James return to soothe Benítez’s ginger perception at Real

Jamie Kemp 00:22 30/10/2015
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James Rodriguez could be the key to get Real's attack firing again.

Strike one has been filed for Rafa Benítez. It came in the Madrid derby at the start of the month, where despite going ahead against an Atlético side lacking clarity, the game’s most opulent club backed off and got their comeuppance. With the chance to return to the top of La Liga spurned, sections of the Madridismo flashed their fangs at Benítez for the first time since he returned to the capital.

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For those who remained neither elated or defeatist in their analysis of the game, the capital’s media went some ways to remedying that. “We have a prudish coach with a prudish team,” wrote AS editor Alfredo Relaño, whose work is found with a solitary flick of the newspaper’s front cover, every morning in Spain. Since Madrid announced the signing of Benítez, I felt that he is a coach that jars with the style of the club,” he added in the same editorial, before going on to criticize the manager’s handling of Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema the following day.

While Benítez may have garnered a defensive stubbornness in his short reign (at least statistically), the perception of safety-before-expression was ignited in the Calderón. Even when Casemiro – who was plugged in to protect Madrid’s back four from considerable fire – was quite spectacular in his disruptiveness, large remnants of recognition were lost within a storm of criticism for the manager’s reticence. Playing the defensive midfielder somehow ended up being the best and worst thing the 55-year-old did, in what was perhaps the most accurate emblem yet of the unremitting surveillance his methods are subject to.

Despite the rather unripe criticism for Benítez, the fact remains that Madrid were wholly uninspiring in the second half; Atlético were desperate too, just to accentuate the effect. Diego Simeone had to rifle through all three of his substitutions just to eek out a successful sniff on goal, while his celebration for the equaliser spoke to that of a man who knew his options of taking anything from the game were running out fast. They had scored four in the same fixture last season, and were presumably rather perplexed to encounter a Madrid team so seemingly content to sit on a goal scored in the ninth minute.

The problem for Madrid at the Calderón was a gradual dissolving of connection, and to Benítez’s double hardship, it magnified their retreat. By the time the equaliser arrived, the ravine separating Cristiano Ronaldo at the head of attack and a block of defenders growing in numbers by the minute had led Atlético to the door. The road out of danger was unstable for the visitors, and they had no substance on their attempted journey. Madrid had no fire in the fight because it was being extinguished before it could roar.

The concept of Benítez being negative has always stood. When the discontent did arise in the capital, it was only ever going to revolve around his perceived prudishness. So much so, that at the first noticeable sign of it, the backlash was off to the races in double-quick time, and plenty of it overzealous.

48 hours after the final whistle at the Calderón, amid the cyclone of opinion on Benítez and Madrid, surfaced an unremarkable but pertinent message. ‘Un día menos’ read a tweet – one day less. With sweat dripping from his forehead, surrounded by little other than stationary bikes in a hollow gymnasium, James Rodríguez’s drop in the ocean of fuss moved to appease the Madridismo. He has played just one full game this season (‘Prodigio James’ headlined Marca the following day), but lest we forget the precedence the Colombian has at the Bernabéu.

The 24-year-old is currently on the mend from a thigh injury; a mend that cannot happen fast enough. In the 48 games he has played for Madrid, he has clocked 19 goals and 19 assists. His production has been relentless no matter where he is situated. Whether as a No.10, a right-sided midfielder or even as an interior midfielder in Ancelotti’s 4-3-3, James has put product on the page like no other midfielder in Madrid’s squad. But for Rafa Benítez, the Cúcuta native might also be the liberator he needs to circumvent a reputation of conformism.

Nobody pierces midfield and attack with the substance that James does – not in Madrid anyway. The Colombian’s closest competitor as a mediapunta is Isco; a man who guided los Blancos’ ship through some rough waters over the turn of 2015, and for a period of time, stirred a semi-realistic debate of whether he or James should take on the team’s creative mantle. The operative word for their duel however, was, again: substance. Isco has played 118 games for Real Madrid, 70 more than James, and still the latter leads the way in both goals and assists.

