Woodgate less than Real deal as Spanish guile rules

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The Independent Football

Eight years in the international reckoning, the splendour of a £13.4m move to Real Madrid and the biblical hairstyle favoured by many a cultured centre-half (though usually of South American descent) should represent the hallmarks of success in any Englishman, but a glance at the details of the Jonathan Woodgate story only broadens appreciation for his unwillingness to close the Bernabeu door once and for all.

Reports last week, emanating from the Spanish capital, that Real have agreed the permanent transfer of the 27-year-old to Middlesbrough for this summer met with a swift, if open-ended, denial from the defender who declared the plan remained unaltered and that all parties would assess his situation at the end of the season. A return to the England fold and a confrontation with the calibre of Spanish opponent he once knew so well will have strengthened his conviction that ambitions should be decided on his own terms.

The Middlesbrough defender has collected just six England caps since making his full debut in 1999, and had his last international appearance ended by his own club manager, Gareth Southgate, who replaced the then Newcastle player against Sweden in 2004. He lasted a further 20 minutes last night, but that was as far as consolation reached.

Some would argue that it was indicative of Woodgate's misfortune to be welcomed back by Steve McClaren for a friendly as bereft of urgency and purpose as this one. His real misfortune was to confront an opponent in David Villa who was as keen to impress potential Premiership suitors as Woodgate was anxious to show Real that he could still have a role to play.

Woodgate made an encouraging start with composure on the ball. But with the Valencia striker a roaming presence, such composure gave way to anxiety. The Boro man was often caught in two minds as to track Villa or hold his place alongside Rio Ferdinand.

With no surging runs into the penalty area from the Spain forwards to display his innate timing or intelligence under threat, Woodgate's chances to shine were restricted. Then, when he did pursue Villa into the corner flag in the 63rd minute, he was left hoping the Real executives had abandoned their televisions as the striker spun from his grasp and delivered the cross that led to Spain's goal. This was not the convincing conclusion for which Woodgate, Real or Middlesbrough had hoped.