Week 21 - Il grande stratega
Back in July 1994, and for reasons that aren't relevant now, I found myself watching Spain's last-sixteen round World Cup match against Switzerland in beautiful Rome, Italy. Given the scorching heat outside and the lack of time to find another place to watch the match, I decided to stay in at the Italian version of Fawlty Towers, my shoddy hotel for a full week, and hit its bar despite the out of order air conditioning.
Javier Clemente, Spain's boss at that time, had selected a quite bizarre squad to travel to the US, including six centre-backs and five full-backs. For that match, his starting XI included eight players who usually occupied defensive positions in their respective La Liga teams.During the first 15 minutes, the words 'Spagna' and 'catenaccio' were present in every sentence from the Italian narrator. Then, and against the flow of play, in an amazing solo effort after a dodgy non-call close to Spain's own area, Fernando Hierro scored at the counter, although not much changed. Spain kept playing the same physical, tedious game for the rest of the first half, while the increasingly irritated Italian TV crew kept criticising Clemente's approach. But the Swiss grew tired, and Spain ended up finding the space their Basque coach wanted. In the last fifteen minutes, the Spaniards' strength prevailed and the team scored twice more, prompting the fickle Italian narrator to use the expression "Il grande stratega" every time he mentioned Javier Clemente's name. Well, in the tail end of a career that has undoubtedly gone downhill in the last decade, Il grande estratega is back to La Liga to coach Sporting de Gijon. Get ready for plenty of juicy soundbites, controversy and great fun surrounding the team, who will very likely go down putting up a decent fight. Glad to have you back, Javier. Shall we? Remember, it's '1' for a home win, 'X' for a draw and '2' for an away win. 1. Getafe (12th) - Espanyol (5th): 1. Last weekend, Espanyol reminded us all that their squad, packed with young footballers, can be both exciting and frustrating in the same match. Philippe Coutinho's stimulating debut showcased how the Periquitos can make you jump off your seat one second and then give away a silly goal to the worst side of La Liga in the following play. Until they solve all their pending contract issues and the side get a bid older, let's take them with a pinch of salt. Their trip to Getafe, a solid host, will become another step in this learning process.
2. Real Madrid (1st) - Racing de Santander (18th): 1.We have now officially surpassed mid-February, that intimidating month for Real Madrid. According to boss Jose Mourinho, this season's heartless calendar selected Getafe, Levante, Racing and Rayo, a daunting quartet indeed much tougher than Barcelona's rivals during the same period (Real Sociedad, Osasuna, Valencia and Atletico de Madrid). Now that his squad have heroically conquered six points in bloodcurdling battles against mighty Getafe and Levante, you could be thinking that Mou feels more relaxed. You'd be wrong. Restless Jose never takes a day off, and keeps focusing his team on the next frightening rival, 18th spot tenant Racing, who arrive in Madrid with one of the scariest starting XIs in European football. It will be a hard battle, but the Madridistas will end up on top. They have Mou. 3. Sevilla (13th) - Osasuna (8th): X. "This is the most difficult moment since I joined Sevilla", said Freddy Kanoute on Wednesday afternoon. Quite a statement, having in mind that the Malian striker arrived in Sevilla back in 2005. Eight winless matches in row and four points away from relegation illustrate well the poor season of a side built for European football spots. The squad look apathetic, low-energy, and they now face the euphoric Osasuna, with Raul 'Zizou' Garcia and striker Dejan Lekic, a pair who just finished off Barcelona's title hopes. It would sound like a '2', but something tells me that Sevilla will find strength to grind out one point. 4. Granada (17th) - Real Sociedad (11th): X. At some point earlier this season, Mallorca scored six against Real Sociedad, right before Simeone's Atletico handed the Realistas another four in San Sebastian. Those times appear long gone. Their starting XI, increasingly synchronised, has improved with the addition of youngster Ruben Pardo and the recovery of Xabi Prieto, whose slump of form seems finally over. Granada, never a welcoming host, will test how consistent the visitors really are. A draw would make sense for both teams. 5. Athletic de Bilbao (9th) - Málaga (7th): 2. Athletic, on their way back from a below-zero, heart-breaking defeat in Moscow, need to get back on track if they don't want to miss the European train for the next season. Their loaded calendar (Copa del Rey, Europa League) contrasts with that of Malaga, with plenty of time to prepare for Liga matches such as this duel with a direct rival. We've already seen that the hosts suffer in La Liga after demanding midweek matches. The deep, rested Malaga squad should make the difference despite their four consecutive losses away from La Rosaleda.6. Sporting de Gijón (19th) - Atletico de Madrid (6th): X. The opening paragraphs welcomed Il grande stratega back to La Liga. His first statement when introduced as Sporting's coach: 'I don't waste my time with beautiful plays, the only beautiful thing to me is winning'. Following that line of thought, Clemente and Atletico's boss Simeone could be fellow philosophers, the Freud and Jung of football; last weekend, after Atletico wasted 15 scoring chances and drew against Racing, El Cholo provoked the media: 'We played the way you gents like us to play and ended up with only one point'. One shot on target, one goal and three points sound like the perfect match summary for both managers. I wouldn't be surprised with a 0-0 final result, even if Sporting play against the now apparently untouchable Atletico de Madrid, just arrived from Rome after convincingly defeating Lazio in an impressive comeback win. 7. Mallorca (16th) - Villarreal (15th): 2. 'Talent will prevail', said some inspired thinker. In the case of Villarreal, it's taken longer than expected, but we finally see some glimpses of a quality-loaded squad. Poor Mallorca, on the other hand, have to survive based on effort and fight. When the season wears you down, physical commitment becomes insufficient, as we've seen time and again in the last few years. Mallorca, mightily limited up front - 19 goals in 22 matches - won't be able to beat the visitors. If the Amarillos manage to score, this match is over. 8. Levante (4th) - Rayo Vallecano (10th): 2. Levante's expected downhill trend continues, even if they haven't lost their Champions League spot yet. It will happen soon enough though. Assuming the almost certain defeat against Diego Costa's Rayo, they could finish the weekend in the 9th position, something more reasonable that their current 4th. Even if the visitors play without suspended Michu, this season's revelation in La Liga thus far, the Diego Costa factor can't be discounted. The Brazilian, already perfectly integrated into Rayo's offensive line, will give cult hero Sergio Ballesteros plenty to deal with.
1. Getafe (12th) - Espanyol (5th): 1.
2. Real Madrid (1st) - Racing de Santander (18th): 1.
3. Sevilla (13th) - Osasuna (8th): X.
4. Granada (17th) - Real Sociedad (11th): X.
5. Athletic de Bilbao (9th) - Málaga (7th): 2.
6. Sporting de Gijón (19th) - Atletico de Madrid (6th): X.
7. Mallorca (16th) - Villarreal (15th): 2.
8. Levante (4th) - Rayo Vallecano (10th): 2.
9. Barcelona (2nd) - Valencia (3rd): X.
10. Zaragoza (20th) - Betis (14th): X.
Last week: 5/10 (50%)
Season: 96/200 (48%)