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Oct 18, 2010

Magic in Malaga

We learned a few things this weekend, and we are likely to learn some more in midweek when three of the pretenders to the Spanish throne pit their wits against European rivals in the Champions League. Meanwhile, it will befit Villarreal - the team that continues to lend La Liga its face validity - to return to the top of the table on Monday night by beating Hercules away, and thus dampen a little the growing feeling that Real Madrid could be shaping up for an over-imperious campaign.

What did we learn? The most obvious one was that Valencia are unlikely to fade away and die when winter sets in. Their performance in the Camp Nou, as this column was suggesting a fortnight ago, would provide something of a litmus test with regard to the seriousness of their abilities and intentions for the months ahead. On the evidence of their first-half showing, they could be a match for anyone this season. Wednesday night in Glasgow should be interesting indeed, since Rangers have proved rather sterner opposition this time around, and their result at Old Trafford should give the Spaniards pause for thought.

Valencia were unlucky and slightly off balance in the Mestalla against Manchester United, but were nothing of the sort against Barcelona on Saturday night. What was particularly interesting was their conviction that the only way to obtain a result was to play possession football, starving Barcelona's chief orchestrators (Xavi, Messi) of the ball and seeking to exploit the spaces on the right-hand side of the pitch that Dani Alves was presenting them with. That's how the goal came about, with Jeremy Mathieu rampant down the left, freed somewhat from the shadow of Juan Mata (surprisingly left on the bench along with Aritz Aduriz).

That Unai Emery should leave two of his most prominent players on the bench was either recklessness or a sign of extreme tactical confidence. It paid off initially, although once Xavi woke up in the second half the game turned, with Iniesta once again the saviour. His equaliser was a work of art, demonstrating an uncanny understanding with Xavi - playing a wall-pass and running through a tiny space to collect the precise return, as if there were no possible alternative to the move. The accuracy and the timing of the two players' actions were astonishing. Lesson learned? Keep the two apart, and break down their lines of communication by keeping the ball yourself. Easier said than done, of course.

David Villa huffed and puffed against his old mates, but failed to blow their house down, and is looking a little out of sorts for both club and country. He'll be fine, but meanwhile the attention seems to have shifted north to Spain's new blue-eyed hero, Athletic Bilbao's tall and powerful striker with the catwalk looks. Scotland's slayer, Fernando Llorente, is the latest player to whom Real Madrid have allegedly turned their attention, since his €36 million buy-out clause might still prove cheaper than the price that Sir Alex would put on Wayne Rooney's head, if Mancunian circumstances ever got really out of hand.

Rooney himself, a much more complete footballer than Llorente, would probably benefit from a change of scene, judging by his insipid performance for England against Montenegro, and Jose Mourinho would certainly look upon the move with favour. The only question that remains, after Real Madrid's Formula One performance at Malaga on Saturday night, is who would be sacrificed to make way for either of these players, assuming that one can take the rumour-mongering seriously.

Karim Benzema, clearly out of sorts at the Bernabéu, and out of sorts with himself in general, is admired by the Old Trafford honchos. But whereas Bilbao would see the cash input as very welcome indeed, United would be symbolically reluctant to see Rooney turn white, whether or not Sir Alex has fallen out with him, in the manner that he fell out with Beckham all those years ago. Madrid would probably be happy to see the back of poor Benzema, the only player who failed to perform on Saturday night. Malaga were all speed, muscle and athleticism, the Wigan Athletic of La Liga. But it was nowhere near enough. Seven games gone, and Mourinho's pledge to get it right after two years seems like one of his usual jokes. Some of Madrid's football was top class, played with a one-touch swagger and confidence that has been absent for several campaigns now, despite the points haul last season.

It would be unwise to get carried away, of course, and Tuesday's match against Milan could just as easily dismantle all the impressions left by Saturday night (and the previous destruction of Deportivo). There have been too many false dawns in Madrid's recent past to allow the thrashing of Malaga - who had lost their three previous home games anyway - to be converted into a Road to Damascus for Real Madrid. But there were signs, and they require some teasing out.

For one, they looked as if they were enjoying themselves. That might seem odd, given that they are playing under an allegedly more rigid system than last season. Maybe so - but good discipline leads to happiness, just as it does in the classroom. Players, like kids, prefer the system to be a clear one, and for the parameters to be defined and reduced. As the philosopher A.J. Ayer underlined, the more you limit things, the more power you liberate. It's not a philosophy that George Best would have understood, but for the ranks of normal mortals it usually works. Now the players seem to know what they're doing, what is expected of them. The machine is beginning to function.

Mourinho's genius is to treat all the players equally, and to build the collective remorselessly, like some Marxist of old. No-one is above the system, not even Ronaldo. It is clear, besides, that his manager has had (Portuguese) words. Ronaldo's previously shambolic performances, played with blinkers and an ego-mania bordering on the pathological, have been replaced by a devastating mix of individual power and first-touch team-play, bringing others into the game by creating havoc, then playing the ball to the outer edges of the chaos, where team-mates trot in tranquillity, waiting to pounce. He scored two and made two, and performed with a strutting power and brilliance that was impossible not to admire. And he looked happy. Let's see if he still does after Tuesday night's rather different-looking encounter.

He was ably abetted by various players too. Marcelo looks a different player from the intermittent, rather confused model under Pellegrini, Xabi Alonso is given the ball at all times, and Mesut Ozil, when the mood takes him, moves like an Iniesta clone, and is similarly generous in his approach, always looking to bring others into the play, always looking for right ball to play in the circumstances. He is a slippery eel of a player, and Malaga could not cope with him. If he can add consistency to his repertoire, he could become a new madridista hero.

Touching on other matters, it was nice to come home and soak up La Liga again this weekend, after several days in England with my 15-year-old son, who was undergoing trials with a club in the Championship. I'd prefer to keep the club anonymous, but let's just say that they're doing pretty well. And it was interesting, of course. I didn't want to just batten down the experience and lock it away without sharing, because my son has been brought up on a diet of Spanish football, and the English dining experience was obviously going to be an interesting one.

In terms of technique, he more than held his own, although the pace and strength of the English boys, signed to the club's Under-16 academy, was at times so relentless that he struggled to match their intensity. And there you have it really. From the little I saw of the practice games, my son, taught as a central midfielder to look for space and to offer himself at all times for a pass - either forwards, backwards or sideways - was simply ignored for much of the time. The academy boys showed little interest in playing passes that slowed the tempo down. They were good (don't get me wrong), but from what I saw, it was speed and vertical passes into the forwards that were all the rage. The midfielders were there to pass the ball forward as quickly as possible, regardless of the consequences. There was never any pause for thought. When it came off, it looked wonderful. But it often didn't.

I wondered where these players would be, in three or four years' time. Two of them are already Under-16 internationals. Will they be sucked into the biff-bang vortex, so clearly England's problem at Wembley last week, or will they learn to pause from time to time, and to use their imaginations? It doesn't seem so difficult to me. I think I prefer my son to stick to his Spanish guns, useful though the experience was, and kind though the club were in their treatment and assessment of him.

Football eh? Can't live with it. Can't live without it. This week looks like serving up some really tasty morsels. I just hope the Spanish clubs acquit themselves well, at least for the sake of this week's various arguments.

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