Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Week in Spain

*The big two both won so Real Madrid stay a point clear of Barcelona put the Merengues made heavy weather of winning 2-1 at Cordoba. They went behind to the 14th placed team in the third minute and although Karim Benzema pulled Real level on 27 minutes, disaster struck when Cristiano Ronaldo was sent off with eight minutes to go. Gareth Bale saved Real's blushes with a penalty a minute from time but the FIFA World Player of the Year faces a three-match ban for swinging an arm and aiming a kick at his over-attentive markers.

* Lowly Elche must be sick of Barça by now after they were overwhelmed 6-0 at home by Luis Enrique's team. The Catalans have now put 15 goals past them this month after winning 10-0 on aggregate in the Copa del Rey. Leo Messi and Neymar both scored twice, while Pedro and Gerard Piqué added the rest.

With six straight victories and a morale-boosting win over Atletico in midweek, the mood is brightening at the Camp Nou. That said, Luis Suarez was benched today despite a vote of confidence from Enrique and has scored only five in seventeen outings.

*Atletico Madrid tried to keep it a three horse race by winning 3-1 at home to Rayo Vallecano to stay six points behind Barça with a game in hand. French forward Antoine Griezmann netted twice for the Colchoneros and the rejuvenated Fernando Torres played the last 20 minutes.

National coach Vicente Del Bosque has praised the returning Atletico hero and has said he is open to recalling El Niño to his next Spain squad. Their next outing is a Euro 2016 qualifier at home to Ukraine on the 27th of March.

*With Barcelona banned from the transfer market until next year, Real Madrid have capitalised by signing two promising young midfielders. Brazil U21 international Lucas Silva Borges has put pen to paper on a four and a half year deal rumoured to be around £9.7 million.

The 21 year-old Silva was voted best defensive midfielder in last season's Brasileiro Serie A campaign for Cruzeiro.

Martin Odegaard, the 15 year-old Norwegian prodigy, is more of a fantasista, a creative midifleder, and signed a contract at the Bernabeu which will pay him £80,000 per week. Press reports suggest the fee was in the range of £2-3 million rising to £6 million with appearances. How good is he? This is what he did in Norway:



*Carlo Ancelotti was named the best coach in the world by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics this week, with Atletico's Diego Simeone in second. Pep Guardiola came third, confirming Spain is still a big player in world soccer, with Jose Mourinho in fourth.

Personally, I would have given the gong to Simeone for breaking the Real-Barça hegemony to win the league and reach the Champions League final, all without anything like the resources of Atletico's big rivals. This might change in future however, as this week Wanda, the firm which belongs to China's second-richest man Wang Jianlin, snapped up a 20% stake in the club for only €45 million.

*Real's existing players meanwhile are the stars of a new video promoting tourism to the Spanish capital:



(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Man U & Van Gaal stumble on

FA Cup 4th Round: Cambridge United 0:0 Manchester United


Manchester United's most surreal season goes on as the Red Devils failed to beat League Two Cambridge United in the F.A. Cup last night.

Cambridge, 75 places below United in the pyramid, forced a 0:0 draw at the Abbey Stadium after a classic all hands to the pump defensive effort for 90 minutes. They can now look forward to a £1.5 million windfall from the replay at Old Trafford.

Louis Van Gaal chose a strong side but despite dominating possession, they failed to penetrate the mass of yellow shirts before them. Radamel Falcao, Daley Blind and Robin Van Persie all missed chances but Cambridge, eager for a draw, deserved a point for frustrating their monied opponents.

The David v Goliath script and humble setting made for a classic F.A. Cup atmosphere and the raucous home support celebrated at the final whistle as if they had landed a winning slingshot on the team Van Gaal called "The biggest club in the world" last summer.

Fans going home with a spring in their step and a lot to talk about is something all true supporters can identify with.

The contrast between the two sides was striking. Cambridge fielded ten Englishmen and a Scot, United three Englishmen and seven other nationalities. Cambridge's wage bill is £1.1m, United's £215m. Most of United's team had played at the World Cup in Brazil.

The Abbey Stadium, which I recall as one of the worst I have visited in England, was packed with 8,000 delirious supporters, while the replay at Old Trafford will host up to 76,000. The only similarity was that both coaches were European Cup winners - Richard Money as a Liverpool substitute in 1981, Van Gaal as Ajax manager in 1995.

