24 August 2015

Birthday boys Celta on top of the world in La Liga

My La Liga round-up for the Irish Examiner

Joseph Sexton

It’s been a trying decade for Celta Vigo who celebrated the 92nd anniversary of their founding yesterday. The club came up in the 1990s to enjoy the most successful spell in their history- the era of Euro-Celta where they knocked out such giants as Liverpool and reaching the Copa del Rey final in 2001. They lost that and still haven’t got a major trophy to their name, but they housed some great players in that epoch and were regularly battling it out at the top of the league.

Celta celebrate against Levante

Of course that spell also coincided with the their bitter rivals Deportivo La Coruña’s golden age too, their neighbours to the north overshadowing them. Celta like to think of themselves as the more established side and they’ve certainly completed more seasons in the top flight than Depor, but as runners-up in 1994 in heartbreaking circumstance the Coruña side claimed the region’s first and only league title in 2000 and ruined Real Madrid’s centenary celebrations by denying them the Copa del Rey in their own back yard. They went on to be big hitters in the Champions League over several years, including a run all the way to the semi-finals before being knocked out by José Mourinho’s FC Porto in 2004. That was before the slow decline set in.

Down the road in Vigo, the decline was much more rapid.

That same season, Celta competed in the Champions League for the first time having finished fourth the season before. They got through the group stages when they then found themselves up against Arsenal’s invincibles side in the last 16. It was a close run affair, before Thierry Henry and company prevailed.

It should have been the highlight of the club’s history, but it turned out to be the beginning of a nightmare.

Celta, quite frankly, weren’t equipped to compete on multiple fronts and, in a season where they also made the cup quarter-finals, their league form suffered. There was always the sense that they could pull themselves away but instead the final third of the season saw a spectacular collapse and they finished 19th, and just like that, their 12 year stay in the top flight was over.

They bounced straight back up, but it was never the same and within two seasons they were down again. This time there was to be no rapid return. They grubbed around the Segunda, brushing with relegation to the third tier during 5 long seasons, before coming back up as runners up to Deportivo - who had also gone into free-fall by now - in 2012.

Since then, they’ve slowly established themselves as a competitive La Liga side once more. They just about missed out on relegation in that first season back- Depor went down instead- but since then the trajectory has been upward.

It started with the appointment of current Barcelona manager Luis Enrique in 2013. A big name, but  the Asturian coach was coming off a nightmare spell in Serie A with Roma where his side underperformed badly despite heavy investment from its new American owners.

They started slow under Luis Enrique. In their second game of the season, they dominated against a dogged Granada side but couldn’t take their chances while leading as the Andalusian side nicked a point at Balaídos. Luis Enrique was upbeat after that game, however. In the press room, he told the assembled journalists he’d been happy with his side’s overall display and attitude. “If we keep playing this way we’ll win more than we lose”.

Their were some groans that day at his side’s patient, passing approach and they took time getting going. They didn’t win a home game until December but signs that his team were getting it right were there a month before when - despite going down 3-0 - they gave the champions Barcelona one hell of a game. After this it all began to click into place and a team tipped for relegation soared up the table to finish 9th.

Despite Luis Enrique taking Rafinha Alcantara with him when he moved to Barcelona, Celta enjoyed another fine season last time round under his Argentine successor Eduardo Berizzo. A Bielsista to the core, Berizzo was wise enough to preserve the best of his predecessor’s work while fine-tuning aspects. They went one better, finishing 8th, beating Real Madrid and Barcelona at the Camp Nou, and playing some of the most attractive football in the division.

This summer they lost two key players in the shape of Michael Krohn-Dehli and the extremely promising Santi Mina. But they also welcomed back a local hero in the shape of Iago Aspas, who endured frustrating times at Liverpool and Sevilla in the last two seasons.

In a weekend where goals were at a premium, they kicked off their late Sunday game against Levante in Valencia last night. Things certainly seemed to be going their way when the hosts’ Simao was sent-off after just five minutes. but despite dominating the match statistically they found it hard going against a Levante side who sat deep to deny them space in the final third.

Much ink has been expended about the contractual situation of the Chilean Fabián Orellana but the schemer was there to give his side the lead in the 41st minute with after an incisive move down the wing. That followed a controversial disallowed goal for the hosts, who drew level against their nervy visitors shortly after the interval when Verza hit a superb free-kick.

As Berizzo would later concede, they lacked a cutting edge to complement their control of the match and it looked as if the game was slipping away from in the final quarter. But then, 13 minutes from time, another rapid move down the right saw the ball land at the feet of - who else -  Aspas in the six yard box and the striker made no mistake. Seven minutes, though it felt like even longer, of injury ensued, before the visitors emerged victorious.

