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Oct 19, 2009

A tale of two Rauls

Time is an inconvenience between football matches. Who said that? Albert Camus? Nah - it was actually my mate Rob from Grimsby - but you can best appreciate that sort of sentiment if you come from such a place. In Spain, however, some extraordinary stuff again this weekend. Who needs beach balls when you've got La Liga? So let's start with a quick round-up, after the annoying little hiatus caused by the international fixtures.

Apart from the newsworthy but fairly predictable fact that Barcelona dropped their first two points of the season and actually failed to score in Valencia (gasp), the sight that truly raises the eyebrows after this weekend's fare is the plight of the Yellow Submarine from Villarreal, submerged at the bottom of the sea after a couple of depth-charges from lowly Xerez hit them amidships.

Perhaps one should begin by congratulating Xerez on their first-ever win in the top flight, although it was not achieved without controversy. Antoñito's historic goal that won the game late on was a cracker, worthy of such a moment for the home supporters, but Calvos' handball that preceded it was obvious to everyone save the famous Rubinos Pérez, not one of the league's more perceptive refs, which isn't saying much, of course.

In general terms, Villarreal's difficulties are hard to fathom, although in specific ones they seem simple enough Like their modest opponents on Sunday, they seem incapable of scoring, even in the proverbial. Xerez's inabilities in that regard are more understandable (they've now managed three in seven games) since their tally in winning the Second Division title last season was a modest 73 - a good enough figure for sure, but not even two goals a game over the campaign.

Villarreal however, were expected to again challenge the big two this season, with or without Real Madrid's new manager Manuel Pellegrini upping the periscope to direct the torpedoes. After Robert Pires' effort on Sunday they have managed a mere five torpedo launches, but after watching Nilmar bizarrely hit the post in the second half after carving out the opportunity quite wonderfully, Rubinos Pérez turn down an obvious penalty and then having to bear Antoñitos' goal, manager Ernesto Valverde must be wondering if it's just not going to be his year.

He did okay with Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol in his previous four seasons of management in La Liga, and took Olympiakos to the Greek double last season, but the shadow of Pelligrini is already darkening his days at Villarreal, a post that several saw as being a step too far for him. Ironic that he was up against his old team-mate from his Bilbao days, Cuco Ziganda, with whom he formed an attacking pair that was all about goals. But the expectations are much less at Xerez, and Ziganda's job is less at risk, for the time being.

Looking at the Yellow Submarine's line-up on Sunday, it seems surreal that they are on the ocean bed. Joseba Llorente and Giuseppe Rossi bagged 27 in the league between them last season, and the Brazilian Nilmar will surely open his account sooner or later. The two Spanish internationals, Marcos Senna and Santi Cazorla are both excellent players and were on from the start, as was Joan Capdevila. Robert Pires, despite calling the referee a son of a b**** in his best Spanish, just seems to get better with age, and Soriano Bruno, Cani and Javi Venta are all useful players. You'd want to persist with Valverde a little longer, surely, so as not to rock the boat too soon (sorry to keep on dragging the metaphor along the seabed), but a managerial victim is more than possible this week.

Over in Valencia, not too much should be read into Barça's rather pallid performance in the Mestalla. David Villa, as was expected, failed to make the home team's starting line-up, and it was just as well for the visitors, given the opportunities that his teammates carved out without him. Victor Valdés, a goalkeeper who has never been rated as fairly as perhaps he should, and who has, on more than one occasion, been on the point of leaving the club, seems at last to have settled the debates as to whether he is a truly top-class act. Spain's' third-choice goalkeeper? Luxury! (with thanks to Monty Python).

He certainly preserved his team's unbeaten start with several top-drawer saves on Saturday night, but Barça's below-par performance was hardly surprising given that practically the whole squad had been on international duty in midweek. Leo Messi was provided with a private jet by the club so that he could be back in time to train and play in the Mestalla, but the money spent on getting him home in supersonic time seemed ill-spent. It's only mid' October but the wee man is beginning to look a tad jaded. Xavi himself looked unrecovered from the trauma of his last league game against Almería, and with only Iniesta looking like his normal self, the leaders struggled.

Ibrahimovic didn't even warm up from his hidey-hole on the bench, but Valencia is always going to be a tough place to go this season, as it has been for time immemorial anyway. The club's horrendous financial problems aside, the squad looks quite balanced this year, and the big names are doing their stuff. Sevilla's defeat at Deportivo, putting an end to a run of eight consecutive wins in league and cups, will have given Valencia fresh hope that they can be the third 'horse' this season.

