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Monday, November 22, 2010
Friends and enemies

Phil Ball

With friends like that, who needs enemies? This may well have been the phrase most resonant in Juanma Lillo's head at full-time on Saturday night, when his Almeria team had just equalled the worst home defeat of all time in the history of La Liga. Pep Guardiola, sitting glumly on the bench as the eighth Barcelona goal went in, realised that he had condemned his friend and erstwhile teacher to the dole queue, just as Lillo had settled down nicely in his little house in the tiny fishing hamlet of La Fabriquilla, in Cabo de Gata, one of the hippest places still standing in the far south of Spain. Lillo, with his 1970s rebel-with-a-cause haircut and his entertaining if over-long press performances, will now retire to his coastal shack and contemplate the next step on his intellectual journey. Liked and respected as he is, he remains a misunderstood figure, and rumours abound that the Almeria players 'le hiceron la cama' - literally 'made his bed for him' - and decided to lose. Be that as it may, the only thing that remains to be revealed is at what point the club's directors decided to release the guillotine. At 5-0 down (half-time), or sometime during the second half? Lillo was probably on his bike anyway, and one suspects that a 1-0 defeat would have condemned him too, since it was clear that president Alfonso Gabarron had lost patience with his often peculiar style of management, and in more basic terms, Almeria could find themselves at the bottom of the table on Monday night if Zaragoza manage to win at stuttering Getafe. Funny thing, history. In June 2003, with the presidency of Barcelona up for grabs, the running favourite, Lluis Bassat, presented his candidature on the basis of Guardiola as director of football and Juanma Lillo as manager. Guardiola had himself recommended Lillo as the candidate for the bench, but continued to play on after Joan Laporta won the presidency, ending up playing for Lillo in Mexico, in the twilight of his career. It was there, at Lillo's Dorados de Sinaloa, that Guardiola cemented the ideas that were to influence his future career. Lillo's insistence on having defenders who could initiate play and dictate the direction of attack hardly seems radical now, but in Gerard Pique, Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets and Rafael Marquez (now departed) the nod to the philosophy is clear. Guardiola himself, of course, was walking proof of the importance of a deep-lying schemer, the sine qua non of the Lillo vision. Ironic then that on Saturday night, the young Andreu Fontas was given a game, whilst Gerard Pique was 'rested' - football-speak for 'four yellow cards accumulated and the clasico coming up next week'. Nothin' doing. Fontas was excellent, and would appear to be another defensive initiator, fresh off the Masia production line. The result was the perfect preparation for next week's battle of the giants, and not simply in terms of morale. With five goals in the bag after 45 minutes, and Almeria seemingly uninterested in any sort of recovery of personal dignity, Guardiola took off Xavi and Iniesta at half-time and Pedro after 55 minutes, so as to ensure that the crack troops are fresh and ready to do battle next Monday. Leo Messi stayed on, curiously enough, despite having played (and scored) in midweek for Argentina, but maybe that was just to make sure he finished with a hat-trick, and ensure that Cristiano Ronaldo did not go into the clasico with any feelings of superiority. Significantly, Messi received not one foul during the 90 minutes from the Almeria players - which must be a record. Over in Madrid, Ronaldo, of course, scored three against Athletic and would have had four, had it not been for his generosity (?) in allowing Sergio Ramos to take the first of two penalties awarded to his side on Saturday night. The 8-0 home defeat in Almeria was the same score as in October 1959 when Barcelona, curiously enough, did the same to Las Palmas and Luis Suarez, still considered Spain's greatest homegrown player, scored a hat-trick. In case you're wondering, yes, Barcelona went on to win the title that year, and yes, Las Palmas finished bottom, conceding a whopping 77 goals in 30 games. Shades of things to come? Let's talk about that in the post-clasico glow. The result may say more about Almeria's particular state of mind at this given moment than Barcelona's growing swagger, and it remains an open question as to whether this was scarier because the Catalans didn't actually play as well as they can or whether it confirms that Almeria simply didn't turn up. The scoreline is even more curious given the fact that, up to Saturday, Almeria at least had a decent defensive record, only having conceded ten goals. To concede in one game almost as many as in their previous 11 is quite bizarre. It's difficult to reflect upon, but results like this only come along every 50 years and, in theory, no side from the same division should be able to record such a scandalous result. Several years back, in the year 2000, I recall seeing Barcelona go 6-0 up in Anoeta by half-time. The only reason to stay at the game, and most folks did, was a perverse fascination in seeing how many the visitors would end up with. Out of sympathy, it seemed, they took their foot off the gas and decided to spare their fellow professionals any further humiliation, and played the game out at a trot. Indeed, at a certain point, with all the competitive edge gone, it becomes a pointless exercise to rub salt into the wound - which was the mindset of the millennium year Barcelona. This time, with Bojan on the pitch for Pedro and wanting to stake a claim for future inclusion, three more goals went up onto the scoreboard (two of them from Bojan). The 2010 Barcelona is obviously a harder-hearted version, less disposed to acts of professional mercy. It will stand them in good stead for next week's clash with Real Madrid in the Camp Nou, a game that will be more of a test of Madrid's new credentials than Barcelona's abilities. Both sides have tried hard to keep up their good form for the game, to appear to be without fissures or dysfunction. Like two competing lions in the rutting season, the only way to hang onto the territory is to fluff up the mane and roar the whole of the livelong day. No signs of weakness can be allowed to enter into the equation. The only doubts will be the suspicion that one of the sides may have peaked a little early, like throwing 180 in the darts match warm-up. Barcelona in particular will be hoping that they haven't quite reached the summit of their pre-Christmas form. Indeed, it is difficult to remember the last time both sides approached their initial clash of the season with such good vibes accompanying them. The little episode whereby Jose Mourinho was confined to the stand for two weeks and then accused by Manolo Preciado as being "scum" has only served to bolster Real Madrid more, and to rally all and sundry in support of their poor 'suffering' manager. This is typical Mourinho territory, a tactic that he used to great effect, particularly at Chelsea, engendering a hatred of the club via provocative behaviour, then isolating the players in a bubble of their own intimacy, bunkering them down and sowing a fierce togetherness in the face of outside hostility. Real Madrid - though a shade concerned some of their older members prefer a less combative and mouthy approach, as well as letting Barcelona play their traditional victims card - have nevertheless taken to Mourinho like children to sugary sweets. They love him. They love his confidence and swagger, his sense of humour and his utter conviction in his own methods. This is music to the ears of madridismo. The honeymoon may only last until late next Monday night, but at the moment it's hard to predict how the game will go, and to what extent, if any, it will be affected by being shifted to the Monday slot. The lions are certainly roaring. Messi has now scored 16 goals in his last nine games in all competitions, and has scored in each of those appearances. Oh, and he has 101 so far in La Liga in his Barcelona career. Ronaldo remains the 'Pichichi' in the league (with 15) and at times appears equally unstoppable. He was pretty decent for Portugal against Spain in midweek, too, when just for a change he decided to contribute to the ruination of several of his club-mates' evening. As the tabloid Marca remarked: "Ronaldo no entiende de amistosos" ("Ronaldo doesn't understand the concept of a 'friendly' match"). After 12 league games, Ronaldo is the highest scorer for Real Madrid in 75 years at this stage of the season, eclipsing even the great Alfredo Di Stefano. Prediction? I'll take the coward's way out, and leave that to Ed Alvarez. Meanwhile, in some other dimension, Villarreal were held to a home draw (1-1) with Valencia, like a couple of lesser lions snarling reluctantly on the outer edges of the pride. Sevilla, managed now by Gregorio Manzano, who had accumulated five seasons in two spells with Mallorca, saw his children visit to haunt him, winning 2-1 in the Pizjuan with an 89th-minute goal from Pierre Webo. They drop to seventh courtesy of Atletico Madrid's 4-2 victory in Anoeta, the first time they have ever won there. I went along to the 9pm game, and my only real comment is to underline the fact that it was the first time that Atletico had played in Anoeta with 12 men, a fact which guaranteed the three points for them. Referee Aya Gamez was rather poor, let's say. Anyway, let's gird our loins for a strange weekend to come. It is in fact the third clasico to be played on a Monday in the history of La Liga - just thought you'd like to know that. Oh, and there's Champions League this week too. What's all that about then?


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