Spanish Primera Liga

A three-horse race?

October 5, 2009
By Phil Ball
(Archive)

I've just watched the Sevilla v Real Madrid game, and it was a bit of a cracker, as was expected. The game may prove to be significant in various ways this season, but anyone watching can have little doubt as to the wonders that La Liga will have to offer this season. A two-horse race? Forget it. More like fools and horses - the fools being those that write off Sevilla, the horses being the chaps who occupy the left side of Real Madrid. Poor Marcelo, and poor Drenthe, if he'd been there.

GettyImagesJesus Navas has been in sparkling form for Sevilla this season.

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At one point in the second half, after Jesus Navas had just made his 5,000th incursion into the left side of Madrid territory at the speed of light, Iker Casillas had words with Guti, who in terms of attacking play had had a decent game. Without being able to lip-read Casillas, it was impossible to be sure about what he was saying, but it was probably something to do with the fact that Marcelo was receiving no support on the left-hand side, and that Navas was having a splendid time of it.

If you'd taken half-a-dozen international managers to the game and asked them at the end who they thought was Spain's right winger, then presumably they would have all pointed to Navas. The fact that the 23 year-old still has no senior cap is either a testament to the quality of the national side or to the cataracts on the eyes of its managers in recent years. Would Navas walk into most national sides in the world? Yes. In the past, due to some nervous condition from which he suffers, he has disappeared in action for weeks on end, but at his best - as he was tonight - he is simply devastating.

Add to that the left side of Seville's midfield, with either Perotti or Capel running riot, and it's clear to see that if you want to avoid defeat at the hands of Sevilla your full-backs need to be talking to your midfielders. It was bad enough when Dani Alves was around, but Sevilla still play the same way they always have, countering at breakneck speed and almost always using width to open up the line of the opposition. Glasgow Rangers in midweek managed to stem the tide whilst they were still full of running themselves, but when they ran out of steam in the second half, Sevilla simply pulverised them. It must have come as something of a culture shock, after winning week in and week out.

Navas can score as well, as he demonstrated by stealing in and pummelling a header into the net for Sevilla's opener, from a poisonous cross from the left. Madrid played quite well nevertheless, but missed Ronaldo's ability to scare defenders and to over-occupy them, to the advantage of others. Pepe, excellent on the ground but as vulnerable in the air as his colleagues, equalised with a header from a Guti free-kick, but Sevilla just carried on regardless. Without the speed of Lass in the defensive third of the pitch, an empty motorway opened up on the left-hand side which Navas joyously exploited. Other sides will have taken note, but they'll have to have a decent right-sided player to make it count. Normally Marcelo keeps the opposition occupied by attacking himself, but was too unnerved by the sheer speed of Sevilla's counters, and was constantly caught in no-man's land.

The talk next week - and there will be plenty of it because the league programme takes a rest until October 18th for the international games - will be about Madrid's first loss coinciding with Ronaldo's absence, due to an injured ankle sustained in midweek against Marseille. It would be a mistaken analysis, largely because the game was all about Sevilla, and their title credentials. The idea that they are weaker away from home has some substance in general terms, but there is little evidence to suggest so far that this is true in terms of this season. They lost their opening match at Valencia, true, but since then they have won each time on their travels. And to think that certain sections of the press were calling for Manuel Jimenez's head after that opening game.

Madrid will recover, and may even learn something from the defeat. The problem, apart from Navas, was that the midfield had invention but lacked pace. On the back-foot, it was always going to be up to Pepe to clean things up, with ex-Sevilla darling Ramos gone a-roaming. Going forward they looked good, but couldn't quite make the final pass tell.

GettyImagesSanchez: Back at the Nou Camp.

Over at Barcelona, where internal espionage and president Joan Laporta's future political ambitions have been making the news and obscuring the excellence of the men on the pitch, the game against plucky Almería - never an easy side to play - would have also been of interest to those seeking to find some cracks in the edifice, some hope for the lesser mortals of the league to cling onto. But the principal attraction of the game from the press' point of view was the fact that Hugo Sánchez, now Almería's manager, was returning to the Camp Nou for the first time since retiring as a player in 1998.

