Monday, November 28, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: February 6, 8:36 AM UK
I was going to talk about languages, and the importance of knowing the lingo when you're a manager - and I still might - but the weekend itself has thrown up several talking points that might just need looking at first. Events are certainly lending a lie to the 'Liga de Mierda' accusation that was floating around at the beginning of the season, even though many of the financial inequalities written into the system here still persist. For the time being, however, it would have been difficult to have predicted that after 13 games, Levante would only be two points behind Barcelona, that Valencia were still in with a realistic shout for the title (well - let's get carried away a little!) and that Barcelona would be six points behind Real Madrid, with the clásico only a fortnight away.
If you prefer to see the glass half empty, you could point to the fact that the top three is very much staffed by those who were expected to be there, and that Levante's presence there is a mere anecdote, a happy piece of decoration. Malaga are not quite a part of the equation, and if anything they have been slightly disappointing, but Osasuna in seventh place? And just as Athletic Bilbao looked to have got on a roll, they come unstuck at home to Granada, the least probable of their topplers. From the sublime to the ridiculous for the Lions, who won away at Sevilla last week for the first time in 18 years, and then lost at home to Granada. To put the result into perspective, Granada hadn't visited San Mames since 1975 (when they lost) and had only won there on one occasion in their entire history, in 1972.
Are things suffering from a temporary injection of democracy? You never know. Barcelona lost to Getafe on Saturday night - a game that I watched but found hard to enjoy, perhaps because of the inevitability of Getafe's approach, particularly in the first half. But despite this column's protestations towards parking the bus, it has to be said that it's not always a bad idea, especially when your opponents are tired after a long and emotional night in Milan in midweek. Besides, Getafe mixed up their approach and played a more openly counter-attacking game in the second half, scaring Barcelona on several occasions - one of which eventually led to the goal (from a corner).
The final few minutes were extraordinary, with Messi hitting the post in the last second and luck seemingly turning its back on the Catalans - not something that journalists have often had to write in the last few years. Barcelona generally make their own luck, but despite all their possession in the first half, they weren't quite themselves. Of course they will bounce back, and of course the league is not over yet (there were certain newspapers suggesting otherwise on Sunday morning), but it was always going to happen. A team's invincibility can only last for a certain time, and without Iniesta and Cesc, something was missing. What La Liga needs this season, more than anything, is some healthy competition, or at least the appearance of it. Barca's fallibility (it's not a crisis) is a good thing. It keeps the rest of their opponents motivated.
Real Madrid went 0-1 down to Atletico about five minutes after I walked into a bar close to home, where I'd gone with my wife to celebrate the end of my tonsillitis. Any excuse, eh? Well - the bar is opposite a large hotel, and was full of young men from Madrid, on some sort of business trip, by the look of them. They greeted the excellent Adriano's goal in sepulchral silence, and started muttering in unison, looking away from the television as if they preferred not to accept the reality of the moment. The barman, who looks like Gregory Peck's version of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, shouted across to them in the silence: "No pasa nada. Ganaraís 4-1" (Don't worry - you'll win 4-1). Perhaps, like Ahab, he could see into the future.
The moment reminded me of the last time Atletico won at the Bernabeu 12 years ago (3-1), and I was in a bar in Seville called 'El Blanco Cerrillo' researching my book. Any excuse again. John Toshack was Real's manager, and I remember talking about the game in the taxi that took me back to my hotel. The taxi driver was an odd little chap who looked like Woody Allen, and was memorable because he was the only person I met that weekend who didn't support either of the Seville teams, claiming that he was 'the local weirdo' and had always supported Valencia because he liked the colour of their shorts (black). It was an interesting, if somewhat off-beat, conversation and it figured prominently in the Seville chapter - such that I always remember that Atletico haven't managed a derby win at the Bernabeu since then. It seems a long time ago. In fact, Atletico haven't beaten their neighbours at the Calderon either, which makes it 22 derbies in total since that night. Just to rub it in further, Atletico B were at home to Castilla (Real Madrid B) in Segunda B on Saturday, and of course, Castilla won (1-0).
Back at the Bernabeu, the Ultras Sur unfurled one of their pre-prepared messages - the ones that last for about ten seconds before being taken down in swift, orchestrated fashion. It read, in unavoidably large letters, 'Se busca rival digno para derby decente' (Wanted - a dignified opponent for a decent derby). That was rubbing it in a bit, because Atletico were definitely decent until they had their goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, sent off. They were decent largely due to one player - and Adrian Lopez has not exactly set the world alight up to this moment. He had a reasonable season with Deportivo last campaign, and 12 goals in a struggling side is a measure of quality, but he's turning into this term's surprise package, overshadowing Falcao and minimising Jose Antonio Reyes' running dispute with his manager, the weather and the blades of grass in the Calderon. Once Courtois was sent for his early bath, Adrian's lone battle became a hopeless cause, but for the first 20 minutes he had the Madrid back line in something of a pickle.
Anyway, Seville looms prominent this week because on yet another visit to yet another bar on Sunday (look - it's part of the social fabric in Spain, you understand), this time at midday, I witnessed an astonishing game between the two statistical strugglers, Betis and Real Sociedad. Betis had only a single point from eight games (after winning their first four), and Real Sociedad boasted a mere double of that total. The loser was widely predicted to dispense with their manager. In Betis' case that was Pepe Mel, in his second season with the club, although it could be argued that the circumstances surrounding the 3-2 home defeat to Sociedad were somewhat abnormal. That seems to be the conclusion so far since he was 'ratified' in his post on Sunday night. The other reason was that the Betis rectors had also realised that sacking him was going to cost them €2 million, but hey, let's pretend it was the other factor.
Real Sociedad, after largely dominating the game, went 2-0 up deep into the second half, only to allow (as is their wont) Betis to come back and equalise, with six minutes remaining and half of the home supporters already on their way home for lunch. Those who deserted the cause - rare for Betis fans it must be said - not only missed their team's sudden comeback, but also Real Sociedad's amazing winning goal, in injury time. The bizarre thing was that up north, most of the people in the bar had also walked out when Betis equalised, stunned that it was to be yet another black-dog day for the city. Then suddenly Inigo Martinez hit a shot from just inside his own half with such calculation and venom that Betis' keeper Casto, standing on the edge of his box, hardly had time to even effect the most minimal of reactions before the ball sailed over his head, caressed the bottom of the bar and bounced in. I've rarely seen such a reaction to a goal, at least from the faithful who had remained. People went absolutely bonkers, which is not really the Guipuzcoan style.
Don't miss the goal, already doing the rounds on the video-clip circuit. Of course, this is Martinez's second such goal of the season, the first one being in the derby against Athletic. But this one was better, given the circumstances, given the white-hot context of the fact that his side had just conceded two unexpected goals and were wobbling, and that a pass inside might have been the more sensible option. He's also a centre-half, in case anyone was unaware of the fact. No wonder Real Madrid were snooping in the summer.
If he scores another 50 metre-plus goal, he'll set a curious La Liga record. Yes, there are even nerdy records for such events, and the last player to have managed two in a Spanish season was Roger Garcia of Espanyol, in 2003. And, of course, Martinez undoubtedly saved his manager's neck. Having blown a 2-0 lead, Phillippe Montanier would have been unlikely to have survived the night and would have been smuggled over the French border by dawn, never to return. I was going to write a piece this week about the perils of being a manager and not really speaking the language - since he is the only manager in La Liga, save José Mourinho, who is not a native Spanish speaker. But I'll save it for next week, unless Martinez scores another 55-metre job, or Barcelona lose to Levante.