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Dec 7, 2009

The sherry's corked

Okay - I know sherry doesn't go off, but give me a break. It's just taken half an hour to come up with that 'sherry's corked' headline. Getting more to the point: What is worse? To be bottom of the first division or to be top of the second? You might well answer that it depends on the stage of the season, but that does not seem to be the way that supporters in general see it.

Witness the contrasting fortunes of Xerez, bottom of the top flight as I write, and Real Sociedad, two points clear at the top of the league below. At the Basque club, despite the fact that they remain in administration, all is suddenly sweetness and light. The team are playing with an awesome confidence, and 25,000 turned up for their last home match on Saturday. The future is looking bright again. Xerez, by contrast, have only played 14 games now in the top flight in all their history, but have unfortunately only garnered seven points from that possible 42, scored a paltry four goals, and lie bottom of the pile with their sherry fast losing its flavour. This week, they played and lost twice at home, first to Barcelona in midweek and on Saturday to Atlético Madrid, both defeats ending 0-2.

Anyone who loses to Atlético these days may have cause to feel a little neurotic, particularly if they fail to score against them (bad sign!). Then add to that the fact that your president (Carlos de Osma) has just resigned because he and his family have allegedly received threats, and you might begin to yearn for the old days when things were much simpler, floating around happily in the nebula of mid-table second division existence - not exactly pond-life football, and close enough to the big time to feel important. The ecstatic scenes that accompanied Xerez' championship win and resulting promotion to the top flight for the first time since their 1947 foundation have lasted about as long as it takes you to pronounce 'brothel' - a place where Xerez' previous president, Joaquín Bilbao, was literally caught with a smoking gun last March, an incident that led to his resignation two months before the team he helped to build won the title.

It seems to be some sort of metaphor for life - not shooting guns outside a brothel but the fact that you must always aspire for things higher than your present level, and that when you arrive and fail to cut the mustard, you feel as though you have somehow failed, that you are second-class goods whose previous achievements count for nothing. Psychologically speaking, it's a tough one to face: from top-dogs to bottom mongrels in the space of five months. Is there nothing inbetween? It's a hard rain that's fallen on Xerez, even though it's in deepest, driest Andalucía and despite the fact that there is still time aplenty to recover. Bottom they may be, but the five points that separate them from fourth-from-the-base Zaragoza is hardly unattainable. And just as they seemed to be hitting rock-bottom, along comes Saint Bernard Schuster with an offer to buy the club and to become its major shareholder.

Schuster, you may recall, managed the club for two seasons from 2001 to 2003, almost taking them up both years but falling foul of his traditional tendency to be a good starter and a poorer finisher. Nevertheless, he is remembered fondly at the club, at least by the supporters, and he was approached for the manager's job this past summer. He turned down the offer and the club went for Cuco Ziganda instead, a move that has so far proved unsuccessful, early days though they are. Now Schuster, sensing that the club is in turmoil, has moved in with the promise of financial backers and a new plan to jump-start the season, presumably with someone other than Ziganda at the helm. This may not be the case, but the man from Pamplona must be looking carefully at the small print on his contract, just in case.

To make things worse for Xerez on the playing field, the sides immediately above them managed to obtain results, Málaga drawing at home to Osasuna, and Racing thumping poor Espanyol 4-0 in the Cornellà-el Prat. Perhaps Xerez can take some comfort from the fact that Espanyol, at least, appear to be in freefall, but there is no-one else in an obvious and permanent state of calamity sufficient to qualify them as red-hot relegation fodder.

Up at the other end, Sevilla have fallen foul of the Soccernet column curse - only a fortnight ago, there were mumblings about the Sánchez Pizjuan being a hard place to visit. Since then, two 'easy' games against Málaga and Valladolid have both ended in draws, both results casting a huge question mark over Sevilla's credentials vis à vis being the side to keep the top two looking nervously over their shoulder.

