I'm writing these lines having just got back from the Atletico Madrid late-show in Anoeta. Despite the 21.30 kick-off (normally my bedtime) and the appalling weather, I trundled along to have a look at what this season's new aspirants to third place are like in the flesh. Such a late kick-off means that I am forced to begin these lines of wisdom rather too late for my liking, a circumstance that sees me always leave the ground when the second-half clock strikes 43 minutes, because that guarantees me a seat on the match special, a municipal bus put on specially for match days. It whisks me back fairly quickly to my neighbourhood, and enables some late-night reflection before small-hour drowsiness takes over.
"They'll score if you leave," warned my brother-in-law, "they always do". Despite his prescient warning, I ran for the exit, only to see the man-of-the-moment, Radamel Falcao, curl in a free-kick to make it a personal ten consecutive games scoring - and ten consecutive wins for Atletico, seven of them in the league. It's looking good, up there with Barcelona on 22 points, and unlike the Catalans, still undefeated in all competitions this season. What's their secret?
Well, Falcao excepted, it's not immediately obvious why they're doing so well. For long periods of the match they were under the cosh, their defence doesn't really look as good as it is alleged to be, and they had a lot of help from their friends - I refer to the referee (Ayza Gamez), his two assistants, and Sociedad's Carlos Vela, who should really have scored late on when set up by Antoine Griezmann. But hey, let's try to be objective. What they are good at is ceding possession (if required) to the opposition, but maintaining a fairly high line, and breaking quickly and threateningly whenever they manage to harry their opponents into a simple error, which they quite often do. The line of three that hangs around behind Falcao - Adrian, Koke and Raul Garcia - are all quick-thinking, quick-footed players who wait for their chance and then get the ball into the 'Falcao zone' as quickly as possible. It's not particularly sophisticated, but it's worked well so far.
Falcao has now scored 16 goals in his last 10 outings, and is predictably on the agenda of every moneybags team on the planet. You'll know who they are. There's no need for me to mention them. Falcao's father put his foot in it last month when he insisted to the Colombian press that his son's ambition had always been to play for Real Madrid, a declaration that sent the smile-stocks plummeting at the Calderon but which lit up several faces on the gilded pavements of the Castellana. Hugo Sánchez was the last big name to make such a move, but he was made of different stuff from Falcao. Sánchez had no interest in what people thought about him, and was happy to be in the eye of the storm. They never really warmed to him in the Bernabeu, in spite of what nostalgia might suggest. On the other hand, 'The Tiger' Falcao may appear to be a bit of a wild man on the pitch, but according to reliable reports he's quite a bunny rabbit off it. His evenings apparently consist of a reading of the Bible, a cup of cocoa and lights out by 11 o'clock. There is not a whiff of scandal about him, and his professionalism would make him the ideal signing for any of the 'big' clubs, in truth. Atletico, for reasons of history and support, do of course consider themselves a big club, but you suspect that the only way they will hang onto their latest big asset (Sergio Aguero stayed for longer than expected) is by truly staying in the chase for this season's La Liga title.
Does Falcao justify the hype? I would say yes, even though he didn't play particularly well in Anoeta. He's a bit of a throwback, a traditional centre-forward who positions himself at the limit of the defensive line, and forces opposing defences to sit deeper than they might wish. He is lightning quick, and uses his body effectively as a shield to turn centre-backs and catch them napping with changes of direction and short threatening runs into dangerous areas. His passing is not particularly exceptional, and he rarely gets involved in the build-up. His exclusive focus is on getting on the end of a cross, running with the ball himself, or getting into the space between full-back and centre-back, his dedication to which leaves defenders exhausted. Apart from that there are no secrets. He focuses the team's approach in such a way that he might not suit a team that prefers a more patient passing game, but such are his predatory instincts that he would still score wherever he went. Curiously enough, his goal in Anoeta was the first time (so manager Diego Simeone claimed afterwards) that he has scored from a direct free-kick. Fine. I wish he'd left it for next week.
He reminds me a little of Ivan Zamorano, the Chilean striker who played for Sevilla and Real Madrid in the 1990s. Zamorano wasn't quite as physical, but he had that speed and ability to consistently ruffle the back line. It was interesting on Sunday evening in Anoeta, in the sense that the crowd were quite pumped up because of Sociedad's frisky open play and the referee's red-and-white striped soul (I'm sorry), but every time the ball fell to Falcao the stadium went deathly quiet, in a sort of collective nervous hissy-fit. It communicated itself to the home players, and eventually proved their undoing. Sociedad in general defended well, but every time Falcao was in the vicinity they seemed to fall victim to attacks of hysteria, kicking the ball anywhere as long as it was distant from the Colombian. He is having that sort of effect. It's part of Atletico's current mojo, but they're going to have to vary their approach and do rather better if they want to stay up there as Madrid's leading team.
Away from the rainy north, it was quite a weekend in La Liga, after the latest pushing of the international pause button. Pride of place went to the astonishing game in Galicia, where Deportivo de la Coruna managed to score four against Barcelona (the first side to do some since Atletico Madrid in 2009) and yet still lose 5-4. Barcelona were leading 3-0 after 17 minutes, courtesy of a wonderful exhibition of assists by Cesc Fabregas, another player who was under the spotlight after Spain's disappointing 1-1 draw with France in midweek (Atletico's Juanfran was the other). Deportivo will be encouraged by their reaction, despite never managing to quite draw level. Barcelona will be concerned with their current leakiness, whether they were down to ten men or not (Javi Mascherano was sent off after 48 minutes), and travel to Rayo Vallecano's little hot-house next week. Of course, Leo Messi continues to astound, and with his hat-trick in Coruna he now has Pele's collection of goals-in-a-calendar-year in his sights. Between Barcelona and Argentina he has managed 71 this year, which is four short of Pele's total in 1959, but some way short of Gerd Muller's all-time record of 85 in 1972, with Bayern and West Germany. Still, the wee man has until the end of December, and seems hell-bent on going all the way.
There were similar goings-on, albeit on a lesser scale, at the Mestalla where Valencia came back from 2-1 down to beat Athletic in the final two minutes of the game, after their ex-player, Aritz Aduriz, had inevitably scored a brace on his return. Perhaps the more significant return was of Ever Banega in the 76th minute, and the immediate perk-up the team received (admittedly buoyed by the sending-off of Athletic's best player on the night, Ander Herrera). Tino Costa and Fernando Gago are both useful midfielders, but with Banega back things may well start to improve for Mauricio Pellegrino, who is beginning to suffer at the hands of Valencia's famously impatient support-base. Banega belongs to that exclusive club of players who have sustained serious injuries for bizarre reasons (there's a possible book in this one), having been run over by his own car in a petrol station last February. The midfielder's spatial awareness clearly failed to extend to his knowledge of the mechanics of the hand-brake. Nevertheless, he is another player, like Malaga's Isco, who you feel will attract the eyes of the predators this season, but who will hopefully have some influence on the competitiveness of La Liga before they are inevitably tempted by brighter lights and their smooth-talking, commission-hungry agents.
Talking of Malaga, it's their big night this week, with the visit to Spain of Milan. If Isco needs a stage, this is surely it. It's going to be interesting to see how they fare. Valencia themselves face a tough visit to group leaders Bate Borisov, but at least their morale is intact. Barcelona entertain Celtic, in a game for nostalgic romantics, and Real Madrid are inevitably fretting over their visit to Borussia Dortmund, since German soil has hardly proved fruitful for them over the years. They'll be interested by Dortmund's 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Schalke, the first time they'd lost on their own ground for two years, but Mourinho's men will probably be happy to just get a result.