Starting at the other end

Just for a change I think it might be nice to start at the other end of the football scale and leave the big boys for later on – a bit like starting Match of the Day with Watford v Burnley. That’s going to annoy somebody, but you know what I mean.  Another reason is that there are no league games now for a fortnight because the next round of the King’s Cup will be played next weekend, so there’s time for pause and reflection.

 One particularly interesting match occurred on Saturday in Irun, on the Spain-France border (or if you’re Basque, on the border between the south and the north of the Basque Country).  Real Union, once a force in Spanish football, were founder members of the professional league in 1928 and by then had already won the King’s Cup on four occasions.  Now considerably diminished, they play in the old Segunda B (now the Primera RFEF) and are owned by Unai Emery, who hails from nearby Hondarribia and whose grandfather and father both played for the club (as goalies).

Real Unión 1918 cup winners. Wot….no subs?

Anyway – they’re doing ok in their group and sit in the play-off positions.  On Saturday they had a home game against UD Extremadura, from way down south and way down in the table, second from bottom to be precise.  The visitors, after months of internal struggles, strike threats and Covid too, had only three first-teamers left for the long trip north.  They were forced to give temporary professional terms to eight players from the C team and borrow another two from from the B team (who had a game scheduled for the Sunday) in order to make up the numbers.  The C team players were schoolboys, not expecting this temporary change in status. With the 1st team struggling anyway, it looked like a potential massacre. 

The patched-up side (13 travelled in the end) travelled up by bus from Almendralejo in a nine-hour trip at the beginning of which their Galician coach, Manu Mosquera (who played 260 games for the club) made an emotive speech to the press on the steps of the bus, almost Churchillian in nature, appealing to the forces of destiny, invoking the gods and pronouncing the immortal phrase,“No solamente van a salvar un partido, van a salvar un club. Las familias de estos chicos tienen que estar orgullosas” (They’re not simply going to fulfil a fixture, they are going to save the club. The families of these boys can be proud).  

Manuel Mosquera. Churchill or Chamberlain?

Stirring stuff indeed, and what Mosquera meant was that the club, having already failed to fulfil one fixture this season, would be excluded from the competition were they to fail to play this one.  With potential investors apparently hovering, staying in the top group of the old Segunda B is an obvious priority.  Whatever – you know what’s coming.  I was tempted to go along to the match, but it clashed with Real Sociedad v Celta, and I’d promised to go with a mate.  Besides, I knew Extremadura would win. ‘twas written.  And they did, having survived a first-half bombardment from a strong Real Unión side and an excellent penalty save from the first-team goalie, they got a free kick in the 57th minute which floated into the box and was poorly dealt with, enabling Assane (from the B team) to prod it magically into the net.  A messy goal for a messy situation, but the players went nuts.

Assane Ndiaye – 15 minutes of fame, or perhaps more?

The scenes at the end were extraordinary, and prove the old adage that in the end, it’s eleven dudes versus another eleven.   The goal-scorer was born in Mallorca of Senegalese parents, and hasn’t had it easy.  His 15 minutes of fame might turn into something, you never know, and the win might just be the turning point for the season – mainly because its effect might also persuade the investors to go ahead.  The original club, CF Extremadura, from whose ashes the current side was formed, dated back to 1924 and spent two seasons in the top flight, in the 1990s. UD were formed in 2007 and need to survive, given the knock-on effect on the community. 

The scene in Irun was a long way removed from the opulence of Real Madrid v Valencia the next day, but the emotions configure and conflate.  There’s no point in making the monetary comparisons, and the fate of Extremadura is not the (direct) fault of Real Madrid, but it remains a truth that if the southern club were to fold, it would probably earn five lines, at the most, in the national papers.  Like the ‘expensive delicate ship’ in Auden’s poem Musée Des Beaux Arts, when the boy (Icarus) falls out of the sky (as in Breughel’s painting below) and splashes into the water nearby, the ship had ‘somewhere to get to, and sailed calmly on’. 

Icarus (bottom right) hits the water as the top-flight ship moves on. Get it?

