14 May 2012

La Liga: played by geniuses, run by idiots

May 14, 2012 17:34 by author Irish Examiner Sports Joseph Sexton 

It was a cruel end to a wretched season for Spain’s best run club. With a number of sides in administration and many more struggling with debts and poor management, Villarreal represented something of a beacon of hope.

Yes, it is true this small-town club from a neighbourhood of Castellón owe their rise to the Primera to their president, Fernando Roig. But even if he did bankroll that initial phase, he also left the club with an enviable youth infrastructure and on a sound financial footing. Roig — a ceramics magnate — suffered like many others when Spain’s construction bubble burst, so it was just as well.

But now, Villarreal are facing a future in the segunda. 

For this they can blame many things — themselves, of course; incredibly bad luck with injuries played a part too. They can hardly be blamed for not knowing Giuseppe Rossi’s season would be written off due to serious injury, but the decision to keep him rather than Santí Cazorla has been costly. In Rossi’s absence, Nilmar has talked more about wanting to leave than contributing anything of note on the field.

Stupid points dropped also play a part. Firing one very decent manager, only to replace him with a dud who was out the door himself before too long didn’t help. Hiring Ángel Miguel Lotina may have been something of a bad omen with his form, but more on that later. Nobody within the club is saying this now of course, but perhaps the LFP, Spain’s league regulator, needs to take a share of the blame for the situation.

In the end it was as tragic as it was pointless. Radamel Falcão García hit a late winner for Atlético Madrid against the submarino. Pointless, because with Málaga beating doomed Sporting, it wasn’t enough for his side to steal the last Champions League spot. Instead they go into the Europa League, a competition they won in midweek and already qualified for. But with Real Zaragoza winning 2-0 away to eight-man Getafe, that was enough to condemn Villarreal. They went down on 41 points. Real Zaragoza’s barely believable great escape had seen them move from just 22 points — and rock bottom — after matchday 29 to 43 points. And to safety. 

Many will question the logic of hiring Lotina, a man they are christening The Relegator. Last season, he took Deportivo La Coruña down, ending that club’s 20-year stay in the top flight. A few years earlier, he’d taken their fierce rivals that way too. Last night, because of Spain’s system of allowing reserve and youth - B and C - sides to play in the lower divisions he trumped all that. With those sides in the divisions immediately below the top, it wasn’t just Villarreal who dropped a division last night. Villarreal B did also. As did Villarreal C. 

But he can hardly be blamed this time around. Villarreal have been shockingly poor for most of the season. Although rarely in the relegation spots since the opening months of the season, they stayed hovering precariously around the periphery. His results haven’t been all that bad either, certainly not compared to what went before. Three wins and five draws from 11 - including a memorable late comeback against Real Madrid - isn’t relegation form by any stretch. There is the external factor too - horrible Zaragoza, a side so awful for so much of the season it is difficult to find words accurate enough to convey it - a team that looked dead for three quarters of the season  finally came to life.

Whether or not they deserve to be still alive leads us to crux of the matter.

Broke, in administration, players and creditors not getting paid. Just another day in the life of just another club on the Spanish footballing merry go round. Zaragoza is not a small team, it’s a proud one, with great tradition. But their recent history has been far less rosy. Somehow, they managed to dodge a third relegation in five seasons and it’s questionable whether they’ll be so lucky next time. But they did so thanks to some friends in high places.

None more so than the Portuguese super agent Jorge Mendes, a man who has everyone from José Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo to Bébé, whose transfer to Manchester United is currently under criminal investigation back in Portugal, on his books.

Jorge Mendes brokered a lot of interesting transfers to Spain last summer. Falcão, of course, was one. Then we had the curious case of a couple of players he moved to Atletico on deadline day, but ultimately ended up in Turkey or at other Spanish clubs. One of those Atlético phantoms, Rúben Micael ended up at Zaragoza, with Mendes also brokering the deal that brought former Tottenham striker Hélder Postiga from Sporting Lisbon. In too came Juan Carlos and Fernando Meira. But by far the most curious deal was that which brought the Spanish goalkeeper Roberto to the club from Benfica.

