The power of 'V'
Why do some teams improve when they lose their best players? Because football isn't very logical? Possibly. Or perhaps in order to do well this season in Spain your team's name must start with a 'V'? Valencia and Villarreal, in that order, are making this a fun season so far, and although the Auld Firm are very close behind, there are reasons for several teams in La Liga to be both cheerful and aspirational, perhaps until the winter winds begin to truly blow.
Talking of winter, I spent most of the week hiding away in a small town in deepest Bavaria, as you do, at an educational conference (which, by the way, is not a synonym for 'Oktoberfest'), but football was never far away. I watched Valencia vs. Man Utd and even managed to get in a general football-related pub discussion with a chap from Bilbao, although I never quite managed to establish what he was doing in a two-horse town in the Bavarian forest, since he was too drunk to really tell me. Still we both managed to agree, in a mixture of Basque, Spanish and the Bilbao dialect of English, that Valencia were doing surprisingly well this season.
I thought they were a shade unfortunate against Man Utd, although they probably showed them too much respect. They are capable, however, of saving the day at Old Trafford. Maintaining a presence in the Champions League is crucial to their finances, although it might ultimately get in the way of their domestic ambitions. Ambitions? Half-way though last season, with the creditors knocking on the door, their stars of Davids [Villa and Silva] obviously on their way and young manager Unai Emery increasingly questioned, few would have predicted this particular Octubre-Fiesta. What has gone right? Well, sometimes when the best players leave, the ones who were playing in the shade come out into the sunshine. They've benefitted from playing and training with the best, and now they can step up in their own right. Also, other players take responsibility where before it was not required of them, a bit like a teenager who suddenly realises he has to find a job. It concentrates the mind. And a couple of signings like Aritz Aduriz and Roberto Soldado don't do any harm either. Now they can sit pretty at the top of the league until the weekend of the 17th when they travel to Barcelona for what looks like a very interesting game. In the Camp Nou they can try to be taken seriously as contenders for the rest of the season, and perhaps just as importantly, measure themselves up against the real thing.
Barcelona are passing through one of their occasional mini-crises anyway, drawing away in midweek to their previous nemesis, Rubin Kazan, and then repeating the result at home to Mallorca, with Messi back on the pitch (and scoring) but with Xavi and David Villa in the stands. Michael Laudrup, Pep Guardiola's old mate, ex-colleague and the man who sold him his Volkswagen Golf to replace the Ford Talbot that Pep felt was no longer cool when promoted to the first team in 1991, sat for the first time on a bench across from him and managed to eke out a draw, courtesy of Emilio N'Sue's header just before half-time.
Barcelona will have to do a little better against Valencia, but they should have their main weapons back by then. Oh, and just to add a little more spice to the crisis, Man City are allegedly preparing to spend a few pounds on buying Gerard Pique for Christmas. Dream on, of course, but it all helps to stir the waters further.
Valencia seem to have found some sort of balance in their squad, which is usually the recipe for doing okay. Cesar has never been that great a goalie, but he's reliable. Juan Mata is a terrific player, as good as David Silva in the creation stakes, and probably a harder worker. He just needs to be more consistently accurate in his passing, and perhaps decide whether he is an attacking midfielder, an out-and-out left-sided forward or a 'media punta' - in the hole. He can be all three, but seems to suffer sometimes from role drift. Pablo Hernandez, another who has come out into the sunshine, murdered Athletic Bilbao's left side on Saturday night, or at least he was doing when I got in from the airport and flopped down on the sofa to watch what was left of the late live match on La Sexta.
Add this to the fact that on the other wing, Vicente came on for the last 25 minutes and scored a goal that reminded you of what he once was, and the balance is clear. With hardish man David Albelda still to call on when needed, and real hard man David Navarro at the back, the losses of such icons as Roberto Ayala, Carlos Marchena and Ruben Baraja have not been so serious. Joaquin isn't a bad option to have either, as an occasional caprice on the right.
Soldado, another of the Real Madrid nearly-men class of strikers (see Alvaro Negredo, Javi Portillo et al) always seemed a pretty decent mucker to me, and has always scored goals. He did well at Getafe, but seems to be relishing the task of making the Mestalla forget about David Villa - an uphill task of course, but he was excellent against Bilbao on Saturday night, setting up the first and generally making a nuisance of himself. Alone, he cannot possibly be considered in Villa's class, but together with the oft-underestimated Aritz Aduriz, the forward line looks suddenly intimidating again.
Villarreal lost their opening game to Real Sociedad but have not looked back since, winning their subsequent five league games. Ever since this club appeared in the top flight some ten years ago, everyone has been expecting them, maybe like Alaves, to go back to the obscurity from whence they had come. But it has never happened, and their average finishing spot in the last seven seasons is fifth - proof, if it were really needed, that there is democracy alive in Spanish football, albeit a relative version. Like Valencia, their mix of experience and young bucks seems to work, as does their ability to hang on to excellent players such as Santi Cazorla, fit and influential again. Brazilian forward Nilmar isn't so young at 26, but is beginning to confirm what people said about him when he turned up last season, and is now La Liga's top scorer, followed just behind by team-mate Giuseppe Rossi. Their next game is at Hercules, which won't be a cake-walk, but it gives them a decent chance of staying in the frame, particularly with Valencia and Barcelona playing each other.
Real Madrid did what their manager suggested they might do eventually, and scored as many goals in one game as they had in the previous five. Then again, they were playing Deportivo, fingered by many at the start of the season as relegation fodder. Madrid eased into third spot as their neighbours Atletico dropped out of the top six, losing 3-1 away to the erratic Sevilla. CR7 finally managed to score a couple, and so he might return to normality in the next few weeks - which would be a bad sign for the league's defences.
By normality I mean passing the ball occasionally, and recalling the fact that he is a member of a collective. Defending him this week from suggestions that he might benefit from an occasional benching, Jose Mourinho described him as 'untouchable', because he was the hardest worker in training. Mourinho has often put more emphasis on training-ground attitudes than actual weekend performances, which is an interesting and seemingly effective way of managing, since it motivates and requires greater consistency from players, week in week out.
He also told the press, bombarded daily by sound bites and gorging on the feast after the empty plate of Pellegrini last season, that Real Madrid would require two years to be constructed, so they had better get used to the ups and downs. When the team finally wins the fabled tenth European Cup in a couple of years and Mourinho goes to Manchester City to further embellish his CV and Swiss bank account, Florentino Perez can bring in Valencia's Unai Emery, just before the RFEF tries to get him to manage the national team. And if Emery doesn't fancy it, there will always be Villarreal's Juan Garrido, unless some other team starting with 'V' turns up in the meantime.