Beckham's urgency unable to rekindle Madrid's fading fire

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The Independent Online

They are in rapid decline, a garish relic of excess and indulgence, but at least they were given the opportunity to appear together on a glorious European night for what will be the last time.

The galacticos system is being ended, its architect Florentino Perez having already departed, but last night the appointed stars of Real Madrid who have profited, and latterly been pilloried, were given a collective shot at redemption. They failed it.

All were deployed. In defence Roberto Carlos, who had a silly evening, and Michel Salgado. In midfield David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane. In attack, surprisingly, were both Raul and Ronaldo - a striking combination which, through injury and loss of form, has been denied to Real for some time and which many believed had, in turn, served its time.

It was also a line-up with an average age hovering above the thirties and with just eight players accounting for wages of £50m a year; a line-up of players past their wonderful peaks or, in the case of Beckham, just about facing up to that realisation.

For the England captain it was also his first club game back in England since his move to Madrid three years ago. Given the circumstances of that departure from Manchester United, Beckham was acutely aware of what it meant.

"I always wanted to play in my country in the shirt of Madrid and to show that I could do it," he told the Spanish press yesterday. "The moment has arrived. It's the most important game of my Madrid career."

With Real trailing Barcelona by 10 points, already out of the Spanish Cup and not having won a trophy since the league title celebrations which coincided with Beckham's signing, it was also acutely significant for his team-mates as well.

On the bench were the cadre of young players - including two, in Robinho and Julio Baptista, previously coveted by Arsène Wenger - some of whom may replace the ageing stars.

What, indeed, did Antonio Cassano - a goalscorer at the weekend - think when twice inside the opening 15 minutes Ronaldo wasted opportunities? A weak header was easily saved and then the Brazilian was given the chance to accelerate away and open the scoring - but was easily caught by Gilberto and dispossessed. He looked what he is: a brilliant player hopelessly out of condition, playing from a memory that appeared a little muddled. And blowing hard.

Against this was the pace and incision and youthful vigour of Arsenal. When they attacked the ball was moved ever quicker while Real depended on the slowing reactions, if still mesmeric qualities, of Zidane. Twice Beckham picked out perfect, sharp cross-field passes to the great Frenchman. Twice he was not able to get there.

Beckham's response to each moment was to lower his head in contemplation. When in possession Beckham showed far greater urgency than his colleagues and it was his free-kick in the first half, after Roberto Carlos had ridiculously cannoned a previous effort into the wall, that forced Jens Lehmann in the Arsenal goal into his first moment of alarm.

That alarm was even greater as Beckham almost embarrassed the goalkeeper with another free-kick before the ball landed on the roof of the net. But Beckham fuelled hope. His header found the otherwise anonymous Raul - a husk of the player that he was - and a first-time shot struck a post.

It sowed doubts for Arsenal's young players, but they rallied to find the belief to consign the galacticos to history.