Dreams still intact
Spain cranked up again at the weekend with its traditional late summer kick-off, taking to the stage after the rest of Europe had already started up, then complaining - in certain quarters (Madrid) that the true form of the players would not be seen until the effects of the recent World Cup had worn off. It must be bad in the other leagues then.
Well - it was poor at the Bernabéu, but let's not start there, for a change. As often happens, the first few weeks of the season afford some opportunity for the minnows to dream, take centre-stage, and assert their rights to stand up and be counted. Osasuna did it last season, as did Getafe in the early weeks - and there Getafe are again, sitting proudly in second place after their 0-2 win against...you've guessed it, Osasuna. Not a great week then for the side from Pamplona, robbed of their popular manager, dumped out of the Champions League in the preliminary stages, and now beaten at home on the opening day. Rather like last season, when they lost in the opening round of the UEFA Cup and were dooming and glooming, but then had reason to be cheerful soon after.
For Getafe, the déjà vu is equally interesting, since they began last season by winning 0-2 at Espanyol, and going on to register a more-than-decent season in which they finished in the highest position of their brief history (9th). Maybe Bernd Schuster is not regretting staying put after all. This is a side who were still in 2nd B in 2002, as were the other small fish to make a splash on Sunday, the oddly-named Nàstic. Well, their full name is Gimnàstic de Tarragona, and they're going to drive international keyboards mad all season with that tricky grave accent over the 'a'. Whatever - they beat Espanyol 0-1 in the Montjuic, which means another poor start for Barcelona's poorer neighbours.
Rather interestingly, for any budding anoraks out there, this was the first time in 40 top-flight games that Nàstic have managed to keep a clean sheet, the previous forty having been played between 1948 and 1950. Take a bow Espanyol's forward line - a triumph 58 years in the making.
In 1950, Tarragona, as they were then more longitudinally known, finished next to bottom of the 1st Division with 16 points and 99 goals conceded (in 26 games - some achievement) and were rarely heard of again. As recently as 2004 they were in the murky depths of 2nd B, after which their rise has been somewhat meteoric.
Tarragona, incidentally, is a gem of a place on the Costa Daurada, and was the capital of Rome's eastern Iberian province. An elegant place, it's always been better known for its Roman ruins than its football team, but times can change. And of course, Catalonia and its surrounding provinces being back in swing, Nàstic represent yet another high(ish) profile addition, with Levante (from Valencia) also back in the big time. Nàstic's ground, inaugurated in 1972, only holds 13,000, but it looks as though it will be bursting at the seams, at least for the next few weeks.
The midfielder Alejandro Campano, brought in from Mallorca, scored their goal, but their best player was the evergreen Antoni Pinilla, a forward who seems to have been around for ever, since kick- starting his career in Barcelona reserves in 1988. His new partnership with Javi Portillo, the useful forward signed from Madrid, could pay some sort of dividends this season.
Levante, who finished third in Division 2 last season, started off the worst of the new boys (Recreativo drew 1-1), falling foul of having to meet the early season's golden boys, Sevilla. Fresh from a startling 3-0 win over Barcelona on Friday in the European Supercup, they followed this up with a 4-0 destruction of Levante, Kepa getting the new season's first hat-trick.
Maybe the Andaluz side will be this season's challengers to the usual trio of Barça, Real Madrid and Valencia. Most commentators see Atlético Madrid as the season's dark horses, but there seems to be a self-belief at the Sánchez Pizjuan that has carried over from last season's nifty campaign, denied a Champions League place on goal difference but seemingly intent on going one better this year. They've got a great goalkeeper in Palop, two excellent full-backs, one of the league's hottest properties in winger Navas, and plenty of movement and goals up front with Kepa and Kanouté.
Oh...alright then. Real Madrid and Barcelona. Well - the former drew at home to Villarreal, and the latter won, 2-3 at Celta Vigo. Plus ça change, as winger Giuly might have said. Madrid's 0-0 bore draw at home to last season's surprise European nearly heroes, is already alleged evidence that the old crisis is still simmering away. On the brighter side of things, the team kept a clean sheet, despite the fearsome presence of ex-Pichichi Diego Forlán, the tricky little Turk Nihat, and the much praised Riquelme. But this is the new reign of Fabio Capello, the thinking man's Hector Cúper.
Capello's signings have left little room for doubt as to his future vision, beefing up the defensive aspect of midfield with two strong but fairly unimaginative players in Emerson and Diarra, shoring up the back with the excellent Cannavaro, and putting faith in the different striking style of Van Nistlerooy to give back the club its competitive edge. With Beckham still not having signed the famous extension to the contract, Guti with a foot in Atlético Madrid all summer, Baptista halfway to White Hart Lane and Reyes looking more likely to move to the Calderón, the creative side of things was always likely to be the first victim.
It looks like Robinho will need to come of age this season (he started on the bench on Sunday), Raúl will need to do a bit of yoga and find the inner self again, and Ronaldo shed a few pounds and take things a tad more seriously. Unfortunately for Capello, the Brazilian is once again making contradictory noises, now saying that he's 'very happy' in Madrid, only five months after he claimed to be a miserable and misunderstood fellow, serially unloved by the bitchy Bernabéu. Maybe it's those legendary barbecues he doesn't want to have to forego, knowing, as he does, that Italians just don't party in the same way. Martini and a couple of olives sir? Do me a favore!
And speaking of things Italian, it was Cassano, last season's major disappointment, who came to the fore whilst all around were fumbling, turning in an excellent performance and earning a healthy round of applause from the yawning faithful as he made way for Guti in the 56th minute. But creativity is still not foremost in Capello's mind, as the latest gossip is that he's out to sign centre-back Ayala, who is currently in dispute with Valencia.
Over in the wild west of Galicia, the champions Barça had a tricky-looking encounter with Celta, which they came through with a narrow 2-3 victory. Without the injured Ronaldinho, last season's kings of the strut showed once again that they're made of serious mettle, coming back from 1-0 down to win with a goal from the new boy, substitute Gudjohnsen. All this after the shock defeat last Friday at the hands of Sevilla had the press questioning whether the team was maybe suffering from complacency. No such luck for aspirants to the title, although optimists will take note that they shipped a couple of goals, and Xavi was substitute, Iniesta preferred for the opening game. When you're facing Barça, it's any port in a storm. Ronaldinho injured and Xavi dropped. Just Messi, Deco et al to contend with, but never mind. Thank goodness for small mercies.
Anyway, a little rest now as Spain face up the frightening prospect of LIECHTENSTEIN on Saturday, and then back to business with a tasty looking encounter between Atlético Madrid and the other aspirants to the throne, Valencia. Getafe won't be interested though. They're at home to Santander, a winnable game that should preserve the dream for another week at least.