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Monday, May 27, 2013
Sunday, lovely Sunday

Phil Ball

Where to start this weekend? I seem to have written that phrase quite a few times this season, which is a good sign, I guess. Even with the league title over and done with, there will be plenty to keep La Liga fans interested until the final whistle of the campaign next weekend. It's all to play for in the Second Division, too - but more of that later. This weekend saw the penultimate jornada in the top flight, with all the games played at 8pm on Sunday. It's difficult to explain how wonderful this felt and depressing to remember that once upon a time, before corporate insanity and big bucks invaded the scene, it was often like this. Sunday at eight is still a bit late (there's a new slogan in there) but I must admit that, although my English roots still default my football-related emotions back to a Saturday afternoon, a Sunday evening game is actually quite nice. This is because you get the whole weekend to savour the event to come. Everything you plan is conditioned by the time of the game, in a positive sort of way. But if you play on a Saturday and lose, the weekend is coloured by the defeat. You wake up on a Sunday morning more reluctant to go and buy the papers, and it's painful to turn to the sports page to face the reality of the result. It's the emotional rhythm of life that those in the church of football understand, and to a large extent accept. This weekend in La Liga, the main game in the upper echelons was Real Sociedad vs Real Madrid, since fourth place would probably be decided by its outcome. Valencia, the other candidates, had a relatively straightforward home game against Granada, safe from relegation. Even the weather improved in San Sebastian, and Anoeta was packed to the rafters for the visit of the old foe, minus ex-hero Xabi Alonso, Cristiano Ronaldo (with back problems) and Karim Benzema and Mezut Ozil on the bench. Madrid were just playing for pride - but tell that to Diego Lopez, who pulled off at least four top-drawer saves. Maybe Jose Mourinho is right about him. The game was an awesome spectacle and confirmed, if it needed confirming, that Real Sociedad have been the principal entertainers this season in La Liga. It's taken ten years of writing this column for that sentence to appear, but I have to say that I have never enjoyed a season watching La Real as much as I've enjoyed this one - not even the season when they finished a close second to Real Madrid in 2003. This present team is potentially better despite its occasional tendency to make daft mistakes, such as the disastrous pass by Mikel Gonzalez that gifted the opening goal to Gonzalo Higuain in the sixth minute. Gonzalez has had a good season and there was no recrimination from the stands, just further encouragement. Even when the home side went 2-0 down to Josť Callejon's clever finish, Sociedad came roaring back, as they have been doing all season. It's simply been a wonderful live experience. After the hosts had got themselves back in with a chance at 2-2, Sami Khedira scored from an excellent counter-attack two minutes later, but still Sociedad weren't finished. Xavi Prieto equalised in the 93rd minute to give some hope of fourth spot, even though Valencia predictably won their game. Prieto, curiously, has now scored five goals in two league games against Madrid this season, but his side have only a single point to show for it. It's looking good for Valencia now, despite Prieto's goal in extremis meaning that Los Che will have to win in Sevilla next week. But Sevilla's loss at Osasuna on Sunday means they can no longer qualify for Europe and may not be as motivated as they might have been in different circumstances. Real Sociedad, on the other hand, travel to Deportivo who, after losing 3-1 to Malaga, must win to ensure that they stay up. Indeed, it's going to be a fun-packed final day, with no team yet relegated. It's a long time since that has been the case. Mallorca's last-gasp bid for survival - their hand suddenly appearing, Carrie-like, from under the graveyard soil - coupled with Celta's 2-0 win at Valladolid means it's all down to the last day. The further beauty of it is that all four relegation-threatened sides are at home. Deportivo have the hardest job, for reasons already explained - but it's almost impossible to predict who will stay up. It's also destined to be a tough Sunday morning for some, with the games scheduled for Saturday evening. The other interesting dish on the menu was Athletic's final home game in San Mames after exactly 100 years. Levante arrived on a seven-match winless streak, embroiled in one of the unhappiest periods in their history, under investigation after allegations of match-fixing and never having won in San Mames in their entire existence. The runes were good as regards the final party in Bilbao but, bizarrely, Levante won 1-0 with a last-minute goal from Jaunlu (one of the four players implicated in the scandal) after Iker Muniain had been sent off for the first time in his career. It's hard to write these kinds of scripts, and it was a sad curtain-down on a great stadium that is one of the most special I've ever been to. Back on August 21 1913, at 5.15pm, Athletic played their first game in this stadium, against Racing de Irun in front of 7,000 spectators. The game ended 1-1, and was part of a three-way tournament that also included English side Shepherd's Bush. The famous Rafael Moreno, 'Pichichi' was the first player to score in the stadium, and it took him a mere five minutes. The last man to score, a century on, was the aforementioned Juanlu, in a context and a set of circumstances that would have been hard to imagine back in those sepia days. I've been invited to contribute to a film documentary on San Mames by an English production company, and will do my bit next weekend in Bilbao, in an empty stadium. I'm afraid the lure of Real Madrid in Anoeta marked my priorities this weekend, but it would have been almost impossible to have got a ticket for the Levante game, and all the press passes were booked up well in advance. The production company got in, of course, but it is almost unbelievable that the Spanish Federation insists on only publishing the times and dates of individual games a fortnight before they are played. Not only is it commercially questionable, it is a nightmare for both Spanish and foreign followers of La Liga. The production company had originally been led to believe that the match would be played in midweek, and had innocently booked their air tickets in advance. But the planning that even an individual foreign visitor needs to carry out to ensure that he or she sees a game is now ridiculously complex. Next season, the situation must be rectified. Television companies foot the bills, of course, but the game cannot survive if its basic essence continues to be thus diluted. There needs to be a restoration of respect for the customer who pays for the live version. In Barcelona, Espanyol hosted their neighbours and succumbed to a 2-0 defeat, meaning Barcelona can now equal Madrid's 100-point record, established last season by Mourinho's formerly merry men. To do this, they'll need to beat Malaga in the Camp Nou, with the visitors now assured of a Europa league place if they can overturn their UEFA-imposed ban on appeal. Manuel Pellegrini managed his final home game at the club, and was warmly applauded by the fans. I get the feeling that he'll do well in his next post, as might Neymar, officially transferred to Barcelona this weekend after something of a soap-opera process. Real Madrid, smarting from the eventual snub from the Brazilian, turned their attention to Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale in an attempt to divert the direction of the news. We shall see, but Bale's signing of an endorsement campaign with BT, the EPL's joint sponsors, makes it unlikely he will now move in the summer. Suarez is another story, although I find it amusing that one of the reasons cited for the departure of Mourinho was that Real Madrid wished to restore the noble image of the club. Suarez would undoubtedly contribute to that laudable ambition. In the Second Division, Elche's 1-1 home draw with Real Madrid Castilla means they go up as champions and will consequently be playing the real Real Madrid next season. Whatever, there are still four sides who can aspire to automatic promotion in second place with two games left to play. These are, in present hierarchical order, Almeria, Girona, Villarreal and the famous Alcorcon. It would be interesting to see Girona or Alcorcon make it, since they have never played in the top flight. Ponferradina and Las Palmas can also make it into the final play-off places. Next week, all the games (save Sabadell v Elche) will kick off at 6pm on Sunday, but it was difficult to understand why this was not the case this weekend also, with so much already at stake. As ever, the Spanish Federation moves in mysterious ways. Down in the hot-spots, despite Racing de Santander's bold 11th-hour struggle, their home draw against Guadalajara means they must win their remaining two games in order to survive. It's looking difficult, but the future of the institution may depend on it. The bottom club, Xerez, are down, but Murcia and Huesca can still escape, although their hopes are even slimmer than those of Racing. But it makes a dramatic end to the season in the silver division too, and raises the eyebrows of those La Liga watchers who will recall that Xerez, Murcia and Racing all enjoyed top-flight football until quite recently. The stakes are getting higher, but the possibility of sudden collapse seems higher still these days. All to play for next weekend, after which that terrible thing called the summer break (without football) begins. I'm preparing myself for it, beaches and sun - but it's going to be tough. As Albert Camus wisely observed, time is a tedious interval between football matches.

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