I've just got back from Peru, as you do, a few hours ago - so if I manage to stay awake over the keyboard, something will come out. Things are doubly hard for me, because on arriving at Barajas airport in Madrid this afternoon (Peruvian morning), I learned the terrible news on my mobile phone - that Real Sociedad had lost to Athletic in the Basque derbi.
What a greeting, after a hard night on Iberia's cattle-class, shuffling and shifting, sleepless over the Atlantic. Oh well, charity begins at home. I suppose that we had to do our poor neighbours a favour. They only had a couple of points before this game, and so a bit of Basque brotherhood obviously came into the equation.
I used to live in Peru, back in the Jurassic Period, and had not been back since. Although I was there this time for non-football reasons, I couldn't help noticing the sports tabloids and football news in the local papers, full of names and references that made no sense. I understand the language, but not the events, and South American football is so plagued by nicknames and local resonance that it's almost impossible to penetrate the barriers.
I did understand, however, that during the Peruvian clásico between Universitario and Alianza, an Alianza fan had died after being thrown from a VIP box by a group of invading supporters last Saturday, the day I arrived. On a taxi ride on the Sunday I asked the driver what it was all about. Chusma (scum) he replied, and waved his arms around alarmingly.
It's always strange, dropping into an alien football culture. It makes you realise that there is always something else going on, about which you have no idea, and that there is more to the football planet than Barcelona, Madrid and Grimsby. That said, I did watch Barcelona's game against BATE Borisov on Wednesday, at lunchtime in a chaotic Chinese restaurant. It was odd to watch the Champions League live over late lunch.
Even stranger is the sight of the top seven sides separated by a mere two points. Barcelona lead the pack after winning at Sporting - no surprises there - but Betis could have stayed there a week longer if they'd beaten rivals Levante at home, which they failed to do. Who? Yes - Levante. And even they could have gone top if Barcelona had slipped up.
Levante are equal on points with Barcelona (they have 14), and are a point ahead and three places above their considerably more famous (though not necessarily richer) neighbours Valencia. It's an unusual sight, but one that should cause overall satisfaction in the city, as opposed to rival-fuelled jealousy.
Valencia have had their problems with finance - something of a mild understatement - but they at least possess collateral in the shape of the Mestalla and in the players they constantly produce. Levante's ground, the Ciutat de Valencia, is a colourful place but only holds 24,000, and crowds rarely exceed the 15,000 mark. They have 12,000 paid-up members to Valencia's 45,000, and run on a budget of €20 million-a-year. In 2008 they threatened strike action over unpaid wages, using a visit to the Bernabéu for maximum publicity.
When they were relegated at the end of 2008 they had the look of a side that might not come back, but after a couple of seasons they did, somewhat miraculously. They finished a decent enough 14th last season, but with a squad looking like an advertisement for the over-30s' club, it would seem that experience is paying off, for now at least. Their most famous player was, of course, Johan Cruyff, who played a handful of games in 1981 after running out of money in the USA, but it confirms the old-stager tendencies of the club.
In the same vein, the well-matured Juanlu (who has very little hair himself but is rumoured to be a professional hairdresser) scored the goal at Betis, to further dampen Sevillan euphoria (that's two defeats on the trot now, after sticking their flags into the summit), and is a typical example of the Levante squad, stocked with players who have been around the block several times, but who are not short on quality.
Jose Javier Barkero has that look of a classy player who should have gone further, Sergio, Ruben Suarez and Farinos seem to have been around forever, and Sergio Ballesteros and Nano are proving the hit centre-back pairing of the early part of the campaign, with a mere three goals conceded. Indeed, even Asier Del Horno, although never quite realising his true potential, is now a more than decent full-back to have around.
They've beaten Real Madrid into the bargain, causing the aristocrats to complain of over-tough tackling and excessive gamesmanship. As Ballesteros complained to the press: ''What do they expect us to do? Compete on even terms?'' Whatever, Levante remain undefeated after six games, in the aristocratic company of Barcelona and Sevilla.
Malaga, although their presence in the top half of the table was more expected, were also briefly top on Saturday night, after beating Getafe 3-2 at the death with a great Julio Baptista Chilena (bicycle-kick) in added time. Ruud Van Nistlerooy also scored, and Manuel Pellegrini must be looking on with some satisfaction as his team competes on points, if not goal difference, with his former side Real Madrid - the institution that suggested that he could not handle a dressing-room full of stars.
Well, Malaga's stars are not on quite the same celestial plane as those of the Bernabéu, but so far the Chilean would seem to be proving his previous critics wrong. The whole Malaga gig has that horrible look of potential failure about it all, so sudden and so artificial has it been - but the signs are proving otherwise. After next week's break, they travel to Levante, in what may prove to be a watershed match. Who would have thought? Levante v Malaga, slugging it out at Champions League altitude?
I read El País in the last hour of the Peruvian flight on Saturday night, and there was a substantial piece on the barbecue at Valdebebas in Madrid, which Jose Mourinho had allegedly organised in order to smoke the charcoals of peace.
A 'Deep Throat' in the dressing-room has been blabbing intimate details of how Mourinho walked in after the Santander no-show and asked the players what was wrong. Deciding to clip (a little) the manager's autocratic wings, a spokesman (we don't know who) informed the Special One that they were fed up of his tendency to point the finger at individuals after games (Benzema and Khedira having been the latest victims) and that it seemed as though there was a privileged gang of players who received special treatment, namely those signed by Jorge Mendes, Mou's own agent.
This is the gang headed by Ricardo Carvalho, Pepe, Fabio Coentrao, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil et al. Allegedly, this was the implicit message from the spokesman, but it was understood by the Portuguese manager, who possesses the necessary intelligence to apply survival strategies when required - hence the barbecue and a public announcement to allow more 'democracy' with regard to team selection, whatever that means. Anyway, it seemed to work, the team picking up their old scoring habits and winning 4-0 on the friendly territory of Espanyol, with a hat-trick from the mouse Gonzalo Higuain, whilst the hunting cat (Benzema) was away. There seems to be a plague of hat-tricks this year. They might have to change the concept and extend it to four goals to make it more special.
Ok, the jet-lag's kicking in. Don't miss Inigo Martinez's goal for Real Sociedad against Athletic, by the way. Not only is he the most promising new centre-back in La Liga, he can also score from the half-way line. Not a bad effort from a defender, who is apparently interesting Real Madrid. Shame about the final score.
Thanks to Eduardo for stepping in last week with an excellent piece, but no thanks to him for correctly predicting the Basque derby in the Quiniela!