Zaragoza's silver lining
It was hard not to feel at least a bit sorry for the 400 travelling Real Zaragoza fans freezing in the most windswept corner of Atletico Madrid's Estadio Vincente Calderon during their team's 2-0 loss on Sunday evening, but they did not seem too down themselves as the final whistle went. Their team had offered little to warm them at any point in the game but, as they prepared for the four-hour journey home to Aragon, they could at least reflect on the progress their club has made on and off the field in the last 12 months.
This time last year Zaragoza looked doomed for relegation, and the club's very existence seemed under threat. With half of the 2011/12 season gone, they had won just three of their first 19 Primera Division games. Coach Manolo Jimenez had improved things slightly after replacing Javier Aguirre during the winter break, but his side were still seven points adrift at the bottom of the table and without a win in any competition in over three months.
Given Zaragoza's then reported debts of €145 million, relegation would have been a disaster, and there were very real fears of a Real Oviedo style slide out of the professional divisions. President Agapito Iglesias was so unpopular he could not attend games at La Romareda, and his use of third-party investment funds linked to Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes to sign players, and (reportedly) money from the sale of Ander Herrera to Athletic Bilbao to buy his family a ranch, had attracted attention from both fans and the law.
But, somehow, former Spanish international defender and ex-Sevilla boss Jimenez oversaw a 'miracle' escape which included finishing the season with four straight wins. This being Spain - and Iglesias being involved - there were claims of foul play from various other clubs (especially Racing Santander coach Alvaro Cervera and Granada president Quique Pina), but this also being Spain, the storm soon blew over.
Agapito surprisingly stepping down for new president Fernando Molinos to take charge during the summer. The squad was shaken-up with 14 new players arriving for very little money spent. Seven regulars for Jimenez this season arrived on free transfers - Jose Movilla (Rayo), Cristian Sapunaru (Porto), Glenn Loovens (Celtic), Alvaro Gonzalez (Racing Santander), Jose Mari (Real Jaen) Francisco Zuculini (Hoffenheim after being on loan at Zaragoza last year) and Paco Montanes (Alcorcon) - while Apoño cost €1 million from Malaga. Young ex-La Masia winger Victor Rodriguez, 22, was promoted from the B team, while bigger earners were moved on to ease the wage-bill.
Such parsimony contrasted with the excesses of just a few years ago - when after Iglesias took control in summer 2006 money the club did not have was splashed on the likes of Pablo Aimar (€11m from Valencia), Ricardo Oliveira (€10m from AC Milan) and most disastrously Matuzalem (€14.5 million from Shakhtar Donetsk). This brought European football for a season, but also relegation in 2008 and lead to Iglesias taking the Ley Concursal (entering administration) in June 2011, when the club still owed €13m to Shakhtar, €33 million to the Spanish taxman and (most disgracefully) €4,475 to the local Red Cross.
Ironically the accounts presented to the court included the €1.5m owed to Deportivo la Coruna for Angel Lafita, which was much lamented by Depor president Augusto Lendoiro ("Zaragoza have been laughing at us," he said in June 2011), but who this week used the same ruse to avoid their own responsibilities.
Lendoiro has had to eat his own words, but it is true that Zaragoza's fans are a much happier bunch than Depor's at the moment. Jimenez organisational and motivational skills have been especially to the fore away from home, where their record is the fifth best in the division.
They began with Jimenez's usual away approach of sitting tight and then looking to spring forward quickly on break. They more or less managed the first part, without doing much about the second, for the first half hour. But then Tiago met Gabi's corner with a flashing header to the net, while the visiting defence was possibly looking after more likely dangermen Falcao and Diego Costa. When referee Jose Luis Gonzalez Gonzalez ruled Sapunaru had tripped Arda Turan and Falcao rifled the penalty to the roof of the net, the game was more or less over seven minutes before half-time.
"It was difficult against a great team like Atletico, but we did not play in the first half," Jimenez said in his post-game press conference. "We lacked soul and intensity. They have great players, but they also play a team. It looks easy what they achieve, but nothing is easy."
The former Spanish international defender tried to change things at the break by replacing defender Javier Paredes with the more attack minded Victor, and while they managed a few neat enough spells of possession, Atletico were happy enough to let them have the ball and Thibaut Courtois was rarely troubled. An Apono volley which was straight down the home keeper's throat and a pretty embarrassing Victor dive in the area were the closest they came to making an impression on the game.
With more space on the break Falcao missed a few chances he would usually expect to take, and visiting keeper Roberto's most impressive act was to go full length to push away an Arda 20 yarder. Less clever was the keeper, rumoured to be Atletico's preferred replacement should Chelsea take back Courtois this summer, clattering over Loovens, almost leading a comical own-goal, but the ball bouncing ever so slowly past the post at their end gave the visiting supporters at least something to cheer.
The defeat still leaves Zaragoza six points clear of the drop zone, ahead of supposed betters Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao, with 10 points more already than they had managed in their first half of last season. Jimenez said that he could accept the defeat, but he was not content with the first half of their Liga season.
"We want more," he said. "We are ambitious. We are representing a club that not long ago was one of the most important in Spain, in Europe, going far in the Copa del Rey. In last years we have been always fighting relegation in the last weeks, but we want to show ourselves a serious, important team. Today we were not like that."
Next chance for Zaragoza to prove that is Wednesday's Copa quarter-final first leg against struggling Sevilla. With Barca and Madrid both in the other side of the draw, even making the final will likely bring a Europa League place and a run at the current version of the competition they famously won thanks to Nayim's last minute chip over David Seaman in 1995. Although given their financial issues, UEFA's Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) may have something to say about that, especially with Malaga's recent ban.
Even having this kind of conversation though shows how far the club has come - by hook or by crook - under Jimenez. Iglesias's shadow remains over the club, but December's AGM was told the administration process was going well. The fans getting back on their club-organised buses for the 300 kilometre drive back to Zaragoza will not have not been too glum. Their side appears to be heading in the right direction after an eventful, and mostly positive, last 12 months.