Football: Real hurt for the history men

Steve Tongue fears glory in Europe may not be enough to save the Madrid coach
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The Independent Online
IF winning the European Cup again has become an obsession for Manchester United, it is not difficult to comprehend how much it means to Real Madrid.

Remarkably, the club who made the trophy their private property in its first five years of existence, have subsequently been champions of Europe only in 1966, and have therefore had to endure an even longer wait than the 30 years of hurt that Alex Ferguson was desperately hoping to end this season.

Despite the bonds between the two clubs, first forged when Real handed out a lesson to Sir Matt Busby's Babes in the 1957 semi-final, there was delight in Madrid at United's elimination by Monaco. They would be even happier for the French champions to surprise Juventus in this week's semi- finals as well, assuming they can themselves overcome the holders, Borussia Dortmund, who visit the Bernabeu Stadium on Wednesday.

For three decades, Real Madrid players, like United's, have had to bear the cross of comparison with their predecessors, who from their first European Cup match, in September 1955, won 15 successive two-leg ties and the competition's first five finals. Alfredo Di Stefano, considered by many to be a better all-round footballer than Pele, missed only two of the 37 matches and scored 36 goals, including the hat-trick to complement Ferenc Puskas's four in the 1960 final at Hampden.

A crowd of 127,621 mesmerised Glaswegians - and 11 mesmerised Germans representing Eintracht Frankfurt - could not know that they were witnessing the end of an era unlikely ever to be matched. In the semi-final, Real had twice beaten fellow-countrymen and eternal rivals Barcelona, who finally extracted revenge the following November, winning 4-3 on aggregate as the English referee Reg Leafe disallowed three "goals" by Real in the second leg.

Di Stefano, Puskas and Francisco Gento, the flying winger, all played in losing finals over the next three seasons against Benfica (3-5) and Inter (1-3), but only Gento survived for the 1966 victory over Partizan Belgrade. Since then, nothing more than defeat by Alan Kennedy's penalty for Liverpool in 1981.

The present team can, in the opinion of Barcelona's Bobby Robson "be the best in the world on their day". That is a generous estimation from a man whose own club lead them in the Spanish League by seven points with a game in hand, after administering a 3-0 drubbing recently in the Nou Camp that effectively decided the championship. The words "on their day" are the crucial ones.

As Guillem Balague, Sky Sports' Spanish football analyst, puts it: "Real have been very inconsistent. For the last three months, there have been problems with the coach, Heynckes, plus injuries to key players like Mijatovic. The other strikers, Raul and Davor Suker, have been below-form. So put those altogether and the 3-0 defeat by Barcelona was not a surprise."

Jupp Heynckes, a European Cup stalwart who played against Liverpool for Borussia Moenchengladbach in the 1977 final, now finds himself in the extraordinary position of knowing that even winning the Cup may not prevent his contract being terminated one year after succeeding Fabio Capello. He was being booed while the team were still top in January, having won their Champions League group at the same time as Barcelona were finishing bottom of theirs.

Losing the League leadership to Barca immediately after being knocked out of the Spanish Cup by second division club Alaves led to a further deterioration in Heynckes' relationship with the supporters, players and, critically, the president Lorenzo Sanz. In the best tradition of Spanish club presidents, Sanz regularly offers the media his opinions on team selection and tactics and has let it be known that his son Fernando should be considered for the games against Dortmund, even though Heynckes has hardly picked him all season.

Balague says: "Sanz has been offering the job to other coaches for at least five months. He now has a list of three: Lippi of Juventus, Zaccheroni of Udinese and Camacho of Espanol. Heynckes has lost his authority in the dressing-room. But what everyone is asking is what will happen if he now wins the European Cup, which the club has been dreaming of for so long."

Despite all the politicking, there is still an air of confidence about the Dortmund tie. If Real's players have written off the Spanish championship - and probably the coach as well - they are still prepared to play for a place in history.