This deal was curious in many ways. Roberto had been a big money signing (guess who settled the details on that move) for Benfica the year before at some 9m. He’d also been an unmitigated disaster, arguably costing them their title chances with a series of high profile howlers. Even now, a quick google search for ‘Roberto’ and ‘frango’ (‘chicken’ in Portuguese, meaning goalkeeping gaffe) will throw up scores of videos created in his honour by fans of other Portuguese teams. So early had the ‘frango’ label stuck, that in their autumn mauling at FC Porto, home supporters unleashed a live chicken in his goalmouth.

That’s only to speak of the footballing side of it. The details of the deal are murkier still. Officially, he moved to Zaragoza for 8m, an astounding figure in its own right but even more so for a club with no money and in administration. A club that really, by rights shouldn’t be signing anybody. But of course, Zaragoza didn’t pay a penny of that fee. His economic rights remained in the hands of an investment fund based in Dublin, with Peter Kenyon one of its investors. Needless to say, Jorge Mendes has a big stake.

Spain and Portugal are just two of many European leagues in which third party ownership is not frowned upon in any way.

But on the field, Roberto was unrecognisable. Some Spanish journalists said he deserved to be man of the match during their opening day 6-0 chasing at the Bernabéu. It wasn’t in jest. Without the keeper, who registered several stunning saves, it could well have been 12. He kept up this form as they scored early points against Espanyol, Málaga, Villarreal and Sociedad. They subsequently slumped to nine defeats in 10, with Roberto now good rather than supernormal. But neither will you find too many clangers in his season.

Zaragoza’s escape has seen them claim eight victories out of the last 11 played. Away at Granada and Valencia in particular, he’s produced top form in many of those games. Of course, manager Manolo Jímenez deserves immense credit for bucking up the rest of the team’s ideas. But they wouldn’t be where they are now without Roberto. And they certainly wouldn’t without the help of Jorge Mendes. 

Manolo Jimenez oversaw Real Zaragoza's great escape

But that’s the way the cookie crumbles in Spain. Severe mismanagement and going into administration carry no sporting penalty. No club is ever docked 10 points, and none are demoted. The only people who don’t lose out are the unscrupulous presidents. Amongst the many that do include teams that keep their house in order, who are left at a competitive disadvantage when others act in bad faith. Teams who don’t, in Arsene Wenger’s words, engage in ‘financial doping’. Sadly, teams like Villarreal.

As one Spanish journalist wryly noted: La Liga; played by geniuses, run by idiots.

At least Spain’s best run club will be well positioned to bounce back. For many others, the loss of income coming with the drop has proved near-fatal. Just ask Real Oviedo. 


09 May 2012

As the Los Che World Turns aka the Unai Emery story

 This article originally appeared on the excellent Forza Futbol website. Be sure and check out their regular podcast features on iTunes. Link to the original article here.

Special Guest writer and friend of Forza Futbol, Joseph Sexton joins us to pay tribute to the underappreciated Unai Emery. You can find more of his fabulous work at STV, the Irish Examiner, among others as well as talking on various shows and podcasts including WPFI and Forza Futbol! 

When the news broke last week that Valencia would be parting company with Unai Emery, it came as no great shock. The intolerance of los che supporters may be legendary by now. But the writing had been on the wall for some time.

On Monday, president Manuel Llorente paid tribute to the Basque trainer while confirming what we already knew- that former defensive stalwart Mauricio Pellegrino would be taking his post. Llorente’s words were kind, and they were also the truth. “We wish to thank Unai for four year’s great service at the club. His success in leading us into third spot again this season is something we are all grateful for”.

And is well worth reflecting upon that success. His predecessors- and Llorente’s- had led the club the brink of financial meltdown. Two league titles had been secured by Rafael Benítez, following on closely from two Champions League final appearances under Hector Cúper. It represented the most successful period in the club’s history.