After the match, Van Gaal referred to a substandard pitch and biased referee, but acknowledged the intimate atmosphere which helped Cambridge had been fantastic. "Everything is against us in such games", he said. After United's travails last night and their third round win at Yeovil Town, the former Barcelona and Bayern boss is having a crash course in lower league English football.

Another match will not worry United unduly, as with no European football this season, the F.A. Cup has taken on greater importance at Old Trafford.

But a fog of uncertainty still lingers around the Dutchman's Manchester project. While the occasion and conditions begged for a more English approach, Man U looked very continental last night, building gently from the back and passing horizontally even late in the game while ten yellow shirts bided their time patiently in front of them.

Yet Falcao, a physical number nine, was stranded up front without support, waving to his teammates to whip crosses in he could challenge for, instead of trying to infiltrate Cambridge's massed ranks ineffectively on the floor again.

Even with the attacking riches of Falcao, Van Persie, Antonio Valencia, Blind, Adnan Januzaj and Angel di Maria up against them, Cambridge never really looked like losing and that should be food for thought in Old Trafford's match analysis centre.

United's blank scoreline begs the question of how to break down a side who plainly had no intention of moving upfield, a style of play alien to the Premier League.

Perhaps an older English confrontation provides some clues. When Harold II's Anglo-Saxon shield-wall frustrated the Norman army at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror feigned a retreat to lure the English soldiers down the hill before counter-attacking at speed with his cavalry.

The weakened English defence then succumbed, Harold was killed and the Normans won the day.

With the pace of  Di Maria and Valencia to call upon, as well as the striking prowess of Falcao and Van Persie to perform the coup de grace, Man United surely had the tools to change tactics and win.

Van Gaal still seems unsure of his best eleven and having eschewed English football for years, is clearly finding his new surroundings hard to adapt to. He remains a fish out of water, albeit a big one with an even bigger reputation.

Many an eyebrow was raised when he recently said what he liked most about England was the food.

When asked to clarify, he cited the wine lists and Chinese dishes.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, January 23, 2015

More FIFA fans head for the exit

FIFA is set to lose three more World Cup sponsors


Castrol, Continental and Johnson & Johnson were among eight second-tier sponsors for Brazil 2014, along with Budweiser, McDonalds, Moy Park, Oi and Yingli. But the three firms have joined Sony and Emirates in not renewing their sponsorship deals for Russia 2018.

Although the reasons for leaving are unconfirmed, it would be a surprise if their decisions were not connected to the never-ending bad press surrounding the sport's governing body.

Any financial support for a bent body like FIFA reflects badly on the brand image of a company but the temptation to have one's name so exposed across the globe must equally make it hard to turn the chance to sponsor a World Cup down.

Right now, the top tier sponsors are FIFA's old pal Adidas, Coca-Cola, Hyundai-Kia and Visa, all of whom you might want to boycott, while Gazprom and Qatar Airways, two companies intimately linked with the next two World Cups, are strongly expected to join them soon.

FIFA will probably look to replace the three departing sponsors, who hail from Germany, the UK and the USA, with Asian companies, but the news is still cheering for anyone praying for a regime change in Zurich. With Sepp Blatter seemingly impregnable, cutting FIFA's funding sources off may well be the best route to an 'under new management' sign.

Coke and Visa have publicly ticked FIFA off but have shied away from withdrawing their money so far.

This latest news arrives as the 78-year old Blatter embarks on yet another presidential campaign. Jordan's Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein is so far the only challenger, with Jerome Champagne and David Ginola apparently struggling to get the minimum five recommendations from FIFA nations before next week's deadline.

Blatter's power base remains the block of votes from Africa, then Asia and he also has pockets of support in the Caribbean, Jack Warner's former fiefdom, and South America, where his lieutenants Nicolas Leoz and Julio Grondona, swept up the votes for him until they finally left the stage in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

The presidential election is due to take place at the FIFA Congress in Zurich on the 29th of May.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Unforgiven 2, starring Danny Mills

Former England full-back Danny Mills made the BBC's normally soporific Saturday results show "Final Score" a little spicier than usual yesterday by dredging up an old feud he has kept burning with Nottingham Forest manager Stuart Pearce.

