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Sep 3, 2012

Falcao fever

It's been quite a week again, what with the usual last-minute shenanigans surrounding the transfer deadline, the SuperCopa clásico Round Two, the Champions League draw and more happiness for the city of Madrid on Friday night with Atlético's storming victory over Chelsea in the European Super Cup, played over in Monaco. Has the season only just started? Phew.

I watched Friday night's game whilst chewing on steak and chips in my Greasy Joe's of choice in San Sebastián - the gastronomic centre of Spain the city may be, of course, but on Fridays I have a long-established routine of steak n' chips (plus two eggs and red peppers) and a natter with my English-speaking mates (you have to have a natter in your own lingo at least once a week) , and football cannot be allowed to stand in the way. Indeed, there are few fans of Friday-night football in Spain, but a final is a final. I have to admit that it was hard to focus on the game, and the packed bar seemed only dimly aware of what was happening on the TV, but the subsequent effect, 'Falcao Fever' has been in place ever since.

Sunday night's headlines in the ever-provocative Marca tabloid were suggesting that Falcao is now the best delantero (forward) in the world. This was backed up by one of Marca's (in)famous vox pop surveys, informing us that 80% of the respondents (we were spared any description of the experimental methodology) thought 'Yes', with the journalist then adding the helpful information that 20% thought 'no'. Thanks for that Marca. And it's not that I want to get drawn into a silly debate about whether or not Radamel Falcao is the best forward in the world, but it was interesting that Falcao's exploits managed to shift attention from the election by Europe's journalists of Andres Iniesta as Europe's finest, beating his mate Lionel Messi and more significantly, a ruffled-looking Cristiano Ronaldo, whose face for most of the ceremony last Thursday in Monaco was something of a poem. The 'look-as-though-you're-happy-for-Iniesta' expression, that curled Ronaldo's upper-lip for a millisecond, before twitching back into the tensest form of neutrality yet seen on Earth, was first-class theatre. And you will surely recall that the last time Barcelona won the Champions League, in 2011, Marca's headline the following day was 'Mourinho walks his dog'.

Well of course it wasn't, but you get my drift. Iniesta was also constantly referred to in Marca this weekend as a Manchego (which he is), as opposed to a Catalan (which he isn't), but you get my drift again. It's all part of the sauce here, and nobody expects otherwise. But to bring Falcao into the mix represents another sort of twist, quite apart form the fact that if he were the best forward in the world, then he most probably was before Friday night's admittedly electric performance against poor Chelsea. The counsel for the prosecution might wish to point out that the Colombian forward won't come up against the hapless David Luiz every week, and that Chelsea were, in general, unfeasibly groggy and unfocused, but ah ... that second goal! That's the kind of thing that can get you out of your seat and upset your dinner plate (it almost did).

Falcao does have an uncanny knack of doing the business when it most matters - going one better this time with a hat-trick, as opposed to the brace he managed against Athletic in the Europa League final, and his scoring record so far in his career (163 goals in 250 appearances) does suggest that he is up there with some of the best. He's at an age (26), squeezed between Ronaldo (27) and Messi (25) that suggests the approach to the peak is imminent, with a bit more to come before he plants the flag at the top.

Atletico's speedier and edgier counter-attack approach, backed up by a more Simeone-type solidity in the middle of the park, suits Falcao's killer instincts. If you can get the ball into him quickly, in those advanced positions, he not only shows efficient predatory finishing in the box, he also has the skill and imagination to conjure up goals for himself, as was evident in Friday night's game. There is a whiff of the old-fashioned centre-forward about him too, which partly explains his popularity. In an era where the word 'striker' (ariete in Spanish) has lost some of its weight because of the implicit message it conveys of tactical innocence, the word delantero has grown in popularity and taken on a rather more ambiguous air, because it covers a greater multitude of types.

Is Leo Messi a delantero? Well, with 73 goals to his credit last season you kinda hope so, but we know he doesn't belong to the Roberto Soldado or the Alvaro Negredo type.

