23 September 2013

At the Mestalla, the natives are restless though not revolting....yet

My Column for the Irish Examiner

Joseph Sexton
It was 17:14 on Thursday. The stadium was not quite full, a reflection that after years of dining at the top table, the fans weren’t enamoured with UEFA’s secondary competition. Life is tough these days in Valencia, as it is in the rest of Spain. Rampant unemployment and foreclosures means that for many, every last cent must be accounted for.

Valencia have lost a lot too, more than most. Unlike the region with which it shares a name - long a viper’s nest of Partido Popular (yes, the same party than regained the national government in 2011) venality of a sort than makes 1980s Ireland look decidedly amateur - the club can be said to have brought it on itself.
They defied to the odds to restore some semblance of normality, but having jettisoned Unai Emery - who returned Sunday night with Sevilla - the realities of their situation caught up with them. After three straight third-place La Liga finishes, they came fifth last season.
Suddenly the plan of selling a single star each summer wasn’t enough to fill the hole in their annual accounts.
There were barely ten minutes on the clock on Thursday when Adil Rami was sent off. It was needless, and it was blatant. It had to be red. Soon the fans were seeing red. Against a Swansea side the Spanish media have dubbed the ‘Spanish Swans’ affectionately, they went down 3-0. The fans turned on the players, chanting in unison: ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’
The man they’d all wanted, a hero from his playing days, Miroslav Djukic was no longer untouchable. Whispers were circulating that anything less than a win against Sevilla would see him fall on his sword.
Valencia played like a side with a point to prove in the opening half, and Jonas’ opener was scant reward for their dominance. After the break, Sevilla began liken a train and within seven minutes drew level through Kevin Gameiro, signed to replace the goals of Álvaro Negredo in the summer.
But despite the protests beforehand, the fans stayed with the team, feeding the players’ belief. Just as it should be. And, by the end, they had their reward.
Jonas - who was probably luck to still be on the field - restored the lead with just over a quarter of an hour remaining. With nerves still on edge, Victor Ruiz flicked on a corner but instead found the back of the net. Five minutes left. They had done it.
Amadeo Salvo, the club’s president, had been silent in the days leading up the game. All of a sudden, you couldn’t escape him. “It was a complicated game” he told Onda Cero, “Sevilla played well and had chances, but fortunately victory is ours.
“Djukic is our manager, and even if we’d lost we’d have kept faith in him. Miroslav says that he’s realised his dream in coaching us, and that deserves respect.
“You can’t rush these things, you need to be patient, and we will be. We have to keep working together going forward in order to be successful.”
As for the next manager in the division looking over his shoulder? Step forward, Unai Emery.

BARCELONA remain top but were given a serious scare by Rayo Vallecano. You would have to go back several seasons to see them post possession stats as low as they managed in the first half in Vallecas, and the best chances also fell the host’s way. Pedro had them ahead at the break, and they had Victor Valdés - who saved a penalty against Ajax in midweek - to thank again as he denied Roberto Trashorras.
After the break, they were much better as Rayo tired. Cesc Fabregas added the gloss, but it was about Pedro as the Canary Islander landed his first hat-trick in a Barça shirt.
Real continued their habit of falling behind at the Bernabéu when Ángel Lafita gave Getafe an early lead. Pepe had been at fault, but he brought his side level a quarter of an hour later. With no Gareth Bale, who injured himself warming up, it was Isco who stole the show again. Mesut who?
Cristiano Ronaldo netted twice, one from the spot, to pull ahead of Hugo Sánchez as he club fifth highest scorer of all time. Next in his sights is Ferenc Púskas. And, quite ludicrously, after just four-and-a-bit seasons in Spain, he’s now the 18th highest scorer in the history of the Primera.
Atlético won a pig of a game to make it five wins from five in Valladolid, with Raúl García and Diego Costa the scorers. Villarreal also remain unbeaten. They had the better chances as Celta had goalkeeper Yoel to thank for a 0-0 last night in Balaídos.
Week 5 Results: Osasuna 2 Elche 1; Real Sociedad 0 Málaga 0; Almería 2 Levante 2; Valladolid 0 Atlético 2; Real Betis 0 Granada 0; Celta Vigo 0 Villarreal 0; Real Madrid 4 Getafe 1; Valencia 3 Sevilla 1.


17 September 2013

Away from La Catedral, Bilbao's fans find a new altar to worship upon

My Column for the Irish Examiner

Joseph Sexton
Up in the Bilbao, Monday marked a historic night for one of the country's most iconic clubs. An historic night too for Spanish football, and a prescient one too, in light of the financial abyss the vast majority of the country's professional clubs are teetering over.

It also brought to an end 90 years of glorious history. Last May, Athletic Club played their last ever home game at the fabled San Mamés ground. La Catedral, truly one of the most imposing grounds in Europe.
One of the most welcoming too, though. Unless you're for Real Madrid, or Barcelona. Or, of course, their fiercest rivals, Real Sociedad at whose ground Athletic played their opening home fixture this term ahead of Monday’s grand opening.
Talk to any Manchester United supporter who made the trek for their recent Europa League undressing against Athletic's thrilling young side, and they'll answer you wide-eyed. Newcastle fans too, as Phil Ball recounts in his magisterial book Morbo. That day in 1994 was Ball's first visit to the ground, one which the author describes as 'unlike anything I have ever experienced before, or since.' This was echoed by the hordes of Geordie supporters he spoke to. Expecting the usual welcome reserved for travelling English supporters they were  bowled over by the warmth and kindness showered upon them.
One gang, who'd travelled through France suffered a car malfunction. A trip to the local mechanics confirmed the worst- the entire exhaust needed replacing. But the garage owner simply refused to take any payment for the work, and more still, invited the group out for and paid for several rounds of beer.
'They just won't let you pay, man!', one of the Geordie faithful recalled with awe.
But they've not moved too far. The new ground is located adjacent to the old one. And if Monday night’s clash with Celta Vigo is anything to go by, the atmosphere generated at the grand old temple hasn't diminished for the move.
Both sides went into this one in good form, Celta, under Luis Enrique, were desperately unfortunate not to maintain their 100% record a fortnight against Granada. “If we keep playing like we did today, we'll win a lot more than we lose”, was their manager's verdict after Granada stole a point.
Athletic are under the guidance of Ernesto Valverde. Having almost dragged Valencia back from the brink to a Champions League place after taking charge midway through last season, he was sounded out after Tito Vilanova stepped aside at Barcelona. But having committed himself the Bilbao post, the former Espanyol boss stayed true to his word.
The match itself was a ding-dong affair that did the occasion justice. Charles had been a major doubt for Celta, but he opened the scoring on 13 minutes after Rafinha robbed the ball on the halfway line. Just four minutes later, the former Liverpool man Mikel San José prodded home the equaliser from a free kick, aided by a fortunate bounce of Hugo Mallo. On the hour mark Andoni Iraola put the hosts in front and the stadium errupted in celebration.
The summer signing Benat extended that lead as the game entered the final quarter, showing some neat footwork after being played in by a simple ball which exploited the visitors' high defensive line. And though the 17 year old Santi Mina cut the deficit with ten minutes left, the hosts held on to move up to fifth, just a point behind Real Madrid.
“It could have finished differently”, said Luis Enrique post-game. “But I can't complain too much. We know we're on he right path and we have time on our side. It was a spectacular game, in a spectacular setting”
“This game had it all”, Began Valverde. “We were made to suffer, but we got there in the end. Man of the match Benat concurred and added that “it was important to crown the occasion with a win, and fortunately I was able to tuck away my goal”.
It was only the opening night. No doubt many more grand memories will be forged on this marvellous new field.
As the world and his mother will be aware, Carlo Ancelotti opted to start Gareth Bale in Real's visit to newly-promoted Villarreal. The Welshman, understandably, looked a little short on the levels of fitness and understanding with his team-mates that he might have had had the record-breaking transfer been concluded sooner.
But among the misplaced passes and ballooned crosses their was a determination which his scrambled equaliser encapsulated. Having departed around the hour mark, it was left to Cristiano Ronaldo to salvage a point for the visitors. Both sides now have 10 points from 12 available, and having continued their best-ever start to a top-flight campaign, the home teams goal of retaining their elite status is progressing far better than anyone could have anticipated. 
Last autumn, Sevilla and Barcelona produced one of the games of the season when the Catalans fought back from two goals down to steal victory at the Sánchez Pizjuan. The emphatic nature of their comeback that night meant the final result was anything but unjust.
Here at the Camp Nou, fortune certainly smiled upon them. Leading through a Dani Alves strike, the visitors were incensed as Ivan Rakitic's equaliser was disallowed before Leo Messi doubled Barca's lead with a quarter hour left.
And yet five minutes later Rakitic struck again, legitimately too. Then, in the final minute, from a home corner, Sevilla broke to equalise when Coke volleyed home. But there was still enough time left for the much-maligned Alexis Sánchez to settle matters at the death, latching on after Beto could only a parry a Leo Messi shot. Tata Martino's reign is certainly leaving supporters on the edge of their seats.
They wanted Unai Emery out, and a season later, they got the man they wanted, Miroslav Djukic. But not many Valencia fans will be smiling after their side suffered a third straight defeat under the Serb as they were comprehensively defeated as Betis claimed their first win of the new campaign. 
Another side with the same record after four matches is Rayo Vallecano. Having defied all expectation the last three campaigns, this might be one too far for the Madrid side. Losing three quarters of your squad (once again) will do that. If their defeat to Levante was a staggering injustice, there was little solace to be had here. Their 5-0 defeat to Málaga, aided by a hat-trick from deadline signing Mounir El Hamdaoui, was their second straight manita on their travels, leaving Paco Jémez and has side with work to do if they're to beat the drop this term.


22 August 2013

Bye Bye Badman?

A profile of the man of the moment, Diego Costa, for Back Page Football

Diego Costa is one of the true characters of La liga. Maybe ‘character’ doesn’t quite cover it, though.
Call him a joker, call him a clown. Many have called him far worse things which would be out of place on a family website like this.
After one particularly feisty game against Betis last December where he proved the match-winner, Marca went so far as to call him ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr. Costa’. He’s the cabrón… the fighter; and the wind up merchant supreme.
Angel with the dirty face, or devil?

However this season, he’s also a man on a mission. And one who, increasingly, appears to have a more mature head on his shoulders. But equally, one who is not willing to go too far in compromising what makes him great; for better or worse.
Both sides were evident on Sunday when Atlético Madrid visited Sevilla. It was a daunting test to open the season with. Last season, the clubs clashed four times. Last season also, Diego Costa clashed- quite literally- with half of the Sevilla team. And bench.
But, just as then, so now; when it mattered most it was a test they passed. With flying colours.
And it was Diego Costa who made all the difference with two exquisite goals.
For much of his career, he’s been a journeyman. A rebel without a cause. A thermos-flask head. He made little impact back home in Brazil at youth level, but was spotted by Portugal’s SC Braga back in 2006.
After one successful season on loan at second division Penafiel, Atlético Madrid saw enough to fork out €1.5m to bring him to the Spanish capital. But for years, and over many loan spells, he failed to convince anyone that he was little more than a slightly thuggish young fella with severe anger-management issues.
Indeed, this time last year he didn’t even know which club he’d be playing at, as he alluded to some months back. But this summer, not only did Atleti bat away a £20m bid from Liverpool, they offered him a fat new contract.
“It’s put me in a good frame of mind. It means I’ve been doing my job well, but also that the responsibility’s grown and I’ve got to be ready”.
From being a nobody to being a full Brazil international- who capped him just as he looked set to be called up by Spain- in the space of 18 months, it’s been an incredible turnaround.
It was January of last year that it all began to fall into place.
Costa was sent across town to Rayo Vallecano that transfer window. Nobody had given the club a hope of coming up the season before, and less still gave them a prayer of surviving.
And yet, with the league’s smallest budget they’d made a mockery of all that by entering the winter break in the top half.
It couldn’t last. A succession of losses saw them plummet, and soon they were battling for survival. But along with Michu, Diego Costa’s goals helped them beat the drop by the skin of their teeth on the final day. In his time in Vallecas, the Brazilian netted nine times in sixteen matches.
Last year he was given his chance by Diego Simeone, initially in Europe. By December, he’d made himself an integral part of the side, as Falcao’s foil.
And though his strike rate in the league was a respectable 10 from 31, he finished the season as top scorer in their march to the Copa del Rey title. Combined with the Europa League, he struck 10 in 13 cup appearances.
But the darkness was never too far from the surface. He picked up his fair share of yellow cards, though less than we might think. He also proved adept at getting opponents booked and sent to the stands. He dived at times, but mostly he niggled. A word here, a sneaky punch there.
And worse. Much worse.
Against Sevilla he got under his opponents skin like a rash, drawing a red card in a nasty spiteful encounter. Afterwards, Sevilla’s Geoffrey Kondogbia was incensed, claiming on Twitter that he had been racially abused.
By time the same sides met over two legs in the Copa del Rey semi-final, it had become a running battle. And one which all parties were only too happy to resume last Sunday.
Against Real Madrid in the league he was caught on camera punching, gobbing, abusing, and even surreptitiously flicking spit off his gloves all over Pepe and Sergio Ramos.
Video uploaded by Med Freeman
Amazingly at the final whistle, they all took the old Sepp Blatter diktat. Costa warmly embraced Ramos, before seeking out Pepe for more of the same and said “It’s just football guys. No bother, eh!”
Without going too far down the road of moral relativism, this is sure to appear shocking in our own cultural context in the British Isles. This writer is not going to defend these actions for a minute. Quite the opposite.
But a certain amount of to-and-fro is accepted, or more correctly, more accepted in other parts of the world. The mind boggles at what would result this season had that Liverpool bid been accepted and Costa paired alongside Luís Suárez.
Probably, Suárez would have come off looking the good egg of the pair.
The Suárez parallel is instructive, though only to a point.
Off the field, his colleagues have described him as “a great guy”, “really sweet” and, always in a happy mood”.
Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before. It brings to mind the reflex English managerial defence when a player throws an elbow, or worse, puts in a leg-breaker.
Not that sort of player. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. Helps old ladies across the street in his spare time. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
But it’s true to the extent that we can see it. He comes across as an engaging, matter-of-fact, and well spoken guy not only from this writers’ own personal experience, but from several interviews given this year.
The most recent of those came last week in El País.
It’s been a good pre-season, Costa tells us. “I went home to my town to relax”, he says “had a few kickabouts with my mates outside my aunt’s gaff. They’re pretty handy! They play hard, but they’re also warm and well, like family to me”.
Asked if he’d been taking care of himself, he said he had.
“Yeah, I mean, I ate beans, rice, some meat… you really notice when you arrive back to camp and you’re at your ideal weigh, you hit the ground running. These are things you learn over time and maybe in the past I didn’t help myself.
On the prickly question of his on-field conduct, he insists he’s getting better and that his boss Simeone, who knows a thing or two in this area, has warned him that once the referees have you marked as that kind of a guy, well… one feels the advice may have come a little too late for that.
“Look, I think the refs have been fair with me,” he begins. “and sometimes they’ve had to book me to calm me down”.
“And if you look at the stats, you’ll see I was booked four times in the Europa League and sent off once, but I definitely don’t look and think ‘oh, they could have given me, like, five reds’. No way”.
He continues. “I want to improve, but I won’t change my way of playing either. I’ve never gone in to deliberately hurt someone, that’s important”.
More sinner than sinned against, perhaps? No. Costa would have none of that.
“What’s important is I don’t hurt my team, that I don’t injure an opponent, that I defend my own as they defend theirs. I’ve suffered from going too far and never complained, never will”.
It was put to him that, sometimes he seeks to provoke, and other times he’s been the victim of provocation. But how did he feel looking back on the TV at the infamous spitting incident?
“I know, and though you don’t see [from the reel] who started it, it’s obvious- it [the spitting] was ugly. I won’t deny that for a second” he commenced. “It’s true, but it’s also very easy to say that sitting at home watching all those replays”.
“But on the field, you hear every word. An opponent’s never come up to me and said ‘Oh, Diego, I love you’. You’re always hearing things.”. He goes on. “I’ve been kicked, most times I control myself, others no, and some people can handle that better than others.”
“I know I need to work on that, but if other people know you’re quick-tempered…” he pauses. “Defenders will always look for a fella when they know they can get their goat. I never look for it, but hey, if they come looking for me, they’re gonna find me. But, you have to see who starts it”.
“I will improve on this, I know how I was five years ago and how I am now. I’ve changed and that took a lot of effort”.
Could Atleti go one better this year and split the big two, he was asked. “The gaffer’s given us the right mentality. We’ll get to the end of the season and see what we can do, that’s the idea”.
“If we get near the end, and we’re still in with a shout, then we’ll keep on fighting. When Atleti go for it, we go for it for real. Listen, 90% woulda’ said we couldn’t beat Real in the Cup final, but we’re a unit that knows how to compete.”
Having battled against all odds to claim that cup success, only the foolish would doubt Costa means it when he speaks now.
Whether he can sort out his on-field antics, well. Let’s file that one under ‘remains to be seen’.

21 August 2013

The sinner who became a Saint

A profile on Southampton's colourful new signing for the Irish Examiner print edition

Southampton’s record signing Pablo Osvaldo says he will not make the mistakes his compatriot Mario Balotelli made in the Premier League, says Joseph Sexton
In signing Pablo Daniel Osvaldo for a fee that could reach £15m (€17.5m) with add-ons, Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino has potentially pulled off a real coup for the south coast club. 

But the deal is not without its risks. 

It was under Pochettino’s hand at Espanyol that the Argentina-born Italy striker first began to bloom into a real talent, capable of performing at a high level consistently. But equally ‘Dani’ comes with something of a reputation as a bad egg. 

Pablo Daniel Osvaldo meeting Pope Francis

In recent years, that hasn’t had any great impact on his displays on the field. His initial arrival on loan at Espanyol in January 2010 lifted the club out of a sticky situation. And as Osvaldo alluded to on Monday, the faith shown in by the current Saints manager was crucial in helping him grow as a player. 

A series of enforced sales by Espanyol fatally undermined Pochettino’s later tenure, leading to his departure last November. It would be no exaggeration to say that Osvaldo’s move to Roma in 2011 was chief amongst these. 

Espanyol found his goals hard to replace as well as his ability in leading the line. 

Meanwhile, in Italy, Osvaldo proved to be amongst the better acquisitions of a mixed bag signed in Luís Enrique’s time at Roma. 

His goal return of 28 from 57 games in all competitions represented an improvement from an already impressive ratio at Espanyol. But the forward’s more colourful side also proved deeply problematic at times. 

At Espanyol, he had developed a reputation as a party boy; the football satire show Cráckovia invariably depicted him as something of a goofy Saturday Night Fever caricature. But for the most part, he delivered the goods and was a popular a figure in the dressing room and the stands. 

In Italy, however, that dynamic changed. Luís Enrique is something of a disciplinarian, and friction emerged early on in, as Roma struggled to adapt to the Spanish manager’s methods. 

Perhaps the most infamous such incident followed a November 2011 reverse at Udinese. Osvaldo got into a heated argument with his young Argentine colleague, the flashy former River Plate attacker, Erik Lamela. 

Osvaldo, according to sources, was infuriated at Lamela’s failure to give him the ball during the match. When Lamela ignored him, the incensed Osvaldo shouted “I’m older than you and this isn’t River, so answer me when I talk to you!” 

Lamela countered “Who the hell do you think you are? You’re not Maradona!” Osvaldo is then alleged to have cold clocked him with a punch to the face. Osvaldo denies this part, insisting it was a slap followed by some pushing. 

What is certain is Luís Enrique took a dim view of the matter, fining him maximum possible under Italian league rules — €50,000 — and banned him from the next weekend’s fixture. 

His reputation for partying grew even more notorious in Rome, earning him the wrath of supporters. In their customary fashion, graffiti was daubed on the training ground walls. 

Osvaldo could hardly have made matters worse then by being seen driving around Rome in a Mini festooned with the colours of Napoli — Roma’s fierce rivals — and the image of Maradona, a figure of hate for fans of other Italian sides. 

He also controversially refused to collect his runners-up medal after their Coppa Italia loss to Lazio in May; an act of petulance which saw Cesare Prandelli leave him out of the Confederations Cup squad. 

But what took the biscuit — and largely made this move possible — was the actions of his glamorous girlfriend Jimena Baron, when she took to Twitter last Thursday to bite back at the fans in Spanish. 

After calling them “pathetic fans, jerks” she proceeded to tell them “get a life. Your ignorance and immaturity is painful. You’re so thick you probably can’t even read this”. 

Not content, she went one further in her next tweet. “Here’s a universal sign for you ignorant lot who won’t stop pestering me and my boyfriend. You’ll get this one... kiss it!” 

Attached was a photo off her middle finger extended against a backdrop saying, in English, “F*** you”. 

Naturally, this served to make Osvaldo’s situation at the club untenable. But what Southampton are getting for their money is a talented footballer at a generous price. Quick, strong in the air, and athletic; physically he appears made for the Premier League. Indeed, he could well light it up. 

And as he has made clear he will relish his reunion with Pochettino. It will be intriguing to see how he fits into the manager’s plans. Pochettino generally favours a 4-2-3-1 but this gives him the option of playing two up front in certain games where he could wreak havoc alongside Rickie Lambert. 

However this works out, it’s certain that it’s not going to be boring. 

* Follow Joseph on Twitter @josephsbcn
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved


19 August 2013

An Unequal League

My Column for the Irish Examiner

Joseph Sexton

The early signs were ominous, confirming all our worst fears. Coming against the backdrop of another summer’s exodus, with England- again- proving the most popular destination, it was hard to deny that La Liga is in a much weaker state this season. While both Madrid and Barcelona have strengthened, the rest have been depleted.

Gone is Falcao, Atletico Madrid’s best player. Diego Costa may soon be following him. Real Sociedad lost Asier Illaramendi, their most important player, to Real Madrid, and it’s rumoured their next most, Antoine Griezmann may be off to Everton.

Isco broke Betis' hearts with his late header

Valencia have lost Roberto Soldado, and more are forecast to exit. Betis lost Beñat, though at least he went to Bilbao; but the Basques have lost Fernando Llorente anyway. The 3rd, 4th, 5th and 8th top scorers from last term all made moves abroad. And even all of this together is far from the full story.

We needed something to believe in. But when Barcelona went ahead at home to Levante after just two and a half minutes, the nightmare scenario appeared to have arrived. By half-time, they were six to the good- the highest ever on an opening day before the break, and equalling Levante’s worst-ever defeat. It was first time any team had scored so many before the interval since 2001.

“Look, we’ve just left the dentists”, was their new manager Joaquín Caparrós’ verdict. “Next!”.

Perhaps then, it’s fair to say that final winning of seven seemed a minor reprieve.

But then Betis reminded us all of that, even in this unequal league, the little guy can stand as equal with the very best when we least expect it. Levante, a team known for their rugged defence, were naive in the extreme in attacking Barcelona. But attacking is what Betis generally do, and Real Madrid were rattled to their core.

Of Betis’ starting 11, only two had arrived at the club for a fee. One of those other nine was Cedric, a young Congolese who arrived from second division Numancia in the summer and put in a thrilling performance. On any other day, the man of the match gong would have been his hands’ down.

It was an all action opening, where Madrid lacked fluency. With 14 minutes played, Cedric wriggled free and teed up Jorge Molina to stun the Bernabéu.

It’s true that by then Real had already a goal- rightly- chalked off for offside. But just minutes later Cedric was at it again, laying it off for Joan Verdú the sort of chance you’d expect him to routinely score.

Now the home crowd had found their object of displeasure, as Karim Benzema was caught offside. Yet again, he’d failed abysmally to time his run to the great frustration of his colleagues.

And then, Real had a second goal ruled out. Again, it would have been an own goal for Perquís but to his great credit the linesman had spotted the offside. Zinedine Zidane and Carlo Ancelotti looked aghast as Benzema failed to connect with Marcelo’s cross. Ronaldo clipped the bar before Benzema produced a stunning miss.

Betis hadn’t gone quiet and looked to attack with pace and precision. But then Isco, the debutant, presented the opening for Benzema to level. In truth, it was the most difficult chance the Frenchman had had.

Nosa headed against the bar for the visitors, Ronaldo was pulled back for offside, Betis should have had a penalty... And Benzema struck the third offside goal of the night. It was fast, furious and utterly compelling. Half time came with the score tied.

After the break it was all Real. Just 20 seconds in Ronaldo hit the bar. Di María found no luck, and the substitutes Casemiro and Álvaro Morata almost combined to put them in front. By the time the latter had a fourth goal ruled out on 84 minutes, it looked like being another of those nights for the hosts. A new regime, a new formation, but plus ça change.

Last season Betis didn’t surrender a single point in the final ten minutes, and that run looked set to continue. Then, we got one of those moments that remind us what we love about this imperfect league, and this imperfect sport that is football.

Marcelo was one of the main culprits of Madrid’s annus horribilus, but after his impressive Confederations Cup he was right on note here. A lung-busting run, a wonderfully struck cross, and an absolute gem of a header from Isco. And broken hearts for Betis fans. All their good work had come to naught.

Betis’ spokesman- the former Real legend Rafael Gordillo- was sanguine after the game. “We’ve made some mistakes, we’ve been unlucky, and we have to congratulate them”.

Emilio Butragueño was the first figure to be wheeled out by Real Madrid. “A very hard match. Betis were fantastic. Isco’s input was superb, both the assist and header. Man of the match,” he continued. “But it’s too soon to evaluate the team.” When asked about a certain Welsh winger, he laughed. “Bale? We only speak of our own players”.


“A fine dance to begin with” read Marca’s headline following Barcelona’s victory. Indeed it had been, as they waltzed through Levante. Neymar, only a 60th minute substitute, failed to score. But both Pedro and Alexis Sánchez did. And under Tata Martino, that old incessant pressing returned, leading directly to Lionel Messi’s first goal.

Martino noted “We’ve done things that were, let’s say, put on hold. Like the high line. Those are good signs.” Xavi also struck a similar note. “Last season when Tito [Vilanova] wasn’t there we didn’t train tactics as much, how to pressurise the opponent and we lost our way”.

One man who certainly doing things his way was Diego Costa. His way in that he continued his comic book villain act, resuming his running battle with half the Sevilla side from last season.

But also in his decisive contribution. The Brazil striker fired Atlético ahead on 35 minutes. Diego Perotti then equalised two minutes later with a staggering long range effort.

On 78 minutes, Mario Suárez robbed the ball before playing an incisive pass. Diego Costa produced a fine first touch and a finish to match. 30 seconds into added time, Cebolla Rodriguez scored a sublime individual effort, cutting in from the right and beating several Sevilla players to end the contest.

Real Sociedad 2 Getafe 0
Valladolid 1 Athletic Bilbao 2
Valencia 1 Málaga 0
Barcelona 7 Levante 0
Real Madrid 2 Betis 1
Sevilla 1 Atlético Madrid 3

Rayo Vallecano v Elche
Almería v Villarreal
Celta Vigo v Espanyol

Follow Joseph on Twitter @josephsbcn


14 May 2013

All or nothing as Benfica seek salvation- Europa League final preview

My Europa League final preview for Eircom Sports Hub

Joseph Sexton
  • Chelsea 3 Basle 1 (5-2 on agg)   Chelsea advanced to a European final for the second successive season with a comprehensive Europa League semi-final second leg defeat of Basle at Stamford Bridge.
It was all set up to be the most glorious season in Benfica's modern history. Leading the league for the majority of the season, they knew they could clinch the title with a win at Porto. A surprise draw at Estoril had upped the stakes, reducing their point lead from four to two ahead the penultimate round of the Liga Sagres.

After a breathless opening where goalkeeper Artur's error had allowed Porto to equalise Lima's opener, they had resisted everything Porto could throw at them after the break. With the clock ticking they were content to defend, with one hand on the title while the hosts looked fresh out of ideas.

Then, as the game entered the 92nd minute a throw in found its way the substitute Kelvin. The Brazilian beat Artur with a first time shot, and suddenly the title was out of Benfica's hands. The manager Jorge Jesus immediately sank to his knees in anguish. Unbeaten all season domestically, they couldn't have picked a worst time to be beaten.

Trudging off the field like a zombie, he could barely believe the fate that had befallen his team. The last place in the world he wanted to be was in the enemy's den, answering the questions of a Sport TV reporter.

"When you lose like that, I believe it has to leave a scar. It hurts because of how it happened, at the death, a ball played forward like that. It's hard to take with the final coming up on Wednesday. All defeats hurt but this one all the more so emotionally."

Yet those scars will have to heal quickly.  A year ago, they lost in similar circumstances to hand Porto the title. Considering the sparkling football they've produced in Jesus' four-year tenure - the longest of any Benfica manager since the 1950 - a solitary league title in 2010 looks a scant return.

There are parallels in the situations of the respective managers of the Europa League finalists. Both have been playing for their jobs - Jesus, his current one; Benítez for the next one. Both have had to juggle their resources across multiple competitions. Frank Lampard's 88th-minute winner offered Benítez the sweetest of vindications in a season where he's been attacked by press and supporters alike. Stronger on paper, those late, late goals leaves the Londoners in a stronger position mentally than the Lisbon club.

Benfica, of course, is a club steeped in history. Winners of more league titles than any other Portuguese side, they also created the second dynasty in European Cup history in the early 1960s. That dynasty came to an abrupt end when their Hungarian coach Bela Guttman stormed out of the club having been refused a pay rise following his second consecutive European Cup title.

Guttman it is said cursed the club upon his exit, warning that 'not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever win another European crown’. In the last 50 years, they've contested six UEFA finals, losing every time. Not even a prayer from the great Eusebio at Guttman's resting place in Vienna ahead of the 1990 European Cup final could lift the course, as Sven Goran Eriksson's side went down 1-0 to AC Milan.

Benítez last week praised Jesus in an interview on Portuguese radio. “What I know is that he's a great coach, who's not afraid of hard work,” said the Chelsea interim manager. “He's tactically savvy, and very competitive. He's got some excellent players, such as Pablo Aimar who played under me at Valencia, a really clever attacker, and Oscar Cardozo, who always scores goals. But I also have David Luiz and Ramires who played for him, so I'll be looking to them to give me the inside track.”

Jesus was slammed in many quarters for the perceived negativity in Saturday's title decider, particularly in the last half hour. More than this, his side's big game temperament has been called into question. The former seems a touch harsh. While it's true that Benfica altered their usual 4-4-2 in playing with one up front, they had played 12 more games than Porto and looked fatigued as they dropped deeper, but Porto for all their possession rarely looked like getting in behind - until the goal.

But the fact remains that Jesus is an attacking coach, and Porto are a side blessed with talent in the final third. Having lost Axel Witsel and Javi García in the summer, two midfielders who expertly screen the defence, Jesus' answer has, for the most part, been to adopt an all out attack approach. To do anything else would involve the placing of square pegs in round holes.

Nowhere was this illustrated better in the semi-final tie against Fenerbahce. In the first leg in Istanbul he adopted a cagey approach. His side were lucky to emerge with a one-goal defeat. In the return leg in Lisbon, having reverted to type, the Turks were blown away. Indeed, trailing with 10 men in last years Champions League quarter-final second leg against Chelsea his side came to life, almost knocking the eventual winners out in the process. Finding the right balance will be key here if they are to reach to promised land.


10 May 2013

O Clássico – Battle of the big guns

My preview of the Portuguese title decider for Back Page Football

It couldn’t have been scripted better. All season long in Portugal’s Primeira Liga, Benfica and Porto have been clear at the top. Neither side have been beaten, and neither have let up, leaving surprise package Paços de Ferreira trailing in their wake. Now in the penultimate round of games, they go head to head.
When the Lisbon side took on sixth place Estoril on Monday night knowing a win would restore their 4 point lead over their northern rivals, they finally blinked.

In the end, they couldn’t overturn Jefferson’s opener. 1-1 it finished. giving fresh life to the battle at the top. On Saturday night, they travel to the dragon’s den for a clássico that will define the domestic season. Win and Benfica will be crowned champions; lose and they’ll surrender control of their destiny.
The stakes could not be higher for Jorge Jésus’s side. On Wednesday, they’ll take on Chelsea in the Europa League final. Ten days later, they’ll duke it out with Guimarães in the final of the Portuguese Cup. Navigate the coming fortnight, and they’ll emulate André Villas-Boas’ treble winning campaign of 2011. But after a hard-fought campaign, they could end up with nothing.
All or nothing. Jésus has endured his ups and downs in his four years at the helm. For better or worse, he’s been defined by his stunning first season, when a free-wheeling, attacking Benfica side ran riot to claim their first league crown in five seasons.
The problem is that they’ve never quite scaled the same heights. A year later, they had to endure the triple coronation of Porto. They even missed the boat on an all-Portuguese Europa League final in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, falling to SC Braga in the semi-finals.
That first season left him with enough credit in the bank to continue, and they excelled for three quarters of last season. Having dumped Manchester United out in the group stages, they gave Chelsea an almighty scare before bowing out in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. But then fatigue caught up, leaving Porto to steal a march on the home stretch.
His opposite number, Vítor Pereira, is also no stranger to the vagaries of fate. Number two to Villas-Boas, his elevation owed more to circumstance than design. The timing of Villas-Boas departure caught the club hierarchy by surprise. Domingos Paciência would been their first choice but after quitting Braga, he’d already taken charge at Sporting.
The president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa opted for continuity. But Pereira endured a testing start to the campaign. Despite holding on to all but Radamel Falcao from the treble side, they flopped in the Champions League. With Domingos Paciência available again, Pinto da Costa’s patience was wearing thin.
Their subsequent title defence sparked a change of heart.
Both sides entered the season depleted following the summer transfer market. For Porto, that meant losing Hulk, the driving force behind recent successes. This is a fact of life in Portuguese football, and one against which Porto have repeatedly proven adept at insuring themselves.
His replacement was already waiting there, in the wings. The Colombian James Rodríguez had steadily assumed greater responsibility in the side last term. This season he’s not been found wanting in the Brazilian’s absence, chipping in with 10 league goals.
Matters proved tougher for Benfica. Having already lost Javi García to Manchester City, Zenit St Petersburg came in with an 11th hour bid to meet Axel Witsel’s buyout clause. With the Portuguese transfer window already shut, they were in no position to reinforce.
But Jésus has adapted. Without those two guarding the defence, the task has fallen to Nemanja Matic and Enzo Pérez; the latter of whom is expected to return from injury this weekend. The step-up proved too great in the Champions League, where they finished behind Barcelona and Celtic in their group.
But domestically, having played with a solitary striker in recent times, we’ve seen a return to a more attacking style by necessity. Oscar Cardozo, the beanpole Paraguayan, had continued to bang in the goals. Alongside him, the Brazilian Lima has been in scintillating form in their 4-4-2.
Porto’s template remains 4-3-3. With James injured in their previous encounter in January, a thrilling 2-2 draw, Pereira opted to play Steven Defour in a spoiling role on the right.
The Belgian has failed to nail down a consistent starting place, so expect to see a midfield three here with Fernando at the base. Lucho González will pull the strings alongside a standout performer from last summer’s European Championships, João Moutinho.
Alex Sandro has been passed fit at left back and his work down the left flank with Silvestre Varela ensures a busy evening for Benfica’s right-back Lorenzo Malgarejo. Nicolás Gaitán, Benfica’s main creative outlet, has to keep his defensive discipline to assist on that side of the park.
At the tip of the Porto attack, the Colombia international Jackson Martínez has been in exceptional form, finding the net on 33 occasions in all competitions – including one in these sides’ last meeting  at Benfica’s Estádio da Luz.
The clash will define both sides’ seasons, and most likely the future both coaches. Vítor Pereira – linked yesterday with a move to Everton – has nothing else to play for. Equally, he knows his chances of staying in his post hinges on the outcome here. Having played 47 games this season to Benfica’s 56, their freshness – and home advantage – offers them the edge.
Jorge Jésus, for his part has everything to lose. But he refused to dwell on talk of ‘dark clouds’ following Monday night’s draw. Speaking on Thursday, he was clear where his focus lies:
Outside of Portugal, it’s true that winning the Europa League is more recognised; but our priority has been the league title from day one.
If they go all the way to claim a treble to match Porto’s two years ago, no doubt he’ll be hailed as a messiah. But should they bomb, he knows he can expect to be crucified by the Benfiquistas.
Kick-off: Saturday 20:30 GMT
Probable Teams
Porto: Hélton; Danilo, Mangala, Otamendi, Alex Sandro; Lucho González, Fernando, Moutinho: James Rodríguez, Jackson Martínez; Varela
Benfica: Artur; Pereira, Jardel, Garay, Malgarejo; Sálvio, Matic, Pérez, Gaitán; Lima, Cardozo
Referee: Pedro Proença. Will be in the spotlight here. In last season’s run-in, he over-ruled his linesman to allow Maicon’s winner for Porto to stand when these sides met with the title in play. Subsequent replays showed the assistant had been correct.