A star is born at Santander
How wonderful it is when a player suddenly arrives on the scene and lights up a league in such an unexpected way, in such an unexpected place. Which is not to say that Santander or the Cantabrian region has never produced players of quality - far from it - but there was an air of decline about the Sardinero this season that has suddenly been replaced by the sort of smiles of renewal that a new-born baby can bring to the household. Let's not over-emote, but all you have to do is to watch a few minutes of Sergio Canales on YouTube to realise that this is no false prophesy.
It has also been refreshing to be able to re-focus on a player whose virtues were not being discussed merely in terms of whether he was performing to the max or not. This is largely the discourse that has been taking place since September regarding your Kakás, your Ibrahimovics, your Xavis, your Ronaldos. This does have its interest, but it can never really compete with the appearance of a new kid on a more remote block, in a team that seemed to be heading for a relegation struggle this term.
Canales scored again this weekend, in his team's 1-1 home draw with Valladolid, and although the result was disappointing, the goal scored was once again excellent, laced with technical accomplishment, peppered with ambition, and executed on his weaker right foot. It seems that none of his goals is an ordinary one, although those will come, too. Cynics might say that this is a part of the new myth, that Canales has proved nothing yet, and that the spectacular nature of his goals masks the fact that his general play still leaves plenty to be desired. Good effort, but nonsense. He looks the business to me.
Sergio Canales is only 18, in case you hadn't heard, and if he carries on like this he might even do a 'Walcott' and be taken to the World Cup both for the experience and as a wild card. It probably won't happen, and a Spanish journalist was complaining on Sunday morning in Marca that the Spanish harbour a traditional reluctance to blood their young starlets too early. The argument was that if they're good enough, they're old enough. That's true, but they might not be physically strong enough, which is why Canales has been used sparingly up to now this season. All that may soon be changing, though - particularly as he is now in the shop window and the subject of alleged pursuits from everyone from Milan to Manchester.
Canales made his debut last season, having been Spain's best player in their U-17 European Championship win, promise that earned him six games last season. This season, he had only managed two appearances under ex-manager Juan Carlos Mandía but new man Miguel Angel Portugal always seemed keener on giving him more time on stage. It's the eternal paradox of youth - blood them too early and they burn their wings on the sun, but blood them too cautiously and they never get the continuity to really understand what is required - week in, week out - at this level.
Canales has been likened to the young Julen Guerrero, the Athletic Bilbao player who in the 1990s seemed to be on every poster, on every advertisement, on every top coach's wish-list. He was also good-looking, and an extraordinary amount of 15- to 17-year-old kids in the Basque Country are called Julen in his honour. Maybe in a few years, there'll be a new wave of Sergios in Cantabria or wherever he ends up, but there do seem to be significant differences with the Guerrero model. For starters, the latter made his debut at 18, like Canales, but played 37 games in his first season. Canales is unlikely to. Guerrero also made his debut the following season for Spain, but the USA World Cup was still a year away, in which he did eventually participate. Guerrero based his game on pace and phenomenal work-rate, but was never as technically gifted as Canales obviously is.
By the late 1990s, his star was fading and, although he hung around until 2006, he was never the player that he had promised to be - or had been, in those early years, culminating in Athletic's runners-up campaign in La Liga in 1998. He had been tempted by offers from Real Madrid and AC Milan, but instead signed a contract with Athletic in the mid-1990s for 12 years, a record contract length at the time and one of the reasons, say some, for his eventual decline. A change of scene might have kept him fresh, and a change of scene is exactly what might be about to happen to Canales, before he has had time to get his uptake breath.
Like the Basque, Canales is a 'media punta', the player who links the midfield to the forwards, and the most difficult position in football, according to Arsène Wenger. He should know, because he is blessed enough to have Cesc Fabregas, but it remains true that this position cannot be really be learned. If you can't do it, you can't do it. What is extraordinary, however, about Canales is that three of his goals this season - the brace against Sevilla that got the world talking and his first against Espanyol before - were all scored in the manner of a speedy and technically gifted centre-forward, tucked in just behind the final line of defence before bursting forward into the space to take the final pass.
