La Liga in focus: Cristiano Ronaldo is right about deficient rest of Real Madrid
When the fixtures were announced for 2015/16, the second clasico at Camp Nou at the start of April looked like it could be title-defining.
Played six weeks before the end of the season in a vital month for both clubs (they met each other four times in the same month in 2011), La Liga hoped it would be an ace card in their battle with England’s cash-rich Premier League for global supremacy.
But when the clasico was confirmed this week for Saturday April 2, the game began to appear as irrelevant as that of 2008 when Barcelona went to the Bernabeu and formed a guard of honour to welcome champions Real Madrid onto the pitch. Madrid hammered them 4-1. Pep Guardiola was appointed Barcelona coach a few months later and since that 2008 title, Madrid have been crowned champions of Spain only once, in 2012.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who won three consecutive titles at Manchester United, has only won one league in Spain since moving seven years ago and joining a club who’ve spent €800 million (Dh3.1 billion) on players since then.
Though their 23 titles is still some way behind Madrid’s 32 haul – all of which are being celebrated by Madrid’s principal cheerleader, Marca, with reproductions for fans who have had to turn to nostalgia – Barca have won the title five times since 2008 and are on target to retain La Liga this term.
Sunday’s 2-1 victory over a Sevilla side which Luis Enrique described as the best to visit Camp Nou this season, combined with Real Madrid losing at home again to neighbours Atletico, means leaders Barca are 12 points clear of Madrid with 12 games to play. The best team in the world by a distance, they are going to win the league again. Madrid are not, and that is a big problem for the white half of the capital.
Blame is being apportioned to several parties. The fans are not happy with club president Florentino Perez and his lack of strategy. A decade ago, Perez quit Madrid when his “galactico” project fell apart and his team were 10 points behind Barcelona. Now, they are even farther behind and the white handkerchiefs were out in force after Saturday’s third successive home derby defeat, just as they were when Barca put four past them in November.
Perez is not the only one receiving criticism. Coach Zinedine Zidane has not been in the job long enough to get blame, but some of his players have. Isco and James Rodriguez have disappointed and both were booed on Saturday. Their Madrid futures are in doubt. Rodriguez, the star signing of 2014, has become a peripheral player this season, starting less than 50 per cent of games.
Injuries have not helped Madrid either. While Barca have been fortunate in that department so far this season, Karim Benzema being substituted at half time on Saturday brought more groans. The French striker has suffered trouble with his hamstring this season. Gareth Bale’s injuries are also causing concern and while Barca’s “MSN” front three of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez make headlines every week, Madrid’s “BBC” trio of Gareth Bale, Benzema and Cristiano have played together in only 37 per cent of the minutes available on the pitch since 2013 when Bale arrived.
The Welshman is the one who is absent most, with a persistent calf problem causing him to miss an astonishing 44 games in the last two-and-a-half years. He has not been available for 17 games this season, more than any other player. Ronaldo has been available for every single game and pointed out what Madrid are losing when their top men are out.
“I like playing alongside Karim and if he’s not available, it’s more difficult,” said Ronaldo at the weekend. But it was his comments that “If the rest of the guys were at my level, then we’d be at the top of the league right now,” which caused a stir. They were taken to be egocentric, destructive and unfairly critical of his teammates.
He claims they were twisted out of context, yet he is actually correct. If only the rest of the players were at his level physically and in terms of form, then Madrid would not be 12 points behind their great rivals.
Making it 35 game sunbeaten in Madrid will taste even sweeter for Barcelona
Despite the enmity between Barcelona and Madrid, several of the rival players are close friends from their time together with the Spanish national team. Iker Casillas and Xavi, two mainstays of those teams for 15 years, are great friends.
Casillas and the most Catalan of Barca players, Gerard Pique, also get on well. This became evident in a social media exchange on Monday, but when Casillas invited followers to put questions to him, he probably did not expect one from Pique.
“Any predictions for the Champions League final, Iker?” asked Pique. The Porto goalkeeper, a Madrid legend, replied: “We could watch it together at the RFEF [Spanish football federation] with some snacks?”
“Well,” replied Pique to the player who is famed for being thrifty and was accused of having “little crocodiles in his pockets” by teammates, “if you’re going to pay for it, it will be an even bigger feat than winning the Champions League!”
Casillas, a Madrileno, hopes that anyone but Barca will be in the final. Pique, from Barcelona, will hope it is anyone but Madrid. He is intelligent, witty and not a player to conform to clichés. Asked if he planned to join up with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City after Sunday’s win over Sevilla, he said: “My love for Manchester United is too big to let me even consider signing for City one day, even with Guardiola in charge.” He was fond of United and Alex Ferguson, if not Manchester and the English food.
Pique’s also playing in a team which is currently far superior to either Manchester club. Barca’s victory over Sevilla, a side they will meet in the Copa del Rey final in May and who were the last team to beat them, at the start of October, made it a joint-record 34 games unbeaten. It moved them level with Real Madrid from 1988-89 when their great side featuring Emilio Butragueno, Hugo Sanchez, Michel and Bernd Schuster won four-straight La Liga titles.
Barca have Lionel Messi, who scored his sixth direct free kick of the season against Sevilla, more than any other La Liga player. And he has Luis Suarez and Neymar alongside him.
During that run, Madrid won 25 and drew nine games, scoring 84 and conceding 34. Barca’s record is even more impressive: won 28 and drawn six, scoring an incredible 102 and conceding only 19.
Barca will delight in setting the record Thursday in Madrid when they play Rayo Vallecano, usually a game full of goals: Barca won 5-2 earlier this season and 6-1 last season at Camp Nou. In the last 10 games between the pair, Barca have won all 10, scoring an incredible 45 goals.
It would be better if Barca could win in Madrid, but they have got enough going for them at present and Madrid have got enough going against them, that a draw will suffice. Just breaking the record will be a huge achievement, and doing it in the capital will make it a little sweeter.
Not that Casillas will be inviting Pique for celebrations.
Player of the week
From December, when Romanian coach Constantin Galca took charge, until mid-February Espanyol were woeful, tumbling from 12th down to 17th in the standings. They showed that they could play well when they went down 2-1 at Mestalla against Valencia two weeks ago. That defeat galvanised them; they have won both games since, the latest a 4-2 triumph at Sporting Gijon. Gerard Moreno, with two goals, was their best player. They are back up to 14th.
Game of the week
There is a full list of midweek Primera Liga fixtures. The Rayo v Barcelona encounter always sees lots of goals, in part because the pride of Vallecas think that if they are going to lose against Barca then they might as well do it trying. Rayo were superb at Camp Nou early in the season and took the lead before losing 5-2.
Getafe, from southern Madrid, were watched by a crowd of just 5,652 as they went down 1-0 at home to Celta Vigo. Getafe have lost their last six league games and have slipped to 15th, two points above the relegation zone.
At least some Madrid clubs have reason to cheer. Atletico were hugely impressive in beating their rivals through a Antoine Griezmann goal, while Leganes from southern Madrid went top of the second division with a 2-0 home win over the previous leaders Alaves. In the second division Catalan derby between two neighbours who pushed for promotion last season, Girona won at bottom of the table Llagostera. It is going to be a struggle for the league’s smallest club to stay up.
In the first of three meetings between Athletic Bilbao and Valencia in three weeks, the other two being in the last 16 of the Europa League. Athletic triumphed 3-0 in Valencia with three late goals inside seven minutes. It ended Valencia’s four-match winning run, with manager Gary Neville, who had seen his side denied two penalties, describing the referee as “a joke”.
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Published: March 1, 2016 04:00 AM