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 

No comments: