Part two of Sid Lowe’s examination of the Spanish season so far.
With Madrid losing their first game of the season, Barcelona opened up a three-point lead, while Sevilla pulled level with Pellegrini’s side in second as the season took a break for internationals. The timing could not have been worse for Madrid. The inquest began immediately; having previously played a game every three days, international week meant it was set to run for two long weeks.
The interpretations were legion, the debates furious. Few seemed prepared to write it off as just a defeat – and against a very good side who have got extremely good results against Madrid over the last few seasons. Fewer seemed prepared to concede it was still early days or that, as Pellegrini had insisted, Madrid remained a team in the making rather than the finished article. Perhaps winning seven out of seven at an average of more than three goals a game had been counterproductive; perhaps expectations had risen too soon.
Over in Catalonia they were gleefully heralding the match as proof that Madrid weren’t really that good. “Madrid’s first real test and they lose,” declared Sport. After all, they reminded readers, Madrid’s seven victories had come against Marseille, Zurich, Tenerife, Villarreal, Xerez, Espanyol and Deportivo. Not the most fearful of opponents. It was a telling remark – if only for what it said about the knife-edge Madrid tread, on which there are simply no grey areas.
Madrid had been without Ronaldo, the man who had scored five league goals already plus two in the Champions League. Some complained that defeat proved that Madrid suffered from Ronaldodependencia. The cover of the country’s best-selling newspaper, Marca, the following morning read: “Ronaldo is mucho Ronaldo.” Without the Portuguese, they said, “Madrid were a calamity.”
As for Marcelo, he just isn’t good enough, they said. One columnist called him a “defensive cancer”. He had endured a torrid night but was not the only one at fault: Madrid yet again conceded from a set piece, something that Pellegrini admitted “worries me”. Renato headed home, all alone, right in the centre of the six-yard box. Television cameras picked up an argument between Casillas and Guti in which the goalkeeper bemoaned the fact that Guti was “marking no one” and “doing nothing”.
Lacking width and a clear, discernible style, Pellegrini did not escape criticism; there were even some calls for his head. Never Perez’s first choice, not even the second, he could be forgiven for being concerned.
Perhaps the biggest bone of contention was Pellegrini’s continuing policy of rotation. Rotation was fine, the critics insisted, but shouldn’t the Chilean build his team first, lay the foundations of a system and a pattern before he starts resting players? “Madrid don’t know yet if they’re a push-bike, a motorbike or a car,” one columnist complained.
Some suspect the rotation policy is an excuse to soften the impact of leaving captain Raul out, of excusing his occasional absences with the argument that Ronaldo and Kaka had sat out games too. There is a sense too of dissatisfaction at Pellegrini’s apparent lack of faith in Karim Benzema, who admitted he preferred to play alongside a fixed striker, a No 9 (meaning, said most, not Raul).
Marca even claimed that Pellegrini had been forced to explain the defeat to the club’s director general Jorge Valdano in the Sanchez Pizjuan dressing room. Made up? Possibly. Exaggerated, surely. But it was an eloquent comment on the special pressures that surround Real Madrid. The problem with Perez’s huge project, with signing Ronaldo and Kaka, with spending £210m, is very simple – you have to win and win well. And when you don’t, everyone will be waiting for you, knives at the ready.
Not everyone was upset. For much of Spain, Sevilla’s victory was the best thing that could have happened. It was celebrated way beyond Andalucia – and not just because of the anti-Madridismo that has characterised many over the last few years.
Madrid went into week six in La Liga having won every game; Barcelona went into it in the same position. The night before Madrid’s trip to Sevilla, they defeated Almeria. In 11 games neither had lost; neither had even been behind. Neither had really struggled. Barca’s only dropped points were in the Champions League, in the goalless draw at Internazionale.
The fear was that the Spanish league was becoming a two-team affair, one president complaining “it’s all about Madrid and Barcelona – it’s the most boring league in the world”.
The fear was not just that Madrid and Barcelona were the main contenders – that’s normal – but that they were the only contenders; that the league would be decided purely on the two clasicos.
The logic was financial. Spain might have registered a record summer in terms of transfer spending but Madrid alone accounted for over half of it – £248m to Barcelona’s £116m. The third biggest spenders, Sevilla, had spent just £24m. Only two other clubs had bought a single player for over £4.5m. Madrid’s budget this season stands at £390m, Barcelona’s at £375m, the next highest (Valencia)
a quarter of that. And thanks to individually negotiated television rights, Madrid and Barca can pull in over £110m and £100m respectively a season, while the next highest (Atletico Madrid) make less than half of that.
It was all set up for a cakewalk to the title, a two-horse race with sadly familiar runners and riders. Victory for Madrid at the Pizjuan, against the only side able to keep up the pace, having won four in a row following an opening-day defeat, and most would be ready to throw in the towel already. But Sevilla came to the rescue. “We can be contenders,” Jimenez declared. “I think we can genuinely challenge for the league title,” added Kanoute.
People wanted to believe them before. Now they actually do.