31 January 2013

Spanish Inquest: Cup runneth over

My column for Eircom SportsHub

Manol de dios- Agirretxe condemns Barça to their first league defeat of the season

In the end, it was almost an after-thought. Attention was firmly trained on the Bernabéu before a ball was kicked in anger on week 21 of the season, just as it remained on Wednesday. Last week's mini-crisis at Real Madrid hogged the headlines as the recriminations grew.

In many ways, the cup was a welcome distraction for Real Madrid who nevertheless went into the game off the back of their best form of the season. The Spanish league calendar restarts with the return on week 20, when the order of games from the first half of the season is repeated.

It's too late to make good on a woeful opening half of this term for Real, but they appear to have taken those early setbacks personally. It all started to go wrong when Iker Casillas and Pepe clashed heads on the opening day at home to Valencia. Real might have been out of sight but instead were fortunate to get away with a 1-1 draw as Roberto Soldado's goal was incorrectly flagged offside.

If the feeling was that this had been aberration, then by week two it was already a full-blown crisis. Expected to dismiss little Getafe without fuss, a second-half showing of staggering stupidity at the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez saw them go down 2-1 to the club from the south of the city.

The revenge has been brutal. Either side of being dumped out of the cup by Real, Valencia were ripped apart at the Mestalla last week, conceding five without reply. This week, Getafe's moment of reckoning arrived. Having held out in tense opening period, a ten-minute Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick left them licking their wounds on the short trip home.

Barcelona began their return run by showing a rare glimpse of their own mortality. Having walloped Real Sociedad on the first day, their encounter at the Anoeta was already a far cagier affair even before Gerard Pique's sending-off. They looked to have weathered the storm after a heavy deflection beat Victor Valdés for Chory Castro's equaliser. But 30 seconds into injury time, Manol Agirretxe slid through to deliver their first defeat of the campaign.

That defeat might have come as early as week two. On a balmy Sunday evening in Pamplona, Barca looked uncharacteristically leggy and off-key against Osasuna. With their pressing all over the place, each stray pass brought the home crowd to their feet and, leading since the 17th minute there, really looked no way back for the Catalans/

There was, but it came off the back of a moment of monumental misfortune. The build up to Lionel Messi's equaliser contained the non-award of an offside and then an expert — if entirely unintentional — pass off the heel of referee César Muniz Fernández at its closing stages. In the protests that followed, several cards were flashed; including a red for Francisco Punal. Minutes after all died down, the Argentine popped up again to net the winner.

This time round, luck had nothing to do with it. Despite Robert Loé equalising Messi's opener, the home side were 3-1 up by the break. After it, the world footballer of the year added his third and fourth, taking him to 16 goals from his last nine starts.

The jokers in this king's cup pack are Atlético Madrid. Back in week two a Falcao hat-trick had given a glimpse of things to come as they vanquished last year's Europa League finalists Bilbao 4-0 at the Vicente Calderon. Here, there was no Falcao and instead a 3-0 victory for the struggling Basques.

“Without Falcao, Atleti are a mid-table side” ran the Marca headline on Monday. Perhaps a harsh assessment as undoubtedly this had been the most complete performance seen this time round for Marcelo Bielsa's side by some distance. But there's a grain of truth in it too. Without their attacking fulcrum, they've won just two of their seven league games, and the bad news is that barring a miracle they'll have to make do without him for their midweek cup game.

Which brings us to last team making up the quartet, Sevilla. If you've heard reports of their saleable assets being linked to all and sundry this transfer window, then it's not without foundation. Sevilla's financial issues are the sort that most of the league's sides would warmly welcome. Rather then being mired in debt or in administration, the need to sell has been precipitated by their first annual loss in the last seven.

A fortnight ago they dispensed with their manager, the former Real Madrid midfielder Michel. In truth, probably a better pundit than a football coach, the telegenic Michel was replaced by the former Valencia boss Unai Emery.

It's far too early to offer any objective assessment of his work to date. But given his previous record at Valencia, the club's president José María del Nido will be hoping Emery can elicit a better response from what still remains one of the division's more talented squads and that the momentum gained from their Monday win over Granada will offset the effects of having a day less to prepare for Thursday's semi-final.

