Spy Versus Spy as Mourinho Finds Madrid’s Not Forever

Here’s something I wrote for Soccerlens

Jose+Mourinho+Florentino+PerezIt’s one of those expressions that work equally well in Spanish and English: “Mourinho Tira La Toalla A 22 Jornadas Del Final” – “Mourinho Throws In The Towel With 22 Games Left”. AS’s front page had put it in a nutshell: the game was up in the league. Maybe the game’s up for The Special One in Spain as well.

AS’s front page: Mourinho throws in the towel”

Real Madrid went into Sunday night’s game against Espanyol under yet another cloud of Mourinho’s making. Radio Marca reported last Thursday that Real’s squad are uncomfortable with goalkeeping coach Silvino, whom they consider to be a spy for Mourinho.

According to the author of the claim, Anton Meana, Mourinho summoned him for a private meeting before the Espanyol game and exploded spectacularly, making the brilliant announcement: “”In the footballing world, me and my people are at the top and in the world of journalism you are a piece of crap!” He went on to imply he’d get his revenge once he was no longer coach of Real Madrid.

So far, so fractious, but intrigue is nothing new when Mourinho is around. His departure at Chelsea was, to a small extent, precipitated by his belief that Avram Grant had been installed as a spy for Roman Abramovic, and Silvino was a player in one of Mourinho’s most entertainingly Machiavellian manouevres.

The coach was serving a touchline ban and confined to the stands, barred from contacting his coaching staff for a Champions League game against Bayern Munich, but Silvino was seen constantly shuttling between the changing room and Mourinho’s seat in the stands carrying pieces of paper. His forays were usually followed by a substitution.

Perhaps Mourinho had been enjoying a boxset of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” that afternoon: during the match, Mourinho also appeared to be contacting his fitness coach by an earpiece hidden under the latter’s woolly hat, and reportedly departed the ground hiding in a laundry basket!

Mourinho loves constantly stirring the media waters. The problem is, in Real Madrid he has found himself at an institution which has an inflated sense of the importance of its own dignity, and crucially is too huge to be changed or manipulated.

Which is not to suggest that before Mourinho arrived Real never knew such dramas: on the contrary, it is possibly the most political football club in the world, with an attendant media closer to a Parliamentary lobby than a sports press. Mourinho has bitten off more than he can chew by taking on such a well-established set-up.

A couple of factors mark this incident out as significant. One is the nationality of the accused coach.

Don’t picture Silvino as some supine lapdog: he played in two Champions League finals, captaining Benfica in 1990, won 23 caps and has carved out a significant career as a goalkeeping coach, following Mourinho from the days he arrived at Porto. You’ll have worked out he’s Portuguese by now, and this, coupled with his ten year association with Mourinho, fits neatly into the perceived split in the camp.

We’re regularly told the Madrid camp is split between the Portuguese-speakers and the Spaniards and last season’s success was achieved through an uneasy truce between the two camps, often by people who know what they’re talking about.

Fuel was added to that fire by Meana’s assertion that Mourinho had gone on to have a Brendan Rodgers envelope moment: “There are 21 players that get along great with Silvino and, like anywhere, there are three black sheep that harm the group.”

Mourinho often thrives by creating a creative tension, but it seems to have bubbled out of his control this season, with tales of changing room defiance and anger that he has abandoned a promise made to the senior Spanish players to draw in his horns and not court controversy so eagerly.

The other issue about Silvinogate is the fact that it was reported at all. The highly-politicised Madrid media take their lead from the club, and it was no coincidence when they speculated on Mourinho’s future in the wake of the recent defeat to Real Betis. Clearly Florentino Perez, or his people, had let the papers of the leash, a move interpreted as either a message to Mourinho or a sign his days were numbered. And now here is Marca revealing tales of changing room disharmony and distrust of the coach. You don’t have to be a Kremlinologist to work out that the tide is turning against Mourinho.

Still, at least they had an easy home game against Espanyol to improve everybody’s mood. That would be poor, useless Espanyol, in the bottom three all season and looking absolutely doomed despite the recent arrival as coach of lost cause specialist Javier Aguirre.

However, the visitors failed to roll over and die: they led for 15 minutes before conceding with the last kick of the first half, held Madrid at 2-1 through a combination of stubborn defending and heroic goalkeeping by Casilla, and snatched a point in the 88th minute when Real failed to deal with a corner.

The Madridistas weren’t happy, their dissatisfaction penetrating even the suspicious presence of a cheerleader with a megaphone who kept the positive atmosphere going in a marathon ninety-minute effort, before no doubt popping to the local Ear Nose and Throat for a retread of his vocal chords.

Mourinho didn’t really help matters after the game. While his players came out with all the right noises, defiantly claiming the league ain’t over till it’s over, he declared that the race was run and winning the league is “practically impossible.” Unaware of this, Xabi Alonso was even picked up by reporters and asked why he was contradicting his coach, and had to explain that Mourinho had surrendered the title when speaking to the team after the match.

Ominously for Mourinho, Perez has sided firmly with the players on this, pointedly repeating more than once the message that the side should not give up, before driving his point home face-to-face at Monday night’s club Christmas meal: “Together we can achieve what we have set out to. Real Madrid never gives up its sporting principles, however difficult it may be to face the challenges.”

“One should not yield, either in sport or in life.” Tuesday’s Madrid papers lead with pictures of a sour-faced Mourinho sat next to his president, who appears to be lecturing him over his Brussels sprouts, with headlines declaring “Florentino reminds Mourinho about the spirit of the team” and suggesting he has “rectified the situation” with his coach. The implication seems to be it’s the sort of rectification Tony Soprano brings to a situation. Meanwhile, Barcelona-based paper Mundo Deportivo gleefully revel in Real being “Fed Up Of Mou!”

Mourinho’s analysis of the game will hardly have helped the perceived split in the changing room to heal either. Cristiano Ronaldo had a poor game. Admittedly he scored the equaliser (though it ought to have been disallowed for a high foot) and set up the winner, but apart from that he did little, constantly losing possession in promising positions. Three shots on target in nine attempts was a serious dip from a season average of 56% of his shots being on target, although he had 50% more shots than usual. The stats didn’t lie this time: he was looking desperate.

Still, Mourinho sought to single Ronaldo out for praise in a manner unlikely to quell any jealous accusations of preferential treatment among the rest of the team:

“Cristiano played well, but his teammates, no.”

Surely Florentino Perez’s trigger finger is getting itchy. Watching his side stutter in the league – they’ve already dropped more points than they did in the whole of last season!- will have been hard to take; if he’d then tuned into Barcelona’s destruction of Atlético and heard the home fans chant to Real’s coach “¡Mourinho quedate!”, essentially “Mourinho, know your place”, he will have felt his club’s traditionally proud stature had been further eroded by his coach.

The thirteen point gap between his side and Sandro Rosell’s will be what hurts Perez most though. The last time Real allowed Barcelona to get so far ahead of them in the table was in 2008, and coach Bernd Schuster paid with his job.

There are remarkable echoes of the current situation in what happened four years ago. The German had made a similar declaration of impotence to Mourinho’s, declaring after his final match (a 4-3 home defeat to Sevilla) that it would be impossible to win the next game, against Barsa, a claim publicly contradicted by then-President Ramon Calderon and senior players Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos. Unlike Mourinho, his side were only nine points behind the Catalans at the time.

The Special One is an arch-strategist both on and off the pitch. He needs to chose his next moves very carefully.

Messi makes history, but a Betis star is born

vadillo Messi makes history, but a Betis star is born
Here’s something I wrote for Soccerlens

Lionel Messi hogged the headlines, of course, when he finally broke Gerd Muller’s record for most goals in a calendar year.

Although the Madrid papers were delighted that Radomel Falcao gave them an excuse not to lead on this astonishing achievement: AS led on “Insatiable Falcao” and tucked Messi into the top left corner, Marca’s online edition’s top two stories were on the Colombian.

However, while Messi was rightly the centre of attention in Sevilla, something happened on the other side which might turn out to be of genuine significance. Real Betis’ bright young hope sparkled excitingly.

While the angle the press took was naturally that Messi had finally done it, the actual story of the match was less straightforward. He didn’t have the happiest of games apart from those two goals: an absurd notion, but a reflection of how much Betis troubled Barcelona.

They had to show courage to haul themselves back into the game though. Messi’s two strikes deflated Los Verdiblancos and even managed to suck the life out of the typically fearsome atmosphere the ever-fervent Béticos had created at the Benito Villamarin.

It almost seemed as if they felt it would be the churlish for the hosts to intrude on Messi’s party; at 2-0 Betis appeared on the verge of collapse, scared of asking their pushy guests for their ball back.

However, a brave move by Betis coach Pepe Mel turned things around. When his left–sided attacker Juan Carlos pulled up he ignored the two obvious options on the bench, Jorge Molina and Alejandro Pozuelo, and instead threw on eighteen-year-old Álvaro Vadillo. He would be rewarded for his boldness.

Vadillo was elegant, played with his head up and brought incision to Betis’ creative department. With Beñat beavering away superbly behind him (and probably putting another €5 million on the price tag for any prospective January bidders!) the tide turned.

Switching flanks comfortably, Vadillo always posed a threat. He provided the assist as Rubén Castro pulled one back, drifting laterally before delivering a lovely disguised reverse ball to send the striker one-on-one with Víctor Valdés.

It was a refined moment, combining technique and confidence: the kid had entered the game like he belonged there. After the year he’s had, it was an announcement that an exciting talent had returned.

Vadillo has history, despite his youth. He was hailed as a hot prospect when he broke through at the start of last season, becoming the youngest player in the history of the club and the second youngest in La Liga when he made his debut in an opening day derby win at Granada sixteen days before his seventeenth birthday.

Pepe Mel was clearly looking to ease the youngster into the first team picture and gave him two fairly lengthy substitute appearances in the next five matches before deciding to be bold and starting him at the Bernabeu. It would prove to be a fateful decision.

Twenty one minutes into the match Sergio Ramos clattered into him with typical subtlety. The result: massive damage to his anterior cruciate ligament and a serious setback to a sparkling talent.

