A view from afar
It's nice to be back, and it's nice to be looking at the first set of La Liga results for the season, but I'll keep it fairly brief for this week as I'm still in deepest Kent in England, trying to snatch some images and tittle-tattle of the first round of matches from a combination of TV and the web. It's back to Spain tomorrow but looking at the results from a distance the most obvious stand-out was the collective performance of the three promoted sides, Valladolid, Almeria and Murcia.
All three have been in the top flight before, although Almeria were there under a different name back in the late 1970's for a couple of seasons (as Agrupación Almeria) but let's not split hairs. Their 0-3 win at Deportivo was the eye-opener of the weekend, although it has to be tempered slightly by the fact that Depor are beginning another season with an unfeasible amount of new faces and a new manager (Miguel Angel Lotina) to boot.
But the result won't have done their confidence much good, and should set up Almeria well for their home debut next week against Valencia, themselves turkey-shot at home by annoying neighbours Villarreal who have now poached a result in the Mestalla for the last three seasons.
An interesting result this, in the light of Valencia's disappointing campaign last year. True, they were up there challenging until the final few weeks, but the internal problems might not have gone with the simple departure of Carboni. Whispers have it that the bitter divide and rule that was going on last year has split the club into factions and that several issues are still unresolved. They hardly helped their own cause by having their two star men Joaquin and Villa sent off, who will now miss the Almeria game, of course.
However, Valladolid look the strongest team of the three new boys. They won the 2nd Division at a canter last season, leading from start to finish, and their easy dismissal of Espanyol, 0-1 away from home on their return to the top flight, was less of a surprise. Joseba Llorente, who began life among the elite at Real Sociedad has for several seasons been hinting that he could make good again at the highest level, and indeed has started the campaign with a winning goal. One to watch, as they say. What he lacks in pace he makes for in guile and sheer persistence. Expect Valladolid to be up there for a top-ten finish. They don't concede goals easily, and they're used to winning.
Murcia, the other promoted side, beat Zaragoza 2-1, and the whispers will be that the departure of Gaby Milito to Barcelona will prove to be a stumbling block to Zaragoza's improving on last season's surprisingly good showing. Murcia may struggle, but they can smile for this week at least.
Champs Real Madrid went some way to soothing the hurt of losing to Sevilla in the Super Cup by beating neighbours Atlético in the opening day derby on the Saturday, although they had to come from behind to do it. After all the chomping and gnashing of teeth over who should stay and who should go, Raúl, in the white shirt for yet another campaign, was the man to ignite the comeback with the equalising goal. New man Sneijder got the winner, and 71% of fans proclaimed themselves happier with Schuster's style than with Capello's, according to Marca's web-poll. Oh well, they're easily convinced.
Now Schuster's dropping hints to Calderón that he wouldn't mind having Dani 'I want to play for Chelsea' Alves in his squad, although he was quick to reassure Sergio Ramos that he would play the Brazilian in a more advanced position than he plays at Sevilla - since naturally, Ramos is actually Madrid's best player but is having to play at full-back because the club already has a surfeit of centre-backs. Thank goodness they finally got rid of Pavón, Helguera and Woodgate or there'd be rioting in the ranks.
And what of Barça and their 'cuatro mágnificos', the phrase destined to be La Liga's soundbite-for-the-season? Gone are the galácticos, welcome to the magníficos. It's interesting, of course, that when Real Madrid instigated their policy of buying only the alpha males of the pack, this was seen by the mainstream Spanish press as exciting and wonderful, a phenomenon that proved that La Liga was the fat-cat of Europe.
Now the same journalists have turned on Rijkaard for adding Henry to Messrs Messi, Ronaldinho and Eto'o, claiming that the four are tactically unplayable together.
Heads nodded sagely as Henry was left on the bench for the game at Santander until the 61st minute, when according to the pro-Madrid lobby, Messi made way for the Frenchman 'con cara de pocos amigos' ('with a face like a wet weekend', as they say in Yorkshire). Well, the little Argentine looked a bit tired, it's true, but Henry then went on to actually play rather well, hitting the post and almost winning it for his strangely lethargic team.
Racing were actually playing with ten men at that point, but the magnificent ones showed themselves incapable of hitting the net over the ninety minutes or of even looking very threatening. With so much quality apart from these four, it should eventually come together, but one suspects that Barcelona's season may pivot rather more on what happens off the pitch than on it. Henry may well be a world-class addition to an already rather tasty squad, but as Cesc Fabregas was implying in an interview to the English paper the Guardian last Saturday, some players (i.e. Fabregas) will be better off without Henry, because it seems they were kind of scared of him. Scared of his charisma, and scared of his waspish tongue when they didn't pass the ball to him.
Indeed, having spent August in England watching lots of English football, it's been interesting to watch the Spaniards on view - old and new. The thing that most strikes me when watching Everton, for example, is why Luis Aragonés has consistently ignored Mikel Arteta for the Spanish national side. He played at all the other levels, so why not give him a go?
Not only is he Everton's best player by a mile, he has added grit to his creative repertoire. It's true that Spain have a luxuriant midfield, the envy of Europe. Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Cesc, Iniesta - who do you choose? But the fact is that Arteta is a more aggressive, more 'vertical' player than any of those four, and is better than any of them with a dead ball. Does Aragonés know he exists? Strange how the old man seems to overlook him.
English commentators are still having problems with Xabi Alonso (whose big brother is also turning out for Bolton now). Most of them still pronounce his name 'Jabby' or 'Zhabby' when the trans-literal phonetic version is actually very easy. Just pronounce it 'Shabby' if you're reading this, John Motson. And if you're not, it's time you were!
Javi (not Shabby) Garrido seems to be fitting in nicely at Man City and even Fernando Torres is looking decent at Liverpool so far. He seems to like the biff-bang stuff that still goes on in a lot of the games, and seemed to almost disbelieve the amount of time and space he was given by the Sunderland defenders last weekend. Given such freedom, he is bound to wreak havoc. He never scores as many goals as he should - his old failing - but he will scare a lot of teams over there. It will also be interesting to see if Atlético Madrid can finally emerge from their 'Niño-dependency' and actually fulfil their eternal promise.
Last but not least, Sevilla have carried on where they left off, which is shorthand for winning. In a replay of the King's Cup Final they stuffed Getafe 4-1, and the visitors may yet come to lament the departure of Schuster and their main man last season, striker Güiza (now at Mallorca). With Sevilla, again, ditto Barça, in the sense that the off-the-pitch shenanigans in pre-season may prove to unsettle the squad.
President Del Nido was none too happy with Tottenham's approach for manager Juande Ramos, whom it seems they might have tempted more than the Spaniard wishes to admit. Ramos is at the peak of his powers, and is no fool. He knows Del Nido would drop him like a stone if results were to fall off (unlikely, but you never know) and that Sevilla is not the easiest of places to work, but it did look at one point last week that the club's two main assets, Alves and Ramos, were about to set sail for other shores.
That would have been an extraordinary turn of events, and it's hardly genius of insight to see that the two events were related. If Ramos thought Del Nido was prepared to sell off the silver, then why hang around? Tottenham were offering him plenty of money. But then mysteriously, the Alves issue went quiet, and thus it has continued. Whispers are that he might even be on his way to Barça. Now that would be interesting.
Anyway, next week there'll be a report from Iberian soil. Can't wait to get back.