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