28 September 2011

La Liga: five talking points from the season so far

This article originally appeared on STV's Sports Blog

 The title race is underway and already the season's main narratives are beginning to take shape. What's being talked about at the grounds and in the bars? Here's our briefing on the main stories:

Atleti: a lot done, more to do 

In recent weeks, much attention has been fixed upon Atlético Madrid. New arrivals Diego, Anda Turan and Radamel Falcão García had settled in quickly- very quickly in the case of the Colombian forward.

An industrious display in his first outing against Valencia was quickly followed by goals galore in wins over Celtic, Racing Santander, and Sporting; the latter including a hat-trick, with another chalked off as an own goal following a deflection against Racing. In short, Atlético looked in good shape going into Saturday night’s showdown at the Camp Nou.

Sadly, it was a contest for all of two minutes. Once Thiago smacked the bar, you could smell blood. Within a quarter of an hour they were two down; by full-time it was five.

Lessons can be learned from this defeat. With hindsight, it was suicidal to sit to so deep, leaving Falcão isolated up top. He is more than just a physical presence, and needs players to link up with to be a threat. Instead, Barcelona were allowed to do as they pleased in midfield and Gregorio Manzano never sought to have his team test the home side’s three man backline as Valencia had done so boldly in midweek.

Atleti’s fans have seen too much in the past to get ahead of themselves, but this bruising defeat could help to focus minds and allow the team to make good of their promising opening to the season.

Betis fall but remain on top 

It had to happen some time; in the end it came away to Getafe on Monday night. After falling behind to Diego Castro’s strike half an hour in, Betis had no answer. Yet there is much to be positive about for the newly promoted pace-setters.

Incredibly, they remain top of the league with four wins from five. They have been anything but negative, and positively thrilled at times in getting past Bilbao on matchday three. It would be ridiculous at this early stage to start talking of grander ambitions, but the biggest imperative for this season would have been survival; a return of 12 points gives the Béticos an excellent chance now of retaining their top flight status.

We’ve seen evidence that they can continue to impress, with Jonathan Pereira up front looking a willing and intelligent player. Time will tell.

Bilbao improving but need to start picking up points 

Athletic played out a 1-1 draw with La Liga’s other “crisis” club, Villarreal. Both remain firmly rooted in the lower reaches of the table, with Bilbao just a point off bottom-placed Sporting.

If they need to start picking up wins, a good way to begin might be by keeping eleven on the field; here Borja Ekiza’s two yellows followed on from Venezuela international Fernando Amorebieta’s straight red the week before against Betis. As with the visitors, another side struggling to find their feet, there are signs of improvement.

That defeat the weekend before had been a riot of a game, with Bilbao certainly playing their part. In going down 1-0 to Málaga on Wednesday, they looked a lot more compact and secure in their shape; many sides will travel south and do worse this season.

For now, Marcelo Bielsa retains the trust and patience of the club and its supporters. But this needs to be backed up with some wins, and fast; a reverse in the Basque derby away to Real Sociedad this Sunday lunchtime could leave the emperor undressed.

Let’s talk about Cesc 

It seems like it could hardly have been any other way now. Yet many prophesised that it would be; some scratched their heads. Why would Arsenal’s captain and mainstay be so hell-bent on becoming an expense benchwarmer at Barça? Others still, clinging to a myopic moral high-ground and unwilling to remember just how he’d ended up at Arsenal in the first place seemed to be actively willing his failure.

Cesc Fabregas has shut them all up now; not that many in Spain had ever really doubted him, or his move. It’s not just the critics he’s been shutting up either; last week, he was awarded damages after Sport ran with quotes from an interview which apparently never took place, one in which he trash-talked about his former club. Cesc has far too much class to display such a lack of gratitude and self-awareness.

Whether at the base of the midfield, on the right- even as a withdrawn forward- he’s exuded class on the field. And not just on it. Because if his formative years at La Masia ensured that he would slot into this side with ease, he’s been at pains to remind everyone else of just why he’s excelled to the degree that he has- this he attributes to his years at Arsenal, and Arsene Wenger; his footballing father who gave him his first team debut at 17, and had him running the midfield on their road to the Champions League final at just 19 years of age.

Project Malaga is up and running 

There was moaning, accompanied by moral hand-wringing. There was genuine excitement too. There was even a grudging sense of respect, as real football men like Fernando Hierro and Antonio Fernández, erstwhile Sevilla sporting director, were installed to oversee matters. And who- other than certain odious elements at Marca- has a bad word to say about Manuel Pellegrini?

Then came the inevitable laughter as Málaga’s expensively assembled side came a cropper away to Sevilla on the opening day. But since then, they’ve gone about their business in an impressive, understated manner. This is still a side finding its identity, a collective looking to gel. And now after five rounds of games, they lie in sixth; level on points with Real Madrid, and ahead of Valencia and Atlético. Sunday’s draw against Zaragoza marked another bump in the road, but now attention switches the weekend when we’ll see if they succeed where Madrid failed; away at third-placed Levante.

19 September 2011

Jose Mourinho can moan but Real can only blame themselves

Joseph Sexton rounds up the weekend's Spanish action and finds that small team beats big team is the only tale in town. 
Read the original article here on STV

Mourinho may moan but Real were undone by an impressive Levante side. Pic: © SNS Group
It is preposterous; ridiculous, even. It’s also shocking, but certainly no shock. But Spain, as they saying goes, ‘es diferente’. Nowhere does that ring truer than in football at the present moment.

We should be talking about many things here. What about newly-promoted Granada popping up to claim their first win of the season against Villarreal? What about last night’s stupefyingly entertaining late kick-off at Betis’ Villamarín cauldron? What about Roberto Soldado, who simply can’t stop scoring (even if one of the four he recorded on opening weekend ended up in his own net)?

No, instead we are left with one topic, one which dominates all the dailies, all the chatter on the airwaves today; big team loses to very small team. In most other leagues in the world this would, of course, be news. But not all the news. And certainly not on a weekend like this.

Real Madrid lost to the club with the smallest budget in the league by 1-0. Their opponents, Levante, made the smart move of exercising their option to buy Man City loanee Felipe Caicedo during the summer for €1m. They then sold him on to Lokomotiv Moscow for a five-fold profit. Last year, in a team that had the third best record of any club in the division after the winter break, Caicedo had the best goals per-shots on target ratio of any player in the league. By far.

They also lost their talented coach Luís García to Getafe. And, barring the odd aberration, the maulings being dished out by the big two to the good, the bad, and awful seemed to dictate that Real ought to win this. Even though this was exactly the sort of ground where points dropped had cost them last season’s title. If not a hammering of the sort Barcelona administered to a hapless Osasuna the night before, then at least three points.

Real did not start with a full strength side. But when you have a squad that would make even Manchester City’s look less favourable, both in depth and in talent, this can be no excuse.
Nor can José Mourinho’s tiresome and hypocritical branding of the opposing team as cheats who instigated Sami Khedira’s sending-off. Yes, the sending off is what turned this game. But Real weren’t looking too hot when the Germany midfielder got his marching orders for a second yellow.

The truth is that Real played poorly, and that they can only have themselves to blame; not UEFA, not UNICEF, not the ref. Not one bit. The match statistics bear this out. Leaving aside Real´s hoarding of possession, all else was pretty much equal; remarkably so. Shots, both on and off target; fouls. Right down the list. Except for the only one that matters of course, the final score. And the red card count, obviously.

Real played very badly but Levante played extremely well. Even against 11 men they were competitive. Their breakaway goal from Arouna Koné was a joy to behold. On loan from Sevilla, he’s unlikely to fill Caicedo’s boots. And their new coach, Juan Ignacio Martínez has arguably bigger shoes to fill. But in a league that is likely to be every bit as tight from the European spots down again this season, if not more so than last, they look well equipped to survive; and- who knows?- perhaps even thrive.

Barcelona won 8-0, as you may have heard. Next.

Roberto continues to excel in goal for Zaragoza; he was instrumental in their surprising 2-1 home victory over Espanyol yesterday. This is all the more remarkable given the fact the keeper, whose ill-starred season at Benfica made him a byword for goalkeeping ineptitude of the highest sort at Benfica season; not to mention that, on paper at least, Zaragoza look to be an absolutely awful side. His arrival, on loan, was a particularly murky third-party deal, involving a Dublin-based consortium with Jorge Mendes, Peter Kenyon and Pini Zahavi all on board. If he keeps playing this well, not many Zaragoza fans will care.

Roberto Soldado scored. Again. That’s 5 in 3 for him now this season; his record over the last 17 games is simply obscene. That was enough to see them defeat Sporting, leaving them top of the table on goal difference ahead of… Real Betis.

Real Betis who beat Athletic Bilbao by 3-2 in a game that defied common sense at times. Not just in Marcelo Bielsa’s bizarre positional selections; at least for those who followed El Loco’s remarkably successful stints in charge of the Chilean and Argentine national teams, that is nothing new. But the manner in which the home raced into a two goal lead was exhilarating, leaving Bilbao still looking like a team getting to grips with their new coach’s idiosyncratic footballing philosophy. They were pegged back seven minutes before the break before regaining their cushion with a penalty right on the stroke of it.

A flurry of second half cards saw Alavarez see red for Betis a quarter of an hour from the end, before being joined by Bilbao’s Amorebieta in stoppage team. Both before and in between, Bilbao looked like they might steamroller their hosts. But a Lopez penalty inside the final five minutes wasn’t enough, and although a lot of goodwill and patience still exists for the Argentine coach’s remoulding project of Athletic remains now, one point from nine means that doubts are already beginning to pierce the surface.

Follow Joseph Sexton on Twitter @josephsbcn

Granada 1-0 Villarreal

Mallorca 0-1 Málaga

Sporting 0-1 Valencia

Barcelona 8-0 Osasuna

Sevilla 1-0 Real Sociedad

Getafe 0-1 Rayo Vallecano

Zaragoza 2-1 Espanyol

Levante 1-0 Real Madrid

Athletic Bilbao 2-3 Real Betis

12 September 2011

Will Falcao appease the Atletico fans?

La Liga blog: Joseph Sexton says Atletico Madrid coach Gregorio Manzano has pinned a lot of hopes on his Colombian striker. [More]