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Mar 13, 2006

Relegation roller-coaster

Ok, so Barça lost at Osasuna and had a couple of guys sent off, but by the look of Valencia and Real Madrid on Saturday night, it would be unwise to expect the destiny of the league title to be anywhere but the Camp Nou this season.

A Catalan collapse is possible, of course, but the poor things were a bit tired and emotional after their roller-coaster ride against Chelsea in midweek, accompanied by those understandable feelings of invincibility that often occur in the wake of such events. Jorge Valdano once called it the 'Achilles effect', the fact that sometimes in football when things are going well, you temporarily forget about your mortality. And indeed, a visit to the tightly-packed hordes who holler down from the re-named 'Reyno de Navarra' is not quite the same as taking on Chelsea in the friendlier surroundings of home, good though the Londoners might be.

They lost 2-1 in Pamplona, but still hold a nine-point advantage over the two afore-mentioned aspirants. It could have been seven points, if substitute Ronaldo had managed to put away the late penalty awarded to his team after Cañizares had brought him down in the area, but as Mark Lawrenson remarked on the BBC on Saturday, the 'galáctico era' would now seem to be dead, to be replaced by the 'geriatrico' period. Nice one.

Osasuna have consolidated their possibilities of making the Champions League for the first ever time, but they have long since dismissed any chances of catching Barcelona. Despite a few wobbles of late, they're still having an excellent season and their witty manager Javier Aguirre is being talked about as the next Atlético Madrid boss; curiously enough when the caretaker man there, Pepe Murcia, is doing such a good job in getting the best out of a squad that has always had potential but which has spent the last two seasons firing blanks.

With thirty-three points still to play for, things are beginning to look decidedly more interesting down below. It was a good weekend for the three Basque clubs - Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao and Alavés all winning. That's the first time it's happened all season, which goes some way to explaining why none of them are out of the woods just yet.

Sociedad managed to keep a clean sheet at Deportivo, the first time their porous defence has managed this feat in eleven weeks, Bilbao won their game against fellow-strugglers Cádiz in the 94th minute, courtesy of a twice-taken penalty, and Alavés beat UEFA-tired Sevilla 2-1 in Vitoria, despite the various off-field shenanigans that saw dozens of tables laid out on the road outside the stadium for the purposes of signing petitions against the president, Dmitry Piterman.

It seems that if the Ukranian won't take the hint and pack his bags, he'll be chased out of town.

The campaign to oust him has been seconded by the city's municipal authorities, whom Piterman has threatened to take to court, but despite the recent upturn in results - with Piterman running the team (as he always has, behind a succession of paid-up puppet coaches), the folks of the Basque capital just don't like the guy. Call it a lack of chemistry, or a dislike of dictators.

So anyway, propping up the table are Málaga, not a side who would be sorely missed by the top-flight neutrals, but who nevertheless won themselves a decent point at Betis, the side now two places above them. Betis, like their good friends Sevilla, had also played a game on Thursday in the UEFA Cup, and couldn't quite find the energy to defeat their Andaluz cousins.

It's extraordinary in Spain how the Champions League has now so eclipsed the UEFA Cup that most of the country seemed unaware that it was even taking place last Thursday. With the television rights practically snuffed out, sides like Betis must be wondering if it's really all worth it, especially when preserving a place in the top division is far more important for their long-term health.

Mallorca, down in the dumps for most of the season, also managed to nick a point off a side who'd been engaged in midweek battle - specifically Villarreal, who of course made it to the quarter-finals of the Champions League by knocking out Rangers over the two legs. Most of Spain is happy for them, since no-one has any particular political or regional axe to grind against the team from-over-there-somewhere on the east coast. However, their ex-goalie, Reina, must be cursing his luck with regard to the Champions League, since the side to whom he was transferred in summer, Liverpool, were knocked out by Benfica.

There are nine sides involved in the relegation struggle, and it would take a brave punter to predict the three condemned, at this moment in time.

Mallorca themselves have not lost a game since Hector Cúper jumped ship, an act for which he should be profusely thanked and awarded some sort of medal for services to real football. Greg Manzano, another of the growing army of Red-Adair managers in Spain who float around the circuit in a state of semi-permanent employment - putting out the fires then fading again into limbo - seems to have brought a little bit of happiness back to the team's play. But they still only have 27 points. Indeed, a mere 4 points separates Betis, in the third relegation spot with 26 points, from Espanyol in 12th place, on 30 points.

After that, there's a bigger gap up to Zaragoza and Getafe, on 36 and 37 points respectively, and indeed Getafe were making noises on Sunday night to the effect that they had 'won their permanence' for the next season, as the phrase goes here. That's probably true, which means that there are nine sides involved in the relegation struggle, and it would take a brave punter to predict the three condemned, at this moment in time.

Real Sociedad looked in free-fall, with only nine points from the last 51, but the parachute might just have opened up for them this weekend. Barça visit them next week, and although Anoeta has been a happy-hunting ground in recent seasons, you just never know. Cádiz are beginning to look a little short of resources and stamina, and it might be worth a flutter on their return to Segunda 'A', and Racing Santander, defeated (narrowly) in the Calderón by the resurgent Atlético, are by no means out of danger.

It would be nice if a side like Cádiz, propped up by wonderfully optimistic and humorous supporters, could hang around for another season at least. It's not just their yellow shirts that brighten up La Liga. This weekend they travelled the length of Spain to play in a rainy San Mamés, a ground where they have never won in their entire history.

They were supported by over 400 travelling fans, a considerable number in a country where the 'away-day' is still not really a part of football culture. It must have cost them a fortune, on top of which they lost the game in injury-time.

Still, adversity builds the character. The other eight teams involved in the dog-fight are all going to need a healthy dose of that over the next eleven games if they're to avoid the dreaded drop. Watch this space.


  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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