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Feb 12, 2007

Giving the ball away

Ah the kiss of death! You may recall that in last week's column a certain reference was made to the excellent form of Valencia, how they were difficult to beat, how their main men were coming into form, how they might well go on to win the league - and bang, they lose 3-0 away to Getafe. Inter Milan, their rivals in the next stage of the Champions League, will be sitting down to watch selected highlights of the game quite soon, one imagines.

It's interesting that Valencia have been drawn against Inter, since the former have often been accused of a catenaccio mentality above and beyond the call of duty - a rather odd assessment of a side when you look at it on paper, and you see Spain's two best wingers (on their day), Joaquín and Vicente, and Spain's most complete footballing forward, David Villa.

But maybe their instincts are just too pragmatic. Historically speaking, the problem is that the famous exponent of defensive tedium, Hector Cúper, was one of the managers who put Valencia back onto the map in the late 1990's, with some help from Claudio Ranieri too. Bénitez reaped the harvest, but he did it in a more attractive style (just). But it was ironic that in 2002 Cúper's Inter knocked Valencia out of the UEFA Cup, and the following season sent them tumbling from the Champions League in a display of cynicism worthy of an X-rating.

The present incumbent, Quique Sánchez Flores, seems to have caught the bug. Last week in a press conference, he was asked to comment on the team's tactics after their defeat of Atlético Madrid. Weren't they a little dull? Sánchez Flores shrugged. 'We decided to give them the ball,' he explained. 'Then when they ran out of ideas, we pounced'. I remember people hating Leeds United back in the 1970's because, like an irate pensioner in the garden, they never gave you the ball back; but the idea that the opposite approach can actually become the tactical game plan seems a bit odd - especially when you look at the all-round quality of the squad.

A slightly more generous interpretation of this issue came from one Spanish journalist this week who wrote that Valencia 'Spend the first twenty minutes or so just watching what their opponents can or can't do with the ball, then move in for the kill'. Which is exactly what they did against Getafe, only to miss two easy chances towards the end of the first half. After that, Getafe simply turned the tables on them after they'd scored their first - sitting back and inviting them forward then hitting them on the break. Touché! Valencia seemed to have no answer to a side playing it their way. They'd better be careful against Inter.

Meanwhile, Getafe continue to exceed all expectations, and lie seventh, with 35 points. This is their third consecutive season in the elite, and they have never really struggled to maintain their status, as newly-promoted sides so often do. Of course, in their first-ever season in the top flight their manager was Sánchez Flores, 'promoted' subsequently to Valencia for the 2005-06 season. The links have since continued to grow, with Valencia coming to regard Getafe as their 'bestia negra' (bogeyman), since they knocked them out of the King's Cup only a fortnight ago.

But the present talks of promotion all centre around Bernd Schuster (Getafe's current manager), who seems to be the press' flavour of the month when it comes to predicting who will manage 'un grande' (a big 'un) next season. Schuster, of course, has every intention of doing just that, and he is going about it in the right way - in fact it seems an age since he upset anybody or put any noses out of joint.

As a player, good though he was, he specialised in fall-outs, sulks, and displays of arrogance that were a faithful reflection of his massive ego. Those who fancy him for the Bernabéu next season seem to have forgotten all this. Or maybe the man has truly mellowed? He does seem remarkably relaxed these days. Maybe it's the herbal tea.

The Getafe-Valencia game this weekend was interesting for an entirely different reason too. Of the twenty-two players who started the game, seventeen were Spanish born and bred. That seems almost like a throwback to the old days. That's not to suggest that the game was any the better or the worse for it, but it's a statistic that comes to mind when comparing the performances of England and Spain last week, in the friendly at Old Trafford.

It's true that Rooney was injured, but the home side's performance, even when their two best players were on the park (Lampard and Gerrard) seemed to suffer from that old basic flaw - technique and confidence on the ball. You'd have thought by now that the foreigners in the Premiership might have passed on a hint or two, but it wasn't in evidence. Spain had it rather easy.

Without playing particularly well, they always had enough invention on the ball to win it - and Xabi Alonso wasn't even playing. Do they just learn better from the equally cosmopolitan air in La Liga, or is it just that in Spain, sides like Getafe and Recreativo (another team with a low percentage of foreign imports) are doing well, and dragging up the basic skill levels along with them?

I mean that neither of these sides plays it the rough-and-tumble way. To compete amongst the elite, they've decided to play football. Or maybe it's just the general level that's gone down? I'll leave that to you, but never before in the history of the encounters between the two countries did it ever look so easy for Spain.

There was a lot of Valencia in the victory too. Villa looked very sharp up front, and his movement and changes of pace kept Woodgate and Ferdinand busy all night. He set up the goal and generally looked comfy with his club partner, Morientes, who should have scored as well. Morientes, something of an enigma despite his record (he was never rated at Real Madrid) has only been at Valencia since September, but David Albelda, who was magnificent against England, has been there rather longer (8 years to be precise) and was the hod-carrier supreme, doing the dirty work that allowed Xavi to control the tempo of the game.

But Spain just had that confidence on the ball, right through the side. They'll need to use it in the forthcoming qualifier against Denmark, since if they lose it they'll probably be out of Euro 2008, and these points will seem irrelevant. All the ball-control in the world still failed to avert defeat in Northern Ireland, for example.

And talking of quality, what an extraordinary game in San Sebastían, between Real Sociedad and Real Madrid. With Capello allegedly about to bite the dust in the event of defeat, the man whom he excluded from the squad, Beckham, pops up in his re-appearance and scores the equaliser.

You could have hardly written the script better. It was weird enough Beckham being excluded in the first place, but then to bring him back and put him straight into the first-team seemed odder still - but it came off. On the Saturday morning before the game, Capello justified his about-turn by announcing to the waiting world 'I have just been paid a large sum by an American advertising...'. Just joking. What he did say was 'Rectificar es de inteligentes' (Rectifying is what intelligent people do).

What he should have said was that a more normal measure of intelligence is the extent to which a person is capable of getting a decision right first time - especially when in this case it was crystal-clear from the outset that the rest of the squad was against the decision, and that cold-shouldering someone like Beckham was only going to bring trouble.

Capello's judgement, and that of Mijatovic too, have been found seriously wanting. Expect one, or both, to be gone when summer ends.


  • 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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