The silver scene
Although I recognise that it's not the most glamorous of things to do, I always like to reserve one week per season to talk not just about the ocean liner, but about its engine room too. La Liga has settled into a pattern that will always be of interest, and not a week goes by without something newsworthy taking place - but the Second Division is also important, and by this stage of the season the candidates for promotion are usually well established.
I remember that when I was a kid in England, the Second Division always fascinated me, because I could never imagine any of its more obscure members competing with the big clubs in the elite. The idea of a minnow being promoted, and playing against one of the big sides on Match of the Day used to captivate me - just the idea of the imbalance, of the unlikelihood of it all. And now it's no different. It would be great to see Alcorcón or Girona make it to the top (the latter rather unlikely this season), and with Granada down in the Third Division as recently as 2006, everyone has the right to dream.
This season, however, things are slightly different. The current leaders are no other than Deportivo de La Coruña, and just behind (two points, to be precise) lie their great Galician rivals, Celta de Vigo. In third place, seven points behind, are another well-known name to top-flight audiences, Valladolid, who in fact lost at home 2-1 to Celta in the weekend's top clash in the 'silver division'. 'Super Depor' and Celta were such an integral part of the La Liga scene in the late 1990s and for much of the first decade after the millennium, that it seems odd to have no Galician representatives in the First Division.
I've even been in Spain long enough to remember Santiago de Compostela, who spent four seasons in the top flight during the 1990s, but who have since plummeted to the regional Preferente division, equivalent to something like the Conference North in England. With Pontevedra, once an established First Division club, also languishing in the Third Division, and Racing Club de Ferrol competing at the same level, things have been better once-upon-a-time in the rainy North West. A combination of poor financial decisions (Celta, Compostela) and the gradual loss of a once great, and perhaps irreplaceable squad (Deportivo), has seen the region decline in footballing terms. Money has never come easily to Galicia, and any national recession has always hit the region hard.
Things might be on the mend, however, at least as regards the autonomous community's two flagship sides. Depor's relegation last season seemed to upset just about everyone (apart from Celta), so popular were they in general with the Spanish public. Their long-standing president, Augusto Lendoiro, has never been the darling of the press, but his ability to negotiate hard, run the club on a relative shoestring and preside over one of the most attractive , multi-national squads to grace La Liga in the last 50 years, has kept the wolves at arm's length. They remain the only club from Galicia to ever win a league title, in the season 1999-2000, and they look as though they're on the verge of bouncing back first time - something of a rarity in Spanish football. It usually takes a couple of seasons for teams like Depor to get their Second Division feet, and then return. What they managed to do at the end of last season was to sensibly keep most of the squad together, and given that they were the first club to ever go down with 43 points (normally a total that would see you safe), the signs were there that they might do fine. In fact, when they beat Barcelona B on February 18, they chalked up their ninth successive win, setting a club record.
This weekend they beat Alcorcón 2-1 at home (to avenge a previous 4-0 drubbing) and the bases of the revival are clear, quite apart from the 29,000 crowd that turned up. Juan Carlos Valerón, in his 12th season at the Riazor, is still around, and opened the scoring. Valerón is one of the finest players to pull on the blue and white, and until injury slowed him down was one of Spain's best offensive midfielders. Supplanted by the Cescs, Iniestas, Xavis and Cazorlas of the present generation, it's easy to forget how not so long ago, Valerón was rated as Spain's finest player, unlucky at international level because by the time Spain began to look as though they might win something, he was on the sidelines with a serious knee injury, never to return to the international fold.
Full-back Manuel Pablo, whose international career was also hampered by a serious injury, has been around even longer (since 1998), and with other players from last season such as keeper Dani Aranzubia, Ze Castro, José Guardado and Riki, it's hard to imagine them messing up, despite the fact that 15 further games can still see rivals catch up. All the sides in the top six, bar Cordoba, have been in the top flight in recent years, and would all hold their own. Hercules, after a storming start, have fallen back to fifth place, and Almeria, on the same points, spent four seasons in the elite until dropping out last season. Their man José Ulloa is the league's current Pichichi with 19 goals, and curiously enough, no player from the top two figures high up in the top scorers' lists, apart from Celta's Iago Aspas who has managed ten.
To put the Galician slump into perspective, Deportivo lie 11th on the all-time statistical points list of Spanish clubs, compiled on the historical basis of points accumulated in the top flight. The team below them in 12th place are Celta, who, interestingly enough, have spent 46 seasons in the elite, as opposed to Depor's 41. Celta, understandably, can get a little cross when articles (such as this one) put Deportivo on a pedestal that they themselves feel historically more qualified to occupy. Compostela are way down in 39th place, and Pontevedra are hanging in the top 59 at 43rd place.
However, to return to Vigo, Celta have now been five seasons in the Second Division, with the present young generation of supporters beginning to forget about them as a previous force in the game. In fact, in 2009 they even looked as though they might be relegated to the dreaded pozo (bottomless well) of Segunda B, from where once great clubs have been known never to return. Ask Oviedo. Being in administration didn't help Celta, but things are looking up. Their old ground Balaidos is creaking somewhat, and the possibility of financing a new stadium depends on what happens this season. It's something of a make or break situation for them, and they will have to be sure that the present squad can hold its own in the top flight. There won't be much money to spare.
What else has been newsworthy this week? Well - you might have seen that Andre Villas-Boas' dismissal at Chelsea has started the rumour-mongering yet again. Apparently Abramovich wants either Pep Guardiola or his old mate José Mourinho. Perhaps he could afford them both. Now that would be interesting. Rafa Benitez might still be tempted by the Chelsea post, even if were to be offered to him on a temporary basis. Do the job decently, and he could stay.
Further rumours situate Kun Aguero in Real Madrid for next season, with Gonzalo Higuain going the other way to Man City. There seems no other reason to believe this other than the fact that the tabloid Marca decided to make it their headline on Saturday, on the back of Diego Maradona's 'advice' to his son-in-law that he should go back to Spain, only this time to the Bernabéu. Ah well, if Maradona says that, it must be a good idea.
It would be nice to see Aguero back, but after seeing Spain slaughter poor Venezuela last Wednesday, I find it difficult to agree with Marca's conviction that the Argentine is the 'third best player on the planet'. I think that particular laurel should be placed on either Andres Iniesta or David Silva, and let's get on with life. Some of Silva's play on Wednesday was spectacular in its simplicity, and yet his uncanny ability (like Iniesta) to always play a pass that nobody is expecting, and to find angles that seem to contradict geometry, put him on a different level to most mortals. Valencia's Roberto Soldado, lest we forget, also distinguished himself in only his second international, scoring a hat-trick, only playing for one half, and missing a penalty into the bargain. Poor Fernando Torres, watching from his sofa in London, must have seen the European Championships fading further from view.
Of the Basque derby in San Mamés, the less said the better - but as Real Sociedad are fond of saying (to each other, because nobody else really listens), it's difficult playing against 12 men. Carlos Vela's shot crosses the line by a kilometre, but the referee thought it best not to offend the hosts of the San Mamés party. The positive aspect to the game, happily emphasised by various sections of the Spanish press, was the fact that the game kicked off with 17 players on the pitch who had come through the youth systems of each club - nine for the visitors, eight for the hosts. As the professional game grows sadly accustomed to its mercenary laws, these two clubs swim against the tide with admirable chutzpah. It would be nice if the model could spread.