When coach of Manchester City eight years ago, Pearce had dropped Mills in favour of Micah Richards, and according to Mills, accused him of falsely claiming injury.

Mills had clearly never forgiven the former England captain for this slight and with Pearce under pressure with only two wins in 20 games in charge of Forest, Mills relished the chance of going in studs-up again, five years after hanging up his boots.

"He is not a great coach, not a great tactician and not a great motivator," Mills told the press earlier this week.

"He is very predictable. After 10 games people work him out," he went on. "He doesn't have the depth of football ability to back it up."

Ouch! Revenge, the dish best served cold as ever. While the press often exaggerate and manufacture spats between managers or players, or players and managers, this feud does seem to be the real thing.

Pearce replied equally frostily, "I do apologise for putting Michah Richards in Mills' place at Manchester City."

Garth Crooks, the former Tottenham striker, sat alongside Mills, said nothing but smirked at two grown men bickering over the past. Handbags at ten paces, as they say.

Pearce was allegedly on the brink of the sack before yesterday's clash between Forest and local rivals Derby County, and when Henry Lansbury headed into his own net with a quarter of an hour gone, he must have been expecting the P45 form, while Mills must have been chuckling away.

Yet Forest, outplayed for most of the game, snatched an unlikely equaliser with a quarter of an hour to go and an even more astounding winner in injury time. Pearce exploded with cathartic joy on the touchline, an outburst on a par with his Euro 1996 penalty kick against Spain.

Pearce may well face the sack sooner or later at the club he famously skippered, and Mills may well be correct in his criticism. The two are not about to go dancing together, and while neither can crack open the champagne, this bout went to Pearce on points

Watching ancient and unresolved spats from a distance, now that's entertainment.



(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, January 16, 2015

George's Premiership Predictions January 17 2015

bet365
George was back on track last weekend with 6 correct predictions out of the ten games.

This weekend the big game is certainly Manchester City v Arsenal on Sunday. In other games QPR face Manchester United, Swansea play Chelsea and Aston Villa host Liverpool.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Aston Villa 1 v Liverpool 1
Burnley 1 v Crystal Palace 1
Leicester 1 v Stoke 0
QPR 1 v Man Utd 3
Swansea 1 v Chelsea 2
Tottenham 3 v Sunderland 0
Newcastle 1 v Southampton 1

Sunday, 18 January 2015

West Ham 2 v Hull 0
Manchester City 2 v Arsenal 1

Monday, 19 January 2015

Everton 2 v West Brom 1

Goal-Shy Villa 66/1 To Break Derby’s Unwanted Record

Aston Villa have managed just 11 Premier League goals in their 21 matches so far this season and bet365 are 66/1 about them failing to reach Derby County’s unwanted record total of 20.

Paul Lambert's side are favoured to score between 25 and 29 top flight goals this season with the Lions currently sixth favourites to be relegated at 11/4.

Total Aston Villa 2014/15 Premier League Goals

19 or Less 66/1 20 - 24 11/2 25 - 29 5/4
30 – 34 13/8 35+ 11/2

2014/15 Premier League – To Be Relegated

Yes No
Burnley 4/5 Evs
QPR 4/5 Evs
Leicester 10/11 5/6
Hull 13/8 1/2
Crystal Palace 2/1 2/5
Aston Villa 11/4 2/7
Sunderland 3/1 1/4
West Brom 10/3 2/9
Everton 25/1 1/80

Soccer - Schneiderlin targets Champions Leaguebr />
Midfield ace Morgan Schneiderlin believes that his Southampton side have got what it takes to qualify for the Champions League, with the Saints 6/4 with bet365 to finish in the top four. Schneiderlin and co are in buoyant mood following a 1-0 Premier League win at Manchester United at the weekend, with the victory over the Red Devils lifting Southampton up to third place in the Premier League. And France international midfielder Schneiderlin is eager to finish the job and secure a place in front of some of the very clubs who are reported to be interested in his signature. He told BBC Sport: "We want to put Southampton in the spotlight, that will be a shock for the country and the world. "We want to reach the Champions League. We want to change this tradition of it being all the big teams. "Hopefully we can do something special. We are believing we can, but if we don't, the most important thing is to get Europe for Southampton."