Indeed, Barcelona's 'false forward' concept, translated into the national team at this year's European Championships, was all the rage in summer's more cerebral football press, but players like Falcao help us to forget the debate. People also like to watch players like him, rather in the way that so many people thought that the best goal of the European Championships was the header scored by England's Andy Carroll against Sweden, perhaps because of its sudden and brutal simplicity. It's a different aesthetic, and Falcao fits the Atlético template perfectly, with his fearless aggression and goal-channelled skill. To use Diego Simeone's own metaphor, you have to play with a dagger in your mouth to succeed at the Calderon, and despite El Cholo's occasional imperfections when he was a player there, he is revered like few others. Atlético is a no-frills club, nuthin fancy - Lynyrd Skynyrd as opposed to Julio Iglesias. Falcao, although he is a devout Christian, looks a more gnarly sort of fellow, and is much better-looking than Gerard Pique. If Shakira's ever on the lookout for a fellow-countryman...

Is he 'better' than Cristiano? It's a futile question. Of course he's not. But Cristiano is a different type of player again - a confluence of muscle, speed, skill and a licence to roam. Falcao is more about guile, about predation. He reminds me a little of Hugo Sánchez, the prodigal son of Atlético . It'll be interesting to see if he can really take Atlético back to where they long to be - in that zone that Valencia currently occupy, at the theoretical top of the heap below the duopoly. Atlético's legendary inconsistency, and the emotional ups and downs that tend to accompany the club are ghosts that are far from banished, but four European titles in the last three years are beginning to attract people back to the club, reversing the opposite trend of losing players like Sergio Agüero and Diego Forlan and putting a smile back onto the face of the Calderon, albeit with the knife between the teeth. Comparing Falcao with Fernando Torres might seem ironically odious too, but the irony of the post-match hype won't have been lost on The Kid, whose first game against his old team was very much the pre-match news here in Spain. Now there's no mention of him.

Atlético get a rest until Wednesday when they play their delayed fixture away at Betis, to return home to parade their trophy on Sunday, September 16 at home to Rayo, in another Madrid-derby-fest. Next weekend, by the way, there is no league programme, with internationals being played (Spain play Saudi Arabia).

Back to Cristiano, the Spanish press will have a frenzied week speculating on what the great man meant when he told them he was triste (sad), and that he felt 'unloved' after the 3-0 win over Granada, despite scoring twice. Well - he did limp off injured in the second half after a nasty-looking blow to his knee, but the phrase he used 'I'm sad, and the club knows why' was an unexpected dart in his employer's direction, at a point in the season where rocking the boat is rarely a good idea, five points adrift of Barcelona who beat Valencia 1-0 on Sunday night in the weekend's best-looking fixture. What's up with CR7?

One theory is that he's unhappy at the last-minute exits of Lass and Esteban Granero, annoyed at the club's treatment of his mate Kaka, and less than keen on the club's two recent incorporations, Luka Modric and the last-minute surprise, Michael Essien. If this is true, it takes the club back to the bad old days of Raúl, whose status and importance to the club became such that he was allegedly running the show. José Mourinho certainly seems a shade more introspective, rather less ebullient than one might have expected after last week's victory over Barcelona. Something is wrong. Another theory points to breakdowns in his relations with certain players (Marcelo), formerly his buddies. Then again, it could be a simple case of the fact that Ronaldo is feeling the pinch of the VAT hike in Spain, which has particularly affected the price of a hair-do, at 21% as from last Saturday. I'm not sure if this also affects the entry fee to the solarium and the price of hair-gel. And hey - 80% of Marca's readers think that Falcao is the best forward in the world. Is there no justice for CR7, after just scoring his 150th goal in 149 games? Poor Cristiano, who is destined - it would seem - to be forever unloved. But seriously folks, I sometimes find it hard to write about this sort of stuff. Two mega-rich blokes having a sulk command the headlines of a country, while a quarter of its active population will shuffle down to the dole queue on Monday morning.

Elsewhere, it's nice to see that four of the six top places in La Liga are occupied by Mallorca, Rayo, Valladolid and Deportivo, Mallorca briefly occupying top spot on Saturday night after their 1-0 victory at home to Real Sociedad. Osasuna, and more surprisingly, Espanyol, remain pointless after the opening three games, but as they say, it's early days yet. Atlético will join the top six if they beat Betis on Wednesday, and if Falk.o. (as he is now being nicknamed) manages some more goals, the fever may reach dangerously contagious levels.

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