The result - again, coming on the club’s 92nd birthday - means they’re top of the table in La Liga for the first in their history. And while there’s room for improvement, there was more good news for the club today as Orellana - who also assisted the winner - finally committed his future to the club after a summer of humming and hawing. 

Around the grounds

It certainly wasn’t a vintage opening weekend in the league, with the first seven matches yielding a paltry three goals in total. Valencia began sluggishly in drawing 0-0 with Rayo Vallecano while Atlético Madrid, who had been tipped to hockey their newly-promoted opponents could only scrape a 1-0 home victory against UD Las Palmas.

In Sunday’s opening game Barcelona gained a measure of revenge for their Super Cup trashing by edging out Athletic Bilbao 1-0 at San Mamés thanks to a second half Luis Suárez strike in a tense encounter where they never quite convinced. Real faltered at the first hurdle against promoted Sporting Gijón at el Moliñon and while Rafa Benítez’s side were incensed when Cristiano Ronaldo was denied a penalty, they also rode their luck as ex-Barça youth teamer Antonio Sanabria’s header crashed off the woodwork and appeared to cross the line but without the benefit of goal-line technology no goal was given.

If Aspas was the man of the week, then it was also pleasing to see another English flop open his account at the first time of asking. Roberto Soldado endured a nightmare spell at Tottenham following his big money move two summers ago, but he scored for fun in his time and Valencia and gave his new club, Villarreal the lead against real Betis. There was to be no fairytale ending here and Betis - short of new signing Rafeal Van der Vaart - battled back to earn a draw through a Ruben Castro strike three minutes from time.

Results: Málaga 0-0 Sevilla, Deportivo 0-0 Real Sociedad, Espanyol 1-0 Getafe, Atlético Madrid 1-0 Las Palmas, Rayo Vallecano 0-0 Valencia, Athletic Club 0-1 Barcelona, Sporting Gijón 0-0 Real  Madrid, Levante 1-2 Celta Vigo, Real Betis 1-0 Villarreal

Monday: Granada v Eibar

Follow Joseph on Twitter @josephsbcn

14 October 2014

Catalan vote to have profound consequences for Barcelona

Column for the UCC Express 14th October 2014

Despite the central government in Madrid’s shrill reaction and court rulings, Catalonia is set to go to the polls to vote on the independence question on the 9th of November. It’s an unprecedented move which could have huge ramifications for the Spanish state. The sporting consequences could be huge too.

Previously Barcelona’s then-president Sandro Rosell claimed that whatever the outcome of the vote, the Catalan giants would continue to play in the Spanish league. In the last week, however the league’s president waded into the debate.

“If Catalonia became independent”, Javier Tebas said “taking into account the Sports Law that would be enforced by the rest of Spain, Barcelona wouldn’t be allowed to play”. 

Neither would their cross-town rivals Espanyol.

Any future Catalan league would be stuffed by minnows and semi-professional teams. Girona, Llagostera and Sabadell all play in Spain’s second flight but none of these sides could feasibly put up any sort of competition to the two Barcelona clubs

The blow would be a heavy one too for the Spanish League. Overseas television rights- which stall lag those of England’s Premier League considerably- draw in large part from the global appeal of the big two. Atlético Madrid may be the current champions but no one would kid themselves that the capital club have the same cache.

Global viewers are drawn by the spectacle and the story and glory of Barcelona and Real Madrid. The clásico is amongst the biggest sporting events in the world with fans from India to Iowa locking their attention to this bitter rivalry.

It’s an outcome neither club would want as so much of their identity is bound with their rivalry. Even Florentino Pérez, Real Madrid’s president, concedes as much when he quipped “If Barcelona didn’t exist we’d have to invent them”. Between the pair, they account for 40% of the league’s current television revenue.

One solution from left field has been mooted. Should Catalonia secede, reports in the Spanish press last week claimed that Barcelona might chance their arm at entering France’s Ligue 1. That Monaco already play there is a precedent, but one imagines any moves to admit the blaugrana would be torpedoed by UEFA.

With so many Catalan players having played a central role in Spain’s recent success it would also be a massive loss to the Spanish national side. But that many- most vocally Gerard Piqué- have  come out in favour of an independent Catalonia says a lot for the mood on the ground in the eastern region.

24 February 2014

Power Shift

Joseph Sexton

In the tightest title race that La Liga has seen in 21 seasons, week 25 stood as being a potential game breaker. Barcelona and Atlético had blazed the way since the first week, but recent dropped points and Real’s excellent form since their defeat at the Camp Nou saw them close in on the inside lane until finally we went in to this week with all three locked on 60 points,

It was unlikely that the record total of 100 points- set in each of the last two seasons by Barça and Madrid- would be equalled; the margin of error being a single draw before the end of the season. But never before have we seen three sides on this many points so late in the season.

Real Madrid did what Real Madrid have been doing for the last three months; winning. They did so without their strongest team and they did so professionally, overpowering Elche at the Bernabéu before taking Xabi Alonso, Karim Benzema and Jesé off to give them some extra rest ahead of a gruelling week that sees them face Schalke in the Champions League before visiting Atlético for the derbí madrileño.

Barça tried to do something similar against a Real Sociedad who they coasted through against in the recent Copa Del Rey semis but came a cropper. 3-1 was the final score as the home side cut the Champions to pieces with that formidable counter-attack that served them so well last season. But more on that later.

The task was clear for Atlético ahead of their visit to El Sadar in Pamplona on Sunday night- win and they’d go out on their own at the top; anything else would leave them trailing their neighbours from the posh side of the capital.

But there was a rather large caveat, and that’s precisely why this weekend was singled out; Osasuna. The Navarre club have made something of a habit of raising their game for the big boys.

Real and Barcelona had both already dropped points on this ground this term. It took two moments of utter desperate luck to see Barcelona claw back to win 2-1 here in August last season, a thoroughly unjust result. The year before, they’d lost here 3-2 and the year before that Real again had been held.

El Sadar is one of those La Liga grounds with a lot of personality. It doesn’t quite hold 20,000 but it sure makes a lot of noise. The Indar Gorri, Osasuna’s ultras are a colourful and vocal bunch. Irish tricolours were seen in solidarity. Though over the border from the Basque Country proper there is a strong sense of Basque nationalism in this corner of Navarre.

By the time the match kicked off the ground felt like a boxing ring in a title fight. In almost no time at all, Atlético were on the ropes.

And though they stumbled on to the 12th round, they would never recover from those initial blows. The result was never in any doubt.

After just 6 minutes the shellshocked visitors conceded the first. A booming cross from the left saw Atleti flat-footed. Nobody picked up the run of Álvaro Cejudo who bombed in unmolested to the back post to plant a firm right-footed effort past a helpless Thibaut Courtois.

Before long things would get worse; much worse.

Intercepting a loose pass in front of the defence, Armenteros still had the full Atleti backline ahead of him. There didn’t look to be much danger at all. But having sidestepped a halfhearted challenge from the captain Mario Suárez he unleashed a homing missile from 25 yards. Once again, there was nothing Courtois could have done to prevent the goal.

Atlético were rattled, and badly rattled at that. Nothing was coming off for them, and they were being hustled out of their stride in the manner they’ve hustled so many this season. They simply had no answer for Osasuna’s intensity. 

Diego Costa dived to win a penalty, not for the last time on the night. He skirted a very fine line and was fortunate not to received the booking that would have seen him suspended for the derby. 

Before the break his side would concede again.

Again it came from a left wing cross. And again, the marking was abysmal. Roberto Torres hung back as the central defenders stood off and was left with effectively a free header to beat Courtois all ends up at the back the post.

After the break Atleti improved but rarely threatened. Indeed if any side looked likely to add to the goals it was Osasuna. It was as thorough a 3-0 beating as you’ll ever seen administered to a top side.

Javi Gracia, Osasuna’s coach couldn’t contain his joy after the final whistle. “This is a very special day”.

Diego Simeone accepted the defeat had been complete. “When an opponent is better, as Osasuna were today, I congratulate them”

Gracia continued. “The win had an added bonus. We scored three goals against the best defence in the division. So this victory is all the sweeter. It’s an important step in the fight against relegation”.

“We must continue to grow. This team, despite its limitations always tries to give their all. It’s a long time since I’ve seen the crowd at El Sadar do the [Mexican] wave. It was very nice.”

Simeone admitted his side had been caught cold. “They surprised us in the first 20 minutes with the two chances, we just couldn’t get into the match. Their tactics were spot on they stopped us from playing our game”.

It may have been just a bad day at the office. No week is a bad week when you win away to AC Milan. But there’s a feeling that Atleti couldn’t be going into the derby in worse shape.

Or that Real couldn’t be better. Cristiano Ronaldo will be back, the team has found a sense of balance and as clear an identity as at any time in the last couple of years. They are now unbeaten in 26 in all. Only Leo Beenhakker’s Quinto del Buitre side of the 80s can better that record in Real’s long history.

And now they’re top for the first time since May 2012.

Around the grounds

Heartbreak for Granada at the Mestalla. They succumbed to a 90th minute Ruben Vezo strike having largely held their own against Valencia. For the hosts, the Pizzi project is beginning to take shape. They were industrious and they leapfrog their former manager Unai Emery’s Sevilla to sit in the final Europa League place, having been 10 points off the Andalusian club over the winter.

That defeat sees Granada slip in the relegation fight once more, but as with Osasuna, Celta Vigo are pulling away. There was no win this week- they had to make do with a 1-1 draw to Getafe- but there’s a growing sense that everything they weren’t getting but merited earlier in the season is going their way. 

Luís Enrique is enjoying a fine first season at the helm and already there’s talk of Rafinha coming back from his loan to the Camp Nou in the summer and being a big part of their first team next term.

How Barça could have done with him on Saturday. Tata Martino started with Alex Song- who Marca awarded a four out of ten- with Sergio Busquets ostensibly playing the Xavi role. It didn’t work, and neither did the weakened defence.

There was a lively radio debate on Onda Cero on Sunday night. It got heated at times, but the feeling was that Messi strolled through the game raising further worries about his physical capacity; and, once again, his mindset. As much as La Real deserved their win, there’s a feeling that Barcelona earned what they deserved.

Results: Valladolid 1 Levante 1, Real Madrid 3 Elche 0, Celta Vigo 1 Getafe 1, Real Sociedad 3 Barcelona 1, Almería 0 Málaga 0, Rayo Vallecano 0 Sevilla 1, Real Betis 0 Athletic Bilbao 2, Valencia 2 Granada 1, Osasuna 3 Atlético Madrid 0

Monday: Espanyol v Villarreal (21:00)

23 September 2013

At the Mestalla, the natives are restless though not revolting....yet

My Column for the Irish Examiner

Joseph Sexton
It was 17:14 on Thursday. The stadium was not quite full, a reflection that after years of dining at the top table, the fans weren’t enamoured with UEFA’s secondary competition. Life is tough these days in Valencia, as it is in the rest of Spain. Rampant unemployment and foreclosures means that for many, every last cent must be accounted for.

Valencia have lost a lot too, more than most. Unlike the region with which it shares a name - long a viper’s nest of Partido Popular (yes, the same party than regained the national government in 2011) venality of a sort than makes 1980s Ireland look decidedly amateur - the club can be said to have brought it on itself.
They defied to the odds to restore some semblance of normality, but having jettisoned Unai Emery - who returned Sunday night with Sevilla - the realities of their situation caught up with them. After three straight third-place La Liga finishes, they came fifth last season.
Suddenly the plan of selling a single star each summer wasn’t enough to fill the hole in their annual accounts.
There were barely ten minutes on the clock on Thursday when Adil Rami was sent off. It was needless, and it was blatant. It had to be red. Soon the fans were seeing red. Against a Swansea side the Spanish media have dubbed the ‘Spanish Swans’ affectionately, they went down 3-0. The fans turned on the players, chanting in unison: ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’
The man they’d all wanted, a hero from his playing days, Miroslav Djukic was no longer untouchable. Whispers were circulating that anything less than a win against Sevilla would see him fall on his sword.
Valencia played like a side with a point to prove in the opening half, and Jonas’ opener was scant reward for their dominance. After the break, Sevilla began liken a train and within seven minutes drew level through Kevin Gameiro, signed to replace the goals of Álvaro Negredo in the summer.
But despite the protests beforehand, the fans stayed with the team, feeding the players’ belief. Just as it should be. And, by the end, they had their reward.
Jonas - who was probably luck to still be on the field - restored the lead with just over a quarter of an hour remaining. With nerves still on edge, Victor Ruiz flicked on a corner but instead found the back of the net. Five minutes left. They had done it.
Amadeo Salvo, the club’s president, had been silent in the days leading up the game. All of a sudden, you couldn’t escape him. “It was a complicated game” he told Onda Cero, “Sevilla played well and had chances, but fortunately victory is ours.
“Djukic is our manager, and even if we’d lost we’d have kept faith in him. Miroslav says that he’s realised his dream in coaching us, and that deserves respect.
“You can’t rush these things, you need to be patient, and we will be. We have to keep working together going forward in order to be successful.”
As for the next manager in the division looking over his shoulder? Step forward, Unai Emery.

BARCELONA remain top but were given a serious scare by Rayo Vallecano. You would have to go back several seasons to see them post possession stats as low as they managed in the first half in Vallecas, and the best chances also fell the host’s way. Pedro had them ahead at the break, and they had Victor Valdés - who saved a penalty against Ajax in midweek - to thank again as he denied Roberto Trashorras.
After the break, they were much better as Rayo tired. Cesc Fabregas added the gloss, but it was about Pedro as the Canary Islander landed his first hat-trick in a Barça shirt.
Real continued their habit of falling behind at the Bernabéu when Ángel Lafita gave Getafe an early lead. Pepe had been at fault, but he brought his side level a quarter of an hour later. With no Gareth Bale, who injured himself warming up, it was Isco who stole the show again. Mesut who?
Cristiano Ronaldo netted twice, one from the spot, to pull ahead of Hugo Sánchez as he club fifth highest scorer of all time. Next in his sights is Ferenc Púskas. And, quite ludicrously, after just four-and-a-bit seasons in Spain, he’s now the 18th highest scorer in the history of the Primera.
Atlético won a pig of a game to make it five wins from five in Valladolid, with Raúl García and Diego Costa the scorers. Villarreal also remain unbeaten. They had the better chances as Celta had goalkeeper Yoel to thank for a 0-0 last night in Balaídos.
Week 5 Results: Osasuna 2 Elche 1; Real Sociedad 0 Málaga 0; Almería 2 Levante 2; Valladolid 0 Atlético 2; Real Betis 0 Granada 0; Celta Vigo 0 Villarreal 0; Real Madrid 4 Getafe 1; Valencia 3 Sevilla 1.


17 September 2013

Away from La Catedral, Bilbao's fans find a new altar to worship upon

My Column for the Irish Examiner

Joseph Sexton
Up in the Bilbao, Monday marked a historic night for one of the country's most iconic clubs. An historic night too for Spanish football, and a prescient one too, in light of the financial abyss the vast majority of the country's professional clubs are teetering over.

It also brought to an end 90 years of glorious history. Last May, Athletic Club played their last ever home game at the fabled San Mamés ground. La Catedral, truly one of the most imposing grounds in Europe.
One of the most welcoming too, though. Unless you're for Real Madrid, or Barcelona. Or, of course, their fiercest rivals, Real Sociedad at whose ground Athletic played their opening home fixture this term ahead of Monday’s grand opening.
Talk to any Manchester United supporter who made the trek for their recent Europa League undressing against Athletic's thrilling young side, and they'll answer you wide-eyed. Newcastle fans too, as Phil Ball recounts in his magisterial book Morbo. That day in 1994 was Ball's first visit to the ground, one which the author describes as 'unlike anything I have ever experienced before, or since.' This was echoed by the hordes of Geordie supporters he spoke to. Expecting the usual welcome reserved for travelling English supporters they were  bowled over by the warmth and kindness showered upon them.
One gang, who'd travelled through France suffered a car malfunction. A trip to the local mechanics confirmed the worst- the entire exhaust needed replacing. But the garage owner simply refused to take any payment for the work, and more still, invited the group out for and paid for several rounds of beer.
'They just won't let you pay, man!', one of the Geordie faithful recalled with awe.
But they've not moved too far. The new ground is located adjacent to the old one. And if Monday night’s clash with Celta Vigo is anything to go by, the atmosphere generated at the grand old temple hasn't diminished for the move.
Both sides went into this one in good form, Celta, under Luis Enrique, were desperately unfortunate not to maintain their 100% record a fortnight against Granada. “If we keep playing like we did today, we'll win a lot more than we lose”, was their manager's verdict after Granada stole a point.
Athletic are under the guidance of Ernesto Valverde. Having almost dragged Valencia back from the brink to a Champions League place after taking charge midway through last season, he was sounded out after Tito Vilanova stepped aside at Barcelona. But having committed himself the Bilbao post, the former Espanyol boss stayed true to his word.
The match itself was a ding-dong affair that did the occasion justice. Charles had been a major doubt for Celta, but he opened the scoring on 13 minutes after Rafinha robbed the ball on the halfway line. Just four minutes later, the former Liverpool man Mikel San José prodded home the equaliser from a free kick, aided by a fortunate bounce of Hugo Mallo. On the hour mark Andoni Iraola put the hosts in front and the stadium errupted in celebration.
The summer signing Benat extended that lead as the game entered the final quarter, showing some neat footwork after being played in by a simple ball which exploited the visitors' high defensive line. And though the 17 year old Santi Mina cut the deficit with ten minutes left, the hosts held on to move up to fifth, just a point behind Real Madrid.
“It could have finished differently”, said Luis Enrique post-game. “But I can't complain too much. We know we're on he right path and we have time on our side. It was a spectacular game, in a spectacular setting”
“This game had it all”, Began Valverde. “We were made to suffer, but we got there in the end. Man of the match Benat concurred and added that “it was important to crown the occasion with a win, and fortunately I was able to tuck away my goal”.
It was only the opening night. No doubt many more grand memories will be forged on this marvellous new field.
As the world and his mother will be aware, Carlo Ancelotti opted to start Gareth Bale in Real's visit to newly-promoted Villarreal. The Welshman, understandably, looked a little short on the levels of fitness and understanding with his team-mates that he might have had had the record-breaking transfer been concluded sooner.
But among the misplaced passes and ballooned crosses their was a determination which his scrambled equaliser encapsulated. Having departed around the hour mark, it was left to Cristiano Ronaldo to salvage a point for the visitors. Both sides now have 10 points from 12 available, and having continued their best-ever start to a top-flight campaign, the home teams goal of retaining their elite status is progressing far better than anyone could have anticipated. 
Last autumn, Sevilla and Barcelona produced one of the games of the season when the Catalans fought back from two goals down to steal victory at the Sánchez Pizjuan. The emphatic nature of their comeback that night meant the final result was anything but unjust.
Here at the Camp Nou, fortune certainly smiled upon them. Leading through a Dani Alves strike, the visitors were incensed as Ivan Rakitic's equaliser was disallowed before Leo Messi doubled Barca's lead with a quarter hour left.
And yet five minutes later Rakitic struck again, legitimately too. Then, in the final minute, from a home corner, Sevilla broke to equalise when Coke volleyed home. But there was still enough time left for the much-maligned Alexis Sánchez to settle matters at the death, latching on after Beto could only a parry a Leo Messi shot. Tata Martino's reign is certainly leaving supporters on the edge of their seats.
They wanted Unai Emery out, and a season later, they got the man they wanted, Miroslav Djukic. But not many Valencia fans will be smiling after their side suffered a third straight defeat under the Serb as they were comprehensively defeated as Betis claimed their first win of the new campaign. 
Another side with the same record after four matches is Rayo Vallecano. Having defied all expectation the last three campaigns, this might be one too far for the Madrid side. Losing three quarters of your squad (once again) will do that. If their defeat to Levante was a staggering injustice, there was little solace to be had here. Their 5-0 defeat to Málaga, aided by a hat-trick from deadline signing Mounir El Hamdaoui, was their second straight manita on their travels, leaving Paco Jémez and has side with work to do if they're to beat the drop this term.


22 August 2013

Bye Bye Badman?

A profile of the man of the moment, Diego Costa, for Back Page Football

Diego Costa is one of the true characters of La liga. Maybe ‘character’ doesn’t quite cover it, though.
Call him a joker, call him a clown. Many have called him far worse things which would be out of place on a family website like this.
After one particularly feisty game against Betis last December where he proved the match-winner, Marca went so far as to call him ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr. Costa’. He’s the cabrón… the fighter; and the wind up merchant supreme.
Angel with the dirty face, or devil?

However this season, he’s also a man on a mission. And one who, increasingly, appears to have a more mature head on his shoulders. But equally, one who is not willing to go too far in compromising what makes him great; for better or worse.
Both sides were evident on Sunday when Atlético Madrid visited Sevilla. It was a daunting test to open the season with. Last season, the clubs clashed four times. Last season also, Diego Costa clashed- quite literally- with half of the Sevilla team. And bench.
But, just as then, so now; when it mattered most it was a test they passed. With flying colours.
And it was Diego Costa who made all the difference with two exquisite goals.
For much of his career, he’s been a journeyman. A rebel without a cause. A thermos-flask head. He made little impact back home in Brazil at youth level, but was spotted by Portugal’s SC Braga back in 2006.
After one successful season on loan at second division Penafiel, Atlético Madrid saw enough to fork out €1.5m to bring him to the Spanish capital. But for years, and over many loan spells, he failed to convince anyone that he was little more than a slightly thuggish young fella with severe anger-management issues.
Indeed, this time last year he didn’t even know which club he’d be playing at, as he alluded to some months back. But this summer, not only did Atleti bat away a £20m bid from Liverpool, they offered him a fat new contract.
“It’s put me in a good frame of mind. It means I’ve been doing my job well, but also that the responsibility’s grown and I’ve got to be ready”.
From being a nobody to being a full Brazil international- who capped him just as he looked set to be called up by Spain- in the space of 18 months, it’s been an incredible turnaround.
It was January of last year that it all began to fall into place.
Costa was sent across town to Rayo Vallecano that transfer window. Nobody had given the club a hope of coming up the season before, and less still gave them a prayer of surviving.
And yet, with the league’s smallest budget they’d made a mockery of all that by entering the winter break in the top half.
It couldn’t last. A succession of losses saw them plummet, and soon they were battling for survival. But along with Michu, Diego Costa’s goals helped them beat the drop by the skin of their teeth on the final day. In his time in Vallecas, the Brazilian netted nine times in sixteen matches.
Last year he was given his chance by Diego Simeone, initially in Europe. By December, he’d made himself an integral part of the side, as Falcao’s foil.
And though his strike rate in the league was a respectable 10 from 31, he finished the season as top scorer in their march to the Copa del Rey title. Combined with the Europa League, he struck 10 in 13 cup appearances.
But the darkness was never too far from the surface. He picked up his fair share of yellow cards, though less than we might think. He also proved adept at getting opponents booked and sent to the stands. He dived at times, but mostly he niggled. A word here, a sneaky punch there.
And worse. Much worse.
Against Sevilla he got under his opponents skin like a rash, drawing a red card in a nasty spiteful encounter. Afterwards, Sevilla’s Geoffrey Kondogbia was incensed, claiming on Twitter that he had been racially abused.
By time the same sides met over two legs in the Copa del Rey semi-final, it had become a running battle. And one which all parties were only too happy to resume last Sunday.
Against Real Madrid in the league he was caught on camera punching, gobbing, abusing, and even surreptitiously flicking spit off his gloves all over Pepe and Sergio Ramos.
Video uploaded by Med Freeman
Amazingly at the final whistle, they all took the old Sepp Blatter diktat. Costa warmly embraced Ramos, before seeking out Pepe for more of the same and said “It’s just football guys. No bother, eh!”
