Spanish focus

Spain drain

May 2, 2011
By Phil Ball
(Archive)

It hasn't been a great week for Spanish football in terms of both its image and its progress, but maybe I'm being a shade conservative these days. Come Tuesday night and the European continent, nay the world, will be focused again on the final act in the four-part drama, and the event might be comedy, tragedy or the theatre of the absurd. I suppose it was hoping for too much to expect that the actors could keep up some sort of dignity during the proceedings, and in the end the masks dropped to the floor.

Real Madrid vs Barcelona
GettyImagesReal Madrid and Barcelona did little for Spanish football's reputation during their Champions League semi-final first leg

If you lock 22 alpha-males in a cage with each other for six hours, and subject them to the screams and glares of millions, they're bound to start mud-wrestling sooner or later. Quite apart from that, the whole Clásico overkill reminds me of Pirates of the Caribbean. The first two were pretty enjoyable, but the third left me dazed and confused. The fourth, I suspect, will be even worse. And Villarreal lost 5-1 to Porto in the Europa League, after taking the lead - para colmo (to cap it all) as the Spanish say.

Whatever, I'm not going to bang on about the Champions League game. Plenty of people have had their say, and in the end few have seemed capable of objective analysis, above and beyond their strong or vague feelings of support for either side. For what it's worth, Madrid's latest strategy reminded me of when my brother and I used to play Subbuteo games in adolescence, when because of his fear of my greater finger-flicking skills - I was the annoyingly competitive sibling - he would place his whole team on the goal-line, inviting me to shoot for the entire game. I could never quite understand the objective of this approach, but it succeeded in annoying me and sometimes earned him a draw.

However, you cannot automatically assume that I was entertaining the crowds or even getting my shots in. Barcelona's obsessive keep-ball approach to the third game had me walking around the house looking for some paint that I could watch dry. All I hope is that Schalke win 3-0 and go on to win the final, and that Raúl scores the winner. Against either of the Spanish sides this would be an awesome event, worthy of a place in world history. Which is nothing against Manchester United, by the way. They were magnificent in Germany. But that's my wish and, of course, for Villarreal to turn around their 5-1 deficit. The yellow-shirted ones did their morale some good this weekend by recovering from a goal down to beat Getafe 2-1 at home, and take themselves to within three points of Valencia, who lost at Osasuna, in a bid to wrest from them the safer third-place Champions League spot.

Sometimes football just gets annoying, and you think of dropping it and doing something useful with your life, instead of spending a frightening number of hours watching it in the flesh and on screen. But the feeling never lasts, and the beauty of the game always reasserts itself. On Saturday night, after driving over from Salamanca, I handed my members' card to my brother-in-law, in a selfless Mother Teresa-like gesture, and sent him off to watch Barcelona in Anoeta with my son, while I watched the game in the bar down the road. Could I have got a press pass, you ask? Well, sure, I could, but in the press area you have to behave yourself, and feign impartiality. I preferred to watch it in the bar, and register my protest at Barça's role in last week's farce. Don't jam the switchboards. I would have done the same had Madrid come a-visiting.

The game was played straight after Madrid's surprising 2-3 home defeat at the hands of struggling Zaragoza, or perhaps it wasn't so surprising. Madrid just looked as if they would have preferred the day off, after such an emotional week. How odd, too, that Jose Mourinho can go eight years without losing at home and then lose two out of the next three, once the record is buried. It's like the famous all-day wait for the bus, when finally two come along.

Statistically speaking, the Anoeta game also held some interest, above and beyond Barça's virtual wrapping up of the title, give or take a week. Bizarrely, Barcelona only needed one more undefeated match to equal the 32-game record set by - you guessed it - their hosts Real Sociedad, back in 1980. That season, Real had remained undefeated for the opening 31 games of the season, before finally falling 2-1 to Sevilla. Destiny has a funny way of looking at things, and decided to hand Real Sociedad the twin responsibility of preserving the record set by their 20th century ancestors and of boosting their hopes of staying in the top flight for next season.

Lionel Messi
GettyImagesLionel Messi looks shocked after the defeat to Real Sociedad

When Thiago opened the scoring in the first half, it looked business as usual for the semi-reserve team, who despite several changes in personnel had Messi, Xavi and Pique on from the start. They were also dominating possession, and making their hosts huff and puff behind the ball to little avail. But in the second half, Sociedad moved up the line, began to challenge for the ball higher up, and Barcelona's makeshift formation began to suffer, shorn of its habitual fluency. So the giants have feet of clay? Well, of course they do. Xabi Prieto's penalty winner, struck weakly but just strongly enough to resist Pinto's hand, was greeted with a euphoria almost as strong as that which accompanied the side when winning the second division title last year.

Thus fell the first weekend this season when both Real Madrid and Barcelona lost league encounters. The last time Barcelona lost, 2-0 at home to Hercules back in September, Real Madrid were beating Osasuna and dreaming of domestic domination. However, the Catalans' current eight-point lead looks just as unassailable as it ever did, and the title should be theirs in a fortnight's time. Real Sociedad's euphoria looks a little premature, however, as 41 points is far from a guarantee of safety with four games still to play and so many sides potentially mixed up in relegation issues. Also, the maletines (suitcases of money) are yet to make their official appearance, but will inevitably feature as part of the scene in the weeks to come.

Malaga have won five of their last seven and have given their wealthy Qatari owners a chance to see their investment prosper in the top-flight next season, but they face a wicked run-in against other sides who will continue to need points. They will be hoping that Barcelona, who visit on the final day, will be mentally on their holidays. Almeria are all but doomed, and Hercules' chances are looking pretty slim, but the third relegation slot now sees Getafe on 37 points, only five points adrift of Sporting in tenth place.

Getafe's new owners will also look askance on their new acquisition falling into the second division, although both their home games look winnable. Manager Michel will probably leave at the end of the season, but the Bernabéu, replete with posters this weekend in support of the Rancorous One, isn't ready for Michel's return just yet. And Racing de Santander, whose owner appears to have lost his GPS system, his sense of humour and his credibility in the last few weeks - not to mention his bank account number - at least managed to put a temporary smile on their supporters' lengthening faces with a 2-0 win at home to Mallorca, who themselves are not safe from the drop just yet. Next week's crunch game at Hercules looks as if it could shape Racing's future, for better or for worse.

Finally, spare a thought for Vicente Del Bosque, as he watches the relationship between his Madrid and Barcelona internationals plummet to earth on the drooping wings of the Clásico airbus. Lost among the wreckage, the Spanish team that has performed so imperiously over the last three years may never be quite the same again.