What will Rafa Benitez’s demise at Real Madrid mean for Florentino Perez?

A penny for your thoughts Rafa. Understanding what’s going on in the now ex-Real Madrid coach’s head at the moment would be fascinating.

If nothing else, Benitez has given the impression throughout his career that he knows his own mind. Often his strength of opinion has ultimately been to the detriment of his job security: his desire to do things his way often rubs people up the wrong way, as his messy departure from Valencia and his grapples with internal politics at Inter showed. He doesn’t like having someone above him, telling him what to do, yet in the summer he finally took the job which has been seen as an inevitable embellishment to his CV, even though it meant working under the most manipulative football figure outside the halls of FIFA.

Florentino Perez is the sort of figure that draws derision from British fans: the club president with no football background who claims he knows more about the game than the professionals, and puts his money where his mouth is by essentially appointing himself Director of Football.

Benitez’s desire to return to Real clearly overwhelmed the logical part of his brain when he agreed to work under Perez. Perhaps he’s been able to win battles against Directors of Football in the past, although they ultimately tended to be pyrrhic victories, damaging him in the long term. However, here was a battle he couldn’t possibly win.

He lasted just seven months, but he looked like a lame duck for at least half that time. Some might argue, with justification, that he was a dead man walking the moment he was appointed, with sections of the afición and the press on tenterhooks, waiting for things to go wrong.

It might be argued that Benitez would have lost the job earlier if Perez had not positioned his coach between himself and the firing squad, his survival underpinned not by a desire to give him a chance, but Perez’s realisation that giving him the shove would expose him.


The defeat to Barcelona, humiliating as it was, felt like a point of no return even though the fact is that the sides were only separated by two points when Benitez took the fall. It wasn’t just the disjointed tactical mess which Real laid before their fans which made it feel significant though: it was those fans’ reaction. They didn’t turn on hate figure Rafa. They turned on his boss. That meant something had to happen.

Initially it seemed that the consequence was Perez using Benitez as a human shield. Benitez would inevitably go in the Summer, but if he could deflect criticism from Perez he might still be of use. However, the atmosphere has merely become even more poisonous. For heaven’s sake, Real scored ten goals in their penultimate home game, but no-one seemed terribly happy about it. Even the goodwill banked by scoring eight in their previous home game didn’t count for much. If that isn’t a definition of an unhealthy club, then what is?

Or let’s put it another way.  Rafa Benitez has been sacked after a run of seven wins in nine games. Since losing to Barsa, their only failures have been an admittedly weak showing at Villarreal and Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Valencia. That would be a draw away to one of the biggest clubs in Europe, unbeaten at home in the league since 2014, in which Real were generally the better side and were winning with seven minutes left despite having been down to ten men with half the second half still to play. Those are high standards. Impossibly high standards, perhaps.

There have been unsatisfactory themes running through that pretty successful run of results, of course. The officials certainly helped the last two home wins, Ronaldo is clearly not the player he was, and then there was the Copa del Rey fiasco. Yet surely only the mediocre showings against Rayo and Real Sociedad could be traced back to Benitez, and the ugly manoeuvring of Ronaldo towards the exit, setting him up to look bad in the way Mesut Özil was treated, is all the president’s work. There are mutterings that James Rodriguez might be getting the same treatment.

Marcelo Bielsa said when you look into the eyes of your new boss, remember that he will be the man who sacks you one day. Just sayin'
Marcelo Bielsa said when you look into the eyes of your new boss, remember that he will be the man who sacks you one day. Just sayin’

Perez recently imposed some comically prohibitive conditions on prospective challengers to his presidency. He seems untouchable, but so did Sepp Blatter. Even Machiavelli was removed, tortured and exiled by the Medicis in the end. Perez has now discarded his human shield and appointed a legend of the game who, nevertheless, only has coaching experience at a very low level. It sounds like another bad decision. Could he possibly have exposed himself at last?

La Liga: The spectre of match fixing looms

Dani Benitez’s water bottle makes matters worse.

A week after the vice–president of the LFP, the governing body which runs Spanish football’s top two divisions, claimed there is match fixing in La Liga, how appropriate that this weekend sees a rematch of perhaps last season’s most controversial match.

Granada versus Real Madrid doesn’t immediately grab you as an obviously hot fixture, but when the sides met last May the combustible context of the match led to an explosion of pent-up anger from the home side. It might not have been directed in the right direction, but it offered an illustration of the danger football faces if it allows allegations of corruption to fester. That match, in the penultimate round of last season, was a textbook illustration of mass hysteria.

Put simply, Granada lost it completely, and nearly wrecked their season as a consequence. The paranoia had taken root before the match had even begun. Their effort to stay up looked on track – they stood five points clear of the relegation places before the match – but the spectre of Real Zaragoza was on the horizon as their remarkable run of wins under Manolo Jiminez was threatening to raise them from the dead.

