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Topical troubles

It's been one of those weekends in which lots of things have happened, but which I can't quite bring together as a theme. Does it matter? Probably not. Let's work on the premise of the parts of the sum, as opposed to the sum of the parts. Football's like that sometimes.

It all started for me (and 25,000 other hardy souls) in Anoeta last Friday night, to watch Real Sociedad draw 0-0 with Osasuna in the Basque-Navarre 'derby'. I've put the word between inverted commas because some folks have protested in the past over my use of the term to describe this particular fixture, when of course, they are two separate autonomous communities. But let's leave the politics for another day. Suffice to say that lots of folks in Navarra speak Basque and feel as such - so why pretend it's just an ordinary game? A sizable chunk of their fans came up the motorway too, and made it an atmospheric evening, despite the relative tedium of the football on offer.

Is it just me, or do others out there feel that at least one night of the week should be reserved exclusively for non-footballing activity? Thursday was never a day we associated with the game, but the Europa League has ended all that. I can just about tolerate this extension, but Friday nights are about other things - painting the town red, love, romance, or having a drink with your mates and getting the week's work off your chest. Also, part of the loveliness of Fridays is contemplating the weekend's football to come, both the live version and the telly version. It's always there in the back of your head, like a comfort cushion. As a result, dragging yourself down to the game on Friday at 21:30 is like eating part of the picnic before you're supposed to. You wake up on the Saturday sort of disorientated and not so hungry.

The other annoying aspect of all this is that Real Sociedad (to take one example) had already been forced by the whims of the dastardly duo Canal Plus and Mediapro to play their home game against Rayo Vallecano last Monday night. Only 15,000 turned up for that one, suggesting that Monday is even less attractive than a Friday (subtracting the 'derby' factor perhaps), but the tendency to play around with supporters' lives is a worrying tendency, as if it were of no importance. It's bad enough for the players, although perhaps the only positive note of such bizarre time-tabling is the fact that the Friday game enabled the Sociedad squad to get some rest before their King's Cup 2nd Leg game at home to Cordoba on Tuesday night. Was this the logic behind the TV's decision? I doubt it very much. And whilst it's true that TV pays the wages these days, we have to preserve the essence of football as a live spectator sport, and not just hope that it will survive from the sofa. There's a lot of rumblings of discontent at street level in Spain, and relative envy at the packed stadia seemingly for every game in the English Premier League - also subject to the orders of the media, but in a slightly more humane framework. Here it's just getting silly.

José Mourinho said as much in the wake of his team's 1-0 defeat to Betis on Saturday night, complaining, with some justification, that Barcelona had played in the Champions league Tuesday and travelled to Levante on Sunday, whilst Madrid played Wednesday and then had to travel to Seville for the Saturday night. Mourinho was relatively gracious in defeat, apart from this, but when he praises the opposition it often sounds as if it's more an implicit message to his own team than real praise for the adversary. But as for the timing aspect, he forgot that Malaga also played on Wednesday night, and travelled to Russia (much further than Manchester) for their game, only to have to play Valencia on Saturday night in a game I watched from start to finish on TV. They won 4-0, against opponents who had played at home to Bayern Munich on the Tuesday (1-1) but who might have been a bit more tired because they played with ten men for much of the second half. But that's not Mou's point. His point is that there is a conspiracy to favour Barcelona again, now that he has toppled (temporarily?) their La Liga crown. My comment to him would be that at the very least his team will rarely suffer the humiliation of being stuck on the telly on a Monday night - the fixture that the TV thinks nobody really wants to watch - so why stage it? Marca TV has also got in on the act, and actually televised both Sociedad's games (the Monday and the Friday matches), but this Monday's game once again featured Zaragoza (versus Celta). They seem to be part of the 'Monday club' - whose other members include Valladolid, Mallorca, Sociedad and Granada. It's kinda patronising, and it's divisive.

Saturday night's game at Malaga at least allowed the country to see two interesting things, apart from Malaga's massive superiority to a disappointing Valencia. Folks could see, once again, the brilliance of Isco, who of course started his career at Valencia and managed four games for them, before moving to Malaga in 2011. Valencia have a decent midfield, but Isco was another one who got away. You know the others - Silva, Villa and Mata always sounded like a firm of Spanish solicitors before the addition of the name Isco. Ah - but what a player! How many more will the Spanish soil unearth for this generation and for that to come? He's like a faster version of Fabregas, but he thinks just as quickly. His ability to get out of tight corners, and then to suddenly turn defence into offence is the sign of a 'crack', as the Spanish call their most gifted players. And he seems to have appeared from nowhere - promising last season, but now potentially the next big thing. Even on the appalling playing surface (the second thing folks could see) that Malaga call a 'pitch' - and I swear I saw some cabbages growing in the centre-circle - he was too good for Valencia, aided and abetted by the evergreen Joaquín. Where will Isco be next season? Good question. At Malaga if things go financially as they should. At the Etihad if they don't.

Perhaps the theme that is emerging organically here is 'annoying things'. Another of these is the tendency of the Spanish media to greet Barcelona's 4-0 victory at Levante in the exclusive context of the 11-point gap that it opens up between them and you-know-who. Well, it was all about the power of '11' because Barcelona also put out a team wholly fabricated in La Masia, but hang on a minute. Atlético Madrid hammered Sevilla 4-0 in the Calderon and remained very much in the hunt, only three points behind the Catalans. People continue to emphasise Barcelona's record-breaking start, but Atlético's is hardly less spectacular, with 11 games won from 13, and only one defeat to show. Next week's derby at the Bernabéu will see Real Madrid eight points shy of their visiting neighbours, which is a statistic not seen for a long time. Atlético's tendency to lose rather meekly to Real in the past few years is unlikely to repeat itself next Saturday. It's certainly an occasion to savour, and it could mark the route-map for the rest of the season. If Atlético win, their neighbours will need to concentrate on other trophies, particularly with Barcelona at home to a weak-looking Athletic side.

Talking of Barcelona's canteranos (youth products), the 'B' team beat Racing Santander 4-1 on Saturday night, which tells you all you need to know about how quickly a top-flight side can fade into obscurity and be humiliated by the latest bunch of younguns fresh from the factory line at La Masia. And talking of canteranos, I saw Jordi Gomez score a hat-trick for Wigan on Match of the Day on Saturday night. He looked like another fantastic Spanish export, but the truth is that he'd only managed four in the last three seasons since joining from Swansea, the other cradle for La Liga's aspiring youngsters. Gomez also came through the ranks at Barcelona, but made his professional debut for Espanyol, before being loaned out to Swansea almost four years ago. Nevertheless, he joins Fernando Torres in the exclusive club of two Spaniards to have scored a hat-trick in the Premier League. Well, the last time Torres did that it was against QPR, but I think if you handed me a shirt now I'd score three against them without too much bother.

Roberto Martinez, Wigan's manager and one of the most dignified of Spain's exports to England, was interviewed post-match as usual, and like his compatriot Rafa Benitez, he speaks excellent English, only better (than Benitez). He's also a personable sort of bloke (unlike Benitez?) and has made sterling efforts to acculturate to England and its funny ways. Annoying then (to keep up the flimsy theme) to hear once again the BBC pundits refer to him as Roberto Mar-tinez, with the stress on the first syllable. It's actually pronounced 'Mar-ti-nez', with the stress on the second syllable. Is this important? Well, yes. Get it right and it shows you care. Like the 'Bernabow', mispronounced for no logical reason by the entire British population (I'm not so sure about the USA), it's very easy to get it right. The Brits drive on the left and stress words on the left, but Latinate rooted languages tend to swing to the right on longer words. Think of the drink 'Martini'. You wouldn't want to stress that on the left at a Christmas party, would you?

Okay, rant over. Next week's theme, focused on the Berna-BAY-oh, will be much clearer for all to understand and pronounce.

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