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Stranger than fiction

It goes to show you never can tell.

Having predicted that Deportivo would go down this season after a wretched first twenty games and seventeen measly points, scrapping goalkeepers and an anonymous looking line-up, four months down the line they beat Barcelona to record their 32nd point from the 45 disputed since this column condemned them to the drop. Statistics proclaim them the best side of the second half of the season, still anonymous looking but a lot more effective.

Xisco's beginning to look vaguely useful at last, the Swede Wilhelmsson (who?) - on loan from Nantes since January was their best player against Barça, and the much-travelled Coloccini looks the part at last, despite his stubbornly dodgy haircut. Apart from that I'm not particularly sure why they're so improved, but half-hearted teams like Barcelona can only help their UEFA-chasing cause.

All power to the Galicians. Their manager, Miguel Angel Lotina, is one of the nicest blokes ever to sit on a dug-out bench, and deserves more from life than he has habitually been given - the reason, one assumes, for his permanent basset-hound expression. He'll be getting a nosebleed if Deportivo climb any further, so accustomed has he become to struggling around in the basement of life. Next week's game at Zaragoza looks full of possibilities, especially given Sevilla's crippling inconsistency this season. Then again, Zaragoza need to win, and badly.

It's an old canard, I know, but the prioritising of the Champions League by Barcelona (they rested Messi, Eto'o and Xavi, left Deco on the bench, and conveniently had Milito and Iniesta out suspended) would probably have been copied by Manchester United had they not suffered the inconvenience of having to travel to Chelsea.

Of course, the Barça 'B' team is hardly a second-rate outfit, as Lotina ironically pointed out at a press conference on Saturday when asked if he was looking forward to the relatively easy game in prospect. 'Easy game?' he scoffed, smiling all the time. 'If that's the Barça B team, then can they come and play for us next season?' Well, ok, point taken.

There was Henry, Bojan and Gudjohnsen, but nothing much in the engine-room to supply them. They made a show of it in the first half, but for most of the second they just trotted around, waiting for Depor to put them out of their misery, an act finally committed in the 75th minute. It sentenced Barcelona to a final stand of dignity at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, and left them four points shy of Villarreal, who won an awkward-looking game at Betis to keep the league alive for another week.

By Wednesday morning Barça may find themselves out of Europe and struggling to win an automatic place back into it for next season. Not good. And sending the 'B' Team to Coruña is not a crime in itself, since logic rather demanded the act - but as a statement of intent it smells of halitosis.

Sevilla - the side most threatened by Depor's surge - can hardly complain since they should have dispatched the fading Murcia, but one wonders what several managers would have had to say if Rijkaard had sent out such a team against a side needing points to avoid relegation. Whatever - if they beat United, and anything is possible with the players that Barça possess in their ranks - the policy will be applauded.

Elsewhere, Villarrreal, as mentioned, kept the show going for another week with a win at Betis - check out the shot by Senna on your Euro goals round-up because it's a candidate for goal of the season - and Real Madrid beat Athletic Bilbao 3-0 at the Bernabéu with an opening goal from Saviola, of all people. Remember him? Casillas saved a penalty too, but the main news of the evening was that the Madrid Traffic Cops could take a breather and the Guardia Civil could put their rubber bullets away for another week since the projected party at the Cibeles fountain in Madrid on Sunday night was pooped by Villarreal's selfish gesture.

As you may know, Real Madrid traditionally celebrate their titles (cups and leagues) with a visit to the city's emblematic fountain, a landmark at the heart of Recoletos that sends various arteries branching out in all directions - one of them being the Castellana.

Madrid's fans would traditionally walk down the Castellana to the fountain and then wait for the players to appear, but such festivities are now a potential source of urban anarchy and the municipal authorities already had the place cordoned off once they'd realised that Madrid could have won it this weekend.

When Betis succumbed half an hour earlier to Villarreal, the various authorities heaved a sigh of relief and sent their operatives home for Sunday supper, without overtime. But it's only a matter of time. If Madrid win next week at Osasuna, no mathematics can stop them. The players themselves would still have to wait for the Cibeles fest until the following week, in the aftermath of the clásico against Barcelona, no less. What an irony, what a prospect! It's morbo in its purest form, enough to send the headline writers into a pun-filled frenzy.