This prompted some rather bold accusations from Granada president, Quique Pina, who felt a run of eight wins out of ten from a side which had previously been catastrophically out of its depth was about as believable as Lance Armstrong’s career. Referring to his counterpart at Zaragoza, Agapito Iglesias, he complained “I do not trust in the cleanness of a director who I do not see as clean and who many of us in the game know has not got good intentions.”

The mood around Los Cármenes, was hardly helped by the idiotic appointment of Carlos Clos Gómez as referee. That would be the Carlos Clos Gómez who’d had to abandon a game at Granada earlier in the season because one of his linesmen had been hit by an umbrella thrown from the crowd. It would also be the Carlos Clos Gómez who comes from…yes, you guessed it…Zaragoza!

So Granada were looking for a conspiracy theory to come true. The fact that it didn’t wasn’t about to stop them from hitting the crazy button when things went badly wrong for them.

It all started so well too: within six minutes they had the lead which would guarantee them safety thanks to a moment of brilliance from Franco Jara, who robbed Marcelo and ran through the Madrid defence to score a superb goal. Other results started going their way, and they were holding onto the lead pretty comfortably. Even when some of their relegation rivals started to fight back in their games, it didn’t matter: a famous win over Real was about to secure Zaragoza’s safety.

And then, in the 81st minute, the madness began. Moisés Hurtado turned his back on the ball as a set piece was about to be delivered into the Granada box, ducked his head into Cristiano Ronaldo and shoved him over. Complete lunacy and a blatant penalty, not that such trivial matters as the facts stopped Hurtado from going crazy at the referee. Undeterred, the Portuguese got up and dispatched the spot kick himself to equalise.

Still Granada clung onto their point. At least until the 94th minute. That was when Karim Benzema broke down the right and drove in a cross which bypassed the goalkeeper but merely picked out David Cortés six yards out. Unfortunately, the defender’s attempt to put the ball over his bar sent it into the roof of the net.

Granada, facing their nightmare, roared up the other end from the restart and won a corner. But time was up, and Clos Gómez blew up. Another victory for the battle-hardened visitors, but for once, it wasn’t going to be all about Real.

All hell was let loose. Clos Gómez was surrounded by furious Granada players: his match report alleged more dirty talk than the whole series of “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Meanwhile, Pina claimed “the referee can go back to Zaragoza happy and they’ll build a statue for him.”

Carlos Clos Gomez: always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hurtado went too far and got a red card. Then the same fate befell Guilherme Siqueira. And then Dani Benitez snapped. Sneaking around the side of the crowd, he took aim and threw a water bottle, hitting the referee in the face.

The riot police closed in and ushered the referee to safety. Theoretically. But the changing rooms were no safer than the pitch, and what happened there would occur without the cameras to record the evidence. Again, according to the referee’s report, which arrived late as the internet connection and hot water to the referee’s room were cut off, his door was hammered and kicked by Granada’s goalkeeping coach until he smashed it in, so he could threaten “you’re dead, you son of a bitch.”

The home side’s website ran a match report under the headline “Granada couldn’t do it against 12 men.” A discordant air of dignity was struck by coach Abel Resino, who had tried to restrain his players at the final whistle and complained that they had brought all this on themselves, and by Benitez himself, who seemed genuinely contrite and complained that his head had been filled all week of talk of how Clos Gómez was a season ticket holder at La Romareda.

The consequences, in the short term, were that Granada had to go through that dramatic last day of the season at Rayo without the suspended trio of Hurtado, Siqueira and Benitez, but would survive their last gasp defeat because other results went their way. And Resino, of course, paid with his job.

It seemed appropriate that the one man who seemed able to act with decency ended up paying the price. This was a grubby affair and, if Javier Tebas is correct in asserting there’s still plenty of match fixing going on, it won’t be the last time emotions become so enflamed. With the relegation battle as wide open this season as it was last, and Granada slap bang in the middle of it again, the same combustible conditions prevail.

Can Only Klopp Unlock The Sahin Enigma?

Nuri Sahin: Back where he belongs?

The Bundesliga returned last weekend, and in the process welcomed back its player of the year from two seasons ago. Nuri Sahin’s failure to flourish after leaving Germany is a surprise. Whether it says more about him or the coaching he received during his sojourn is something we may be about to find out.

Sahin is no stranger to strong coaches. After all, his excellent spell as the driving force of Borussia Dortmund’s rise to the top of the German game was achieved under the tutelage of Jurgen Klopp, an idealogue who is no shrinking violet. Yet once he left Klopp’s domain, neither Jose Mourinho or Brendan Rodgers were able to get anything like the best out of him.

To be fair to Sahin and The Special One, untimely injuries didn’t aid his time at the Bernabeu: he managed just 24 minutes in La Liga before the winter break last season.

