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Monday, December 14, 2009
Morbo at the Mestalla

Phil Ball

Unless you've been brought up by wolves, or have been hiding out in the jungle since the end of World War 2, you'll be aware that there is a wee bit of morbo (animosity) between Real Madrid and Barcelona. However, there are other high-profile hostilities in La Liga that contribute ingredients to its particularly spicy sauce but of which the foreign media are perhaps less aware. One of them is Valencia v Real Madrid, a fixture that took place on Saturday night and which produced a cracker of a game. Occurring just a little later in the evening after Barcelona had beaten Espanyol 1-0 in the Catalan derby, the visitors to a packed and snarling Mestalla were under severe pressure to win and to hang onto Barça's coat-tails for yet another week, at least until the leaders give them a rest this coming weekend by playing in the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi. Add to that the absence of their two main galácticos, Kaká and Ronaldo, and Valencia's upbeat season threatened to send Real Madrid home to the capital with their tails between their legs. The hostility between these two sides has more recent roots. Before it really developed, the main interest surrounding Valencia was their previously complex relationship with the neighbouring Catalan community and Barcelona. But after Pea Mijatovic switched from the Mestalla to the Bernabeu in 1996, the ire was turned firmly west in the direction of the capital. The 'M' factor continued in 2001 when Gaizka Mendieta - for whom Madrid had offered €24 million - was caught in the trap of the anti-Madrid clause imposed by then president Pedro Cortés, ended up at Lazio, a destination neither Mendieta nor the Valencia supporters saw as logical or necessary. Cortés was happy with the €48 million the Italians paid, but was never blamed as much as Madrid, whom the fans saw as the original catalysts. This also took place in the season after Real Madrid had beaten Valencia in the Champions League final in Paris, with los che fans left seething by the merengues' refusal to let the beaten finalists forget the defeat. Madrid used Raúl's goal against his old chum Santio Cañizares in a publicity campaign - the effect of which had the defeated club demanding that the scene be cut. Nevertheless, these were the years in which both Valencia and Deportivo were making sufficient waves to be considered the emergent force in Spanish football, strong enough to finally challenge the old one-two. Two league titles in 2002 and 2004 made Valencia both feared and respected, and the Mestalla seemed a more difficult place than ever to go, particularly for Real Madrid. Then again, the facts can be a little misleading. Valencia beat Madrid 3-0 last season, but the season before the score was 1-5, a result that struck right at the heart of this burgeoning rivalry. In the seasons preceding this result, in Florentino Pérez' first regime, there had been persistent attempts to bring players over to the Bernabéu, despite the torrid history of Mijatovic and Mendieta. Ayala, Vicente and Albelda had all been tempted, but remained undefiled. Centre-back Roberto Ayala had almost succumbed, but (was) pulled out at the last moment - an event which saw his relationship with the club decline. Pablo Aimar and Kily Gonzalez were also on the wish list, but nothing ever came of it. The echoes of these factors resounded around the Spanish scene this summer with the return of Pérez to the throne, and his decidedly un-covert desire to bring over the two Davids, Villa and Silva as part of his policy to 'Spanish-ify' the squad. Los che had new cause for resentment, since it was clear that grizzly-bear Pérez was fishing for easy salmon in turbulent waters. Given Valencia's grave economic situation, their prize assets were in the shop window, like it or not, and at one point in the summer it did indeed look as though Villa was Bernabéu-bound. Then, in classic Valencia-Madrid style, the former put up the asking price (after Jorge Valdano had claimed a deal had been struck), so Madrid got all huffy and indignant, and pulled the plug on the move. Villa mooched around the training ground for a couple of weeks like someone had just stolen his bike, but has since recovered sufficiently to be once again La Liga's 'Pichichi', and to finally score against his old suitors for the first time at the Mestalla on Saturday night, with a little unintentional help from his international buddy, Iker Casillas. Raúl Albiol, of course, was allowed to go, but his transfer was never likely to make the public waves that a move by either Silva or Villa would have done. The €15 million that Madrid paid for him has helped to keep the bailiffs out of the Mestalla for a few more months, and the reception the defender received on Saturday night was cold rather than openly hostile. It was as if the fans accepted his transfer had been inevitable, given the