Another remarkable trait of James’ game, which is sure to play into Benítez’s hands, comes in the form of his ability to drop into on-field plans with no such settlement. He missed two months of last season with a broken metatarsal, yet returned in a 9-0 thrashing of Granada to provide a performance which acted as somewhat of a watershed moment for his career in Spain. Everybody knew he was a world-class talent, but his downtime had served to highlight the difference in Madrid’s potency with and without him. It hasn’t been taken for granted since.

Cut to present day and we find a similar situation. James hasn’t started a game since the 5-0 win over Real Betis in August, while he may not be fit again until late November. In his absence, Madrid have continued to pick up points, but signs of genuine lethality remain up in the air. Keylor Navas being the team’s current standout performer is perhaps the biggest marker of that.

Benítez has overseen an up-and-down October, while the critiques of his team never feel too far away. Madrid aren’t quite finding the frequency that asserts them as La Liga’s finest just yet, but a solution is waiting; ready to repeat his feats of earlier in the year. This time he will return in slightly different circumstances, but the anticipation for James back in blanco is germinating. And this time, they won’t wait until the end of his return to laud him, for the Bernabéu knows the significance of the man waiting for the nod.

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Barcelona midfielder Javier Mascherano admits tax fraud charges

Sport360 staff 19:20 29/10/2015
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Spanish tax authorities are now investigating Javier Mascherano.

Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano admitted to two counts of tax fraud totalling just over 1.5 million euros ($1.64 million) before a judge on Thursday.

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Mascherano arrived at the court in Gava, a coastal town on the outskirts of Barcelona where the player resides, at 0900 local time (1200UAE) accompanied by his lawyers.

His testimony before the court lasted barely five minutes as he recognised having committed the crime. Spanish state prosecutors alleged the former West Ham and Liverpool midfielder failed to declare over 1.5 million euros (Dhs6m) in earnings in 2011 and 2012 by ceding his image rights to companies he owns in Portugal and the United States.

“Mascherano admitted the facts of the two counts of tax fraud, so there was no need to interrogate him,” said a judicial source.

A court filing released last month confirmed Mascherano deposited nearly 1.75 million euros (Dhs7m) with the tax authorities on September 9 to repay the amount owed plus interest.

The judge must now decide whether the case proceeds to trial. However, given that player has admitted his guilt and paid the amount owed plus interest it is possible his defence and the prosecution will come to an agreement in the form of a fine before going to trial.

Mascherano is just the latest high-profile footballer to be scrutinised by the tax authorities in Spain over the declaration of money made through image rights.

Barcelona and Argentina teammate Lionel Messi will stand trial alongside his father for alleged tax fraud totalling 4.16 million euros (Dhs18m) relating to his image rights between 2006 and 2009.

Mascherano has also been in trouble on the field as he was handed a two-game ban on Wednesday for insulting the referee as he was sent-off in Barca’s 3-1 win over Eibar last weekend.

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Javier Mascherano returns from ban in time for Real Madrid

Sport360 staff 03:46 29/10/2015
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Javier Mascherano was sent off for abusing an official.

Barcelona defender Javier Mascherano will be available for next month's La Liga match at Real Madrid after being handed a two-match ban for dissent.

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Mascherano was shown a red card in Barca's 3-1 home win over Eibar on Sunday for shouting an Argentinian expression to the assistant referee.

Barca had feared losing the Argentina international for four games but the competition committee of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) did not consider Mascherano's remark an insult to the linesman.

A statement from the RFEF said: "The expression used by the player constitutes an action of despise and inconsideration towards the referee which breaches articles 117 of the Code of conduct of the RFEF."

Barca will not appeal against the punishment and Mascherano, who has made eight league starts for the Blaugrana, will miss the La Liga games against Getafe and Villarreal.

However, the 31-year-old will return in time for the first El Clasico of the season at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium on November 21.

Barcelona are second in the standings, level on 21 points with league leaders Real Madrid after nine games played.

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