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Aug 20, 2012

Camp Nou news

Last season, as regular readers may recall, I dragged my young daughter from San Sebastian to the Camp Nou to watch Barcelona v Real Sociedad, only to experience the coldest night in the city for 50 years. However, the thoroughly decent 2-1 result helped to keep our toes warm.

On Sunday evening, six months later, I couldn't resist the temptation to return - this time with my son, now back from his year in deepest Ohio. The temperature this time around failed to drop below 26 degrees, despite the late evening kick-off, and the result - 5-1 to the hosts - hardly cooled our brows. If this is Barcelona when they're tired (there were international games in midweek) or Barcelona when they're preoccupied with the coming Supercopa match with Real Madrid, then poor Real Sociedad would prefer not to play them when they're energetic and fully focused.

Real Sociedad's established local journalists often refer to their team as "el equipo aspirina" for their tendency to relieve their opponents' pain. Carles Puyol, back in the heart of defence after a season of stop-start injury problems, only required three minutes for his personal aspirin, nodding in a corner directly parallel to my sightline. Later on, it was inevitable that David Villa would receive a similar helping hand from the generous visitors' defence. In between these analgesic events, Chory Castro, Sociedad's new signing from Mallorca, scored a cracking equaliser, which my son and I celebrated rather too noisily, surrounded by the shocked silence of the home fans, only to be deflated 56 seconds later by Leo Messi's first of the season. Indeed, with seasoned pessimism, I whipped out my camera and snapped the 1-1 scoreline on the screen opposite just before the Argentine managed to spoil our brief moment of pleasure.

Rewind a couple of hours and we had decided to have an early evening meal on the Gran Via, preferably in an establishment that was screening Real Madrid v Valencia. It wasn't difficult to find, a cheap and cheerful restaurant packed to the rafters with families en route to the Camp Nou. There is practically no tension between Barcelona and San Sebastian, wedded as they have been in political terms for so long, and my son's wearing of the Real Sociedad shirt was a low-risk gesture. Nevertheless, on match away-days you are always hyper-aware of the differences in your host's football-related-behaviour, and in Barcelona I've noticed before how the locals feign a public indifference to Real Madrid, as if by actually watching the enormous screen in the restaurant they would have been betraying their culture. Gonzalo Higuain's opening goal was completely ignored, the high-octane chatter neither rising nor falling. Only my son and myself seemed to react or to even notice the goal. Thus the apparent indifference continued until suddenly, three minutes before the break, Jonas equalised after a collision between Iker Casillas and Pepe, and the whole place exploded in spontaneous delight. It must be a Catalan thing - the ability to eat your supper and not appear to be watching the TV while, all the time, you're registering the whole thing.

Funny things, opening games of the season. I have to confess that, as a spectator, it has always taken me time to settle in, to get my interest levels back up to those of the season just gone. It's an interesting cycle and a natural human reaction, I think, to the fact that the return of league football - this time unusually early here - signals the back end of the holiday period, and the dreaded feeling that a return to work is nigh. You're the lucky one, I hear you say, with 25% of Spain's population unemployed, and you would be right, but the feeling is so entrenched after more than 40 years that I find it hard to shrug off. A visit to the Camp Nou helps, of course, and it's not every day you get to see this wonderful team in the flesh, on their own territory, with several points to prove after the previous campaign's relative lack of success. However, not too much should be read into this game against "The Aspirin Team", whose defensive innocence in the first half was dreadful to behold if you happen to support them. Real Sociedad can play much better than this, but without the excellent Inigo Martinez at centre-back, without David Zurutuza to hold onto the ball, and with their best player, Antoine Griezmann, isolated up front, the "Tito Team" had a relaxing workout.

Tito Vilanova has been very much the focus of attention this week, of course, and has managed to deprive the press of anything resembling a soundbite, assuring them that he simply wants to continue with his predecessor's good work, and "win everything" - which seems a reasonable enough ambition. Despite appearing to be a charisma-free zone, Tito is at least determined to show ambition. Good for him. Meanwhile, Jose Mourinho has been sulky all week, as if he had just experienced the first signs of menopause, and his team has started on the back foot. Luka Modric, still subject to Tottenham's financial tiki-taka game-plan, should smarten things up a little when he finally arrives. Barcelona's signings of the excellent Jordi Alba and the potentially interesting Alex Song from Arsenal have warmed up the scene considerably for this season's two-horse slug-fest. Which records will be broken this time around? Leo Messi has two goals now. He only needs 71 now to equal last season's feat. Cristiano Ronaldo failed to score against Valencia. There could be an impending crisis at the Bernabéu. Watch this space.

