27 December 2012

Spanish Inquest: Season to date

My column on Eircom SportsHub

Obafemi Martins' goals have been key to Levante's continued success

We’re almost at the turn of the season in Spain, as as La Liga’s footballers tuck in their festiveturrones during the Christmas break, another exciting year in Spanish football draws to a close.

After 17 games, matters are taking shape. Barcelona have obliterated the previous best start to a season and their coronation seems inevitable. While they speed away into the horizon, at the bottom last season’s Segunda champions Deportivo appear to be headed into oblivion.

Levante continue to defy the odds, and despite all the off the field upheaval and downsizing of their playing budget, Málaga are flying. Their attack is more fluid and mobile while at the back, only Juventus and Bayern have conceded fewer in the four major European leagues.

Mallorca’s excellent start is a distant memory, with their weekend win over Real Betis being their first in over three months. Betis themselves have arguably been the surprise package of the season, but last season’s double cup finalists Athletic Bilbao have struggled to get out of second gear.

Perhaps more so than Betis, the lack of managerial casualties has been this season’s most striking fact. With almost everyone struggling financially, there has been an outbreak of common sense and realism among club hierarchies

Only two coaches have departed their posts; the league’s longest serving incumbent, Mauricio Pochettino left strugglers Espanyol in November, with his compatriot and namesake Pellegrino getting the sack at Valencia, who have paid the price for failing to renew Unai Emery’s contract.

Despite the incredible numbers they’ve posted, it hasn’t been all plain sailing for Barcelona. With April’s clásico ending their title challenge last term, the Super Cup seemed to confirm that Real finally had their number. It’s hard recall a chasing of the order of that they endured in the second leg, where Real’s two goal lead after 20 minutes ought to have been four.

They got out of jail in week two against an Osasuna side who’ve been mired in the relegation spots. Unable to call upon several stalwarts at the back, they leaked goals from set pieces and open play in the Autumn. But if they’ve been strangely vulnerable, going forward they’ve been relentless and it’s made for a thrilling spectacle.

Guilty of tactical tinkering and over-elaboration at times last year, there’s been a subtle change in emphasis. We’ve seen the return of more orthodox wing play, and an urgency meaning they’ve been more direct than at any time since Guardiola’s first season.

They titilated us in nearly letting big leads slip, and produced a stunning comeback from two behind to Sevilla in October Real. That Jordi Alba has slotted in perfectly isn’t a huge surprise, but on the other flank Dani Alves has faced stiff competition from Marc Bartra and Adriano. Cesc Fábregas has been the greatest beneficiary of their stylistic shift, offering an element of verticality and unpredictability to their hypnotic passing rhythms.

And of course, there’s Lionel Messi, for whom there are no superlatives left.

Real by contrast have looked a shadow of themselves, labouring as those long-suspected divisions in the camp have been confirmed. Down in points, down in terms of position, down even in goals from Ronaldo; they’ve lost that manic intensity and teams have learned how to frustrate an increasingly blunt and predictable attack.

At this stage of the season gone by, Ángel Di Maria topped the assist charts with 13. This year, he’s only got one, with Karim Benzema leading the way on five.

It seems fitting that Málaga became the latest to put the hurt on them at the weekend. Not just because Pellegrini was torn to pieces as José Mourinho’s predecessor, but also because of his intelligent adjustment to new financial realities. Incredibly, they’ve looked a far better side this time round and coasted undefeated through their Champions League group- the first debutants to do so.

Whether they’ll be back next season is unclear, but they will contest Friday’s UEFA verdict in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Levante have also taken like a duck to water in their maiden Europa League campaign, and yet they’re still right up there domestically. Once again, they sold their top scorer- and again, they’ve found a replacement, this time Obafemi Martins. All of this with the division’s oldest squad and second smallest budget- at what point does this cease to be an aberration?

History counsels against making such statements, but Atlético look to be the real deal. With a weaker squad on paper, they’ve gotten better and better; much like Radamel Falcao, now indisputably the world’s best number 9.

They might have lost their manager, not to mention Michu, but Rayo Vallecano are far removed from the foot of the table with their swashbuckling style. Newly promoted Valladolid have brought a similar fearlessness to the party.

The other promoted pair, fierce rivals Celta and Depor have fared less well. The latter, the latest Jorge Mendes colony in the league, remain rooted to foot of the table and €98m in debt. Celta are three points better off and look better equipped to survive, though the potential move of their top scorer Iago Aspas to Swansea could hurt them far more than the mooted €12m fee would boost them financially.

But again, the league remains incredibly tight. Nobody is adrift, most side still harbour valid European hopes. Few remain safe either; only 11 points separate 6th from 16th, with 14th placed Sevilla a point ahead of Espanyol in 18th. This is nothing new, and if we’ve learned anything from recent years, it’s that the picture may look dramatically different come the season’s end.


