Monday, December 19, 2011
So the traditional Christmas break is upon us, and La Liga goes quiet until January 7th, when hostilities resume.
I say this every year at this time, but one needs to resist the temptation to proclaim any team "Winter Champions" at this point, or half-way winners, much as several Madrid-based newspapers would like to do. La Liga has completed only sixteen games, one fewer than is normal at this time of the year, but that is due to the players' strike at the beginning of the season. We will be well on our way to February before any solid half-time claims can be made.
Nevertheless, there is a certain virtue to packing up for the Christmas holidays in a state of 'animus intactus'. Footballers in general find it difficult to take a break, and nobody wants to spend the best part of three weeks brooding over that final day defeat, or staring up at the rest of the league, as is the case at Zaragoza. It's all a bit miserable, a bit of in-the-bleak-midwinter syndrome, whereas up top the two leaders are both smiling, and both enjoying a rich vein of possibilities. And whereas Real Madrid have in a sense won the first battle by arriving at this stage three points clear, Barcelona have also re-proclaimed themselves champions of the planet by crushing poor Santos and have popped a crucial psychological feather into their caps by winning recently at the Bernabéu.
You kind of figure that Real Madrid would have swapped the three-point lead for Christmas parity, just as long as they'd won that clásico. If they had, of course, they would have been a massive nine points clear, but you know what I mean. The three-point lead seems a frail one somehow, and one that they will need to be extended before the return clásico in the Camp Nou.
A lot of things can change after the Christmas break. The Champions League begins to take on ever-greater stress dimensions, whilst the players remain obliged to do the business in the league, week in week out. Players get injured too, as in David Villa - although it was slightly ironic that two days before he broke his leg he had been declared surplus to requirements and could leave in the summer. He still might - although buyers would seek to get a better price in the post-injury circumstances. Sergio Ramos has also ended the year with an injury, although it is not as serious. But it serves as a reminder that matters are not always determined by pure football. Barcelona have already suffered nagging injuries to key players this season - Andres Iniesta being the most significant - and their small if almost imperceptible stutters can be possibly laid at the door of these circumstances.
However, there is no doubt that in general, Real Madrid is a much happier institution than it was at this time least season. Jose Mourinho has learned how to handle Madrid, and they have learned how to handle him, or so it seems. Jorge Valdano is history, and Florentino Perez undoubtedly feels that he made the right decision in employing the Portuguese man-o-war, despite whispers in his ear from those who would have preferred a less pugilistic manager, or one less dedicated to re-defining the institution in his own image. Nevertheless, he has modified his behaviour off stage, and improved the team on-stage.
Jose's only problem is that Barcelona remain there, and have little intention of going away. The only wind that might eventually blow in Mourinho's favour, if he stays the course, is the departure of Pep Guardiola for pastures new. It could happen at the end of this season. He has dropped plenty of hints in the past two years, and he may feel that a new challenge (at Old Trafford) would keep him on a learning curve. It seems inconceivable, but the rumour-mongers are adamant. Would he take any players with him? You never know. But the mere prospect of his leaving would deflate Barcelona, and possibly send then into enough of a spin for La Liga's throne to accept a new occupant.
Real Madrid's 6-2 win at Sevilla on Saturday night was something of a vindication of their status, of their greater mental strength this season. Weirdly enough, they also won 6-2 there last season (must be some sort of record), but the win on Saturday was more significant, coming, as it did, on the heels of the Barcelona game and looking, as it also did, like a tough game with which to re-take the leadership.
Sevilla, although not having a spectacular season, had only conceded eleven goals up to the Madrid game, which was the best figure outside of Barcelona. Madrid just took them apart, in a ruthless display of finishing. How they must wish that they could play (and finish) so impeccably against their greatest rival, who also took Santos apart a few hours later, in an equally strong vindication of the current power of Europe in world football. How odd to see a Brazilian side made to look technically and tactically deficient. Neymar who?
However, the happiest thing about the Christmas break is the fact that La Liga has proved itself to be so much more than the 'Liga de Mierda' it was labelled with back in late August. Valencia, despite their Champions League hiccup, are still within striking distance of the big two, should either of them hit a wall, and complete a happy duo for the city with Levante occupying the 4th Champions League place, four points behind their neighbours. Nobody saw that one coming, and it was great fun for the first few weeks, with the ageing Levante topping the table and proving that there is life after thirty. Their nine-game unbeaten run from the start of the league programme immediately focused attention away from the usual suspects and gave the whole scene a welcome lift. Even more importantly, they're still there.
Four points behind them lie Osasuna, another side widely tipped to struggle this season. I'll pay a visit to the Reyno de Navarra after Christmas, because it's a long time since I've been, despite the proximity to San Sebastian. That said, their next game after Christmas is in Anoeta, so I'll get a chance to check them out there. Traditionally poor away from home, they've managed to remain undefeated in Pamplona, where their intimidating little ground continues to unsettle the unwary visitor. Their season makes bizarre reading, however. Of the 28 goals that they have conceded, fifteen arrived in a mere two games, losing 8-0 in the Camp Nou and 7-1 in the Bernabeu. But it is a measure of their mentality that after both those games they went on longish, undefeated runs, the last of which is still intact after a 2-1 win against struggling Villarreal, in their last game before Christmas.
Talking of Villarreal, they represent the other side of the coin. A side in decline, or a temporary blip? It still seems like science fiction that since 2003 they have not finished below 8th position, and that they were runners-up in 2008. Despite this, they have never been taken very seriously outside of Spain, and you always get the impression that people are waiting for them to return to the pre-Fernando Roig obscurity from whence they came. It may happen, but I hope not. They pack up for Christmas one place from the relegation spots, with a lack of confidence permeating their injury-ravaged squad. Nevertheless, you have to say that there is only so much damage that the departure of Santi Cazorla can have caused. Rossi is injured, it's true, but there is still a lot of quality in their ranks. Marco Ruben is a useful player, Nilmar is back, Jonathan de Guzman was a good signing, Borja Valero is still a top-class player, Marcos Senna is still there and Bruno is very solid. Expect them to turn it around in the New Year.
Granada and Betis, two of the promoted sides, have finished this first period on something of a high, after things were looking distinctly bleak. Like Atletico Madrid, they both have 19 points, but are only four from Sporting, who occupy a relegation spot in 18th place. Atlético are less amused by this tally than are Granada and Betis, and the usual season's over-inflated expectations have turned to their customary dust.
Sometimes you think that Atletico fans wouldn't have it any other way - with the usual protests over the manager (Gregorio Manzano) complaints about several players not pulling their weight, the sudden transfer of Jose Antonio Reyes back to Sevilla, and calls for the resignation of the board, still controlled by the remnants of the Gil family. The best way for the owners to deflect attention from themselves would be to sack Manzano, and having done a rather poor job, he is unlikely to be in charge in January. The post-Aguero/Forlan period is not proving to be an easy one, but it would be a myth to pretend that all was rosy even when they were there.
Racing de Santander, second from bottom, are in a much worse position, institutionally speaking, with an absent owner, money still owed to various creditors, a new manager (Hector Cuper) already gone, and an understandable reluctance on the part of potential investors to jump into the flames. The team hasn't done badly in the circumstances, and continues to show signs of life, despite the feeling that the fingers in the dyke can only hold back the waves for a certain amount of time.
Talking of waves, I shall be crossing the Atlantic for Christmas in search of my long-lost son, playing soccer in the snows of Ohio, but will be back in Spain for the resumption of events in January. See you then.