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.