21 December 2012

Spanish Inquest: No Mour' to give

My Eircom SportsHub column

Joseph Sexton

It's hard to imagine that José Mourinho has faced a tougher week during his 12 years in the management game. Speculation about his position over the last fortnight had simmered away. Having delegated press conference duty to his deputy, Aitor Karanka, it fell to Florentino Pérez to bat away questions, insisting that the full term of his extension to 2016 would be served.
“We have the best manager in the world, yet he's had to endure unjust attacks and insults, even ones that cross the line and strike at his personal dignity. He's led us to the league and already this year the Super Cup, and has my gratitude”.
But there is no smoke without fire when the Madrid press openly question any Real manager's future, and the cup defeat away to Celta saw matters come to a head between Mourinho and his bete noire.
On Saturday, he was back on duty for the pre-match press conference. Not a particularly memorable one, but what was to follow was pure dynamite.
Antón Meana is a journalist with Radio Marca, and once the conference came to a close he was asked to step into the club's press office by one of their press chiefs to meet with the goalkeeping coach, Silvino Louro. After the Celta game, he intimated on air that his sources in the dressing room had told him that Louro was widely seen as Mourinho's 'spy' by the players.
When Meana entered, there was Mourinho alongside Louro. Meana offered his hand to Mourinho who refused it and instead began to berate him, 'shouting in thick Portuguese, which I couldn't understand properly', as he recounted in print on Sunday.
Meana tried to bat back, but Mourinho continued to rage. “Don't you dare question my honour... In the footballing world my people are top people but in the world of journalism, you're a piece of shit”.
Meana defended his sources, with Mourinho going through Louro's resume 'point by point'. Challenged to name his sources, he refused stating that although 'it's a matter of opinion rather than fact, I don't need to run it by them again because I trust them completely.'
“They tell me you're a real son of a bitch” continued Mourinho “and a bad person, but rather than take that as given I think something else. You're anti-Real, anti-Mourinho, and your 'questions' are all about stirring shit. As long as I'm manager here I'll continue to respect you, but once I'm gone you'll be just another Joe on the street”
The conversation went on over half an hour, with Mourinho continuing to impugn the sources. Perhaps most striking was his admission that that three of his own players were disposed to leaking negative news.
“Let's assume what you're saying is true - for me it isn't - but let's anyway; is this news? You take it as gospel? We've got 21 players who get on great with Silvino, me, all the staff, but then there's three black sheep trying to fuck the group. It's easy for you, you only have to go on the radio and toss out a few phrases to stir up all of this”
Meana initially agreed to keep the conversation private but many other journalists had overheard the ruckus. On Radio Onda Cero, he said that once he met those waiting outside the story had already entered the public domain for him, and one of the other panellists on the show confirmed he'd witnessed it all.
This strain with the press isn't new. While he may have had the English media eating out of his hand, his relationship in Italy swiftly grew confrontational, where he likened their criticisms to 'intellectual prostitution' at Inter.
That sense of him against them has only heightened in the Spanish capital, where those he's faced have proved similarly immune to his charms. There was last season's vow of silence during the run in, and one well-known Madrid based writer was only half kidding when he described the experience of dealing with the Special One as being 'terrifying' at times.
There's been the well-documented splits in the camp, where a bust up with Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas made the headlines in January. It's also long been reported that rival cliques have formed, leaving the Spanish & Portuguese speaking players at odds.
How much this has affected matters on the field is open to debate, but they've already dropped more points than in the whole of last season. They've also failed to maintain the staggering intensity and unity of purpose that marked their pursuit of the title last season.
That said, the challenge of maintaining such impossibly high standards also proved beyond Barcelona last term.
Then there's been their comic book inability to defend set pieces, which is impossible to square with our conceptions of Mourinho teams. Take your pick of any number, but Manucho netted two for Valladolid a couple of weeks back off the back of this defect and Espanyol's late equaliser on Sunday was Keystone Kops stuff.
Everywhere he's been, Mourinho has tried to pick fights and Madrid's been no different. Internally, he had Pérez's long-time lieutenant Jorge Valdano booted out, a man with a lot of friends among the press corps. Little wonder that they're going to town on him now, right down to sensationalising pictures of the players' seating arrangements at the club's Christmas do this week.
None of this is unusual. Plenty of pages need filling, and many copies sold. On Saturday they travel to Málaga, whose manager Manuel Pellegrini knows a thing or two about the brutal side of capital's press. Ever the gentleman, he's refused to twist the knife, even though Mourinho was more than happy to stick the boot into him when these sides met in April 2011.
“It's not for me to judge Mourinho. We're not taking the game like this, we're not preoccupied about what happens at Real. I'm very grateful to all the players I had when I was boss there because even though they knew I was on borrowed time by December we still had a great season”
Perhaps by now Mourinho is also a dead man walking. With the league gone and attention already on the Champions League and the obsession of claiming la décima, only a 10th European crown would give him the satisfaction of having the last laugh as he rides off to his next adventure.

Original Article here on Eircom SportsHub

06 December 2012

Spanish Inquest: Riches to rags

Column for Eircom Sports Hub

Joseph Sexton

Tuesday saw Champions League debutants Málaga close out their impressive group campaign with a 2-2 draw against Anderlecht. As entertaining as the match was, the hard work was long since done. Already assured of top spot, they join Spain's other three entrants in the draw for the first knockout phase.