But with wage costs already reaching unsustainable levels, Benítez departed under something of a cloud in 2004. Prior to that second title success, he had clashed repeatedly with the board over the provision and control of transfer funds in a manner rather reminiscent of his later travails atLiverpool. But rather than improve, the club’s fiscal position grew steadily worse.

There were the dud signings, a raft of whom followed in Claudio Ranieri’s second spell at the club. Not only were they duds on the pitch. What now appear to be ludicrously generous contractual terms were sanctioned, making it difficult to move them on elsewhere.

Managers were hired, fired, and compensated. Stability remained elusive. But what on the face of it looked to be a smart investment in the club’s future proved to be albatross around its neck.

A new stadium development was sanctioned, but before it was completed the bottom fell out of the Spanish property market. SuddenlyValencia were landed with two stadiums; one they couldn’t sell, and another they couldn’t afford to finish.

They were also stuck with €500m of debt.

To put that debt into perspective in relation to the club’s finances, they earned as much from domestic television rights last season as West Ham United did in England.

In England, West Ham had finished bottom of the pile.

It was into this environment that Unai Emery arrived four summers ago. What he has managed to achieve in that time represents something of a minor miracle. Year upon year, he’s been forced into selling off his best players. Yet every season, he’s kept them competitive on the pitch.

The club took a calculated gamble in 2009 in holding on to David Villa and David Silva in the hope of securing Champions League qualification and the financial fillip that would come with it.

That gamble was to pay off. Emery’s reward was to have both sold off to Barcelona and Manchester City. But he never complained.

Instead, he set about rebuilding the squad. As older players retired- or left- younger ones were brought in for lower fees, and more manageable contracts. On the park, they barely skipped a beat. Unable to match the behemoths of Real Madrid and Barça, they at least managed to plant themselves firmly ahead of the rest of the pack.

The fans never really took to Emery, however. A pragmatic, intelligent, and tactically flexible coach, he was accused of being too negative; too defensive. These criticisms seemed harsh. But then these are the same fans who booed both Benítez and Cúper before him.

Valencia could get down and dirty, as they did earlier this season in dumping Stoke City out of the Europa League. But they also remained capable of playing dazzling technical football. The curious aspect of Emery’s downfall is that his perceived negative streak never really sufficed to help them see out big games, while the more proactive aspects of his approach went unheralded.

They never managed to defeat Barcelona, despite coming agonisingly close on occasion. They never could live with Madrid. They never could get close to them in the league rankings either. Despite their final rankings under Emery, they never finished within 20 points of the pair.

At times, Emery was arguably guilty of over-thinking things. Rarely selecting the same personal or system in consecutive games, he preferred to cut his cloth to measure on a match by match basis. A man supremely confident in his own tactical nous, his chopping and changing became legendary. Sadly for him, so too did his side’s propensity for tossing away leads. In his four year tenure,Valencia have managed to surrender winning positions on more than 45 occasions.

That statistic at least allows us to see the fans’ ire in a more generous light. They were consistent, but at times also infuriating. That will go down as the greatest paradox of his reign. Good enough to set about what they were expected of, but not in a manner satisfactory to the Mestalla crowd.

They secured third spot again last weekend, but came worryingly close to throwing away what had been a commanding position there. They went out of the Europa League semi-final against Atlético Madrid with a whimper, losing 1-0 in their home leg have scraped a scarcely merited 4-2 defeat at the Vicente Calderon. And that is what ultimately sealed his fate. He departs having failed to secure any silverware.

At least he will be among old friends. Valery Karpin and Dmitry Popov- both former team-mates- are on the administrative staff at Spartak Moscow. Karpin indeed, is stepping aside from the manager’s seat following a turbulent period in the club’s history.

The east represents something of a never-never land for Western European coaches. Juande Ramos’ already dipping stock remains irreparably damaged following his disastrous tenure across town at CSKA though somehow he managed to rebound at Dnipro in the Ukraine. Luciano Spalletti has overseen a decisive shift in power to former capital at Zenit of Saint Petersburg. It is the Italian’s example Emery will seek to emulate. But to do so, he’ll have to unseat the former AS Roma boss as Russia’s top dog.

Meanwhile, what will happen next at Valencia is anyone’s guess. We have no way of judging how Mauricio Pellegrino will fare as boss. His experience to date has come solely in a supporting role, as first team coach and later assistant to Rafa Benítez at Liverpool & Inter. Top scorer, Roberto Soldado, spoke to French television on Monday about the possibility of joining Paris Saint-Germain. His international colleague Jordi Alba is poised to move the Camp Nou as Eric Abidal’s successor. Once again, the club will have to rebuild, and so with cut-price replacements.

Having got what they so evidently wanted, one now wonders if the supporters will be left learning that sometimes it is prudent to be careful what you wish for.

05 May 2012

La Liga: Five reasons why Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid won the title

Joseph Sexton


José Mourinho was tasked by Florentino Pérez in May 2010 to knock Barcelona off their perch. Last Wednesday, as the players held the Portuguese aloft at San Mamés, he had achieved that target. Real Madrid have now won 32 league titles in their glittering history. But few, if any, have come at the expense of a rival of such potency.  

That’s because few sides in the history of the game match up to the Catalans. To hoover up trophies as Barcelona have done under Pep Guardiola is something remarkable, and while many will focus on the style with which they achieved their success, less have looked at the hunger, the drive, that underpinned that. This year, Madrid’s hunger was insatiable, and this is why they are champions of Spain.

It’s been a bumpy ride for Mourinho. Discord within and without the camp have threatened to undermine the meringue challenge at key moments. Sometimes, internal grievances have received the most public of airings. At others, the vitriol of the press- many of the same Madrid-based ones who painted Mourinho as a saint before the bruising four game clásico series in April 2011- have latterly been queuing up to throw rocks.

At times, it seemed certain he would be departing at the end of this season. Few now doubt that he will stay. And if Madrid have bagged this title with considerable style, it is worth looking at some of the key factors behind their success
  1. Benzema’s renaissance
José Mourinho had spent most of his first summer at Real moaning about the lack of strikers. When injury on the eve in that infamous 5-0 defeat at Camp Nou ruled Gonzalo Higuaín out for some 5 months, the cupboard was bare. Karim Benzema was a flagship Florentino Pérez signing, but the manager didn’t like the look of the young Frenchman. Nor was he impressed by his attitude. “When you don’t have a dog, sometimes you have to hunt with a cat”, he lamented. Rather than hunt with this cat, he signed Emanuel Adebayor on loan.
This season, Benzema has been a man reborn. Right from those two ferociously intense Supercopa clashes that opened the season, it was clear that he’d come back determined, and a few kilos lighter. Given his rival for the centre forward position’s numbers, supplanting Higuaín in the role is some achievement. His blend of finesse and physique has given defenders nightmares.
2. Sidelining Ricardo Carvalho
It might sound counterintuitive at first. For almost a decade now, Mourinho’s former Chelsea and Porto lieutenant had been one of the world’s top defenders- and one of the smartest. In his first season in Madrid, he had clearly been the top dog. But maybe time was catching up with.
Although initially an enforced move, moving Sergio Ramos to centre has made Real Madrid a better team. The Spain international may be guilty of positional lapses, but his athleticism allows Real to pressure much higher up the park than they could with Carvalho. Alongside Pepe, his aerial dominance has been a massive asset.

3. Attitude
Last year’s title was not lost in the clásicos- it was lost in defeats to lowly sides like Sporting and Osasuna, games where Real Madrid failed to score. Last September, the loss at Levante followed by a draw against Sporting suggested it might be more of the same again. Instead, they went on a run of wins extending all the way to the visit of Barcelona in December.
That clásico blew the title race wide open once more. Madrid’s capacity to respond would be everything.
They won their next ten games, as Barça shed further points.
Their ability to come back has also been a standout factor. Victories from losing positions against Rayo, Atlético, Mallorca, Athletic, Zaragoza, Levante, Sporting and Sevilla spoke of a side for whom that defeat was not an acceptable outcome. Real have beaten teams in a variety of ways this season, but it is this attitude that has helped them over the line.

4. Firepower

We’ve mentioned Benzema already. He now has 20 league goals. Despite his limited minutes, Higuaín has chipped in with 22. José Callejón has sprung 5 goals from the bench, many of them crucial in changing games. No full back has scored more than Marcelo. And only Lionel Messi has scored more than Cristiano Ronaldo’s 44. With David Villa injured, Barcelona have been overly dependent on Lionel Messi. Ronaldo may be equally totemic to his side, but it’s clear that his colleagues also know the way to goal. In all competitions, the trident of Ronaldo-Benzema-Higuaín have contributed a staggering total of 117 goals.
5 Put up- and... shut up
Just as in Italy, the press in Spain have been Mourinho’s bête noire. So charming and adept was he at pulling strings and setting the news agenda at Chelsea, it may be hard to fathom the antipathy that now exists between him and the media. But Milan, as Mourinho swiftly found out, is not England. And Real Madrid is a club like no other.

In his recent book, Graham Hunter illustrates just how badly Mourinho had misjudged matters a year ago. Puffed up by his side’s Copa del Rey final victory at the Mestalla the previous week, he went on the warpath against Barcelona’s coach ahead of the Champions League semi-final. Guardiola, a man so eloquent and dignified in his public persona that it almost seems painful for him at times, decided he’d had enough. The gloves were off. In a masterpiece of rhetoric, he responded to his rival’s jibes in the most forthright of manners.
More importantly, his team did the business on the pitch. For what good are words when you can’t back them up?

Ever since that moment sections of the Madrid-based press were out for Mourinho, and well he knew it. After all, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not all out to get you. Last weekend at the Santiago Bernabéu, Sid Lowe explained just how poisonous the relationship had become.

“It seems clear now that the initial agenda- at least from Marca- driven as ever some sections within the club, was to build José up as being the saviour. AS [the other principal Madrid sports daily], on the other hand, whose editor Alfredo Relaño has great admiration for this current Barça, always had a slightly different take. In the end, attending the post match briefings was joyless. At times, the prospect of dealing with Mourinho had become tense, to say the least. Sometimes, even the most innocuous of questions would draw a caustic and utterly dismissive response”. In the end, Mourinho chose to see agendas at play everywhere.

This is why the aftermath of their 1-1 draw at Villarreal marked a key turning point. For the second game in a row, Madrid had surrendered a lead to a late free kick. And not for the first time in recent weeks, they’d played well below par. Moreover- and at this point is worth noting Jorge Valdano’s words on Cadena SER that, if anyone had any right to be aggrieved, it was Villarreal- the officiating had infuriated Real. 

Fitness trainer, Rui Faría, had been sent to the stands in the first half. In the immediate aftermath of Villarreal’s equaliser, he was followed swiftly by Sergio Ramos, Mourinho himself, and Mesut Ozil of all people. Madrid had lost their heads; lost their papers, as the Spanish phrase goes. Their lead had been trimmed from 10 to 6 points. And their season was in danger of falling apart

Then, something unexpected happened. We waited for the denunciations of Mourinho. And waited.

In vain. For in his place came the number two, Aitor Karanka. The following weekend, the Basque former defender did the same. And every other week. In fact, outside of Champions League briefings, we’ve not heard from Mourinho since. Until, of course, last Wednesday. Mourinho had let himself down and been badly burned in his dealings with the press at the climax of last season. This year, he’d learned his lesson.

Sometimes it’s best to shut up. But you also have to front up.

Mourinho has done both.
You can follow Joseph @josephsbcn

This article originally appeared on STV Sport