Unlikely embraces, take-overs and away wins

September 3, 2007
(Archive)

In a difficult week for Spanish football, one in which the death of Sevilla's Antonio Puerta has overshadowed everything, it's comforting to report the various spontaneous gestures of solidarity towards the club and the player and the way in which his death has finally put paid to so much of the nonsense that passes for rivalry between the city's two top-flight clubs.

GettyImagesFC Sevilla: United in grief for Puerta

The sight of Betis' players walking onto the pitch wearing the number 16 shirt Puerta had made his own was a fitting end to a week in which saw the first ever embrace between the two clubs' presidents, José María del Nido and José Leon Gómez, and another embrace between the sworn enemies Del Nido and Betis' ex-president, Manuel Ruiz de Lopera.

It was almost like the German and British troops fraternising in no-man's land at Christmas during World War One - touching by dint of its very improbability. One rather hopes that they won't immediately return to sniping across the trenches once the mourning is over, and that Sevilla's season is not unduly affected by the tragedy.

Their UEFA Super Cup game with Milan went ahead in Monaco last Friday, but the league game scheduled to be played in Pamplona was postponed, giving priority to the Champions League qualifier to be played in Athens immediately after the weekend. No disrespect to AEK, but it would be nice to see Sevilla in this year's Champions League after dominating the UEFA for the last two seasons.

The other big news of the week, apart from Samuel Etoo's injury solving Rijkaard's problem of how many magníficos to have on the pitch at any one time (three of them in the win against Athletic Bilbao) was Real Madrid's eye-opening 0-5 away win at in-form Villarreal.

In truth they could have had six or seven, but Spanish sides prefer to stop at five because it enables them to say that it was a -manita' (a little hand) in which there are five fingers, of course. The -manita' is a legendary word in La Liga lore, and teams will go to great lengths to preserve the five, which probably explains why Robinho tried to beat the entire Villarreal defence three times in a run in the final minute, instead of just doing the sensible thing and shooting.

Statistically speaking, the win was high up on the anorak scale. Villarreal's previously worst home defeat in almost ninety years of existence was a paltry 1-5 manita, at home to Rayo Vallecano, of all people, but to put Madrid's win into some current perspective, it's worth mentioning that Villarreal, after a wretched first half to last season, went on a fifteen-match unbeaten run which had extended to sixteen after last week's 0-3 spanking of near neighbours Valencia.

On top of that, they'd won their last nine consecutive games, a club record, and had never previously conceded a goal in the Madrigal to Real Madrid. In short, in the bad old days before Bernd Schuster, they didn't like going to Villarreal, an annoying little side with annoyingly good players who never seem like a top-flight set-up somehow. There's something comfortingly provincial and unassuming about the club, despite its recent exploits.

Mind you, they may now be regretting the loss of Diego Forlan to Atlético, whose potential substitute - the speedy little Turk Nihat, has never really got out of the starting blocks after sustaining a serious knee-injury early last season after his transfer from Real Sociedad. He's fit again now, but is still understudy to the Dane Tomasson.

And as they wring their hands in agony at the brutish whipping they endured at the hands of a majestic Real Madrid on Sunday, they may well reflect on whether the decision to alienate one of the world's best players, Juan Román Riquelme, was a good idea.

Riquelme, after falling out with the manager, several of the players and the tea-lady last season, was dispatched across the waters, on loan to his beloved Boca Juniors. There he inspired them to a Copa de Libertadores victory and then returned to the national side.

Now he's back at Villarreal, training alone and seemingly unwanted. A transfer to Atlético Madrid, where he could have teamed up with his buddies Diego Forlan and Kun Agüero, stalled at the final hurdle apparently over money and the fact that Atlético's manger, Javi Aguirre, just didn't fancy him.

Riquelme must be an awkward character indeed if Aguirre really wasn't slavering over the possibility of teaming him up with Forlan again, and at the time of writing it seems the enigmatic Argentine may well be on his way back to Boca again, this time for good.

It's a shame - because he's great to watch, in a different way. Schuster himself knows this, and was reported to have been vaguely tempted back in early summer, when it was clear that neither Cesc nor Kaka were ever likely to come to the Bernabéu, but it seems he backed off as well. It takes one to know one, as they say.

GettyImagesReal Madrid celeb during their 5-0 win

And what of the new Real Madrid? Well, talk is cheap, and there's been plenty of it since Schuster replaced Capello. The insistence has been on the fact that the champions would cease to practise their half-assed version of catenaccio and would actually play football, although Schuster's own version of that at Getafe had looked rather more pragmatic than the German was prepared to admit. But you might argue that he has a rather more interesting gallery of players to choose from now.

Not only that, but the signings of Sneijder and Drenthe seem to have given the side a new balance. Sneijder scored twice at Villarreal and has immediately clicked with Guti, with Diarra left alone to do the dirty work. The speed and precision of Madrid's counter-attacking was just like the days of yore, and if Robben can get fully fit and reproduce his early form at Chelsea, then Real Madrid could become a really frightening prospect this season.

Even Robinho finally looks as though he might become the player he was trumpeted to be, freed at last from the shackles that Capello imposed on him. Heinze will provide further steel on the left side and with Ramos finally accepting that his future lies on the right side at full-back, the quality on view suddenly looks alarming. Baptista, back from Arsenal, is also a handy chap to throw on for the last twenty minutes when defences are tiring, as are Saviola and the underrated Soldado, who nevertheless will probably be loaned out at Christmas.

Ah - the doble pivote! It's as if Emerson never really happened, and despite the title, as if Capello was just a bad dream. But let's not get carried away. Schuster is fine when he's winning, but when the chips are down he can be a problem for an institution like Real Madrid, who always prefer their managers to understand that they are never bigger than the cause itself. We shall see.

Over on the other side of town, big-spenders Atlético, throwing around the money earned on Torres, would seem to have put together a fine side on paper, but they still have only a single point show for it, and struggled to draw with Mallorca, one of the surprisingly good starters to the season.

The addition of Luis Garcia from Liverpool and Raul Garcia from Osasuna were certainly shrewd buys, as were the swoops for Simao and the Brazilian Cléber. Agüero, Forlan and Reyes up front should guarantee a top-six finish, but with Atlético you never know.

Finally, a glance at the Second Division saw Granada 74 playing their first home game of the campaign, which they lost to Hercules 2-3. Granada 74 were playing in the regional Third Division last season until their owner, Carlos Marsá, bought up the shares of Cuidad de Murcia, who just happened to finish one place off promotion to the top flight least season.

Real Murcia, you may recall, were promoted and are now enjoying life amongst the elite again, but their short-lived neighbours, only founded in 1999 and suffering from vertigo after an amazing climb through the divisions, are now no more.

In a move that echoes the plight of Wimbledon - who sold up and moved 60 miles north of London to Milton Keynes (they are now known as MK Dons), Ciudad de Murcia's president and founder Quique Pina sold off the silver for a cool 20 million, wiped out his debts of seven million overnight, and took the money home to his mattress in order to invest it in another club, most likely Cádiz FC - a much bigger prospect than poor Ciudad de Murcia, whose fan base never exceeded the 5,000 mark.

You might argue that Ciudad were a short-lived mayfly, and that their death is of no consequence - but Granada 74 have now leaped two divisions overnight, and with the help of twelve ex-Ciudad players, are plying their trade very close to the riches of the Spanish First Division.

Even if the old Ciudad supporters wanted to see their old heroes in action, they would have to drive 190 kilometres from Murcia to see them. And the mess doesn't stop there, since Granada 74 have been refused permission by the local municipal authorities to play in the city, and are having to play 90 kms away in the town of Motril.

GettyImagesAngel Maria Villar: Not exactly Mr Popular

The takeover was opposed in early summer by the FEF (Spanish Federation), but was supported (probably just to be awkward) by the LPF (League). FEF took it to UEFA, and UEFA, having no choice due to the LPF's insistence that it was legal, took it to the Sports Arbitration folks in Lausanne - where it was pronounced as kosher.

The endorsement of the uprooting of a club's base, 190 kms from home, may be an example of laissez-faire economics, or more prosaically an example of two national football authorities trying to damage each other's reputations.

The approval of Granada's move has been seen as a blow to the authority of the much vilified Angel Villar, president of the FEF and one of the country's most unpopular men - but no-one seems to care about Ciudad de Murcia's fans, the true losers in the whole sorry affair.

If their team had gone up to the top flight last season, one suspects that it would have been rather more difficult for Quique Pina to buy Granada's promotion so easily. The precedent set now seems an awkward one, and Granada 74 would seem to have enough quality in their ranks to at least preserve their Second Division status. It seems wrong somehow. One rule for the rich, and another for the moderately well-off? It would seem so.


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