Meanwhile, Valencia continue to improve, with a 2-1 win at Athletic Bilbao proof of that particular pudding. They now lay third, three points behind Madrid and with a home game against them next weekend. It's suddenly looking a little less cloudy at the Mestalla, with David Villa the league's top scorer, Juan Mata consecrated as one of La Liga's new stars and even Joaquín making something of a comeback. It seems weird to read the three musketeers' names together yet again but David Albelda, Carlos Marchena and Ruben Baraja coincided once again on the team list on Sunday, like a firm of established solicitors. All this without David Silva, unlikely to be back until after Christmas, and one of La Liga's unexpected stories is unfolding. Many of Spain's journalists had written them off before the season even started, and were predicting the sad but inevitable march of manager Unai Emery, just as his career had been seeming to blossom.

Valencia did not have it all their own way, however, escaping when David López hit the post from a penalty and taking maximum advantage of the fact that Athletic were reduced to ten men for the last 20 minutes. Next week's home game may see them similarly blessed, since Cristiano Ronaldo will be absent from the fray, having declared himself 'only human' on Saturday night after receiving two yellow cards. The first was for showing off his inhuman muscles, but the money that the 'Rambo' shot will now generate from the picture agencies, veins pumped up and pecs bulging, was probably worth the yellow. The second was for a petulant little kick-out, but the Madrid press seemed more concerned about the fact that the great one had failed to congratulate Benzema for scoring from the rebound of the penalty that Ronaldo had just missed, so cross was he with himself. Ah, perfectionists, eh? What can you do about them? Ask them to not get themselves sent off? Probably.

What else to mention, apart from the fact that this week will see some decisive stuff in the Champions League? Spain's World Cup draw has already been analysed in various circles and, of course, it's a good one - save the awkward fact that they will probably face Brazil, Portugal or the Ivory Coast once they get through their group, consisting of Honduras, Switzerland and Chile. Already, the Spanish press is beginning to re-focus its attention on the fringe players who might be worth taking along, if their season continues to blossom. Villarreal's Santi Cazorla, for many hardly a fringe player, came on for Pires in the 64th minute and promptly equalised against Getafe three minutes later, after which his rather more likely-to-go colleague Joan Capdevila scored the winner. The submarine thus continues its refloating process.

Mallorca's Aritz Aduriz, one of San Sebastian's finest sons, continues to bang 'em in for the excellent Mallorca, and is another valid fringe candidate for the forward line. The more interesting one might be Santander's Sergio Canales, a left-footed attacking midfielder who seems to be suddenly on the wishlist of every major side in Europe. After his display in the Bernabéu recently, where he ran the right side of Madrid's defence dizzy and scored a perfectly legal goal (thence disallowed), he was at it again at the weekend, scoring twice against poor Espanyol and generally running them ragged. Real Madrid claim (as they always do) to have been watching him 'for some time now', and the rumour goes that they will 'do a Garay' with him, which Racing might prefer, if they really feel that they have little alternative but to cash in on their greatest asset. What will be more interesting, however, is to see if Vicente Del Bosque gives him a run-out before summer. He's only 18, but why not? If you're good enough, you're old enough.

Plenty said the same of Lionel Andrés Messi, for whom only physical considerations came into play when deciding when to blood him for the big time. Four years down the line, Messi jumps on a private plane in the dark of a Galician Saturday night, settles down into his seat having just scored twice in a potentially difficult game at Deportivo and wakes on a Paris Sunday morning to collect the Ballon d'Or, the first Argentine to do so. He should take the FIFA award soon, too, despite the fact that he still looks like a slightly bemused 12-year-old. The presence of Xavi and Iniesta in third and fourth place respectively on the same list is also a testament (as Messi himself said) to his club's influence on his astral trajectory, but that takes nothing away from his almost supernatural abilities. One can only hope that Barça don't make a mess of their game in Minsk on Wednesday night, and deprive much of Europe of the great one's presence this season.

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