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Oct 8, 2012

Another classy clasico

It was quite a weekend, and how nice for all the games to be played by the end of Sunday night - just like the old days. It almost felt like a broadcast in black and white.

Celta v Sevilla was played on the Friday night, which was slightly odd (maybe that's what affected Sevilla, who lost), but there were several significant games that all coincided on the seventh week of the Spanish league programme. Now there's a rest for the international fixtures, and in any case it's a four-day week in Spain, with a national holiday on Friday.

Pride of place went to the season's third clasico although, of course, this was the first one of the league programme. Thirteen clasicos in the last two years: unlucky for some, but not for many. There are those who claim to be tiring of the circus but, with games of the quality of Sunday night's, it seems churlish to complain.

But just in case anyone does, there were other events of considerable interest - particularly the Atletico Madrid v Malaga game, descibed as the clash of the top sides of the "other league". However, Atletico's narrow 2-1 win, achieved in the second minute of added time thanks to yet another strike by Tiger Falcao, puts the mattress-makers level on points with Barcelona and level on statistics, with six wins and a draw. Do we have a new challenger? More on that later.

There was a Valencian derby - at Levante, in case you didn't know - which finished with a 1-0 win for the less well-known neighbours, leaving the better-known ones down in 14th place with only eight points in the bag so far. 'Euro Levante' lost in midweek in the Europa League but are still second in their group, and their ten domestic points so far provide further proof of the fact that age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. Obafemi Martins who, at 27, brings down the average age of the squad by several years, scored again.

There was a kind of derby at San Mames, too, where Athletic played and beat Osasuna 1-0, a week after making the short trip east along the motorway to play Real Sociedad. Interestingly, there were four Navarran players in the starting line-up for Athletic, and only two for Osasuna.

Athletic's win was balm to their complicated week after losing the previous week's derby, having to handle the media storm created by Marcelo Bielsa's marching orders to rebel Fernando Llorente in training on the Monday, the midweek defeat in Prague in the Europa League and the simultaneous leak to the press of Bielsa's post Europa game speech to his team, recorded for posterity - and possibly as a potential weapon - by one of the squad on his mobile phone. Juicy stuff.

Even juicier was the rabid build-up to this weekend's clasico at the Camp Nou, with various sections of the media frothing at their keyboards over the "politicising" of the game. There have been vocal and explicit calls for an independent Catalan state since the Diada demonstrations in September, although Catalan nationalism is hardly a new phenomenon.

It's just that, with the parlous state of the Spanish economy, a right-wing centralist government (the Partido Popular) in power and a general feeling of fresh resentment towards Madrid, calls for a referendum and a rewrite of the Constitution have been almost inevitable. It was unfortunate for the under-pressure Spanish government that the clasico should fall less than a month after the Diada demonstrations, with nationalist feelings running high.

Every clasico seems to have a slightly different ingredient (which is what makes it the fascinating phenomenon it continues to be), but this one was never going to be non-political. A massive show of Catalanisme was choreographed for the beginning, the moment the world's cameras focused on the pre-match shaking of hands. The stadium was converted, via a hand-held mosaic, into a massive senyera, the Catalan flag.

By and large, the players and other spokespersons managed to avoid pronouncing too much on the political aspect of the game, although Gerard Pique, injured for the match, let it slip on American radio that the game represented Catalunya versus Spain, a statement that he subsequently modified, saying it had been taken out of context and that, after all, it was just a football match.

Well, sorry Gerard, but it's never been "just a football match", which is precisely the point. If it ever became simply that, it would lose three-quarters of its spice. Richard Fitzpatrick's new book on the subject seems to be saying pretty much the same thing, and I made this point in Morbo some years ago. The day it becomes a friendly day out is the day that the cameras will look elsewhere. That said, this particular bunch of rivals are less politically motivated than previous squads, and tend to confine themselves to fairly harmless stuff. There are one or two Madrid players who are fairly hardline Spanish patriots, but their sentiments remain fairly implicit and understated.