Málaga's colourful support want to keep on living the dream

The way they've taken this competition in their stride has been most unexpected. True, they had the fortune to face a Milan side in crisis and a Zenit under the cloud of a civil war, but then they've had troubles of their own to surmount.
They lost their best player in the summer, and their best striker has yet to take the field. And behind the scenes sporting director Fernando Hierro, recruited from the national federation to add a veneer of footballing respectability to the 'project', also walked before the season got underway.
Not that you'd know it given the ease with which they progressed. They won their first three games, and didn't concede a goal until the fourth; their sixth in all, including qualifiers. But they've been on a wretched run domestically since sealing their passage, as Tuesday's goalscorer Duda alluded to on Spanish radio.
“We needed a game like that be reminded of how well we can play at this level.” Asked how it felt to go through in top spot, the Portuguese was a little more coy. “We've demonstrated that we were the best team here. But we don't think about the seeding now. The important thing is to be there in the mix.”
It's been a rollercoaster ride everywhere if not on the field itself. At the start of last season, the sky seemed the limit. First, there were the transfers, an eminently sensible mixture of experience and promise. On the technical side, they looked to building the foundations of future stability. Many grew giddy in anticipating that one day maybe — just maybe — they might even be capable of challenging the big two for league titles.
From above too, common sense seemed to be the watchword. Rather than place unnecessary pressure on the coach Manuel Pellegrini, the explicit aim was to reach the Europa League places. But as they closed in on a Champions League place ahead of schedule in the spring, it all started to fall apart.
It was in April the first rumblings that something was amiss emerged. Their marquee signing Santi Cazorla let it out that wage payments were behind, and throughout the summer it looked as if their billionaire backer Abdullah Al Thani was getting cold feet.
Speculation mounted that he was looking to offload the club, but instead he offloaded the family jewels. Cazorla moved to Arsenal for a fee reportedly lower than that which saw him join from Villarreal the summer before; a figure which Pellegrini decried as a 'theft'.
But here's the curious thing about Cazorla. If his worth can be amply stated in Villarreal going from fourth to relegation in the time it took for Málaga to go from near-relegation to the Champions League, his move to Arsenal has produced a peculiar result. Both sides appear to have improved as a result.
That's not to do the little magician a disservice, for he was arguably the best player in Spain's other La Liga last season — the La Liga where those outside the rarefied world of Barcelona and Real Madrid operate. But in his absence the excellent Isco has moved centre stage. If he was a relative unknown prior to this season then equally it's certain that clubs across Europe will have noted his current €15m buyout clause.
As important, of course, has been Pellegrini himself. A shrewd and urbane figure, he's guided them from the foot of the table to their current lofty station. José Mourinho's been taking a kicking this week from the Madrid based press, but that's nothing compared to what Pellegrini endured there. As they call for a more gentlemanly figure to bring more attractive football, the fact is the man who offered both wasn't spared as they queued up to throw rocks.
Back in Málaga, the situation remains delicate. Their recent slump hasn't significantly hurt their hopes of making Europe's premier competition again, the financial side is still in flux. The squad remains short on numbers and while Al Thani has promised to reduce the club's debt, he also wants a cut in running expenses. Having been away for so long, his recent visit before November's game against Rayo ironically coincided with the downturn in form.
But that said, with no continental distractions until February they look set to motor on. The sense of togetherness fostered amongst their ranks has stood them well, just as the prize money from Europe should allow for limited restrengthening in the transfer window. The overblown dreams of the grand project may be gone, but for now their supporters must still feel that they're living the dream.

Original article here on Eircom SportsHub

30 November 2012

Spanish Inquest: Derby daze

A preview of the Madrid derby for Eircom Sports Hub

Diego Simeone plotting Real's downfall

It's a scenario few would have envisaged at the start of the season. The Madrid derby has always been a massive fixture. A win will see Atlético move 11 points clear of Real. But in the thirteen years since they last beat their uptown neighbours, it's had a certain air of inevitability about it too; and its this trend they'll be looking to buck.
Thirteen years seems like an eternity to the colchoneros' long-frustrated supporters, and a glance at the principal actors that day only emphasises this. With both clubs struggling, John Toshack stood in the home dug-out at the Bernabéu with Claudio Ranieri his opposite number. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was the hero, netting twice in a 3-1 win. But despite the Dutchman hitting 23 league goals that season, Atlético suffered the humiliation of relegation. Real went on to win the Champions League.
That underlines the gulf between the galaxies which these great rivals inhabit. The inherent instability and chronic mismanagement that is synonymous with the red and whites can be also be illustrated by the fact that, while, Manchester United have had one manager in the last 26 years Atlético have had over 50 — including those returning only to be booted out again.
That might seem a harsh standard to measure against in a week where, following Mauricio Pochettino's departure from Espanyol, José Mourinho became the league's longest serving incumbent. But it's a fair picture of the situation under two successive generations of the Gil family.
The current Gil at the club, Ángel Miguel Gil-Marin, son of the infamous Jésus, isn't even on speaking terms with the president Enrique Cerezo. When it became clear 11 months ago that then coach Gregorio Manzano had to go, the indecision in giving him the marching order typified this institutional dysfuction. Neither could agree on a successor, so a compromise candidate was chosen. By accident rather than design, in came Diego Simeone.
In some ways it was an obvious choice for that craven pair. A club legend, having won the league and cup double in his playing days at the Vicente Calderon, his appointment muted supporter discontent. But many questioned his coaching credentials.
These doubts were amplified by the fact that he'd never stuck around long enough in any post. He won the title with Estudiantes and River Plate in his native Argentina. But he also left the latter bottom of the table, essentially initiating the run that led to their first-ever relegation.
He flopped at San Lorenzo, but managed to keep Catania up in Serie A. He quit that post citing a desire to return to Buenos Aires, where he was installed at Racing Club. A back to basics approach led the Avellaneda side to within a whisker of the title, founded upon a miserly defence which broke the previous record for fewest goals conceded. They were only denied by a grim Boca side who conceded even fewer — just six to Racing's eight over the 19 game tournament.
But this safety-first style split critical opinion, with many doubting whether there was more to Simeone's repertoire. He relied heavily on the creative genius of Giovani Moreno and the maverick Téo Gutiérrez to make good upon an ultra-defensive approach. This minimalist manour of instilling discipline was the mark of his initial days in his current post.
But there's been more, much more. Over the course of his tenure, the style has evolved. If Atlético defend as a team, they also attack as a team in a manner that brings to mind Helenio Herrera's Inter sides. In the transition, they always seem to have options moving forward while invariably having cover against quick breaks. This stylistic shift could be seen last spring when only a moment of genius from Lionel Messi condemned them against Barcelona.
Then there are the records. When Atlético won the Europa League in 2010, they only won three games. In the course of winning that trophy last season under Simeone through to this season's progression to the knockout phase, they've set a new record for consecutive games won in European competition. And in that time, they've enjoyed their best ever start to a La Liga season. Barcelona, three points ahead, would break the all-time record with a win over Bilbao this weekend.
By any numerical measures, el Cholo has been an outstanding success. But whereas the numbers didn't add up for some — and indeed were used as a stick to beat him with — at Racing, it's in those unquantifiable areas where Simeone has really excelled. The summer transfer window left Atlético with a weaker squad than last season given that the club couldn't retain playmaker Diego nor Eduardo Salvio. They've taken that blow in their stride, moving the excellent Arda Turan into a more central role where the Turk has prospered.
All of this is good and well. Real have failed to match the incredible intensity they showed last season when they broke all records in halting Pep Guardiola's Barcelona from equalling the original dream team's run of four straight titles under Johan Cruyff. The criticism of their struggles this season, typified in a Marca polemic this week entitled 'The 11 excuses of José Mourinho', illustrates the level of expectation placed upon the meringues. But the fact that they remain odds on favourites for this derby offers a reminder that an Atlético win would be a serious upset.
This is fair. Despite their travails at home, Real have progressed from a fiendishly difficult Champions League group with reasonable comfort. On paper, there is a huge discrepancy in talent available. Whereas Mourinho is amongst the most exalted coaches in the game, Simeone professed his admiration of the Portuguese in Friday's press conference. What on the surface could be construed as mind-games is also a simple admission of fact.
It's said that form goes out the window on derby day. This is often tosh, demonstrably so too, but a certain mental edge, borne of history, bears down upon this clash. Regardless of form or fitness Atleti have repeatedly frozen on this occasion. Even when they haven't, they've come unstuck. Last season a super-human Cristiano Ronaldo display distorted the reality of Real's 4-1 win, just as in February 2005 a display of sheer fecklesness in front of goal eerily presaged the hollowed-out shell that Fernando Torres would one day become.
But there's a difference this time too. Should the inevitable occur, Atleti will still be five points ahead of Real, far ahead of where they expected to be and with few rebukes. For Real, the stakes remain impossibly high — anything less than a victory will deliver a knockout blow to their title hopes — and see the sharpening of critics' pens all over the city.

Original article here on EIRCOM SportsHub

22 November 2012

Spanish Inquest: The Trouble in Bilbao

My Eircom SportsHub column

Athletic Bilbao won many admirers in their thrilling run to last season's Europa League final. But defeat to Lyon a fortnight ago rendered their hopes of passing the group stage near impossible this time round.

On Thursday, they were due to face Israeli champions Ironi Kriyat Shmona but given the current tensions there, UEFA postponed the tie. We can only speculate as to how this game might have panned out, but one thing we can safely say is that Fernando Llorente would have started on the bench.

Fernando Llorente banished from the training pitch by Marcelo Bielsa

Back in the spring, Athletic had become the toast of footie hipsters everywhere. Under Marcelo Bielsa their relentless energy, daring, and desire to play the game in the opposing half produced spectacular football; and spectacular results, too.

Llorente was the focal point, the line-leader whose aerial presence offered that extra dimension in attack. Perhaps more than any other player, he was the club icon. Now he's found himself in the role of the outcast.

That's a great shame.

We all know now how the story ended for Bilbao; in heartbreak. As much as the wonderful football of the spring, it's the tears of Iker Muniaín that stand out. Tears that flowed following their 3-0 defeat to Atlético Madrid in the Europa League final which were repeated when they went down by same margin against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey decider. It was an image betrayed by a sense of devastation borne of knowing they might never come so close again.

Bilbao didn't just end the season devastated - they were decimated. There's a price to pay for the intensity Bielsa demands, and with such a short squad Bilbao were simply dead on their feet for the final six weeks. Their league form collapsed, scuppering hopes of a Champions League place. Their stars played no part in the national team's Euro success, being consigned to the bench or left out altogether due to exhaustion and injury.

Llorente has had many suitors in recent years without any moves coming to fruition. When he and Javi Martínez made clear their desire to leave in the summer, they became the target of abuse from the fans. The president, Josu Urrutia refused to sanction their sale. Martínez, much coveted by Barcelona, only moved to Bayern after the Germans activated his enormous release clause. Yet despite entering the final year of his deal, sizeable offers for Llorente were rejected.

It was hard to see who this situation benefited, and three months into this season it's even less clear. A sale might have banked upwards of €25m and while it's true that Bilbao are not financially stretched, they are in the process of building a new stadium. Their Basque-only policy, however much its credibility is stretched at times, limited their scope for replacing him. Better then, perhaps, to hang on to him for another season. But in 14 games this season, Llorente has started just once, in the Copa del Rey.

Not only has the striker fallen foul of the president. The relationship with Bielsa had already broken down. A constant drip of rumours, spin, audio and then finally video footage of Llorente being banished from the training field by the Argentine has attested to this.

In short, the situation has become as tedious as it is pointless. Yet just when it seemed matters couldn't get any more ridiculous, they did just that earlier this week. On Monday, Llorente failed to turn up to speak to the written press after the training. Immediately, the club chose to publicise this via Twitter, stating that he had refused to do so. The player himself had a different take on matters.

In fact, he had already been due to talk to Telebilbao and had only been asked to present himself to the scribes at the last second. “They told me as I was about to leave training, and I didn't have time. I can't be in two places at once. I have no problem speaking to them on another day.”

The only silver lining in this mess is that in his absence Aritz Aduriz - signed from Valencia in the summer - has been in excellent form, chipping in with eight goals to date. The other, though it feels like an anomaly given the cloud over the club, is the contrast with their domestic performance at this time last year. Indeed, going into last weekend's spanking at the Bernabéu their points haul was identical.

A yellow card in that game means Aduriz will sit out this week's clash with Deportivo. With the new man short on fitness for the season's opener, Bielsa went with goal-shy Gaizka Toquero from the offset. As stubborn as he is, it will be intriguing to see he elects to overlook Llorente here once more.

Two wins prior to the Real game has kept Athletic clear of the relegation fight for now, and within striking distance of the European spots. Juventus have been monitoring the forward's situation, and remain hopeful of luring him in the January transfer window. The club insists that the remainder of his contract will be honoured. But surely a speedy divorce would be in the best interests of all parties at this point.


15 November 2012

The trouble with the reign of Spain

My Eircom SportsHub Column

It's a complaint voiced all too often in the modern age. From club managers and pundits on to the supporters who vote with their feet; international friendlies, what's the point? Not everyone buys into this line, but the Spanish Federation, the RFEF, continues to pour petrol on the critics' fire like few others.

On Wednesday night, we were treated to the Zlatan show in Stockholm. In New Jersey, Brazil were testing themselves against a rapidly improving Colombia. Holland v Germany never quite lived up to its billing, but where were the World and European Champions?
In Panama.

It's worth asking what they were doing there.

Pedro in action for Spain against Panama

Ostensibly, they were competing for the Copa del Quinto Centenario. The what? Exactly. The Panamanian federation organised this to mark the 500th anniversary of Spain's conquistadores reaching the Pacific Ocean. Spain played their part to perfection by trampling all over the natives.

Trophy or not, this was just the latest in a line of questionable friendlies laid on by the RFEF since they conquered the world back in 2010. The players' reward for their historic achievements in South Africa was an August friendly in Mexico City before the season had even begun, to the fury of fans who wanted to see their heroes in action closer to home. A month later, an ill-starred jaunt to Buenos Aires saw them mauled at the hands of Argentina.

At least the argument could be made that this represented quality opposition, even if the interest levels of the players appeared questionable. But since then, matters have sunk into farce. Spain have taken the mantle of Brazil as the embodiment of the beautiful game, but their grand tour of meaningless exhibition games is outdoing even the worst of the Samba boys in the early Nike days.

Venezuela, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, the USA; all tackled on the other side of the Atlantic. Even closer to home, they tend to travel. Indeed, they've played as many friendlies in St Gallen as they've played on home soil since claiming the world crown.

Much was made of several awful performances and defeats in these games, but in competitive games the Selección barely skipped a beat. Indeed, they qualified for this summer's Euros off the back of a second straight perfect campaign. But recently, there's been signs that the legginess is creeping into the games that matter.

In Tbilisi in September they were dreadful in their opening qualifier. A spirited Georgia side showed far more conviction and desire than their illustrious guests. They escaped with an unmerited 1-0 victory, before trouncing Belarus last month. But in the follow up, they found themselves on the back foot in Madrid as France fought back to earn a point.

At least last night's 5-1 win offered Vicente Del Bosque the chance to run the rule over some new options. Atlético Madrid's Juanfran got a roasting against Franck Ribery, but predictably fared much better this time out.

Benat of Real Betis has had an excellent start to the season, and it's to his credit that he didn't look at all out place alongside Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta and, later, Cesc Fábregas. Athletic Bilbao's Markel Susaeta marked his debut with a goal from the bench. Del Bosque was quick to sing his praises when prompted, but in his customary fashion sought refocus attention on the team effort.

Raúl Albiol has barely seen game time at club level despite Real Madrid's injury crisis in defence. Indeed, when brought on for Cristiano Ronaldo at the weekend he played up front as a targetman. Here he partnered the Bayern midfielder Javi Martínez. A double for Pedro takes him to five goals in his last three internationals. David Villa took his international tally to 53 with his 299th career goal.

But in truth, how much of merit can be taken from a game like this? The answer must surely be: not a lot. Panama have reached their highest ever FIFA ranking of late as they scraped through to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. But, not surprisingly, the gulf in class meant this was never going to be any sort of a contest.

In other words, this was another FIFA date that might have been put to better use. Del Bosque is too much of a gentleman to come out against his employers, but one wonders what he must make of it all. Come March, Spain host Finland before travelling to Paris for a game that should decide the group. No such jet lag for the French, who prepared last night with a 2-1 victory away to a strong Italy selection.


08 November 2012

Eye on Spain: Focus on Espanyol

My first La Liga column for Eircom Sports Hub

Espanyol have been that rarest of La Liga beasts in recent years, a model of stability and financial husbandry. But a wretched start to the season in every way has coalesced into the perfect storm this past month.

A new stadium, which was supposed to be a lifeline, has proved something of an albatross around the club’s neck. Every transfer window for three years now, they’ve lost their best players to fund their construction debts.

Home at last: Espanyol's 40,000 seater stadium in Cornellá

Mauricio Pochettino’s work at the helm has been staggering given the constraints. But as they went down to Atlético in week 6 - rock bottom without a win - the man who had been linked with the Real Madrid job last spring faced catcalls from the support. His status as a club legend from his playing days failed to spare him.

As the disaffection reached boiling point the club president, Ramón Condal, dissolved the board on October 3rd. Shorn of last winter’s batch of loanees and with several first teamers out long term, another summer exodus had left the playing staff bare.

It’s a club with a curious heritage. Take the name, for starters. In a city where FC Barcelona - who barely deign to recognise them as rivals-  are never far from the vanguard of political catalanism, branding themselves as ‘Spanish’ could hardly chime a less propitious chord.

Yet it’s never been that simple. The name was chosen not as a snub against regionalist sentiment, but rather as a contrast from Barcelona’s early internationalism, founded by and for foreigners. In this, the initial divide was comparable to that between Milan and Internazionale.

It also reflected the fact that they were the first Spanish-founded club in the country. And their choice of colours was unmistakably Catalan, those of the Roger de Lliuría, admiral of the mighty Aragonese fleet of the middle ages.

Indeed, despite the wave of inward migration following the civil war, Espanyol hardly made inroads amongst these new Spanish arrivals. Barcelona were the rallying point of regional pride. The key to fitting in was to support them.

Nor was well-heeled Sarría an ideal location to be based. Unsuccessful and unloved, Espanyol became a magnet for cranks and misfits, including elements of the far-right. In 1992, the club sought the shed this image by changing its name to the current Catalan spelling.

Having sold their ground in the same decade, a move to the Olympic stadium in Montjuic was a disaster. Far too big, too remote, and devoid of any sense of atmosphere, it proved a funereal setting.
Little wonder then that earlier this century, ambitious plans for a new 40,000-seater ground were drawn up. The move placed a heavy financial burden on the club’s membership, but finally in the 2009/10 they had a home again.

And not just a home; also a chance to forge a new identity. Barcelona might have more members than any club in the world bar Benfica, but regular attendance remains a pipe dream for many. Ticket prices are amongst the highest in the world. In working class Llobregat, Espanyol had a ready-made market, shut out by the high costs of Camp Nou.

As well as putting down roots in the community they’ve also upped investment in their youth academy, already amongst the country’s most prolific; some fifteen Spain internationals in the last two decades, and some forty current regulars plying their trade in the top two divisions, as well as in top flights abroad.

Mark O’Sullivan, an Irish youth coach based in Stockholm was taken aback after a recent visit.
“There’s no comparison to other clubs I’ve visited. The facilities are fantastic, but more importantly the coaches create the right environment for youngsters to develop. The philosophy is clear.”

O’Sullivan had previously been to Ajax, and worked with Barcelona’s coaches. “Street football’s a lost art, but this comes close to the spirit. The right technique, the right movement, always playing with your head up, all the little details. You can see exactly how the Spanish sides have built upon the Dutch model, and now the Dutch are reimporting that expertise”.

Back at boardroom level, elections are pencilled in for November 19th. Their club spokesman was naturally reticent given the highly politicised nature of the issues involved. But what is clear is that the new board will be charged with maintaining a better equilibrium between short-term financial demands and long-term development.

And on the pitch, fortunately, things have picked up. Joan Verdú dragged them over the line for their first win against Rayo a fortnight ago. A further four points against Sociedad and high-flying Málaga has lifted the mood of despair. From luckless and feeling sorry for themselves they’ve recovered some belief as the injury list has cleared. This weekend, they host bottom placed Osasuna.

The criticism of Pochettino was always ludicrous, and the political upheaval has simply allowed the Argentine to get on with his job. Regarded as one of the best young managers in the league, one wonders if this will be his last season. “I’m Espanyol to the core. Every night when I put my kids to bed, they’re wearing Espanyol pyjamas”, he said when quizzed about those Real stories in April.

No-one can doubt his affinity to the cause. But should a club with better means come knocking for real next time round, nobody could forgive him for choosing to test himself on a higher stage.


21 October 2012

Is David de Gea really targeting a move back to Spain?

Amidst rumours linking the goalkeeper with a move back to Spain, the Manchester United blog Stretty News asked me to sift through the matter to see if there was any truth in it.

Most of you by now will have heard the David de Gea to Real Madrid stories floating around. But with Iker Casillas on the Spanish side’s books, it’s probably safe to say that most of you are also scratching your heads  why they might be after United’s young keeper. You’re not alone.
The story seems to have originated in the dry, somewhat right-of-centre economics and financial daily La Confidencial last Friday. Hardly a prime source for sporting scoops; but equally not an organ given to spreading scurrilous transfer gossip.
The story appears largely founded upon the identity of De Gea’s representative- the super agent Jorge Mendes- who has the great and good from Falcao, Cristiano, and José Mourinho all the way down to Bébé on his books.
That’s hardly enough ground on which to float this story alone, given that the Portuguese has over 50 current players on his books. The reason it’s gotten traction has to do with the current goalkeeping situation at the Spanish champions.
It’s no secret that there’s been some friction between Mourinho and the Spain contingent within his squad, particularly Sergio Ramos and Casillas himself. Mourinho’s modus operandi is to build a strong bond in this squads, but at times he has found this duo frustratingly insubordinate.
Last January, matters came to a head on the training field following a Copa del Rey defeat against Barcelona. As Mourinho admonished Ramos for his set piece defending, he was confronted by the goalkeeper. Somehow, the conversation between all three made it into the public domain verbatim. Many had suspected such tensions existed, and now there appeared clear evidence.
It was said that either Mourinho or Casillas would be gone in the summer. In the end, this wasn’t the case as Real secured their 32nd league title in May.
It’s telling that whenever Mourinho has looked to make an example of his Spanish players, it’s Ramos who has been the fall guy. This was the case in September where the former Sevilla defender was dropped against Manchester City after the side lost to his former club at the weekend.
But Casillas is a different matter. The working class kid from Móstoles has taken the mantle of club icon, the very personification of madridismo from the legendary forward Raúl. When the fans look at San Iker, they see someone they can identify with a personal and emotional level. And at a club like Real Madrid, this matters.
While the 9 times European champions have always augmented their teams with the very best talent from abroad, ever since the 1950s, they’ve also had their ranks swelled by Spaniards, particularly those from the youth ranks. Casillas is the last player from the set up to establish himself in the first team.
This contrasts sharply with the success of Barcelona’s first team production line, and it’s a contrast that jars with the Madrid faithful. It’s not that their youth set up is broken; far from it. It continues to produce talented players, but these- some examples in the recent past include Juan Mata, Roberto Soldado, Samuel Eto’o, Álvaro Negredo and Javi García- tend to flourish elsewhere having had their path to the senior side blocked the club management’s chronic short-termism.
But there’e also the playing side of things. For the first time in a decade, questions were raised about Casillas’ form last spring. Given the frosty nature of that training ground encounter, it was said that Mourinho was looking elsewhere for a number 1.
One of the names mooted at the time was the Portugal keeper, Rui Patricio, of Sporting Clube. Certainly a talented young keeper, but equally not one in the same stratosphere as the Spain captain.
But even if Mourinho is a man not given to suffering challenges to his authority, he’s also pragmatic creature with finely honed political instincts. Having picked his fights at the club and won them- and in the process gaining a higher degree of personal control than any manager in the modern history of the club- he would be acutely aware that in any battle between him and the Casillas, he would come out worse off.
This brings us to another element mentioned in the article. In the summer, Mourinho fought hard to keep Casillas’ deputy Antonio Adán at the club. A talented graduate of the youth system who would hold down a spot at many other clubs, the 25 year old has only started 8 senior games. In the end, the promise of further Copa del Rey minutes convinced him to stay another year. But this is likely to be last for the former Spanish underage international.
So, on the one hand Mourinho needs a deputy. But, the story goes, Mourinho still seethes against Casillas, who he feels has gotten complacent. A little bit of competition would do no harm in keeping him on his toes.
But don’t worry, for this is where the logic of the article collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.
David de Gea, it notes, is unhappy at the current goalkeeping situation at Old Trafford. He’s fed up with having to share the shirt with Anders Lindegaard, and has made it know to Mendes that he would a favour a move to one of Spain’s big two, specifically Real.
De Gea is highly regarded in Spain, and widely expected him to eventually take over from Casillas in the national team. But if the competition with Lindegaard had irked him, why would he risk retarding his development by playing second fiddle to Casillas now at club level? Despite being a fixture in the side for thirteen seasons, Casillas is still only 31.
Manchester United have no incentive to sell, and certainly not for less than they shelled out to Atlético Madrid for his services. Why then next summer, at a time when the squad will most likely need surgery, would Real Madrid commit major funds to a part of the team that isn’t broken?
No matter which way you look at it, it simply doesn’t add up. Rather, it’s a case in point of the Spanish press putting two and two together and coming up five. Real Madrid are unlikely to making any moves for David de Gea, at least not now. There is probably more chance of cash-strapped Atlético finding the funds down the back of the sofa to bring him back to the Vicente Calderon.
It finishes off by focussing on some other options for Real Madrid. Chief amongst these is Roberto Jiménez, who all but single-handedly kept Real Zaragoza in the top flight last season. The murky move which brought there from Benfica for €8.5m was brokered by-wait for it- Jorge Mendes. Given the dire financial situation at the Aragonese club, who it is assumed have only the merest stake in his economic rights, he looks a more viable target.
As for David de Gea himself, those in the know have not reported any murmurings of discontent emanating from his camp about his rivalry with Lindegaard. Quite the opposite. The Spaniard had enjoyed his short time in England, where he feels he’s learned a lot already. The environment at Carrington is one that can only help him improve his game as he continues to progress.


20 August 2012

Bilbao's Bielsa always guarantee entertainment

‘Turmoil’ has been the watchword the summer across La Liga. It’s been in abundance almost everywhere. From Málaga’s Qatari backers turning off the taps, to disputes over television rights almost halting the start of the season for the second time in three years, it’s been there in spades. Organisationally and financially, things are a total mess. Nothing new there, then. Few clubs have escaped the chaos. This week in Bilbao, it struck a heavy blow.

Of course, Athletic’s summer hadn’t been exactly ideal up until then. Having won admirers everywhere last season under the footy hipster’s favourite coach, Marcelo Bielsa, it looked at one point like the Argentine might be stepping down. One of his suitors the summer before had been Sevilla, but when the club refused to accede to demands on remodelling their training ground, he declined their hand.

And this is where it started in July. Renovation works being carried out by a contracting firm close to the club hierarchy drew his ire. Not only were the works running late, but they ran contrary to what he’d agreed. When the club issued a statement to the effect that the problem was ‘nobody’s fault’, he issued a withering statement of his own blasting them. After a tense 24 hours, the club managed to talk him down but he didn’t retract his accusations. 

Then, this past week the bombshell dropped; or to be more precise, two. Lsst Tuesday their talismanic centre forward, Fernando Llorente announced that he wouldn’t be renewing his contract at the end of the season. Then it emerged that Javi Martinez, coveted by but too expensive for Barcelona, was the subject of a substantial bid from Bayern Munich. On Saturday, Bielsa stated that neither would figure in Sunday’s squad. 

The lack of depth in Athletic’s squad was the main reason behind their collapse in the latter stages of last season. Their policy of only buying Basque- however much they might stretch the term to the limits of credibility at times- handicaps their transfer market activity. Every signing is a painstaking effort, but the simple fact is that there are few players in the league matching the profile of the pair; and certainly no ready made Basque prospects.

With Iker Muniain also sidelined, they had to make do without their three best players. This made the initial eleven all the more puzzling. Aritz Aduriz, a more than competent goalscorer, arrived in the summer from Valencia but instead Bielsa opted for Gaizka Toquero. A fan’s favourite he may be, and he’ll run around until his legs seize up, but his goals to games ratio is a poor one.

But it was at the other end where Bilbao were all over the place, and within 7 minutes Rubén Castro drifted through a dozing defence to rifle the visitors into the lead. Bilbao dominated, but it was a domination of a sterile sort lacking purpose and incision. 

On 25 minutes Jorge Molina doubled the pain, with the defence again at sixes and sevens. Five minutes later the ball broke to an unmarked Beñat at the edge of the box. This was turning into a humiliation. The San Mamés crowd, noted for never turning on their team, murmured in discontent.

But if you thought that it was game over, think again.

Aduriz was one of two half-time changes, and instantly his movement between the defenders only reinforced the bafflement as to why he hadn’t started. Suddenly seeds of doubt had been sown in the minds of Betis’ defence. And then Oscar de Marcos cut in from the left to make it 3-1. 

This was a different Bilbao. They couldn't- could they? They could. After battering the visitors for the next 20 minutes, they won a corner on the left. The former Liverpool defender Mikel San José planted a bullet of a header past a helpless Fabricio Ramírez as the grand cathedral erupted.

The equaliser was now inevitable, and when it came it was a carbon copy. This time the corner came from the right, but once more it was San José powering an unstoppable header into the net. Betis were shellshocked. With 15 minutes remaining, only one side was winning this one.  

And that’s how it transpired. Except that it wasn’t to be the hosts. Bilbao, understandably, had grown giddy, drunk on adrenaline. Mikel Susaeta harried after a ball that was going nowhere, falling over. 

Suddenly it was going somewhere. With the defence losing their heads, it fell to the substitute Pozuelo who kept his, stroking it home to shift the momentum decisively back in the Andalusian’s favour. Five more minutes, and with the hosts again in rag order, Molina’s second proved the coup de grace.

The luck of sheer disgust on the faces of fans streaming out of the stands told you all you needed to know. There is never a dull moment with Bielsa teams, whose all energy attacking keeps viewers on the edge of their sets. But with Keystone Kops defending like this, many had decided enough was enough and vacated theirs.

Bielsa is as much a one off off the pitch as he is on it, and his assessment after the game was interesting as he sought to calmly dissect a frenzied 90 minutes which had largely defied analysis. “Absences are not a justification for this defeat,” he quipped.

“Just before kick off, we were clear in our minds and focussed on what we had to do. We lost fair and square, and it’s not correct to say that absences, a lack of focus, or the mood explains why we lost”

“We didn’t show the control needed in defence having come back, we lacked tranquility and had we been a bit less impatient the chances to win would have arrived. It’s difficult to weigh the effects [of the absentees]... But the fact is that we’ve been working for two months to address the issue of playing staff because the main complaint last year was that we had no spare parts.”

One potential spare part remains the Betis goalscorer Beñat. Bilbao were a breath of fresh air last season. It’s unrealistic to assume that they can scale such heights again this term. But it’s entirely fair to assume they’ll remain as fun to watch as ever.

Champions Real Madrid got their campaign off to an underwhelming start, drawing 1-1 at home to a Valencia coached for the first time by their former defender Mauricio Pellegrini. 
Having hit the front through Gonzalo Higuaín, the biggest talking point came as Jonas equalised. An ugly clash between Iker Casillas and Pepe left the pair floored, and it was several minutes before play resumed. 

Even then, Casillas looked absolutely shaken and it was something of a surprised to see him trot out again after the break. No such luck for Pepe however, as the Portuguese defender spent the night in intensive care, and that’s about all that that can be said about his current condition.

The other major talking point was a goal that wasn’t given. As Roberto Soldado skipped past Xabi Alonso, the linesman’s flag shot up before he rounded Casillas to finish. Once the replay became available, suspicions were confirmed. Sergio Ramos had played him on, and it wasn’t even a close call. Valencia veteran David Albelda was the night’s main guest on the show Futboleros, and the uncompromising defender wasn’t in the mood to mince his words. “We have the feeling that something like this will always happen at the Bernabéu.” 

But all said, Valencia can at least take heart from a point well won at a ground where only only three sides came away with anything the year gone by.

Happier events at Camp Nou, where the story was all about the man coming back from serious injury. Sure, we can talk about how Barcelona, roused by a swift Sociedad equaliser, roared into a 4-1 lead by half-time. But we won’t. 

This day was all about David Villa. Almost eight months to the day since the horrific leg break that sidelined him from the European Championship, he sprang from the bench to complete the scoring. Up came his shirt to reveal another emblazoned with the words “Impossible without you!” above a picture of his wife and children. 

Sunday’s late-kick off between Levante and Atlético only reinforced the argument that it was a time to be tucked up in bed and not to be at a football ground. The LFP might claim these ungodly kick-off times offer a respite from the searing heatwave afflicting the country, but nobody’s buying the line. Least of all the fans who have to head home at 1am when they have work in the morning. Perhaps the new key market for the league is the New Zealand Monday morning breakfast market. 

At the Iberostar on Saturday night, the fans voted with their feet and the few who bothered to turn up voiced their disgust at the league and the RFEF. On the field, a Hemed brace earned Joaquín Caparrós’ side a 2-1 win over an Espanyol exhibiting the same old problems. Lots of titilation, but very little action inside the box. 

Wakaso made a goalscoring debut for the visitors, looking lively throughout. Perhaps a little bit too lively as Mauricio Pochettino had to haul him off as a precaution against picking up a second yellow.

And man of the week? That’s a simple one. Although, perhaps not, because the man of the week isn’t quite a man. This honour goes to Málaga striker Fabrice Olinga. With precious few options available up front, Manuel Pellegrini had little choice but to turn to the youth teamer, a prospect picked up from the Samuel Eto’o football foundation in Cameroon. 

As a helter skelter encounter away to newly promoted Celta Vigo looked set for a draw, the youngster struck the winner minutes before the end. At 16 years and 98 days, the forward is the youngest goalscorer in La Liga history.


Celta 0 Málaga 1
Sevilla 2 Getafe 1
Mallorca 2 Espanyol 1
Athletic Bilbao 3 Betis 5
Real Madrid 1 Valencia 1
Barcelona 5 Real Sociedad 1
Levante 1 Atlético Madrid 1


Deportivo v Osasuna (18:00)
Rayo Vallecano v Granada (20:00)
Zaragoza v Valladolid (22:00)