Sorry to get literary, but it also reminded me of how equally satisfying was League One Cambridge’s win at Newcastle at the weekend.  Cambridge United are not about to fold, as far as I’m aware, but the financial chasm between them and their Saudi-backed opponents lends a new angle to the new divisiveness that exists in football, and I mean the divisiveness that leads us to react with indifference when a football team folds, or an Icarus falls out of the sky.  An entire community loses its team, or Real Madrid drop a point unexpectedly at home….which event causes the headlines?  You know the answer.

Whatever – it was an interesting weekend, with the big ship Madrid putting four past a surprisingly timid Valencia, although they got a bit of help with a penalty for the opener.  Personally I think it was a penalty on Casemiro, but as the old adage goes, it might not have been given to Extremadura.  Let’s leave it at that.  Madrid, with Vinicius back and dancing, deserved to win, but Sevilla continue to hang onto their coat-tails, beating Getafe at home by a single goal and keeping up the challenge. Rayo were held at home by Betis in a cracking game, but they both stay in the Euro-zone. 

I went along to Real Sociedad v Celta (1-0), also an excellent game marred only by the antics of Iago Aspas, otherwise a decent bloke off the pitch but a pain in the arse on it. ‘Jelly man’ as my son calls him, actually disputed every single decision given against Celta for the entire match, in an astounding show of verbal bollox.  You wonder how he retains the energy to actually play.  He simply never shuts up, never accepts a thing.  The referee, impressively patient, should really have sent him for a bath, but the rules probably don’t allow it, unless Aspas were to say rude things about the ref’s mother, for example.  ‘Persistently arguing the toss for no coherent reason’ should be a new criterion for a red card.  He’s not the only one of course – Athletic’s Raúl García is another leading member of the collective, with Gerard Piqué in third place.  Piqué’s annoying because he thinks he’s clever, Aspas is just bonkers, whereas García is genuinely scary – as my mother used to say ‘You wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night’. All are fervently disliked by all but the supporters of their respective clubs, which is a shame because I’m sure they’re lovely chaps who are kind to their grannies.

Aspas – complaining about being booked for complaining

To conclude, the result of Espanyol v Elche is crucial in order to decide the winner in the first of many duels in the Friday ‘Quiniela’. Despite perceptively predicting Levante’s first win since the Cretaceous Period, at close of play Sunday, Eduardo and myself were drawing on a miserable 3-3 (out of 9) but as long as Elche don’t win, there’ll be a 4-3 victor this week.  If you wrote in and have better scores than either of us, make yourself known and you can challenge the winner for Week 21. Like UD Extremadura, you could get your fifteen minutes of fame, but don’t lose too much sleep over it.

Phil Ball

New Year, Old Socks

New Year, old socks, as my father used to say.  Anything new, borrowed or blue?  Well, as far as I can see from my lookout post here in the wild north of Spain, things are pretty much the same.  Real Madrid are blue having been defeated by Getafe (they play in blue, in case you didn’t get the joke), and was it simply a case of no-Vinicius-no-party?  Possibly, but the old socks would seem to be the tendency of Real Madrid to start every new year with some trepidation, and this year it was a player who is normally borrowed on loan (Enes Unal) but who now plays in blue who did the early damage, from which RM never recovered.  Well, it was a mistake by Militao that led to the early and definitive goal, but the defender had an excellent 2021, so maybe not a good sign for him?  Alaba didn’t exactly cover himself in glory either, but hey – this is the first time the men in white had lost since October – fifteen games undefeated to be precise, so we can cut them a bit of slack.  Madrid have a tendency to start poorly after a break, as if the cut in their momentum affects them more than sides like Getafe, more accustomed to the ups-and-downs of life.  

Oh dear, Mr Militao

One curious aspect of the line-up was the backside of Hazard on the bench, when the absence of Vinicius called for a player of similar profile.  Ancelotti had actually announced, rather portentously before Christmas that ‘Hazard ha vuelto’ (Hazard’s back), but maybe he’d eaten too much turkey over the Yuletide break, or whatever Belgians indulge in.  However, watching Hazard and Marcelo come on in the second half for Asensio and Mendy was to witness a rather strange changing of the guard, like a couple of kids making way for their wiser grandfathers.  It didn’t work.  Madrid (or rather Modric) played well in the first half, but ran out of inspiration in the second. 

