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Monday, September 17, 2007
Back to the grind

It was back to the grind this weekend with the top-flight league programme, after a fortnight of Spain's manager Luis Aragonés looking glum and avoiding the press and more subsequent attention focused on basketball, volleyball and Formula One than on the beautiful game.

Spain's basketball side lost in the last second in the European final to Russia, but the volleyball team turned the tables on the same country by beating them in Moscow to take the country's first ever title in the sport. Fernando Alonso chipped another point off Lewis Hamilton's Formula One lead and in La Liga, when anyone bothered to look, things panned out rather as everyone had been expecting. What had they been expecting?

Well - Real Madrid kept up their 100% record by beating a plucky Almería 3-1 in the Bernabéu, but seemed to be suffering from a euphoria-induced hangover since their last appearance in the league, when they registered a stunning 0-5 win at Villarreal. Madrid could hardly string two passes together but won eventually by a falsely comfortable margin thanks to some strange refereeing decisions in their favour. And the ref was a Catalan no less.

Talking of the Catalans, who have spent the last two weeks attempting to give us something more interesting to talk about than the Spanish national team, their attempt to set up a Catalonia v USA friendly foundered upon the rocks of the Spanish Federation, who refused to endorse the game (and assign a referee).

After Barcelona's President Joan Laporta and the most outspoken of the players' nationalist figures - Oleguer, stepped in to suggest that they should just play the game anyway, the USA pulled out, fearing a diplomatic incident, or an undiplomatic one. The Americans have enough on their plates, internationally speaking, without upsetting the Spanish, although of course, a little research would have revealed to them that the Spanish Prime Minister is a Barcelona fan, although not a Catalan by birth. Would he have approved of the game? We shall never know, until the CIA releases the documents in fifty years time.

But it hasn't been a good week for Barcelona either. Everyone had been expecting them to suffer at Osasuna, and that's exactly what happened. Pamplona is never a very comfortable place for visiting teams, particularly the star-studded variety. Up in Navarre they like their teams hairy-assed and manly, with not a prima donna in sight. There's a kind of heavy-metal roughness to the Reyno de Navarra, and it's as well to take your shin pads along.

It was noted by one Spanish journalist that as the teams lined up, Ronaldinho was busy adjusting his pony-tail whilst the Osasuna midfield was rolling up its metaphorical sleeves in preparation for combat. The contrast was significant, as the Brazilian was substituted in the second half - to loud gasps from the Spanish media at large, and Osasuna went on to completely stifle any creativity Barça thought they might have had.

The promising young Bojan Krkic made his first appearance in official combat for the club at the ripe old age of seventeen (actually younger than Messi when he made his bow), substituting the other young and interesting newcomer for the season, the Mexican Giovani dos Santos.

To be honest, Pamplona is hardly the place to shine on your debut, and neither did - but amongst incessant talk of the functioning or non-functioning of the cuatro mágnificos, it could well be these two players on whom Barcelona's season pivots, since their readiness or otherwise to fill out the squad and provide valid alternatives for the more established key players may prove just as important as whether Henry ever plays as well again as he did for Arsenal. But maybe next game, Ronaldinho should get his bouffant and pony-tail fixed and secured before he comes onto the pitch. Eto'o can help him when he returns to the side. They're such good mates, after all.

Sevilla were equally predictable on their league return to the Sanchez Pizjuan after the death of their key player, Antonio Puerta. But I mean predictable in the nicest of ways. Their 4-1 mauling of down-the-road Recreativo was done in the manner of a side who were pretty fantastic all last season, but for whom adversity seems to have been a further spark for togetherness and style. Europe beware. On Wednesday they visit another in-form side in London (Arsenal) in what could be the game of the season - if all goes to plan.

Sevilla's transformation from thuggish cloggers under Joaquín Caparros to the most admired side in Spain has been a wholly unexpected one in the country's media circles, neighbours Betis generally having been the side who attracted the most attention and affection. The old myth about Sevilla being the 'posh' team of the city seems to be finally dying amid a widespread feeling that the side is about to conquer all before it this season. It could be. The scary thing about them is that Puerta's death has brought the players even closer together, as if they weren't already a magnificently functioning unit.

The Dani Alves soap opera over the summer has been eclipsed by the other events at the club, and he seems to have simply slotted back into the groove. Presumably he will play in London on Wednesday, since his value to the club now outweighs the sort of reduced fee they could get for him at the next transfer window, assuming that a Champions League side were still interested in him for their domestic league programme only. Given the stakes nowadays, it's unlikely. Alves was brilliant again against Recreativo on Sunday, destroying their left flank time and again.

