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Monday, January 28, 2008
A tale of two games

I like to watch the live match on Saturday night in Spain, on the 'Sexta' channel, and then switch over on the digibox to take in BBC's Match of the Day. It's a brusque change of cultures, a little bit like when I drive home to England in the summer in my left-hand drive jalopy, a switch that I've grown accustomed to.

Sometimes I zap over late to the BBC, because the Spanish game is too good, and on Saturday night, sniffling with flu and determined to stay indoors, Sevilla v Osasuna sounded like decent enough fare.

The problem was that in England, there'd been the sort of FA Cup tie that only takes place every decade or so; the game between Liverpool and Havant & Waterlooville, a team from the depths of the English part-time scene, and I knew it would be on first, on the extended highlights.

The game had finished 5-2 to Liverpool, but the part-timers had been twice ahead in the first half. I didn't want to miss it. Back in Seville, Osasuna had just equalised and appeared to be shutting up shop. It seemed like a banker's draw, and so I switched over.

It was a good decision, if only to hear the English commentator's immortal phrase to accompany one of the Havant team's substitutions: 'Off goes the van driver, to be replaced by the bin man.' As Homer Simpson sang: 'The garbage man can!' And he could. Tony Taggart, Havant's winger, is indeed a refuse collector for the local council, working the morning shifts so that he can train at night for his team.

More of this kind of stuff would give football its good name back. It doesn't happen to the same extent in Spain's Copa del Rey, although you do get some interesting clashes from time to time when a smallish club gets far enough to play Barça or Real Madrid, but they're never as small as Havant and Waterlooville.

And so, thus seduced by the romance, I switched back to the Spanish match, only to see all hell cut loose. Right on the stroke of full-time, referee Iturralde Gonzales signalled one of those penalties that will have implications for several seasons to come.

Sevilla and Osasuna is always a bad-tempered affair, and there is a history of bad blood between them.

Iturralde, perhaps conscious of this, was nervy and twitchy all night, brandishing yellow cards (and two red) like they were going out of style, but his decision to award the home side a penalty and send off Javi Garcia for an alleged handball would appear to have its origins in an encounter from the previous season.

Back then, during the penultimate game of the season at Mallorca, Iturralde failed to award Sevilla two clear penalties, leaving them with a 0-0 draw that blew their chance of at least finishing runners-up. Had they won that day in Mallorca they would have gone top and put more pressure on Madrid for their final two games, and their eventual third spot was seen as the referee's fault.

And so, predictably, the Sánchez Pizjuan gave Iturralde a hard time from the start, protesting at his every decision, and hollering down insults from the seats.

Iturralde, so Osasuna were implying the next day, caved in to the pressure and sent off two of their players before awarding Sevilla their 'compensación', as they call it here. He has now done his bit and apologised implicitly for last season's gaffe, and in doing so plunged Osasuna back into the steamy zone just above the red-hot relegation spots.

That's the way it seems to work here, or perhaps the ref just thought that they didn't like him because he came from the north. Which is even worse for Osasuna, of course, because they are from the north. I won't say they're Basques, like Iturralde, because every time I do I get lots of messages through the 'Any Comments' postbag.

Whatever, it's done Sevilla a favour, particularly as they didn't look like winning through any initiative of their own. Like several top teams in Europe just now, they will be hoping that Mali get knocked out soon from the ANC so that Kanouté and Keita can come back and restore some guile to the forward line.

They look nothing like the side that ran teams ragged last season. Fabiano tried, but in Kerzhakov he found an unwilling and unimaginative partner. Alves did he his usual superman stuff, but Navas never quite got onto his wavelength, or vice-versa. And the game was nasty and edgy, with an almighty scrap at one stage involving Osasuna's manager Cuco Ziganda, and then some handbags at the end between the rival sets of supporters.

It was all a stark contrast to the FA Cup match I'd just watched, and the family-day-out feel that accompanied it.

Referees loomed large in other places this weekend though, and the Real Madrid v Villarreal game was marked by the fact that it was officiated by Alvarez Izquierdo, the man who presided over Sevilla's equally controversial win against Real Madrid earlier in the season. When Schuster was told, during the press conference, that Izquierdo was a Catalan, he replied 'Well that says it all, doesn't it?'

The German received an official rap on the knuckles for that little irony, but assured the press before the game that he felt no further 'rancour' towards that particular referee. Well, when you're seven points clear, soon to be nine, it all seems a bit less worrying, doesn't it?

As it transpired, the game was an excellent one, and even Casillas was beaten (by Rossi), for the first time in what seems like a century. As Rossi wheeled away to be congratulated on his equaliser, Casillas could be seen muttering something under his breath, to the tune of 'Damn it, I'll have to wait to beat Cañizares' record', as the now unemployed goalkeeper still holds the longest unbeaten run for a Real Madrid keeper.

Nevertheless, all was not well for Manuel Pellegrini, Villarreal's Chilean manager.

Echoing the Osasuna syndrome, although in much less heated terms, he claimed after the game that his side would have at least drawn had it not been for the leniency of the referee, citing Robinho's position when the first goal was scored, and also the foul by Raúl on Cygan just before the third.

Pellegrini went on to mention the fact that the Catalan referee had to be seen to 'compensate' for his previous performance when in charge of a game involving Madrid, and that his side had fallen victim to this.

Be that as it may, this type of game is impossible to view neutrally, since any result can be interpreted as ref interference. Had Villarreal won, Schuster would no doubt have maintained that the 'Catalan factor' was alive and kicking, and had Osasuna managed a draw, the Seville press would have gone for Iturralde in some way or another.

Trouble is, the commentator for Sevilla's games, one Jesus Alvarado, claimed in his blog the next day that Osasuna's Ziganda had called into question the legitimacy of the whole of Seville's population (minus the Betis supporters, one assumes) and that he had made references to Antonio Puerta, the Sevilla player who died earlier this season.

The claims are so serious that this column prefers not to repeat them, but suffice to say that Osasuna's lawyers are about to take Alvarado to court. It could get nasty, since Alvarado claims to have witnesses.

This should keep the soundbites flowing for at least another week, all good news of course, now that Real Madrid are disappearing over the horizon and even Rijkaard has admitted that they're 'the better team'.

That was a rare piece of decency, in a largely edgy week, but it may be a cunning psychological ploy to get Madrid to relax. See next week's thrilling instalment!

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