Monday, September 13, 2010
Lots of stuff is improbable, but never forget that it's possible. The last time Barcelona met Hercules in the Camp Nou was during the Alicante side's last one-season stay in the top flight in 1996, and the visitors pulled off a 3-2 win. Pep Guardiola was playing that evening, and scored an own goal. Bad karma, it would seem. But the only people who put this Saturday's encounter down as a '2' on the quiniela were either Hercules fans or anonymous grannies having a flutter.
But let's not be granny-ist. Someone is laughing all the way to the bank this Monday, but it's unlikely to be a Catalan or ESPNsoccernet's own Eduardo Alvarez. The shock 2-0 result on Saturday night at the Camp Nou has come as something of a boon to those who saw this season as an inevitable romp of the big two. Then again, Real Madrid's draw in their opening game at Mallorca a fortnight ago had the media promising doom and gloom for them too, and don't forget that Barcelona kicked off their incredible trophy-laden season in 2008-09 with a 1-0 defeat at the hands of the mighty Numancia. In short, it might not mean very much at all, just as long as the Champions league fixture at home to Panathinaikos on Tuesday night goes to plan. Should things go awry at that game, the rumblings may begin. What would they consist of?
Well, Pep Guardiola's caution at only signing a one-year deal was a clear vote of suspicion towards his new president, Sandro Rosell. The gesture was Guardiola's prerogative, but it may have unsettled some of the players, who were hoping to see a settled horizon for themselves at the club. The old guard need not fear under any circumstances, but there are plenty of younger players at the Camp Nou who might not fit a new system and a new philosophy. Some of the less loved have already departed, and two of them, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, will definitely not be missed. But the very purchase of the latter last summer points to a weakness in the great man's thinking, which he readily admitted last Friday when baring all to the press. Guardiola has developed a habit recently of admitting he's wrong, of making no excuses and of coming over as Mr Honesty, instead of Mr Bluff-it-out, the usual pose of many Spanish managers. But it's beginning to wear a bit thin. As my mate once said to his annoying 14 year-old son, who had just thwacked his brother and then apologised, "Look - why don't you just try to do things properly, and then you wouldn't need to apologise?"
This fits the Hercules game rather well, because it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the defeated manager underestimated the opposition. Xavi, Pedro, Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets and Carles Puyol were all left on the bench, most of them presumably being rested for the Panathinaikos game. This decision might have been welcomed had they won the game, since eight of Barcelona's players were involved in Spain's recent friendly in Argentina - a long haul at this stage of the season. However, with the home side a goal down at half-time, the surprise debutant Javi Mascherano and the fitful Bojan were substituted for Xavi and Pedro, a decision that can only eat at the discarded players' confidence. Mascherano will probably understand the switch, but since he'd only trained four times with his new mates up to that point, his original inclusion was rather questionable, particularly considering that his virtues reside in his defensive characteristics. With Seydou Keita in the middle for company, the normally frisky midfield was reduced to something of a splutter. Hercules did everything right, the pitch surface was terrible, and in the second half Barcelona actually played worse, escaping a heavier defeat.
Hercules are from Alicante, and have been around since 1914. They were given their rather curious name from the start, as if the association might rub off - but it rarely has. Their best finish was fifth in the top flight in 1975, but since then they have spent most of their time in the second division. They are not entirely of minnow status, however, to which their 19 accumulated seasons in the first division attest, but neither are they entirely welcome guests this season at the banqueting table of the elite.
Rumours still persist of a telephone call last season which seems to point to a €100,000 pay-off to Cordoba's goalie, Raul Navas, to throw the game against them (Hercules won 4-0) so that the Alicante outfit could be assured of promotion, finishing in second place to champions Real Sociedad. Hercules' main shareholder, Enrique Ortiz, actually says in the phone call: ''I paid him a hundred grand''. Ah - many things are improbable, but all things are possible. Maybe Enrique had a dream, or was being poetic, metaphorical even. Who knows? Anyway, let's not spoil his weekend. His team has just pulled off a Herculazo, the Madrid press's newly-minted phrase for what they hope will be a confidence-killer for the Catalans.
Hercules' two goals were scored by Nelson Valdez, who put them both past Victor Valdes. That's a good one for trivia merchants, almost as good as 'Forfar 5, East Fife 4'. Try saying that one after half a bottle of Rioja. Incidentally, my wife commented during the Spain v Paraguay World Cup match: ''Who's that guy who looks like Patrick Swayze?'' Step forward Nelson Valdez. Not quite Dirty Dancing, but his little two-step on Saturday night looks full of a season's promise.
Betis, who finished fourth in last season's second division race, and who have themselves been accused in the past of dodgy behaviour similar to that of Hercules, are now frothing with (un)righteous indignation whilst, at the coal-face, the miners continue to dig. Life goes on, and the case will probably end up like all the previous ones, buried under a mound of legal injunctions and impossible bureaucracy, until everyone decides to forget about it. It's the Spanish way, and we've come to expect nothing less.
Real Madrid almost failed to take advantage of their rivals' slip-up, beating an inoffensive Osasuna side managed by the formerly very offensive Jose Antonio Camacho. The old warhorse and Mourinho lieutenant Ricardo Carvalho showed the stuttering Madrid forwards the way, scoring a home debut winner in the second half with a pass from his Portuguese team-mate CR7. Ronaldo seemed weighed down by hair-gel and early-season expectation, and had it not been for the excellent Mesut Ozil (who needs Kaka?), the whistles of impatience might have been more voluminous from the Bernabeu faithful. In short, a team still in transition - or is that a permanent state of affairs at Real Madrid these days? Let's talk about them next week. They don't quite merit analysis just yet. They also host Ajax on Wednesday, which might have some bearing on the state of Bernabeu affairs by next weekend.
Over on the other side of Madrid, however, all is euphoria. Atletico can seem to do no wrong at the moment. Diego Forlan is in the zone, several players have come out publicly to praise Doctor House Quique Sanchez Flores, with Forlan himself coming out with the season's understatement so far. ''Things were a bit of a mess until Quique arrived,'' he announced last week, with something approaching diplomacy. Now they sit top of the pile, six out of six, level on points with Valencia and rubbing their hands in anticipation at next weekend's humdinger in the Calderon - at home to Barcelona. This fixture usually produces great matches, and next weekend's little clash could hardly have come at a more propitious moment, depending on which side of the fence you sit, of course.
With Real Madrid facing a tricky one away to newly-promoted Real Sociedad (exclusive in-the-stadium report coming your way next week), the two pace-setters could see themselves pulling away at this ridiculously early stage. However, it should be noted that Valencia played appallingly at home to Racing Santander, and the fact that they still managed to win (1-0) might say more about the visitors than them, but they also have to face a midweek Champions League game - with a trip to Turkey - and their Herculean hosts next weekend should be ready to carry on the good work.
Last but not least, the pride of the weekend's place goes to Malaga, who were 5-0 to the good after 34 minutes of their away fixture at Zaragoza. The home side made a game of it in the second half, with three goals of their own, but it looks as if Malaga might surprise a few people this season, particularly with the financial whack of the Qatari royal family behind them. If they can keep their new owner impressed until the Christmas sales, Mr Al-Thani may open his wallet further and bring them some interesting reinforcements in the New Year. Spain's new Man City? Watch this space.