Capello is the strong man for a clear-out
By Jason Burt
After the final whistle on Wednesday the sight of Iker Casillas, Real Madrid's best player against Arsenal, vainly waving his team-mates back on to the sodden Highbury turf to applaud their fans spoke volumes. Before kick-off, the sight of Raul executing an extravagant back-heel during an important warm-up drill of keep-ball said almost as much. The striker lost possession. Real had lost their way.
At the self-proclaimed biggest club in the world too many of the players appeared not to care. When asked why he had left the pitch and not acknowledged the supporters, Ronaldo's reply was simple. "Nobody," the bloated Brazilian striker said, "told me to go and do it." But why should they have to? Casillas said the players were "hurting", but maybe not all of them. And maybe not enough.
On the eve of the first leg Ronaldo, the most indulged employee of the most indulgent club, said he was unloved and wanted to leave. His wish will be granted this summer, and Ron-aldo will not be on his own. Zinedine Zidane, another to scurry down the tunnel, is expected to retire, while Roberto Carlos, Ivan Helguera, Michel Salgado, Thomas Gravesen and, of the younger generation, Antonio Cassano are also likely to be discarded. "I don't know if it means the end of the cycle," Ronaldo said. "We are all professionals, the club has people above to dec-ide the future and it's not for us to judge who stays or who goes."
But the judgement is being made. The departure of the president, Florentino Perez, signalled, after six years, the end of the galacticos - which loosely means superstar - policy that had been the gimmick to seal the industrialist's election in the first place. It involved taking Luis Figo from Barcelona, paying his buyout clause, close to £40 million, and then the following year doing the same with Juventus's Zinedine Zidane for £50m, and then 12 months later Ronaldo from Internazionale for £28m, and then David Beckham for £24m. Each player was paid exorbitant wages, no less than £4m a year after tax, but their contracts, initially at least, meant that 50 per cent of future commercial earnings went to the club.
At first it was a virtuous circle - Madridistas loved having the names on their shirts, and the league was won in Figo's first season, the Champions' League in Zidane's. But there was a major problem. So much was tied to off-field activities that they took precedence. Pre-season tours to China were more important than pre-season training, while players had such star status that they were guaranteed their places no matter what form or condition they were in. Steve McManaman called it "the Disneyfication of Madrid".
It certainly turned into a Mickey Mouse organisation, with Perez, having spent £285m in transfer fees but reduced the debt, going through six coaches and four directors of football. One of those, Arrigo Sacchi, railed against Perez's desire to be in charge of everything. The result is the club, three seasons without a trophy, have now hit their biggest crisis for 50 years.
It is understood a summit of Madrid directors was held at the Landmark Hotel in London, where the team were staying, on the eve of the match. They were there to discuss the way ahead, and the name of former coach Fabio Capello, now at Juventus, was high on the agenda. Capello wants the job. He also succeeded Sacchi at Milan during the Nineties and can be the strong man to execute a clear-out.
Crucially, one of Capello's demands is, like Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, to be the highest-paid employee. The Italian believes it sends out the right message. Also, on the flight back to Madrid, another name was mentioned. That of Milan's coach, Carlo Ancelotti, who is likely to leave at the season's end. His side had just demolished Bayern Munich 4-1. It is clear to see the way Real believe they can be revived with Rafael Benitez, a third candidate, a similarly strong leader.
Perez did not want such a change. His anointed successor, Fernando Martin, does, and may have to do so to hold on to the post. "I know what the problems are and I know how to solve them," Martin said, and it was clear from his initial address that the main problem is the galacticos. He demanded 24-hour dedication and physical perfection, and said that the players would be scrutinised off the pitch as well as on it.
It is a populist move. One banner at the Bernabeu last weekend was directed at Perez and read simply: "President, it wasn't your fault. Out with the mercenaries!" While Raul, who has never seen eye to eye with Ronaldo, and who also may not survive the cull, said that the term "galacticos... has caused the club more damage over the last few years than anything else. I hope this word will go away now." To do that the players, too, have to leave. That revolution is about to begin.
