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Dogfights in the drop zone

I just nipped out for a quick Sunday tinto (red wine) with my wife at a newish bar around the corner, in mental preparation for the long night of football reporting ahead, but as so often happens, the visit proved a propitious one. The new bar has been situated strategically opposite the neighbourhood hotel, so that guests can nip across the road and get their drinks a tad more cheaply. Anyway, the chap next to me at the counter seemed to be having problems with his Spanish, so I helped him out. As we relaxed into casual chit-chat, he turned out to be the manager of the Polish Under-16 national side, and his sidekicks (three of them) were all connected to the Polish Football Association. As you do, I warned him that anything he said might be taken down and used in evidence against him, in this very article, but he seemed fairly relaxed about the prospect.

They were on a fact-finding tour, were about to go for supper to a gastronomic society (he said it was 'work') and were being treated to the prospect of a quick trip over the hills to see Osasuna v Athletic on Monday night. No tour of this area is ever complete, however, without a visit to Antiguoko, Xabi Alonso's old side, and they had indeed been along in the afternoon, to see one of the boys' sides win 2-0. No foreign delegation ever leaves without a visit to this club.

I asked him what he thought of the quality, given that he was working with a similar age group in Poland, and in that pleasantly understated way that Poles tend to speak he told me that he'd been surprised by the relative lack of physical contact and the smaller size of the players, but impressed by their technical quality - much higher than in Poland, he thought. At which point another member of the delegation intervened - the manager of one of Warsaw's teams (I forget which), to say that on Monday they would see Bilbao, a prospect he accompanied by a grin, the word 'Clemente' and a kicking action that suggested foul play.

This was an interesting observation, in that people from abroad still associate Javier Clemente with Athletic and that his style, both of play and management, was less than aesthetic, let us say. I assumed this point was in contrast to the Barcelona-style philosophy of Antiguoko that he had witnessed a few hours earlier, but it set me thinking about the legend's present club, Valladolid, and the struggle down at the bottom for survival. Since Clemente was called from the golf course four matches ago to Valladolid, the team is unbeaten and has won two from four, one of them against Sevilla and the other this weekend, 2-0 away at Sporting. From looking doomed, it's all suddenly to play for.

Valladolid are third from bottom with 32 points, with Malaga (who earned a surprising draw at Mallorca) not far away on 34. Tenerife, one below, also have 32 whilst Xerez, at the bottom are on 27. Despite the latter's noble rearguard action, and the goal of the weekend in the Camp Nou by Mario Bermejo, it's difficult to see them making up the deficit with only 12 points left to play for. But for the rest, nothing is decided. Osasuna and Almeria on 38 points can probably consider themselves safe, but any of the sides below (Sporting, Racing, Zaragoza and Malaga) will have to be a little careful. As mentioned in the quiniela last week, this is a funny time, when the teams below begin to throw caution to the wind in a 'we've got nothing to lose' sort of spirit. This also enhances the struggle at the top, because the more teams implicated in significant games, the better for the duration of the whole league programme. Indeed, Barcelona approached their game against Xerez a little nervously, and when Bermejo brought the score back to 2-1, you could see the possibility of a major upset taking place.

Valladolid, the team under focus, end their campaign at the Camp Nou, and it could be an interesting game, assuming that the league title is still undecided and two of the relegation places are still up for grabs. Apart from that game, the other three look distinctly feasible, and Clemente will be dreaming of the freedom of the city, if he keeps them up. The club forums are certainly speaking of him in Messiah-like terms, and maybe there is something to be said for bringing in a manager with such a one-dimensional approach, a manager who prefers the simple approach and is proud of it. If you are struggling, leaking goals and are down on your confidence, the last thing you need is the arrival of a revolutionary young guru, with ambitious and complex new ideas. Four weeks ago, Clemente walked out onto the training pitch, gathered his new squad around him and apparently announced 'I don't know you, but you know me. You'll know how I like to play, so let's get on with it shall we?', or words to that effect. And they've done exactly that, dragging another four sides into the relegation struggle in the process.

