Spanish Inquisition: The Rise & Fall Of The Real Madrid Rejects

Juande Ramos gave some of his fringe men their chance against Malaga and they proved why many have been wrong to write them off, believes's Sulmaan Ahmad...
The FIFA Virus swept through the Santiago Bernabeu over the past week to fairly devastating effect and so, after another international break - when Real Madrid have traditionally been so strong and Barcelona often feebly falling short of collecting three points - a role reversal was on the cards.

This, like the Athletic Bilbao game three weeks ago, was another occasion on which it would have been so easy and almost expected for los Blancos to be bundled out of the title race once and for all. That's just the way things go: you will drop points against teams weaker than you on paper over the course of any given season. Particularly on the road, after a break, with a spate of injuries and up against a side that has been punching way above its weight for almost the entire season

Apparently Juande Ramos never got that message. Here is a man that certainly knows how to wrap up the three points, a virtue perhaps too often overlooked in some quarters - particularly considering the circumstances in which he took charge, or more particularly, the record-breaking, history-making, once-in-a-lifetime form of Barcelona in the first half of the season.

One of the keys to Juande's unspectacularly spectacular second-place success has been continuity, which was compromised in the Champions League against Liverpool - that being Ramos' only unmitigated failure as Madrid coach to date - due to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar's ineligibility.

Also lacking against Liverpool was creativity which, to the Reds' credit, they have been known for stifling as well as anyone under Rafael Benitez; but the Merengues' lack of a Plan B was startling and had the make-up of a mediocre, mid-table outfit. Florentino Perez will not have been too pleased.

The significance of the win against Malaga came in the fact that not only was the continuity heavily compromised, but so was the formation and philosophy of the team. In the build-up to the game, Juande made mention of giving a chance to the 'complainers' who have found themselves on the fringes of the squad since the turn of the year, due in no small part to the injured Fabio Cannavaro, Lassana Diarra, Marcelo and Arjen Robben, suspended Gabriel Heinze and the terminally exhausted Fernando Gago - though he was reluctantly started anyway, for lack of any other proven alternatives.

In came the perpetually ignored Miguel Torres and Rafael van der Vaart, as well as the more recently rejected Gonzalo Higuain. What these three men have in common is that they found themselves out of favour without having done anything wrong.

Torres has been nothing but reliable every time he has played for the club. As a cantera product, he has had no problem biding his time and waiting in the wings, but as Heinze continues to make no use of the football whatsoever when in possession and not even managing to remain unbreakable at the back as if to in some way compensate, what Torres must do to get a regular run in the team remains a mystery.

He came up against quite possibly the fastest player in the Primera Division in Eliseu, and if there's one thing Torres himself is not, it's fast. And yet, he ensured his lack of legs never cost him against the pacey Portuguese, always positioning himself well to make a series of good strong, ball-winning challenges early on that, to an extent, put his opponent off his game and limited his impact.

Predrag Mijatovic must answer for making a pawn of Rafa van der Vaart when he signed him as his Cristiano Ronaldo fail-safe contingency plan this summer. This was not a man needed in Madrid's squad and only added to their imbalance, so not even a sensational start to the season could keep him in the side when his compatriot and fellow attacking midfielder, Wesley Sneijder, returned from injury.

Van der Vaart has since been widely regarded as flop through little fault of his own. When he has played, he has looked like the classy player we know him to be. He has not been given so much as three games in a row since November and so it is no wonder he hasn't regained top form.

His uncle certainly shares this concern. "If they played more, Rafael and Sneijder could be the Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta of Madrid, but Ramos prefers defensive players like Diarra and Gago, that do not have skill," he said last week. Van der Vaart will leave if he is not afforded regular first team football by the end of the season, or so is the word out of the family.

While comparing the Dutch duo to the Barca boys may be a bit of an optimistic stretch, they're not far off. Conceivably, they could be played in tandem but would remove a degree of Madrid's wide threat, a hit that certainly doesn't seem worth taking. They cannot afford to try and replicate Barcelona, and instead must play to their own strengths.

That is what Juande has done and must continue to do. Van der Vaart outplayed Sneijder against Malaga and the team selection for the visit of Real Valladolid this coming weekend should reflect that.

And then there is Raul. Juande reinvented the captain as a mediapunto to fairly prolific effect, but that was a system that only worked with wide men in the picture. Against Malaga, there were none, and Raul was as good as useless. Higuain, meanwhile, returned to the fold to steal the show with a sublime goal, several good chances, no particularly glaring misses and ample wide threat.

Meanwhile, Huntelaar may not have been anything too special, but his goal-scoring form has been better than that of Raul's and thus if one man has to make way for 'Pipita' at this stage, it should be the captain. The most likely outcome remains that all three, plus a returning Robben, will take the field at the Bernabeu against Valladolid. Hopefully, if the form book is adhered to, with Lass and Van der Vaart pairing up in midfield.

Also worth a mention is Christoph Metzelder, who appears to have put his disaster days behind him and has returned to his disciplined ways of old. Both he and Fabio Cannavaro have shown enough to suggest they're not quite as 'past it' as many would believe. It would probably be good for either one of the two of them to move on this summer, but the other could just as easily enjoy a fulfilling time of things by staying in Spain's capital, even if not as a predetermined starter.

Even Javi Garcia, already surely consigned to a summer exit due to his sheer superfluousness at the club, put in a decent shift off the bench and Royston Drenthe, back from his abuse-induced exile, looked as thoroughly up for the challenge as ever and potentially back in the saddle at the Bernabeu, though still most likely in need of a loan spell next season.

Having said all that, Madrid's performance was nothing more than satisfactory, but what proved deceptively impressive was the ease with which the fringe men went about their business and, in some cases, showed the aptitude to grow into their roles in the mid- to long-term at the club.

The record-breaking 5-0 aggregate loss to Liverpool had everybody, perhaps with more than a degree of justification, hitting the panic button at the 'White House', but this team isn't as ordinary as all that. Yes, summer shopping may well require two or three proven, world class acquisitions, but there are players such as Torres and Van der Vaart who are more than capable yet have found themselves fading into obscurity. Ramos gave them their chance and they took it, now he has to stay good to his word and his principles and start them again in just under a week's time to see if they can play their part in what's to come from next season and beyond.

Because while this season may not be over, it is now as much about what Florentino wants and doesn't want this summer as it is playing for a six-point deficit in La Liga. One thing should be for sure, and that is that nothing is decided yet.

Sulmaan Ahmad,