poetically perhaps, Plácido Domingo wandering off in the last act of 'Otello', as you do. All appropriate parallels perhaps, but the truth of the matter is that everyone will now have to sit though Spain's two games against Latvia and Liechtenstein, or perhaps not sit though them at all.

The general apathy around the country regarding the national team is at best shaken off when there is actual World Cup or European Championship action to savour, but needing to win against these two aformentioned giants is hardly the recipe for stopping the gourmet supper just as the tasty desserts were about to arrive. Indeed, the much-maligned manager-pensioner Luis Aragones was moved to complain over the weekend that whilst it was true that several teams were playing for their future livelihoods, so were the national side. No-one could even be bothered to disagree with him.

Worse still, both Real Madrid and Barcelona are losing key players over this period, although they hope they will not lose them to injury. The furrowed brows have extended over to Los Angeles, where Alexi Lalas could have benefited from that old ZZ Top beard to rub when contemplating the future absences of his rather expensive investment David Beckham, justifiably recalled to the England side for the foreseeable future.

Ronaldinho will also be playing for Brazil against England presumably, but will be out of Barça's last two games for rather different reasons, having been sent off for kicking Getafe's Belenguer up the bum at the end of the first half of their 1-0 home win at the weekend. Then again, Belenguer had been kicking Ronaldinho for the best part of the first half, but the referee was Pérez Burrul, possibly the worst of an appalling bunch, and one wholly incapable of distinguishing his own arse from his elbow, no matter a foul from a legal tackle. Burrul, according to Messi in a post-match press conference, warned the Argentine before the game that if he dived, he would 'pay the consequences'. Talk about guilty before being proved innocent.

Then again, the whole week had been marked by the Barcelona v Getafe game, for obvious reasons. Getafe's wonderful turn-around of the Copa Del Rey semi-final had not been forgotten in Catalonia, but Getafe are also from the outskirts of Madrid - and whilst their true supporters would never admit to being white-shirted, their president, Angel Torres, has never made a secret of the fact that he is a paid-up member of Real Madrid.

Continuing thus from last week's column, in which the theory of 'maletines' (suitcases) was once again explored, the idea seemed to be that Getafe were motivated to make an effort against Barça because they would prefer Real Madrid to win the league - as opposed to the fact that had they won, their UEFA place would have continued to look feasible (it doesn't now). A rather perverse state of affairs, and one further heated-up by the declarations of Real Madrid's manager-in-waiting, Bernd Schuster, who had hinted all week that his side would play it hard in the Camp Nou, a hint that was taken up enthusiastically by his players.

To add to the spicy mix, you may recall that Messi scored a rather good goal in the first leg of the copa semi-final against Getafe, a goal that was dismissed by Schuster as being a result of the fact that none of his defenders had hacked Messi down, like in the good old days when he was playing. Well, Schuster was in no way that type of player (and indeed suffered a terrible injury at the hands/boots of the 'Butcher of Bilbao' that also did for Maradona) but it made for good copy.

This is the kind of thing that they love in Madrid, of course, and Schuster knows it. It was the type of attitude and press conference snarl that intially attracted the Madrileño press to Mourinho some months back, when Capello was less feted and Real Madrid's season was foundering on the rocks. 'The perfect Anti-Barça' proclaimed Marca's headline some months back, with the Chelsea manager's face adorning the cover. But that was before his kiss and make-up with Abramovich and before Schuster's side put Barça out of the copa.

It's a weird one, of course, because Schuster was at Barcelona for almost eight years, and at Real Madrid for only two, a set of data that one would see Schuster looking on affectionately towards his old employers, but this would ignore the fact that for those eight seasons in the 1980's, one of them was spent on the sidelines with a serious knee injury, and another spent in court due to spats with both Venables and Nuñez. They never liked him much in Barcelona, with his moodiness and his insufferable wife (who was then his manager), and were almost relieved to see him go, even it was to Real Madrid.

The controversy over his move was a phoney one, the then Real Madrid president Ramón Mendoza buying him mainly to annoy the Catalans. But he calmed down once at the Bernabéu, and despite complaining to Toshack about being played out of position, he contributed substantially to the image of the 'Quinta del Buitre' and fitted in well, football-wise. It seems he has not forgotten. Schuster's winding-up of Rijkaard of late is the sort of behaviour that people associate with the German, behaviour that has been relatively muted in the past few years. But the leopard, it would seem, has not changed his spots, and fancies Capello's position.

All grist to the mill, but first we have a league to decide, and it would seem that the team to decide it - when the damned internationals have run their course - will be none other than Zaragoza. Now if Getafe are currently the thorn in Barça's side, then Zaragoza are certainly less than a pin-prick in Real Madrid's. There are those who maintain that the alarming slump in the Merengues' fortunes, a slump that resulted in the current desertification of their previously fertile fields, began with the loss to Zaragoza in the Copa Del Rey Final in 2004, under Carlos Quieroz. After that fatal March 17th in the Montjuic stadium (Beware the Ides of March... well, almost) things never really picked up. A possible treble melted in the early summer heat and the team went into a curious downward spiral that has only just shown signs of levelling off. Last season too, Zaragoza stuffed Madrid 6-1 in La Romareda, again in the copa, a game that proved a fitting conclusion to the capital club's sorry campaign.

Real Madrid are now playing quite well, are extremely motivated and know that two wins (their final game is a soft option at home to Mallorca) will see the title back in their cupboard. But Barça have two fairly easy-looking matches, one at home to Espanyol and the final one away to relegated Nastic - a side currently in tatters. Espanyol, traditionally pro-Madrid, might appreciate a suitcase or two for that game, and are themselves in a rich vein of form, but Madrid can clearly not afford to drop even a point at Zaragoza.

Added to the drama, Zaragoza must win to maintain their UEFA spot, since Villarreal have now steamed up the league into seventh place, and are only two points behind them. And Zaragoza are annoyed with Madrid for obliging them to sign a non-playing clause for Diogo (loaned out to them but one of their outstanding players this season) and for reneging on an alleged agreement in January whereby the promising young Rubén de La Red was supposed to be sold to them. In short, Madrid can expect a hostile reception. It's going to be a tricky game to win, but if they don't...

This is the game that the public television channel La Sexta had fingered for their Saturday night broadcast at 22.00 hours, but now the league is insisting that all games be played at the same time, to avoid anyone seeing the arrival of the suitcases. Canal Plus had also decided to broadcast at their traditional time of 21.00 on the Sunday night, the game between Barcelona and Espanyol, but that's unlikely to happen now. Of course, television and league are currently on a collision course over the issue, a course that will hopefully be sorted out for that big weekend. And if they both draw, Sevilla (we haven't forgotten them) are only two points behind. They play away at Mallorca and end a memorable season at home to improving Villarreal.

It's still anybody's league, but we'll just have to wait a bit longer now to see who actually wins it.


  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

  • If you've any comments for Phil, email the newsdesk


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