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Sunday, January 20, 2008

La Liga Preview: Barcelona - Racing Santander

Barcelona (2nd, 40pts) v Racing Santander (6th, 32pts)
When: 21:00 CET - Sunday, January 20, 2008
Where: Camp Nou, Barcelona

Barcelona (2nd, 40pts) v Racing Santander (6th, 32pts)
When: 21:00 CET - Sunday, January 20, 2008
Where: Camp Nou, Barcelona

Being second in the league for the majority of the campaign and progressing to the latter rounds of the Copa del Rey and the Champions League has not kept Barcelona away from criticism.

After not winning a major honour last season, the spotlight has been on the Catalan club this term and the slightest problem has been magnified and blow out of proportion.

Suddenly, all the players and the coach that helped the club win two consecutive league title and the Champions League are no longer considered good in some quarters.

Four new faces arrived in the summer and expectations rose even higher so the fact that the club did not start the season by winning every game saw the critics begin to circle.

While Real Madrid's effectiveness over attractiveness won them the league last season and has taken them to the top once again this term, suddenly Barça are expected to dampen down their free-flowing game to earn results.

After hampering down and passing through the worst of the storm, Frank Rijkaard and his players appear to be coming out the other side and success in any one of the three competitions that they are in would answer all the problems.

One Defeat

The club's only defeat at home this season came at the hands of Madrid, but all nine other teams to have visited Camp Nou this season have left with nothing.

That statistic combined with the fact that the club have scored 25 times and conceded just five goals at home means that Racing will face a very tough task on Sunday.

But the Cantabrian club are not the same side that they have been for the past few seasons and there will certainly be no relegation worries this term.

Marcelino took over last summer after winning promotion with Recreativo and keeping them in the top half of the table in the first campaign alongside the big boys.

No headlines were made with players being signed in the summer, although some predicted that the team would go backwards after the departure of Nikola Zigic.

Top Six Aim

Instead, the new boss galvanised his team as experienced campaigners like Aldo Duscher, César Navas were brought in Jorge López along with Sergio Sánchez, Ebi Smolarek and Mohammed Smolarek.

Led from the front by the inspirational Pedro Munitis, Racing have lost only once at home this term and have won three and drawn three of their ten away games.

That run has pushed the club into the top six and they are currently five points ahead of Valencia and six above Sevilla.

Since being heavily beaten by Sevilla in the final game before the Christmas break, Racing have begun the New Year in impressive form as they have won four of their five games in 2008.

After winning at Real Mallorca, Marcelino guided his side to the quarter finals of the Copa del Rey and they could be considered to be dark horses to at least reach the final.



Match Result Date Championship
Barcelona - Sevilla 0 - 0 15/01/2008 COPA DEL REY
Barcelona - Murcia 4 - 0 12/01/2008 LA LIGA
Sevilla - Barcelona 1 - 1 09/01/2008 COPA DEL REY
Mallorca - Barcelona 0 - 2 05/01/2008 LA LIGA
Barcelona - Real Madrid 0 - 1 23/12/2007 LA LIGA
Valencia - Barcelona 0 - 3 15/12/2007 LA LIGA

Racing Santander

Match Result Date Championship
Racing - Zaragoza 4 - 2 16/01/2008 COPA DEL REY
Osasuna - Racing 0 - 2 13/01/2008 LA LIGA
Zaragoza - Racing 1 - 1 09/01/2008 COPA DEL REY
Racing - Athletic Bilbao 1 - 0 06/01/2008 LA LIGA
Sevilla - Racing 4 - 1 22/12/2007 LA LIGA
Murcia - Racing 2 - 1 16/12/2007 LA LIGA



José Manuel Pinto is set to be included in the squad for the first time after arriving on loan from Celta Vigo as cover for Albert Jorquera. Carles Puyol is expected to recover from the fever that kept him out of training on Friday, but Edmílson and Ronaldinho look set to miss the game, although both are close to returning to action. Lionel Messi is also not yet fully fit and will be asked to wait another week before being given the green light.

Racing Santander

Marcelino has confirmed that he is giving the Copa del Rey game in midweek against Athletic Bilbao priority over the game against Barça and is expected to rotate his side accordingly. Smolarek is has not recovered from a knock and will not be included in the squad that the coach will name on Saturday afternoon.


Racing will come to defend as have the majority of teams this season at Camp Nou and Barça will have to be sharper than they were against Sevilla in midweek in order to pick up all three points. It will certainly be taxing as the Blaugrana played a full tilt game on Tuesday, but will have enough in the tank to do enough to maintain their pursuit of Madrid.

