Alves proving to be Sevilla's X-Man
Another extraordinary week for Spanish football, with the all-Iberian UEFA Cup final in Glasgow confirmed, and 'Spanish Liverpool', as they call them here, through to the Champions League final.
It was curious this week, in fact, just how much impact the Liverpool v Chelsea game had on Spanish observers, with its various implications for the future look of La Liga. Will it re-kindle Mourinho's interest in coming to Madrid, now that the big two (Premiership title and Champions League) have eluded Chelsea? Does Milan's presence in the final tempt Ronaldinho further into a final fling with Ronaldo in Italy? Which La Liga players are likely to be tempted across to 'Spanish Liverpool' next year, now that they can earn lots of lolly there too (and not just at Chelsea?)
First and foremost, however, was the admiration of the general public here for the spirit in which the game was played, despite the fact that there is little love lost between the two sides and the two managers - a spat widely reported here because of the possibility of both managers one day strutting their touchline stuff in La Liga.
I was taking my café con leche last Wednesday morning in a bar near the university here when in walked 'Cacho' for his mid-morning snifter. Now in his sixties, he played for Real Sociedad in the 1960's. 'What a game!' he enthused. 'Did you see them? Going at it like lunatics right to the last minute. Fantastic! Did you see that Essien? He gets flattened, but then he just gets up and carries on.
And when they had that goal disallowed, nobody complained. Amazing! If that happened here, there'd have been protesting for half an hour. They just got on with it. Even Mejuto [the Spanish ref] looked good! And he's the worst ref in Spain.'
Indeed, the whole country was open-mouthed at how well Mejuto Gonzales refereed the game, since he is generally seen here as the worst of a very bad bunch. In typical Spanish style, almost as if they're taking the mickey, the RFEF recommend all their worst for FIFA's European and international list, maybe in the hope that they might learn something on their travels. The consensus was, however, that the two teams allowed the normally hapless Mejuto to do his job by largely playing the game as it is meant to be played, without diving, cheating or resorting to excessive talk-back.
Not just Cacho, but the newspapers talked about this as well, lamenting the fact that the Spanish game needed to look at itself in the mirror and sort its act out, at least where this sort of thing is concerned. The admiration for the Liverpool game was tinged with a slight envy, a sensation that here it can never be quite like that, despite the desire for some sort of sea-change.
On the other hand, the best of La Liga was then played out on the Thursday, with Espanyol dispatching Werder Bremen and Sevilla winning fairly easily in the end against Osasuna, who put up only token resistance in the Sánchez Pizjuan. Then again, it's not just Messi who is traumatising defenders over here. If several Premiership managers were watching the UEFA Cup semi-final live on England's ITV - and I suspect that they probably were, then most of them will have retired to bed later dreaming about blank cheques and X-Men mutant Dani Alves. As the second commentator (ex-manager David Pleat) during the English coverage observed at one point, 'Alves is putting the fear of God into them. They don't know what to do with him'. Couldn't have put it better.
There's never been a player quite like Alves, and I'm not just talking about his Brazilian street-urchin City-of-God look. Alves has not merely re-defined the concept of 'full-back', rather he has blown it out of the water. As with the tenacious Manchester United defensive midfielder of the 1980's, Remi Moses - whom his colleagues affectionately nicknamed 'dogshit' (because he was everywhere), Alves would need something even more ubiquitous to characterise his style of play. Carbon footprints? Answers on a postcard please.
In the end, Osasuna, facing the historic possibility of figuring in a European final for the first time in their less than glorious history, just gave up the ghost. Alves ran them ragged, single-handedly. In the end they just shrugged their shoulders and let him get on with it. He'd start a move at the back, support the stratagem when it reached midfield, and then seconds later be in the box to try to finish it off. He was on the right, on the left, up front - at times you thought he might even try out his luck in goal. Whatever he's on, they need to patent it now. And don't forget, this was a Thursday night.
