Ten days ago, Real Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini was described as ‘dead man walking’ in the Spanish press.
His side, one that contained Raul, Karim Benzema, Guti and Esteban Granero, had been humiliated in a 4-0 Copa del Rey defeat to third division side Alcorcon, and the new boss was given two games to save his job.
President Florentino Perez may have publicly backed Pellegrini, but behind the scenes he asked Jorge Valdano to take over while Michael Laudrup and Luis Aragones, Spain’s Euro 2008-winning coach, were being lined up. The words of Robert Pires, who worked under Pellegrini at Villarreal, suddenly looked prescient: “Compared to Madrid, Villarreal was a holiday,” said the Frenchman before the season.
“IÃ‚Â¹ve never seen Pellegrini in difficult times, and if things go badly I don’t know how he’s going to react. At Madrid you don’t have time if anything goes wrong.”
As if stung into action by the pressure, though, Pellegrini has been much more decisive since the Alcorcon result. Guti, with whom he had a row at half-time of the Alcorcon game, has been banished from the squad while Raul, for so long the king-maker in Madrid, reduced to a squad player.
Madrid’s results since then, beating Getafe 2-0, drawing 1-1 with Milan (but playing brilliantly in the first half) and beating Atletico Madrid 3-2 (they were three goals up before Sergio Ramos was sent off) have improved but more significantly, and so have their performances.
Karim Benzema is a different player when partnered with Gonzalo Higuain, who is the most un-galactic of galacticos. Benzema has spoken of his frustration at playing with Raul, who rarely passes to him. Spanish football reporter Graham Hunter has described Higuain as “representing everything Real Madrid don’t want to be” as he works hard, has brute strength and puts the collective above the individual. The two younger men are a dangerous pairing.
While Real Madrid were coasting against Atletico, three other facts became apparent: one, Xabi Alonso was playing his best game of the season, and finally looked settled in his new team; Marcelo, scorer of the second goal, is better as a midfielder with license to get into the box than as a full-back; and most significantly, Pellegrini seems to have finally found the perfect role for Kaka in the team, floating behind the top two with the freedom to roam across the front line.
Whether he will stay there when Cristiano Ronaldo returns from injury remains to be seen, but at the moment he is playing a significant role in MadridÃ‚Â¹s renaissance.
Let’s not forget that for all their so-called problems, Real Madrid are still only one point behind La Liga leaders Barcelona, and are top scorers in the Champions League.
This week they take on Alcorcon in the second leg, and Raul has warned that it won’t be easy for the third-division side. “If there is a club that knows about overcoming this, it is Real Madrid,” he said.
“The great fightbacks in Real Madrid history have come following bad results in important competitions.” Last season, Real lost the first leg 3-2 to another third division side, Real Union, and went out on away goals after winning the second leg 4-3.
Real Madrid are (2.44) to get through the tie, which seems short given the deficit they need to overcome. The same price is available on the Over-4.5 Goals market. You would think credit is due to Pellegrini now Madrid has the belief, and the backing from punters, that they have turned the corner.
And yet last week Johan Cruyff said publicly that the coach of Real Madrid is not in charge of the team while Arrigo Sacchi said the president strips authority away from the coach. You sense that if Real do get past Alcorcon it will be a victory for the team, while if they fall short, the loss will be down to Pellegrini.
Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. Ã‚Â© The Sporting Exchange Limited
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