A player at Real Sociedad once told me that when Clemente spent his single season there as manager, his talks at training sessions were famously interminable: "'He once talked at us for two hours without stopping. I'll never forget it. We all kept looking at each other, wondering when he was going to stop. The thing is, by the end, you couldn't remember a thing he'd said." Nevertheless, the same player admitted that he thought he was a 'good bloke' and that his half-time talks tended to be more to the point: "He'd say things like - 'The kid on the left. He's a bit cocky. Any volunteers to put him into the stand?' and stuff like that."

This is Clemente's 18th club as manager, and even if he keeps Valladolid in the top flight, he may well decide to the return to the golf course - his 18th hole, as it were. He has rarely ended any of his spells happily, always managing to rub somebody up the wrong way, even at his beloved Athletic - and he knows it now. He has quickly moulded those of the puce-and-white stripes into a tighter unit, using his classic strategy of two defensive midfielders in front of the centre-backs, operating deep and dispossessing the opposition only when it strays into the final third, having committed too many players forward to get beyond Clemente's infamous parked 'bus'.

His sides then hit the opposition on the break, if he has the right people. Diego Costa and Manucho fit the bill perfectly at Valladolid, as do 'Pele' and Javier Baraja as holding midfielders. The Clemente ingredients were already there. People who look back with horror on his six years as head of the Spanish national side forget that of the 62 games he presided over, only six of them were lost. The side that felt the rough end of the Clemente revolution this weekend, Sporting de Gijon, were strolling around in the mid-table of life only a month ago, and now suddenly find themselves potentially in the mire having lost their last four.

A point below Sporting lie Racing de Santander, the team with the famous youngster Sergio Canales, of whom little has been heard since he was signed by Real Madrid for the coming season. Perhaps it is ever thus. A conspiracy theory, perhaps, and he's really just an ordinary player? Well, not on the evidence of the wonderful goal he managed this weekend, but the visitors Villarreal, as has been the custom at the Sardinero this season, helped themselves to the three points and further confirmed their excellent second half to the season. Racing's run-in is a veritable duelo de perros (dogfight) and includes three games against direct rivals for the drop. The penultimate match is away to Valladolid, and they cannot be looking forward to it, and next week they visit Tenerife, another side desperate for points. The only non-dogfight match is at home to Sevilla, hardly an easy fixture. It's not looking good for the seasiders.

Next week Malaga, at present the most threatened side outside of the drop zone, play host to Sporting. They had better win it, because after that it looks a tough run-in, away to Athletic and Getafe, two clubs fighting for European places. Zaragoza, just above Malaga, were beaten narrowly at home by Real Madrid on Saturday night, and seem to have a slightly comfier run-in. Despite looking dead and buried earlier in the season, there is a spirit about them which suggests they might scrape through. Real Madrid accused them of being rather over-physical in their approach, but let's put it down to enthusiasm.

Elsewhere, in the happier zone of the table, the game of the weekend was obviously at Getafe, where the hosts saw off Sevilla 4-3 in a ding-dong encounter that had the radio commentator frothing at the mouth. The win puts Getafe in the frame for Europe, if Villarreal and Athletic slip up.

Talking of which, Barcelona must warrant a mention, of course. Asked on American radio in midweek (post-match) to stick my neck out, I duly obliged by suggesting that Barcelona will go on to win the return leg (and subsequently retain the Champions League) and that Real Madrid would win the league title. The two events are not unconnected, and although Inter's performance last week was close to tactical perfection, it has to be said that the only thing missing from the referee's performance was a white stick. Barcelona were strangely imprecise, but Zanetti and Maicon were colossal in their understanding of how to break up the Catalans' flow, one through sheer positional sense, the other through Dani Alves-like ubiquity. They won't find it so simple in Barcelona, however, and as long as the host's motivation doesn't get the better of them, expect a turnaround. Whatever happens, it promises to be a nuclear encounter. Book your places on the sofa.

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