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The Final Word on La Liga: Messi shines

La Liga

Elche return

With the weather so miserable in Spain at the moment, it seemed like a good excuse to watch lots of football on the telly over the weekend. However, much of what I saw took in the English FA Cup, a noble competition on whose milk I was suckled from an early age, and one that seems to have recovered some of its allure, judging by the amount of shock results that its fourth round brought about. The giant-killing results, of which there were plenty, always raise various questions. One of them tends to focus on the possible cheapening of the competition when the bigger sides put out weakened teams - but that was rarely the case this weekend. The other is that the shock results expose the 'top' flight for what it really is - more hard-sell than substance.

I'm not sure, but the sheer random madness of the English FA Cup puts its Spanish equivalent to shame, mainly because of the obvious attraction of the single-leg fixtures. The tedium of the two-leg obsession in Spain has long been bemoaned, but no-one seems to be taking any notice. Its logic is that the minnows get a chance to dream, and that the opening leg (always played at the team of lesser status) at least gives the supporters one occasion on which to dream. Mirandes' run last season to the semi-finals captivated the country for a while, but it was a rare sight. The cards are so stacked in the big boys' favour that it's a wonder anyone really bothers to turn up.

But then you get the feeling here that there has been a similar shift in thinking, and that many middling-to-high teams are now looking at the King's Cup as a kind of salvation, a chance to spice up a season in which they cannot seriously aspire to anything else. The Europa League, to which the cup competition wins entry, is also looking more attractive than it originally seemed, with various exotic and obscure sides hanging around its margins. It's almost becoming a football sub-culture, a Thursday night alternative to the usual fare. Athletic Bilbao's romp last season has whetted a few appetites, and it seems to have lit a new spark in the domestic cup competition.

Indeed, Wednesday sees the beginning of a possible new series of clasicos, with Real Madrid taking on Barcelona in the semi-final (in the Bernabeu) whilst Atletico Madrid take on Sevilla. Sevilla particularly, under the new management of Unai Emery, will be looking to salvage their miserable season so far, but Atletico fancy themselves for another final appearance. I say 'series' of clasicos because if the big two continue in the Champions League they would eventually clash in the semi-finals, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Neither is it entirely clear whether Real Madrid are looking forward to this game, although they're putting on a good face in the media, despite their recent spat with 'Marca' over Perez-Gate, and the alleged ultimatum given to the president by the team captains that players would leave if Mourinho didn't (at the end of the season).

There was the 'mini-clasico' this weekend between Barcelona B and RM Castilla in a packed Mini Estadi, finishing 3-1 to the young Catalans. The rather bad-tempered affair will be further proof to many that the cantera (quarry) of Real Madrid continues to be less of a priority than its president's ability to lure big names to the club, and that La Masia continues to bear its fruit. Well - it's not quite as simple as that, but looking at the Second Division table the relative positions of the clubs must be of some significance, Barcelona fifth and RM Castilla 16th. What's the significance? Jose Mourinho has been known to complain that RM Castilla is too focused on being a team and not a supply line, thus keeping too many of the promising 'juvenil' players (like Jose Rodriguez) out of the firing-line.

Barcelona don't tend to do this, but this is only their second year at this level since 1998. Their current position of fifth would seem to be the exception that proves the rule, namely that young promising players cannot really compete at this level over a sustained period against hairy old professionals. The problem is, of course, that it is much better for a professional team to have its reserves playing at the highest level possible (Second 'A') so that the eventual jump to first-team football in the top-flight is not so great. There have been several calls over the years for a 'reserve league' of the types found in Britain, separate from the normal national professional leagues, but it has never taken off. Meanwhile, only the big two have their reserve sides in the Segunda 'A'. You could say, with some justification, that this further mirrors the absolute domination of these two sides at national level. Healthy? No - not really.

