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Monday, November 19, 2012
Hunting cats and sausages

Phil Ball

Lots to talk about this week. Shall we begin with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and move seamlessly onto Karim Benzema? We can but try. Like everyone else, I enjoyed Ibra's fourth goal in Sweden's friendly game against England, and like that Frederick Forsyth novel that starts by asserting that everyone knows what they were doing when they heard that Kennedy (or Lennon) was shot, I'll probably always remember wandering past a TV screen on the wall of my Prague hotel last week, en route to the bar, when the goal occurred. I'd even forgotten they were playing the game. More than that, the Swede scored all four goals, which set the tone for the week. Back in Spain for Saturday, I saw the Real Madrid versus Athletic game on TV and was once again struck by how wonderful a player the 'hunting cat' Karim Benzema really is. I think I saw his home debut, in the Peace Cup game against Liga de Quito in the Bernabéu back in July 2009. The home supporters seemed unconvinced, but I thought he was fantastic, in a quiet sort of way. And of course, a quiet sort of way isn't the best seduction technique a new player needs to use on the Bernabéu, even if two-thirds of the crowd that night were Ecuadorian expatriates. He took his time settling in, perhaps because his rather blasé, Gallic shoulder-drop and his fragile, almost child-like face convinced the Madridistas that they had another choker on their hands. He was Manuel Pellegrini's choice too, which meant that the press would use any poor performance from Benzema to further justify their assault on the Chilean's integrity, questioning his competence as both a chooser of players and a coach. When José Mourinho turned up, because the press had hounded Pellegrini out, there were several prominent Madrid-based writers who were hoping that Benzema would also return from whence he had come. They were further encouraged by Mourinho's famous, 'If you go out hunting and you've only got a cat to help, then you take the cat. If you've got a dog, you're going to have a better day's hunting', or words to that effect. Gonzalo Higuain was the hunting dog in question, but only a person with severe visual impairment would now think that the Argentine was a superior centre-forward to 'Puss in Boots' Benzema. It's partly a question of taste, partly a question of fashion, but one rather suspects that the Benzema model has a greater future than the Andy Carroll alternative, to quote a rather crude comparison. In La Liga terms, then maybe you'd be looking at an Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla), an Imanol Agirretxe (Real Sociedad) or a Gaizka Toquero-cum-Aritz Aduriz (Athletic Bilbao), but if truth be told this older-fashioned type of line-leader, the big physical centre-forward of yore, is a dying breed in Spain. Coincidentally, I was in Lezama on Saturday (Athletic Bilbao's training complex) to watch a junior match, and wandering around the extensive grounds I came across a little bust of Telmo Zarra, who died in 2006 but who remains La Liga's top scorer with 252 league goals. I'm too young to have seen him play, but he set something of a template, followed by others such as Carlos Santillana, Quini, Marcelino, Julio Salinas and Fernando Morientes, to quote but a few. Fernando Llorente, of course, is the culmination of a similar line, although because of his extra height he belongs to the Peter Crouch category of having a 'surprisingly good touch, despite his height' - which always sounds like it's damning with faint praise. Interesting then, that the Bernabéu chorused Llorente's name on Saturday when he was introduced as a substitute in the second half. Given the sublime performance of Benzema against Athletic - one and a half goals and an assist - you would think that the Bernabéu was finally sold on the more modern type, the culmination of the Emilio Butragueño-Raúl sort of lineage that Benzema represents, than to return to the relative crudity of a player like Llorente, for all his decent technique. Llorente made the mistake of acknowledging the applause, since its origins might have been more ironic than appreciative. For most of the game there had been chants against the Basque Markel Susaeta, whose little gaffe in a midweek press conference, calling the representation of Spain una cosa (a thing) instead of saying 'representing my country' or something equally patriotic (he scored on his debut for Spain in Panama in midweek) disturbed the Ultras Sur's loyal sense of King and Country - causing them to question the honour of Susaeta's mother and to applaud Llorente for his public yet implicit rejection of the whole Basque thing. Or at least that's how you might interpret it. I certainly did. But back to Benzema. His goal was a beauty, but you might argue that Messi scores those every week. Indeed he does, but there's a sense in which Benzema does things for Madrid that Messi doesn't quite do for Barcelona. Tito Vilanova seemed slightly piqued at the suggestion, after the 3-1 win against Zaragoza, that it was all Messi's doing, and that there was an increasing dependency on the Argentine. Well, Madrid apologists have been saying that for several seasons now, but although it would be wrong to underestimate the power of the Barcelona system to help Messi do what he does, he remains an individualist supreme, almost passing the ball at times as if he just couldn't be bothered to do it all himself again. And of course it's more pertinent to look at Cristiano Ronaldo, and the way in which he seems to pass to a team-mate as a last resort. His involvement in Real Madrid's best moves is usually to finish them off, not to initiate or develop them. Benzema, on the other hand, brings everyone into the game. It's an unusual skill, but his subtle changes of direction and the unpredictable angles of his passes encourage fellow forwards and midfielders to make runs into spaces that would not normally constitute the delivery areas of a centre-forward. He can receive quite high up the pitch, but then drop back into advanced midfield positions carrying the ball and waiting for players to make runs either side of him. He can drift out wide, allowing others to fill the normal striker zones, and then supply them like a winger, but most of all he is extremely difficult to read, with almost imperceptible changes of pace and the vision of pass that reminds me of Michael Laudrup. He's generous, and less obsessed with scoring than Ronaldo and Higuain. When he's good, Madrid can beat anyone. In truth, he's the player that Barcelona most fear. Although Ronaldo is making a habit of scoring against them, they still feel that he's easier to shackle, easier to frustrate. Benzema's stealth worries them. He's a Barcelona-type player. Manchester United were after him before he finally signed for Madrid in 2009, but it's Manchester City against whom he'll be playing in the Etihad on Wednesday night, hoping to get his side the win that will seal qualification for the next round. It should be an interesting game, with City on a desperate lifeline. And I don't mean, just to conclude, that there is no place anymore for the instinctive 'sniffer' type of goalscorer - the Gerd Muller-Hugo Sanchez model. But in Spain, players like Benzema have widened people's perceptions of how to attack - that's all I'm saying. Elsewhere, Sevilla beat neighbours Betis 5-1, only the second time since the war that they've scored so many against them - a curious statistic given Betis' relative lightness over the years. Several police were hurt and 30 people arrested, which is fairly standard for the course in this fixture. Sevilla's manger Michel and Betis' counterpart Pepe Mel are not the best of friends either but in strictly footballing terms, Sevilla seem to be on the mend and Betis, despite their elevated position, are beginning to wobble on the precipice of a free-fall. Talking of free-falls, the game in the Second Division between Racing de Santander and Villarreal on Saturday caught the media's attention, partly because they were both in the top flight last season, and the game seemed strange in the context of the silver zone, but also because Racing's long-suffering fans had organised a chorizada (a sausage-fest) before the game. You need to understand Spanish to get the irony, but the Cantabria region is famous for its sausages, and indeed, one of the club's sponsors is a famous local sausage firm. The problem is that chorizo also means 'burglar' or 'robber' in colloquial Spanish, and the club's perilous financial plight after the majority purchase of shares by the mysterious Ali Syed is now hardly front-page news. There was trouble at the game though, and as Villarreal romped to a predictable 3-0 victory, Racing's plummet into the relegation zone prompted supporters to attempt to invade the pitch, After the game they surrounded the stadium so that president Javier 'Harry' Lavin could not leave without a flea in his ear. Lavin (and manager Fabri Gonzalez) stayed inside the bowels of El Sardinero, and only emerged two hours later when the fans had finally dispersed. One would not wish to see them go the way of Segunda 'B' Oviedo, although it would seem that the club that spawned Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata, Michu and Luis Aragones have been saved at the last minute from extinction by a remarkable public campaign to raise the €1.9 million required to stave off the bailiffs. The money had been raised anyway, with the club releasing single shares to the value of the debt and promising ownership and free entrance to any shareholder for the foreseeable future - which now appears to have been secured by the appearance of Carlos Slim, the Mexican mega-rich chap who was also convinced to weigh in with a further €2 million and make himself the principal shareholder, which he has done. Cazorla, Mata and Michu also publicly bought in, and the whole episode has put the smile back into La Liga, at least for the short-term. A club like Oviedo, founded in 1926 and something of an histórico in La Liga, could not be seen to go under, not simply because of who they are but also because of a possible domino effect. In the same week, CF Palencia of the third tier are about to go under, but fewer are mourning their passing. They are not as famous as Oviedo but they represent a community and a sentiment, and their folding affects La Liga in just the same way as that of Oviedo would. To misquote John Donne, no club is an island.


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