Three evenings later, and he was at it again in the Bernabéu, in a game that started slowly but then pulsated in the second half, with all manner of incidents (three sent off) and heart-stopping moments. Three times in the second half, with the game poised finely at 1-1, Alves appeared from nowhere in the striker's position, once failing to connect at the far post by a whisker, then cracking in a volley that Casillas did well to stop, then being fouled to set up the free-kick from which Sevilla pulled the game back to 3-2, in the dying seconds.
You could argue that his constant incursions up the right allowed Guti and Robinho too much room in the second half, and that the flexibility of the system that allows him to play as he does can at times be stretched to the limit, but it certainly makes for entertaining stuff.
Alves is now the top assist man in La Liga, and you can see why all the four richest sides in England have been reportedly asking after his contractual status. Liverpool were allegedly front-runners to sign him a fortnight ago, with a figure of £12 million being bandied about, but his cachet is on the rise by the week. Now it's reported that Alves quite fancies London as his next home, by which one presumes his agent means that Chelsea's unofficial offer has been the largest so far - but Wenger is also an admirer. Then again, if Sevilla win the Spanish league and make it a double with the UEFA, he might be tempted to stay another year.
That possibility looked less likely after the wonderful 3-2 match in the Bernabéu, a game that Sevilla had been leading at half-time. Van Nistlerooy, determined not to look too envious on the day that his old mates won back the title in England, scored two goals and put himself top of the top-scorers list with 20 goals, edging ahead of Milito and Kanouté.
Barcelona won 0-2 at struggling Real Sociedad, a game that I saw and had cause to lament, since it made me realise just how much for granted the folks of a city can take top-flight football, until it's no longer there, of course. 'Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone' - as Joni Mitchell sang. But then she never saw Barça play.
Well, once again, they played rather poorly, but it was enough to beat struggling Sociedad, who are increasingly looking like Second Division fodder. Just reading the local papers Saturday morning, the front page adorned with Ronaldinho's goofy smile in the flashlights as he stepped off the team-bus, made you realise that the potential visits of the likes of Poli Ejido and Ponferradina next year (no disrespect) will be cultural experiences but ones hardly designed to set the city rocking.
It makes a difference, being in the top flight. Just ask the service industry. But it also makes a difference to the way that you live football. When the big ones are on your doorstep, you feel a part of things, cruising in the fast lane. Now Nastic, Sociedad and Celta are going to have their work cut out to avoid dropping out onto the lay-by for a quiet picnic.
Indeed, last Wednesday night, I dropped down to my local bar, as you do, to watch the Milan v Man Utd game on Canal Plus. As I sat at the bar gawping up at the telly, I noticed a family group sitting to my right at a table, eating hamburgers and such. Head of said group was the ex-Real Madrid and Zaragoza winger Savio, the Brazilian loaned out to Sociedad this season and probably their only hope of staying up. The X-Man of yore, nibbling occasionally on his hamburger and glancing up indifferently from time to time at the game - decided at one point to visit the loo.
As he passed me at the bar, an elderly gentleman who had just ordered a beer held out his hand and stopped him. 'Listen sir' he began, respectfully. Savio flicked back his mane and cocked an ear in his direction. 'If you want to stay next season, you'd be very welcome' the old man tried, tapping the Brazilian affectionately on the arm. 'I know you've got nice beaches there, but so have we, and look, the food's better here' he tried, pointing at the various tapas on the bar. Savio managed a weak smile. He obviously wanted to get to the toilet. But the old gent, clearly a fairly wealthy man, was not to be deflected.
As Milan continued to torture United in the background, the man threw in his last card. 'You're living around the corner, aren't you?' he asked. Savio nodded. 'I've got a flat to rent, right on the beach' insisted the man. 'It's great. I always rent it out to bloody Madrileños, but look, if you stay, it's yours for half rent next year. Really! You and your missus'. Savio laughed, and pushed his way past, ending the exchange.
Before Savio came back, I asked if I could have it for half price too. 'Depends' he answered. 'What position do you play?'