On Wednesday they travel again to Alcoyano (over near Valencia) to play a side who beat them in last year’s cup, around the same time.  This was a particularly harrowing game for Zidane (remember him?) which laid bare his strange inability to read certain games – particularly ones where the opponents (in Segunda B) understood far better the surface they were playing on.  I mean they just kept hoofing it up, and causing Madrid problems, whilst Madrid continued to play as if they were in the Bernabeu.  They would do well, in terms of morale, to avoid a repetition of that little nightmare.  It’ll be interesting to see the side he puts out.  Alcoyano currently sit two places below RM’s B team, but this type of game has a wonderful tendency to dent a giant’s season.   Alcoyano have already done for Levante (although at the moment that’s no great achievement) but anyway – one to watch this week.

Alcoyano, 2021 version

Talking of kids, the ones at Barça seem to be alright at the moment, although it was an older fellow, Luuk de Jong who scored their winner over in Mallorca.  De Jong, rather like the injured Braithwaite and several similar-type players before them, know that it’s cool to wear a Barça shirt for a season or two but that in the end, the feeling that you ain’t really wanted (or rated) starts to nag at your confidence and you depart, for your own good.  I actually heard the phrase ‘De Jong scored – the rubbish one’ the other day in the gym, and although one can understand the point of such banter, it’s kind of unfair.  But….this is a team that sets high standards, and there is a sense of something building already, so soon after Koeman’s departure.  The presence of so many new names on the team-sheet invited scepticism as to their chances of escaping with a result, but escape they did, and even kept a clean sheet.  So a good start to the new year for Ter Stegen, who was incidentally wearing the same socks. 

The other De Jong

Barça are now in 5th place, a point off the Champs League spots, and one supposes that all is therefore fine in the corporate world. The advertisers, sponsors and promoters can breathe a sigh of relief and at the very least count on some visibility in the Europa League next season – a competition where Barça can now get some practice in.  But sarcasm aside, the ability of these young chaps to step up from La Masia and do the business says a lot about the set-up.  The future looks bright, if they can hang on to the real prospects.  The imminent inclusion of Ferran Torres, signed but not quite delivered, is another reason for the Camp Nou faithful to be cheerful at the start of 2022.  As the old cliché goers, it would be difficult to have a worse year than the previous one.   They travel to Linares in the cup, three places below Alcoyano and seven places below Barça B.  So in theory, nothing new for several of those kids who played at Mallorca.

Betis had a rather better 2021, but stepped into ’22 with an unexpected defeat at home to improving Celta. Perhaps they also suffer from the break-the-dynamic syndrome that seems to afflict Real Madrid.  They remain 3rd, however, a whole 8 points below their neighbours Sevilla, of whom the inevitable questions are now being asked – can they challenge for the title? 

Betis – bad day back at the office

Perhaps this question would be better answered in an entire article dedicated to the issue, but for now, let’s just say that first and foremost they have a motivated manager. Julen Lopetegui would love to get one over on his previous boss, and although there is a reasonable consensus on his coaching and motivational abilities, he only has one major trophy to his name so far (the Europa League).  The league title is a big ask, and one that his team has not won since 1946.  In fact that was the only time they’ve won it, despite their reputation as a ‘big’ side.  However, you feel that if Madrid were to stumble – and there are plenty of reasons to believe that they might – then there could be a chance.  Five points behind with a game in hand, they’ve only lost twice this season (as have RM) and Atlético, for the moment, seem unlikely to retain their crown.  

Their 1-0 win at Cádiz, late on Monday night, was the sort of game that title challengers need to win, to endorse their credentials. Cádiz were on a pretty miserable run, but the bus-parkers supreme had just got a draw in the Bernabéu – a testament to their awkwardness factor.  Local derby and rested, with key players back, Sevilla could have been forgiven for blowing it against them, but they didn’t.  Then again, it wasn’t very pretty. One criticism of Lopetegui is that he’s a random system-changer, a sign that he lacks true vision.  Others praise his flexibility – so you decide. But the 4-4-3 in Cádiz seemed to go through every permutation possible before returning to the 4-4-3 that eventually yielded Ocampos’ late goal.  If you want my own very quick view, I don’t think they’ve got the depth of squad, but they’re aggressive, organised and very good at the back, with only 13 conceded.  Real Madrid will certainly be taking them seriously. They visit them in April and will want some more daylight between them by the time that fixture comes around.

