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Dec 18, 2006

Make or break

Christmas is coming, some geese are getting fat. Some others are getting thinner. On Wednesday La Liga plays out its 16th week, brought forward to allow the Yuletide festivities to take place over the next two football-free weekends, but it's a midweek event to which some sides will be looking forward more than others. The fifteen games played so far have begun to sort out the sheep from the goats, but only so far as the top three positions are concerned. The rest is still up for grabs - that is to say the league title, a Champions League place, a couple of UEFA places, the King's Cup, and relegation, of course.

If you're currently in mid-table, let's take Villarreal, Osasuna, Celta and Espanyol (9th down to 12th), you'll find yourself in a place equidistant between the bottom spot and a Champions League berth. The discipline of Philosophy will tell you, with brutal logic, that you can go either way, towards heaven or hell. There's no mid-table safety at this stage.

Ask Villarreal, 'fresh' from a 1-4 thrashing at home to Osasuna. This time last season the former were enjoying the time of their lives, surprising everyone in the Champions League and hovering just below a UEFA Cup place. They're still in a similar position, only two points behind Valencia in 6th place, but you get the feeling that they're on the slide. On Wednesday they visit Racing Santander, four places below them but definitely on the up. A win for Santander will set them up nicely for the fresh start on January 7th, but may push Villarreal towards the slough of despond. This week can make or break a team's season.

In midweek, the manager of bottom club Real Sociedad, Miguel Ángel Lotina, claimed that although he would have preferred not to be lying in the gutter looking upwards, he could see various sides 'a punto de pinchar' (about to deflate). For this reason, at this stage, he claimed to be not unduly concerned. Others would soon join the dogfight. And although this sounded like a manager looking desperately to grasp some positive straw blowing past on the wind, history tends to suggest that he's right. Now what he needs to do is to watch carefully for the sides around the lower middle of the table who lose badly on Wednesday night. They'll be the ones to beat in the post-Christmas struggle for survival.

I went along to Anoeta to watch Sociedad take on Nastic, partly because games between the bottom two sides often turn out to be entertaining affairs, and partly because this is the pre-Christmas period in Spain, when a large swathe of the population is out indulging in office lunches, staff suppers, weekend binges - you name it. Compared to my native country England, Spain is curiously muted over the actual Christmas period, preferring to let its hair down over 'Reyes', (The Three Kings) on the 6th of January. They're big on Epiphany, but also big on the run-up to Christmas. Pleasant though this can be, I'd already been to three consecutive lunches and two consecutive suppers, and was looking for a way out of staying the whole afternoon at a massive communal lunch organised by the parents of my daughter's class on Sunday afternoon. It began at 14.00, but would inevitably go on until 7 or 8 in the evening. Already bleary-eyed and bloated, I couldn't take any more. So Real Sociedad at 17.00, with my son, was the perfect excuse to affect an early getaway.

I'd not seen Nastic in the flesh either, so it was another team to chalk up for my nerdy scrapbook. I've now seen all the current top-flight teams, and by the look of Nastic they might not be of that status come next season. They played ok, twice taking the lead, but a large Christmas crowd had turned up (maybe also avoiding any further long lunches) and they were willing on the home side to win its first game of the season - at the fifteenth attempt. Indeed, for most of the week the city chit-chat had been of the opinion that if they couldn't beat Nastic, they might as well curl up and give up.

The game was an exciting one, ending 3-2 to poor long-suffering Sociedad, and something in the chill winter air, something in the way they surged forward in the second half as though their lives depended on it, suggested that they might still escape. A result at fading Celta on Wednesday night would set them up nicely too. They still looked frail and nervous at times, as befits a side enormously low on its confidence, but they still had enough to beat the visitors, lively up front but terribly weak at the back.

I've now seen all the current top-flight teams, and by the look of Nastic they might not be of that status come next season.

Nastic, or Gimnàstic de Tarragona to you, were founded as a club in 1886, down on the Costa Dorada, south of Barcelona. The date causes headaches for Spanish football historians, since Recreativo de Huelva, founded three years later, are popularly accepted as the first official football team in Spain. There have been periods when Nastic have tried to claim the epithet, but most folks accept now that the 'club' was exactly that, a general sports set-up, featuring a gym for the better-heeled citizens of the town, but doing nothing as grubby as playing football. 1914 seems to have been the year when they started to kick leather, and since then the team has only made the top flight for three season, all between 1947 and 1950. That last campaign among the elite is not one that the club wishes to remember, since they managed to concede 99 goals in a mere 26 games.

Since then, much of their time has been spent flitting between Second Divisions 'A' and 'B', with a sudden surge through the ranks in the previous two seasons, after winning promotion from Second 'B' in 2004. The manager who took over in 2005, Luis César, was seen as surplus to requirements a fortnight ago, despite having retained some of the hero status accrued for having brought them up in the first place.

Nastic's supporters thought the sacking a tad premature, but experienced old hand Paco Flores immediately got them back to winning ways with a win last week over Levante - another side who look to be on a pre-Yuletide slide. Now they're bottom again, and face a crucial game at home to Betis on Wednesday, third from bottom themselves and allegedly fishing around for a new manager to replace old Jabo Irureta, who looks like he might be allowed to go back home to the north to tend to his allotments. The other side from Seville look as though they might stay down there this season, whilst their rivals from across the city, just to rub the salt in further, went top in Barça's Japanese absence, beating nearby Recreativo 1-3 away.

Which are the other sides who might be joining the ranks of the strugglers? Well, unless Deportivo do something soon, their free-fall might easily convert itself into a relegation struggle, almost unthinkable now for a side that have been so consistent and successful since they re-emerged in the early 1990's. Their 0-2 defeat at home to Athletic Bilbao (on the up) means that they have now gone eight games without a win, a miserable run that has seen them pick up 3 points from a possible 24. The last time this happened was in 1997 when the team went seven games without winning, a run that cost John Toshack his job. Joaquin Caparros watch out. For a manager whose cachet was sky-high when he left Sevilla, times are hard.

As they are for Mallorca, another side who seem destined to repeat the miserable time they had last season, escaping towards the end but only finishing four points clear of the relegation places. A half-empty stadium (it always looks that way anyway) saw them lose at home to Santander on Saturday night, and they've now failed to win there since late September. They travel to Valencia on Wednesday night, and can expect to get little change from that particular visit.

Anyway, here's hoping you accept the general thesis. I'm heading back to England for the Christmas period, where football continues fast, muddy and furious, and where I shall be taking in the sophisticated delights of Grimsby Town v Rochdale in the New Year. What more could a man ask for?


  • 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.

  • If you've any comments for Phil, email the newsdesk