Reality bites for Real Madrid as they watch La Liga hope slip away | Sid Lowe
Ronald Koeman didn’t intend to speak for both of them and plenty thought he shouldn’t have spoken at all, but as it turned out that’s exactly what he did. It was just after midday on Saturday when the coach said Barcelona “are not in a position to win much” and just before 6pm when Real Madrid showed nor are they.
By the following night, the greatest rivals in sport couldn’t be closer: same points, same wins, same draws, same defeats, same goals conceded. But if a battle is building, it’s not for anything that matters much, and the team they have to catch couldn’t be much further away: Atlético Madrid are 10 points clear. With a game in hand.
“We have to be realistic,” Koeman had said, and realism says: nah. Although his team are improving fast, he admitted he suspected it was too late; if Madrid didn’t yet, they do now. Two glorious goals, the first from José Luis Morales, the second from Roger Martí, carried Levante to a 2-1 win at Valdebebas and left Madrid at their mercy. “On their knees”, as the cover of AS put it; slipping into a “black hole” in the words of El Mundo. The next day Barcelona – crisis-ridden, catastrophic, comedy Barcelona – won their fifth consecutive league game, beating Athletic 2-1 at the Camp Nou to catch them and Atlético took their lead into double figures with a 4-2 win in Cádiz.
In two weeks Madrid have lost the Super Cup, lost the Copa del Rey, defeated by tiny Alcoyano, and now maybe lost the league too. Hay Liga, they love to say: there is league. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling there isn’t much. Atlético – played 20, lost one, 50 points – are on course for a 100-point season; Barcelona and Madrid for 76. No, it needn’t continue this way and weirder things have happened – Arda Turan throwing his boot, Luis Aragonés losing his teeth, Madrid signing Julien Faubert – but it’s a long way off. “On Mars”, El País said. No one has overturned a gap this big to win the league. Not even when Madrid won the most absurdly implausible title of all. And nor is it just the numbers. It’s the relentlessness of the leaders and the unreliability of their pursuers.
There’s no point beating yourself up about it, they say, but at the weekend Éder Militao couldn’t help it. Sent off earlier than any outfield player in the club’s history, he sat in the stands at Valdebebas on Saturday afternoon hitting himself in the head. And yet at least he showed some fight. By the end even the injured Sergio Ramos, sitting a few rows above Militao, his voice carrying round the empty arena almost all afternoon, had fallen quiet. And afterwards when Zinedine Zidane’s assistant coach David Bettoni said “Madrid fans still believe in the team, because its DNA is to fight to the end”, you wondered which game he had just been watching.
Madrid had been down to 10 men from the eighth minute, it was true. “What happened? We got a red card, that’s what: 80-something minutes with a man less is hard,” Thibaut Courtois insisted, which was entirely reasonable but which may not have been reason enough. Militao had originally been given a yellow card, only for VAR to make it red. Casemiro was playing at centre-back. A VAR penalty went against them too, a foul initially given on the edge of the area that was moved inside, unleashing more conspiratorial comment, the refereeing another excuse to push the president’s grand plan for a Super League where Madrid wouldn’t have to face impertinent inferiors such as Levante, Cádiz, Alavés, Elche and Osasuna. It was also true that they had players out: no Ramos, Dani Carvajal, Lucas Vázquez or Fede Valverde. No Martin Ødegaard either, of course. And there was no manager: Zidane was still watching from isolation at home, positive for coronavirus.
But Levante didn’t even score that penalty, brilliantly saved by Courtois. Madrid’s opening goal, made by a ludicrously good Toni Kroos pass, came amid Levante’s protests for a foul at the other end. Levante scored two superb goals. Morales guided an absurdly good shot into the corner, side-footing a curling cross beyond Courtois on the bounce. Martí finished off a five-pass short-corner routine that had “training ground” written all over it: in the location, the execution and the way it was defended. They also had four times as many shots on target as Madrid, twice as many overall. The penalty save was one of six Courtois made. Aitor made one.
And if there was one thing that was really striking about this game, it was that as it headed towards the final whistle there was – well, nothing really. Not from Madrid. No comeback, no epic, no rebellion. Even when Courtois went up in the 94th minute, it felt more mechanical than anything else. Afterwards the goalkeeper moaned that the time added on is worthless, which it is if there’s no real faith in a miracle – one Madrid sought with a forward line of Mariano, Sergio Arribas and Vinícius, while on the bench Andriy Lunin, Diego Altube, Marcelo, Víctor Chust, Isco and Antonio Blanco watched the final moments slip away. The forwards barely saw the ball. No one in white did.
