Friday, 5 April 2013

Football is so Real in Madrid.

Galatasary know how to party
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O Lord, may I always feel the enthusiasm for a new footballing experience, however many games and grounds I go to.

I have been pre and post-Taylor in the Premier League and Division 1, seen iconic moments in a World Cup Final, Champions League and European Championship Finals, but my trip to the Bernabeu for the Champions League quarter-final between Real and Galatasaray shows me there is still more to experience.

Procuring a ticket from a hotel concierge the evening before (at near face value) is a lottery. Where would I end up in the ground? how many flights of stairs would I have to climb in this tower of power?

So imagine my pleasure when ´Fila 001´ meant ´Row 1´. Contra to my fears, I climbed downwards, not upwards - to the front row in the rather amusingly called ´Vomitorio´ seats.
Real fans at the other end. Loud and proud

I settled myself in front of the snappers and unsmiling stewards facing away pitchside and pondered, why on earth they´d want such a joyless job outnumbered by such passion?

And another thing: while Arsenal and Wembley and doubtless others proudly, corporately proclaim they´re non-smoking stadia, there´s none of that bullshit here. It´s outside.. so smoke! Even some of the stewards took a sly drag.

I actually own these images! Cool!
Arriving 45 minutes to kickoff, I was metres away from the huddle of Madrid superstars warming up, sprinting, stretching and taking shots at the keeper. Watching Cristiano Ronaldo sprint from a standing start is to watch an athlete with few peers.

To have a job where you´re required to be as agile as you can be, already bestowed with God given talents must be uplifting.

The game promised everything. Fatih Terim, the Galatasaray boss urged his players to leave the Bernabeu with at least a fighting chance of winning the tie at the famously hellish cauldron of Istanbul.

And why not show that ambition? For this was undoubtedly the highest quality, most international team ever to have emerged from Istanbul. Signing Sneijder was a coup, Drogba, a reigning and matchwinning European Champion leading the line with homegrown joint-topscorer Yilmaz. Gala could dare to dream.

But then there was Real. They may be about to relinquish the league title in a lacklustre domestic campaign infuriating Jose Mourinho, but in the Champions League, there´s little doubt they´re potential winners.

Cristiano is twice the player he was leaving Fergie´s tutelage at United. Watching him perform at this exceptionally high level week-in week-out is to marvel at his fitness, consistency and bravery.

But Real have an abundance of talent and don't need Ronaldo as the focal point in the final third. There's goals throughout the team and even on the bench.

Unfortunately for Gala, Real´s opener came too early to catch their breath. Ronaldo´s exquisite left-footed chip over the advancing keeper from Ozil´s pass put them ahead.

His muted "calm down" celebration says everything about his state of mind at 28. Watching Cristiano at the Bernabeu is to watch a man in control of himself. A mature leader and goalscorer.

The papers can talk all they want. He´s not leaving even if Jose is. His career at Real is slowly etching itself into the club´s illustrious Hall Of Fame. Winning the big one would certainly escalate him to Di Stefano, Puskas and Zidane sainthood.

2-0 Benzema must have been morale-crushing for the Turks. The cross was too high for Ronnie, but spare man Karim rustled it home at the far stick.

And any lingering hopes the tie could be salvaged back in Istanbul were extinguished by the third from sub Higuain from another routinely accurate free-kick by Xabi Alonso.

Alonso's setpieces are guided missiles: his free kicks win games. He's rested in lesser La Liga as a persistent groin injury blights the autumn of his career. No matter. He's exceptional.

And Essien may no longer be world-class since his layoff woes but venturing forward, reading the game and always looking for the probing pass still marks him out. He was Chelsea´s lynchpin in the Mourinho years and he´s still a top player.

Galatasaray can point to a terrible refereeing blunder which if the man in the middle had called it right, may have wrought them a priceless away goal.

Instead, Yilmaz ended in the book for diving when actually he´d been stamped on in the penalty area by Ramos. Harsh treatment indeed but few would argue with the result as Galatasaray lacked Madrid's mobility.

I was so moved by the professionalism and intensity of Madrid's play and Galatasaray's persistent attempt at shape despite adversity that the Champions League without English clubs now is a better competition for it.
Despite running away with the Premier League, Manchester United are at best the ninth team in Europe and in my opinion, Galatasaray would have had enough to beat them here.

We have a Little Englander view of Hispanics as prima donnas and cheats, but that's to ignore their inherent characteristics of togetherness, toughness, belligerence and style.

Drive down the road from the airport to the Bernabeu and know Real Madrid is a consequence of a city which is just as professional.

By royal patronage since the 1920´s and not for sale to any fit and proper person. More than any other, Real Madrid know who they are - and they wear the emperor´s clothes with panache.

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