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Monday, January 26, 2009
Atlético down, Athletic up

Eduardo Alvarez

All the signs were clear: Atlético vs Valladolid had to be a high voltage match. A very tense week in the media for Atlético; a youthful, exuberant visiting side; and Atlético's need to win in order to contend to a Champions League spot the next season. Strong emotions guaranteed, so I accepted an invitation from a close friend and headed to the Vicente Calderón, aka the Indian Camp. Los colchoneros are also nicknamed Los Indios (The Indians) because they paint their faces red for the matches, they camp next to the river (the Manzanares river flows literally under one side of the Calderón stadium) and they live to fight the white man (the Real Madrid supporter). This was yet another rainy and cold Sunday in Madrid, in probably the worst winter ever here; however we arrived early to check the supporters' mood in one of their preferred watering holes near the stadium. The spirits were low indeed, and not only because of the weather. Atlético had not won in January, so their fans were sceptical, but that is almost second nature for them anyway. Probably because they share their city with a team full of titles and media stars, los colchoneros enjoy being the underdog, feel comfortable in the role of the victim, take the definition of pessimism to new heights (or, more correctly, new lows). Well before the start of the match, most supporters at the bar were already in full witch-hunting mode: "Aguirre has to go"; "García Pitarch (team manager) only signs mediocre players"; "Since Maradona started hanging out with Sergio Agüero, the kid's been playing like crap". Hardly the right atmosphere to support your team in a key match. We entered into the half-empty stadium. The pitch was in awful condition, the obvious effect of almost two full days of rain. From the very beginning it was clear that our small bar sample was quite representative. Booing started as early as minute two, and it only grew louder as the match went on. A nervous-looking Atlético were giving their supporters every reason to complain. The first half could have easily finished 0-3, but Valladolid kept squandering chances, true to their style all this season. The home side left the pitch severely booed at halftime, and started the second half with the same absent, numb attitude. Four minutes after the break Valladolid finally punished Atlético's umpteenth mistake (a present by Leo Franco), and Luis Prieto scored. The stadium entered a state of complete pandemonium for a full five minutes. The heat was on President Cerezo, whose head was requested insistently. The noise seemed to wake up the home side, which scored with the help of former Atlético player García Calvo, now Valladolid's centre back, who deflected a poor strike by Forlan towards his own goal. It seemed the perfect moment for a classic Atlético comeback win. Their supporters are fond of emotional roller-coasters, and are totally able to spend half of the match asking for the president's head and the other half giving the same individual a standing ovation. Indifference and coherence are not words in the colchonero vocabulary. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be, as Valladolid easily took control of proceedings again. It was only fitting that Pernía, a complete liability at the back this season, foolishly fouled Valladolid's Goitom inside the box. 1-2 it was, and from that point until the end, half of the stadium left and the other half kept singing chants against the president. Aguirre's words after the match ("football coaches always have their suitcases ready, just in case") are the prelude of what is likely to happen this week. Leaving aside their conspicuous lack of motivation, the side looks torn apart tactically. The four offensive players (Kun Agüero, Diego Forlan, Maxi Rodríguez and Simão Sabrosa) are a constant attacking threat, but they're slack defensively, opening spaces at the flanks. For the first time in months Atlético are out of the European competition spots, and need a serious revamp if they want to climb back up. Their neighbours have more reasons to celebrate: another tedious Real Madrid outing (and win) saw The Artist Formerly Known as Raúl score his 307th goal with the white shirt, equalling Di Stéfano's record. His uncanny instinct to be at the right place at the right time took him where he is, and it now masks the fact that he is no longer the influential, match-changing figure he used to be. We all know where two of those figures play today, and indeed they made their presence felt this weekend. Half an hour of King Messi coming from the bench was enough for Barcelona to beat a brilliant Racing side that deserved better. Messi scored two, including Barça's historic 5000th goal. David Villa also gave Valencia an important win against a disciplined Almería. Real Madrid lacks players of the Messi/Villa stature, and will struggle to beat top level opposition without them. In a trend opposite to that of Atlético, Athletic are improving, and their link with English football has something to do with it. As early as 1909, their regional rivals Club Ciclista de San Sebastián (today's Real Sociedad) and Real Unión de Irún complained because Athletic had English players in their team. Athletic believed their local players were good enough, and decided to stop with the foreign signings altogether in a philosophy they've kept alive until today. However, Athletic's link with English football survived, in the form of several English gaffers coaching the side with an approach based on wingers, out wide crosses and a target man. That is the way they play this season, and it feels like they are born again. They have also recovered their taste for the Copa del Rey, a tournament they've won an impressive 24 times. Last week they made it to the semi-finals with a courageous away comeback win at Gijón. It is fantastic to see San Mamés packed again, as the bilbaínos are probably one of the most passionate and knowledgeable supporters in Spain. On Saturday they gave another display of fervour to carry their team to another comeback win (3-2) after falling behind twice against Malaga. A stark contrast when compared to the atmosphere at the Indian Camp. The power of the crowd can take a side to new heights, when both supporters and team feed off each other, or can make everyone miserable, when the boos and whistles have an impact on an already weakened team. For the neutrals, Athletic's comeback was inspiring and energizing, while Atlético's defeat was depressing and disheartening. In any case, those strong emotions are very likely what we, football fans, are really after.

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