Making up the Numbers

January 9, 2006
By Phil Ball
(Archive)

Thirteen's the number - unlucky for some and the figure most bandied about this weekend as Real Madrid trooped off at Villarreal probably happier with the result than with their league position - thirteen points adrift of Barça with half of the season still not officially completed.

To add to their ever-lengthening list of woes, Ronaldo limped off after half an hour, an event which at least gave his compatriot Cicinho the chance to make his debut. He looked ok, just as Cassano may look ok when he finally reduces his belly size and gets into the side. But Madrid need more than just ok players at the moment.

GettyImages / DenisDoyleUnlucky for some: Ronaldo forced off the pitch through injury.

Indeed, Barcelona carried on where they left off before Xmas by beating their city neighbours Espanyol 2-1 in the Montjuic, making it fifteen wins on the trot, eleven of them in the league. Feelin' good? You bet. Eto'o scored his 18th of the season, as if he were determined to make sure that he's still top of the tree when he comes back from the African Nations Cup. Play-it-again-Sam has now scored more than the entire Espanyol team has managed this season, not to mention Cádiz, Betis, Mallorca and Alavés.

Oh how the gap between rich and poor seems to be growing, or what a difference a year makes! Last season when I went to the game between the two sides at the Montjuic, the Catalan-language programme declared the game to be 'El derbi més igualtat de les darreres temporades' which you can work out easily enough. And in case you can't, this season's encounter wasn't half as equal, the difference between the sides now being 25 points as opposed to last season's six.

Further to the north, ten was the number for Osasuna, Barça's only real challengers in the pre-Festive period. They were going for their tenth consecutive home victory, but blew it by ceding a 1-1 draw to an improving Racing Santander.

Interestingly enough, the game marked the first official match in their 'new' stadium, renamed 'El Reyno Navarra' to replace El Sadar, whose turnstiles first clacked back in 1967. Opponents of the re-christening, and there were quite a few, will see this result as proof of their rather superstitious argument that there was no need to change a winning formula.

Supporters of the change, which involved a three-year agreement (to the tune of 4.5 million euros) with the Autonomous Navarre Government to promote the region under the slogan 'A region full of diversity' (or something like that) will probably point to the fact that during the club's 85-year existence, 38 of which have been played at the Sadar, the team has in fact won absolutely nothing, save the occasional lower division title.

And the way that Barça are going, you rather feel that the status quo looks like being preserved, but hey, hope springs eternal. Their previous best finish was 4th, and a Champions League spot would hardly go down like a lead balloon. Besides, they've been the only side so far to maintain anything remotely resembling a challenge to the current champions, on a budget that looks laughable in comparison to some of the sides way below them.

The game against Santander wasn't actually the 'inauguration', that privilege having been granted on Boxing Day to the Chinese national team, who took on the Navarre 'selección' in a friendly at the snowy ground.

The 1-0 win for Navarre means that the regional representative side are still unbeaten since their slightly controversial birth two years ago, having previously beaten the mighty Burkina Faso and the slightly more mighty Morocco. I say 'controversial' because previous to their formation certain players born in the Navarre region would be invited (and usually accepted) to play for the Basque representative team, who also get together - as do the Catalans at Christmas - to play a friendly and fly the flag. Now they have to make an awkward and public choice - all in the interests of 'diversity', you understand.

Further south in bullfighting flamenco land, 100 was the number. On January 7th the official centenary celebrations for Sevilla FC came to their official close with a raising of the flag and a tear-stained singing of the club hymn, to be followed the next day by the first home game of the next hundred years. Happily for the hosts, the derby against Malaga was won to the tune of 3-1, although the visitors put on a plucky show despite having been reduced to ten men.

Sevilla FC President José María Del Nido is a lawyer and will therefore know how to deal with websites that call him dodgy (this one hasn't yet).

Funny old club, Sevilla. It's been a fairly happy season for them so far, not only because of the centenary and the fact that they're still alive in the UEFA Cup but also because their friends from across the city, Betis, have spent several weeks at the bottom of the league and are only now showing the smallest signs of a recovery.

The points difference between them, incidentally, is also thirteen. But I say 'funny old club' because during a centenary in which their President José María Del Nido declared modestly that he was the most important man in Seville after the Pope (and thus by implication more important than the president of Betis) and during which he has ceaselessly blown his own middle-class trumpet (and thus by implication dismissed as unworthies the unwashed proles at the helm of Betis) he has also claimed that the club has never been in finer fettle.

Finer fettle? Well - they're doing ok, but 7th is lower than where they finished last year. Under Nido they have also sold-off the family valuables at an extraordinary rate. These include local idols José Antonio Reyes and Sergio Ramos, the Brazilian 'Beast' Julio Baptista (who had scored 50 goals in two seasons for them), the half-decent Dario Silva, the young promise Barragán to Liverpool before he even played a game for the first team - and to top all that Del Nido alienated his more-than-decent manager Joaquín Caparrós so that he high-tailed it to Deportivo - currently standing 4th, three points above Sevilla.

Not such a big gap of course, but the problem still remains that Del Nido replaced Caparrós with Juande Ramos, a man unforgivably stained with a Betis past. And then at Christmas, Doctor Pablo Alfaro, the hard-man who has become something of a legend at the club in the past five seasons, departed on a whimper for Santander.

Del Nido is a lawyer and will therefore know how to deal with websites that call him dodgy (this one hasn't yet), but apart from the fact that the amounts allegedly received for both Reyes and Ramos were not the amounts that Arsenal and Real Madrid respectively declared to the Spanish tax authorities, he also represented the lately lamented Jesus Gil - the past master at failing to explain discrepancies between stated and actual income.

Del Nido's politics aside - let's call them 'Far Right' - the oodles of cash received have not exactly been invested in replacing the star turns. Saviola is on-loan, Luis Fabiano is yet to set the league on fire, and Fred Kanouté, whilst a reasonable mucker, is unlikely to challenge Eto'o for that Pichichi spot this season.

Oh, and incidentally, the last one hundred years yielded a massive one league title, back in 1946. That keeps them on level-pegging with Betis then, who won their own single title ten years earlier. And just to end on a numerical note, Sevilla have spent 61 seasons in the top flight, as opposed to Betis' 42, which probably means that the centurions are the best team in the city.

More pomp than circumstance? It certainly looks that way. But never mind - there's still half a season left.


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