Sport Soccer

Saturday 18 November 2017

Stuttering Spanish giants

La Liga big two bid to improve in Europe after shaky start

Pete Jensen

Harry Redknapp, on the eve of his Champions League debut, has already said it; this summer's spending figures agree; and a quick run-down of where the players who won the World Cup will be playing this season backs it up.

If the draw allows, Real Madrid and Barcelona could well be walking out at Wembley on May 28 for their very own 'London-clasico' European Cup final.

But despite the fact that only Manchester City spent more this summer, and that 10 of the 11 who started for Spain in the World Cup final are Madrid or Barcelona players, there are those in Spain who might quibble with Redknapp's assertion that the "two Spanish teams look fantastic".

Real Madrid's laboured 1-0 win over Osasuna and Barcelona's shocking capitulation against newly-promoted Hercules has rung alarm bells at both clubs ahead of this week's group openers against Ajax and Panathinaikos, respectively.

Pep Guardiola, Barca's urbane manager, will be hoping that the Greeks arrive at the Nou Camp tonight bearing their usual gifts -- they have yet to win in a dozen visits to Spain.

Jose Mourinho -- Guardiola's counterpart at the Bernabeu, already has one record to his name at his new club -- but it is not one to savour.

Never before in their long, and largely illustrious, footballing history have Madrid made it to half-time of their second game of the season without having scored.

The team were duly whistled off at half-time against Osasuna and in the face of damning statistics (109 misplaced passes) there was an unusual look to the next day's training session.

The 11 starters from last Saturday took their place on the training pitch at Valdebebas and with Mourinho calling out their names, passes were pinged from one to another with the pace and precision that had been missing 24 hours earlier.

Club captain Iker Casillas has already asked for more support from the Bernabeu and yesterday Cristiano Ronaldo made a similar appeal.

"Sometimes instead of waiting for us to lift them, the fans need to be the ones to lift us," said the former Manchester United man.

Rousing your side is a philosophy better understood in England rather than Spain and Martin Jol's Ajax will strive to keep Madrid at bay for as long as possible tomorrow and hope the impatience of the home supporters kicks in and gets to the players.

Mourinho has made much of his team's defensive stability in their opening two games but critics have suggested that clean sheets against mediocre forward-lines deserve little merit.

Whether Ajax will carry a greater threat remains to be seen, but their cause will not be helped by the suspension of Luis Suarez, such a bright figure for Uruguay at the World Cup.

The striker scored 34 goals in 35 games in the league for Ajax last season and has 80 to his name in 100 matches. The two bookings he picked up as Ajax scraped through their Champions League qualifiers make him an important absentee.

Misses

The visitors are also missing defensive stalwart Jan Vertonghen -- good news for Gonzalo Higuain and Ronaldo, who are both due goals after multiple misses so far this season.

"Are you calm ahead of the Champions League kick-off?" Mourinho was asked. "No I'm not" came the reply. "This is the Champions League and we face a team who are already well into their season and who have already played four fixtures in this competition."

One Dutchman has come out in support of Mourinho. To some surprise, Johan Cruyff has offered his backing to Mourinho, who once said that if he wanted advice on how to lose a European Cup final 4-0 he would ask Cruyff.

Cruyff said: "They have a new coach and a lot of new players and they will need another year. Mourinho is in the organisation phase right now and that is the way it will be, not just for two or three games more but for two or three months more."

The mastermind of Barcelona's first ever European Cup win at Wembley in 1992 against Sampdoria has also spoken of Barca's blip at the weekend.

"Too many things have happened off the pitch this summer," he says, "and sooner or later it is bound to have an effect. If the game at the weekend was just an accident then good, but it could be a difficult start."

Unlike Madrid, who are in with Auxerre, France's third strongest side last season, plus an AC Milan team boosted by the signings of Zlaten Ibrahimovic and Robinho, who will both have points to prove at the Bernabeu, Barcelona should have a smoother ride in Group D.

Tonight's opponents, Panathinaikos, are most likely to be scrapping with FC Copenhagen and Rubin Kazan for second place, but the trip to Russia will take yet more out of players who have spent the last three months flying to and from South Africa, Mexico and Argentina and winning and then celebrating the World Cup.

Guardiola's concerns over his tired star players was evident when he rested five of them last Saturday and the limitations of the replacements were also there for all to see. Tonight Xavi, Carles Puyol, Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets and Pedro are all set to return.

In an attempt to bring some cohesion to his side, Mourinho is likely to name an unchanged XI for the visit of Ajax.

"I will not rest until we have won the club's 10th European Cup" said Real Madrid's president Florentino Perez at the weekend. He also called the man he has entrusted with delivering it, "the best coach in the world".

Mourinho is fond of London and that's precisely where he wants to be next May, while Barcelona trace so many of their recent triumphs back to that Ronald Koeman piledriver in the famous old stadium 18 years ago.

"I hope we can be at Wembley but there is a long road ahead before we can contemplate that," said Andres Iniesta last night.

"I know we can't live on the last six trophies that we have won," added Guardiola, "but the players know that too. They don't need to be told."

Asked if he was already thinking about Wembley, where he won the European Cup as a player he replied like a man who -- along with Mourinho -- knows a chaotic summer has not been the best way to prepare for the season.

"No," he said. "I just want to be in the last 16 come February." (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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