Gerrard stirs up the Owen debate again
By James Corrigan
As if Rafael Benitez's striking headache has not been intense enough this last few days - what with Europe gone and a trip to Arsenal awaiting today - then Steven Gerrard is set to tighten the vice on that well-itched cran-ium still further with his deter-mination to reopen the great Michael Owen debate. "We need him," stated Gerrard quite explic-itly late on Wednesday night, and in the gloom of everything that had just gone before it was mighty hard to disagree.
Except the captain appreciates that Benitez might not necessarily agree Owen is the solution to the goal drought that elicited such a dry end to their defence of the European Cup. "I can see the headlines now - 'Gerrard wants Owen back'," he sighed. "However, it's not my decision and I don't know if Rafa wants him back or not. All I can say is that, yes, I would love to see Michael Owen in a red shirt again. But then, I'm biased - he's one of my best mates, he's an England colleague and I'm still in touch with him."
Indeed, Gerrard is known to have been "in touch" with his fellow Anfield trainee on almost a daily basis during the last close-season, and it wasn't just to chew the fat. Privately the Liverpool captain was exasperated when his club allowed his friend to move to Newcastle, and obviously the bafflement has not decreased. "Michael is a great player and scores goals, so who wouldn't want him in the team?" he asked. "Is he the missing piece in this team? Well, someone along the lines of Michael, yes."
Gerrard is fully aware of the clause in Owen's four-year contract that says he can leave St James' at the end of the first year. And if all this sounded as if he is not entirely convinced with the marksmen missing marks left, right and centre in front of him, then it hardly needed to; his body language against Benfica had already done that. If the hands he threw to the head signified some understanding for Peter Crouch, when he did every-thing but finish off one fine inter-change, then the shrug he gave Fernando Morientes, as the Spaniard failed to latch on to one of his many through-balls, palpably didn't. If ever an uplift of the shoulders can say, "Hey, our Michael would have got there," then this was it.
Off the pitch, his criticisms were not so pointed, although he still refuses to spare any team-mates' feelings in his hopes for the next transfer dealings. "It's quite clear how and where this side needs to improve," he said. "There are still some pieces of the jigsaw missing and I think the manager knows where we need to strengthen. Some of our results of late have not been good enough because we are not finishing. We are keeping the ball well, not conceding many, and now we need to start scoring."
Whether Gerrard expects that little U-turn to begin in the cramped environs of north London today... well, he wasn't as cruel as to be so expectant. Which was more than you can say for Benitez. Endearing loyalty brings its own pressures, and despite rumours of Valencia's La Liga top scorer, David Villa, being lined up, the manager still has faith that his front two can deliver. "I'm sure they can and will," he insisted. But who exactly is his "front two"?
We should soon learn, as Benitez confessed that "with fewer games to play, rotation is now not so important" and any forward partnership might well get a protracted run. Crouch looks certain to command one spot, while a local newspaper poll yesterday screamed that less than one per cent of supporters fancy Morientes in the other.
Whatever he decides - and the wise money hints at Robbie Fowler being given the chance to present his case for a long-term contract - Benitez will be looking for that precious commodity called "character" as much as the priceless one of goals. "I need to see my forwards ready: if you don't put your head up it's a problem, but if you put your head up and try to improve then it isn't," he said. "And they can all start afresh from here. The rest of this season is a mini-League. We have 10 games left and must do as well as possible to ensure that we end in the top four and challenge for the second placing that will give us the automatic spot to next season's Champions' League."
It would be some finish to achieve the latter, and it would take some finishing from Morientes, Fowler and Djibril Cissé to convince that a fresh pair of shooter's boots will not be necessary come next August. At least Benitez's assurances about his own future have cooled fears about him being absent when the next European odyssey begins. Not that all the fans were ever unduly worried.
"When all that speculation was flying around about me last year, Rafa told me he wanted me to be here for the next 10 years," said Gerrard. "So don't worry, he's not going anywhere." In contrast, he is praying his pal Michael might just be.