Original article here on Eircom SportsHub 

24 January 2013

Spanish Inquest: Banking on it

My Eircom SportsHub column

Pipe dream- Valencia's Nou Mestalla arena sits uncompleted

Stop me if you think you've heard this one before. A club breaks into the Champions League. Not only that, but then they go on to exceed all expectations. Giddied, all sense of financial probity goes out the window. Years later, they're still shaking their heads at the almighty mess left behind.
Firstly, it should be pointed out that Valencia are not Leeds. They've never quite gone into freefall, but rather have remained remarkably competitive. Not only that, but they've performed herculean feats in reducing the club's debt- which stood at an eye-watering €500m back in 2008.
In a country coming apart at the seams, they should be lauded for their canny work in undoing past mistakes. But now, they face the worst possible of fates: falling under the control of the regional government.
That may sound like quite a statement. After all, Valencia are famously saddled with two stadia: one can't afford to complete and another they can't sell following the collapse of the country's property market.
Their president — the economist, Manuel Llorente — carries his own share of the blame for what went wrong. But equally, his manoeuvring of the club back to a healthier financial state shouldn't be ignored. The genesis of the current problems can be tracked back to the departure of Rafa Benítez in 2004 following the most successful period in the club's history.
Benítez's war the American pair Hicks & Gillet was presaged by a similar falling-out over control of transfer policy at Valencia. After claiming the league title — his second in three years — along with the UEFA Cup, the manager departed for Anfield.
Having won that little battle at great cost what Valencia permitted next defies all explanation. With wage costs already spiralling out of control, in came Claudio Ranieri. Moderately successful in his first spell at the club, his second spell bordered on farce. Llorente and company effectively handed over the keys to the till; Ranieri embarked on a binge of signing average players for extravagant fees and exorbitant wages who proved difficult to shift on under his successors.
Any list of examples would go on and on, but the outcome was ruinous. At least amongst that sorry list came David Villa in 2005 and with the maturation of David Silva and later Juan Mata there remained the bones of a decent squad and— crucially — saleable assets.
But the other key factor was the arrival of Unai Emery in 2008 as manager following the rancorous reign of Ronald Koeman. Sometimes, you only appreciate a good thing once you've lost it. Valencia's fans are a notoriously intolerant bunch, and Emery like Benítez before him didn't escape the boo boys. His crime? Critics point to some 50 leads squandered in all competitions, or his inability to stay close to Real and Barcelona. But finishing third the last three seasons was as impressive as the resultant Champions League cash was crucial. His contract wasn't renewed last summer, and they've been well off the pace as a result.
About 18 months ago, it was reported that a deal with the local government and banks would see the remaining €250m debt wiped clean — and also allow work to resume on the new stadium. It was never going to be as simple as that. Rather, the regional government guaranteed a loan of €81m from a local bank to ease the club's cash flow crisis. That bank was subsumed into Bankia; a mega-bank laden with toxic assets created by the national government. With Bankia being bailed out to the tune of €20bn last year — and the regional government's bond rating long since relegated to junk status — this week's default on interest payments by the club saw it effectively turned over to Valencian government.
What a cruel fate this could prove. Of all of Spain's 17 autonomous communities, Valencia wins hands down in any race to the bottom for fiscal mismanagement. There's the airport in Castellón, completed but never opened in 2011 — as demand was neither there, nor ever had been. Later it even emerged that its runway, not being of standard dimensions, was worse than useless. This is but one example of a litany of failed vanity, pork barrel projects.
Then there's the composition of the government itself. Ironically a stronghold of the right-wing Partido Popular, who rode back into national government with the promise — more than fulfilled — to push through incredible austerity measures, the Valencian branch has long been a viper's nest of clientelism and corruption. For three years we saw the grinning face of local party chief Francisco Camps entering and exiting court hearings as part of the infamous Gurtel case daily on our televisions. His final vindication in the supreme court proved a pyrrhic victory for just two months after being re-elected again, he resigned his post as president of Valencian community.
The parallels are there. Valencia the club, and Valencia the region both got burned flying too high on a wave of euphoria and idiocy. But while Valencia the club has long since become a model case on how to slash expenses whilst somehow managing to keep producing the goods, the region's record in this area is dire and only moving in one direction. What this means for the club going forward having brought in Ernesto Valverde as manager is anyone's guess, but the prognosis doesn't look good.

Original article here on Eircom SportsHub

23 January 2013

Pochettino plotting a Spanish raid?

A follow up on Pochettino's potential targets for the Southern Daily Echo (my name is missing from the byline for some reason..)