Last time's predictions

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Torres at the double ruins Real

SPAIN: COPA DEL REY Round of 16 - REAL MADRID 2:2 ATLETICO MADRID
Atletico win 4-2 on aggregate.

Fernando Torres scored his first goals for Atletico Madrid since 2007 tonight, bagging a brace at the Bernabeu to knock capital rivals Real out of the Copa del Rey.

Torres at the double ruins Real.


The Colchoneros led 2-0 from the first leg and Torres wasted little time in twisting the knife, scoring to make it 3-0 on aggregate after only 51 seconds.

Carlo Ancelotti had picked a strong eleven in the hope of overturning the first leg reverse, but the rub of the green tonight was with the visitors and their returning hero, who had been bought as back-up for Croatian striker Mario Mandžukić, who was missing tonight with flu.

Sergio Ramos headed Real level on 20 minutes before Torres restored Atletico's lead less than a minute into the second half to keep the aggregate gap at three goals.

Cristiano Ronaldo headed in Real's second on 54 minutes but the tie finished 2-2, Atletico advancing to the quarter-finals, where they will face Barcelona no less.

This elimination is Real's first setback since failing to win La Liga last season. In 2014 they won the UEFA Champions League, Copa del Rey, European Super Cup and FIFA World Club Cup, a near clean sweep.

They have an intimate connection with the so-called King's Cup (Copa del Rey) as they are the Royal (Real) club of Madrid, a prefix awarded to them by King Alfonso XIII in 1920, and they have won the trophy 19 times.

Spain's oldest competition began as the Copa de la Coronacion in 1903, before becoming the Copa del Rey, Copa del Presidente and Copa del Generalisimo, reflecting the changes in Spain's 20th century politics, before reverting to Copa del Rey in 1977.

Copa del Rey QFs:

Malaga v Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol v Sevilla, Barcelona v Atletico Madrid, Villareal v Getafe.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, January 12, 2015

Ronaldo wins the Ballon D'Or again

Ronaldo wins the Ballon D'Or again.
CR7 beats Messi & Neuer to the title; James wins best goal and Jogi Low top coach.

Cristiano Ronaldo kept his title as the world's top player at the FIFA Ballon D'Or gala tonight.

The Real winger had a disappointing World Cup for Portugal but 31 La Liga goals, 17 Champions League strikes and the Champions League and World Club Cup trophies ensured he took home the award for the third time.

Lionel Messi came second and Manuel Neuer third. Ronaldo and Messi have occupied the top two places for four of the past five years and they have both featured in the top three for seven of the past eight years. Ronaldo has won two on the trot but with three wins is still one behind Messi.

Joachim Low's hard work in winning the World Cup for Germany saw him named Coach of the Year ahead of Carlo Ancelotti and Diego Simeone, and another Brazil 2014 hero James Rodriguez took the Puskas award for best goal for his wonder strike for Colombia against Uruguay.

James beat Robin Van Persie's diving header for Holland at the World Cup and Irish female international Stephanie Roche.

The World XI consisted of Manuel Neuer in goal, a back four of Philipp Lahm, Sergio Ramos, David Luiz and Thiago Silva, a midfield of Angel Di Maria, Toni Kroos and Andres Iniesta, and an attacking three of Ronaldo, Messi and Arjen Robben.

Germany's Nadine Kessler beat Marta and Abby Wambach to win the Women's Player of the Year Award. Kessler won the German league, Champions League and World Cup in 2014. Germany coach Ralf Kellermann won the women's coach of the year, capping a glorious night for the DFB.

The FIFA Presidential award went to 89 year-old Japanese football journalist Hiroshi Kagawa and the Fair Play award to FIFA's Volunteers, the unpaid army who staff every World Cup finals.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Nervous Barça put on a brave face

Barcelona 3:1 Atletico Madrid

Here in Spain, the main Yuletide celebration is not Christmas Day but Los Reyes (the Kings), the Epiphany, the 6th of January or Twelfth Night, the date when the baby Jesus delivers presents to the good children of Iberia in the same way the three wise men from the east brought gifts to him.

