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Strange Records

There's a saying in Spanish football lore that goes, Entrenador nuevo, victoria segura (new coach, win guaranteed). Last week with Marcelino back at Santander, things changed for the better (and continued thus, with a 1-0 win away at Getafe), and this weekend saw Jose Luis Mendilibar take over the reins at Osasuna and then preside over a 4-0 home victory against Espanyol.

It's an interesting thing, this 'new manager' effect. Interesting in the sense that it enables players to reinvent themselves, to try to drink again from the cup of confidence that often runs dry when a player's relationship with the manager is less than perfect, or when there is simply no chemistry. Players almost always complain about their managers, with some exceptions. Karim Benzema, accused of being a 'hunting cat' by the dog-loving Jose Mourinho before Christmas is now saying that it is Mourinho who has transformed him, and made him realise what he was doing wrong. This is some admission, since most of the Special One's phrases towards Benzema seemed to be of the humiliating type, but have worked nevertheless.

The Madrid press are enamoured of Mourinho, and are now feeling endorsed in their hounding of Pellegrini last season, who sits at the bottom of the league with Malaga. He returned for the second time to his previously beloved Villarreal at the weekend, and actually obtained a decent draw, but his old charges are going through a lean spell and have now only picked up one point from their last three games. But Pellegrini is one of the mortals. There is only a small group of managers in La Liga who seem to be universally rated and liked, and Osasuna's new manager Mendilibar is one of them.

Much calmer in his discourse than the machine-gun testosterone-fuelled babble of Jose Antonio Camacho - never particularly popular at Osasuna - Mendilibar has been out of work for almost a year after being sacked by Valladolid as they tumbled out of the top flight to which he had triumphantly restored them in 2007 with a record number of points in their 2nd Division campaign.

Another of the growing pack of Spanish managers who were at their best modest players, Mendilibar first came to prominence when he almost took tiny Eibar into the top flight in 2005, a last-minute failure attributed by several locals to a conspiracy at the top to keep them out, because of their poor facilities and their lack of 'glamour'. The coach was handed the job down the road at Athletic the following season, as a reward for his efforts, but failed to last even to Christmas when a run of bad results panicked the board. His subsequent success at Valladolid led to some soul-searching in Bilbao, and a determination to go for stability in the future - a policy that has benefitted Joaquin Caparros and which also seems to have benefitted the Athletic squad, now lying fifth in the league and scaring Barcelona on Sunday night, equalising Villa's goal and nearly going ahead before Messi inevitably stepped in.

Over at Madrid, Mourinho's Madrid beat Levante 2-0 at something of a trot, as if the visitors were simply glad to escape relatively unscathed this time - having lost 8-0 there in the cup. The game effectively closed a period of nine years in which Mourinho has never lost a single home game in a national competition. The last occasion was on February 23 with FC Porto, at home to Beira Mar. The Madrid press made a big fuss about this at the weekend, although you might as well say that nine years is no more significant than eight, except for the fact that 'Mou' is now at Madrid. Best to mention it now in case he doesn't make the ten-year mark, a figure that would make more journalistic sense.

It's a strange record, nonetheless. It seems to defy the logic of football, a logic which determines, every so often, that the gods will nod As Pep Guardiola pointed out to the press this week, after his side's defeat at Arsenal in midweek, people think that 16 consecutive wins is something 'normal' now for Barcelona, but it isn't. It's an extraordinarily difficult thing to achieve, not because La Liga is necessarily tougher than other leagues but because things go wrong, people get injured, players have an off-day, the other team came out of the blocks flying. The proof of greatness is therefore not the wonderful football, but the ability to win games such as the Bilbao match, when everything seemed to be going wrong, the referee was turning a blind eye to some blatant-looking penalties and the visitors were parking the bus.

There was a period of half an hour - 28 minutes to be precise, when Madrid was dreaming and Barcelona's advantage had been cut to three points. It demonstrates the potential fragility of their lead and keeps the interest going, at least. At the back, some vulnerability seems to have been discovered, although it might just be a matter of Pique humming pop tunes in his head and losing his concentration. He certainly looked uncomfortable against Fernando Llorente on Sunday night, and he wasn't altogether himself in London last Wednesday. Like Yoko Ono of yore, will Shakira become the unexpected element that breaks up the party? Oh well, it gives the papers something to snigger about.

Returning to Madrid, Mourinho, it seems, has been engineering an ability to win in complicated circumstances for the last nine years, with a home record of 148 league games unbeaten. And this from a supposedly pragmatic manager. It's an extraordinary achievement, and the most likely end to it all will be in April when Barcelona visit the 'Bernabow'. Actually, football is rarely like that. They'll probably lose at home to Malaga and then beat Barcelona, and lose out on the title because of Pellegrini. You read it here first.

Another player who will very probably become a manager is Raul, who returned to Spain to play for the first time last week, when Schalke 04 visited Valencia. It was very strange to see him in a blue shirt (it doesn't suit him, and it doesn't suit Fernando Torres) and even stranger to see him playing for a team other than Real Madrid. Whilst he has been out of sight he has been out of mind, but the Valencia crowd didn't seem too chuffed by his presence, whistling him on his first few touches. As is Raul's wont, he did very little of note and then scored, just when he seemed to have drifted from the game completely. Thus it ever was, and shall be ever more.

Raul's goal may yet prove to be of enormous significance, particularly if it condemns Valencia to an exit from the lucrative Champions League, a competition on which their futures may depend. Raul it was, of course, who nailed the lid onto the coffin of Valencia's first attempt to win the competition in Paris in the year 2000, when he ran free and rounded his ex-team mate Santi Canizares to score the decisive third goal. How strange that he should turn up a decade later in the blue shirt of Schalke, with another nail in his pocket. The goal also took him to 70 in all European competitions, overtaking the record held by Gerd Muller. Shevchenko, Inzaghi and Van Nistlerooy, the nearest active challengers, now look unlikely to overtake him, which means his record should be intact for some time.

Last but not least, in a week of unusual records, Deportivo's goalkeeper, Dani Aranzubia, headed in an extra-time corner at Almeria to earn his side a point and allegedly become the first Spanish goalkeeper in the history of La Liga's top flight to score with his head. Someone may unearth a goal from the archives this week, but as it stands, Aranzubia is the first. Nacho Gonzales scored a penalty for Las Palmas in San Mames in 2002 and Jaques Songo'o, also of Deportivo, had one disallowed in Numancia during his team's league-title season, but it's worth seeing the goal on the video clips this week because Aranzubia powers it home like a centre-forward born and bred. It's no messy goal at all. Maybe he should try it more often.


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