JL – flexible or firm?

Very quickly – Levante?  It ain’t looking good.  Half the season gone, no wins and a turkey stuffing (5-0) at Villarreal.  Watch out for Emery’s team in this second half to the campaign.   Alavés got lucky at home to Real Sociedad – check out the penalty that wasn’t blown for the foul on Isak – possibly the funniest of the decade.  As they say, if that ain’t a penalty, I’m a Ninja Turtle.   Happy New Year.

Phil Ball

Squid Game

Just finished Squid Game, and before you say ‘What took you so long?’ I have the pre-prepared retort that I prefer to let the hype settle before I tune in. I came late to Game of Thrones for the same reason, but returning to the Korean series, I wasn’t expecting that ending.  I won’t deliver a spoiler, but unexpected twists are hard to deliver these days….and in football terms, you probably know where this is heading.  It seems as if Spanish football is in need of ‘a Leicester’, a twist – and has been in need for some time now.  

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Matchday 18

Omicron’s weekend

Really tough weekend for predictions, as Covid has weakened some teams more than others. Let’s keep an eye on the absentees. The last matchday before the end of the year is usually full of upsets and shocking results, as players’ minds are usually elsewhere already.

Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win. I’ve forfeited Celta vs Espanyol, as I delivered this after the final whistle.

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Real Madrid’s title to lose

Ancelotti’s libretto is working wonders so far

Well, that was slightly disappointing, Atleti. Some of us believed that, on the back of that miraculous classification for the knockout stages of the Champions League, the team would recover some of their swagger in their visit to the Bernabeu. It wasn’t meant to happen, though.

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Matchday 17

Matchday 17

As Julius Caesar said – a coward dies a thousand deaths but a valiant man tastes death only once.  I’ll try to be as valiant as possible here, but we do need to improve on Eduardo’s score of 3/10 last week. It’s one thing being valiant, but sometimes you need to get it right. I’ve stepped in this week because Ed (who is generally valiant in his predictions) is on a long-haul flight as I write. So let’s see if this week’s fixtures are any easier to predict. 

Things tend to go slightly awry after a midweek’s European fare, for reasons of fatigue, morale or both. Talking of morale, Seville and Barcelona both travel to tricky away games when they desperately need a booster, and the Madrid derby on Sunday might also be conditioned by the teams’ corresponding results (or distance of travel) in midweek. Betis and Real Sociedad, who also meet on Sunday evening, were both in action on Thursday in the Europa League, and Villarreal’s Champion’s League game in Italy was postponed until Thursday because of snow. They won – which will be good for morale, but the loss of a day may complicate their game against Rayo on Sunday.  In conclusion – a good weekend for the lower echelons? We shall see.

Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.

1.  Mallorca (12th) vs Celta (14th): X. (Fri, 21:00)

The island-based hosts had gone seven games without a win before last week’s surprise smash n’ grab at the Wanda, but despite an unassuming start to the season they haven’t fared too badly in general, and have only lost once at home.  Their opponents are of course the infamous Celta, who despite all the encouragement that Eduardo has been giving them this season have failed to acknowledge his generosity.  But again, they’ve only lost twice in the last six games (glass kind of half-full) and with the squad they have you do rather think that they’ll eventually pull up the league. It could go either way, but let’s go for a Friday-night scoring draw.

2.  Espanyol (11th) vs Levante (20th): 2. (Sab, 14:00)

The focus here is on the visitors, obviously.  Nobody had quite predicted the car-crash that this season has so far become for them, and with zero wins in sixteen the obvious point to make is that they will win at some point. Only two of their paltry eight points have been picked up on their travels, but I still don’t think they’re as bad as they look, statistically speaking.  They scored three at Sevilla (ok – they conceded 5) and drew 2-2 at home to Atlético, and football-wise they’re better than several above them.  Besides, I’m not so sure about Espanyol. They were very fortunate to beat Real Sociedad (thanks to Mateu Lahoz) and despite that win at home to Real Madrid, for me they flatter to deceive, and I’m not sure they’d be where they are if it weren’t for their excellent old goalie, Diego López.  Mourinho was right about him, all those years ago.  Nevertheless – it’s an away win. 