NEW Saints boss Mauricio Pochettino is expected to return to Espanyol as he seeks to make an impact at St Mary’s.
The Argentine was in charge of the La Liga Club for three and a half years prior to his sacking last November.
And Spanish sources have told the Daily Echo that Pochettino could turn his interest to several of his former players.
Among them is attacking midfielder Joan Verdu, who has been Espanyol’s best player this season by some distance, and on loan striker Samuel Longo. And Pochettino is also being linked back in Spain with his former Espanyol loanee midfielder Phillipe Coutinho.
The Brazilian youngster, 20, was previously linked with Saints earlier this month when Nigel Adkins was still in charge.
Coutinho – said to be on the verge of joining Liverpool from Milan – played the second half of last season on loan to Espanyol.
Despite being a selling club, Espanyol are expected to be very keen to hang onto prize asset Verdu, whose contract expires this summer.
A product of Barcelona’s youth system, the 29-year-old was signed by Pochettino from La Coruna in the summer of 2009.
Verdu has scored six goals in 20 appearances this season, compared to scoring only five goals in each of his previous two campaigns under Pochettino.
The new Saints manager also sanctioned the loan signing of Longo from Inter Milan last summer.
But with Espanyol’s main striker Sergio García back following a lengthy injury layoffs, Longo has not featured too much recently to Inter’s annoyance.
Inter are believed to be keen on recalling the Italian Under 21 international – but only with a view to finding a new club.
Boca Juniors forward Nicolas Blandi is also believed to be close to joining Espanyol, pushing Longo further down the pecking order.
Sources have also told the Echo that Pochettino could be interested in his former Espanyol keeper Carlos Kameni.
He is rated as one of the best shot-stoppers in the Spanish league and capped 70 times by Cameroon.
Kameni left under a cloud last January, citing a lack of ambition from the club.
However, the excellent form of Wily Caballero means he's been forced to play back-up at Málaga.
Pochettino has also been linked to Anderlecht’s versatile Argentine defensive midfielder Lucas Biglia.
Arsenal are believed to have been monitoring the 26-year-old, who is rated in the £8m category.


21 January 2013

The facts about Saints boss Mauricio Pochettino

Following the shock sacking of Nigel Adkins at Southampton, the South Coast daily, Southern Daily Echo, asked me to write this profile of the new man Mauricio Pochettino

Just who is Mauricio Pochettino? Understandably, that’s a question many Saints fans will be shaking their heads to following the departure of Nigel Adkins. Understandable, too, is the disappointment that a man responsible for back to back promotions was shoved so unceremoniously aside. This was cemented by the fact that Adkins had overseen an impressive turnaround in form following a difficult start to the season.
But, in many ways, this also marks a bold and intriguing move on Saints’ part. Some may have been noted that Pochettino left his former side Espanyol mired in the relegation places last November, just as Adkins was engineering Saints’ ascent away from the lower reaches. But as far it goes with Pochettino, this only tells part of the tale.
Not only was he La Liga’s longest serving manager, he was also the third longest serving manager in the club’s 112-year history. A legend there from his playing days, he had proved himself a competent and innovative coach. Regarded as one of the most promising young managers in the league, sources close to the Real Madrid hierarchy had been leaked information that he was seriously under consideration for the Bernabéu job while José Mourinho pimped himself around the Premier League last April. It speaks a lot for Pochettino’s character that he was so forthright in dismissing a move away from Espanyol at the time.

