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Monday, August 27, 2012
Five points behind Rayo

Phil Ball

And so, after two weeks of La Liga, we have the usual scene. Barcelona and a team from Madrid at the top, only the latter are Rayo Vallecano, the team from the 'hood who have won their two opening games and are threatening to be this season's Levante. Their cult-hero striker Michu is now the darling of Swansea in the Premier League, but Rayo may have found a valid replacement in Leo Baptistao, a young Brazilian who made his debut at Betis on Saturday night and scored the winner. I watched most of the game on Saturday night - La Sexta's 'open' match having been brought back to the half-decent time of nine o'clock - and the quality of the football and the game in general were well worth the sofa time. Betis were curiously off the pace, but nevertheless look as though they can sort themselves out, rather as they did last season after their shocking start - but their cause would be helped if they could keep hold of the excellent Benat Exteberria, suddenly the talk of Spain. Rayo, on the other hand, played some splendid stuff - quick, slick and easy on the eye, and thoroughly deserved to win. The derby with Real Madrid in Week 5 (in Vallecas) looks like being a very interesting game now. It's getting difficult to review the entire weekend's programme at the moment, with two games still to be played on Monday night, but suffice to mention that if Valladolid defeat Levante then they will join Barcelona and Rayo on the early-doors podium. I guess that this sort of beginning is the one where hope springs eternal, where we begin to fantasise about a league whose progression will not inevitably include another slug-fest between the big two, interesting though that can be on its own terms. The realist in us also suspects that results such as Getafe's 2-1 win over neighbours Real Madrid on Sunday night are really the consequence of early-season rustiness, for all that such an analysis seems to patronise the efforts of the minnows. Tell me it ain't so! I'm happy to listen. Getafe's win in a half-empty Coliseo (the Madrilenos are still on their holidays) was, extraordinarily enough, Real Madrid's first league defeat of 2012. It leaves them five points behind Barcelona, with 36 games to play. As they say, it may be a trifle early to draw conclusions. Whatever, make sure you see Mesut Ozil's first-half blooper, a miss unlikely to be improved on this season. His one-two with Cristiano is excellent, but then he somehow hits the bar from about three yards out, with the goalkeeper nowhere. It would have been 2-0 and probably three points. Barcelona themselves had a fairly torrid time of things up at Osasuna, where most teams fear to tread. This was the ground where last season's defeat saw them more or less give up the ghost on their pursuit of Real Madrid, and the bad memories must have flooded back when Joseba Llorente, on loan from Real Sociedad, opened the scoring for the hosts on 17 minutes. Barcelona won it in the end, with another brace from Mr Messi, but for the first one Alexis looked offside, the second came courtesy of Osasuna's ten men, and the seemingly placid Tito Vilanova was sent off (for the first time in his career) for protesting rather too vehemently regarding a foul on Sergio Busquets. Tito was none too kind about the referee in the post-match press conference, and one has to admit that Muniz Fernandez is the worst of a bad bunch, but Tito's little remark after Thursday's Supercopa, saying that he wasn't surprised that Jose Mourinho had complained about the referee, can suddenly rebound on him. It might be a question of experience, with the new coach not yet skilled in the art of the press conference. He should beware, since any comment made in carelessness will be taken down and used against him ruthlessly by the Madrid tabloid police. Thursday's Supercopa de Espana was in fact a highly entertaining game, and a worthy late curtain-raiser to the season. Victor Valdes' gift to Angel Di Maria has made the prospect of the return leg all the more appealing, and Real Madrid will now be keen to dispel thoughts of an impending crisis by winning their first trophy of the season at the expense of their great rivals, buoyed by their 100% start. At least Real Madrid 'B' (RM Castillla) won the clasiquito (little clasico) 3-2 on Saturday night in the Segunda 'A' game, interestingly the first time that the two canteras (quarries) have played each other at the silver level for fifteen years. The intermittent presence of these two sides in Segunda 'A' often confuses outsiders, since the quality in both ranks is of the highest - but it's worth remembering that the make-up of 'B' sides can change substantially from season to season, reducing their competitive edge when coming up against sides like relegated Villarreal and Sporting de Gijon, or any other teams who can count on experienced and settled squads. The kids from Barcelona and Real Madrid might be tomorrow's world-beaters, but as teams they are not always able to compete on level terms. Proof of that particular pudding is the fact that they are the only two 'B' sides this season in the entire Second Division. Villarreal 'B' had to drop a league because of the relegation of the senior side, but the fact is still significant. I went to check out newly-promoted Celta in Anoeta on Saturday night (2-1), and was impressed by what I saw, despite the fact that the boys from Vigo are pointless after the opening two games. They have a small, nippy midfield, with players confident on the ball and keen to attack. The forward line has the excellent Iago Aspas, scorer of 23 goals last season. He looks a dream of a player, fast, incisive and unfeasibly confident. He gave Real Sociedad trouble all night, but was let down by the relative weakness of his colleagues in defence, who may have to sharpen up as the season slogs on. Wandering back to my car after the game, my son and I overtook a group of young Celta fans who seemed to be looking for an argument. Catching my eye, one of the group suggested to me that the result had been unfair. "I don't think so" I countered, rapidly defusing the situation by adding "but you looked good. I liked that Aspas guy, and the Danish chap you've signed" (Krohn-Delhi). He seemed to like this. "Yeah - he's good. He's only been here a couple of days. Whatever - as long as we finish higher than THEM" - a Voldermort-type pronoun which I assumed referred to the team that cannot be mentioned by Celta fans, Deportivo de la Coruna. "We hate THEM" he continued, as if I didn't know this. "And your team are ok, but I don't like their colours. They remind me of THEM!" he snapped, rather threateningly. "When we went to their ground last season, they just spat at us. Spat at us! Can you believe it?" he wailed, as his friend joined in the chorus of anti-Depor abuse. I steered my son down a convenient side-street, waving good bye to our temporary friends. The other Galicians-who-could-not-be-named, Deportivo, who are back after a single season in Segunda, are looking rather more competitive on all fronts, recovering from a 2-0 deficit at Valencia to eventually draw 3-3 and almost win the game in the closing stages courtesy of Ricardo Costa's early bath in the 75th minute. Valencia themselves will be disappointed to see their potentially good start truncated by this result, but the game was an interesting testament to the development of La Liga over the past ten years. These two sides were tipped by many, at the start of the millennium, to be the possible successors to Barcelona and Madrid - the two teams apparently best poised to change the patterns of the twentieth-century Barcelona-Madrid hegemony that appeared to be on the wane. Financial reality has since caught up and shattered the dream, but Valencia continue to believe, and Deportivo have the impetus and the ambition to try again. Their president, Augusto Lendoiro, may not be to everyone's taste, but it's difficult to deny him his special place in Spanish football, stubbornly remaining at the helm through thick and thin for almost twenty-five years now. To conclude - as I watch the Monday morning headlines on TVE1 it's interesting to change one of the team's names that the sports section has just mentioned and say 'Real Madrid are five points behind Rayo Vallecano' rather than Barcelona. Luka Modric flies in a private jet to Madrid in a few hours, to help Rayo's neighbours feel a little better about themselves with regard to Wednesday's return leg of the Supercopa.


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