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Monday, September 19, 2011
Possibles versus Probables

Phil Ball

If La Liga has allegedly little to recommend it this season, then at least it has a sense of humour. Reverend José Mourinho, in his press sermon on Saturday, informed the congregation that his team's objective this season was la permanencia (staying up). This earned him quite a few laughs from the faithful, who understood that apart from the usual irony the comment was aimed at Pep Guardiola. Barcelona's manager had announced, only 24 hours before, that his club might not win anything (more) this season, but that they would continue to play with the same philosophy, etc etc. Responding to criticism from an impertinent ESPN journalist, Guardiola had suggested, correctly, that the consecutive draws were hardly evidence of a crisis, and that the opposition were also allowed to score goals and win games. Milan's injury-time equaliser in the Camp Nou on Wednesday had the doom-mongers playing their drums, especially when Andres Iniesta became the latest key man to hobble off and contemplate a month on the sidelines. However, as Ed Alvarez predicted in midweek, poor Osasuna would 'pay for the broken plates', as they say here, and go home with a flea in their ear. Not wishing to mix metaphors any further, the poor Pamplonians went home with eight more goals in the conceded column and their own particular dreams of continuing their decent start all but dead and buried. It remains to be seen whether they can recover from the trauma. The last time Barcelona put eight past them was in the 1993-94 season (Osasuna did manage to score one on that occasion) but they were subsequently relegated and spent the next six seasons in the 'Segunda A' wilderness. They were looking to be made of sterner stuff before this third game, and despite Alvarez's accurate prediction, the more logical result would have been a hard-won win for the champions, ground out in the tired shadows of a Champions League midweek stress-fest. But no. Barcelona annihilated their visitors, and it could have been more than eight. Goalkeeper Andrés Fernandez was probably Osasuna's best player. Barcelona hadn't scored eight at home since 1997, when they slaughtered poor Logroñes, another side that never recovered. You may recall that they stuck eight past Almería last season, but that was away from home. Again, Osasuna should look the other way, because Almería also went down, the wounds never quite managing to heal. Meanwhile, it was Real Madrid's turn to suggest to the critics that La Liga might turn out to be more competitive this season than predicted. Losing Sami Khedira to a red card in the first half, they lost 1-0 at Levante, despite bringing on the Zagreb-battered Cristiano Ronaldo for the second half. So, given the usual 40-point mark, Real Madrid still need thirty-four to ensure survival. Levante beat them in the Ciutat de Valencia last season, one of the results that put a question mark back then over the ability of the runners-up to win consistently against the weaker sides - the ones that often try the hardest against you. Perhaps this is the start of a similar pattern? Who knows? The Champions and Europa League 'effect' has its followers and its detractors, but this weekend it didn't seem to affect Valencia too badly, winning at struggling Sporting de Gijon with another goal from Roberto Soldado. Villarreal just haven't got going at all, and it may have little to do with post-European tiredness, but losing to newly-promoted Granada was a bit of a surprise. Still, it makes things a little more interesting. Valencia remain top by a squeak from newly-promoted Betis, the only other side to still be on maximum points. More of them in a moment. As you'll be aware, there is a midweek programme of matches, and the standout fixture is Valencia versus Barcelona at the Mestalla, late this Wednesday night. The Catalans are already talking of the Osasuna result as the perfect tonic to prepare them for the game. Valencia have won all their league games so far by a single goal (difference), and are hardly destroying all-comers, but the Mestalla game could not come at a better time for Liga de Mierda watchers, either depressed or sceptical about the ability of any of the other 18 sides in the league to really make a fight of it this season. A result for Valencia would be interesting indeed, but let's not count too many chickens. There is still some fragility at the back, Jordi Alba and Ever Banega (great name that) seem to be the main engine-room, and if Barcelona go for their more ambitious away version of attack, vague thoughts of equality may begin to crumble by the time the fourth set of games are over. Not that Betis will mind particularly, with a home game to Zaragoza (who are also improving) and every chance of taking top spot. When was the last time Betis looked down on the rest of the top flight? Answers on a postcard please. Their 3-2 win at San Mames looks like proof that they mean business this season, although Athletic Bilbao seem to be struggling with the Marcelo Bielsa effect (they wouldn't be the first ones) and are perched precariously in 16th spot with only a single point to eat for their suppers. They would probably have preferred not to go to Malaga on Wednesday night, another side for whom the neutrals have hopes this season. They are beginning to gel, and are lurking in a Europa spot for the time being, with six points from their first three games. Joaquin (remember him?) did the damage for them on Saturday at Mallorca. At a mere 30 years of age, it seems odd that Valencia let him go, although their financial situation was perhaps the arbiter, as ever. Capable of disappearing for seasons on end, Joaquin on his day is still one of La Liga's greats, a throwback maverick who seems to belong to more sepia times, when players just invented stuff out there, on the hop. With Santi Cazorla as the support cast, and a depressed-looking home side putting up little resistance, Joaquin had one of his wonder days, although he didn't actually score the winner. As for Mallorca, bets on Michael Laudrup making it to November? He might even walk before he's pushed. He doesn't need the money, and would probably claim that he doesn't need the hassle. Having lost his best player (Jonathan de Guzman) to Villarreal, he has openly questioned the policies of the club and thinks, rightly or not, that their financial difficulties should not always tie the hands of the manager behind his back. Continuing the theme, the one who got away (from Mallorca), Gregorio Manzano, is beginning to smile a little too, as his Atlético Madrid side stuffed poor Racing de Santander 4-0 and Radamel Falcao got off the mark with a hat-trick. Manzano declared to the press that this was the first manifestation of a fruitful future in which Falcao will bang in pots of goals for Atletico. Maybe so. But they won't always come up against Racing, and their midfield providers will still have to convince. The departed Sergio Agüero suddenly looks dangerous all the time in the Premier League with David Silva to feed off, and just as ex-Atletico hero Fernando Torres has found out since he was abandoned by Xabi Alonso (and Steven Gerrard, okay), being at Chelsea is almost like being back at Atletico. It ain't necessarily about the strikers but about the guys who provide for them. It's not rocket science, which is presumably why Juan Mata has gone to London and left a few euros in the Mestalla bank. Will he save Torres? Do we really care? Yes, because if he doesn't, El Kid will probably be loaned back after Christmas from whence he came, and join Mr Falcao in attack. You read it here first. Sticking to the theme of possibles and probables, I watched the late-night game on La Sexta between Sevilla and Real Sociedad, and despite the incessant psycho-babble of the three (three dozen?) commentators, (the English guest, Sid Lowe, was the only one who made any sense), it was an enjoyable game in which the eventual winners, Sevilla, made a weak case for joining the top-four elite this season. Real Sociedad, beefed up in midfield by La Liga's first Kenyan, Macdonald Mariga, kept Kanoute and Alvaro Negredo at bay for most of the game, falling to a single sucker-punch from Kanoute who makes a habit of scoring against the Basques. Watch out for Sociedad's wonderful new central midfielder, Asier Illarramendi, and their excellent new centre-back, Iñigo Martinez, both products of the ever-fruitful youth system up in San Sebastian. If nothing, they'll earn the club pots of money in the next couple of seasons. The rumour-mill already has Martinez earmarked by the Bernabeu scouts. It's warming up, and the next week should see more patterns emerging. For the time being, it's quite nice to see the top two spots occupied by teams other than the usual suspects. Can it last? Tune in midweek - different time, same place.

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