Beckham out in cold as Real buy Argentine

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The Independent Football

David Beckham will complete his footballing annus horribilis at 9pm tonight in a benefit match in freezing conditions in Atletico Madrid's Vicente Calderon stadium. "The Jesus Gil Memorial" game, played in honour of Atletico's late president, comes 48 hours after what Beckham's manager, Fabio Capello, described as Real Madrid's worst performance of the season.

Capello has rarely been lost for words in his 15 years as one of Europe's top coaches but after Real's 3-0 capitulation against humble Recreativo Huelva, Beckham and his teammates left their beleaguered coach almost speechless.

The few words that he did muster condemned his players after they had slipped five points behind Seville, the leaders of La Liga, with their fifth defeat of a season which Capello had promised would offer up no more than four losses.

"It is inexplicable," he said. "We played without desire, without effort, without quality, we showed nothing. It was as if the match didn't exist. I said to my assistant on the bench, 'What can we do? We need to make a change but who? We can't change all of them.' But one change was not going to be enough."

Capello has a reputation as an Italian Sir Alex Ferguson, a dressing room "hairdryer"', followed by the post-match press-conference defence of his players, but his dumbfounded honesty was striking, and worrying, for Real Madrid fans who had banked on him turning around three years of failure.

Last season Barcelona inflicted a 3-0 defeat on Real Madrid at the Bernabeu but that was against the European champions; this was newly promoted Recreativo with Liverpool's loaned-out forward Florent Sinama-Pongolle as the star of the show.

"Something has happened in the players' heads. None played as we know they can. I am not angry with one single player because everyone played badly and there has to be a reason for that," Capello continued. " I have told the players to watch their weight and happy Christmas," was his bizarre pay-off.

For Beckham, the Christmas break still has not started. While Ruud van Nistelrooy has been sent home, presumably for good behaviour as he has had an excellent season so far, the former England captain will join a sprinkle of fellow first-teamers and various squad players in tonight's friendly. The Brazilians Ronaldo, Robinho and Roberto Carlos have also been dismissed early and will be enjoying the Brazilian summer as Beckham braves the Madrid cold.

Whether the shocking final game of the year affects his personal situation remains to be seen. Beckham, who has lost the England captaincy, his place in the national side and his starting place in Real's first team in the last 12 months, was by no means the worst player on the pitch. But in his pomp at Manchester United and for England, he would have taken the game by the scruff of the neck and never looked like doing that on Wednesday night.

An extension to his contract is still unsigned and from 1 January he can begin talking to other clubs about a free-transfer move in the summer. Madrid could still look to cash in on a player they will lose for nothing at the end of the season.

Ahead of the kick-off to the second half of the season on 7 January, Real are busy planning for the future. They bought the 19-year-old striker Gonzalo Higuain for £9.2m yesterday. But, more significantly for Beckham, that has also meant signing the Argentine midfielder Fernando Gago, 20, from Boca Juniors for £14m, and not sitting down with Beckham to make sure he puts pen to paper before the turn of the year.

* Barcelona were held to a 1-1 home draw last night by Atletico Madrid which leaves them three points behind league leaders Seville. Ronaldinho put Barça in front four minutes before half-time from a free-kick, before Atletico's teenage striker Sergio Aguero equalised on the hour.