Tottenham Hotspur
6:45 PM UTC Oct 25, 2016
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6:45 PM UTC Oct 25, 2016
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AC Milan
6:45 PM UTC Oct 25, 2016
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Borussia Monchengladbach
VfB Stuttgart
6:45 PM UTC Oct 25, 2016
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Sparta Rotterdam
PSV Eindhoven
6:45 PM UTC Oct 25, 2016
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2:00 AM UTC Oct 26, 2016
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Cerro Porteño
Independiente Medellín
12:00 AM UTC Oct 26, 2016
Leg 2Aggregate: 0 - 0
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No need for panic after 'Boro draw


Santa's legacy

Oh well - Christmas wasn't so bad back in England. Thanks to global warming, the weather was fairly mild, even up in Grimsby, where winters were traditionally Siberian when I was a lad.

I took my son to his annual game at Blundell Park, which, as all English footballing nerds know is actually in the town of Cleethorpes, meaning that Grimsby Town have never lost at home in over one hundred years.

In less mythical terms, however, they lost 0-4 at home to Rochdale - their heaviest home defeat in ten years - once again moving my son to comment, 'Dad, they're crap'. A concise and succinct conclusion, I feel, although there was so much football to watch over the Yuletide and New Year period that it seemed almost bizarre that in Spain the players had their feet up, eating their turrón and dreaming of a better 2007.

And what did Father Christmas bring to La Liga, to keep up our interest until the summer? Well, Betis woke up several days ago and found that they had a present in the shape of a new manager, the notorious Luis Fernández jumping out of the wrapping already sucking on one of his trademark lollipops.

Love him or loathe him, it's difficult to ignore Fernández, who is of course returning to his roots in Andalucía. Despite playing for the famous French side of Platini, Tigana et al, Fernández is actually a bi-cultural creature, having been born and partially brought up in Tarifa, of mixed French-Spanish parentage. The man who first managed Ronaldinho in Europe, and who almost caused him to pack his bags and return to Brazil, was last seen in Spain managing Espanyol, whom he kept in the top flight a couple of seasons back. He is better known for his years at Athletic Bilbao, where he became something of a legend by buying into the local philosophy like a Basque born and bred, so much so that the team has never really seemed the same since he left.

There's something infectious about the man, something that a certain type of player will always respond to. Fernández suits Betis, an institution where a set of amazingly loyal and vocal supporters have always managed to preserve the club as one of Spain's most eccentric and colourful institutions.

The manager whom he has replaced, Jabo Irureta, was never the right choice. Irureta, nice bloke though he is, always looked as though he would be unable to savage a dead sheep, and he possessed all the charisma of drying paint. He'd retired before, after several years at Deportivo, but now he should really think of staying at home. Betis need flamboyance, and a bit of flamenco swagger. Fernández, famously labelled 'a very bad man' by Pep Guardiola some years back, will certainly bring them that.

And don't they need it. Their neighbours Sevilla have been the talk of the town all season, and despite losing at Zaragoza on Saturday are still looking down on the rest. Sevilla's rise, as has often happened in the past, has coincided with Betis' fall, and the 'Pepinos' (cucumbers) were occupying one of the relegation spots as the weekend's action got under way. They still are, but only because the three sides immediately above them all won too.

Fernández got off to a winning start by beating Celta 1-0 at the Ruiz de Lopera, and pleasing the president of the same name. Indeed, it should make good press for the rest of the season, since previous managers have always had their ups and downs with Lopera, a self-made man and a bully to boot, and one who suffers neither fools nor geniuses gladly, largely because he seems incapable of distinguishing between them. But he's opted for Fernández, and he must know that although he's taken a risk, the players will at least respond in the short term.

What Fernández will never do is kow-tow to his employers, as he showed at Espanyol. At Bilbao, it was never an issue since he appeared to be running the whole show himself, on one occasion turning up at the ground on a national holiday (Athletic had played the night before) and sweeping the terraces himself, muttering to the press as he swept that the cleaners were a bunch of 'lazy cows'.

