martes, 22 de septiembre de 2009

The Bernabeu Equation

A couple of weeks ago I was asking if anyone knew of a team who had managed to win as many as 15 competitive matches in the last three years in spite of conceding two goals or more, and this week both Barcelona and Real Madrid have done just that, both winning a match 5-2. Real did it away to Zurich in the Champions League and Barcelona home to Atlético de Madrid in the Primera División. And the curious thing is that the same result has provoked different readings. Whereas for Real it has been taken as confirmation of a defensive weakness that sooner or later will start leaving the team trophyless again and in a multi-million-euro crisis, nothing of the sort has been said about Barcelona. Everyone keeps being in love with them.

The Atleti-Barça games have a justified reputation of being a bit of a screwball affair, with lots of goals, turnarounds and, most surprising of all, occasional Atlético victories. This time the high score happened again, but the goals were distributed in a way that took all the fun out of a seven-goal thriller. Barça averaged a goal every ten minutes in the first half to arrive to the 42nd minute 4-0 ahead, and even when Atleti's goal hunters, Aguero and Forlán, managed to bag one each, the result was never in doubt. Then Atleti defender Pablo Ibáñez annoyed Leo Messi so much with a professional foul that the little Argentinian came back to life, and minutes later he had scored his second of the match and fourth in five games played. Barça were just cruising, trying to carefully nurse everyone's lower limbs for the long season ahead. In this the players seemed to be taking their cue from manager Josep Guardiola, who, with seven competitive matches already played, plus most of his stars embroiled at the business end of the World Cup qualifying campaign, has started rotating them as soon as he's had the fit personnel to do it.

Thierry Henry had been on the bench during the whole of the first two Spanish league matches and this weekend played a full 90 minutes for the first time this season (and he's still goalless, by the way). Eric Abidal, Yaya Touré and Carles Puyol were saved, substituted with Brazilian Maxwell Scherrer, home-grown Sergio Busquets and the Champions-League-cup-tied Dmitro Chygrynskiy. Rafael Márquez came back from injury and had time to have a 15-minute run-out when he came in for Gerard Piqué, whom the comentators have started dubbing 'Piquenbauer' after his ability to come out of defence with the ball and start attacks effectively. Andrés Iniesta also reappeared after injury, taking over from Xavi Hernández.

Barcelona's other game of the week, a 0-0 draw away to Inter Milan, illustrate, as a companion piece, how difficult Barcelona are to stop. Spain's fourth team last season gets hit by five and the Italian champions concede ball possession figures of 33-6 per cent at home and consider themselves lucky with a point. Give Barça the ball for twice as long as you have it, and you're reduced to pray none of their chances go in. Personally, I am of the opinion that a team should never apologise for defending well, and doing it in numbers if needed, but not many more teams will escaped unscathed like this against Barça.

As for Real, it's now 17 victories in spite of conceding two or more in the last three years, and the second in their first three competitive matches in 2009-10. The teams involved have been Deportivo de La Coruña and Zurich, which means trouble ahead when facing teams with better attacks and better defences. It looks like Barcelona are going to drop very few points this year, and Real have to do something about it if they're not to fall off the pace. At least the fears that Cristiano Ronaldo might start the year in disappointing form have been dissipated, with six goals in four matches (one a penalty and two free kicks) and being his usual busy self on the pitch. Kaká has also proved himself as a true star, the kind of player Real like to say were born to play for Real Madrid.

This weekend the unlucky visitors were debutants Xerez, the 59th team ever to play in the Spanish top division, who entered the Bernabéu all wide-eyed with enthusiasm, followed by about 5,000 fans from far away in the southernmost tip of the country. People fom the area, the birthplace of sherry and flamenco also have a reputation for being exceptional mickey-takers, and they unfurled a banner reading, in their local vernacular: "Ustedes tenéis a Benzema, nosotros dinero pa ná" (You've got Benzema, we haven't got money for anything). Precisely that day, Real president Florentino Pérez confirmed at the club's AGM that the budget for the year is 422 million euros (and a debt of 327 million). Xerez's budget is about 9 million. The difference was telling, and Real put another 5 goals past them, also with a peculiar distribution: the first after just 45 seconds ("yeah, you keep looking at the stadium", it seemed to say), and the other four in the last 15 minutes, just when Xerez throught they could go home with a reputable result. Among them was a welcome return for Ruud van Nistelrooy, a first competitive goal for Karim Benzema and a third in consecutive matches by eternal bit-part player Guti.

In the meantime, while everyone waits for a team to really test Real on the pitch, to see what's what, we have had Pérez promising a theme park near the training grounds, and unveiling what he called 'La Ecuación Bernabeu'. Not the latest spy thriller by Robert Ludlum, but a summary of his intentions as Real president: buying the best players in the world = sporting success = important source of revenue = security and stability. Or, spending is the best way to stability. For more on that, I recommend this essential piece written for The Times by John Carlin three months ago.

Carlin wrote: "So many people have been asking: is it not economic madness to spend such vast amounts at a time of global recession or, indeed, at any time at all? No it is not, says Perez, because, in a favourite saying of his, "the most expensive things are the cheapest". He likes to illustrate what he means using the example of a piece of heavy machinery of the type he needs in his construction business. If he buys the most expensive and best tunnel digger on the market it will last a long time and work quickly and efficiently. It will be better value than a cheaper, less reliable machine. The same logic lies behind Perez’s acquisition of players who are the best in the business and whose name recognition matches or exceeds those of the biggest Hollywood stars and the most celebrated national leaders. In short, Perez will tell you, to buy Ronaldo is the opposite of throwing money away; it is a solid gold investment. Perez is baffled that nobody else seems to quite get it. For he has already shown everybody how it’s done."

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