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Dec 3, 2012

When I ruled the world

Marvellous what a bit of alliteration can do, eh? I always thought that the 'Tito Team' had more going for it, poetically speaking, than the 'Pep Team'. And thus it has proved, with Saturday's 5-1 victory over Athletic handing the team 40 points from the first 42 available.

The only game they haven't won from the first 14 was the draw in the Camp Nou against Real Madrid, which means that their 'arranque' (start) is now the best in the history of the Spanish professional league, which began back in 1928. It's therefore worth beginning the article with this statistic, although every time that one mentions Barcelona these days it's because some record or other has fallen - Andres Iniesta managed the most passes with the outside of his right foot since any player in the post-war period, and Victor Valdes effected the most gruesome facial expressions in a ten-minute period since 1934.

Whatever - it's amazing at the moment here in Spain. Any thoughts of a competitive league have once again shifted to the discourse of record-breaking and of the Ballon d'Or. The former sees us wait for Leo Messi to overtake Gerd Muller - he's now one from equalling him, two from the all-time record - and the latter sees us wonder, as if there is really any doubt, who will emerge the winner of the latest X Factor vote-off on January 7. Such is life these days - an enormous corporate vote-fest, with the cameras of the world zooming in to check out the smallest tics in the expressions of the three (Messi, Iniesta and Ronaldo, in case you didn't know), the sign of a tear, of a lip-curl, or even a smile. Small wonder, then, that these three guys are going hammer and tongs at the moment, although I guess the votes are already in.

Maybe that's why the records keep falling. Barcelona have overtaken the Real Madrid side of 1991-1992, who under Radomir Antic had established the previous wonder start of 12 wins and a draw. Actually, that was a pretty interesting season - my first in Spain and one I remember well. One very interesting fact about it, for all you lovers of the runes, was that Real Madrid didn't even win the title. Barcelona did, pipping Real to the title by one point. It was the second year of the Dream Team's four consecutive titles, with Johan Cruyff's side stealing the crown from the declining remains of the Quinta del Buitre and shifting the world of La Liga so memorably on its axis. In third place, you guessed it, were Atletico, a mere two points shy of the winner's total. Other interesting facts from that bygone season were that the one drawn game from Madrid's opening salvo was of course at home to Barcelona (1-1), in a predictable parallel to this season's story so far. The end of Madrid's run came in the 14th game when they drew away at Zaragoza and then only won three games in the next ten. Sun then shadow, the classic Spanish metaphor. Just when you're looking smug, lady luck comes along and pulls up the rug.

Barcelona are not being smug though. They've scored 48 goals already (one fewer than the record-breakers of Madrid at this stage last season) and despite looking typically stratospheric and almost alien-like in their mutual understanding and movement on Saturday night, Tito Vilanova continues to be a very nice bloke. It's odd, but ever since the PR disaster known as Louis van Gaal (siempre negatiffo!) Barcelona have specialised in media-friendly managers, guys difficult to dislike. Frank Rijkaard was popular, and generous and kind in his appreciation of the opposition. Guardiola was Guardiola, occasionally annoying but always with the best of intentions, fairly unflappable, and unusually humane in his view of the sides his team would ritually slaughter, but Vilanova seems so laid back he's horizontal. Like a sleeping cat on the sofa, he sort of relaxes you with the calmness of his press-calls, saying the right things in classic Guardiola style but saying them in a tone of voice that is strangely pleasing. The Lord only knows how he motivates this present squad. Perhaps it just isn't necessary.

Guardiola, famously, insisted on Coldplay's Viva La Vida as the team anthem, to be played in the dressing room just before every game. Good though the song is, and fairly obvious in its message about not being complacent (I wonder if Joan Laporta will ever sweep the streets he used to own?), urban legend has it that Carles Puyol wasn't too keen on all those sissy cellos, and managed to get the song changed one weekend to Instinct of Survival by Napalm Death. By all accounts, Pep was not amused. I don't know what Tito has changed the song to. He looks like a Psy fan to me. Oppa Barça style!

Not to dwell too long on Barcelona this week, one has nevertheless to re-emphasise the basic grounding of this team, whose like we may never see again. Ibai Gomez, who scored a pretty decent goal for Athletic on Saturday night when his side were already four down, commented afterwards that they were best side he'd ever seen. Well, Ibai's a young guy, but as a much older guy I'd go along with his sentiments. I'm not saying it's the most aesthetically pleasing side of all time - that's another issue altogether - but I've never seen a team quite like this one. And the oddest thing of all about them, perhaps the fact that will be forgotten in years to come, is that none of their magic would really function if it were not for their astonishing work-rate. Maybe Tito puts on Back on the Chain Gang or something. Two incidents stand out from their annihilation of poor Athletic, still dazed and hypnotised by Marcelo Bielsa's wonky wand.

