Monday, January 5, 2009
ESPNsoccernet: January 26, 5:40 PM UK
Barcelona's domination continues
New Year, new writer for your weekly fix of Spanish football! After my summer spell as Spain's correspondent for Euro 2008, I'll now try to share my perspective of Spanish club football, while also describing the cultural traits that often influence my country's favourite sport.
In his "Hasta la Vista" column, Phil explained the difficulty of understanding the rivalries and feuds between teams in Spain without taking into account the country's historical background. I totally agree and will do my best to illustrate that context in my columns.
The Christmas break weekend without football was an irrecusable invitation for us Spaniards to indulge in one of our national pastimes, other than wine and food: engage in meaningless, endless discussions about off-the-pitch issues that have little to do with football's sporting side. This is a personal favourite of mine.
For instance, the media spent days discussing whether or not Messi should be fined because of his late arrival in Barcelona after the Christmas interlude (Inter's Adriano should answer this one). In Valencia, the club issued a surprising note to state that Villa, who had signed a six-year contract last August, would not be leaving this coming July. This reassured everyone that Villa will indeed leave, and generated hours of chat guessing Spain's #7's most likely destination (Barcelona seem to be leading here as well). Real Madrid were also in the line of fire because they decided to hire Lassana Diarra and Huntelaar ignoring that, according to UEFA regulations, only one of them would be able to play in the Champions League. This prompted media and fans alike to discuss who's responsible for the fiasco (Calderón, Mijatovic, others?)
But the competition is back, and at least temporarily we have to focus on football until the next wave of meaningless discussions starts.
Even before the middle of the season it looked like Barcelona can't lose this one. On Saturday, they defeated a troubled Mallorca side putting in a somewhat uninspired performance and with some help from the referee. Messi, rested for this match, was in the VIP area sitting next to Maradona, so Barça had to find other alternatives to score. They got off to a slow start, and even fell behind when Aduriz put Barça's defence in trouble. From then on, Barcelona took control, with good performances by Henry (scored again and looks rejuvenated) and subs Iniesta (his old tricky self after two months out injured) and Daniel Alves (getting closer to his Sevilla superhuman level).
Now the question is: what could possibly happen for them to lose the title? Their advantage increased to 11 points and they keep an amazing average of three goals per match. One could only think of non-football factors to impact their performance, such as Barcelona's high pressure environment or the clash of egos in the dressing room, but Guardiola is proving to be a brilliant PR man. He has faced every potential crisis quite calmly so far, which shows that his past experience within the club taught him enough to deal smartly with media, eccentric presidents and prima donnas.
If Guardiola is up to the task, only injuries to their starting defenders can alter the good dynamics of the team. The remaining positions are well covered - remember we haven't seen that much of Bojan yet, one of their top players last season, or Keita, one of their high-profile signings.
To Barça's joy, four of their direct competitors were up against each other: Valencia-Atlético and Real Madrid-Villarreal were both promising matches. In the former, los colchoneros' 15-match unbeaten run came to an abrupt end in the Mestalla. Valencia had plenty of chances during the first half, but just as Atlético seemed to be getting back into the match, Silva scored a cracker that finished them off. Atlético's defence still suffers against top-level sides, and "God's son-in-law" (Kun Agüero, partner of one of Maradona's daughters) and his striking partner Forlan felt the absence of suppliers Maniche and Maxi, both suspended. Atlético's Cup tie against mighty Barcelona on Tuesday should test how far they can really go this season.
Real Madrid and Villarreal played a pulsating encounter, in which Robben (fantastic goal included) and both goalies shone. The home side were aggressive during the first half, but Villarreal dominated the second, so Real ended up playing five defenders and praying for the match to end. All of their creativity depends solely on Robben, injury-prone as they come, so Juande will have to work wonders for them to win some silverware this season. It's likely that Casillas must have heard Benitez comment ("Reina is the best Spanish goalkeeper"), as he delivered more than a handful of spectacular saves which eventually gave Real Madrid the win. After the match, Pellegrini put it best: "They scored, we didn't". His team has lost their last three and are now out of the UEFA spots, but they're clearly better than that.
The remaining contender, Sevilla, gave two points away and therefore the second spot against bottom club Osasuna, who scored in the very last minute. However, the most entertaining match by far was Getafe-Deportivo, two well-coached teams with a great (and cheap) mixture of experienced players and promising youngsters. Deportivo eventually got the away win, but both sides played offensive football and always looked to score. We even had the chance to see Valerón, Depor's playmaker from their golden years, show some of his trademark slick passing. Good to have him (and sixth place Deportivo) back.
But all this football talk can't hide the greatest news of the week for us, lovers of the meaningless discussions. Mr. Hugo Sánchez himself is back as Almeria's coach, and had his debut on Sunday with a hard-fought 1-0 win against Betis. As demonstrated since his years as a terrific striker, Hugol's ability to generate controversy, rejection and pure hatred in opposing teams, fans, referees and even his own colleagues is off the charts, so I'm really glad he's back. He'll give us plenty to discuss until some team gets closer to Barcelona... or, more likely, until this season is over&