Without going too far down the road of moral relativism, this is sure to appear shocking in our own cultural context in the British Isles. This writer is not going to defend these actions for a minute. Quite the opposite.
But a certain amount of to-and-fro is accepted, or more correctly, more accepted in other parts of the world. The mind boggles at what would result this season had that Liverpool bid been accepted and Costa paired alongside Luís Suárez.
Probably, Suárez would have come off looking the good egg of the pair.
The Suárez parallel is instructive, though only to a point.
Off the field, his colleagues have described him as “a great guy”, “really sweet” and, always in a happy mood”.
Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before. It brings to mind the reflex English managerial defence when a player throws an elbow, or worse, puts in a leg-breaker.
Not that sort of player. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. Helps old ladies across the street in his spare time. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
But it’s true to the extent that we can see it. He comes across as an engaging, matter-of-fact, and well spoken guy not only from this writers’ own personal experience, but from several interviews given this year.
The most recent of those came last week in El País.
It’s been a good pre-season, Costa tells us. “I went home to my town to relax”, he says “had a few kickabouts with my mates outside my aunt’s gaff. They’re pretty handy! They play hard, but they’re also warm and well, like family to me”.
Asked if he’d been taking care of himself, he said he had.
“Yeah, I mean, I ate beans, rice, some meat… you really notice when you arrive back to camp and you’re at your ideal weigh, you hit the ground running. These are things you learn over time and maybe in the past I didn’t help myself.
On the prickly question of his on-field conduct, he insists he’s getting better and that his boss Simeone, who knows a thing or two in this area, has warned him that once the referees have you marked as that kind of a guy, well… one feels the advice may have come a little too late for that.
“Look, I think the refs have been fair with me,” he begins. “and sometimes they’ve had to book me to calm me down”.
“And if you look at the stats, you’ll see I was booked four times in the Europa League and sent off once, but I definitely don’t look and think ‘oh, they could have given me, like, five reds’. No way”.
He continues. “I want to improve, but I won’t change my way of playing either. I’ve never gone in to deliberately hurt someone, that’s important”.
More sinner than sinned against, perhaps? No. Costa would have none of that.
“What’s important is I don’t hurt my team, that I don’t injure an opponent, that I defend my own as they defend theirs. I’ve suffered from going too far and never complained, never will”.
It was put to him that, sometimes he seeks to provoke, and other times he’s been the victim of provocation. But how did he feel looking back on the TV at the infamous spitting incident?
“I know, and though you don’t see [from the reel] who started it, it’s obvious- it [the spitting] was ugly. I won’t deny that for a second” he commenced. “It’s true, but it’s also very easy to say that sitting at home watching all those replays”.
“But on the field, you hear every word. An opponent’s never come up to me and said ‘Oh, Diego, I love you’. You’re always hearing things.”. He goes on. “I’ve been kicked, most times I control myself, others no, and some people can handle that better than others.”
“I know I need to work on that, but if other people know you’re quick-tempered…” he pauses. “Defenders will always look for a fella when they know they can get their goat. I never look for it, but hey, if they come looking for me, they’re gonna find me. But, you have to see who starts it”.
“I will improve on this, I know how I was five years ago and how I am now. I’ve changed and that took a lot of effort”.
Could Atleti go one better this year and split the big two, he was asked. “The gaffer’s given us the right mentality. We’ll get to the end of the season and see what we can do, that’s the idea”.
“If we get near the end, and we’re still in with a shout, then we’ll keep on fighting. When Atleti go for it, we go for it for real. Listen, 90% woulda’ said we couldn’t beat Real in the Cup final, but we’re a unit that knows how to compete.”
Having battled against all odds to claim that cup success, only the foolish would doubt Costa means it when he speaks now.
Whether he can sort out his on-field antics, well. Let’s file that one under ‘remains to be seen’.

21 August 2013

The sinner who became a Saint

A profile on Southampton's colourful new signing for the Irish Examiner print edition

Southampton’s record signing Pablo Osvaldo says he will not make the mistakes his compatriot Mario Balotelli made in the Premier League, says Joseph Sexton
In signing Pablo Daniel Osvaldo for a fee that could reach £15m (€17.5m) with add-ons, Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino has potentially pulled off a real coup for the south coast club. 

But the deal is not without its risks. 

It was under Pochettino’s hand at Espanyol that the Argentina-born Italy striker first began to bloom into a real talent, capable of performing at a high level consistently. But equally ‘Dani’ comes with something of a reputation as a bad egg. 

Pablo Daniel Osvaldo meeting Pope Francis

In recent years, that hasn’t had any great impact on his displays on the field. His initial arrival on loan at Espanyol in January 2010 lifted the club out of a sticky situation. And as Osvaldo alluded to on Monday, the faith shown in by the current Saints manager was crucial in helping him grow as a player. 

A series of enforced sales by Espanyol fatally undermined Pochettino’s later tenure, leading to his departure last November. It would be no exaggeration to say that Osvaldo’s move to Roma in 2011 was chief amongst these. 

Espanyol found his goals hard to replace as well as his ability in leading the line. 

Meanwhile, in Italy, Osvaldo proved to be amongst the better acquisitions of a mixed bag signed in Luís Enrique’s time at Roma. 

His goal return of 28 from 57 games in all competitions represented an improvement from an already impressive ratio at Espanyol. But the forward’s more colourful side also proved deeply problematic at times. 

At Espanyol, he had developed a reputation as a party boy; the football satire show Cráckovia invariably depicted him as something of a goofy Saturday Night Fever caricature. But for the most part, he delivered the goods and was a popular a figure in the dressing room and the stands. 

In Italy, however, that dynamic changed. Luís Enrique is something of a disciplinarian, and friction emerged early on in, as Roma struggled to adapt to the Spanish manager’s methods. 

Perhaps the most infamous such incident followed a November 2011 reverse at Udinese. Osvaldo got into a heated argument with his young Argentine colleague, the flashy former River Plate attacker, Erik Lamela. 

Osvaldo, according to sources, was infuriated at Lamela’s failure to give him the ball during the match. When Lamela ignored him, the incensed Osvaldo shouted “I’m older than you and this isn’t River, so answer me when I talk to you!” 

Lamela countered “Who the hell do you think you are? You’re not Maradona!” Osvaldo is then alleged to have cold clocked him with a punch to the face. Osvaldo denies this part, insisting it was a slap followed by some pushing. 

What is certain is Luís Enrique took a dim view of the matter, fining him maximum possible under Italian league rules — €50,000 — and banned him from the next weekend’s fixture. 

His reputation for partying grew even more notorious in Rome, earning him the wrath of supporters. In their customary fashion, graffiti was daubed on the training ground walls. 

Osvaldo could hardly have made matters worse then by being seen driving around Rome in a Mini festooned with the colours of Napoli — Roma’s fierce rivals — and the image of Maradona, a figure of hate for fans of other Italian sides. 

He also controversially refused to collect his runners-up medal after their Coppa Italia loss to Lazio in May; an act of petulance which saw Cesare Prandelli leave him out of the Confederations Cup squad. 

But what took the biscuit — and largely made this move possible — was the actions of his glamorous girlfriend Jimena Baron, when she took to Twitter last Thursday to bite back at the fans in Spanish. 

After calling them “pathetic fans, jerks” she proceeded to tell them “get a life. Your ignorance and immaturity is painful. You’re so thick you probably can’t even read this”. 

Not content, she went one further in her next tweet. “Here’s a universal sign for you ignorant lot who won’t stop pestering me and my boyfriend. You’ll get this one... kiss it!” 

Attached was a photo off her middle finger extended against a backdrop saying, in English, “F*** you”. 

Naturally, this served to make Osvaldo’s situation at the club untenable. But what Southampton are getting for their money is a talented footballer at a generous price. Quick, strong in the air, and athletic; physically he appears made for the Premier League. Indeed, he could well light it up. 

And as he has made clear he will relish his reunion with Pochettino. It will be intriguing to see how he fits into the manager’s plans. Pochettino generally favours a 4-2-3-1 but this gives him the option of playing two up front in certain games where he could wreak havoc alongside Rickie Lambert. 

However this works out, it’s certain that it’s not going to be boring. 

* Follow Joseph on Twitter @josephsbcn
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