Tops and Bottoms
Do forgive me for starting with Scunthorpe United this week. Their 4-1 win at home to Queens Park Rangers in the English Championship was a result that demonstrates the wonder of football. Scunthorpe started the game at the foot of the table, QPR at the top. The former had won the fewest home points all season (16) whilst QPR had won the most points away (32). QPR had also won six of their previous seven games, whilst Scunthorpe had lost six of their last seven and not beaten their visitors since the Jurassic Period.
I used the phrase 'counter-intuitive' for last week's crop of results, and for a while on Saturday night we had a similar game to the English one, with bottom side Almería playing at Barcelona (ok - the top side were at home) and taking the lead on 49 minutes when Corona, otherwise known as M. Angel Garcia Perez-Roldan, scored a rather good goal.
Roberto Olabe, their new manager, who normally stands with me every other Saturday watching Antiguoko play in San Sebastián, must have thought that Christmas had come, but alas, leads don't seem to last too long these days against Barcelona and Messi equalised three minutes later, upon which logic was restored to the Spanish scene ten minutes further down the line with Thiago's goal, Messi supplying the coup de grace in extra time. If only to re-caffeinate next week's clasico, it would have been interesting if Almeria could have hung on for a result.
Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola is refusing to fall in with the idea that even if Real Madrid were to defeat his side next week, the league would still be azulgrana. His statement of intent, that they would go to win and make the lead practically unassailable, has cheered the nation up considerably. Not that it needed too much back-slapping after a European midweek that saw Real Madrid and Barcelona win with authority, the former 4-0 with a little help from Peter Crouch and the latter 5-1 with some help from a Shakhtar side that attacked well but defended naively. Villarreal kept up the good work, putting five past Twente Enschede in the Europa League quarter-final first leg, which means that Spain should be well represented in the two competitions' semi-finals.
It would be counter-intuitive, in a Scunthorpe sense, to expect any of Tottenham, Shakhtar or Twente to turn matters round in the second leg but you never know. Tottenham's job looks the hardest without an away goal, and Real Madrid seemed to think the same, starting in San Mames with the Pretorian Guard (Xabi Alonso, Cristian Ronaldo, Marcelo, Ozil, Carvalho) on the bench. Bilbao's fearsome and intimidating stadium is no place for a patchwork side, but Madrid won the game at a stroll (3-0), and rested their thoroughbreds in the process. Kaka scored a couple of penalties, and Ronaldo came on later and scored, just for a change.
Marca, feverishly active in a week that they consider crucial to their own sales and the image of the club they love, have begun a curious campaign to persuade everyone that Kaka must stay - having previously dedicated themselves to implying that he would be sold in summer, probably back to his previous club. Now his two penalties in San Mames are proof that the great player is back, whereas the more prosaic truth is that he played a fairly ordinary game on Saturday night.
There is a sort of 'visionary simplicity' to Kaka's game, and he channels the play well, but I still fail to see what the fuss is about. In fact I failed to see it when he was voted European Player of the Year in 2007, but I'm happy to be persuaded otherwise. It's as if Madrid, or the outgoing editor of Marca, the pushy meringue-spectacled Eduardo Inda, are worried that he might go elsewhere and re-flourish, making Real's marketing and playing strategies seem weirder than ever.
Of course, the commercial implications of a two-legged clasico semi final in the Champions League has marketing departments and advertising agents all-a-slavering, and in many ways it promises to save a season where the two-horse race had begun to raise a series of questions. Real Madrid's defeat last week at home to Sporting seemed almost ridiculous in its consequences. The only way to step up to the throne was to keep winning, week after week, and then hope that Barcelona might slip up. The obligation to win has turned Real Madrid's season into something of a carousel - an entertaining enough ride, but one which continues to come around to the same point.
The sudden intensity of a series of cup matches (don't forget the King's Cup final on April 20) promises to break the rhythm and include the possibility that somebody else might win something. Barcelona's hegemony of recent years has been a wonder to behold, but a neutral voice will always say 'enough!' Besides, the team that wins the semi-final (assuming this week's games go to plan) will deliver a psychological blow to the other, perhaps more so than the result of the Copa del Rey final.
Meanwhile, the rest soldier on. The game this weekend between Valencia and Villarreal was dubbed the clasico of the 'other' league, the one where the dogs fight for the scraps and the bones. It was also a regional 'derbi', more or less, and Valencia won it by a surprising 5-0 scoreline, reflecting both their recently improved form and Villarreal's possible tiredness from their European exertions. However, that means that the yellowing submarine have only won two of the last ten league encounters, and have inevitably dropped down to fourth place, with Valencia now six points clear of them. Such is the disparate nature of the league, Villarreal are still eight points ahead of fifth-placed Sevilla, on 46 points.
In the tier below, the remaining interest centres on the group of teams attempting to put daylight between themselves and the relegation places. Racing's draw at home to much-improved Levante means that their 37 points give them enough breathing space to believe, with seven games remaining. Forty points would probably secure safety, which means that Levante themselves and Sporting, carrying on where they left off in the Bernabeu last week, can probably look forward to top-flight subsidies again next season. Racing's players might even be paid their bonuses from last season, still pending a further cash injection from their increasingly questioned owner Ali Syed.
Real Sociedad, Osasuna, Deportivo and Getafe must continue to sweat it out, while Zaragoza have failed to build on their recent improvement and need a home win on Monday night in a duelo de perros (dogfight) with Michel's Getafe, this season's great disappointment. Almería are not dead yet, as their half-decent showing in the Camp Nou implied. Don't forget that Barcelona put eight past Almeria this season in a single game down south, the game that did for manager Juanma Lillo. They put another eight past them (on aggregate) in the semis of the King's Cup but at least Almeria got there in the first place. Psychologically it must have been tough to go the Camp Nou on Saturday.
Whatever, if Zaragoza win on Monday, Almeria will be seven points adrift of safety. Their official web page makes a rather amusing yet frank appeal to their supporters to stick with them through thin and thinner, fronting the page with the slogan Con tu apoyo es possible (with your support it's possible) and then running a short clip where players shout into the camera like embarrassed public contestants on a cheesy TV game show: 'You can count on me!', accompanied by the usual rock n' roll backing track.
Jose Luis Oltra lasted five months in the hot seat, and now Roberto Olabe is back to try to save their bacon. He was there in 2007 as director of football, and happened to coincide with the up-and-coming Unai Emery, both of them ex-Real Sociedad men from up north. Olabe was promoted to director of football at Real Sociedad back in 2002, and although he had no particular qualifications for the job (who ever does?) he did well at first. He later became associated with the disastrous José Luis Astiazaran regime, and left in a cloud, but the two of them seem to have done quite well since. Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours?
Olabe was handed the mysterious job a couple of years back of designing and developing an English-style Reserves Team League (Liga de Filiales) and was paid a decent salary for his pains, but as implied earlier in this article, all he seemed to be doing was hanging around my son's team, presumably scouting.
He also had a habit of standing close to where I usually go, down by the touchline opposite the stand, close to the dug-outs. Two weeks ago, with the score 1-1, the ball came sailing over the fence and I jumped to retrieve it. Unlike Olabe, who is an ex-goalkeeper, I fumbled the ball and it bounced to the left, straight onto the great man's head. I tried to make some feeble joke, but as with Guardiola's famous scowl at Samuel Eto'o, there was no 'feeling'. He sees like a grumpy guy to me. Cheer him up Almeria, and you might survive.