From Marrakesh to the Madrigal
The trouble with holidays is that there's always sooooo much to do when you come back. Took the family for a ten-day tour around Morocco, taking in Milan v Barça and Arsenal v Villarreal at the final stop in Marrakech - all cunningly planned of course. Now there's too much to write about this week. Where to start?
Well - maybe down a dark twisting alleyway in old Marrakech. It's hardly the role of this column to boost the Moroccan tourist industry, but if you ever find yourself pining for the days when travel was travel, 'tourism' was a word that other people used and the service industry was a distant fantasy, then get thee down to Marrakech.
Old hippy I may be, but there you will find a wonderful city, submerged knee-deep in the juices and spices of its own chaos. It's real in-your-face stuff, and anarchic though Spain can sometimes appear, it's tame in comparison. My kids were gobsmacked.
But back to that alleyway. It's dark, it's early evening, and my son and I are leading the way, hoping that it will take us to the famous Jemaa el Fna square, when suddenly out of the silence there arises a mighty roar, like a hundred lions in festive rut. My son leaps several feet into the air as the rest of us freeze, horrified by this sudden shattering of the silence. Not ten feet away, dark figures come suddenly staggering out of the gloom, punching the humid air. Then they turn around again, and disappear into some dodgy café, to the right.
As we make a timid approach, the truth dawns. I've forgotten about the time difference. Spain/Italy is two hours ahead, and the Champions League semi-final is well underway. We duck expertly into the sepia room opposite a sea of TV-lit faces.
Old men clench mint teas in one hand and pound the air with the other as the replay shows Giuly smack the ball into the roof of Milan's net. The lions roar as one. Marrakech, indeed Morocco, is 95% Barça territory, as has been obvious over the holiday from the amount of fake phosphorescent yellow shirts glowing in the north African dark or glinting harshly in its noon-day sun. At 5 euros a time, no-one's complaining, except perhaps the Barcelona accounts department.
The next day I get a Number Two from Shafiq, a scholarly-looking young hairdresser who has a tiny barber's shop deep in the old Medina. I've chosen him because he's got a huge Barcelona pennant hanging from the mirror at the back of his shop. There's nothing better than a good Number Two plus shave whilst talking football. No frills hairdressing. I'm kind of tired of asking gum-chewing young assistants to make me look like Brad Pitt, for twenty euros. Shafiq, I know, will provide me with other more genuine goods.
I ask him first who he wants to win, in the other semi-final. He replies to me in good French that he's rooting for Arsenal. 'Not that I don't rate Villarreal for getting this far. It's just that I want us to play Arsenal in the final. I think everyone wants that really.' I tell him I don't. I tell him that I want an all-Spanish final. He shrugs. 'The only good thing about Arsenal losing will be that Henry will then come to Barcelona' he smiles. 'If Arsenal win the cup, then he might stay. Like Gerrard did at Liverpool.'
I suggest that it's not so clear-cut anyway, and that the rumour-mongers are now talking about him going to Real Madrid, tempted there by a salary offer of 9 million euros per year and erm... Victoria Beckham's friendship with his wife.
Shafiq's not impressed. 'I don't think he'll go there. Why would he do that? Would you turn down the chance to play with Ronaldinho, Messi, Xavi and Deco?' I tell him definitely. I would definitely prefer to be in the company of Victoria Beckham. It's not all about football. You have to consider the cultural possibilities too.
I'm not sure if he picks up on the English irony, but now we're onto Real Madrid. 'People used to support them here, but in the last couple of years it's all been Barça. But I've supported them for years. Really. I supported them when they weren't so good. But it's a city thing too. If you go to the north of the country, they're more into Madrid. I'm not sure why.' And Villarreal? 'They're very good. They're a unit. But they'll lose. This is the final the flair teams are going to play. It's time that happened.'
I watched the whole game in the aforementioned café, but the owner wouldn't let me take a shot, unfortunately. I don't think that it was a good result for Arsenal at all, and I can't understand all the stuff that's been written about the game - as if Arsenal were somehow a hugely superior force. They played ok, but their main achievement was to stop Villarreal from playing, wisely rushing them in the centre of the park - something that doesn't happen in La Liga.
If the Spanish side were disappointing it was in their inability to cope with this and in their lack of preparation for such an eventuality. Having ceded to Arsenal's fast-forward frenetic stuff, they settled on a 1-0 result. Suicide? Hardly. Arsenal may be doing well on clean sheets in Europe but they concede goals in England. Their defence looks good, but it's a funny old game. Ask Inter. I sense 'game on', whether anyone else does or not.
At the weekend, however, the usual farce took place when the return legs of the Champions League are looming. Arsenal left out several big guns (as it were) for their derby game against Tottenham, despite the fact that such a policy was risking their league position and therefore their chances of returning to Europe should they not win this season's trophy.
That's a big mortgage they're taking out on their new ground. I wonder what the bank manager thought of Wenger's initial line-up? Whatever he thought, the consequences were not too wide-ranging, since only Tottenham benefited in their own quest for a European berth.
In Spain, however, Villarreal went a little further and sent out a team of nine reserves, although like Wenger (who sent on Henry later) Pelligrini put Forlan on for the second half - not that it made any difference.
Struggling Real Sociedad won 2-0 in a strangely muted Madrigal, doing their prospects of top-flight survival no harm at all. And of course, being a Sociedad fan, I'm as happy as a sandboy - but you have to look at the wider picture. Not only did Villarreal seriously harm their prospects of at least guaranteeing a UEFA place for next season, they also handed a relegation-threatened side three points on a plate.
Meanwhile, poor Betis, Alavés, Athletic, Mallorca, Málaga and Racing all lost according to the rules of normal competition, and in the latter case, provoking the resignation of Manuel Preciado.
Milan, meanwhile, had their hands tied - since the only way to keep Juve in sight was to put out a decent team at Messina. Unfortunately for them, half the team got onto the returning coach on crutches, a sight that will be a pretty one for Barça fans, making up for the fact that their late-night televised game at Seville was called off after an Andalucian downpour of Noah's Ark proportions.
Couldn't FIFA gather together a team of top lawyers and brainstorm some legislation that would finally put an end to this practice?
It's not a case of begrudging a team its place on the Champions League podium but rather a matter of ensuring that league competitions are not adulterated by priority planning - effectively creating a two-tier system. Well, we know it exists anyway, but this weekend's events were a bit shameless, to say the least.
The law has to treat everyone equally, all of the time - as does the rain of course, but we'll overlook that one.
There had previously been talk of the Catalans winning the league this week, should Valencia have lost at Athletic (they won 0-3) and Barça won in Seville. There were those who said that this would have been good news, since the Catalans could have centred themselves exclusively on the Champions League, and there were others who differed, saying that the partying would have distracted them.
In the end the speculation was irrelevant and we'll have to wait another fortnight now. But Barça will get there, sooner or later. Valencia will be dreaming for a while, but dreams they will remain. This is the Catalans' year.
Whether they can get the double or not remains the more tantalising question.