Saturday, 3 October 2009

Can Seville crash Galacticos' party at top of La Liga?

Cristiano Ronaldo's scintillating start to his Real Madrid career has left the club's supporters doing some simple maths – nine goals in seven games so that's 81 for the season if he keeps up his current scoring rate.

Tomorrow's visit to Seville might serve to rein in the euphoria – Manolo Jimenez's side lie third in La Liga and are promising to gatecrash the two-team title race between Real and Barcelona.

Largely because of Ronaldo's efforts, Real Madrid are the only team in Europe's major leagues to have won all their league and Champions League games and have out-scored the rest of the continent with 24 goals. President Florentino Perez told Spain's Barcelona-supporting prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, as much this week as the pair were caught talking football by Spanish TV when they should have been pushing Madrid's Olympic bid.

"We are the only team in Europe to have won all our games," began Perez. "I'm not going to tell you that there is another team playing very well," responded Zapatero. "But they have drawn," said Perez. And when Zapatero fired back with, "But they play very well," Perez said: "They play well but we don't need that... this year our time has come."

It was a feisty exchange that assumes only Barcelona and Real Madrid will contest the league. However, Jimenez disagrees. "It is not just about Madrid and Barça," he said. There is a long way to go and having a World Cup at the end of it also influences things."

Seville will be hoping Ronaldo has the World Cup on his mind with the Portugal international away on qualifying duty as soon as tomorrow night's six-pointer at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium is finished.

The team that rattled four past Rangers in midweek in the Champions League will be a tough test for Ronaldo, who should overcome an ankle injury to start what, on paper, is Real's most difficult fixture of the season after the games against Barcelona.

"They are capable of losing possession," Jimenez said. "They are still a new side and the understanding is not always there but they look very well balanced. They are not playing as badly as people are saying."

Those people would be Real supporters who, despite the side's great start, are anxious to see their team match the mesmerising football produced by Barcelona, who face Almeria at home tonight. Barça sweep you off your feet, with Real Madrid it is more clinical, but Real's former Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso believes the aesthetics will come with time.

He said: "As far as results go we can't ask for more but we are still working to reach a level where the play matches the result. We are not completely satisfied with how we are playing. There is plenty of room for improvement and we know it's important to not just win but to play well."

Tomorrow night three points will suffice leaving them six clear of Seville, who will have striker Alvaro Negredo out to make Real regret for letting him go in the summer. With Karim Benzema signed from Lyons, there was no room for the home-grown striker who has already scored twice in the league for his new team.

Seville have no first-choice players out injured while Madrid will give Ronaldo's ankle a late test. The Seville winger Jesus Navas said: "He is a fantastic player and it will be a shame if he cannot play." Jimenez was slightly more honest: "Sincerely, I hope he is out. Then after Sunday let him have a great season."

Spotlight on... The early-season crises at Atletico and Milan

Milan and Atletico Madrid are both expected to sack their managers this weekend if they fail to win and if Atletico fire coach Abel Resino it could even spell a surprise return to Spain for Juande Ramos.

Resino is clinging on with his side in the bottom three ahead of tonight's home game against Real Zaragoza. Jermaine Pennant should start for Zaragoza and if they take even just a point then Resino is likely to go. Atletico want the former Seville, Tottenham and Real Madrid coach Ramos, who would welcome a move back to Spain but could struggle to free himself from his CSKA Moscow contract before December. Another former Real Madrid coach, Bernd Schuster, and the one-time Spain manager Luis Aragones are other options. Both are former Atletico players and Aragones won La Liga with them in 1977 as manager. Schuster is friends with the Atletico owner, Gil Marin, and is favourite to step in if the club cannot get Ramos.

At Milan, Brazilian coach Leonardo, who replaced Carlo Ancelotti in the summer, has picked up just eight points from his first six games in charge and a 1-0 defeat in the Champions League at home to Zurich has left owner Silvio Berlusconi's hand hovering over the trap-door lever. Former Netherlands coach and Milan legend Marco van Basten has been tipped to take over but another ex-player, Alessandro Costacurta, has also emerged as a serious candidate.

They're all talking about... Real Madrid's record shirt sponsorship deal

It's Florentino Perez's grand master plan – buy the world's best players and then recoup the money through increased sponsorship revenue. His critics question the viability – €258m (£236m) is a lot of advertising space – but this week Real Madrid began chipping away at their £296m debt by agreeing a new deal with current shirt sponsors Bwin for €23m (£21m) a season. The new contract runs until 2013 and represents a €6m (£5.5m) a season increase on the previous agreement because of the incorporation of Ronaldo and Kaka.

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