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Sep 21, 2009

Bilbao step into the spotlight

In the season of the widely predicted two-horse race, a lion is making a go of jumping the early fences in style. I refer of course to Athletic Bilbao, who have managed to take all nine points so far on offer, as have the two more celebrated racehorses immediately above them.

The bats of Valencia were very close to being included in this first paragraph, but Sporting spoiled their party by equalising in the Mestalla with four minutes to go.

The lions of San Mamés are the more unlikely of the early front-runners, after struggling to retain their top-flight status in recent years, although to be fair, in the last two seasons they have rallied quite well in the later parts of the campaign and finished a respectable 13th and 11th, with a King's Cup Final appearance thrown in for good measure. But nobody expected them to obtain full marks in their first three games, especially given the extra burden this season of the Europa League, for which they qualified on the basis of their losing the cup final to Barcelona last year.

Barça, of course, have plenty of other international distractions, so Athletic were able to sneak in on this new competition. By the looks of their excellent start and the ease with which they mauled Austria Vienna in midweek, the extra fixtures for them at the start of the season have oiled their machine quite well - so well, in fact, that the start represents their best in the last 21 seasons.

Add to that the emergence of the new Basque version of Wayne Rooney, 16 year-old Iker Muniain. On Thursday he scored one, set one up, and generally terrorized the Austrian defence with a frighteningly confident display. Like Rooney when he first appeared, Muniain has a face slightly older than his years, and looks as if he had been born to play the game. Athletic's youngest ever debutant and youngest ever goalscorer, he may not be destined to stay long in Bilbao.

Athletic's need to move stadium, stay afloat and remain competitive may see them cash in rather sooner than later, if indeed Muniain proves to be more than a flash in the pan. Small, quick-footed and intelligent, it says a lot for manager Joaquín Caparrós, so often accused of being a defensive obsessive and a reluctant risk-taker. Indeed, he sent him on half-way into the second half of this weekend's 3-2 win against Villarreal, who are struggling to get started this season after the departure of their guru, Pelligrini, and the loss of Nihat to Besiktas.

There is still enough quality to see them climb up the table, but for now the attention is on Athletic. Ironically, for this game, Pelligrini's successor, Ernesto Valverde, was something of an institution as a player in Bilbao, and although he has already experienced returning as a manager with Espanyol, the discomfort of these visits can never be easy to overcome. The only negative note for Athletic this week was the scary design of their Europa League kit. Ever since the Guggenheim, the Bilbainos have taken on the air of innovators with admirable enthusiasm but often mixed results.

How many bottles of Rioja had the designer knocked back before he/she came up with the huge wine stain on the back of the shirt - an enormous purple blob that makes the players look as if they are running under some inexplicably heavy burden? It's a horrible sight, and may have been enough to put off their Austrian opponents for the entire ninety minutes. Another negative note was not so much of Bilbao's making.

I actually watched the game on English TV, courtesy of my digibox. It was a rather odd experience to settle down to ITV4's coverage of the game on a Thursday night - never a night I can manage to associate comfortably with football. The two 'experts' in the studio were ex-players Robbie Earle and Andy Townsend, and whilst the two of them struggled manfully to pretend that they knew something about La Liga and the Austrian scene, it was painfully clear that they didn't. Does this matter? Well sort of, yes. For the intended English audience, the game provided a bit of exotica. Nobody goes out on a Thursday night anyway - since they're saving all their energy (and money) for Friday, and the competing telly was pretty poor as well - I mean in England. It always is in Spain. But apart from watching a game whose players you have probably never heard of and whose city (Bilbao) you might only associate with the Guggenheim and all-Basque player policies, you should surely expect at least one person in the studio who knows something about the local scene, and whose background knowledge can help to make it a more interesting evening for the half-interested telly spectators.

Earle and Townsend, as ex-players, will always be capable of analyzing certain aspects of any game they see, be it in Bilbao or Beijing, and their pronunciation of the players' names (save the ever-problematic Exteberría), was half decent - but their very presence on the programme reveals a horrible conservatism at the heart of the football media these days. Why does it have to be so dominated by ex-players? It's the same in Spain, although to a lesser degree. Journalists still maintain a reasonably high profile on the TV here, and several radio commentators have become national institutions, but ex-player power has crept in, slowly and insidiously. In England, the speaking journalist has all but disappeared from the football TV media, only surviving as linkmen/women or MC's. Their opinions are never sought.