Mourinho’s treatment of him wasn’t terribly helpful either though. The Portuguese auteur’s recent adventures in the world of man management hardly reveal a man who prefers a softly-softly approach, as Sergio Ramos, Mezut Ozil, Iker Casillas and most recently Cristiano Ronaldo have been very publicly put down.

In comparison Sahin certainly didn’t have much to complain about. However, Mourinho clearly didn’t have much trust in the Turkish midfielder, and wasn’t looking to fast track him into his side when he was fit. He only got as far as the bench for a quarter of the side’s matches, and Mourinho’s persistent pursuit of Luca Modric showed that he wasn’t about to give Sahin a run in the team.

Mourinho’s eagerness to offload him on loan last Summer spoke volumes, despite Sahin declaring at the end of June:

“Since I arrived here, it has been like living a dream.

“It is one of the best clubs in the world and for this reason I do not see why I should go. I have no intention of leaving.”

Perhaps Mourinho detected complacency in such talk from a player who wasn’t getting pitch time, or maybe he wanted to see Sahin firing on all cylinders somewhere else before trusting him in his own team. Whatever the reason, it was clear he was surplus to requirements at the Bernabeu and he ended up decamping to Liverpool.

Back at Dortmund, Sahin’s nose is back in joint.

Like Mourinho, Rodgers is not a man to hide his light under a bushel. Anyone who announces “I am not a magician” wants one of two things from his audience: sympathy or a resounding chorus of “Oh yes you are!” Rodgers clearly hopes for the latter.

Rodgers made the claim this month in drawing attention to his much-vaunted ability to get the best out of his players. There’s a great deal more than mere self-aggrandisement in that statement: he’s rather immodestly put his finger on the main factor in the rise of his reputation. Rodgers is an excellent coach, and certainly does improve players. The performance of his Swansea side is evidence of this: while he built on sound foundations, clearly this was a squad performing above and beyond its pedigree.

Equally, there’s a great deal of validity to his claim that he has made the most of the lot he inherited at Anfield by improving the players at his disposal after the transfer window slammed shut on his fingers as he tried to pull a striker through:

“It is all about the materials….I will be able to improve players – that is my work and I have confidence in that. If I look at the first six months, I believe there has been improvement in a lot of the players.

“I will be able to rinse everything that I possibly can out of them, but the bottom line is about talent. If you don’t initially have that then it can be difficult. That is also why I was brought in here, because we will get talents and we will try to maximise what we can out of players.

“You look at Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and José Enrique since the start of the season and we have added value back to them. Absolutely. That is the job of the manager and the coach, as well as winning games.”

That’s not the full story though. His failure to live up to the billing he has created for himself with Sahin, probably the most promising raw material he had at the club, is genuinely surprising.

Sahin seemed a perfect fit for Rodgers’ philosophy. A busy midfield anchor man, adept at keeping the ball moving and reading the game intelligently. Snatching him from Madrid looked like a coup for a coach able to get the most out of his charges. But it didn’t happen.

Sahin’s pitch time was limited, his arrival in close proximity to a similar player in Joe Allen, who was Rodgers’ protege and most expensive Summer indulgence, baffling.

When Sahin got onto the pitch he showed snatches of his passing range but he tended to be restricted to low profile games, amounting essentially to a match winning performance against WBA in the Capital One Cup and some moderate Europa League performances.

Furthermore, he was often utilised in an attacking midfield position, and told Liverpool’s official website:

“I’ve played my whole career deeper and that’s my position,” said the 24-year-old. “But I have also played as a No.10 here. It was new for me but I tried to help the team and do my best.

“But if I could choose a position it would be holding as I feel more comfortable playing deeper.”

Those comments came in the context of a positive interview on the challenges of adapting to a new league, but soon German paper Sportsbild were claiming darker realities, of betrayal, lies and jealousy.

“Şahin has been betrayed at Liverpool because coach Brendan Rodgers lied to him when he signed, telling him that he would be the club’s number six.

“Steven Gerrard is said to have also been jealous of Sahin, and when they played together, Sahin barely got the ball.”

These sentiments weren’t direct quotes, but before long the article’s claim that he was returning to Dortmund came true.

Some of the comments coming out of the Westfalenstadion following Sahin’s return made you wonder if he was ever going to prosper once he strayed from the nest. Indeed, he seemed reluctant to go to Madrid in the first place, even announcing he was inviting Borussia’s playing and coaching staff plus the general manager to the Classico the following season!

“I am delighted to be back home. My contact with the bosses, the players and the coaching team of Dortmund has never broken down over these last 18 months.”

Perhaps Sahin has been misunderstood by two of the game’s most modern coaches and renowned motivators. Perhaps his injury means he’s not quite the player he was. Perhaps he simply can’t settle down away from home.

And perhaps Borussia, their high energy pressing game draining their thin squad’s resources as they look to compete on two fronts, have pulled off the European transfer coup of the season. I wonder if Klopp will take Sahin with him back to the Bernabeu this Summer!

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.