It also says a lot for his reputation in Spain for honesty and loyalty that his sincerity was never questioned.
Six months is a long time in football, but the writing had been on the wall for some time at the Barcelona-based club. Money is a scarce commodity in Spain outside the big two. A grossly unequal TV deal saw third-placed finishers Valencia receive as much from TV as the team that finished bottom of the pile in England, Wolverhampton Wanderers. When Michu rolled up at Swansea City last summer, it wasn’t because he was some unknown in Spain.
Rather, his paltry release clause of £2m was too much for teams eying him up after an excellent campaign with Rayo Vallecano.
Espanyol have it worse than most. After nearly two decades without a home, they moved into a new 40,000 seater stadium on the outskirts of the town in 2009. Rather than providing a financial fillip, it proved a drain on resources. Dwindling TV money and growing debt meant the club were forced to do more with less.
In every transfer window since, they’ve been forced to sell their best players. In their place came a ragtag mixture of youth teamers and short-term loanees. In effect, Pochettino was having the rug pulled out from under him every six months. Yet, rather than complain, he carried out his duties diligently, keeping the club consistently competitive despite all this instability. Last summer’s clear-out was simply a step too far. With eight first-teamers injured, and a mixed bag of recruits insufficient to paper over the cracks, Espanyol endured a dire start, losing eight of the first 13 games under Pochettino.
Off the field, the board were at war, resigning en masse in October.
Back on the park, foolish and unfortunate red cards allied with moments of rotten luck – for example, a 2-1 loss at Valencia to a last minute penalty in his penultimate game in charge – meant even better performances went unrewarded. The Valencia loss was Espanyol’s third last minute defeat of the term, and his side also picked up their SIXTH red card of the La Liga campaign in that game.
A man who once famously claimed to send his kids to bed in Espanyol pyjamas, the circumstances of the job had become intolerable for Pochettino.
And yet even as results improve under his successor – Javier Aguirre – it is impossible to find anyone connected to the club with a bad word to say about Pochettino. Aside from the sense of genuine affection, there’s a recognition that a good coach who had worked miracles became a victim of circumstances.
What Southampton are getting is not just a clever and adaptable manager. They are also getting a man for whom youth development is in his DNA. In that respect, the marriage could just be a perfect one. But first he’ll have to win over a fan base understandably angered at Adkins’ departure.
There is more than one way to skin a cat but, in terms of harnessing young talent, Spain seems to be getting the job done better than most. That’s not just borne of financial necessity, but also methodology. Any youth system capable of producing the likes of Theo WalcottGareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain must be onto something already. A look at Saints’ current first team squad shows three home-grown players who have appeared in the Premier League this term – Luke Shaw, James Ward-Prowse and Adam Lallana.
Espanyol’s academy record is even more impressive than Saints’ recent one.
They have produced a remarkable 15 Spanish internationals across all age levels this century alone, and some 40 current regulars in Spain’s top two divisions is testament to this. Talk to anyone inside the club who witnessed his shake up of their set-up, and they’ll come back to you with glowing words.
One such man is youth coach Sergi Angulo, since departed. “Our philosophy is based on the collective concept, with two touches max – build the attack through the best pass, from the back; making the best decision for the group,” he said. “That’s why we produce players who understand teamwork, and how to ‘read’ the game”
Another is Mark O’Sullivan, a former League of Ireland player currently coaching underage in the Swedish top flight. Given that O’Sullivan previously studied at Ajax and Barcelona for his UEFA licenses, his words carry weight.
“There’s a clear divide between practice in Northern Europe and Spain, and you see this clearly at Espanyol,” he told me. “In Sweden, Britain, even in Holland, there’s too much emphasis on individual, isolated training. “You take one kid aside, get him to work on his dribbling, or his control, whatever. The thing is, I’ve never seen a player tackled in a match by a training cone.
“At Espanyol – and I saw this too at lower division sides in the area – it’s fully integrated.
“Forget the cones. Set up a bunch of kids in a match-type scenario, and let them work it out for themselves. “It’s the closest thing to street football. “Once the scenario’s over, they’re taken aside, asked questions, asked for their thoughts. This can go on for minutes. “Then you set them up again, let them at it, and see if they can do better; invariably, they do.
“This is the key – let them arrive at the answer, rather than dictating it to them. “This is how you develop game intelligence, and this is where Spain beats us hands down. There’s too much of a tendency in Northern Europe to breed athletes and isolated training exacerbates the problem.
“So you end up with guys who are fine physical specimens, even with great technique in isolated situations. “That’s great. But you also need to be able to apply that in matches, think fast, make decisions instantly. “I saw this right across the age levels at Espanyol.
“In Sweden – and Britain is no different – there’s an alarming drop in players’ capacity in this area once they hit 13. “Solving this ... that’s our biggest challenge.”


Pep's backing for new Saints boss Pochettino

Guardiola's a fan of Pochettino, as I explained in this piece for the Southern Daily Echo

Mauricio Pochettino’s remarkable work with the Espanyol youth academy helped win him a dream job with Saints – and the backing of ex-Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola!
The 40-year-old Argentinian was sacked by the La Liga club towards the end of last November with Espanyol bottom of the table.
In his last 20 league games with the club, stretching back to the end of last season, the new Saints boss won just three and lost 13.
During his 145 games in the Spanish top flight with Barcelona-based Espanyol, Pochettino’s win ratio was 34 per cent with 44 per cent of games lost.
But it was his work with Espanyol’s academy that mainly attracted him to Saints chairmanNicola Cortese.
Pochettino is held in high regard in Spain, and Bayern Munich boss in waiting Guardiola has said: “I admire him for his ideals, his character. The foundations of his principles are always the same.”
Saints’ academy has produced gems in recent years such as Theo WalcottGareth BaleAlex ChamberlainAdam Lallana and now Luke Shaw.
But Espanyol’s record is even more impressive, and Pochettino takes a lot of credit for that.
They have produced a remarkable 15 Spanish internationals across all age levels since the turn of the Millennium.
Around forty players currently appearing in Spain’s top two divisions have come from Espanyol.
Cortese has said he wants to build a Barcelona-type model at Saints. Seven of the Barca side that started the 2009 Champions League final were home-grown, and Cortese believes he can oversee such a system at St Mary’s.


16 January 2013

Spanish Inquest: Seeing red

My Eircom SportsHub column

Why always me?

“We demand precision, consistency and neutrality, with just one small caveat; that it’s in our favour” - Andoni Zubizarreta
Such were the withering sentiments expressed by the former Barcelona goalkeeper in 2010. The issue was different; he was referring to the skewed and partial media coverage that plagues Spain’s football reporting. But the sentiment might as easily be applied to a more current issue; that of refereeing, another blight upon La Liga’s credibility.
The objective here is not to kick the leagues officials — though God knows, they’re deserving of a kick or two — but rather the circumstances they’re forced to operate in this season. In short, the vexed issue of official directives.
Discussion on refereeing, often heated, is nothing new. At times we demand nothing more than consistency; at others, common sense. But often as not, the two are mutually exclusive.
In England, this has been brought into sharp relief by Mike Dean’s red cards at the Emirates, the latter of which was rescinded to near — if not universal — approval.
Graham Poll’s column in the Mail is often illuminating on such matters. Referees are put under tremendous pressure not just by the glare of the cameras, or the speed of the modern game, but also by the mishmash of directives which are often hastily cobbled together depending on issue du jour.
Dean deserves sympathy, as Vincent Kompany’s red card fell under this umbrella, if not that elusive concept of common sense. The recent trend to allow no middle ground on simulation is another cursory example of well-meaning but ill-thought diktats. Suddenly it seems no longer possible that certain collisions can be neither a foul nor a dive.
But this wouldn’t be much of a Spanish inquest if we continue to tread this path, so let’s look at La Liga where — in certain instances — the law of unintended consequences has been taken to dizzyingly daft heights this season.
The LFP, the league’s governing body, declared a war on three fronts ahead of the start of the current season. Dissent, both from players and managerial staff is something I think we can all sign up to. The third prong, that of handball, is much more contentious.
That concerning player dissent, while sparking occasional controversies, can for the most part be credited as a success. When Sergio Ramos was awarded a second yellow for a crude challenge in last week’s Copa del Rey clash with Celta, his mouth landed him with an additional four-game suspension to that mandatory for dismissal.
In the heat of the moment, Ramos called the referee ‘shameless’ which, while not quite crossing the line of calling the referee’s honesty into account, brought with it a further four match sanction. As well as Saturday’s limp draw at Osasuna, he will miss a potential semi-final clash with Barcelona in the Copa.
Fair or excessive, it was at least by the book. Which brings us back to Zubizarreta’s words.
Naturally enough, a certain section of the press put forward the view that his punishment was conditioned by the crest on his shirt. Those doing so were put back in their box when the case of Espanyol’s Sergio García was brought up; in November the Espanyol forward suffered the same punishment in identical circumstances.
Then there’s the issue concerning sanctions applied to touchline staff. Again, in the greater scheme of things, this one seems a no-brainer. Whether it’s managers berating referees or screaming at hapless fourth officials, most find this a side of the game we can do without.
But here, we’ve seen matters taken to extreme degrees. As with any clampdown, there are casualties; and the opening weeks saw a spate of those. The problem is that officials have taken the directive as carte blanche to banish managers for rather more innocuous transgressions.
Simply questioning a decision, or asking for its rationale, has been deemed beyond the pale. Rather than being applied to those impugning the referee’s integrity, we’ve seen those with calm and passive body language being furiously pointed in the direction of the stand.
Indeed, in the whole of last season, we had a total of seven managerial sending offs. Only ten weeks into this, that number had been breached. That week, Rayo’s Paco Jémez became the latest, following a tame exchange. “This is becoming a dictatorship. How can you justify sending someone off for doing nothing?”
But rules are rules, and directives are directives. Even when the law is an ass. And this leads us to final theatre of this ‘war’.
Ball to hand? Hand to ball? Should that which is it let go routinely in other areas of the field be an offence inside the penalty area? Such matters inflame passions because, as with many refereeing calls, it’s a mater of interpretation. Except it isn’t; not in Spain, anyway.
The concept of unintentional handball is now an extinct species. The referee’s ability to draw distinction, to take into account context, has been eliminated. In its place resides a iron-cast certainty of singular idiocy — every handball is an automatic yellow card offence. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about an unfortunate midfielder doing his level best to draw his arm behind his back, or a defender impersonating a goalkeeper on the line. It doesn’t matter if the player’s already on a yellow. The result is the same. Every time.
So the next time you find yourself bemoaning a lack of consistency, remember; be careful what you wish for — because you might not like it when you get it.

Original article here on Eircom SportsHub

09 January 2013

Spanish Inquest: Paciȇncia to prove a virtue?

My Eircom SportsHub column

Domingos joins the Portuguese colony in A Coruña

Patience is not a quality generally associated with football club, even less so in Spain. Itchy trigger fingers abound to the extent that José Mourinho’s two and a half years at the Bernabéu makes him the longest serving incumbent.

It’s been a little bit different this season, however. Call it an outbreak of common sense, or call it an adjustment to the dire financial realities of the league’s clubs, but to date only three managers have left their posts. The last was Deportivo La Coruña’s José Luis Oltra over the Christmas break, with the side bottom of the table with just two wins to their name.

Surprisingly, it marked the first sacking at Depor since John Toshack’s in 1997. “We felt the change was necessary” said the president Augusto Lendoiro. “The situation was irreversible”. Oltra had led the club back to the top flight as champions of the Segunda last term. “I’m surprised to be honest”, he told the press after his removal. “It’s not really normal at this club”.

In his place Deportivo made an intriguing appointment in the former FC Porto forward Domingos Paci?ncia. 18 months ago, his star was burning bright. In his two years in charge of unfashionable Sporting Braga, not only did he edge Porto out of Champions League qualification — achieving their highest ever league finish — but his reign culminated in an unlikely Europa League final appearance against the northern giants in Dublin’s Aviva.

They lost on the night to a solitary Radamel Falcao strike, and what ensued proved one of thoseSliding Doors moments. Had André Villas-Boas stayed on, the Colombian might well have stayed too to have a crack at the Champions League. Had the Tottenham boss departed immediately rather than dragging his heels, then it’s almost certain that Domingos — who’d already signalled his intention to quit — would have been his replacement.

Instead, Domingos moved to Sporting Lisbon with the Porto boss embarking on an ill-starred reign at Chelsea. There’s a remarkable parallel between the two coaches’ fates. Both were criticised for their failure to adapt tactically, and both were removed early; some might say, even prematurely.

Certainly, that’s a prevailing sentiment amongst a large section of the Sporting support. Whereas Villas-Boas’ reputation was built around thrilling high octane football, Domingos’ Braga were by necessity a more pragmatic outfit built around an obdurate defence. This was somewhat at odds with Sporting’s association with slick, passing play.

Like Villas-Boas, the initial signs were promising. Throughout the Autumn, Sporting played some incredible stuff, with results to match. But by November, both had vanished and Sporting reverted to the Braga template of playing on the break. The final straw came when a full strength XI failed to dispatch a largely reserve-based second division Moreirense selection in the League Cup.

At the same time, Villas-Boas’ successor Vítor Pereira was under immense pressure. Indeed, part of Sporting’s stated rationale in sacking Domingos was that he was flirting with his former club. Aided in no small part by Benfica’s collapse Pereira’s side retained the title, giving the incumbent a reprieve while leaving Domingos out in the cold.

So now, rather than a return to Portugal’s second city, Domingos has rolled in at A Coruña, 300km to the north. And it’s not just for the two regions historic links that he’ll be feeling at home.

Deportivo’s squad is stuffed with Portuguese, from stalwarts like the centre half Zé Castro to a raft of summer loanees brokered by the super agent Jorge Mendes. Within this colony resides the promising young trio of Bruno Gama, Pizzi and Nélson Oliveíra, whose performances were sporadic under Oltra.

At the weekend, Depor marked the occasion with their first win in what feels like an eternity against Málaga. The performance was a nod the Braga old school: a gritty 1-0, eked out of minimal possession. But despite their inability to dominate the game, they finished with more — and better — chances the Andalusian side.

“I think we can can play much better than this”, conceded Domingos. “Four training sessions is nothing. We can improve. Everyone has their own style, and while the players understood some concepts, we can do more. But when you win, everything looks sweeter. We knew it would be a tough game because Málaga are a top side.

“This win gives us confidence, but now we have to think of the next one, then the next, then the next”.

Original article here on Eircom SportsHub