This is weird, given the globalization of the game and the greater need to seek contributions from a wider range of people. Sky's English coverage of La Liga has benefitted from the Catalan import, Guillem Balagué, and the Englishman Sid Lowe has been successfully incorporated into certain areas of the Spanish media down in Madrid, but elsewhere it seems that protectionism and conservatism rule. It's not that I'm after a job with ITV - but all they had to do was give me a buzz and ask me to drive down the road to Bilbao on Thursday night, especially before I'd opened my bottle of Rioja 2006. Hey - I'd do it for free to meet Andy Townsend!

Anyway, Saturday night was Barcelona v Atlético Madrid night, which meant a quick tour of the Old Part in San Sebastian, a few pintxos and wines, then back home along the prom for the 10 o'clock fun on the box. This fixture has very rarely failed to provide high-level, quirky, goal-soaked entertainment over the years, and continues to attract attention here as a kind of pseudo-clásico. For some reason, the politico-cultural tensions of the Barça-Real Madrid rivalry are relatively absent from this fixture, and the game always seems to produce a flood of goals. Saturday night did not disappoint, but it was also a game to study and take stock of exactly what will make Barça tick or untick this year.

The 5-2 scoreline hides the fact that Atlético actually played quite well going forward, and set up a system that they thought might both smother Barça and allow them to catch them on the break. They pulled Forlán back into a deeper role - presumably to get him to provide the link with Agüero (on his own up front) but also to shackle Xavi, or at least to provide some extra nuisance value to disrupt his perennial clockwork dominance of upper midfield. They pulled back Jurado too, and flooded the midfield, a tactic that lasted the two minutes it required Ibrahimovic to cleverly open the scoring. By the time Keita had made it 4-0 after 41 minutes, it was seriously looking as if it might be a record drubbing for the poor visitors - despite the undeniable fact that Barça were playing no more than normally. Again, it was all about Lionel Messi, the 'rompe esquemas' (plan breaker) that the Spanish so revere.

I recall writing, around this time last year, that Kun Agüero was the more effective of the two players - which he was at the time. Well, ok - for a couple of games. Nevertheless, Messi, brilliant though he obviously was, was still in that phase where the runs he made with the ball were not entirely coherent, and the time he spent on the ball was often excessive, in relation to its effectiveness. Maradona said something similar about Messi, although he was pilloried for doing so. Now Messi's every move seems to have a plan, every run an end product.

It's impossible to predict what Messi is going to do with the ball, but Guardiola seems to have built up a system where the runs of other players open up enough options for the Argentine to take his choice, almost always to positive effect. It is no longer Messi's individual brilliance that matters, but rather the fact that Barça's opponents are simply in a permanent state of insecurity. Do you try to tackle him, or do you concentrate on blocking the lines of communication that the other players are always offering him? Or do you try, as Atlético did for a while, to cut off the supply to him? What can a manager do, the night before, as he sits in the bath with his ducks and tries to come up with a scheme that breaks Barça down? Tell the players to try all three of the approaches above? Only Chelsea in recent times have managed to stifle Barça's multi-option approach - and they still lost. Messi is fantastic, but Barcelona are an effective collective.

Even more scary for potential opponents is the fact that the new centre-back, Dmytro Chygrynskiy, looks very useful indeed, and has an excellent hairstyle to challenge Carles Puyol's monopoly on 1970's retro-style heavy rock-locks.

Elsewhere, Cristiano Ronaldo, the player with whom Messi invariably shares the top-dog podium these days, scored another two to contribute to his side's 5-0 romp against poor Xerez, but the suspicion remains, despite the Portuguese player's undoubted brilliance, that his individuality is still not as firmly fixed to the collective as is Messi's. Let's not get drawn into a debate as to who is the 'better' player, since that is kind of dangerous ground, but more significant for this season's two-horse duel is the fact that Ruud Van Nistlerooy announced his return by scoring the fifth goal and effectively putting Madrid on top of the table on goal difference, a symbolic position which will keep the Madridistas happy for a few days at least.

This coming week sees a double helping of La Liga games, and some firmer early season conclusions might be easier to draw by the end of next weekend. As ever, it's all happening here. Who would want to be anywhere else?

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