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Monday, January 10, 2011
Damned Lies and Statistics

Phil Ball

Uuuuf - as the Spanish say. In the Riazor stadium (A Coruña) on Saturday night, a lone banner required Deportivo to put up some manly resistance to the might of the visiting Barcelona, so that La Liga would not be converted into 'The Scottish League' [sic - sort of], but it only took David Villa twenty-five minutes to put paid to that idea (the resistance). Once Messi made it two on fifty-one minutes you did get the impression that Deportivo were thinking about next week and their difficult but less terrifying trip to Valencia. Without exactly throwing in the towel, they seemed to be more interested in keeping the score down. They also failed to do that.

Barcelona will be at home to Malaga next week, and if they win it they will have beaten their own best-ever record of 49 points at the half-way stage, which they equalled on Saturday with one game to spare. Last year at this stage they had scored 49 goals, but now they've managed 57. If they fail to score against Malaga they will have averaged three per game from their 19 matches. And as most Spaniards know, John Toshack's Real Madrid team of 1989 scored a record 107 goals during a campaign in which the Welshman was accused of being over-defensive by the Madrid press. Toshack has been dining out on that statistic ever since, but the way things are shaping up, he might have to come up with a new after-dinner trumpeting note. His only hope of hanging onto the record is that logic suggests that Barcelona cannot be quite so imperious in the second half of the season. Or can they?

Perhaps even more startling than these figures is the fact that they have won all nine of their away games, un pleno as they call it in Spanish. Only one team has managed this before in the entire history of the Spanish league, namely the powerful Athletic Bilbao team of the 1930s.

There are individual achievements to point out too, quite apart from the three-man hegemony of the candidature for the Ballon d'Or this year. David Villa reached his 150th goal in La Liga on Saturday, twelve of which have been scored in the present shirt. The rest came with Zaragoza and Valencia. Someone should look up who the Oviedo kiddies' trainer was when Villa turned up late for a trial, circa 1994, having had to take the bus from Tuilla because he was dad was working down the mines. Rucksack slung over shoulder, he made it to ground on foot, but was turned around and sent straight home - a tiny lost young teenager. He finally made it to a trial a few weeks later, but they thought he was too short! Carles Puyol similarly suffered ranks of doubters before finally making it, and on Saturday also established the interesting record of playing nineteen consecutive winning games. Ferenc Puskas was the last player to manage eighteen, with Real Madrid in 1961. Puyol has had two strokes of luck on the way, however. For the home games against Hercules (0-2) and Mallorca (1-1) he was left out of the side. Significant? Probably not.

However, I don't want to bore you with too much Barcelona flag-waving. Real Madrid, who came through unscathed from their tricky home game against Villarreal (4-2), have also registered a pleno of nine home victories, and have in Cristiano Ronaldo the goal machine who looks as if he may finally surpass the 38-goal record established by Hugo Sanchez in 1989-90 and Athletic's Telmo Zarra in 1951. He has 23 to date, courtesy of another hat-trick on Sunday night, and even managed to set up the returning Kaka for the final goal. Again, like Barcelona, he may run relatively out of steam, but even then he might still surpass Sanchez and Zarra. And for all Barcelona's brilliance, the all-whites remain stubbornly two points behind, waiting for another Hercules off-day and that return game in the Bernabeu. Their 30 home goals scored with only five conceded (two of them on Sunday) is highly impressive.

Top of 'the rest', Villarreal have also finished their opening nine home games with better figures than the leaders, with eight games won and only one draw to stain the shirt-sleeve. Only three goals conceded too at El Madrigal, which on the face of it is hardly a scary place to visit. But as Villarreal showed in a first half in the Bernabeu which they utterly dominated, this is the best team in their history. Quite why Sir Alex Ferguson let Giuseppe Rossi go we will never know, but the same question could be asked about the release of Gerard Pique. We all make mistakes. Real Madrid must also be wondering why they also failed to show patience with Borja Valero, who came up through their ranks but was allowed to slip out through the back door to Mallorca in 2007. Now consigning Marcos Senna to the bench, he looks exactly the player that Real Madrid really need, despite Mourinho's grumpy bleating about not being brought a Christmas present to replace the injured Gonzalo Higuain.

Indeed, as we begin to contemplate the half-way stage and beyond, Real Madrid's possibilities of overtaking Barcelona and stealing their crown seem merely statistical. Unlike Barcelona, whose creative midfield continues to confound others and to overrun them, Madrid find themselves with only one player who can really make the team tick, namely Xabi Alonso. Their dependence on his metronomic organisational abilities seems excessive, and the idea that he might be injured, suspended or whisked away by aliens is too terrible to contemplate for the Bernabeu faithful.

This was a player who almost went elsewhere in the summer of 2009, you may recall, when Florentino Perez was reluctant to dip further into his wallet after a new succession of post-galactic signings followed in the wake of his Second Coming. Now the problem is that there is no-one around the same zone to share creative duties, and Mourinho has limited himself to finding the right escolta (bodyguard) to help him with defensive duties and to protect him from the excessive attentions of the numerous ranks of perros de caza (hunting dogs) who roam the stadia of La Liga. Now that they have seen how stopping Alonso can stop Madrid, neither Lass Diarra nor Khedira (who began well but who has faded) can really contribute to a free-flowing engine-room. Mesut Ozil has had a fine start, if a somewhat inconsistent one, but is not an organiser.

Creation comes from Marcelo and from Angel Di Maria too, but they require feeding. Mourinho has not yet figured out how to make the team function in ways that by-pass Alonso's abilities, as Guardiola has done to such powerful effect with Xavi. This is one of the main lessons of these first five months, and the Portuguese polemicist will need to put his thinking-hat back on if their campaign, pretty good up to now, is not to stutter. Kaka brings something back to the mix, but it might not be what is really required.

Despairing of any let-up in Barcelona's season, Marca's editor Eduardo Inda and his kow-towing servants on the paper (otherwise known as journalists) have sat down and brain-stormed a new approach. Well, not exactly new. The big idea is that Barcelona get it easy, from the refs and from the opposing teams. On Sunday's front page we learned that Deportivo had only committed eight fouls on Barcelona throughout the whole game (good for them), a figure which allegedly demonstrates the token resistance put up by other teams, whereas look at that horrible Villarreal team, who dared to actually take a 2-1 lead! Boo-hoo, the subtext goes. Teams try against Madrid, whereas against the Catalans they lie down and die.

If one can half-accept this argument, then the accompanying message - that the refs are twice as hard on Madrid as they are on Barcelona - is a particularly sickly assertion. Madrid have received 56 yellow cards this season to Barcelona's 34, meaning that six merengues have missed games this season for accumulation of cards, whereas only Pique has suffered this indignity for the leaders. Inda's big idea is to work on a new conspiracy theory, and probably trace it all the way back to PM Zapatero, who is of course a culé. Inda's political credentials were well established when he worked for the right-swung newspaper El Mundo, and anything to the left of Genghis Khan tends to incur his wrath.

The funniest thing about all this is that neither Inda nor the journalists he instructs to write this tripe actually believe what they are saying. Apparently Mourinho has complained that when his players argue with the referees, they get booked, but that the Barcelona players don't. Hmmm - interesting one that. Maybe the Barcelona players swear in Catalan and the refs don't understand, or maybe they just argue in more diplomatic language. Whatever, why doesn't Mourinho simply instruct his players not to argue? Game over.

And of course, the campaign has already started to work. Villarreal can have serious cause to complain about Ronaldo and Madrid's third goal, which looked offside from where I was sitting (on the sofa), but referee Fernandez Borbalan thought otherwise. Pressure paying off? Well if it's not as simple as that, then it should be interesting to see how Marca deal with possible new favours to Real Madrid in their Monday morning edition - most likely by ignoring the facts altogether. Never let those things get in the way of a good story.

I don't personally mind the two-horse race. I don't mind the fact that the Catalan press can also be a bit crowing at times, and less than honest. La Liga is always worth tuning into. What spoils the party is the deliberate conniving, the lies and the (doctored) videotapes. My hope for 2011 is that at least some of this will go away. It would be nice if teams could just be judged on their merits, or lack of them, as they deserve. But I guess that doesn't sell newspapers.


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