Teachers and textbooks
Two seasons ago, on one of the random and always fun occasions on which Phil Ball and I swap columns, I decided to watch a game at the Vicente Calderon pretending that I was an Atletico Madrid supporter, against my mother's wise advice.
The puzzling results of the experiment - every person I spoke to recognised me as a Madridista as soon as I opened my mouth - led me to run a second, less daring but almost as enjoyable, undercover operation last season.
When the already classic email from Phil arrived two weeks ago - as is the tradition, the title was 'Swap shop' - I took a look at the calendar and gasped in anticipation: Atleti versus Rayo on Sunday night. Madrid's top two teams in the current La Liga standings - we'll get to Madrid's third team in a second - were due to meet at the Calderon to settle who was boss of the capital, and there was the bonus of getting to watch the best pure striker alive, Radamel Falcao.
With ticket in hand, and confident that I would have enough material to write about on Sunday evening, I sat with a few friends to watch Barcelona and Real Madrid take on Getafe and Sevilla respectively on Saturday. You probably know how that went. The Catalans' convincing win and the Madridistas' collapse at the Sanchez Pizjuan opened an unexpected eight-point gap between the two richest sides in La Liga after only four matches.
Only a month into the new season, it already seems as though Barcelona's transition from an iconic boss, Pep Guardiola, to a lower profile one, Tito Vilanova, is working out. Some of the best known Azulgranas have spoken, off the record, about how Tito gets along with most players, when Pep apparently didn't, while giving rave reviews about his tactical ideas - praise we had heard previously. Lionel Messi keeps scoring at will regardless of the manager, even though most of the Barcelonistas I know are developing heart conditions due to his fixation with taking penalty kicks. The only negative news for Barcelona is Carles Puyol's new injury, which will probably prevent him from playing the first La Liga derby.
At the opposite end, it's safe to say that last season's success in La Liga has taken some edge off the Madridistas, who up to then had looked united and committed as they broke Barcelona's domestic dominance.
Their victory in the Spanish Supercopa only confirmed their feeling: they already knew how to beat Barcelona, and that has apparently brought down their level of dedication. This relaxation also made some of the internal rivalries between clans - the Portuguese and the Spanish internationals especially - flourish, while Cristiano Ronaldo's claims of "sadness" put the final cherry on the cake: at this point, the team does not seem focused on competing.
The coach isn't blind to this situation, obviously. He had two options: either address it inside the dressing room or use the "excrement hits the fan" approach. Take a guess: "I am not concerned with the [eight-point] gap -what really concerns me is that, right now, I don't have a team," said Jose Mourinho after Saturday's defeat. "This side have no concentration; no mental focus. I replaced two players during half-time, but wanted to take out seven. There's just a handful of focused heads in that team, for whom football is actually a priority. But I am the coach and it's my responsibility."
All this is bound not to go down well with a certain faction of the players, but Real Madrid have no time to think about that. Manchester City pay a visit to the Bernabeu on Tuesday, and Madrid had better wake up against David Silva & co.
The Madridistas' defeat in Sevilla at the hands of former Real Madrid player Michel, now the Sevillistas coach, only reinforced the importance of Atleti versus Rayo on Sunday evening. A Rayo win would see the Vallecanos climb into the Champions League spots with a remarkable six-point advantage over the Madridistas, whereas a home victory would give Atleti first position among the clubs from Madrid.
The fantastic atmosphere and scorching heat promisedan interesting match. Phil had wildly suggested that I disguise myself as a communist Rayo supporter, but I decided against that. The right-wing Frente Atletico wouldn't have enjoyed the joke, and at the end of the day I ain't no war correspondent. Wearing a non-committal green shirt, I entered the Calderon, where an almost full house of Rojiblancos wanted to see the in-form Falcao shine.
That's what they got for the first 70 minutes, during which the Calderon was a huge party. Despite Rayo's occasional classy play, Atletico dominated for most of the first half and broke the deadlock after 29 minutes when young Mario coolly scored after Diego Costa's smart play on the left. It was a logical outcome of Mario and Gabi's impressive performance, their tactical intelligence having provided Atletico with safety in midfield as well as a few openings up front.
Rayo had looked okay themselves in the first half, but at the beginning of the second, Atletico exploited, with textbook efficiency, the Vallecanos' naivety at the back and scored three goals in only six minutes. Falcao and Costa stood out, doing a bit of everything: one-twos, flicks, assists, stealing balls, committing smart fouls, you name it... The latter was replaced by the clearly overweight Cristian Rodriguez and left the pitch to a standing ovation after Radamel scored Atletico's fourth from the spot after 55 minutes.
With the score at 4-0, things looked bright for the Rojiblancos. Gaffer Diego Simeone decided to make changes by replacing Mario and Arda Turan with Adrian and Tiago, while the Frente Atletico started to sing "Mourinho does not have a team", "Michel, the best"(I never thought I'd hear this in the Calderon) and "This is a Spanish team", their own particular way of celebrating a rout in the making.
And talking about Spanish teams, the bizarre ideological situation of most Atleticos deserves a line. Their trademark 'Antimadridismo' always meant a more or less clear support of Barcelona, as the Catalans usually were Real Madrid's fiercest competition. However, most Atleticos are also strong believers in Spain as a country that includes Catalonia within its borders, and the growing wave of separatism among Catalans and of course Barcelonistas has created a dilemma among them: "Right now I don't know whom I hate the most [Barcelona or Real Madrid]", my Atletico friend Juan commented before the match started. "Hell, I hate them both!"
After Simeone's substitutions, Atletico lost some of their composure, but Rayo still struggled to threaten as their own subs, Lass and Delibasic, tried to get going. Eventually they did: with help from the most skilful Spanish dribbler I have seen in a long while, globetrotter Jose Carlos, Rayo pulled back one, two and then three goals against no other than the European Superchampions in another six shocking minutes between the 83rd and the 89th, leaving most Rojiblancos silent while they looked in horror at the 4-3 score on the board.
"It's never over in this stadium!", screamed the Colchonero on my right side. Well, they still had to stomach up to three final charges from the now believing Rayistas, but ultimately the Colchoneros held to a very important win, which makes it three in three undercover operations by this scribe. Funnily enough, rather than blaming his players, Simeone claimed responsibility for Rayo's three late goals. "I rushed the substitutions - it's my fault." he said in the press conference after the match.
In Spain, we say that "Cada maestrillo tiene su librillo" - each teacher has their own textbook, their own way of teaching. We've seen two different ways for managers to deal with a negative situation this weekend. Make your choice.