jueves, 29 de octubre de 2009

The most embarrassing result ever?

On Tuesday, October 27th, 2009, Real Madrid lost to third division Alcorcón 4-0 in the Spanish Cup. Is this the most embarrassing defeat anywhere, of any time, ever?

Real, like any other team, big or small, in the world, have had their share of bad results throughout their history, but this one takes some beating, if it really can be beaten. If people from different countries happen to read this, I'd like to ask them what's the most undignified score they can think of and compare notes.

First of all, you have to find a team of the stature of Real Madrid to play the fall guys, which is not easy in itself. And then, Alcorcón are not a third division club like Leeds United are a third division club. They're not a fallen giant going through hardship. They can't even be compared to Charlton Athletic, as Alcorcón have never played in Spain's top two divisions.

Being in the top third of the third division is a historic high-water mark for them. In terms of league placings between the clubs, it's tricky to work this out, as the Spanish third level is made up of 80 teams (yes, eighty), in four groups of 20. If we consider that anyone currently having more points than Alcorcón in any of the four groups is above then in the pyramid, then there are 19 clubs above them in their division, plus all 22 of the second tier, plus 19 in the first, as Real lie second in it. 60 league places, then.

And finally, there's the margin of the result itself: this is not the first feat of giant-killing, by any means, but it's not your run-of-the-mill plucky 1-0 El Álamo shut-out either. Four goals to the good from 60 league places down. I'd really like to hear of something similar, if it exists.

Real were playing their second-string side, but all of the players were from the first-team roster, with no youngsters or reserves at all. The line-up for (the wrong kind of) posterity was: Dudek in goal, Arbeloa - Albiol - Metzelder - Drenthe in defence, Granero - Guti - Diarra - Van der Vaart in midfield, Raúl and Benzema in attack.

Substitutes used were Gago, Marcelo and Van Nistelrooy. No Kaká, no Ronaldo, no Alonso, no Ramos, no Pepe, but it should be plenty to deal with a third division side. The pitch was in good conditions, no-one was sent off, Alcorcón didn't kick their visitors out of the field... No strange circumstances than explain the result, other than the passion of the underdog and a pitiful display from the top side.

For the return leg, Raúl and football director Jorge Valdano have promised one of the 'remontadas' (turnarounds) that Real were famous for in the 80s, when Valdano was playing and the merengues made a habit of losing the first leg of a tie, sometimes heavily, and then reverse the result at home.

But that was in the old Uefa Cup, against continental rivals. Using that proud bit of history against a modest side like Alcorcón shouldn't even have been in the cards. Even if Real do qualify, they will have to apologise profusely. And this result, by the way, has given more ammunition for those who think that the Spanish Cup should be played in one leg only, with no return matches. This was tried for a couple of years, the fans loved it, but the big clubs lobbied for the safety net of an extra 90 minutes, and they got it.

Since Cristiano Ronaldo got injured, Real's results have nosedived at Real. The Portuguese has now missed five matches in three competitions, producing one win, one draw and three defeats. This has exposed the flaws in Real's plan, which, with Manuel Pellegrini at the helm, calls for tightly-knit, intricate passing without using the wings much.

This works well with ball-hoggers like Ronaldo, who learnt at Manchester United how to give an end-product to his trickery, but without him, it seems that sometimes everyone is looking for someone else to produce that magic. Players who could provide width, and thus a plan B, were sold, like Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben. Real's plan A is failing, and this result is not a one-off. People aren't watching it as a freak result, but as a warning of just how big the problems are. Plus, it also shows how great is the difference in quality between the big stars of the team and the rest. We're back to the ages-old complaint at Real of being "not a team, but a collection of stars, less than the sum of their parts".

The day after, Barcelona showed how it's done. My plan for this week originally was to focus on the once-in-a-lifetime experience of the best team in the world visiting your third division club, five minutes down the road from your home. Pity that it was a bit... well, boring. Many things conspired against the occasion, starting with Real's eye-catching result. Then, it was Josep Guardiola's decision to leave Messi, Ibrahimovic, Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol back home in Catalonia. Then, it was the 10pm starting time on a Wednesday. Then, the fact that it was shown live on TV. And then, a display from the home side that didn't match Alcorcón's. The 14,000-capacity ground was full, although not sold out, and commentators were generous with Cultural Leonesa, praising their passing game and their refusal to kick shins as a way to look for a result, but they had only one good shot on goal.

Barcelona, also using their second-string and a couple of youngsters, didn't play wondrously, but they still found a couple of goals from wonderkid Pedro Rodríguez, who has more minutes on the field this year than Thierry Henry (and six more goals to his name) to win 2-0. The feeling seemed to be: "We did OK, now cameras at the ready for the Nou Camp visit". Fair enough, I guess, but who wouldn't want to be in Alcorcón's shoes?

By coincidence, both underdogs had strikers formed at the academies of their rivals. But while Borja Pérez scored two against Real, Cultural's Juan José Canto, 'Jito', couldn't really threaten much. Jito was in the same youth teams as Xavi until the age of 19, and this season he has what surely is a record of some kind: after nine league games he has scored 100 per cent of his club's goals, 9 in 9 games.

Adding the early rounds of the cup, he has scored 13 of Cultural's 15 competitive goals this season. La Cultu are always tipped for promotion to the second division, but they always fail, and there's already talk of Jito being sold in the winter market to pay part of the club's debts of 6 million euros. Maybe Jito can ask his old pal Xavi for some spare change instead of his shirt.

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