The fact that he lobbed the first one over Andres Palop in Seville and then did the marvellous and cheeky dribble for the second overlooks the fact that his instinct and behaviour were more like that that of a centre-forward. He never will be, of course, but his ability in the 'desmarque' (losing his marker) and the astonishing coolness of his finishing is what has caused an outbreak of collective drooling in Europe's top managers, sitting at their DVD players and counting out their money. They might be better employed waiting a while to see how he develops as a creator, as a true media punta, but at the moment, nobody wants anyone else to sign him first.
Such is the post-modern age, where an outbreak of panic ensues the moment a heralded new player arrives, although admittedly, the arrival is not always of such a spectacular nature. The amusing thing is that Canales has been around for some time now, at Racing since he was 12, and must have been well-known to the scouting cognoscenti. According to leaked information from Santander's press staff, Aston Villa, Sevilla, Tottenham and Manchester United all had reps at the Valladolid game, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Real Madrid have already started the bidding (as yet undisclosed) and would seem to be attempting to make a similar arrangement to the one made with Ezequiel Garay, who was bought by Madrid but then re-loaned to Santander for a season to complete his development.
It's true that there are a lot of historical links between Racing and Real Madrid, the most famous being Paco Gento, the unfeasibly speedy left-winger who went on to win six European Cups with Madrid. The political links have always been favourable, too, at least since the Civil War. On Saturday, Marca's Jimmy Giménez-Arnau was clearly under orders and wrote a particularly unctuous little article that was aimed at Canales' father, who acts as his agent, praising them both and reminding them of the friendship and good times that have (allegedly) always existed between the clubs. You could almost see the journalist on his knees, praying to the Virgin to deliver the youngster from all evil (Camp Nou or Old Trafford, for example) and to send him in nicely wrapped gift-paper to the Bernabéu. You know it makes sense, spoke the vapid tone of the article. To be fair, Giménez-Grau normally writes quite well, but orders are clearly orders.
Canales' contract is up at the end of June, and his buy-out clause is 10 million euros. If he chooses not to renew, that's what it will cost to buy him. Cheap at half the price, especially if Florentino opens the purse-strings now. It would be nice to see Canales stay at Racing until the end of the season at least, because the club deserves to benefit from him, having brought him up so carefully for the last six years and anyway, the pressure of playing at a top club now might actually brake his progress.
Barcelona have been significantly quiet about Canales, probably because they have had other things on their minds. They played wonderfully at Sevilla in midweek but, despite the 0-1 win, went out of the King's Cup. The sub-header in the Madrid-based As tabloid was that 'Guardiola loses the first of his trophies', to which I'm sure Pep would have enjoyed replying, 'Yeah - but at least I won it in the first place'. What was the logical corollary of this headline? Something like: 'Oh dear. Barça can only win five this season'. Sack the board?
The team continued where they left off the previous weekend, beating Sevilla again but this time at Camp Nou, to the tune of an easy 4-0. Real Madrid's stumble at a traditionally hostile San Mamés, where Athletic scored in the second minute and then 'parked the bus' in classic Clemente style, means that the Catalans move five points clear and are officially 'winter champions', the next game marking the half-way stage of the season. Valencia moved to within three points of Madrid after thumping their neighbours Villarreal 4-1.
Joan Laporta, who of course leaves the presidential hot-seat in summer and whose ambitions are to then become the shining knight in armour of the new Catalan nation, has still to persuade his present manager to sign a new contract and commit himself to a longer future at Camp Nou. Txiki Begiristain, the man who has so long pulled the strings behind the throne, has also announced his departure in summer, and so Joan is getting a little nervous about all this becoming a stain on his otherwise triumphal regime.
Having obviously got a little cross with Pep for not immediately committing himself to the cause, he attempted to put pressure on him by suggesting through the press that his manager would have to make a decision by Easter - a statement swiftly detracted after he realised the ire that it had caused. Now Sir Alex has allegedly stated his desire for Guardiola to take over from him at Old Trafford and, although this appears unlikely, it muddies the waters further.
The truth is that Guardiola is probably still miffed that there has been no significant raise on the 1.5 million he owns - nice money for sure, but peanuts compared to what many others in his position are earning. Guardiola is not a man motivated by money, but it's the principle that counts. He is also unsure, as he has said, about the next regime, and reserves the right to jump ship. It seems strange that this should be happening, given the wonders of last season, but football moves in mysterious ways. He's not happy about something, and it could spell trouble.