Other teams who had been good boys and who were visited by Santa were Getafe. It's normally a daunting prospect to face the visit of Barcelona these days, but Getafe were positively bubbling with optimism before the game, entirely due to the absences of Ronaldinho, Deco, Thuram, Zambrotta, Motta, Messi and Eto'o. But despite the dominance of Getafe throughout most of the game, the champions sneaked home with a point (1-1), thanks to Xavi Hernandez, and may never be so weakened again. Not a good sign for their nearest and dearest rivals, Sevilla and Real Madrid, both of whom lost at the weekend, thereby failing to take advantage of the Catalans' slip-up, if that it indeed what it was.

Game of the 2007 re-start was definitely Zaragoza v Sevilla, and it didn't disappoint. Zaragoza, overlooked by Santa and seemingly losing their way before the Christmas break, turned in a magnificent first-half, inspired by Real Madrid's Uruguayan reject Diogo, who turned in a sublime performance at right-back, scoring the opener and making the run and cross that led to the second goal. He even had time to display his boxing prowess at the end of the game by laying into Luis Fabiano in the style of a middle-weight, catching him with a hook straight out of the Sugar Ray Leonard repertoire. Fabiano responded of course, but in that kind of windmill style you associate with primary school playgrounds. Not a pretty sight, but these guys are two seriously good players, and it's an open question why on earth those planning geniuses at the Bernabéu decided that Diogo wasn't up to it.

But there were seriously good players all over the park, and how good it was to see Aimar back in the thick of it, dancing past opponents as if they didn't exist. What a great player he can be, when he's not having his whippet-like body crushed and mangled by hairy defenders. What he needs is a diet of large steaks, or more fish and chips - never mind all this feathery pasta business. Build him up a little, and he'll be the world-beater that they always promised he would be.

As for the leaders, Sevilla once again succumbed to a side who decided to play its back-four high up with the central midfield, risking the ball over their backs but crowding the midfield and breaking up Sevilla's fast 'tiki-taka' movement. Sevilla looked vulnerable, but in the second half reorganised cleverly and spread their lines, isolating the Zaragoza midfield and creating more space for themselves in the process. They got a goal back and could have stolen a point, which showed both their resilience and mental toughness. Don't count them out just yet.

Perhaps Real Madrid can be counted out though, lying on the canvas beaten and bloodied. Their awful display away at Deportivo, not one of their favourite grounds in recent seasons, only served to confirm that they hadn't recovered from the severe beating given them by little Recreativo before the Christmas break. To add insult to injury, Deportivo had not won in their previous nine encounters, and were looking as though 2007 might see them descend into the relegation pit. Their only Xmas present was the presence of Valerón on the bench, a year after he picked up a serious career-threatening injury. He came on for the last few minutes to rapturous applause from the home fans, and he is the class that the side has been so sorely lacking all season.

Poor Madrid, parading their three Christmas presents in the squad - Marcelo, Higuaín and Gago (lovely name that), only put out the latter from the start, but it made no difference. It was clear that the Argentine is a much classier player than Diarra, and may come to solve some of the club's midfield problems, but it was asking a lot of him to play so soon after flying over, in a different context, in a different league. It shows how much Capello rates him, but that's what they said about Diarra.

The young 18-year-old Marcelo was also up for making his debut in place of the injured Roberto Carlos, but in the end Sergio Ramós was moved to left-back. But it's bad times at the Bernabeu. They'll have to put a stop to the rot or else even the infallible one, Mr Capello, will come under scrutiny. And as the rumour machine would have it, a certain Mr Valdano is ready, standing quietly in the shadows.

An interesting start to 2007 then, with everything still to play for. Some teams are looking more hung-over than others, some as if they'd never been away. But the statistics are discounting no-one as yet. Dream on Nastic! You can still do it.

  • 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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