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Apr 15, 2013

Facts and figures

Statistics may be up there with damned lies, but that doesn't mean that they're of no interest. It would be nice to start by knowing the average age of the two line-ups for the Levante versus Deportivo game on Saturday (it might have been a record). Eleven of the 22 starters were over 30 but, that aside, I can't be fussed with getting out the calculator.

The important thing for Deportivo, of course, was that they won 4-0 in Valencia, their fourth victory on the trot, and moved out of the relegation places for the first time in 17 weeks. The opening goal was scored by Juan Carlos Valerón (37) from a pass by Manuel Pablo (also 37). When was the last time, I wonder, that a La Liga goal was fabricated by two players whose ages totalled 74 years? Answers on a postcard, please.

It was actually Valeron's first goal in the top flight for three years and came in a game that was, curiously enough, the first time the Galician side had ever won 4-0 away in their entire La Liga history. Before 'Super Depor' historians jam the telephone lines, it's true that they won 5-0 at rivals Celta in 2004, but the point remains.

It was also the first time that newish manger Fernando Vázquez has ever won four consecutive league games as a boss, which is kinda going some because he first began in management in 1986 and only began his seven-year sabbatical in 2006 after 20 years of building up a reasonably successful curriculum vitae.

Vázquez, who got a mention in this column a few weeks back, remains something of an oddity in La Liga - proof, perhaps, that coaching is more about the human touch than it is necessarily about exceptional tactical acumen. Without the latter, you're never going to get one of the really top jobs - seemingly reserved these days for a small handful of coaches whose names are perpetually cited when a big job becomes available.

But watching Vazquez take the plaudits from the hordes of travelling Depor fans, once again disproving the idea that away-days are not the norm in Spain, you couldn't help but be touched by the scene - as long as you aren't a fan of Celta, Mallorca or Zaragoza, of course.

When I saw Depor lose at Getafe in early February, they looked a broken team. There didn't appear to be any way back for them, their supporters were hurling insults at them and they couldn't string two passes together. Levante are going through a bad time now, and contributed to the Gallego cause on Saturday with their post-European hangover, but Depor were quick, incisive, confident and full of football. Pizzi's goal, Depor's second, was fantastic - check it out on the web.

There is no science to explain all this. Vázquez is an ex-English teacher and a dead ringer for Milhouse, Bart's friend from The Simpsons. He has the physical presence of an unassuming nun and the apparent charisma of a farmyard goat. And yet he has changed the dynamic of the team completely, galvanising the whole community into chanting the phrase "Si se puede!" (Yes it's possible), popularised by Zaragoza fans during their miracle escape last season.

That phrase has since taken on some sort of sympathetic magic, a term used in anthropology to denote ritualistic or fetish-like behaviour. The Depor fans, like shamans of old, went into a trance-like state and began to chant the phrase as soon as Milhouse stepped off the bus on Saturday evening. The coach punched the air in a vain attempt to look manly and competitive, and the throng roared into the Valencian night air. They even seem to have forgotten that he used to coach rivals Celta, and that he was actually sacked there the night before the derby game with his present team.

Zaragoza, meanwhile, are now on a run of 14 games without a win, their worst since... well, since last season. They haven't beaten Barcelona (or their reserves) at home since 2006 now, and have dropped into the relegation spots.

Their fans have not begun the chant as yet, purloined as it has been by the Depor contingent, but the next two fixtures may give them hope. Next week, they travel to Celta, and the week after they are at home to Mallorca, in two duelos de perros (dogfights), as they call them here.

Those two encounters will play a major part in revealing the identity of the three most likely to lose their status this season, and with Deportivo at home to a sorry-looking Athletic de Bilbao next, Milhouse might be on for a new personal best of five on the trot.

Real Madrid kept up their own personal statistic at San Mamés, winning 3-0 there for a third season on the run. This game had other symbolic issues surrounding it. It was the ground where Saint Casillas first trod La Liga turf - on September 12, 1999, to be precise - in a 2-2 draw. Since then, in case you're wondering, he has played 576 games for Madrid, conceded 622 goals, managed 2,017 stops and post-match snogged his rather lovely-looking journalist girlfriend live on camera.

