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Sep 29, 2008

Windy at the Mill

One thing it's difficult to complain about at the moment in La Liga is the sheer amount of footy on the telly. There was a midweek league programme to make up for the weekend lost to internationals, and I managed to take in Barça v Betis and Sevilla v Espanyol, with the occasional trip to the kitchen to make a cuppa. Sevilla looked really good, and I'm beginning to think I might have been a bit premature in writing them off this season. They still look scary, they still buzz around like bees on ginseng, and they've still got plenty of quality in their ranks. Then this weekend I managed to bike back through the night from the San Sebastian Film Festival to take in some of the Catalan derby at Espaynol, although I needn't have worried because the game actually finished well past the midnight hour, due to some shenanigans from the visiting Barça hoodlums, 'Boixos Nois', who let off a series of flares in the direction of their city neighbours, provoking a 15-minute suspension of the game.

Barça won it at the last gasp, with a penalty from Messi - and although they'd struggled to make their extra man count (Nene was sent off before half-time) there was only one side trying to play football (Barça), added to which Espanyol's goal came courtesy of an assault on goalkeeper Valdés that was a cross between Pressing Catch and Pearl Harbour.

In midweek Barça had let a two-goal lead slip at home to Betis when they looked to be cruising (at last) and were lucky to get away with the 3-2 win in the end. There's still some vulnerability there, and the disproportion of chances made to goals scored remains a significant factor. It depends on how you see it, but Real Madrid are playing with less verve but more efficiency.

Van Nistlerooy won it for Real at the death against the same Betis on Saturday night (in Seville), the difference being that Madrid had played the second half with ten men, had also conceded a equaliser, but had managed to nick a win at the end. They'd also gone one better than Barcelona in midweek by beating poor Sporting de Gijón 7-1, where Barcelona had only managed a mere six three days before. Before you write in accusing me of being anti-Barça (yawn), I know that Madrid were at home. But I just wanted to use this as an introduction to this week's subject, Real Sporting de Gijón. Really.

Sporting are still without a point after the first five games, but their general existence is far from a pointless one. It may have escaped your attention, but their last three opponents have been Barcelona, Real Madrid and Villarreal, with Sevilla before that. Next week they travel to Mallorca for a rest, and they may find the island more to their liking.

Before this weekend's narrow home defeat to Villarreal (0-1), they had conceded seventeen goals in three games, so they were almost punching the air in relief by the end of the latest game. But they did manage to score three at Sevilla, and they looked by no means overawed by Villarreal this last weekend. They have a fantastic if somewhat eccentrically designed ground, fantastic supporters and a socio-cultural framework that fits football to perfection. They should not be written off too easily. Then again, they did change their goalie (not altogether surprisingly) for the Villarreal game, but in general the new chap (Ian Cuellar) wasn't called upon to do too much.

Sporting hail from Gijón, an industrial city on Spain's northern coast, in the Asturias region. Industrial decline notwithstanding, and the sort of damage the current crisis can do to a place that relies heavily on service and industry, Asturias in general has suffered in the last ten years from an alarming drop in its footballing standards, with Oviedo following Sporting in falling from the top-flight pedestal. About the only thing to celebrate since the late 1990's has been the rise to prominence of Fernando Alonso, Oviedo's gift to the world of Formula One, and David Villa, currently plying his exceptional trade at Valencia.

Sporting fell from grace in 1997-98, after a decent 21-year consecutive run among the elite, during which they qualified half a dozen times for the UEFA Cup. They were runners-up to Real Madrid in the 1979 campaign - their best-ever season, and were twice losing finalists in the Cop del Rey, in consecutive seasons in fact (1981 and 1982). Their ground, El Molinón (the Big Windmill), is the oldest standing in Spain (built 1908 but inaugurated in 1917), which isn't bad considering that the city was flattened during the Civil War and has largely been rebuilt from the ruins. The ground's latest hotch-potch design, dating from 1982, was the work of the female architect, Maria del mar Benito, which is not a sexist comment but a tribute to an unusual incursion into the male world - particularly in Spain.

Whatever - the year they went down, with a record Derby Countyesque 13 points in total, the little-known Villarreal were winning the Second Division title, about to step up to the elite for the first time. As opposed to Gijón's population of a quarter of a million, Villarreal hailed from a small town near Castellón, with barely 40,000 inhabitants. Ten years later, Sporting have returned to the top flight to find a somewhat different scene - with their opponents Villarreal very much the favourites to win the game and sleep overnight as leaders of La Liga.

Villarreal have now not lost a league game since last April, taking in ten wins and one draw. The last side to beat them were Almería. Now they are beginning to look like serious contenders for a run at the league, such is the depth of striking talent and midfielders they seem to have at their disposal. A draw at Old Trafford is to be followed up by a game at home to Celtic on Tuesday night.

By contrast, Sporting face an uphill struggle to convince La Liga's scribes that they can survive the season, although they might do themselves a favour by getting a result at Mallorca next weekend - not an easy game now that their hosts will be buoyed with a win at the strangely subdued Racing de Santander. It would be nice if they could make a go of it, however.

It's true that they hardly set the 2nd Division alight last season, and were touch-and-go for promotion until the very end, but Gijón is an honest sort of place, and like Bilbao (whose colours it shares) it smells of football. Both sets of supporters are obsessively devoted, and Sporting's long-suffering faithful are giving every impression of waving the flag until the wind blows it away, of dying with their boots on. The only time I went to The Big Windmill, for a Second Division game some years ago, the scattered clumps of supporters still managed to make an awful lot of noise. It must be cacophonous now.

Talking of noisy places, next week we'd better take a look at Valencia, who took over at the top from their 'V' named rivals after a 4-2 win at home to Deportivo. What a difference a summer makes, or what a difference a lack of Ron Koeman makes. We shall see.

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