Saturday Night Fever
What an extraordinary weekend here in Spain, where events in La Liga took place in a counter-intuitive fashion, and more or less set the seal on the destiny of the league title, give or take an improbable implosion of form at Barcelona FC over the next eight weeks.
As the weekend turned out, Real Madrid were probably wishing that the strike over television rights had gone ahead after all. The 1-0 win by Sporting de Gijon in the Bernabéu was one of the most extraordinary results of the season for a variety of reasons, as if the gods of destiny had decided to have a fun weekend and spoil the party down below - for some anyway.
As much as many will have delighted in Madrid's defeat, the eight points that now separate them from Barcelona look something of a rocky mountain way - and it might get much higher. The problem for the neutrals (and they do exist) is that the clásico in two weeks' time has been suddenly descafeinado as they say here - no need to translate that one - so that even assuming Real Madrid pull some dignity out of the fire and win in the Bernabéu against Barcelona, the five points that will continue to separate them will still look mightily significant, particularly when you take a glance at Madrid's remaining fixtures away from home. Athletic Bilbao, Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal. It doesn't come much tougher.
When you also consider that since the installation of the three-point system for a win in 1995, no side eight points adrift of the top side at this stage has ever managed to win the title, then it looks like the trophy is staying in Catalan territory. Even assuming that Real Madrid progress beyond the quarter-finals of the Champions League at Tottenham's expense - which is far from a foregone conclusion - they would probably conserve the energy they have left and use it up in the twin pursuit of the King's Cup and a trip to Wembley. The latter would mean another couple of clásicos for good measure, which would more than compensate for the parallel loss of interest in the league scene.
Nevertheless, it behoves me to comment on the weekend's happenings, strange as they turned out to be. It was one of those Saturdays that football obsessives feel good about, from the moment their feet hit their slippers and the thumb flicks on the kettle for the morning tea. Two games in the evening to look forward to, first Real Madrid v Sporting and then Villarreal v Barcelona, the latter game a tough one for the visitors. Would Real Madrid be two points behind at the close of hostilities, late on Saturday night? I had the sofa reserved for the La Sexta live match at 10pm, precisely the slot that has been at the centre of the clubs' dispute and threatened strike action during the week, action eventually defused by a (female) judge, whose name was interestingly 'Purificación'.
But once the game in the Bernabéu was over, and the country had managed to take in the enormity of the whole event, the Villarreal game lost some of its punch. It even seemed to affect Barcelona's own approach to the game, with Messi on the bench and Xavi not playing. The visitors knocked the ball about with their usual aplomb, but without the usual cut-and-thrust. And although they started well, Villarreal seemed resigned to a counter-attack strategy, and eventually ended up with the scraggy figure of 30% possession - a questionable statistic for such a capable ball-playing side.
Barcelona would have been perfectly happy with a point, and once they scored (it wasn't a handball by Pique) they preserved their win largely thanks to Victor Valdes, when the home side finally threw off their caution shackles. But it wasn't a great game overall. I found myself flicking over to Match of the Day quite frequently. At the end, Barcelona's celebrations smacked of a realisation that the hardest part is now over, as far as the league title is concerned. Madrid's own resignation at the end of their own game told very much the same story.
It's true that they'd won all their previous 14 home games, and that Mourinho had not lost at home since gunpowder was invented (150 games, to be precise), but the record had to fall some time. That it was Sporting de Gijon that finally ended the run prompted manager Manolo Preciado to declare in the press conference that it would be something to 'tell to their grandchildren'. Indeed. It has that sort of historic ring to it.
Preciado was, of course, the manager who earlier in the season had called Mourinho a canalla (scum, low-life) for implying that Sporting had resignedly put out a weakened side against Barcelona in the Camp Nou, handing them the points that they felt they couldn't win anyway. The canalla moment had the press excited for weeks, and of course they were interested to see if there would be a shaking of hands before the match, with bets being taken on the outcome. There was none, but after the game Mourinho went into the Sporting dressing-room and congratulated them on the win, a gesture that Preciado highlighted in his press conference. In fact it was Preciado who alerted the press to the fact that Mourinho had done this, and that the two had kissed and made up, as it were. Joking aside, this kind of behaviour is all too rare in Spanish football, and is actually quite moving, in the context of the normally testosterone-fuelled emotions that dominate the scene. Maybe Mourinho felt bad, deep down, since Sporting had actually taken two points off Barcelona subsequently, in the Molinon. It might have been his way of apologising.
In general, the Madrid press took it on the chin, grumbling slightly about Pique's goal and attempting to show, through carefully angled shots, that it was a handball. They also complained about a possible penalty in the first half too, but grumbled more in the end about Madrid's poor performance, and their inability to function without Alonso, Ronaldo, Benzema and Marcelo. The combination of absences in key positions played into an efficient Sporting's hands. Özil had one of his off-days, and Adebayor has been revealed for what he is - a good starter with teams, but a limited fader in the end.
The contrast with the recent electric performances from Benzema was all to evident, and his return to Manchester City looks more than likely now, unless he can sanctify himself in one of the clásicos to come. Gonzalo Higuain was back from injury, in record time, and could in fact have scored, but it was not to be. Maybe it's better that it has been as good as decided now, so as to not prolong the agony. In conclusion, Tuesday night's game at home to Tottenham has now taken on even more importance for Madrid, if that is possible. I can even remember the last time they played there (and drew), in the old UEFA Cup - back in the mid-1980s.
Elsewhere, Valencia hammered Getafe 4-2 away from home to leapfrog Villarreal and put the smile back on Unai Emery's face. Roberto Soldado, once of Getafe, scored all four, and whereas it is easy enough not to celebrate the odd goal against your old mates it's tough not to let a bit of emotion escape, as it did on the hat-trick. Watch it on the highlights clip - his arm twitches in semi-celebration, and then he remembers La Liga's strict etiquette on these matters.
In the Second Division, where things are still fairly open, working-class heroes Rayo Vallecano, with their players unpaid for over a year, stayed top after coming back from 2-0 down at Valladolid (they drew 2-2), a result which keeps them ahead of Betis and Celta, who drew the division's match of the day 1-1. There were 40,000 at Betis' stadium - impressive stuff for the silver division. And I use the phrase 'fairly open' maybe too casually since two of the three mentioned seem most likely to go up, if Rayo are not put into deep-freeze first. Their players are threatening to strike, but have so far demonstrated an admirable sense of professionalism, in the face of increasingly dodgy behaviour by their famously dodgy owners.
My team, Real Sociedad, continue to plummet alarmingly towards the relegation zone, and remain mired in an inexplicably negative dynamic, after such a promising first half to the season. Losing 3-1 at home to Hercules was quite impressive, since the visitors had not scored a single goal away for over 1,000 minutes.
I didn't see the game, because I travelled on my son's team bus to a freezing Vitoria, where I was at least rewarded with a 2-1 win against Lakua (Alaves' poorer cousins) and the quote of the day. The referee was a woman, and from where I was standing, she did a pretty good job. However, the home crowd seemed indignant at some of her decisions, and as she walked off after the final whistle, a fellow member of the fairer sex approached her (presumably a mother of one of the Lakua players) and screamed, at some five metres distance, Lo que más vergüenza me da es que seas mujer! (What really makes me ashamed is that you're a woman!). Only in Spain. Eat your heart out Andy Gray.