He has also been dropped by his present manager, the first time he's been sent to the bench since 2002, and was apparently busting to play on Sunday night due to the fact that it would have sealed a nice counterpoint to his career.

San Mamés closes its gates on May 29 against Levante, and the oldest ground standing in La Liga will make way for a new hotel. Mourinho was having none of it, however, and Diego Lopez continued his successful run.

This game at San Mamés, now 100 years old, is of course the most-played fixture in the history of official Spanish football. The game has taken place 102 times, 81 of them in the league and the rest in the cup. Athletic won 47 of them, and Sunday's game marked Madrid's 37th and final win at San Mamés.

Last season, you may recall, Real clinched the league title on this ground, the first time since the official league began (in 1928) that any visiting team had managed to do that. Levante are unlikely to repeat the act in the final curtain-call but, weirdly enough, Barcelona also pay homage to San Mamés in a fortnight's time. If the Catalans win their next game (at home to Levante) and then win in Bilbao, a slip-up from Real Madrid (at home to Betis then away to Atlético) would also see them crowned champions there in a bizarre imitation of last year's event. Since 1928, it had never happened. Then it takes place in the last two years of the stadium's existence? It would be a spooky way to end.

Sticking to statistical mode, it would be odd not to mention the vibrant Seville derby played at Betis on Friday night. Apart from being the first time a novel-writing Betis manager has stuck his finger up to the opposing fans after coming back from 3-0 down, it was also the first time Betis have ever come back from 3-0 down in their entire history. I find that one hard to believe, but apparently it's the case.

Sevilla also became the team in La Liga with most red cards this season (13) when their pugnacious little midfielder Gary Medel was sent off in the second half, thereby helping the opposition's cause. It's actually the second time he's been sent off in a derby, but that's the least interesting fact.

It was a quite amazing game, and contributed to a second successive week of high scoring in La Liga. Defenders getting tired, or La Liga's gone loca? A bit of both, I think. We're approaching that stage when teams cast off their inhibitions and begin to run naked down the street in pursuit of survival or European competition for next season. A draw no longer looks very appetising at this stage.

Finally, the Champions League draw threw up the intriguing possibility, for the second consecutive season, of the first ever clásico final. Last season, Madrid blew it with defeat to Bayern, and Chelsea eliminated Barcelona. Indeed, last season most bets were on a clásico. This season, Bayern's extra strength and present form make it look rather unlikely. It's strange to see Barcelona relegated to underdog status for the semi-final, but who knows? It might suit them in the end.

And no-one seems quite sure how to consider the Madrid-Dortmund game. Madrid failed to beat them in the group stages but have improved since then. History appears to be on Madrid's side, too, since it was Dortmund they defeated in the semis on their way to their septima (7th) win 1998. The runes are good, although Madrid have traditionally found German sides hard going.

Both La Liga sides have the home game in the second leg, a theoretical advantage but hardly one to count on and, of course, much of the interest this week has resided in the fact that Pep Guardiola, Bayern's manager to be, will be in something of a tizzy over in New York.

Who does he want to win? Why, Barcelona of course. His heart is with them, and his head, too, like a man about to marry for the second time. His new partner is all promise, but he still loves his ex-wife. The memories are too strong. If Bayern win the semi and go on to take the title, Pep will have his work cut out next season to improve the scene for a club who might have won the treble (they are also in the German Cup semi-finals) by the time he arrives.

I have to admit that a Madrid-Barcelona final would be awesome on every level, with no disrespect to the obvious power of the Bundesliga. It would be a year-zero in statistical terms, an awesome media spectacle and perhaps a depressing endorsement of the power of money to reap its own rewards, but it's difficult to pretend for La Liga followers that anything else will do.

Things are warming up nicely. Hang on to your hats - there's plenty to keep us engaged until June 1 comes around. Deportivo and company would also agree.

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