Talking of crises, and talking of annoying new league schedules, the opening 'day' saw three games delayed until Monday, the final one of which will be played at 23.00 Spanish time, between Zaragoza and the newly-arrived Valladolid. The game will be on the 'open' channel, La Sexta, but you wonder what sort of advertising income they expect to garner from a Monday night 11th-hour fixture. Only the brave will watch it, and one rather hopes that parents' associations will begin to protest that the 'family game' is in truth an adult-only affair, despite the reputation the Spanish have for being late-night alley-cats. La Sexta will complain, of course, that they have been pushed into the final late-night spot by the monopoly on the 'big' games that the pay channels are now exercising, and they would be right. Meanwhile, La Liga's head honchos look on with indifference at the absurdly unequal distribution of money and image. This opening weekend was almost subjected again to strike action, called off in midweek on the basis of the continuation of talks.

Another early-season crisis can be found at San Mames, where Athletic's two top players, Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente, were both absent from the starting line-up against Betis. Martinez appears to be on his way to Bayern Munich, whereas Llorente's destiny is less clear-cut, but he would be a big hit in the English Premier League. After watching Luis Suarez squander his usual half-a-dozen chances for Liverpool on Saturday, you couldn't help thinking that Llorente - the thinking man's Andy Carroll - would solve their problems overnight. Athletic must be thinking the same after losing a remarkable match 3-5 to Betis in which they stormed back from a 0-3 deficit only to concede twice more and send their normally indomitable fans home with rather longer faces than usual.

Martinez and Llorente have both been subjected to abuse at training sessions, and will be hard to replace. Athletic's policy of long-term local nurture produced these two gems, and although neither of them are strictly Basques, they are from the 'cantera' - youth academy - and thus qualify. It's not easy for Athletic to simply turn to the market, even with the likely €70 million that the transfers are likely to generate. The scorer of one of Betis' goals, the Basque-born Benat Exteberria, spent six minutes in Athletic's first team back in 2006 before being released and transferred to Betis. Now he's hot property, and there are several teams after his signature. An expensive return to San Mames is possible, but is by no means inevitable.

Meanwhile, rumours abound that, despite Athletic's giddy and exciting season last campaign, the two players that want a move are thus inclined because they cannot take any more of 'Loco' Bielsa, the eccentric Argentine manager whose methods have never been to everyone's taste. Have those two finals last season - both ending in defeats - hidden a darker underbelly to Bielsa's management of the team? It would seem a distinct possibility.

Sevilla and Mallorca both got off to winning starts, but Celta de Vigo, back in the top flight after a five-year absence, had their party pooped by the other crisis team of the summer, Malaga, whose billionaire future may count for nothing if their Qatari owners have truly tired of the venture. Nevertheless, all the money so far spent on players seems insignificant when considering that their winning goal was scored by a 16-year-old Cameroonian boy, Fabrice Olinga - fresh from Mallorca last season after being discovered at the Samuel Eto'o school. Fabrice, who came on in the second half, scored after 16 years and 98 days of life, beating the previous record-holder, Iker Muniain, by some 200 days.

On Monday morning, I stumbled down to breakfast only to pass Ronald Koeman on my way to get my bacon and eggs. Not quite sure what he was doing there, but it might have been something to do with the presence of the Sampdoria players, who had just gone out in their bus - here to play in a friendly tournament. I guessed Ron had been flown over to hand out the trophy, but my leg did twitch as he passed, some old patriotic instinct in me desirous of revenge. If he'd fallen over me, spilling his breakfast, I would have simply said "Remember David Platt, 1993?" Younger readers may need some help with this one.

So, plenty to talk about, as usual, but the season will more than likely come to life this week when the first of the Super Copa games, between Barcelona and Real Madrid, takes place on Thursday. I wonder if the folks watching the game in that restaurant on Thursday will still be pretending not to look at the screen?

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