Barcelona 2 - 0 Racing Santander

La Liga Preview: Atlético Madrid - Real Madrid

What: La Liga, Matchday 20
Who: Atlético Madrid (3rd, 37pts) vs Real Madrid (1st, 47pts)
When: Sunday, 20th January 2008, 1900 CET
Where: Estadio Vicente Calderón, Madrid

El Derbi Madrileño takes centre stage in La Liga this weekend as the two behemoths from the capital collide for the 142nd time in the league. The two clubs racked up a combined bill of over €200 million in the summer transfer market but all that big spending seems to be paying dividends as the results are showing on the pitch.

Atlético finished the first half of the term in their best league position in a decade, while Madrid themselves are enjoying their best start to a season in the club's rich history.

Eight Year Heartache Los

Los Colchoneros will head into Sunday's big game closest to their fierce city rivals in the standings than they have been in quite some time.

Although there's still a ten-point disparity between the sides, Atlético are only two places behind Los Blancos after last weekend's 1-0 victory over Valencia pushed them back into the top three. The hard fought win, coupled with their progress to the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey midweek, would have restored a sense of self belief in the dressing room.

It is that little extra psychological edge that has been missing in all their previous squads all these years and it’s not hard to see why they have had that knack of failing to live up to expectations come the big game.

The men from the Manzanares have yet to beat their illustrious neighbours in the new millennium, home or away. The last time they won was eight years ago back in October 1999, when they came away from the Bernabéu with a 1-3 victory.

Their head-to-head at the Calderón isn't all that impressive either. In fact, in the last 20 years, only twice have the rojiblancos won the derbi in front of their home fans. The last time that happened, incidentally, was also back in 1999. As if that’s not enough to create doubt in the players’ minds, Atléti also have a rather dreadful record this season against the big guns.

Aside from the opening day loss to their neighbours, they have also gone down to Barcelona, Espanyol and Villarreal, the three other clubs that make up the top five. But as always, the form book tends to be the first to go straight out the window in these tempestuous encounters, as emotion and passion usually preside over everything else.

Staggering Statistics

There were doubts at the start of the campaign as to whether Bernd Schuster has the pedigree to take charge at a mammoth club like Real Madrid and whether he was the right man to whip Los Blancos' dressing room into shape like Fabio Capello had the previous term.

After some wobbly performances early on, his position in the hot seat was questioned again but as the wins and the points started piling up, the critics and the sceptics have simply run out of bones to pick with the German trainer. The football may not be eye-catching at times but the statistics so far certainly are.

Top of the table with 47 points, it is the best tally by a club at the halfway stage in La Liga since the three-points for a win rule was introduced in 1995. Not only that, they also currently have the best home record with a perfect nine wins from nine games; the best away record with 20 points out of a possible 30; and the best goal difference with 41 goals scored and only 14 conceded.

Those figures are not only the best in Spain but the best amongst Europe's major leagues at the midway stage. But enough about the numbers. Schuster's boys will still have to perform on the night if they want to extend their six match winning streak in La Primera. They will have to dig deep and cast aside the disappointing midweek loss and elimination to Mallorca in the Copa de l Rey and refocus on their league conquest.


Atlético Madrid

Jan 16 Real Valladolid vs Atlético 1-1 (COPA DEL REY)

Jan 13 Atlético vs Valencia 1-0 (LA LIGA)

Jan 10 Atlético vs Real Valladolid 0-0 (COPA DEL REY)

Jan 06 Deportivo La Coruña vs Atlético 0-3 (LA LIGA)

Jan 02 Atlético vs Granada74 1-1 (COPA DEL REY)

Real Madrid

Jan 16 Real Madrid vs Mallorca 0-1 (COPA DEL REY)

Jan 13 Levante vs Real Madrid 0-2 (LA LIGA)

Jan 10 Mallorca vs Real Madrid 2-1 (COPA DEL REY)

Jan 06 Real Madrid vs Real Zaragoza 2-0 (LA LIGA)

Jan 02 Real Madrid vs Alicante CF 2-1 (COPA DEL REY)


Atlético Madrid

Thiago Motta has made a successful comeback from a niggling knee ailment and he is expected to line-up in midfield against the reigning champions on Sunday. He will slot in for the injured Jurado who suffered a relapse of a hamstring strain during Thursday's training session and will be sidelined for at least a week.

Defenders Zé Castro and Giorgios Seitaridis and goalkeeper Leo Franco are the three players who are out for the long haul due to various injuries, but ex-Bernabéu hero José Antonio Reyes has shaken off a minor ankle sprain and will be available for selection, although he is unlikely to play a huge role in the match.

Portuguese midfielder Maniche, meanwhile, has left for Serie A giants Internazionale after agreeing on a loan deal until the end of the season.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): Abbiati - Perea, Pablo, Eller, Pernía - Maxi (c), Motta, Raúl Garcia, Simão - Forlán, Agüero

Real Madrid

Schuster will once again have to rely on a modified defence with Christoph Metzelder and Gabriel Heinze still ruled out with injuries while Pepe has been rated as highly doubtful for the clash as he struggles to shrug off an Achilles tendon niggle.

With Sergio Ramos expected to deputize in the centre of defence, Miguel Torres and Michel Salgado will fight for the rightback slot, although the veteran could be favoured to start in order to give the side a more attacking impetus down the flank.

Back up striker Javier Saviola has joined fellow fringe players Roberto Soldado and Javier Balboa in the sick bay, although the pair has resumed light training on the pitch, as has Arjen Robben. Mahamadou Diarra, meanwhile is away on international duty with Mali in the African Cup of Nations.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): Casillas - Salgado/Torres, Sergio Ramos, Cannavaro, Marcelo - Sneijder, Gago, Baptista - Raúl (c), van Nistelrooy, Robinho


Atlético Madrid - Sergio Agüero

The Calderón's new golden boy took less than 60 seconds in the reverse fixture on Matchday 1 to score his very first derbi goal, although he would have gladly traded that off for a win instead. He'll be given a second chance to get a taste of both this Sunday and El Kun is as fired up as any die hard Atléti player and fan ahead of the clash. He'll need to be if he is to beat a certain in-form Los Blancos goalie.

Real Madrid - Ruud van Nistelrooy

Van Gol promptly repaid the club's contract extension with a winning double against Levante last Sunday. After a slow start to the season where he briefly handed goalscoring duties to the likes of Sneijder, Raúl and Robinho, the Dutchman is now firing on all cylinders again having netted five times in his last five league games and when he's got that momentum going, it's pretty hard to put the brakes on him.


Real Madrid's morale would have taken a knock after their Copa del Rey elimination, but they truly relish going up against sides like Atlético, who come out and play instead of parking the team bus infront of the goal. If Javier Aguirre do decide to fight fire with fire and leave the backline exposed, Schuster will feel confident that his side can emulate three of their best away results so far this term: at Villarreal, Valencia and Barcelona.

Atlético Madrid 1-3 Real Madrid

Monday, October 22, 2007

Wenger Looking For Improvement Against Slavia Prague

Arsene Wenger is 58 today and will mark the occasion by watching Newcastle United take on Spurs on TV while planning Arsenal's Champions League assignment at home to Slavia Prague on Tuesday.

For his 58th birthday present, workaholic Arsene Wenger will be happy if his team produce an improved performance against Slavia Prague than the one which eventually disposed of stubborn Bolton Wanderers on Saturday.

The manager of the unbeaten Gunners, top of the Premier League and turning their attentions back to Champions League business this week, said: “Maybe it’s my birthday, I honestly don’t know.

"I’m 58? Ow! That hurts.

“I have never really been a great one for celebrating birthdays. This year I will be at home, it will just be normal. I will have a little dinner and then watch Spurs.

“It will be a quiet night and I will just prepare for our game with Slavia Prague on Tuesday and watch the game. Annie [Wenger's other half] likes football too — to be honest she has to.

“There’s not much I really need. I have plenty of socks.”

Wenger is not one for relaxing, and he does not want his maturing team to relax either. On Saturday they toiled to break down Bolton's stout resistance in the first-half, when they were guilty of trying too hard to take on Bolton at their own game.

And Wenger said: “The only thing my team can give me for my birthday is to play better against Prague than they did against Bolton.

“You always want people to be better and I want my team to keep the spirit they have right now.

“It didn’t go well in the first half. Bolton went back to their old style which gave them success.

“I can understand it with their position. It wasn’t nasty but one or two tackles were bad.

“The players know we can escape bad tackles by keeping the ball moving quickly.”

Wenger turmed the game with the introduction of substitutes Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky on 62 mnutes.

Rosicky found the space that invited Ivan Campo's foul, and from the free-kick Kolo Toure fired Arsenal ahead after 67 minutes.

Then Walcott's good work on the right set up Rosicky for the second on 81 minutes.

After Slavia Prague at the Emirates on Tuesday, Arsenal take on Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday.

Where's the attacking football? Has Schuster been able to deliver the promise?Soc

Great Expectations

For Real Madrid CF, success is encrypted in their DNA. This is a football club that has won the most number of European Cups, the most La Liga titles and is the official “Club of the 20th Century”.

In fact, Real has been treated almost like an empire. At Real Madrid, they don’t hope; they expect. And when failure to match that lofty level expectation goes spiraling out of control, eccentricity and desperate measures steal in.

You would hardly discern a club axing its manager a few days after winning domestic honours, but at Real Madrid, that's what they do.

The modestly-acclaimed Bernd Schuster was imported into the set-up in the summer at the expense of the unparalleled Fabio Capello, who was guilty of “wining ugly”. Schuster is supposed to be the Messiah who restores the enthralling, out-of-the-world football of the Galactico era.

On the evidence of the first three or four matches in the new Spanish season, it did appear that the German would finally be able to turn the corner and gift the starving Madridistas their deserved dose of entertaining football. Indeed after last season’s gruesome and often faulty Capelloism, the Bernabeu faithful were eager to embrace anything that was even remotely compelling

But now the whispers of resentment are starting to gather momentum, just as last time around. Saturday’s loss to Espanyol, while disappointing, was not a surprise for all fans.

Indeed, some saw it as as a continuation of a string of poor, hanging-on performances that Real have been displaying of late. Schuster might be able to escape by the skin of his teeth this time, with the excuse of most of his major stars returning exhausted from a one-and-a-half week grueling international duty, but that won’t cut ice in the long run.

Time To Improve

At the start of the season, Real Madrid were playing the best football in Spain. After a lackluster pre-season, which was miles shy of inspiring, Real seemed to have clicked into top gear.

They might have required an 80th minute deflected goal to get the better of cross-city rivals Atletico Madrid on the opening day of the new season but there was no doubt as to who was boss when they traveled to Villarreal next weekend.

Kindled by a Wesley Sneijder masterclass of midfield creativity and vision, los Merengues ripped apart Manuel Pellegrini’s promising side 5-0 and scripting themselves into every Spanish newspapers as the likeliest winners of this season’s Spanish championship. Real then managed to win their next 4 matches out of 5 before Saturday’s 2-1 slump to Espanyol at the Olympic de Montijuc.

But there’s no sidelining the stark, naked truth that their style has been gradually dipping its nose. If the 2-0 victory over relegation-threatened Real Betis at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu illustrated the age-old principle of clutching at the straws until the final whistle, then the narrow 1-0 win over Schuster’s former club Getafe was a farce in so much that Real came out unscathed Hollywood-style from a barrage of Geta onslaught: they didn't deserve to win at all.

Saturday’s defeat to an increasingly-improving Espanyol side, while not a huge shock, still comes as a smack in the face for Real. This is their first defeat of the season and was underlined by a lack of imagination throughout the match.

A disoriented Real team might have been decent in the first 45 minutes on Saturday, but they failed to take the game to Espanyol after the breather, when they clearly were the second best team in the match.

Poisoned Chalice

Yet in spite of the defeat, Real still retain that often ill-fated favourites’ tag. FC Barcelona might have superbly recovered from very, very early season blues, riding on the wave of a wildly rampant Lionel Messi, but the truth is Real Madrid have more depth in their squad than their main challengers Barca do.

Real splashed out heavily during the summer transfer circus like a child with a blank cheque in a toyshop, pocketing the likes of Christoph Metzelder, Javier Saviola, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, among others.

More star names inevitably enforce squad rotation and at the heart of Real’s smothered football is this numerical abundance that is actually inhibiting the smooth settling down of the players.

Till the last match of the season last year, Fabio Capello could never settle on a regular first string and Schuster is moving pretty much toeing the same line.

His basic formation of 4-4-2 has been kept consistent, with a flat back four screened by the anchorman Diarra, furthered by the presence of a creative central midfielder and two wingers supplying the two strikers upfront, but the personnel have been rotated far too much for anyone’s liking.

And it is in this particular quarter that Real have to change their strategy.

With Raul revealing his vintage touch from time to time, reinvented Guti starting regularly, Arjen Robben dribbling ferociously down the flanks and Sneijder pulling the strings from the midfield, the signs are very good. What Schuster needs to do this stage is decide on his first choice players and proceed accordingly - injuries allowing, of course.

It would be naïve to call the curtains on Real at his point of the title race but with the notorious Real Madrid supporters starting to voice their disgruntlement, Schuster needs to comprehend that Real Madrid need to improve and improve quickly.

Baptista denies the fact that there was any party

Real Madrid and Brazil forward Julio Baptista, along with teammate Robinho, was dropped for this weekend's visit to Espanyol after returning late from international duty. Now, Baptista denies that they were late because of a party, and insists that the matter has been sorted out...

ulio Baptista has told Spanish sports daily Marca that there is no case to answer regarding an alleged party that kept he and Robinho from returning to Real Madrid.

After Brazil's 5-0 win against Ecuador in the World Cup qualifiers, reports indicated that Madrid pair Baptista and Robinho were out celebrating until the small hours, this being responsible for their late return to the Bernabeu.

This untimely arrival back in Spain meant that they were unable to train in time for Saturday's ill-fated encounter with Espanyol, both being left out.

Baptista has now attempted to publicly clear the air.

"There were problems with air traffic, so we can't be blamed for the delay," he said of the six hour setback.

"Hopefully we weren't affected by this, but because of the flight times we were unable to get to training.

"I understand that if we don't train then we can't play: that's normal. But it still hit us hard."

Indeed, Robinho was cagey about the prospect of any party.

He said, "Who originated the story about the party? I don't know. I don't understand. They should have been talking about [Brazil's] match and how well Robinho played. He played well and that made us all happy.

"There's nothing to deny."

He also said that both he and the club coach, Bernd Schuster, have put the issue behind them.

"Was Schuster angry? No. He talked with us, but wasn't angry.

"He was a bit annoyed, but that's to be expected. We arrived late and couldn't train, so we couldn't play. The boss was calm, though, and there was nothing strange.

"Fines? We've already spoken to him, so everything is cleared up. But from now on we'll need to give more communication so that it doesn't happen again."

The ex-Arsenal man continued, "Our mistake was not telling the club [about the delays]. We should have called to let them know we'd be late. I won't repeat that mistake."

Baptista, 26, was thought to be a candidate for being sold on during the summer, but remains at the Bernabeu. He feels that he will stay after the January transfer window closes, too.

"I have no news [of a winter transfer]," he insisted.

"I'm a Real Madrid player and will continue to be one. We'll talk at the end of the season."

'The Beast' has played just 54 minutes of Liga football this season.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Aragones Defends Raul Decision

Luis Aragones has broken his silence regarding his decision not to call up Raul for the Spain squad to face Denmark this weekend...

Luis Aragones has pledged that no personal grudge or favouritism has influenced his decision not to summon Raul to the Spain squad.

With David Villa recently pulling out due to injury, many speculated that Real Madrid veteran Raul would be drafted in as a replacement. Instead, on-form Raul Tamudo of Espanyol joined teammate Luis Garcia in the Furia Roja camp.

Now, Aragones has defended his decision in an interview with the RFEF (Spanish Football Association.)

"Of course I can make mistakes, and so can others," he said.

"Perhaps there's no one truth and others have good reasons for what they think. Nonetheless, I believe that my reasons are completely objective, because they are based on the form and the careers of the players."

He said that the long view of players' progress was responsible for his calling up Espanyol's Albert Riera, as "months of following him" have shown that he's ready for international football.

Aragones has come under fire both for his squad selections and a series of questionable performances, culminating in a 1-1 draw with Iceland last month.

That result threw Spain's qualification chances into question, but Aragones insists that the criticism and pressure from the fans will not get him down.

"I thrive on external pressure," he boomed.

"I know what's at stake; I know that I need to do my all, and do it better than ever.

"I don't have to be obsessed by the external factors, but I've gone through similar spells before and I know that I enjoy fighting through them. It's one of the advantages of experience."

Spain are fancied to beat Denmark in Aarhus on Saturday but can take nothing for granted, given their record up until this point. Indeed, Aragones seemed to indicate that a draw might not be disastrous.

The former Atletico Madrid coach shrugged, "The match could be considered a final, so we'll need to commit to it, even though there are more games to come.

"A draw would be a good result, but we're still going to go and look for the win. We have the quality to win there, and it would help our place in the standings.

"Denmark, though, have a very good team, and play particularly well against the higher-ranked countries."

Aragones concluded by defending his side's circuitous route towards qualification, emphasising the closeness of the race. "Except for Germany and the Czech Republic, who are both practically qualified, all others are still fighting for a top two berth," he said.

Luis took over as Spain boss in 2004, following 30 years as a club level manager with the likes of Barcelona, Sevilla, Betis and Valencia.