The Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez, had a funereal look on his face as he watched his side slump to defeat against an infinitely superior Athletic Bilbao. With every game that passes the evidence is mounting that Real are not just suffering from a mere temporary loss of form, but are a team in terminal decline.
Real were outclassed on Saturday by a team who had not won any of their first four league games. Except for a five-minute period at the start of the second half, Bilbao completely dominated the match.
On the face of things, three wins and two defeats may not appear to be such a bad start to the season, but the statistics make deeply worrying reading for Perez. For all the talk of their attacking resources Real have one of the worst attacking records in the league, scoring just four goals in five games, while two of their victories have come from free-kicks courtesy of David Beckham. They failed to earn a single corner on Saturday, and even with their new signing Walter Samuel their defence looked flimsy.
Worse still, their new coach Mariano Garcia Remon, the man who replaced Jose Antonio Camacho last week, was found wanting, too. The former Real goalkeeper decided to rest Roberto Carlos for the game, the first time the left-back had been left out of the starting line-up for a reason other than injury since joining the club from Internazionale eight years ago. The gamble backfired as Raul Bravo looked completely out of his depth, and the Brazilian had to resume his usual position after the damage had been done.
The game pitted two different visions of football against each other. On the one hand, Real's galacticos . On the other Bilbao, a team who only select players with Basque heritage, who were founded in the industrial heartland of Spain with the help of British workers at the end of the 19th century and who are one of two sides in the country not to carry advertising on their shirts - in short, a club that seems to belong to a forgotten era.
It was Bilbao, though, who gave a demonstration of incisive, thoughtful and entertaining football that left Ronaldo, Beckham, Figo and co looking like apprentices.
Real survived an early scare when their goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, made a brave save to prevent the burly centre-forward Ismael Urzaiz connecting with a cross from Andoni Iraola, but they went behind five minutes later. This time Urzaiz pulled away from Bravo to give himself time to control a marvellous cross from Asier del Horno. He brought the ball down with his right foot and hammered home with his left.
Without the injured Zinedine Zidane, Real were rudderless in midfield, while Beckham and Albert Celades were simply unable to stem the tide of Bilbao attacks.
Beckham, who had scored an exquisite free-kick to give Real a 1-0 win over Osasuna in midweek, had a dreadful game and it was no surprise when he was replaced on the hour.
"I took Beckham off because he was tired," said Garcia Remon. "He had made a huge effort on Tuesday and I saw that he needed to be changed, but I don't have any complaints about his play." Beckham's tiredness, put down to a viral infection, means he may miss Real's Champions' League match against Roma on Tuesday.
Unsurprisingly Bilbao extended their lead at the end of the half, when the midfielder Santi Ezquerro got in front of Bravo to head home another cross from Del Horno. Real rallied at the start of the second half when Raul pulled a goal back, curling a shot from the edge of the box after a neat back-heel assist from Guti.
It was the Real captain's first league goal since he scored two at the same ground six months ago. In past seasons the goal would have been the preface to a famous comeback, but Real are no longer capable of such heroic exploits.
Goals: Urzaiz (11) 1-0; Ezquerro (44) 2-0; Raul (45) 2-1.
Athletic Bilbao (4-2-3-1): Aranzubia; Iraola, Prieto, Murillo, Del Horno; Gurpegi, Orbaiz; Ezquerro (Garcia, 69), Yeste (Arriaga, 84), Etxeberria (Casas, 90); Urzaiz.
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Casillas; Salgado, Samuel, Helguera, Bravo (Roberto Carlos, 60); Beckham (Morientes, 60), Celades; Figo, Guti, Raul; Ronaldo.
Referee: F Borbalan (Andalucia).
Man of the match: Del Horno.
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