Talking of domination, and staying at Second Division level for a change this week, the lead that Elche have built up at the top of the 'silver' division is more than worthy of mention. Their lead over second-placed Almeria mirrors that of Barcelona's 11-point advantage over Atletico Madrid, and as far as the play-offs are concerned, they are 18 points clear of Villarreal, in eighth place (Barcelona 'B' are fifth, but cannot go up). Barring total collapse, it looks as though Elche are on their way back to the First Division, after last treading its boards in 1988. Elche are one of the more interesting and Quixotic sides in Spain, with a recent history of cameo appearances in the top flight, although in the 1960s they were a half-decent team, actually finishing fifth in 1964. When they got back in 1984 it was only due to the fact that the top two sides in the Second Division were both reserve sides (Real Madrid and Athletic), and couldn't go up, but Elche only stayed for a season, returning in 1988 for another before disappearing into the netherworld of Segunda 'A' and 'B' for what seemed like an eternity.

Their ground is an enormous cavern of concrete named after its instigator, Martinez Valero, who managed to wangle a deal to have the ground built then extended for the 1982 World Cup, when it hosted three games. The capacity of 36,000 is still impressive, but only 17,000 turned up for the weekend's 2-0 win over local rivals Hercules from Alicante (recently in the top division but now next to bottom), although you might argue that it's not a bad attendance, given the current league average of just over 6,000. Their previous grounds were the wonderfully named 'El Clot' and 'Altabix', which sounds like something you eat for your breakfast. The team hasn't scored a massive amount of goals (34 to date), given their dominant position, and have no players up there in the top scorers' list. Edu Alcabar and Coro both have six, with the wonderfully named Xumetra (who sounds like a character from a Greek tragedy) on five so far. The strength of the team's bid is clearly based on their defence, which has only conceded a mean twelve goals in twenty-three games. They're not exactly setting the world alight, but such solidity should stand them in good stead next season, if indeed they do return to the top flight.

Almeria, of course, have recently been up there, managing a decent four-season spell from 2007 onwards, but it's tight from second place down, with Girona and the famous Alcorcon only a point behind them. Alcorcon were the side who famously defeated Real Madrid under the Pellegrini regime, and their weekend game against mid-table Ponferradina tickled my son's left-field sense of humour regarding the names of certain Spanish football teams. It's his ambition to play for Ponferradina, only because the name sounds slightly wacky (as does Alcorcon), although he means no disrespect. Perhaps he should write for a trial.

The three sides who went down from the First Division last season have all struggled to varying degrees, a-not-unusual occurrence in a league that requires a distinct mind-set. Quality will get you out in the end, but you'll be lucky to find enough of it with which to stock your whole team. You need a few old heads, and a clogger or two, laced with some young confident bucks who don't quite know what it's all about yet. Elche's present squad seems to fit that bill, with ten players over 30 and an average age of 26.

Poor Racing de Santander have a younger average, but the financial and administrative problems at the club over the last few seasons have combined to inevitably sink them, and they sit sadly at the bottom, seemingly on their way to successive relegations. They finished Saturday's home game against Cordoba with eight men on the field, which didn't help (they lost 3-1). Fellow ex-top flightees Sporting de Gijon are in 14th spot, but are still too close to the relegation spots for comfort. Like Villarreal, they were widely tipped to bounce straight back, and kept a decent squad more or less together - despite Adrian Colunga going to Getafe, Alberto Botia to Sevilla and Alex Galvez to Rayo, but the retaining of Miguel de Las Cuevas looked as though it would pay dividends until he was loaned out to Osasuna in the winter sales. So that's that then. Another season down below.

And yes, Leo Messi scored four against Osasuna and Cristiano Ronaldo scored three against Getafe, in a sort of tit-for-tat weekend (Messi becomes the first player in La Liga history to score in 11 consecutive league games), but to conclude, it's perhaps more relevant to focus on good old Rayo Vallecano, whose 3-0 win over Betis put them into the Champions League spots - for as long as it took Malaga to win at Mallorca. But it was a significant moment, for a club without a euro to rub together. Their manager, Paco Jemez, was deciding to take things with a reasonable pinch of salt: "We're nine points from securing our place in this league for next season" he maintained at the post-match press conference. Lack of ambition, realism, or something in-between? Whatever, as long as teams like Rayo continue to confound logic, I'll remain a happy spectator.


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