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Europa League round of 16 draw

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The real thing at last

It didn't feel quite right a couple of weeks back, when the Spanish season officially kicked off. It was still late August, a time when the country is absent both in body and spirit, and the fact that everyone knew that there would be a fortnight's break after those first games seemed to communicate itself to the players and public alike.

Spain is such a ritualistic country, one in which the seasons, the months and the weeks are all significant in terms of fiestas, food and folkiness, that football inevitably plays its part in the annual cycle. The big kick-off is always associated with the end of summer, with 'operación retorno' as they call it here - the big wakey-wakey after the long siesta.

But something fell flat back on August 27, and the games - as well as the public reaction - seemed sluggish. Not so this weekend. The season finally got under way, the kids were back at school on the Monday, and several of the matches had a tasty look about them.

Add to that a fairly turbulent week, in which Spain showed its usual cara y cruz (two sides of the coin) with one representative team winning the basketball World Trophy and the other coming unstuck 3-2 in Northern Ireland. Significant then, that the weekend's most interesting encounter (played on the Saturday night) was Atlético Madrid versus Valencia, two of the sides most expected to challenge the big two this season, both of them sporting players who either figured in the Irish defeat or who should have done.

The game was initially dubbed as the battle of the forwards, with the home side parading the much-lauded Fernando Torres up front, alongside Valencia's ex-pichichi from two seasons ago, Sean Penn look-alike Mista. Both have played for Spain, although it is Torres in whom Luis Aragonés and the public continue to invest their faith, after a World Cup in which the 'Niño' (child) finally seemed to become a man. Well - cometh the evening and he was sent off for a philosophical discussion with the referee, but he didn't play well.

On the sub's bench sat the new Argentine prodigy Kun Agüero, the most talked-up player in history since Saviola. The Calderón was full to its rusty rafters to see his first home appearance, finally setting eyes on the chap in the second half, when he replaced the ineffective Mista, still seemingly confused as to which team he was supposed to be playing for.

On came Agüero to much applause, received the ball and went off on an interesting run, only to be clattered by Albiol, in a sort of 'welcome to La Liga' challenge. He can expect several more before the season is out. Despite the hype, he did look rather good, brightening up the show a little as far as spluttering Atlético were concerned.

What is it about Atlético? A good new manager, good signings over the past two seasons, the legal and financial problems of the Gil era seemingly behind them, they still can't seem to get it together. When and if they do, then Spain beware, because pound for pound they have one of the season's best-looking squads.

Affording themselves the luxury of playing without star signings Joaquín and Del Horno, forgotten man Vicente, out for much of last season with an injury that put paid to his blossoming international career, came back with a vengeance, at least as far as the winning goal was concerned - getting to the bye-line as in days of yore and placing a perfect low cross for man-of-the-moment Villa to stroke home.

Villa was one of the few who escaped with his reputation intact from the Northern Ireland fiasco, and seems determined - unlike his predecessor Mista - not to become a one-season wonder. Small, mobile and clever, Villa made it four goals in eight days - the others coming against Liechtenstein (2) and in Belfast. He has replaced Mista at Valencia, and replaced Morientes (his striking partner on Saturday) in the national team.

Previously at Zaragoza, he now has 58 goals in 112 starts in La Liga - an impressive average which is almost exactly the same as Morientes' 142 in 279 starts. Both of them score about every 1.75 matches (I can't be bothered to work it out exactly), which is basically pretty good.

Ruud Van Nistlerooy's average is even better (over more than 300 games), but of course there were those who said he wouldn't fit into the Spanish scene. Oh ye of little faith! Not only did he manage a hat-trick in his first away game for Real Madrid, he also shouted 'Vamos' after the first one, in fluent Castilian. Clever linguists these Dutch. He also managed to miss a penalty (for which he had been originally fouled), miss an open goal but still complete his hat-trick with a wonderfully cool lob over newly-promoted Levante's unfortunate goalie, Cavallero.

Madrid's 1-4 win was interesting for various reasons, quite apart from Van Nistlerooy's hat-trick, Ronaldo's likely reaction to it this coming week, and the fact that Capello's sides apparently never score goals.

The manager for Levante was none other than López Caro, the man who stepped up from Madrid's reserve side to steady the ship (sort of) after the departure of the little-lamented Luxemburgo. Caro, a decent bloke by all accounts, could have stayed on at the Bernabéu in some capacity, but preferred to burn his bridges, especially when new Director Mijatovic brought in ex-player Michel to manage the reserve side, Castilla.

The long-term policy of training up a past legend to eventually take over the reins was therefore in place, and López Caro, good job though he'd done, was never likely to figure in the new dawn. Good luck to him, since he looks like he might need it at Levante, who have now shipped eight goals in their first two games.

Barcelona don't seem to have let the Supercup defeat get them down in any way, and continue to look just as good as they ever did, rolling over Osasuna in majestic fashion.

Last season the team from Pamplona were the only ones to make a serious go of hanging onto the Catalans' shirt-tails for much of the competition, but so far this season things ain't looking so bright, with two straight defeats to their credit and early elimination from the Champions League.

Eto'o scored twice, surprise surprise, and Messi chipped in with the third, then hit a post. Messi still looks as if someone just let him out of the kindergarten, but if he can manage to stay out of the treatment room this season, then adjective hype collection beware. You may well be stretched to the limit. Saviola, not so long ago spoken of in similar terms, has decided to stay at Barça and fight for his place. A noble sentiment no doubt, but as Messi grows stronger, the comparisons can only become odious. Perhaps Saviola should have shown more savvy, and joined his mates Tévez and Mascherano for a bit of West Ham bubble-blowing. He might have got a few games there at least.

Talking of West Ham, it was interesting to read in the English press this weekend that manager Alan Pardew has entered the 'rush' to sign Deportivo's sidelined striker, the serial moaner Diego Tristan.

It would seem that England's top flight is becoming a repository for ex-Depor players, although the performances of Walter-the-misfiring-'Rifle' Pandiani and Albert Luque in the green and pleasant land might make otherwise sensible people like Pardew think twice. Depor's manager Joaquín Caparros, never one to call a spade an agricultural implement, this week spoke glowingly in terms of one of Spain's finest, describing Tristan as 'talking a good game in the cafes of Coruña. Pity about the football pitch'. England beware.

The England-Spain connection continued to flow this weekend in other ways too, with Reyes making a second-half debut for Real Madrid at Levante. Beckham too (remember him?) set up Madrid's second goal by playing a wonderful 60-yard pass onto Cassano's right foot, after which Capello's old protégé had only to stroke it into an inviting net.

The pass was sublime - but not good enough for England. See anyone pass the ball with any imagination in Macedonia the other night? Can't say I did. Over in London Woodgate made his debut for Middlesbrough at Arsenal, and played extremely well. At one point he was marking his team-mate Julio Baptista, also on loan from Madrid to see if he can prove himself, or put himself in the shop window.

Getafe continue to ride high after beating Racing Santander, which means that Racing continue to ride low. Expect them to struggle this season. Not so Betis, who with their two stars (Oliviera and Joaquín) both gone amidst much wailing and gnashing of teeth, hammered Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in Seville, confirming their possible resurgence under Jabo Irureta - the ex-Depor man brought back out of retirement to try and gel a side with a bucket-load of new signings.

The signs are good so far, as indeed they are for their neighbours Sevilla, who beat the other Basque side real Sociedad 3-1 in San Sebastían, with the TV cameras conspicuous by their absence.

Sevilla's president José María Del Nido, miffed that the TV companies were unprepared to up their offers to televise the UEFA Cup and Supercup winners, decided to withdraw permission for any of them to televise his team's games, including the Pay-Per-View channel. Real Sociedad protested, but were forced to concede on some legal fine-point which escapes everybody else, but there you go.

It probably put an extra thousand on Anoeta's gate, and it was a warm sunny evening. Who wants to watch the game in a smoky bar anyway?

Well, next week it's the clash that makes the two World Wars look like quiet and friendly affairs, Sevilla v Betis. If that's not on the telly, then smoky bars notwithstanding, it might just go nuclear down in Andalucía. La Liga's back!

  • 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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