06 February 2011

La Liga: Week 12 Review + Week 13 & El Clásico Preview

(This article originally appeared in Back Page Football on November 27th 2010 Round 12 of La Liga saw the top two pull ahead of the chasing pack with large victories on Saturday evening, but it was the earlier encounter between Villarreal and Valencia that saw this pair slip behind which provided the most gripping contest of the week. The host’s manager Juan Garrido refused to shake hands with his counterpart Unai Emery off the field. But on it the latter’s Valencia team came close to having the last laugh until Giuseppe Rossi popped up 17 minutes from time to secure a draw which, on balance, his side’s second-half dominance merited. If the second half was Villarreal’s, then the first belonged to Valencia. Emery’s side employed a three man central defence which stifled the opposing attack. Meanwhile, Joaquín was in menacing form at the other end and it was the former Betis man who laid on the opener for Adrian Aduriz. After the winger cut back a tempting right-hand ball from the byline, Aduriz flicked the ball home despite the attention of three home defenders inside the six yard box. It may have taken a touch off a defender, but it would be churlish to deny the beauty of its execution. Pablo wasted a decent chance to extend his side’s leads two minutes after the break, but his effort sailed over the bar. At this point the price of Emery’s robust strategy was beginning to tell, however. On-loan Borja Valero picked up a yellow card for Villarreal, but the overall foul count stood at a whopping 14-1 for the visitors. Valencia were forced deeper and deeper as the half progressed, practically parked on their own 18 yard line as the game entered the final quarter. But Villarreal were getting little change and their chronic inability to create anything from wide situations suggested that the game might be slipping beyond their grasp. They had a weak penalty shout on the hour mark as Rossi burst through the centre, but the Italy striker appeared to have merely fallen over under minimal contact. Exactly ten minutes later, Nilmar sought to breach the blue lines, but having been forced wide and off balance, his shot lacked the power to really test César Sánchez. But then finally Bruno worked his way into some space on the left flank, curling in a superb ball which Rossi struck beautifully home on the volley to make it 1-1. A packed El Madrigal errupted into pandemonium; now the tide had turned decisively and it was all Valencia could do to hang on until the end. And hang on they did, but only just. Stankevicius was sent-off for a second bookable offence after scything down Santi Cazorla on the left; from the ensuing free, Villarreal might have secured all three points. Meanwhile, a yellow count of 8-2 (and by now, 6-25 in fouls) tells you all you need to know of how perilous the visitors’ position had become. They sought and succeeded to turn the game into a dogfight, and managed to prevail. Late on Cazorla saw a powerful effort saved, and a preposterous dive from Ruben was as good as the hosts could muster as added time drew to a close. Down in Almería, Barcelona ripped their hapless hosts to shred, and 8-0 margin matching the record for an away victory in the division. The opening exchanges proved to be nothing more than a phoney war; David Villa got two bites but failed to open the scoring on seven minutes. Right away, Almería broke and Pablo Piatti had a decent near-post effort saved. That was as good as it got for the hosts. Amidst scene of defensive ineptitude that would make a League 2 side blush, they collapsed spectacularly to find themselves five goals down by the time the game had reached the 37th minute. Lionel Messi’s opener was arguably the pick of the bunch, the Argentine playing a neat one-two with Villa to drill home from outside the area. Iniesta doubled the pain two minutes later, before Acasiete turned the ball into his own net. Another double salvo saw Pedro and Messi extend the lead. At the break Guardiola took advantage of the opportunity to rest Xavi Hernández. Substitute Bojan produced two smart finishes, either side of Messi’s third on the night- his 101st league goal for the club- to compound Almería’s misery. Having effectively been given one final chance to save his job, it was hardly surprising to hear shortly after the conclusion that trainer Juanma Lillo would now be looking for a new one. At the Bernebeu, Real were given a stern test yet still ran out 5-1 winners against Athletic. A preposterous scoreline -given the balance of chances and play, particularly in the opening 45 minutes- but one which underlines the growing menace of Real’s attack under Mourinho as the players gel. Higuaín exposed the visitors’ defensive inadequacies to open the scoring, and Ronaldo scored a fine goal to extend the lead on the half hour. But Fernando Llorente, who has been having a storming season to date, was proving a handful for Carvalho and Pepe. It no surprise when he popped up to head home and bring his side back into the game 5 minutes from the break. Game on, then. Or not, as it transpired. On 57 minutes Real were awarded what has been called in some circles (mostly Basque and Catalan, it should be added) a soft penalty. To the chagrin of Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos stepped up to despatch the kick. But the man they call CR7 in Marca is more the incredible hulk than the incredible sulk these days, and this seemed only to spur him on. The force and swerve which he put on his 62nd minute free kick left Athletic keeper Iraizoz flapping in its wake as the pall pinged home. Maybe not the best of goalkeeping, but it would seem harsh to lay all the blame on the poor man minding the net. A late penalty saw Ronaldo match Messi’s earlier efforts, and reach the landmark of 50 league goals faster than any player in the club’s illustrious history. The most striking result of the weekend was Sevilla’s 2-1 defeat at home to Mallorca, who now tail the Andalusians by just two points. Not a good result for the home side, but a great one for coach Gregorio Manzano’s former club, who never had much love for him during his stint there and have even less since he upped sticks to take on the Sevilla post. Fortress Cornelia is the gift that keeps on giving for Espanyol. Yet another victory at their new fortress, 3-0 over Hercules, sees them move in to the Champions League berth bequeathed by Valencia. Deportivo, meanwhile, moved away from the relegation mire with a 3-0 thumping of Manuel Pellegrini’s Málaga. Levante also did their chances of survival no harm, coasting to a 3-1 victory over fella strugglers Racing Santander. Caceido’s brace for the hosts were the pick of the bunch, and Levante will need him in this form in order to remain in the top division. Elsewhere, Atlético continue to impress, with Forlán, Agüero and Simão all on target as the tonked Real Sociedad 4-2 in San Sebastien. Getafe and Zaragoza rounded off the weekend with a turgid 1-1 draw on Monday night’s graveyard shift. Results: Villarreal 1 Valencia 1 Almería 0 Barcelona 8 Real Madrid 5 Athletic Bilbao 1 Espanyol 3 Hercules 0 Osasuna 1 Sporting 0 Deportivo La Coruña 3 Malaga 0 Levante 3 Racing 1 Sevilla 1 Mallorca 2 Real Sociedad 2 Atlético Madrid 4 Getafe 1 Zaragoza 1 This Weekend All of Spain’s three remaining Champions League sides scored big victories in midweek, but the only talking point was the conduct of Real Madrid in contriving to get Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso sent off for blatant time-wasting late on to wipe their card count ahead of the knockout stages. The sheer, brazen blatancy of it all has forced UEFA’s hand, and now charges have been laid at the players, manager and two further players- Iker Casillas and Jerzy Dudek- who appeared to pass on Mou’s instructions to his charges. The feeling in Madrid is that they might get any potential ban quashed on grounds of precedence; several years back, they found themselves in a similar situation but UEFA enacted no punishment in the end. Probably the most likely outcome here will be a fine, one which Real too will probably try to resist. Going into this coming weekend’s 13th round of fixtures, it would the understatement to end all understatements to say games looms largest above all others; Sporting hosting Real Sociedad in Sunday’s 5pm CET kick off. Okay, all joking aside, we will begin without mentioning the big one for there are several other games worth looking out for. Saturday’s late kick-off see a buoyant Atlético host the ever improving Espanyol. Home form has been the key to the visitors success this season, but one feels that Atlético should prove to be too much for them here. Earlier that day, Sevilla will want desperately to get back to winning ways against a poor Getafe side. Likewise Villarreal; having taking just a point form their last two matches (admittedly, the first of those was at Barcelona) they will be presented with a fine opportunity to do so as they visit Zaragoza. Hércules and Levante on Sunday could prove to be a decent encounter, and neither side will want to cede ground as they sit just two and one point respectively above Málaga in the relegation zone. So here we are then. El clásico. The world’s biggest club game, this time being billed by many as the single biggest club encounter of all time. If only those pesky porteños Boca Juniors and River Plater hadn’t already nicked the title ‘Superclásico’ you’d think they’d have gone for that. Surprisingly, for once, the papers and television people have exhibited some restraint in not plumping for El Super-Dooper-Clásico. Small mercies, and all that. Leaving all the hype aside, this does promise to be something very special indeed. Both sides littered with current world cup holders, ballon d’or winners past, present and almost certainly future. The sheer concentration of talent, the contrast in styles, and the presence of José Mourinho on the sidelines, post-ban, all of this means that it couldn’t be anything less. The sniping began almost immediately. When asked after the Bilbao game for his reaction to Almería’s thumping earlier on, Cristiano Ronaldo said “So Barcelona scored 8? Let’s see them do that next weekend”. Real’s defence has been miserly this season, and Barça’s only marginally less so. Both sides have scored 33 goals; Ronaldo leading the way in the league by 15-13 from Messi. Both sides already have more points than they did at this stage last season, when both went on to smash the previous record haul for a Liga campaign. Mourinho, speaking to the press ahead of the Ajax game said that his had been his best 12 days since joining Real, and he intended this to continue. The temptation in some doom-mongering quarters is to suggest that Real will park the bus, and be content with the 0-0 to see them remain on top. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, and it may well end scoreless, but this writer just doesn’t see it quite panning out that way. Much was made of last season’s Champions League second leg encounter. Necessitated by the expulsion of Thiago Motta, Mourinho’s Inter ceded possession to grind out the narrow defeat which saw them through. But people forget just how good Inter were in the first leg where, after falling behind, they simply blew the visitors away in a powerful, physical and deadly display of counter-attacking football. Last year’s Inter, in terms of the starting XI at least, were a superb team. But there is simply no comparison to be made between the attacking riches Mourinho possesses at Real. Ronaldo is looking unstoppable at present, and Angel di Maria has settled quickly and produced some sparkling football. Pipita Higuáin is scoring goals, and most importantly looking confident. Speaking to Newstalk 106’s Off The Ball, Graham Hunter suggested that it might be a possibility for Real to withdraw the effervescent Mesut Ozil, in order to beef up the midfield. This would make sense as Real will need to cut off the patterns weaved by Iniesta and Xavi in the engine room if they are to be able to bring their own stellar attack into play. Certainly, all the talk from Madrid, from the club and the press is that they feel ready to go to the Camp Nou and win. There will be goals in this one for sure. I’m going to put my neck out and go with the same prediction I made in my local cervesería’s sweepstakes- a 2-2 draw. So there you have it then, a nil-all snore-fest is what we’ll probably get. Fixtures: Saturday: Zaragoza v Villarreal (18:00 CET) Sevilla v Getafe (20:00 CET) Atlético Madrid v Espanyol (22:00 CET) Sunday (17:00 CET, unless stated otherwise) Hércules v Levante Mallorca v Málaga Racing Santander v Deportivo La Coruña Sporting Gíjon v Real Sociedad Athletic Bilbao v Osasuna (19:00 CET) Valencia v Almería (21:00 CET). On, and of course, Monday: Barcelona v Real Madrid (22:00 CET) Follow me on Twitter here.

La Liga Round-Up: Week 11

9This article originally appeared in Back Page Football on November 15th 2010. ) The most eagerly awaited match-up of the 11th round of games in La Liga took place at Camp Nou on Saturday night, with champions Barcelona hosting a Villarreal side in a rich vein of form. This writer was left faced with one of life’s more pleasant dilemmas; to cut the tale short, the lure of seeing up and coming New York hipsters The Drums won out, which means we won’t be focussing on the Blaugrana’s 3-1 victory in any depth. But happily Sunday’s encounter between Real and struggling Sporting Gijón, against the odds and all semblance of logic, turned out to be a cracker of a game with plenty of talking points. As the suspended José Mourinho glared down from the stands, Real, individually and collectively, appeared to fall back on some of their worst habits of recent years. But the manager will surely have cracked a wry smile as his side did what Mourinho sides always do; somehow, when the game and decisions appeared to conspiring against them, their determination saw them literally (note- not ‘literally’ in the Jamie Redknapp sense of word!)scramble over the line and win when the possibility of a humiliating defeat appeared palpable. It wasn’t sexy. It wasn’t pretty. And a sulking Cristiano Ronaldo, whose only tangible contribution to the game aside from one moment of sheer brilliance was to incite the crowd in the aftermath of Alberto Botía’s injury time expulsion, cut a figure more akin to his infuriating 2004 vintage than that of the behemoth we’ve become accustomed to seeing in Real’s colours. Equally, Gonzalo Higuaín, who ludicrously transpired to be the match-winner appeared to be having one of those days which leaves the meringues’ faithful throwing their sunflower seeds to the ground in disgust, muttering all manner of obscenities; and seasoned followers of his precociously talented but at times strikingly ineffective compatriot Angel di María, would have read all the signs and felt this wasn’t going to be Real’s day. Ozil was below par too. But as it was, and with the exception of Ronaldo, the men in white refused to be dispirited and emerged victorious after a mammoth effort from the Rojiblancos. It could have been very different. Aitor Karanka, the special one’s assistant, prowled the technical area with all the menace of a frightened chihuahua. Mourinho grimaced behind the tinted glass of the directors box, at one point flicking a v sign towards the home support. The outstanding Gastón Sangoy, who gave Marcelo a torrid evening on the right flank might have had the presence of mind to centre the ball on instead of blasting wide early in the second half. Moments later, Higuaín had a perfectly good goal ruled out for offside. But it was hard to find fault with Sangoy later in the half. From the same position, advancing in from the right wing, his low effort blazed just inches wide of Casillas’ far post. The contrast between the Catalan and Madrid presses’ reaction was depressingly predictable. The Barcelona dailies recalled last weeks war of words between the two managers. ‘Ganada Canalla’, the insult directed at Mourinho as Manolo Preciado finally lost his temper at Mourinho’s constant provocations, ran the headline in Sport. It’s an antiquated term, but probably best translated as villain. A villainous victory. The Madrid press, not surprisingly emphasised the positives, the winning mentality Mourinho has brought to the club. But perhaps Mou should choose his battles more carefully in future; after accusing Sporting of rolling over against Barcelona, they played out of their skins last night. The game was intriguing. Aside from the level of technique on display, it resembled an exciting Premiership contest. Sporting out-Mourinhod Madrid when not in possession, squeezing the space and cutting off the more dangerous passing options. But they weren’t content just to sit back; every time a Madrid attack broke down, they looked to get the ball forward quickly. But for a lack of guile in the final third, they might easily have broke the deadlock. Meanwhile Madrid were equally manful in trying to initiate rapid counter-attacks. Juan Pablo, perhaps unfairly blamed in some quarters for his part in the night’s only goal performed heroics. Higuaín was thwarted on several occasions, and a rasping di María effort early in the second half was turned behind for a corner. At the other end, Casillas dropped a clanger and played a near-suicidal pass to Carvalho with a Sporting forward bearing down on the Portuguese. It was end to end stuff, and the fun didn’t end when the goal finally came. It was the introduction of the much maligned Karim Benzema for di María that proved to be the catalyst. Moments after arriving, he tested Juan Pablo with a rasping drive from distance. Later he was penalised for handball whilst trying to create an opening for his team-mates, although the ball appeared to strike his shoulder. It appears Mourinho’s harsh words earlier this season about the young Frenchman are beginning to pay dividends. On 82 minutes, Sergio Ramos swung a cross into the box from the right; the sort of cross which had thus far been meat and drink to the Sporting defence. But Benzema rose above his marker at the far post and powered a header towards the goal. Juan Pablo got a strong hand to it, but it wasn’t enough. With the ball already trickling over the goal-line, Higuaín stole the Frenchman’s glory by prodding home. The the fun wasn’t over yet. Barral went close with a header with Casillas grateful to hear the referee’s whistle after he made a pigs ear of collecting the ball. Immediately Higuaín threatened on the counter, but this time the assistant was justified in raising his flag. Ronaldo, who had resorted at times to kicking opponents in frustration- on one occasion, winning a free when a card for the Portuguese would have been more appropriate- drew a foul from Botía deep in injury time. It was cynical and late, the sort of tackle that might merit a yellow in Britain but is generally worth a red in those parts of the world where referees don’t take an á la carte approach to FIFA directives. But his reaction, all pumped fists and beating of chest was a display of motivation conspicuously absent in his preceding 93 minutes on the pitch. In the end, Real closed the game down. Immediately after the goal, Higuaín made way for Lassana Diarra and shortly afterwards Ozil was replaced by Arbeloa. Casillas and assorted Madrid players drew the ire of the home side by taking the proverbial in wasting time at every opportunity, which the referee deigned not to sanction. It had been a marvellous game, particularly in the second half. But, although Mourinho may have been in the stands the late substitutions were true to his instincts and Real closed the deal expertly. It was a hell of a battle. The final statistics showed possession and goal chances to be more or less even, But with just two weeks to go to El Clásico Madrid remain one point ahead of Barça. And for the first time in Pep Guardiola’s tenure, they can justifiably dream of victory, But more on that later. As for Barça, this writer’s temptations to attend were tempered somewhat by the uncertainty of what would transpire. Would Villarreal give it a real go for thirty minutes but end up shipping three or four? In the end they did ship three, but the game was closer than one might have feared. Villa gave Barça the lead on 22 minutes, only for Nilmar to equalise 4 minutes later. Messi and Xavi were imperious throughout, but it took 58 minutes for the Argentine to restore the home side’s lead. A comeback by the visitors still remained a possibility, but Messi finally settled the crowd’s nerves with an 83rd minute strike. Ronaldo’s hot-streak may have cooled this weekend, but the Argentine’s show no signs of slowing. Elsewhere, Hercules secured the points with an impressive comeback at home to Real Sociedad. David Trezeguet turned back the clock to produce a classic finish to level matters just after the break. On 51 minutes, Royston Drenthe struck a belter of a free kick which proved to be the decider. But the game was marred by sad scenes at pitch-side later on when a ballboy collapsed. With the well documented spate of deaths due to SADS and near death experiences in Spanish football in recent times in unprecedented numbers, people feared the worst initially. Thankfully, it transpired that the ballboy had suffered an epileptic fit, and has recovered. Mallorca v Malaga and Racing v Espanyol proved to be bore draws, with Espanyol indebted to keeper Kameni’s penalty save to secure a point. Alavaro Negredo paid back a chunk of his hefty transfer fee to net a last minute winner for a ten-man Sevilla at Zaragoza. Costa scored a stunning opener as Valencia ran out 2-0 winners against Getafe at the Mestalla. The story of the week has really been the war of words before and after the game between José Mourinho and his counterpart Preciado. As Sid Low’s piece which has just gone live on the Guardian’s football site deals fantastically with this entertaining fiasco, we’ll skip that here. But the other main talking points of the week were the rather suspicious happenings at FIFA, where, already under a cloud of suspicion over alleged collusion, the president of the Spanish Football Federation was seen to pass a note to his Qatari counterpart reading ‘Congratulations’ and ‘Hemos ganado’. – “We won!”. Needless to say, both deny that there was anything untoward in this, and in truth the story has barely been mentioned in the spanish press. Finally, the upcoming clásico has been moved to Monday due to the Catalan elections taking place on the Sunday of that week, the originally scheduled date. “We’re going to have up to 80,000 volunteers working for us that day, many of them Barcelona fans”, said a local Politco, understatedly. “It wouldn’t be fair to deny them to chance to see this game”. Quite right. Other results: Athletic Bilbao 1 Almeria 0 Atlético Madrid 3 Osasuna 0 Malaga 1 Levante 0 (Manuel Pellegrini’s first win at his new post, courtesy a a wonderful strike from Eliseu) Follow me on Twitter here.

This Blog has been dead for long enough!

Sorry folks, I stopped posting my articles here quite some time ago. And then, for a while, whilst studying abroad, I just stopped writing full stop. I'm back on the saddle now, and have been covering Spanish football for a variety of outlets. Principally, I am the Spanish Football correspondent for Back Page Football I also write for two other blogs: 90 Minutes Plus Injury Time; And soon, the new site of the vagabond and much-travelled ex-Arsenal player, Rohan Ricketts, Column 10. In addition, I've recently guested on the United States' number one daily Soccer radio and podcast show, World Football Daily. And as far now, I'm going to bring this blog up to date with what I've been writing lately, plus my spot on World Football Daily.