Last night, Barcelona's three kings, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, mirrored the end of the festive season by uniting in perfect symmetry to cheer one of Suarez's strikes. Barça downed a disappointing Atletico Madrid 3-1 to remain in second in La Liga, hot on the heels of their big city rivals.

With these three wise men up front, surely the blaugrana will catch los merengues, one point ahead with a game in hand.

Well, not necessarily. Leaving aside the off-field angst which saw Carlos Puyol and Antoni Zubizarreta given the heave-ho last week while talk of Messi falling out with Luis Enrique swirled around the Camp Nou, Barcelona are still not playing anything like champions.

Suarez appears to have found his scoring boots at long last but does not anything like the danger man he was at Liverpool, where at times he looked like he was the best striker in the world.

Neymar has not exploded onto the scene as billed, but is providing a useful addition to an attack carefully structured to make the most of Messi.

When Messi has space to run into, as he was granted last night by a somewhat overawed Atletico, he can still destroy defences, but how long will it be until his phenomenal scoring record starts to crack?

Despite a decisive win against one of their closest rivals, the crowd last night was far from enraptured, with more applauding than cheering. It was a somewhat ill-tempered affair with nine bookings, including Messi and Suarez, a couple of nearly melees and the odd sight of the Argentine pocket genius giving away a cheap penalty.

Deep down a sense of unease pervades the Camp Nou and may only disappear if Enrique loses his job, probably in the summer recess. The press think they are definitely on to something with him and Messi, a suspicion given succour by Enrique's marked failure to applaud his number ten's latest prizegiving ceremony on Sunday.

To add to their woes, this month the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the ban on Barcelona buying players until January 2016, leaving next summer's long transfer window unopenable.

While their youth academy La Masia remains the stuff of legend for having produced six of Spain's 2010 World Cup team as well as the lion's share of Pep Guardiola's golden generation, including the holy trinity of Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, it alone is unlikely to be able to take the strain.

I watched their second eleven Barcelona B in action recently against fellow Liga Adelante (national second division) outfit Ponferradina. The blaugrana reserves had clearly been schooled in their seniors' style, passing confidently and quickly in a 4-3-3 formation and maintaining circulation of the ball.

In 18 year-old striker Adama Traore they had a dangerous young marksman who I would be surprised not to see stepping up to La Liga. He has made one substitute appearance for Barcelona's first team already and the trouble he caused the Ponferradina defence he could surely cause elsewhere.

Croatian midfielder Alen Halilovic, also 18, is another rising star who could well follow in the footsteps of fellow countrymen Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, who play their trade at Real and Barça respectively.

Their Spanish goalkeeper Adrian Ortolá and centre-backs Frank Bagnack (Cameroon) and Edgar Ié (Portugal) passed the ball out of defence on the deck at every opportunity. But being palpably short of experience with an average age of only 20, they played their way into trouble too many times when a ball into space or touch would have been the better option.

Twice Barça B led by two goals in Ponferrada but twice let their hosts come back to equalize, a crazy match finishing 4:4.

Right now, La Masia's production line is nothing to get excited about, as Barça B dangle one point above the relegation zone of the Spanish second division.

Guardiola has left an enormously long shadow in Catalonia, having raised the bar so high he has sensibly ruled himself out of any return. "You won't see a better Barça team than that one", I opined to a city taxi driver on a recent trip as we talked football the length of my ride from hotel to railway station.

"Oh yes, that's true," he concurred with a sigh of regret.

But last night's team contained seven of the side who started the 2011 Champions League final against Manchester United, so it is impossible not to compare Enrique's Barcelona to Guardiola's, and the latter's is still a country mile ahead.

With the Messi-Enrique contratemps, a sense of failure already hangs over this season at Barcelona. But with three trophies still very much up for grabs, the pessimists should really take a back seat.

The acid test could come on the 24th of February when the UEFA Champions League resumes and Barça must travel to Manchester City.

The return leg on the 18th of March is swiftly followed by the clásico with Real, who won comfortably 3-1 at the Bernabeu last October.

This is clearly an unsteady Barcelona in need of transition, but unraveling dynasties takes time.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Rio Ave

Rio Ave, Porto's third club after FC Porto and Boavista, were flying high for a time early this season. The tiny club based in Vila do Conde on the Atlantic Coast topped the Portuguese league and were still involved in the Europa League. In the last game of the previous season they reached the final of the Taça de Portugal - the Portuguese Cup - only to lose 1-0 to Lisbon's Benfica.

Rio Ave v Setubal, August 2014.


Mid-season and now Rio Ave are out of European competition though they still stand a creditable sixth in the Primeira Liga.

Rio Ave Futebol Clube play their home games at Estádio do Rio aka Estádio dos Arcos, a compact 12,000 capacity ground that rarely sees attendances of over 2,000 spectators.

Rio Ave v Setubal, August 2014.


Rio Ave FC were founded in 1939 and their present stadium was constructed in 1985.

We caught up with Rio Ave on 18 August, 2014 for a tempestuous 2-0 win over Setubal in front of 1,959 fans on a hot afternoon in northern Portugal. Two second half goals from Diego Lopes and Marcelo settled the game for the home side but not before the hosts had Brazilian Felipe Augusto sent off for an elbow just before the break. Setubal had two men dismissed in the second half in a thoroughly bad-tempered encounter, which left one Rio Ave player down on the far touchline receiving treatment long after the final whistle.

Estádio do Rio is a short walk from Porto Metro Line B station Vila do Conde about 1 hour from central Porto.

Rio Ave v Setubal, August 2014.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The New Year in Spain

Spain's big two, Barcelona and Real Madrid are in crisis, according to the permanently obsessed media.

Barcelona are in trouble because they lost their first game after the winter break, 1-0 away to David Moyes' Real Sociedad, and superstar Lionel Messi has allegedly fallen out with coach Luis Enrique and has issued a "him or me" ultimatum.

News of Messi's anguish during the transfer window prompted FCB to wield an unexpected axe forthwith: Sporting director Antoni Zubizarreta and assistant Carlos Puyol, both Camp Nou legends, saw their contracts terminated.

The Argentine's representatives have been at mischievous work, planting fanciful stories in the media claiming that Chelsea could make a megabucks swoop for the disgruntled Messi. With a release clause of €250 million for Messi, there is more chance of finding Elvis alive during the January transfer window than Barça selling their brightest star.

Real Madrid's trouble consists of having lost three games in a row, the first a friendly in Dubai to Milan 4-2, then two away losses in Spain, 2-1 to Valencia in La Liga and 2-0 to Atletico Madrid in a bad-tempered first leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final on a freezing night at the Vicente Calderon.


Vicente Calderon, The New Year in Spain.


Yesterday Real returned to normal service with a functional 3-0 win over Espanyol, dampening the fires of disaster speculation. James Rodriguez, who has proved a most versatile attacker in his debut season but too often has had to defer to Cristiano Ronaldo, tapped in the first before Gareth Bale, subject of criticism for his selfishness with the ball in previous matches, whipped in a set-piece to remind the moaners of his goalscoring value.

Barcelona also bounced back, thumping a hapless Elche 5-0 in the Copa del Rey in a picture-perfect, yet highly predictable performance with their three big names, Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez on the mark.

A point separates Real and Barça at the top and both are still in the Champions League and Copa del Rey, so reports of any imminent demise cannot be taken seriously.

The Spanish soccer press is so saturated by the big two's dynamic that any sudden dip in form, disgruntled substitute or rumour of a training ground bust-up assumes epic proportions.

Marca and AS have a diet rich in Real news every day, while Sport and Mundo Deportivo perform the same function for Barcelona. Clubs of reasonable size like Atletico and Valencia are lucky to get a page.

This seems especially hard right now on Atletico, who after all are the reigning champions and reached last season's Champions League final. Diego Simeone is establishing himself as one of the world’s top managers and his side have just received the psychological boost of signing old favourite Fernando Torres.

45,000 Colchonero fans turned out to welcome their returning hero on a non-matchday, but El Niño was withdrawn after an hour on his debut against Real following the sort of blunt performance seen too often from him at Chelsea.

With so many column inches to fill each day and relentless TV reports which go into the sort of detail unheard of in England's soccer press, it is no wonder they try to make a mountain out of every molehill.

Barcelona have the challenge of Atletico this evening and anything other than three points will set the doom-mongers of Catalonia off again.

Leaders Real have the cushion of a game in hand, but Atletico are breathing down their necks.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile