Tuesday, January 15, 2008
La Liga half-term report: Part 1
Top of the Class
Real Madrid just sealed a sensational half-term with a typically practical display at bottom of the table Levante, who could easily have won but who found themselves, like so many before them, up against a large slice of Madrileño luck and a goalkeeper (Casillas) in a state of grace. I use the word 'sensational' with a certain reluctance, but it refers more to the statistical achievement than to the football.
Madrid's tally of 47 points from 19 games is the best since three points were introduced for a win in Spain (1995). Seven points ahead of Barcelona at the half-way stage - who would have thought? A year ago the club were immersed in a dual crisis of confidence and schizophrenia, unable to decide upon whom or what they wanted. The brave but equally ruthless decision not to continue with Capello seems to have paid off, if only because the squad in general looks a lot happier. But it's a chicken and egg sort of argument - what came first, the results or the smiles?
Whatever the truth, the startling fact is that Real Madrid appear to be where they are by virtue of two players, rather than by virtue of any revolutionary change in personnel or style. Amazingly, Real Madrid are the team most 'shot at' by other teams in the league, even more than lowly Levante. The statistic was made public last week, prompting Schuster to declare that it had to stop. But Casillas just saves everything that comes his way. The side has only conceded 14 goals, despite having their posts peppered 279 times, 82 of which ended with San Iker (Saint Iker) making a save. He has now gone 468 minutes without conceding, and played 58 consecutive games since being sent off in Santander in May 2006.
At the other end, of course, Van Nistlerooy just keeps on scoring, as has been his wont since time immemorial. It's kind of annoying for other teams, who certainly haven't been shy of attacking them. But will the run last? Such a reliance on two players is not a great basis for the future. The team has a better balanced look about it, it's true, but it could still all go horribly wrong next term. It did for Barça, just after this report last year. So far, everything has gone too much according to plan for Real Madrid. The gods of (mis)fortune may be planning changes before the summer comes.
How did that song go? 'It's got to be-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee perfect'. Reactions to Barcelona's first term have ranged from the surreal to the hysterical, but when all is done and dusted they sit second in the league and are still on for the Champions League (and the King's Cup). If they hadn't lost at home to Real Madrid, things would in no way look so bleak as some are painting them. The squad still has an awesome look to it, at least on paper, and any slip-up from Madrid in the next few weeks could change the scene overnight.
Barça's defensive record is the best in the league (13), and up front the options still seem dizzying, whether or not Ronaldinho ever returns satisfactorily to the fold. Whilst Deco's influence in midfield has decreased, Iniesta's rise has compensated for it - as has Bojan's introduction on Messi's injury. Eto'o has now gone to Africa for a fortnight, but Henry is back and looking sharp. Rijkaard is leaving at the end of the season, but don't write them off just yet. A seven-point gap looks intimidating, but in truth it's nothing at this stage. A couple of setbacks for Madrid and things could begin to look rather different.
Best of the Rest
Atlético Madrid have long been Spain's great enigma, always promising more than they have delivered, but in the absence of their perennial star-boy Fernando Torres, departed for Liverpool, the team seems to have improved both in results and spirit. After a dodgy start, the team has been involved in some breathtaking encounters, banging in and then conceding goals with gay abandon, but delighting their long-suffering supporters in the process.
Forlán has proved a more accommodating partner to the young Agüero than was Torres, and Maxi Rodriguez and Raúl Garcia have given the side a tougher, more balanced look. Reyes has been disappointing, but is hardly a bad player to have in reserve, whilst Simao and Luis Garcia (when he's fit) have added class to the general act. Those who question their defence do so because of the run of high-scoring games, but the team has only conceded 19, which is hardly cause for a crisis. They've done well, and should stay where they are (3rd) - or climb even higher if Barça get the wobbles. Watch them in the UEFA too. Bolton in the next round should hardly cause them to sweat too much.
Champions League back-door men.
How wonderful that Espanyol sit fourth, at the half-way stage, wonderful because nobody had seen it coming. The poor cousins of Barcelona once finished third in the 1972/73 season, but have only ever come close to repeating the feat when they finished a very respectable fifth in 2005. Then again, they did get to the final of the UEFA Cup, and unlike Middlesbrough before them, gave a much better account of themselves against Sevilla. But nobody saw it as anything other than a flash in the pan. However, this weekend's defeat at Almería was their first in fifteen matches, and the morale around the club is at an all-time high.
Ernesto Valverde has proved to be a thoughtful, intelligent manager, given neither to hysterics nor empty soundbites, and after a wobbly departure from Athletic Bilbao has got his bearings back. The team has a good goalie (Kameni), a potent midfield with De La Peña still painting patterns and Riera dangerous down the left, and the evergreen Tamudo still doing damage up front. This weekend's game was his 300th for the club.
Will they stay the course and earn themselves an outing in the Champions League? Possibly. Their problem will reside in the fact that both Atlético Madrid and Villarreal - the most likely of the pack to stop them, have more depth to their squads. But even if they slip up, another shot at the UEFA next season should hardly be beyond them.
Aspiring to higher things
Well - despite the permanent air of obscurity that continues to surround them, Villarreal, the team from nowhere (Villarreal isn't even a town) remain amongst the elite, after their startling assault on Europe in the 2005/06 season. Having lost Diego Forlan to Atlético's bigger bank account, they have welcomed back the reliable goal-scorer Nihat from injury and added the more-than-useful Rossi from Man Utd.
Jon Tomasson knows where the net is too, and the tally of 34 goals this term is only tempered by the fact that they have conceded 30, hinting at an Achilles Heel that could scupper their plans for a Champions League berth, unless they tighten up. This weekend's game against Deportivo (4-3) was typical of their games recently. No other team in La Liga has been so involved in goals (64) - Sevilla lying second on sixty. If it's excitement you're after, go to watch Villarreal. Will they stay up there? I think so - but only if they improve at home. The win against Deportivo was their first on home soil for two months.
Along with Espanyol, Racing de Santander are probably the other side who deserve most praise this season. If few had expected Espanyol to be up there, absolutely no-one had foreseen such a radical improvement in Racing's fortunes. They just look very, very solid - not scoring many (20) but not conceding too badly either (19). This is their best half-term finish since 1993 (when they stood 8th), and the success is based on being hard to beat.
Nobody has stuffed them this season (as opposed to previous campaigns), and although last season's finish of 10th hinted at better things to come, the departure of the much-loved Zigic hardly augured the improvement that has taken place. Duscher has added steel in the middle, and at the back the team continues to take few prisoners, but you just wonder if they can really fight off Sevilla below them, despite the problems they are experiencing.
Read the second part of Phil Ball's La Liga half-term report here...
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