Alves aside, the point to make about Sevilla is that there are no 'magnífico' issues surrounding the club. There are no stars, save Alves. European journalists are still unsure as to who plays for them, apart from Kanouté. As Jack Charlton once said about the famous Leeds United side under Don Revie (although please excuse the comparison), 'If someone has an off-day, the rest of the lads make sure you don't notice'. Exactly. Voilà la difference. The problem for teams who fill their squads with galácticos or magníficos is that you always do notice, and of course those players are horribly aware themselves of the thousands of fingers on keyboards, tapping out their every move, their every declaration.

On Sunday, Alves wasn't actually Sevilla's best player. It was the Russian Alexandr Kerzhakov (who?) who scored twice and even had the time to miss a penalty. But he was brilliant. Can't wait for the game on Wednesday, to which I'd generously been invited by an English TV channel, but which I'll have to watch on the damned sofa by virtue of the impossibility of the flights to and from London that day. It's a hard life.

The same could be said of poor old Luis Aragonés, who has disappeared from the front pages until the next round of European qualifiers, but who was roundly criticised for Spain's two performances last week against Iceland (1-1) and Latvia (2-0). The press has finally decided to play its usual game, and hound the national manager out of office, after originally permitting him a certain honeymoon period. Perhaps this is not exclusively a Spanish habit, but the odd thing here is that Aragonés was always highly-rated before, and generally liked by the press pack for his dry wit and eccentricity. But as the mid-life menopausal heroine Shirley Valentine lamented in the film of the same name, 'My husband used to love me because he thought I was mad. Now he really thinks I am'.

Let's look at the facts. Spain are statistically the most in-form country in Europe. Their last eight games have yielded seven wins and a draw, and yet the newspapers continue to call for blood. Up in Reykjavik, with a force-ten gale blowing and the rain sheeting down, Xabi Alonso was sent off for nothing, and the Icelanders proceeded to clog down every Spanish attempt to play something resembling football. Iceland were certainly uninterested in such irrelevance details. Then they scored with a rather good move, and shut up shop. Ten-man Spain, with a lenient referee allowing fouls galore against them, rallied wonderfully, stuck to the task and eventually equalised. It struck me as a performance worthy of praise, and yet all they got was stick for not beating an inferior side. Absolute nonsense. No wonder old Luis was chewing on his cud.

Then against Latvia they struggled to score, although they created over 30 clear-cut chances. Well - Liverpool may well find out the truth about Torres - that he scores half as many as he should, but Spanish journalists know all about this. He finally got the second, five minutes from time, but this was presented as something negative too. Spain did indeed overdo the 'ticky-taka' stuff a little, over-elaborating when it might have been easier to just pump a few high balls into the Latvian defence and see what came of it, but they did play football, and most attractively at times. It just wouldn't go in. What was the problem?

Well - they were playing in Oviedo, and it's a while since they've done that. Spain has no real national stadium, so like a medieval king is forced to seek shelter in the castles of the provinces, handing out favours (obviously) to those nobles who give him his supper. But there's a twist here, and King Luis apparently missed the point. David Villa, Spain's striking star and born in nearby Langreo (although he never actually played for Oviedo) was taken off in the second half - a decision that naturally caused the Oviedo contingent to boo loudly, as the local hero was taken cruelly from their sight.

Aragonés was roundly condemned for this decision, as if his tactical decisions were subordinate to the local flavour of the day. Worse than that, some journalists implied that he did it on purpose. And then they wondered why he failed to turn up for the post-match conference.

The next day, instead of praising Spain for another three points in the bag, the press focused instead on Aragonés' most likely successor, Vicente Del Bosque. Nothing wrong with Vicente, who's an old mate of Luis anyway, but the decision to employ him seems to have been made by Fernando Hierro, about to be consecrated in his new role as Sporting Director of the Federation, whatever that means. I'll tell you what it means. It means that any old boys who have been nice to Hierro in the past - and Del Bosque was apparently something of a father to him, will get the nod.

The funny old-boy Madrid handshake will re-establish itself and all will be fine in the garden. The very fact that Hierro - who has as many enemies as friends - has been employed is proof of that pudding. All the talk of 'modernising' the Spanish set-up and of employing a manager a little further removed from his wheelchair have already been dashed. Welcome to the forward-thinking Spanish Federation.


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