Having said that it would be unfair not to give honourable mention to the two sides who sit immediately above Valencia after this weekend - namely Mallorca and Deportivo. Neither of them figured on the lists of La Liga's wisest for this season's early runners, although both sides hinted at better things to come with strongish finishes last season. Deportivo in particular were pushing for a Europa place almost until the final week.

Their extraordinarily busy summer, with seven players leaving the club and nine being repescado (brought back from loan spells - literally 're-fished'), seems to have paid off, youth blending in with the old timers Manuel Pablo and Juan Carlos Valerón. They've now gone four games without conceding, and look as though they might return the club to the consistency of yesteryear, when they even briefly threatened to become the third Spanish superpower.

Management might have something to do with this as well. Miguel Angel Lotina has never had massive success, but has always been a safe enough bet, and is a popular figure with players and press alike. This is his 18th consecutive season as a La Liga manager, with his ninth team. Likewise the rather noisier Gregorio Manzano over in Mallorca seems to have been around for ever, although he is four seasons short of Lotina's figure. Six of those have been spent at Mallorca (in two separate spells), so he obviously likes the island life.

In footballing terms, Mallorca have now won all their home games - significant in the sense that the home factor was never seen as their strong point in the past, with their ground often lacking the atmosphere and intensity of many of La Liga's stadia. Manzano seems to have put together a balanced and attractive side, without any great stars but without any obvious fissures. Aduriz, Keita, Victor - they can all score goals. Borja Valero, Suarez and Martí are all players who give the impression that they know what they're doing.

Getafe were the latest victims (3-1), manager Michel conceding that Mallorca's finishing had been of 'Champions League quality' - by which one presumes he meant that if they carry on like this they could make it a top-four finish. Early days for such assertions, I would contend, but they're certainly playing with confidence.

Last but not least, Real Madrid's Raúl, written off by so many observers but never doubted in this column (oh! My nose is unaccountably growing), scored twice against Valladolid and continues to pile up the records. Could Raúl actually go into the Guinness Book of Records for having achieved more records than anyone else? Not a week goes by without the Spanish press reminding us of another milestone passed. This weekend it was Raúl's 711th game for Real Madrid, which takes him past Manuel Sanchís' record. Sanchís managed this in 18 seasons. This is Raúl's 16th, which tells you something about his consistency.

Love him or loathe him, it's difficult to deny Raúl his twinkle in the firmament. Of all the clubs to achieve this with, Real Madrid is not exactly the easiest place, and the wonder of it all is that he was originally with Atlético as a youth player. The Bernabéu has long since forgiven him that little aberration of birth, and his divine status at the club is now an accepted lore. When he retires he is unlikely to go away, and will probably be groomed for management.

He is now the highest goalscorer in the history of the club, the top goalscorer for Spain, the highest Spanish scorer in the Champions League and probably the club's tiddlywinks champion. His semi-namesake, Raúl Tamudo, is similarly revered at Espanyol or at least he was until a few weeks ago.

On Sunday, for the home game against Tenerife, Tamudo was not even picked for the squad, and was asked to stay away from the stadium lest his presence cause trouble. Tamudo did as he was bid, but only after a tearful press conference in midweek that had to be abandoned when the player choked on his own words. In his 14th season with the club, he probably deserves better treatment to that meted out to him by the club's present authorities, but the breakdown between the two parties seems so irrevocable now that Tamudo's contract is on the point of being rescinded so that he can leave the club via the back door - a sad but seemingly inevitable end to a relationship that has seen the player also achieve a record number of club appearances (334) and score 130 goals. His 13 caps for Spain have always seemed a poor return for such a talented player.

In the most unfortunate of circumstances manager Mauricio Pochettino had asked Tamudo to cede the captain's position last summer (after eight seasons with the armband) to Daniel Jarque, literally three weeks before Jarque died tragically when on tour in Italy. The fact that Tamudo was not re-invited to the captaincy and then sought to have his buy-out clause reduced so that he could leave before this season began soured relations between Tamudo, a section of the fans, and the club's hierarchy.

It's a tricky one to analyse from outside the club, but it's all ending literally in tears. It might be better that he goes, before matters get any worse. Although not quite the force he once was, at 32 there are still plenty of clubs who will be interested in signing him for a couple of seasons, and the player has made no secret in the past for his admiration of the English game. Then again, Real Madrid could always sign him and really scare the lives out of opposing defences. A double whammy of Raùls - now there's a thought.

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