need to balance the books. Besides, the presence of Juan Mata in the Valencia line-up - a player hewn from the quarry at the Bernabéu (although he considers himself an Asturian) - has given los ché fans a gratifying feeling of 'getting one over' on the merengues. In Mata's case, Madrid are kicking themselves for letting him go, much to Valencia's pleasure. I missed the Catalan derby because my daughter insisted on watching Strictly Come Dancing, but by ten o'clock she was in bed and I could settle down to watching the live match on the La Sexta channel. The atmosphere surrounding the game had intensified even more during the week by a Valencian betting company who had launched a spoof sketch on the web involving the alleged kidnapping of their legendary kit-man, Bernardo España Edo, otherwise known as 'Españeta'. At seventy years of age, he is still employed by the club and is perhaps the most cherished member of the whole institution, having worked there for 47 years. He is the only kit-man in the history of professional football to have been told not to do keepie-ups in front of the players, so as not to depress them. This was on the orders of Alfredo Di Stéfano when he managed the club, having seen Españeta one day warming up with the players and doing tricks with the ball 'of which no other human was capable'. There's a whole book to be written on Españeta, but to cut to the chase, the spoof clip features a grainy video of two Real Madrid 'ultras' talking aggressively but moronically into the camera, with Españeta tied to a chair behind them. The main spokesman announces little gems such as 'Ok you provincial bumpkins put your paellas down and listen to this', and goes on to explain that unless they receive sufficient ransom money, they will use their 'Mereng-ometer' (to which Españeta appears plugged in the clip) to drain all the Valencia sentiment from their captive, converting him by the end of the week into a Madrid ultra. Crime of the century! The clip ends with the captors screaming 'Hala Madrid!' and 'Iker, Iker' into the camera. The humour is of a certain Spanish type, and the clip is vaguely funny - but as you can imagine, several members of the Bernabéu hierarchy were less than amused. The clip was doing the rounds all week, and was officially declared a 'provocation' by the Madrid press on Friday. The blogs have been full of mutual insults all week and the stage was nicely set. What nobody expected was such an excellent game of football. The first half, or most of it, belonged to Valencia, but the visitors survived the storm and came out in the second half rather as they had finished in Marseille four days earlier, playing fast attacking football, and suddenly looking a tough nut to crack. To their further credit, Madrid hardly blinked at the loss of Pepe at the end of the first half, although they have now lost him for six months. Ezequiel Garay took his place and played excellently, even turning up in the area to head home the winner. Karim Benzema, strangely liberated in the absence of Kaka and Ronaldo, played very well indeed, and created the first goal quite wonderfully. He has a curiously delicate touch, and like Ibrahimovic seems at times to suffer from too much sang-froid, but his perception and movement suggest a great player in the making. As the Madrileño press keep insisting, he needs to be given more full games. This is true, but there are only eleven places in the starting line-up, and as the club employees know, Pérez likes to see Ronaldo and Kaká out there before anyone. Benzema's partner in crime, Gonzalo Higuaín, did the business again and scored twice, but all the players who have been questioned seemed to vindicate themselves in the Mestalla - Marcelo, Garay, Benzema, Van de Vaart. Even Sergio Ramos seems to be putting together a gaffe-free run. There's a new mental toughness to the side, evident in their ability to soak up the pressure, lose one of their main men, concede two equalisers, but still end up winning. As in Marseille in midweek, they are also beginning to look like last season's best version of Villarreal, all possession and attacking movement. Pelligrini might succeed yet in muting the doubters, especially with Rambo Ronaldo looking so scary again. Zaragoza visit Real Madrid next week, and are probably not looking forward to their pre-Christmas trip, having lost ineptly at home to Athletic Bilbao in preparation. Sevilla took some advantage, winning a toughie at Sporting and putting an end to their two-game wobble, but they remain four points adrift of Real Madrid, Valencia dropping to fourth. Next week sees the last games before the Christmas break, a psychological date on the calendar which sees teams desperately attempting to take the short rest with the feel-good factor glowing in their yuletide cheeks. Barcelona will be over in Abu Dhabi, escaping the cold weather forecast for Spain this week. As ever, it's all to play for.

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