Salvation and damnation
Antonio smiles and nods: "Yes, fortunately Betis play on Sunday. I wouldn't be able to watch the match if they played today, I wouldn't miss this for anything". It's the night of Holy Saturday in Sevilla, and Antonio speaks as he gets dressed to take part in a procession, one of hundreds celebrated all over Spain during Easter. It's one of the rare occasions in which Spaniards actually practice their stated Catholicism, and probably the one preferred by most.
Just like Antonio inherited his "Betis sickness", as he dubs his preference for the green football side of Sevilla, he also succeeded his father and grandfather in the Brotherhood of Jesus of Great Power. Together with a few dozens of fellow members, Antonio will carry over his shoulders a (over five-ton heavy) image of Jesus, named paso, around Sevilla, while thousands of sevillanos watch the march deeply moved and even shed tears of devotion. "Anyway, Betis will win tomorrow", he says ready in his purple outfit, "you know the old saying: new coach, guaranteed win".
Well, he was right. With new gaffer José María Nogués, Betis made Antonio a happy man and won convincingly in Santander, getting relief after seven matches without a victory. They are now four points clear of relegation and play two consecutive games at home, which should improve their position.
The gap between the bottom three and the remaining teams involved in the relegation battle widened this Holy weekend.
Espanyol and Numancia drew at the freezing cold Soria, which didn't help either side. Recreativo played bravely at the Nou Camp, but succumbed to Iniesta's skill in an otherwise uninspired effort by leaders Barcelona, looking tired and unimaginative after their midweek demolition of Bayern Munich. Recre will host Real Madrid next weekend, so the bottom three appear to be headed to the Second Division.
Resurrection Sunday saw two teams that looked almost dead by midseason gain another giant step towards (football) salvation. Osasuna defeated Athletic de Bilbao at home, which means the navarros surpass the Basque side on the table. The rojillos had only 13 points after the first 19 matches, and have won 22 in the next 11, an amazing recovery similar to that of Mallorca.
Gregorio Manzano's team also got three points, in their case against Almería after an amazing bicycle kick goal by Cleber Santana. He appeared to be emulating Almería's gaffer Hugo Sánchez, a master of this acrobatic manoeuvre back in the eighties. At the end of the match, Professor Manzano said that Mallorca are not out of trouble yet, and that "we need to work together as if we were carrying a paso, one step at a time, all of us pushing at the same time in the same direction".
And now that the relegation battle is getting progressively clearer, the last Champions League spot is becoming more complicated. Villarreal lost their place to Valencia after being defeated at home by Málaga, who get back into the race for the fourth position. Injuries to Cazorla and Senna might prove costly for Villarreal in this final part of the season, starting with their Champions League encounter against Arsenal in London on Wednesday.
Easter Sunday also brought us a prodigal son going back home, as David Villa played against his former team Sporting in Gijón. Villa, a die-hard Sporting fan, dutifully scored a penalty which he then refused to celebrate, but it was Valencia's leftie duo of Mata and Silva who stole the show with a fantastic performance and one stunning goal apiece. This valencianista victory leaves Sporting close to trouble and Valencia in a Champions League spot for the first time in over two months.
And what to say about Atlético? They prefer to be David than Goliath, and are able to beat the best and lose to the worst. After a few poor matches, they finally played well again and defeated Deportivo at La Coruña. Simão scored Atlético's 4,000 goal in La Liga, and they stay in the fight for a European football spot next year. "We get paid to qualify for the Champions League", said Sergio Agüero after the match. Most Atlético supporters thought Agüero & co were getting paid to win the Liga title, but what do they know...
The weekend was so cold that several cities saw their dose of passion and religious emotion suspended due to storms and snow. Madrid and Valladolid, two of the most traditional Easter capitals, cancelled most of their Holy Saturday processions.
The weather was nicer to football though. On Sunday, Real Madrid beat Valladolid at the Bernabéu, in another demonstration of practical (and tedious) football that takes the merengues' tally to an impressive 14 wins and one draw in their last 15 matches. Guti played again after some controversy between him and Juande Ramos; his assist to Robben in Real Madrid's second shows what he can do when he feels like playing, which unfortunately does not always happen.
It was an almost perfect weekend for the average Spaniard, the combination of religious holidays and football occupying almost the entire time. There was only one more thing required to complete our preferred entertainment trifecta: bullfights. That is exactly what Sergio Ramos must have thought during Real Madrid's Sunday match. He was under suspension, watching his teammates play from the Bernabéu's VIP area. At halftime he decided to leave the stadium and go to Las Ventas, Madrid's beautiful bullfight arena, where a friend of his, bullfighter Alejandro Talavante, was due to face six bulls. Not that Ramos' presence would have made any difference in the final result of either event, but his decision hardly seems the most logical move.
Manzano's words seem relevant at this point: "we need to work together as if we were carrying a paso". With only eight matches to go stakes are high, pressure mounts, and the difference between success and failure may well be in the attitude of each teammate. If just one of them is not in sync, the image will end up falling to the ground. Let's see which teams manage to deliver their pasos untouched back to their churches.