And of course, thereby lies the great paradox of all this mock shock-horror at the Catalan stance. I continue to find it bizarre that a newspaper like Marca - steadfastly to the right of centre and patriotic to the core - accuses Barcelona of "politicising" the clasico, as though its own centralist sentiments were somehow apolitical. Political - wot, us? No, of course not!

The point to remember about Spain, and it runs through the football here like white-water rapids, is that the whole scene is politicised, whether we like it or not. It's the only country in Europe where the fans look at the region where the referee hails from and pronounce the likely score before the game even starts. And they do it in all seriousness.

Apart from all that, the game was excellent. Both sides were great to watch, and the tiki-taka quotient was low. Is the paradigm on its last legs? Whatever, for some reason that is not altogether clear, this generation of Real Madrid and Barcelona players seem hell-bent on entertaining us, whatever the particular circumstances surrounding the game. This one was always bound to be interesting, largely because of the absence of Pique and Carles Puyol from the line-up, and the injury during the game to Dani Alves, which caused further disruption to the hosts' backline.

There was talk of Alex Song playing at centre-back with Javi Mascherano, but in the end Tito Vilanova opted for Adriano. The latter played well enough, but Jose Mourinho's newish policy of leaving the park the bus days behind and taking a more proactive approach again paid off.

Real Madrid looked by far the better side in the opening stages and deserved to take the lead. Sergio Ramos should have scored with a header just before they did, and Karim Benzema should have scored again just after Cristiano Ronaldo's opener. Madrid's movement in the final third was excellent, and their high-line dispossession of Barcelona's attacks was once again effective.

It seems that the potential presence of Luka Modric has given Mesut Ozil the motivation he needs to step up a gear, without any daft gestures of sweaty under-shirt solidarity from his mate Ramos. The fact that he was in the starting line-up (both Kaka and Modric were possible starters) was a signal of Mourinho's intent, and Madrid went for the throat, knowing that it was the safest policy.

Ronaldo has now scored in six consecutive clasicos (the first player to do so), and has scored eight goals in his last three games. Leo Messi is one goal from the all-time record for these encounters - 18 - established by his countryman Alfredo di Stefano.

Messi's first goal was rather messier, but his second was sublime, a free-kick that you just knew he was going to convert. But Madrid stuck at it and continued to look as though they could equalise, which they did. Martin Montoya, on for Alves, hit the bar late on (almost converting himself into an unlikely instant hero), and the result at the end was just about the right one. The draw was in fact the first game, in either league or cup, that Barcelona have not won this season. They remain eight points ahead of the merengues, but it would be nice to think that they are just a little concerned about Atl├ętico's recent good form.

Atletico v Malaga was an interesting one, given further spice by the fact that they had both played in Europe in midweek and both won - like the two sides they plan to scare this year. Malaga are looking particularly frisky, and won impressively, 3-0 at Anderlecht, with two goals from the excellent Eliseu. Their next game against Milan should be very interesting indeed, but they will be disappointed not to have got a result from the Calderon after looking as though they would come away with a draw. Happy times for Atletico, for whom the runes are looking good.

Betis have crept up into the Champions league positions (4th) but, for now, that shouldn't be taken too seriously. Their 2-0 win over Real Sociedad was one of the weekend's rather more unjust results (Zaragoza can also complain after the infamous Muniz Fernandez sent off two of their players and conjured up an innovative penalty for Getafe), and their two goals from set pieces were Sociedad's fault rather than Betis's own invention. Still, that's football. Just don't get too carried away, because Betis looked pretty poor to me.

Now there's a bit of a rest until I get to take a look at Atletico in the flesh, in Anoeta in a fortnight. Oh, and Spain take on Belarus on Friday and France next Tuesday. No disrespect to the first, but the second game should be well worth a look. Hasta luego.

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