Monday, January 12, 2009
ESPNsoccernet: January 26, 5:39 PM UK
Welcoming the Wise Men
Spain customarily devotes the first week of January to prepare for Wise Men night. In spite of Santa Claus' fierce, almost ruthless competition, most of us Spaniards still hold on to the original tradition of delivering our presents on the night of the 5th when the Wise Men visit each house. As far as we know, all trustworthy reports state that the Three Wise Men were present in Bethlehem to hand their gifts, so they deserve their credit, while that jovial, white-bearded chap was nowhere to be seen at the time.
Indeed the Wise Men arrived and brought us a brilliant football week and the biggest snow storm I can remember in Madrid. The city was unprepared; the word "chaos" is almost an understatement to describe what happened during the week. The airport was a nightmare for four full days, the city endured the biggest traffic jam in history and on top of that we had to suffer the usual political fights to determine who's more to blame.
By tradition in Spain, the naughty children are left coal by the Three Wise Men rather than presents as punishment. One thing is clear: Atlético supporters must have been very bad all year, because they got more than their fair share of coal from the Wise Men.
In a midweek Copa del Rey tie they were easily defeated at home by Barcelona, as Atlético's defence showed again that they cannot handle high level opposition. King Messi scored a hat-trick, made Pernía look like an amateur and left the pitch to a beautiful standing ovation. After this 1-3 defeat to Barcelona, Atlético have played six matches against the top five teams this season: five defeats, one draw and a whopping 19 goals against.
Sunday wasn't any better for Atlético. Their supporters gave the Wise Men further reason for dropping off their coal, as they kept throwing snowballs to Athletic Bilbao's goalie, Gorka, delaying the beginning of the match by 20 minutes. Once the game got going Atlético were again outplayed and defeated. Ujfalusi replaced Pernía as the token Atlético defender who looked completely out of his depth and the match ended with their supporters demanding that both coach and president resign. It seems like another season of high Liga expectations going down the drain for the colchoneros.
The Wise Men were far more generous with Atlético's neighbours. On Wednesday, Casillas won the 2008 world's best goalie award and their Sunday match was an easy 0-3 victory at Mallorca. The Artist Formerly Known as Raúl scored with his right back heel, celebrating his 500th match in the Primera División, and professor Manzano, Mallorca's gaffer, joined Atlético's Aguirre as being far from secure in his job. Despite Mallorca's poor opposition, Real Madrid looked more consistent defensively, and have now managed to climb to the second position.
The funny, if not sad, note of the week was a flabbergasting campaign from the Madrid media to promote Robben by comparing him to Messi. Any football fan, even a die-hard Real Madrid one, understands that the classy, but inconsistent and injury prone Dutchman is indeed not in the same class as the nowadays unstoppable Argentinean. Marca's cover on Sunday, showing both players face to face and wondering in extra-large font which one is better, prompted a madridista waiter in my usual tapas bar to say: "I can't believe that, they're shameless. Not even President Calderón would dare to compare those two!"
We had further proof of Messi's significance on Sunday. Following their Cup win against Atlético, Barcelona had an apparently easy outing at Pamplona, versus bottom of the table Osasuna. Barça scored first, but then Osasuna equalised and even took the lead after increasing their physical approach in the second half. Xavi and, once again, a stellar Messi stepped up and eventually got one of Barça's most challenging wins of the season so far. Messi's ceiling seems higher with every match. On top of his mind-boggling skill and speed, he is now scoring crackers from 20+ yards with such ease that one wonders who or what can possibly stop this kid, and Barcelona for that matter.
However, the Wise Men also brought us an alternative to Barça's comfortable lead: the race for the second place has rapidly become the most interesting subplot of the season. Now there are six teams separated by five points, and almost every matchday we get to watch a compelling fixture between two of them. This week Valencia played host to Villarreal, a regional derby played on Saturday.
During most of the 20th century we couldn't even call this match a "derby" as there was no real competition between both teams. Valencia's regional rivals were city neighbours Levante and although founded much later Valencia were always a wealthier, more successful club. Villarreal supporters targeted their bad blood to the closer (in distance, division and budget) Castellón side. In the late 90s Villarreal made the leap, reaching Primera status in 1998, and again in 2000 after one year back in the Segunda. Now they have become a rival not to be taken lightly, and therefore in the last decade Valencia-Villarreal finally became a derby in its own right.
They presented us with such a fantastic contest that it will definitely rank among the best five matches of the season. The 3-3 draw was only fair, as it would have been tough to see one of the two sides leave the pitch defeated. It is comforting to watch the Valencia players who have recovered from serious injuries (Baraja, Brazilian midfielder Edú), and from the Koeman fiasco (Joaquín, Albelda). Add their other stars (Villa, Mata and Silva) and they can beat anyone on a given day. Villarreal played well again, but their defence looks Atlético-ish at times, and that has prevented them to get better results in their matches against top level teams.
And so there goes another visit from the Wise Men. They brought plenty of stuff: tons of snow in Madrid, a good deal of coal for Atlético, an extremely interesting race for the second place, the certainty that 2009 should be Messi's year and a fantastic week of football. Let's just hope this last present is good for the whole year.