From the Catalan side of the fence, it would probably be better if Osasuna got a result, since that will, at the very least, excuse Barcelona from the obligation of applauding their most hated rivals onto the Bernabéu. Talk about forced smiles.

For some of the players, newly arrived this season, the pain may not be too acute, but for veterans of the cause, such as Puyol, Valdes and Xavi, we're talking Nightmare on Castellana Street. But even if they manage to avoid that particular scenario, a subsequent win for Madrid in that same clásico would also be rather too much to bear for some. It would certainly wipe the smoothie grin from Laporta's face, which would be no bad thing, but for decent folks such as Puyol and Xavi the pain may be too much to bear. They may not recover in time for Euro 2008.

Then again, if Barça do succumb to United at Old Trafford and kiss goodbye to a forgettable season, their one last carrot of motivation would be to stop Real Madrid from winning the title until at least the penultimate game of the season. It's kind of 'yah-boo' playground stuff, but you can bet your bottom Euro that the Barça players will already have realised this. Laporta certainly will have done. He would probably rather be found reading a book in Spanish (the ultimate crime) than have to sit in the Directors Box at the Bernabéu and witness Real Madrid's win their latest league title. The poor sod must be having therapy already.

Talking of therapy, we can hardly close this week's column without a mention of the goings-on at Valencia, soon to be made into a soap-opera called 'Stranger than Fiction'. Just when you thought it couldn't get any weirder, just about the only member of the backroom staff not to get the sack during last Monday's predictable 'Lunchtime of the Long Knives', new manager and club stalwart Voro (Salvador González Marco) decided that he should offer the olive branch to the three veteran players previously sidelined by Koeman.

Of course, for all Koeman's obvious inability to master the art of man-management (his ability to master the art of football tactics remains a moot point), it does seem that he was something of a puppet king, brought in by Soler and then asked to do the dirty deed during the first week of his stay - hardly a move likely to win the players' affection. But Koeman could have said no. The fact that he willingly played executioner in a drama in which he had previously played no part, says little for his judgement. But you can't bite the hand that feeds you, particularly in the first week.

Then again, as the old saying goes - watch out for your enemies whilst you're on the way up, because they'll come back to haunt you on your way down. And so, six days after a humiliating thrashing at the hands of Bilbao, Cañizares is back in the team, Angulo comes on as substitute (and makes his 300th appearance) and Albelda is back in the squad. Admittedly goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand was injured - although the rumour mills were saying the opposite - but Cañizares did seem to be rushed back between the sticks with indecent haste.

It's all very well offering an olive branch, but it remains a worrying fact for Valencia's further prospects of avoiding relegation that several players (one of them Hildebrand) must be fairly unchuffed to see the three outlaws swagger back so easily into town. I don't know. There has been so much disinformation that it's hard to get at the truth - but in the final instance the policy decision came up trumps, at least for the purposes of Sunday.

Osasuna came as unwilling victims, but it was always a possibility that Valencia could begin their Year Zero at home to a struggling side like them. A 3-0 win, aided and abetted by the ref who sent off Osasuna's goalie Ricardo in the 20th minute for nothing more than taking the ball off Villa's feet, as he's been coached to do, may be just the tonic the whole club needs to avoid joining their fellow Valencianos Levante, who were finally relegated after losing at Recreativo.

Someone must have put a spell on the city this year, because the drama has hardly been confined to the Mestalla this week. Indeed, Levante came to within 48 hours of carrying out their threat to refuse to play against Recreativo, unless they were given bank guarantees that at least 50% of the money owed to them would be transferred to them by the middle of this week.

Facing the prospect of a possible relegation to Segunda B and the subsequent mess of adding and subtracting points from the teams that have played Levante since Christmas, Valencia's City Council finally got their act in gear and secured the guarantees. Levante played and lost, but were at least put out of their top-flight misery. It remains to be seen whether they can survive next season, however, unless their ground is put up for redevelopment. And Valencia CF think they have problems. As Einstein remarked, everything's relative.

Stranger than fiction indeed, this season's La Liga show. Don't put it past Barcelona to upset the apple cart, win at Old Trafford and really confuse the issue even further.

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