Vadillo’s injury might have hampered his development, but equally it took him off the market. Fiorentina, Real Madrid and Manchester United had all made bids for the prodigy, United offering €3 million to take him to Old Trafford.

Betis rejected the deals, and local boy Vadillo pledged his loyalty to the club. He certainly has genuine Bético credentials, but the fact that he attended English classes during his recuperation implied he knew his long term future probably lay elsewhere.

He finally returned thirteen months later, for a Copa del Rey tie against Real Valladolid, and dispelled any doubts that he might not be himself with a superb thirty minutes from the bench, setting up two goals as Betis overturned a first leg deficit to go through 3-1.

Vadillo then made his first bow of the league campaign last weekend, coming on with half an hour left, shortly after his side had squandered a 2-0 lead at Deportivo, and helped them go on to win 3-2. He followed that up with his exciting supporting role at Messi’s big show.

Betis are enjoying a fine campaign, and have plenty of talent in the line behind the striker. It’s the perfect scenario for Pepe Mel to bring Vadillo through without rushing him, although there’ll be a real temptation to throw caution to the wind if he continues to captivate like he did against Barcelona.

Mad Scientist Bielsa’s Llorente Experiment Fails

Fernando LlorenteShock horror! Fernando Llorente is leaving Athletic in the Summer! Equally remarkable rumours that the Pope is actually Catholic and bears defecate in the woods remain unconfirmed.

The leaving of Bilbao tends to be complicated, of course: ask Javi Martinez! Llorente, aware of the fact he might actually want to return to the region at some point, has played it flawlessly when it comes to explaining his decision to leave. No criticism of the club or suggestion he needs something bigger and better: instead, the dastardly press have driven a wedge between him and his beloved people:

“It isn’t about money because the offer the club made was irresistible.

“The media have not helped with the negotiations and it is one of the things that has generated the bad atmosphere around me out on the pitch….

“I took the decision when I went out for the first Europa League game at San Mamés [in August].

“Most of what has come out in the press is lies and this has turned people against me. This has meant when I run out on to the pitch people whistle at me. There is a sector of the crowd who do not want me but I feel loved by the majority.”

Fair enough, but that’s hardly the full story. Llorente ended the last season as one of Europe’s hottest properties, and despite the fact that overuse left him looking out on his feet as the campaign sputtered out, there was plenty of confusion about the lack of time he spent on the pitch during the European Championships.

Yet he returned to San Mames and, rather than be seen as the returning hero, was turfed out of the team in favour of a journeyman striker. A decent journeyman striker, but still: Aritz Aduriz is hardly Sergio Aguerro.

Thus far, Llorente the superstar has started one league match this season, despite not having been injured. But that didn’t merit a mention in his valedictory speech!

Llorente is hardly on his own in suffering what players’ union FIFPRO describe as “blackmail”: Wesley Sneijder finds himself in an even worse situation at Inter, not even considered for a place on e bench unless he signs a new contract.

But closer to home, players are being treated very differently. Fernando Amorebieta’s contract runs out in the Summer but he continues to be chosen despite showing no signs of putting pen to paper: indeed, his agent is talking up a possible January move to Zenit St Petersburg, Roma, Liverpool or anyone else with a bit of cash in their back pockets. As far as I can see ( and I’m willing to be corrected on this!) Isma Lopez seems to be in the last year of his contract too.

Marcelo Bielsa, ever the theoretician, seems to have decided to test the question of whether it’s possible to replace Llorente by trying it out before he left. The most cursory of glances at the league table tells you that the answer is not encouraging.

Aduriz has done a good job in the lone striker job, and shares many attributes with Llorente. However, Bilbao have floundered after losing not only Llorente, in essence, but also Javi Martinez. The problem is, having discovered that it’s not going to be easy to replace Llorente, there’s nothing Bielsa can do with this information.

I imagine Bielsa, the football scientist, in his lab, calculating the outcomes from his latest experiment. He deduces that Athletic without Llorente up front, trying to cope with the current squad, doesn’t work. So he wants to discard the plan and try something new. But he can’t. As their transfer policy precludes buying non-local talent, if the good couples of the Basque Country don’t produce another top class target man, Bilbao can’t play with one. No quick fix dips into the transfer market here: all Athletic can do is accumulate the millions from Javi Martinez and please the bank manager. All that cash counts for nothing in the market.

Of course, there are quality Basque players out there for Athletic to sign, but if they think they’re going to get value for money they can think again. If they go sniffing after Benat, Ruben Pardo or Natxo Monreal they’ll encounter clubs who know they’re in a bind. There’s a finite number of Basque players out there who will enhance Athletic’s squad, and therefore if they go for them their desperation is likely to be reflected in a Bilbao supplement slapped on top of the transfer fee.

“Oh, you’re desperate for a quality left back are you? Well, you can pay over the odds for Monreal, or look elsewhere. What’s that, you can’t look elsewhere? My, what a pity!”

Mind you, mad scientist Bielsa might not need be too concerned that his experiment has failed. After all, he’s not going to be around next season to try a new approach, surely?