The first is the fourth goal by Cesc Fabregas, due to the incident that immediately precedes it. Barcelona are attacking, and a pass into the area is defended by Athletic, the defender's pass rebounding from a returning midfielder's foot into a sort of no-man's land about 30 yards from the goal. Ander Herrera is the most likely candidate to pick up the ball and start a counter, but although he has several yards' start and is a speedy young thing, Sergio Busquets (I think) lunges into the space with all that characterises this team - desire and sheer competitiveness. The ball ends up with Iniesta in space, who then tricks the entire defence by appearing to move left only to flick the ball to the right, whereupon Cesc steams in and plants the ball into the proverbial. Posterity will always remember the passes and the goals, but a manager will notice things like Busquets' action much more.

The other incident took place with a minute left on the clock and Barcelona 5-1 to the good. Gerard Pique defends an Athletic attack then sets off on a run with the ball as if his life depends on him scoring a sixth, finally crossing the ball for Messi to effect a diving header that almost allowed him to equal Gerd Muller. It must be terrible playing against them. There's fear in the enemy's eyes. The Culés hunt you down like coldly efficient predators, and just when you think you've screamed your last, they take an even bigger bite of your flesh then shake your hand afterwards. When will the nightmare end?

Over in Madrid, the derby succeeded the Camp Nou match (Tito claimed he wouldn't be watching it, because it was supper time), and it ended as it usually does, with a white victory. It's 13 years since Atletico defeated their neighbours. It was a strange game, short on quality in the first half but intense for all that, with Atletico opting for a 'pressing' approach, undone by Ronaldo's early strike, direct from a free-kick. It says a lot for democracy at the Bernabeu that Ronaldo takes so many free-kicks, because he usually takes them badly. The last time he scored one was last season, curiously enough against Atletico. He hit the bar later on with another, but the statistics hardly support his monopoly. He hit the post as well, and generally made life uncomfortable for the visitors, but I'm not sure he played quite so wonderfully as the Spanish press were insisting on the Sunday. He made the second for Mesut Ozil, sure, but only after his original pass to Benzema had gone wrong. He was pretty good, yes. But the panegyrics in the Madrid press on Sunday had a whiff of January 7 about them. Vote for our man, or he'll get grumpy again!

Nevertheless, Madrid did well to come out of this game alive. It could have all gone tragically wrong for them if they'd lost, with some of the local press beginning to turn on Jose Mourinho. Nothing unusual there. With your wife or husband it's the seven-year itch. With Mou it's a three-year thing. After that he gets fed up and packs his mercenary bags again. He's a very good coach, but his very essence is temporary. You cannot be bigger than the legendary institutions you choose to work for, and of course he knows this. He is many things, but stupid is not one of them. And his team were better, in the end, than the new pretenders to the Barcelona shirt-tail grabbers' role.

Atletico were disappointingly defensive, and began with a strategy - to keep Xabi Alonso under wraps - for which there was no Plan B once Ronaldo had scored. It suggested what several Diego Simeone watchers were saying when he returned - that he has certain qualities as a manager, but that tactically-speaking he has yet to prove his worth. That might seem harsh after his team's splendid start to the season, and the result and performance - with the Tiger Falcao starved of meat by his anonymous providers - might yet prove to be a blip. They've got a fairly comfy one next week at home to struggling Deportivo, but the week after they must visit the Camp Nou. That should be pretty interesting.

Elsewhere, Valencia's Mauro Pellegrino, who played with some distinction for Valencia in the golden years (1999-2005) will be sweeping the streets after their 5-2 home defeat to Real Sociedad. Playing with ten men for the second half hardly helped their cause, but the sacking smacks of panic, especially as the club are going well in the Champions League. Once again, the steep walls of the Mestalla have proved a difficult theatre for a manager, even one as popular as Pellegrino, at least as far as the club's recent history goes. Talking of managers, Javier Aguirre started his spell with Espanyol, his fourth La Liga team after Osasuna, Zaragoza and Atletico, and got a draw at equally lowly Granada. Welcome back, Javi. He's usually worth a few sound-bites.

You say goodbye, and I say hello. The final soundtrack for the week perhaps?

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