Diego – old gold

3.  Alavés (17th) vs Getafe (19th): 1. (Sat, 16:15)

This one’s a bit of a dog-eat-dog, on what will be a foul afternoon up in Vitoria (known as ‘Siberia’ by the locals).  The visitors have recovered a little since Michel departed and the mysterious Quique Sánchez Flores turned up again, sporting a bird’s-nest beard and those Dr House eyes that give him the look of an intellectual serial killer. That obviously suits Getafe better (it’s in their DNA) but they’re still in trouble, despite not losing in the last three.  Apparently their game last week against Athletic was one of the worst in living memory, so this one ain’t going to be for the aesthetes.  Alavés haven’t won in three, but are even more used to Siberian conditions than Getafe.  Home win.

4.   Valencia (8th) vs Elche (16th): 1. (Sat, 18:30)

Elche are another side that the LaLiga media cannot make up their minds about – whether they’re relegation fodder or mid-table safe-boys, but Valencia can’t afford not to beat them if they really aspire (at least) to those Europa League places. Despite all their Bordalás-infused malevolence, they have some classy players. I can’t see them blowing this one, which is of course a ‘derbi’ of the Comunidad Valenciana, and is in fact the most-disputed derby of the region, given Villarreal’s relatively late arrival on the scene. Elche can be a tough opponent, but I’m going for a home win.

Bats v Scribes

5.  Athletic (9th) vs Sevilla (2nd): 1. (Sat- 21:00)

Interesting game this, with the draw specialists Athletic (9 draws from 16) and their fans drooping their heads after several poor showings, with the self-flagellation whips appearing on the Bilbao horizon. When Athletic get down, they get really down – but then they always get up again. It’s in their genes, and they also tend to play better against the bigger sides. Sevilla won’t be happy after their poor showing in midweek (losing to Salzburg), and some of the euphoria garnered from their win at Betis last month is beginning to fade. Tricky one to predict this, but I’m going to do a Caesar. Home win.

6.  Villarreal (13th) vs Rayo (6th): X. (Sun- 14:00)

That was an amazing win in Italy in midweek, and the hosts will have been given a massive boost of confidence because of it. You could argue that they got lucky in Atalanta, and that everything went right, but as everyone has been saying this season, when this side gets all the cylinders firing they will be pretty scary.  It’s just a wonder that so far they’ve been a damp squib.  But….Rayo are the season’s revelation, with coach Andoni Iraola proving that he’s one for the future, and perhaps the not-so-distant one. What he gave Mirandés (organization) he’s given Rayo, plus some shrewd signings, of course. But their success so far has been founded largely on their home form.

Villarreal can be scary, but they’ll be tired.  I also thought they were a tad lucky on Thursday, although their storming start was amazing. I think they’ll be brought back down to earth. Draw.

7. Osasuna (10th) vs Barcelona (7th): X. (Sun – 16:15)

Osasuna will be looking forward to this one, but Barcelona will be anticipating it rather as one anticipates a visit to the dentist.  It’s going to be cold up in Pamplona, hostile and noisy.  Barça just don’t look in the mood for this sort of game. It could all go tragically wrong, or it could be the making of them. Xavi’s powers of motivation will be on the line here. However….Osasuna haven’t won in the last seven games, and seem to have lost a little of their shine too.  If they win they’ll go above Barça, but I can’t quite see it. I think I’ll sit on the fence and settle for a draw, and Barça will too.

Pamplona on a good day

8.  Betis (3rd) vs Real Sociedad (5th): X. (Sun – 18:30)

This might be the game of the weekend, unless they’re both so knackered from their games on Thursday that the whole thing falls flat and ends 0-0.  I don’t think so somehow. Despite recent league results, Real Sociedad haven’t been playing badly. It was only in the 2nd half against an excellent Real Madrid that they appeared to be losing their touch, but the barnstorming 3-0 win over PSV will have made them considerably happier.  Betis lost to Celtic in a kind of non-aggression pact on Thursday night, but it does show the side’s weakness – that they’re better going forward.  Sometimes you look at Betis and think they’re the best side in Spain – which is when they tend to confound. But hey – they’re not third for nothing, and they’re playing some great stuff, with Canales on fire. It’s a tricky one to predict, but I’m going for a scoring draw. 

9.  Real Madrid (1st) vs Atlético (4th): X. (Sun – 21:00)

It’s always an interesting derby, and in recent years it’s always had some bearing on each team’s eventual position, but at 10 points behind Real the current champion’s only hope is to win this one, then win their game in hand and hope that their neighbours will begin to lose their mojo. Not much sign of that so far, and the efficient win over Inter last Tuesday lent more substance to the theory that this is their season – a final shout for the old guard before the Mbappés and Haalands allegedly fly in.  Atlético are suffering from inconsistency so far – not a quality often associated with them, but their remarkable win in midweek, faced by a tough situation at Oporto, means that they’ll be up for it on Sunday. I’m certainly looking forward to it, and Benzema might play (fitness test on Sunday)….but the result?  No idea. Another draw for me.

Can Vini keep the good times rollin’?

10. Cádiz (18th) vs Granada (15th): 2. (Mon – 21:00)

Another derby to close the weekend’s fixtures (on Monday night), and Cádiz really need to win this one, if they’re to reverse their bad form of late. After their surprise win at Bilbao, they’ve been turkey stuffed in their last three, conceding elven goals in the process – but to Getafe and Elche (as well as Atlético, ok). Granada have recovered a little after their big home reverse to Real Madrid. Away win.

1.  Mallorca (12th) vs Celta (14th): X

2.  Espanyol (11th) vs Levante (20th): 2

3.  Alavés (17th) vs Getafe (19th): 1

4.   Valencia (8th) vs Elche (16th): 1

5.  Athletic (9th) vs Sevilla (2nd): 1

6.  Villarreal (13th) vs Rayo (6th):) X

7.  Osasuna (10th) vs Barcelona (7th): X

8.  Betis (3rd) vs Real Sociedad (5th): X

9.  Real Madrid (1st) vs Atlético (4th): X

10. Cádiz (18th) vs Granada (15th): 2

Phil Ball

No dispute

As Paul Gascoigne once remarked ‘“I’ve had 14 bookings this season—eight of them were my fault, but the other seven were disputable.”   What is not in dispute is Real Madrid’s current leadership of LaLiga, or the fact that they won fairly and squarely on Saturday night in Anoeta – or if you really insist, in the Reale Arena in San Sebastián.  As promised last week on these very pages, I attended the game in the flesh, alongside my son who had flown down from Amsterdam to see the event. He was released from footy obligations, with the Dutch leagues below full-time pro forced back into lockdown.  So you would have thought that Real Madrid could have gifted us a magical evening together, but alas, Ancelotti and company were not in the pre-Christmas spirit. 

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Matchday 16

Is Carlo making the same mistakes as iin that 14/15 season?

Do you remember the 2014/15 season? If you root for Barcelona, it’s an unforgettable one: the club conquered the treble under Luis Enrique, with Messi, Neymar and Suárez firing on all cylinders. But if you’re a Real Madrid fan, it’s a huge “what if” season: what if Modric hadn’t lost half of the season injured? What if Carletto had rotated the team during the magical months of October and November, when Real Madrid were flying?

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Of Xavi’s flower and Mateu Lahoz’s alternative universe

I’d been hoping to mark this debut round-up for the noble pages of Football España with a rant-free feeling to it, but why change the habits of a lifetime?  It was actually an interesting weekend’s action, to quote that over-used English adjective, but not without its controversies.  I refer of course to the hand of Piqué, as opposed to God, and to the strange antics of Mateu Lahoz, Spain’s refereeing equivalent to Boris Johnson.  Like Johnson, Mateo Lahoz talks a lot but rarely makes any sense, and his talk tends to be focused on explaining away yet another crass mistake he has just made.  Johnson has  better hair, but Lahoz can run faster.  More on his bizarre decision in the Espanyol v Real Sociedad match later.

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Bordalás-Sauron, the Dark Lord of anti-football

Sunday night at 9 p.m. isn’t a great time to turn out for a footy match, with the northern nights drawing in and the winter cold creeping into the air. It’s dark and smells of November and Real Sociedad are hosting Valencia at this infernal time because it’s the ‘partidazo’ (the big game) whose attractive look has already relegated Granada v Real Madrid to the 18.30 slot, so there’s some silver lining to the logic.

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