This didn’t feel much like a one-off, Marca insisting: “This is all they’ve got; Madrid can’t give more.” That’s an exaggeration but, rarely rotated, the squad players less engaged, the unity of purpose, seriousness and solidarity that drove them to last year’s title, a target within sight, appears only in extremis and on the big nights.
This was Madrid’s third home defeat of the season, their fourth in the league. Already one more than in the whole of last season, the defeats have come against the teams in ninth, 13th, 14th and 18th. There have been four more across Europe and the cup. And once Paco López’s team led it never really looked like being anything else. As if Madrid, like Koeman, knew. Levante were not clinging on; instead, they seemed in control, easing to the finish, the ball theirs. “It’s hard to take it off them,” Courtois said. “They play well too.”
• One day last week at the training ground, Diego Simeone was talking about how it had been a long time since an Atlético player scored a direct free-kick. Well, Luis Suárez said, I used to take them. Give it a go then, they said. And so on Sunday he did, bending a beautiful shot over the wall to open the scoring against Cádiz. “That’s why we smiled when that went in,” Simeone said. “I used to take one or two at Liverpool. At Barcelona, Leo took them,” Suárez grinned afterwards. It was his first free-kick since 2016. He then got a second, this time from the spot, as Atlético extended their lead at the top to ten points and he went out alone as Pichichi – on fourteen. Not bad for a 34-year-old free transfer.
• El Mundo’s front page was blank until 00.30 on Saturday night and then, with everyone waiting, it landed. Under the headline THE GIGANTIC CONTRACT MESSI HAS WHICH IS LEADING BARCELONA TO RUIN, a torn-out photo of Messi’s eyes, as if stripped from a crime cartoon, and the figure 555,237,619, El Mundo revealed the full details of the deal he signed with Barcelona in 2017. On a basic salary of €61.3m a year, including bonuses and add-ons Messi can make up €138,809,404 a season, El Mundo calculated. In total, even not allowing for potential bonuses this season, he is on course to have made €511,540,545 over the four years of his contract. Probably the most striking payments are the €77,929,955 loyalty bonus and a total of €115,225,000 as a signing-on fee/renewal bonus.
On one level, the story was not massively surprising – it was known that Messi earns over €100m a season – but for the actual 80-page contract to have been revealed was huge, and raises lots of questions. Above all: who leaked it and why? Who gains from this?
Beyond the information itself, it was also notable how it was presented, the tone as much as the text. As one colleague put it: “all that’s missing is the devil’s horns drawn on Messi’s head.” He had Barcelona “on their knees,” El Mundo wrote, the club “selling their honour and mortgaging their future.”. This was the “most damaging poison in the history of sport”; an act of “slavery” in which the club were the slave; he was likened to a vampire, sinking Barcelona into a black hole. That interpretation wasn’t accepted by everyone, though. Not least the use of the word “ruin”. Barcelona defended Messi, which they pretty much had to. So did presidential candidates Víctor Font and Joan Laporta, who also had to. “If it’s someone from within the club [who has leaked this], that’s very bad. If someone has leaked this, they can’t have a future at the club,” Koeman said. “Messi? Ruinous for Barcelona? No, I don’t understand how anyone can say that.”
Others followed suit, focusing on what he generates and what he has won. Almost 40% of the league titles in the club’s entire history, 80% of their European Cups. Meanwhile, huge amounts have been spent on players whose contribution is non-existent. On Sunday night, when Messi scored a brilliant free against Athletic, on Cadena Ser radio, the commentator Lluis Flaquer shouted: “Messi” This guy is ruinous. Goal, goal, goal, goal, goal, goal, goal, goal, goal, goal, goal, goal. You gave Barcelona so much, Leo. You generated so much for Barcelona, Messi. That all we can do is say thanks. 555,237,619 times over. Messi scores. Or as some will say: one more step towards the ruin of the club. Cursed be the moment that Leo arrived at the Camp Nou, savour these goals, in case it’s not long before you’re missing them. This guy is ruinous, Barcelona 1-0!” “Another game in which Messi is worth it,” Marca wrote. “Messi is cheap,” David Sánchez insisted. You want Messi’s numbers? Asked the cover of Argentinian paper Olé, “here you go: 650 (goals), 260 (assists), 755 (games).” The front of Sport ran with: “Messi: priceless.”
“Ruinous?” asked Roberto Palomar, “Ruinous is giving Luis Suárez away to Atlético.”