The vote is for Real marksmen


BY CHRISTOPHER CLAREY

The domination of Spanish clubs in European football appears to be fading with Real Madrid the only representatives in the last-four of the Champions League.Italian clubs may hold the upperhand in numbers but who will bet against a Real side,packed with the cream of talents and playing wonderful flowing football,rising to the ocassion on the big stage again? 

LONDON: Juan, an elderly Sevillan with the gravel-coated, contrabass voice that comes from smoking a pack a day since Franco was still in charge, could have watched Real Madrid play Manchester United at home on television from his comfortable couch. 

But Juan finds that watching football games at home alone makes him melancholy, and so he made his usual pilgrimage to a bustling bar in this southern Spanish city and had plenty of chances to rise up from his narrow stool, cigarette in hand, and share the moments and the goals with his compatriots. 

“Seven goals? In the Champions League quarterfinals?” he asked, incredulous, after David Beckham tapped in the one that won the game for United but not a place in the semi-finals. 

That spot, for the fourth consecutive year, belongs to Real. And while there are signs, accompanied by debts, that Spain’s fan-friendly ride atop European club football is coming to an end, that does not mean Real’s ride is over.  

There were three Spanish teams in the final four of the world’s best club competition in 2000. There were two in 2001 and again in 2002. This year, Real must stand alone, while the Italians are the ones feeding off each other’s success. 

Even outnumbered, you still have to like Real’s chances, and you really have to like the way Real and its superstars played in both legs against United with Zinedine Zidane at the controls and Raul Gonzalez and Ronaldo each taking a turn at showing the world how to finish.  

The Madrilenos are still irregular in the domestic league, where their lead has shrunk to one point in the past two weeks and where Deportivo La Coruna and overachieving Real Sociedad will be fresher down the stretch because they have no European games to divide their attention and drain their resources. 

But give Real a grand stage, and the hired grandees appear eager to rise and do it justice. What would you rather watch? Ninety minutes of Inter Milan doing its function-over-fashion best to wring the beauty out of the beautiful game?  

Or 90 minutes of Real doing its flowing, quick-passing, hunch-playing best to convince you that all the money and attention hasn’t spoiled their sport? 

You already know my vote, and Valencia’s coach Rafael Benitez, whose team was eliminated but hardly outclassed by the Italians, obviously agrees. 

“I don’t know if football would disappear, but it’s for sure that the fans would stop going to the stadiums if teams all played like Inter,” he said. 

For now, Real remain the attacking antidote, and though United coach Alex Ferguson called the question of how to stop Real from scoring the “$64,000 question,” the solution is quite a bit costlier than that. Perhaps Real’s greatest accomplishment is that even after they spent millions to poach Luis Figo from archrival Barcelona, even after they spent millions to lure Zidane from Juventus and millions more to encourage Ronaldo to kiss loyalty and Inter good-bye, this team can still leave you thinking that the end has justified the means. 

Football lost its innocence long ago. Why shouldn’t one club hoard the creative talent, as long as they put it to good use? Some of Real’s uncommonly gifted benchwarmers might argue. 

Santiago Solari, the flashy Argentine who is capable of winning most close-quarter duels, gets to show his flair too rarely. Steve McManaman could be a star at home in England instead of a highly paid, lightly played substitute in Madrid.  

There are also the strikers, Fernando Morientes and the hard-running and versatile Guti, who made his frustration public this season after Ronaldo predictably passed him and Morientes by. 

But Real’s phenomenal depth is an essential part of what makes it phenomenal, and with Raul missing, McManaman and Guti both played significant roles on Wednesday. Though Ronaldo was once considered an indulgence – the extra Lamborghini in a very well-stocked garage – he has now saved Real twice this season in the Champions League: first on a frosty night in Moscow in March where he scored the only goal in a must-win game against Lokomotiv. 

Unlike the last imported striker who proved essential to Real in the Champions League endgame – Nicolas Anelka in the triumphant 2000 season – Ronaldo has not been an immature, petulant influence in the locker room. Now, because of his hat-trick on Wednesday, the Brazilian will get another extended look at the other Juventus players he used to see frequently in Serie A (when he was healthy enough to earn his salary). 

The other Spanish clubs have only domestic battles remaining. Valencia, for all their occasionally thrilling teamwork, lack depth and a true finisher. Barcelona, for all their tradition and early-season success in the Champions League, lie 12th in the Liga for a reason and have little chance of qualifying for any European competition next year. They have many fine players but no unmistakably great one.  

At least Barcelona, like Real Madrid, already have assured their television revenue for the years ahead. The other Spanish clubs will have to tussle with a deflationary market, driven even further down by the merger of Spain’s once-duelling satellite television platforms. 

But Real, for the moment, are still good for business.  

Even in Andalusia, with its distinct traditions and intense local football rivalries, recent polls indicate that Real have twice as many supporters as any other club – which explains why Juan made the trip to a noisy bar on Wednesday night, and why he felt anything but melancholy as he headed home.  

Spanish power fades, but the Madrid club can still surprise fans. – IHT 

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