Beckham hurt by critics in 'difficult year'

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David Beckham has admitted he has failed to live up to expectations over the last year, but is convinced that both he and Real Madrid will bounce back and return to top form in 2005.

"It has been an interesting, but very difficult year," the England captain said yesterday. "I don't think I was able to play the football that I'm capable of and the team isn't playing that well either. Barcelona are 13 points ahead of us and it is going to be difficult to catch them."

But the former Manchester United midfielder believes that if Real can recapture their form they could still pip the Catalans to the league title. "Last season we had an 18-point lead over them and in the end they overtook us and took second place," he said. "If we play to our potential then we can catch them."

Beckham, who was out for six weeks after fracturing ribs during England's World Cup qualifier against Wales in October, said he was still suffering the effects of his lay-off. "I am feeling a lot better, but the ribs still hurt a little," he said. "I'll be training every day over Christmas with my fitness coach and hope in January and February that I'll be back to my best."

Beckham admitted he had been hurt by the criticism of his form, but insisted that he had improved since joining Real 18 months ago. "I think I am a better player than a few years ago, but there are people who are out to criticise me and if I make the tiniest mistake they get at me," he said.

"The problem is that whatever I do seems to be news. If I cut my hair, if I buy a new watch, if I score a goal, if I don't play then people make a story out of it. If the coach leaves me on the bench for one match then they say I'm not good enough to play for Real Madrid."

Beckham, who is 29, also dismissed suggestions that he and several other galacticos were past their best, although he did admit that he did not comprehend why the team had performed so poorly over the past 12 months.

"Sometimes I don't understand what is going wrong because we have the best players in the world. We aren't going to give up, though, and we can still achieve some good things this season."