A tale of two keepers (and Xabis)
So it's back to La Liga after the Christmas break, and we're still not halfway through the season. Next week marks the official halfway mark of the 38 games, at which point it may be more appropriate to draw a series of conclusions and look into the crystal ball, but the renewal of hostilities this weekend seemed slightly muted.
Perhaps this was because of the Epiphany festivities here - a bigger day in Spain than December 25, if truth be told, and one on which many people stay at home (the terraces at various grounds seemed less than full), or maybe it was as a result of the fact that Barcelona seem home and dry, and the only matter of interest this weekend was who was going to play in goal for Real Madrid, Saint Iker Casillas or Antonio Adán.
In the end, the country needn't have worried because they both played, the usurper Adán lasting a mere six minutes before being sent off for a foul on Real Sociedad's Carlos Vela. Adán (Adam) left the Garden of Eden with his tail between his legs, but the incoming Saint went on to concede three goals, even though his team won 4-3 in what was, without a doubt, the match of the weekend.
It's nice to be back. London was fine, but it was rainy and bit miserable. I went to see Fulham v Southampton, taking along with me one of Real Sociedad's coaching staff, largely because he had always wanted to go to Craven Cottage, the ground with the "funny house" inside it.
He was captivated by the atmosphere, although less enamoured of the football on offer, Fulham's Dimitar Berbatov and Southampton's Jason Puncheon excepted. He just liked the atmosphere, generated almost exclusively by the travelling Southampton fans whose refusal to stop singing was impressive, if slightly annoying after a while.
It's always interesting to watch a La Liga employee react to the little things that don't necessarily happen in Spain. Two things that annoyed him were the tendency of people behind the goal to suddenly stand up whenever there was a promising-looking attack (this also drove me nuts), and the unfeasibly long queue for the gents toilets at half-time, the reason for which he correctly identified as "all those massive pints of beer that people drink".
People tend to drink smaller beers, or wine, here when they go out. In search of the latter, and to get back into the groove, I dropped into my local bar on Sunday evening to wish the barflies a happy new year and to watch the game at the Bernabéu.
A percentage of the people who live in the catchment area of a particular bar will always tend to gather when there's a game, and emotions always run high when Real Madrid are involved. There's a regular in the bar who sports a huge twirly moustache, called 'bigotes'. He's in his sixties I would say and, having lived through the Franco era, cannot forgive Real Madrid. Sitting with his regular soulmates, he greeted my arrival thus: "Ah, here's the Real Madrid fan. Left your white shirt at home?"
He says this because, when Sociedad play Madrid, I tend to be called on by the local TV to talk about the game on the flimsy basis that I wrote a book about the enemy. Despite my protests to 'bigotes' that I am a Sociedad supporter, his friend pipes up, "Ha! He writes a book about Real Madrid, and then says he's not a fan. How can you live with yourself?" he tells me, all in good humour. "I did it for the money," I reply. "Did you make any?" he asks. "No," I admit, which gets a laugh - but as I sit down, Karim Benzema scores and they accuse me of being the 'gafe' (the jinx).
It doesn't take long for Real Sociedad to equalise, courtesy of the aforementioned penalty, but it's always interesting to observe these hard-bitten followers of a cause. Sociedad have only won three times in the Bernabéu since its construction in 1947 and, of course, all three wins occurred in the post-Franco era. The hard-bitten gents chew on the possible consequences of the penalty, and one of them notes that Xabi Alonso, a good friend of the penalty-taker Xabi Prieto, has told the entering Casillas which way Prieto kicks it. "He's a traitor!" shouts Bigotes. "What a way to treat your mate!"
But Casillas goes the wrong way and Prieto scores, although not as spectacularly as the last time the same player took a penalty at the Bernabéu, a la Panenka in 2004. Maybe Prieto knew what Alonso had said and turned it into a double bluff. A young Alonso was on the bench that night in May 2004 - the last time Sociedad won in the Bernabéu (4-1). Strange to watch destiny's children play out another scene, eight years down the line.
Prieto ends up with a hat-trick, the first player from his team to manage one since 1996 and the first to put three past St Iker in the Bernabéu since Walter 'the rifle' Pandiani did it for Espanyol in 2006. Espanyol also lost 4-3 that day, and were wearing blue and white stripes. 'Twas written in the runes.
But there is little euphoria surrounding the goal and the reduction of Madrid to 10 men. 'Bigotes' is clear on this one. "Madrid will still win. The ref will send one of ours off to balance things up - you watch." Madrid did win 4-3, and Dani Estrada was indeed sent off later for Real Sociedad but, although I decided not to express the opinion there and then, it was interesting to see Madrid's ability to cope with the circumstances, without Sergio Ramos and Pepe, with Michael Essien at full-back and the ground stunned into a sort of resentful silence. I wished my team had won, and perhaps been more aggressive when the opportunity to kill the game had arisen, but there you go.
In the greater realm of football-related matters, the only things on which the media will continue to focus are the goalkeeping situation and José Mourinho's state of mind. Real Madrid play Celta in midweek in the return leg of the cup tie that they must win. Adán can play, in theory. The world holds its breath.
Over in the Camp Nou, apart from the vexed question of David Villa's possible destiny (Arsenal?), all is joy and bliss. Tito Vilanova returned to the bench after his successful operation, and although he preferred the stands for the second half (doctor's orders) his team strolled to a 4-0 win against neighbours Espanyol in the Catalan derby. Leo Messi scored his first of the calendar year, which leaves him the simple task of 91 more to beat the record.
Barcelona actually equalled another one, curiously enough set by themselves some 70 years ago. Between 1942 and 1944, they managed to score in 36 consecutive games. In fact, the last time they failed to score was against Villarreal on January 29 2012. Ah, Villarreal! Just to rub salt into their wound, they played at home to Barcelona B on Saturday, and lost 3-1. How times change.
Over in Galicia, at the other extreme of the continuum, Deportivo surprisingly beat Malaga 1-0 and, in so doing, put paid to 358 minutes without scoring a goal. Well, I say surprisingly, but Malaga obviously don't like it up in the rainy north-west, having lost nine and drawn one from their last ten visits. Put it down to custom. They should get back to business as the New Year develops.
Down in Granada, you'd have been forgiven for staying at home for the visit of Valencia, since the game featured the meeting between the lowest scorers at home (now seven) with the lowest scorers away (now five). The visitors took the points with a 2-1 win, and look to be improving under new manager Ernesto Valverde - despite the fact that Granada were reduced to ten men for the second half.
Next week, we can take a look at the state of things past, present and to come as the half-way stage announces its portents. I'll also try to put flesh on my plans to visit some Spanish grounds I've not yet been to over the coming year.