In truth he left Spanish shores in 1994 after a season with Rayo Vallecano (even then he scored 16 goals for them), but there have been few players in the history of the Spanish league so despised by the Camp Nou regulars as the somersaulting Mexican. He scored 13 times in 19 games against them, and of course always tended to rather over-celebrate matters. He wasn't massively popular in any stadium apart from the Bernabéu, and even there he put several noses out of joint with his famous dismissal of his colleagues - the famous 'Quinta del Buitre' consisting of Butragueño, Michel and company. Annoyed by all the attention they were receiving, Sánchez announced that he was forming a new 'quinta' (squadron, column) - 'La Quinta de los machos'. The suggestion that five of his team-mates were namby-pambies caused outrage that even his scoring exploits failed to smooth over.

No matter. The 38 league goals he scored for Real Madrid in 1990 remains a record (tied with Zarra), but destiny could have acted otherwise. When Maradona left Barça for Italy, Barcelona's president Nuñez fancied Sánchez as his replacement, but Terry Venables, suspicious of the Mexican's nature, went for Steve Archibald instead. The Scot did just fine, but Sanchez did rather better.

Pep Guardiola came up against him a couple of times as a player, and if that was an unpleasant experience then so was Saturday's game. Sánchez, the arch-attacker, drew up a Bilardo-style defensive game plan which was potentially suicidal. The idea that by man-marking Xavi you will somehow stop Barça from playing has been proved absurd before, because the baton simply switches to somebody else. There is little need to name the cooperating partners of this particular paradigm. But Sánchez got lucky, either because Messi and Iniesta were having an off day, or because the Xavi-shackling job handed to Chico (José Manuel Flores) worked to the extent that Xavi lost his rag and was booked - a rare event.

Funnily enough, Chico was signed by Guardiola for Barça 'B' a couple of years ago, but he never made it to the first-team squad and was sent south. Not quite the way to show your appreciation to your ex-boss, but anyway. Iniesta picked up a rare yellow too, and although Barça made plenty of chances in spite of all this, they had Pedro to thank for a wonderful strike in the 30th minute, which forced the visitors to at least open up their lines a little more in the second half. Alves had a quiet game too, which didn't' help matters, but Barça are now three points clear and have equalled their best ever start to a league programme with six straight wins. They've actually done this three times before (1929, 1990 and 1997), but they might have their work cut out to beat the record, with a nasty-looking game at Valencia coming up after the break.

GettyImagesIker Muniain: The new wunderkid?

Elsewhere, other records were established. The Argentine Emiliano Armenteros - now there's a name for you - became the first chap to score at Chapín or any other ground for that matter, in the top flight in Xerez's history. It's taken the side six games to hit the onion bag, but now there might be a flood, you never know. Unfortunately they still haven't won, Obbina wrecking the party with a cracking equaliser late on. And over in Valladolid, substitute Iker Muniain's goal for Athletic Bilbao means that he is now the youngest player in the history of La Liga to score, beating the previous record set by Levante's Xisco Nadal. The latter scored his first goal twelve days shy of his 17th birthday, but the new pup in Bilbao managed his at 16 years and 289 days - yah boo!

Another couple of details. Real Sociedad started their game at Numancia with ten players formed in their youth set-up. The only exception was the goalkeeper, a Chilean. Two of the three subs who came on were also from the 'cantera' (quarry). It would be difficult to cast around Europe this weekend and find a similar case. That detail is just to take the wind from Bilbao's sails for the weekend. Oh, and Sociedad won 3-1 as well.

If anyone has nothing better to do in Madrid on Tuesday night, please nip into the Casa Del Libro at 7.30 in the evening (Gran Vía) where you can pick up a free wine, spot a famous face or two and dare to ask me face to face if I'm a Real Madrid fan. I'll be wearing my Real Sociedad shirt anyway (possibly Grimsby - I haven't decided yet) - but if you also want to buy a copy of the book on Madrid then I won't stop you, of course.