Phil Ball: Fatigue starting to show for Real Madrid, Barcelona

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April may be the cruellest month, according to T.S. Eliot, but in the context of La Liga it’s going to be a rather busy one. But that’s Spain for you. There is no middle way here – it’s either full speed ahead or it’s siesta time. The last fortnight has been siesta time, due to the World Cup qualifiers, in which Spain only played once (against Israel), following it up with an interesting and morale-boosting win over France in a friendly in Paris, but now the volume ratchets up to the maximum. Incredibly, not a day will pass in April without some official game involving a Spanish side. If you don’t like football, run for the hills.

Starting this weekend, there are seven league ‘jornadas’ in April. On the occasional days when there are no league matches, the Champions and Europa League quarter-finals take over, with four Spanish representatives alive and kicking across those competitions. By the end of this frenetic month, with three games left to go, we will surely know two out of three of the relegation victims, and almost certainly the identity of the four Champions League places. Whether we will have a league champion would take a brave person to guess. Personally, I suspect it will go to the wire.

At the very least, Sevilla’s miserable run of four games without a win has more or less guaranteed that the title is now a two-horse race. Atlético’s form has picked up, but their only hope of glory this season now resides in defeating plucky Leicester from the Premier League. Meanwhile, Real Madrid and Barcelona are both showing signs of physical and mental fatigue. Madrid’s 3-0 win over Alavés is a result that hides an uncomfortable preview of the run-in to come. Assisted by an opener that should have been flagged offside, the following two goals only came as Alavés, desperate for an equaliser, left the garden-shed door open.

It seems odd that Real Madrid can seem like the planet’s scariest team and then suddenly look as though they haven’t a clue. Luka Modric, described recently in Spanish as ‘a poet who has lost his muse’ is vital for this tricky and cluttered run-in period. But when he’s poor, as on Sunday, Toni Kroos turns into predictable and ordinary, and Casemiro was not designed to create. The idea that Isco is somehow surplus to requirements then looks absurd. If anyone is destined to take Madrid over the finishing line, it is the man from Málaga. He looked good for Spain as well last week. He’s a strange little player, with his old-man gait and his legs going ten to the dozen, but he confuses defenders, changes the direction of play and drifts cleverly in the hole behind the forwards. Nevertheless, there’s an uninspiring look about the leaders as they enter this crucial phase. Bayern Munich will have taken note, as will Leganés, whom Madrid visit on Wednesday night. It’s a short bus-ride down the road, but Leganés are improving and will relish the first-ever league visit of their noisy neighbours to the Butarque.

Next Saturday the leaders stay in Madrid too, for the visit of Atlético. Again, it’s a game that could easily unseat them and blow the advantage of their game in hand. Two weeks after that, they entertain Barcelona, four days after the second leg of the Bayern tie. Pressure? Maybe we need a new noun.

Like a runner cruising in second place, attentive to any slip-ups ahead, Barcelona will be looking to stay calm and collected. Their 4-1 Messi-less win at Granada was also rather more problematic than the score suggests, Boga equalising for the hosts early in the second half and sending brief signals of joy to the capital (and to the long-suffering Granada fans) but it didn’t last long, especially after Uche was sent off in the 73rd minute, opening the sluice-gates for the Barcelona barges. Ivan Rakitic and Neymar completed the win, but Wednesday’s home game against Sevilla may prove rather more challenging, despite the slump in form of the Andaluz outfit. In short – the clásico on April 23rd is likely to be a nuclear occasion. Neither side can afford to stumble before it takes place.

The relationship between the two clubs is also deteriorating nicely – always a good sign for clásico watchers. After the France v Spain game last week, Gerard Piqué was interviewed by the press. Asked about the VAR (Video Assistant Referee) which got two important decisions correct during the game, Piqué responded with admirable creativity that ‘Al final , todo se resume en ir vestido de blanco’ (In the end, everything goes fine if you wear white) – in allusion to the fact that Spain had played in white and that therefore (ironically) the VAR had decided in their favour – with Real Madrid’s colours the obvious reference. Realising that Piqué was in one of his talkative moods, the journalists pressed him for more, and he obliged.

Asked what he thought of Raul’s recent insinuation that there was no reason that he couldn’t work for Barcelona if asked, Piqué replied that Madrid, on the contrary, could never be an option for him because although he was matey enough with some of their players, he could never work for a club where ‘the values they transmit’ are less than ethical – or at least that was the implication. The journalists, now frothing at the mouth with these sound-bites, egged him on. He obligingly opened the oyster and dropped the pearl, accusing Real Madrid of inviting the wrong kind of guy (and gal) to their ‘palco’ – the mythical word in Spanish football which indicates the VIP area of the stadium where the club presidents sit, surrounded by lackeys, jackets and ties, and in the not-so-recent past, enormous cigars. General Franco began the tradition by openly inviting military figures to matches at the Bernabéu so that they could sit at the right hand of the Dictator and be seen. Everyone understood the messages. Franco was signalling who was in favour, and who was not – implicitly. These were life-and-death pointers, keenly observed.

Piqué was now enjoying himself. ‘I don’t like to see people in the palco of Madrid, the people who pull the strings in this country’ in clear reference to Marta Silva, the ex-lawyer (and daughter of a Francoist politician) who was directly involved in both the Messi and Neymar tax cases, which are still ongoing. The accusation that she went easier on the Cristiano Ronaldo case was clearly noted in Barcelona, and Silva’s presence at the Real Madrid vs Real Sociedad game in January – just behind Florentino Pérez – was the club’s payback, according to Piqué.

This was juicy stuff, and the following morning it sent the organs of the state into a froth-spittle frenzy. The right-wing press attacked the centre-back with a predictable lack of imagination, whilst Sergio Ramos, informed of Piqué’s rant as he left the stadium, replied with the wonderful ‘Ah well – you know Piqué, ha ha. And anyway, the strings get pulled everywhere’. Well, they don’t get pulled at Leganés or at Granada Sergio, but don’t worry. What is certainly interesting is why Florentino Pérez would endorse the invitation, since he personally presides over the ‘palco’ invites every fortnight. So was he just trying to provoke? Possibly, but of course, it’s a bit rich that Piqué accuses another club of a lack of moral values whilst almost every week a team-mate is being hauled to the dock for fiscal irregularities. Those in glass houses, as they say – but the accusation that Real Madrid’s president has the justice system in his pocket was interesting, to say the least. It’s not the first time the accusation has been made, and significantly, Pérez failed to respond. The official line was not to give Piqué ‘more publicity’ – as if he hadn’t been given it anyway.

It’s all grist to the clásico mill, of course, twenty days and four games away. April looks like being a very interesting month.

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