Metropolitano man meets the Mancunian candidates

THE CHAMPIONS League is riveting stuff when it reaches the knockout stage, and while Atlético Madrid versus Manchester United wasn’t a classic encounter, it was a fascinating match.

It helped the atmosphere was intense, loud and intimidating. Atléti fans love their club and engage with the occasion like it is the most important thing on the planet. Sadly, in the dead of night, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became the biggest talking point of the next morning – football was put very much in its place.

Madrid had been humming to the sound of northern England for around 24 hours as the United faithful jetted in from Manchester and Alicante. They were easily noticeable by their lack of trousers, they wandered about the quaint streets and plazas in their best shorts, goose-bumped and shivering as 20 degrees became three or four. But they were in good voice, generally friendly and took little notice of the heavy police presence. The bars in places like Plaza Mayor did very brisk trade on the eve of the match.

Atléti have their problems at the moment, but United’s fans find it hard to live with the ongoing mediocrity they are struggling to shake-off. But their affection for Cristiano Ronaldo was evident as they sung his praises at every opportunity. The Atléti fans despise CR7, though, remembering his days with fierce rivals Real Madrid. 

Matchday at the Wanda Metropolitano for a big game throws Madrid into turmoil, the roads out to the stadium were gridlocked and some cabbies were reluctant to lend a hand. Nobody can seriously deny t’s a fabulous stadium, but is served by one Metro station, albeit a big one, and the surrounding area disappears into blackness as night falls. The arena was like a beacon, lit-up, futuristic and totally impressive. Amid the deep blue sky, you could hear the feint sound of Manchester United fans from a distance.

Inside, the roominess of the stadium and the quality of the seating made for a comfortable experience, but the noise was deafening and certainly distracting. The design meant that by looking up, the sky provided a black hole with a view to the stars. If the light pollution hadn’t got in the way, the 63,000 fans would have been treated to a natural planetarium.

Atléti’s fans were up for the game, no question. A giant tifo was unfurled, the loyalists held up red, yellow or white placards to create a visual display of allegiance and the club anthem was sung by all and sundry with no small amount of emotion. When the line-ups were announced, CR7 was jeered wholeheartedly. It was obvious he was going to be treated like a panto villain all evening.

Atléti had a lot of recognisable names missing from their starting line-up: Koke, Yannick Carrasco, Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann were either injured, suspended or sitting on the bench. United, who went into the game on the back of a 4-2 win at Leeds United, included yet-to-convince Jadon Sancho and at number seven, there was Ronaldo, finely sculptured, frowning and just dying to silence the home supporters.

For a while, it looked as though United had failed to turned up. It took just seven minutes for Atléti to open the scoring, the impressive Renan Lodi crossing and João Félix dived to send his perfect header in off the post. Brazilian international Lodi gave out-of-position Victor Lindelöf a hard time in the first half, leaving United fans puzzled why Ralf Rangnick chose to omit natural right backs in favour of the Swedish centre half.

It was easy to fear for United in the first half as Atléti struck the woodwork through Sime Vrsaljko. Every time they attacked, a goal looked a possibility. In truth, United were fortunate to go in at half-time just a goal down, Atléti’s pressing and refusal to let United rest on the ball was dominating the occasion. Meanwhile, on the touchline, Diego Simeone was like a human semaphore, leaping around, waving his arms, protesting, pointing and shouting. Conversely, Rangnick looked like an academic pondering his next powerpoint presentation. Will these characters be at their respective clubs in 2022-23?

The game changed in the second half and United discovered they could kick Atléti’s players, after all. Ronaldo was anonymous for most of the game, so much so, he scored zero in Marca’s player-ratings. To be fair, he was fouled at every opportunity and his team-mates didn’t seem to be able to find him very often. Atlético might have sewn the game up with a little more ambition, but they got a shock in the 80th minute when United substitute Anthony Elanga scored with a crisp and confident finish after Bruno Fernandes found him with a perfect subtle pass through the defence.

It was quite hard to believe United were now on the brink of a decent result after being second best in the first 45 minutes. They enjoyed more than 65% of possession, but a lack of pace and conviction was their undoing.

The goal triggered off a wave of chanting from the United fans who were perched high in the stadium with banners emphasising the broad appeal of the club – Stoke, Oswestry, Hull and others. Elanga was the subject of the singing, the young Swede providing a vision of a brighter future with a clearer direction, perhaps.

The game ended all-square, which makes the second leg an intriguing prospect, but with just three shots on target between them in the first game, one might have expected better from two of the world’s elite clubs.

Both teams really need to get through to make their seasons worthwhile, so it will be one to watch but it is hard to imagine United finding it easier at Old Trafford. Atlético have made a career out of being awkward opponents.

United’s fans went back to the plaza bars relatively happy, although the journey to the centre was longer than most might have expected. However, it is hard not to have an enjoyable time in Madrid, one of continental Europe’s go-to cities and a genuine football hub.

La Liga’s European worries – decline may be a strong word

THERE was a little introspection in Madrid, Barcelona and Seville after the first legs of the UEFA Champions League, with Spanish football officials fearing a series of setbacks had signalled the decline of the most successful nation in European club competitions.

Like most events big or small, disappointment was accompanied by social media-driven over-reaction and hysteria, with some keyboard experts interpreting the results as the onset of the apocalypse. 

In the past, underperformance would be brushed aside in the knowledge that players like Lionel Messi and the now departed Cristiano Ronaldo would soon produce a rabbit out of a top hat and restore normal service. Not so today, for time has painfully caught-up with Barca and Atlético Madrid were effectively hoisted by their own petard. Meanwhile, in the Europa League, early season leaders Real Sociedad – David Silva and all – were thrashed at “home” by Manchester United. Real scraped a win against Atalanta, but this is no classic campaign for the reigning La Liga champions.

The pandemic has hit Spanish football hard, exposing the high debt levels of the country’s major clubs. Before anyone had ever heard of covid-19, though, debt levels at Real, Barca and Atléti were already substantial. Debt is fine if you can service it and you keep it manageable, but the diminished levels of income have made people a little nervous and some are treating it as an existential threat. 

La Liga’s Javier Tebas has tried to brush aside the debt story, although it was the outspoken league president who predicted a financial crisis could break out in the aftermath of the pandemic. He revealed that a series of financial controls have helped clubs prepare for a major crisis and believes they will manage their way out of any difficulties. The league also plays an important part in determining how much a club can spend on salaries. Tebas added he is more concerned about Barcelona’s lack of leadership as their presidential election approaches.

The debt levels are intimidating by any standards, though, with the overall total debt of the big three clubs now heading towards a staggering € 3 billion. On a net debt basis, however, Barca’s figure is around € 300 million and Real’s € 118 million, still sizeable figures but not the “bankruptcy level” some newspapers are talking of. As Tebas said, the important thing about debt is its relationship to the ability to generate revenue. Obviously, the pandemic has compromised that ability, for the time being, although matchday revenues only account for just 18% and 15% of Real and Barca’s income respectively. 

One can safely assume that Barca will work their way through their problems and that nobody, be they bankers, politicians or creditors, will want to be responsible for pushing the club towards the wall. Nevertheless, debt may stymie clubs from competing on the European stage, especially as Real and Barca are in need of a squad rebuilding programme that would require hard cash. Not that transfer activity is frantic at the moment, it has fallen off a cliff in Spain thanks to the pandemic. Both Barca and Real are also undergoing major infrastructure projects, which will be a drag on capital. 

Has Spain become less attractive as a vibrant football market and has started to lose the battle with the Premier League and Bundesliga? There’s no doubt there are fewer world class players in their prime currently earning a living in La Liga. A glance at the Guardian’s top 100 players list, which was last issued in December 2020, provides some evidence. There were only eight Spanish players included and 21 playing for Spanish clubs. The top Spaniard is 34 year-old Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid. 

Compare that to the 2015 list when there were 16 Spaniards and 28 La Liga representatives. There has been a 50% decline in five years of Spanish players in the top 100. The elite clubs – Atléti (72%), Real (72%), Sevilla (66.5%), Barca (65.3%) and Valencia (57.8%) – are heavily staffed by foreign players. Equally concerning has to be the average age of La Liga squads, almost 28 years of age, which is one of the highest across Europe – only Turkey and Cyprus have older squads.

It may be that Spain is simply coming to the end of a golden age, one in which Spanish clubs won 17 out of 30 European competitions (eight Champions League, nine Europa League) including four years where the country won both major prizes. Nothing goes on forever, even though cyclical success is less accepted than at any time in the past.

Even so, four teams won through to the last 16 of the Champions League in 2020-21 which suggests Spain still has strength in depth. Real were the sole group winners, but Atléti, Sevilla and Barca lost only one game each. It is the results against clubs from the big five leagues that have worried Spain’s footballing community. Barca’s 4-1 home defeat at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain was devastating, especially as it came a few months after their 8-2 humiliation by Bayern Munich. Atléti looked very limited and lacking in invention against a Chelsea team still in transition.  

Spain’s record in the Champions League knockout phase over the past five years has produced a 58% win rate in big-five KO games, but in 2019-20, it was a rather lowly 38%. As well as Barca’s collapse, Real were beaten twice by Manchester City and Atléti slipped up against Leipzig. Go back five years and the win rate was an impressive 70%. It is not out of the question that there may not be a Spanish club in the last eight this season for the first time since 2005. 

A combination of lower performance levels, financial pressure, ageing star players and empty stadiums makes for a slightly downbeat environment, but Spain is not alone. Football across Europe has suffered but when life begins to return to normal, the hunger for the game will, if anything, result in something of a boom period. And Spain will be among the front-runners once more.

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA Images

Manchester City remind Real that time flies when you’ve had fun

SERGIO RAMOS, one of the figureheads of the modern Real Madrid, will sit out the second leg of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 tie with Manchester City. At 33, you never know if it will be the last Champions League campaign for the “Svengali of white-shirted bastardism”, to quote a leading UK journalist reporting on the 2018 final in which Ramos did his worst to ensure Mo Salah left the field early enough to blunt Liverpool’s attack.

Ramos’ departure coincided with the penalty that gave Manchester City a 2-1 win in the Bernabéu Stadium, a result that gave Pep Guardiola’s team an excellent chance of making the last eight of the competition. It may also have signalled the end of the Real Madrid team that won four Champions League titles in a five-year period that ended in 2018.

Seven players that started against City kicked-off Real’s last UCL final in 2018 and not one had less than three winners’ medals in his trophy cabinet. In short, this was a team that knew how to negotiate the Champions League and its knockout stage, but there was one important, influential name missing from the club’s recent glorious run – Cristiano Ronaldo. Without CR7, Real lack star quality – particularly in the absence of injured big-money signing Eden Hazard – and are painfully short on self-belief. For this current squad, the future is clearly behind them.

Downturn

There have been signs of decline for more than a year now. In 2018-19, Real Madrid lost 12 La Liga games, the highest number of losses since 1998-99. The most defeats suffered by any Real side in a season is 13 (1973-74). With Cristiano Ronaldo gone, Real’s goal tally suffered and dropped from 94 to 63, the worst haul since 2000. Prior to 2018-19, Real had netted over 100 league goals in each of the previous eight campaigns.

Three managers in one season in 2018-19 was an indication that all was not well in Chamartín and the reappointment of Zinedine Zidane a hint of some desperation in the air. Real spent heavily in the summer of 2019, but what did they get for their € 360 million? There was no apparent replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo for the second successive close season, although Hazard was seen as the next marque signing. Unfortunately, the former Chelsea man has scored once in 15 games and is likely to be sidelined for the rest of the season. It’s not healthy to become a forgotten man at a club like Real Madrid.

Too many players in key positions are now over 30 and some may need to start moving on – Ramos (33), Luka Modrić (34), Toni Kroos (30), Marcelo (31), Gareth Bale (30) and Karim Benzema (32).

Real went into the first leg with Manchester City on the back of a 1-0 defeat against Levante. One point from two league games handed the initiative to Barcelona in the title race and on top of that, Zidane’s men were knocked out of the Copa del Rey at home by Real Sociedad. Meeting City, a team that may be in the last chance saloon given they face a possible two-year European ban from the end of 2019-20, was not the ideal pairing in the last 16. With the Premier League title now out of reach, City and Guardiola need success in the Champions League to cement their golden spell under Pep and his pay-masters. He hasn’t won the imposing big-eared trophy since 2011.

Character

A strategic 2-1 win in the Bernabéu showed Spain that one of their own had tricks up his sleeve and how sweet it must have been for a Barca man to win in the capital. Guardiola surprisingly left-out Raheem Sterling, Fernandinho and Sergio Agüero from the starting line-up and used Kevin De Bruyne and Bernando Silva in central attacking roles. The way City came back from a goal down not only endorsed the coach’s tactical gamble, it also showed the character of his team.

This is the second season running that Real have received a reminder that old father time can be a vicious and unforgiving visitor to your stadium if you have no succession plans. Last year, it was Ajax’s young blond braves that stunned the holders with a 4-1 win that announced the beginning of the end. Now City have made them sit up and acknowledge that the empire really has come to a close.

It couldn’t have come at a worse time. Both Real and City have a vital week or two that will shape their season. Real welcome (if that’s the right word) Barcelona to the Bernabéu for the second Clásico , knowing full well that another defeat may spell the end of their league title bid. Not that Barca are the force of old, they have, more than most, benefitted from Real’s malaise and even Lionel Messi has said his club are not strong enough to win the Champions League this year.

Meanwhile, City have the EFL Cup final at Wembley against Aston Villa and then meet Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup fifth round. By the time Real and City meet again at the Etihad, the season may look very different.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA