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Monday, August 29, 2011
False start

Phil Ball

It's been a strange summer in Spain, waiting and waiting for some bread and butter stuff, and when it finally comes it's difficult to arrive at any conclusions because next week the league 'rests' for internationals. No wonder the players' union (AFE) finally decided to get on with the show and drop the second week of the strike, with the prospect of no league games at all until September 10th. It was almost as if the league authorities knew this - that it would give them some silent leverage to at least get the curtain finally raised. And so the ball is rolling, and as I sit in Norwich in England watching the Premier League on a Sunday night (as the Spanish scores flash up on my computer) I'm almost nostalgic for the days when David Silva, Kun Aguero and Juan Mata were gracing La Liga. Things will recover, and I'm flying back to Spain on Wednesday to bed down for the season, but the summer has left a slightly unpleasant taste in the mouth, compounded by yet another dispute this weekend which saw the radio stations of the nation excluded from the top-flight matches because they have refused to pay the extra money demanded by the league, causing yet another headache for the beleaguered head honcho, Jose Luis Astiazaran. The radio stations argue for freedom of information, but the league argues that they've had it too cheap for too long. Somewhere in the middle there's a point to be considered, but even as La Liga finally got underway, one of its richest and most traditional features, the radio reporting, went silent for the first time in many years. As the tabloid Marca commented: 'It's not the same without the radio'. It's true. The Spanish give good microphone, make wonderfully silly noises when players score, and there's a whole culture here still to be observed, with the transistor (ok, the mobile phone) pressed to the ears. It's to be hoped that this latest row can be sorted out before the next round of games. Maybe the place to start is by looking at the clubs most denuded of talent over the summer. Atletico Madrid, rather predictably, failed to score at home to Osasuna (the visitors didn't manage it either), but with Aguero frolicking for Manchester City whilst his old partner in crime Diego Forlan finally parted company with the club, the immediate future is looking a little bleak. A home game to the traditionally poor travellers from Navarra looked like a good way to kick-start the season, but the draw will not have lightened the mood at the Calderon. Valencia, the other side whose ranks continue to be relieved of top quality players - David Villa, David Silva and now Juan Mata, over two summers, actually found the net four times, but worryingly conceded three into the bargain, to a Racing Santander side who are widely tipped to go down this season. There were summer rumbles when the infamous Hector Cuper was employed to re-float the Santander ship, the rumbles emanating from the corners of the Sardinero where people would prefer the boat go down with the orchestra playing decent football, and not some twisted version of catenaccio. But in the first game in the Mestalla, Racing were 3-1 up at one stage and threatening the surprise result of the weekend. However, Roberto Soldado, a player more and more appreciated by La Liga analysts, started again where he left off last season and scored four goals, one of them in his own net. Nevertheless, the other three he scored (and one by Rami) were enough to stage the comeback, and hand Valencia a 4-3 win to start the season, in what was apparently a fantastic game. Hector Cuper once stalked the Mestalla as Valencia's manager, but he is not remembered with much affection. It would have been galling for his old detractors to have seen him take the points, but it was not to be. Conclusions? Valencia need to tighten up at the back. It's not just a question of readjusting to life without yet another top-class playmaker (Mata) but also re-establishing the defensive toughness that has always characterized their best sides. Elsewhere, Malaga failed to live up to their billing as the Spanish Manchester City by losing their opener, away to near neighbours Sevilla, but if they get on a roll then there are those who predict a top-six finish. This could happen, but at the moment the only similarity with Manchester City is the opening two letters of the name. In another all-southern affair, newcomers Granada lost 1-0 at home to Betis (also newly promoted) although the latter side have a much richer top-flight history, of course. This was Granada's first-ever game amongst Spain's elite, and although their arrival has elements that reduce the romanticism a little, it will still be interesting to see if they can survive, and not become the league's obvious whipping boys. Rayo Vallecano, the working-class heroes from Madrid, are also back in the big time, and did rather better, nicking a point from a tough-looking opener at Athletic Bilbao, for whom Marcelo Bielsa was making his managerial debut. And what of Real Madrid, starting the season one day ahead of their most likely rivals, who entertain Villarreal on Monday night? Nice to set the pace this season, Madrid were probably thinking, and strolled to a 6-0 opening win at poor Zaragoza, a result which equals their 7-1 win there, back in 1988. Cristiano Ronaldo signalled his intent with a hat-trick (his ninth since he joined the club), which represents a promising start to a season in which he will be looking to beat the new Spanish record he himself established last season. It was one among a number of scary results in Europe at the weekend - scary in terms of how the giants are beginning to stride around so ominously, like Godzilla crushing houses underfoot. Manchester United beating Arsenal 8-2 and their neighbours City destroying Tottenham 5-1 away were results that many would prefer not to have seen, but Real Madrid seemed keen on joining the party, crushing Zaragoza with ridiculous ease, to ratchet up Barcelona's opener against Villarreal. The visitors the Camp Nou are usually a force to be reckoned with, but one that looks a little tired after their Champions League qualifier exploits. Barcelona, with another trophy polished and popped in the cupboard last Friday (the European Supercup), are getting into gear after looking a little sluggish (by their standards) in the previous games against Real Madrid, and will need to signal their desire for the fight again. Real Madrid have not only added to their ranks but have also added to their siege mentality, and with the squad in the bunker with Jose Mourinho, all solidarity and bonding against the enemy, this could be an interesting campaign. This week I've seen Norwich City lose at home to MK Dons in the Carling Cup, and Grimsby lose to Darlington in the Blue Square Premier. The next live game I'm likely to see will be Real Sociedad v Barcelona, but hey, without the rough it's difficult to appreciate the smooth. Real Sociedad themselves got off to a good start with a 2-1 win at Sporting, but it's early days to judge whether their new project under Phillippe Montanier will prosper. The next game will tell us a lot more.

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