Beckham makes himself at home

A goal after 126 seconds, a league debut he could barely have dreamed of - the scriptwriters could not have done better
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The Independent Football

Comienza el show. The mixture of Spanish and English on the billboards provided a suitable signature to David Beckham's debut in La Liga for Real Madrid last night. It was indeed show-time, and if the story began as a fairytale, with a goal after just 126 seconds, before turning into a bit of a horror yarn, as Madrid were alarmingly overrun by Real Betis in a cameo of their shortcomings, it had the right ending - a 2-1 win - with Beckham again playing a part.

There was even pantomime - with a streaker. Even he had (painted) Golden-balls. "I did not actually read what was on his, er, what was on him," Beckham said afterwards. "I didn't want to get that close." A rapport with his team-mates was there, however.

The building work around the imposing, vertiginous bowl of the Santiago Bernabeu stadium reveals it is being extended even further towards the skies. Maybe it is because this stellar collection - who try to play as a team - have another galactico in their dazzling ranks. Gods on the pitch to be watched from up in the gods. But as Beckham stepped on to the turf, even his forthcoming sugar-coated autobiography could not have scripted the opening moments.

The goal itself was ordinary enough in its final execution - a side-foot from close in. Only the timing and the creation were not. In dreams, Beckham would have seen Zinedine Zidane turn sublimely and find Ronaldo. Only in his imaginings would Luis Figo's unselfish run have dragged players away from the Brazilian as he strode forward. And only, surely, in those sleeping hours would Beckham have made the yards to reach the low cross that then followed. As he scampered away it was, with typical fortune, that he stopped before the banks of photo-graphers. Motors whirred, flashes flashed and a thousand back pages had their image. It was pure theatre. "This is the happiest I have been for a year and a half," he said afterwards, referring the turbulent end to his Manchester United career. And he looked it. Two home games. Two goals. He feels at home. "I know what my capabilities are and I am confident when I'm on the pitch."

Beckham had been, as expected, restored to the comfort of the right, where he had played to greater effect in the Super Cup in midweek. It meant that Carlos Queiroz had again altered his formation to accommodate the player he worked with as Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant. Figo switched to the left, with Zidane and Esteban Cambiasso at either end of the diamond to complete the stretched midfield. Madrid bent it for Beckham.

They did so again at set-pieces. All were assigned to him. So when, on 13 minutes, Roberto Carlos was shoulder-charged as he burst forward, the Brazilian handed the ball over without a hint of reluctance. Beckham's attempt, despite the crowd's enthusiastic reaction, cleared the crossbar. He was encouraged - and took a little too much from the encouragement.

Instead of holding his position, Beckham drifted. He wanted to join in with Zidane, with Figo. In the centre. The interplay was neat but had nowhere to go because Beckham had strayed. The play started to flow solely down the left, with Figo impressively prominent. Twice Raul squandered headed chances.

Betis, who finished eighth last season and who have profited of late at this stadium, came on. Their new striker, Martin Palmero, struck a free header against the bar, and it acted as an unheeded warning. From a corner minutes later the Argentinian headed home with embarrassing ease, again unmarked.

The goal exposed the glaring hole in the heart of Madrid. The pre-match talk had surrounded the debut of Beckham, shading the Barcelona bow of Ronaldinho. But outside, the Madrileños, many wearing the Englishman's No 23, were more concerned with the departure of Claude Makelele to Chelsea. Many felt Madrid should have met the demands of wage parity. His absence deprived the Lippizaners of the team with a workhorse. They also need defenders who can head the ball. Beckham has always had a good work ethic - though Zidane was quick to admonish him for not tracking back.

Beckham was unfazed. His 30-yard drive at the start of the second half, which thumped back off the bar, would have restored spirits further. Spurred on, he then cut infield to find the inspiring Zidane, whose cross, with customary accuracy, was put away by Ronaldo. If Beckham had been concerned that his role consigned him to the periphery, he need not have worried from that passage of play.

As with the first half, the lead induced a lack of care, and Betis responded. Their play became more physical and, by way of compliment, Beckham was targeted. Yellow cards followed, but the chances were falling to the green shirts. Iker Casillas was exposed time and again, but responded with a fine series of saves. How they rely on him.

The game drifted, but Beckham did not. The departure of Zidane allowed him further responsibility and he darted about, looking fitter than in his previous matches. Queiroz was impressed. "He was good in the first half, scored a goal and was creative and created a lot of chances. In the second half he made the sacrifice for the team." A sacrifice, maybe, but it seems that Beckham - although heading the stars - is also rapidly finding his feet.

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