Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Footy Finales: Keeping it Real

It started off as the best of years for Real Madrid; it ended as one of the worst.

The biggest soccer story last fall was the resurgence of the "Galacticos" era at Real Madrid where once and future president Florentino Perez spent a record $250 million dollars at the start of the 2009-2010 season to sign international superstars Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United ($80 million), Kaka from A.C. Milan ($65 million), Karim Benzema from Lyon ($35 million), Xabi Alonso from Liverpool ($30 million) - and countless "lesser" millionaires - in a vain attempt to overtake bitter rivals Barcelona, who were coming off their 2008-2009 treble-winning year (on on their way to winning a record six titles over the course of 2009-2010). With a lineup like this, surely Real Madrid would regain its domestic league title and achieve glory as well in the Champions League - whose 2010 final was to be played in Madrid's home, El Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.

But those plans went horribly awry...While all those pre-season moves pointed towards a "can't lose" season, Madrid, in fact, lost everything. They didn't win the league title ('twas Barca again - with a record 99 points); they got booted out of the Champions League; and they were eliminated in the Spanish Primera Liga's consolation trophy event, the Copa del Rey. Oh, and to add salt to their wounds, they lost both of their "superclassico" matches this year against arch-rivals Barcelona. Those are their accomplishments as a team.

Individually, Cristiano Ronaldo played in the shadow of Lionel Messi all season, as it was Messi's who was named FIFA Player of the Year and won La Liga's "Golden Boot" scoring title; his 34 goals tied the Barcelona single-season scoring record set by the other (Brazilian) "Ronaldo" during the 1996-1997 season (before he defected to...Real Madrid!). Kaka was injured and had a sub-par season by his standards. Benzema showed flourishes of quality but had trouble breaking into the starting line-up and became increasingly frustrated with his playing time; he looks likely to move on as a result. And the best player on the Madrid team turned out to be a low-cost player they already had: Gonzalo Higuain. All Gonzo did this year was score 29 goals (27 in the Spanish league) - his second straight year leading the Madristas in scoring, a period in which he's scored 53 goals and 15 assists for Los Merengues. And though he's signed through 2013, he's clearly not happy with his salary and looks to be on the market (a current rumor has Real offering him to Chelsea for $50 million). Last but not least, the man ultimately charged with insuring that everyone not only got along but won some silver along the way, coach Manuel Pelligrini, will almost certainly be let go at the end of the season. Rumor has it that Jose Mourinho may be the next in line. (And already Rafa Benitez has started carping about Mourinho's qualifications - like Rafa has any room to talk after Liverpool's dismal 2009-2010 season in which the Reds let Spurs take their spot in the English Premiere Leagues's "Big Four"!)

But it was a great year for the English, Italian, and Spanish domestic football leagues as the races for the regular season crown went down to the final weekend: Chelsea edging Manchester United by a single point, Inter Milan likewise holding off Roma by a point, and Barcelona finally pulling 3 points clear of Real Madrid after Los Blancos drew in their last game at Malaga 1-1 while the Catalans trounced Vallodalid 4-0. And, you could make the argument that every one of these results was effected by Real Madrid.

Without Cristiano Ronaldo around, Man U.'s Wayne Rooney re-emerged as the superstar striker he is (and a goal machine who chased the Golden Boot up until the final game), but while Antonio Valencia filled Ronaldo's big boots admirably, Man U. sorely missed having a "game-changer" of Ronaldo's brilliance on free kicks and inside the penalty box. It was just enough of an opening to allow Chelsea to top the table.

Over in Italy's Serie A there was never any question about Inter Milan winning its fifth consecutive Scudetto (especially with an aging, injury-prone, poorly coached, and Kaka-less side at A.C. Milan), but there were questions about whether Jose Mourinho could deliver Champions League glory to them. Well, Internazionale Milano's in the final at the Bernabeu, where the Nerazzurri will meet a resurgent Bayern Munich squad. This match-up is a clear and direct result of the "Dutch Clearinghouse Effect" at Real Madrid.

First, injury forced out striker Ruud Van Nistolroy, then the bloated payroll and addition of Ronaldo and Kaka made winger Arjen Robben and playmaking midfielder Wesley Sneijder expendable. The cast-off Sneijder went to Inter Milan, where his creativity in the midfield playing just behind strikers Milito and E'to helped Inter secure its fifth consecutive Serie A league title and a place in the Champions League Final against Bayern Munich. Of course, Bayern already boasted one superstar winger in Franck Ribbery, but then thanks to Real Madrid's Galacticos surplus, was able to add Robben to the other wing. Germany's title race may not have gone down to the wire, but Bayern Munich's 22nd Bundelisga title was certainly helped by Robben's presence (especially when Riberry was injured or suspended). Of course, Robben's pace and goal-scoring ability was even more crucial to their Champions League campaign. Who's laughing now, Madristas? I'd say Sneijder and Robben, about to play in the final at their old Bernabeu stomping grounds, should be laughing like hyenas!


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