Pride cometh and goeth before a fall, and all that jazz. Is that the problem with Real Madrid, or is there really no problem at all? In Spanish football, a 7-point gap with 33 games remaining is the definition of a crisis. Real Madrid (or their lackeys in the press) now fear they will never catch table-topping Barcelona after the latest calamity to befall them, namely a 0-1 reverse in the Bernabéu against Betis, with a goal scored in the 94th minute – usually the time that the home side specialise in snaffling the points on a bad day.
Of course, there has been precious little analysis of why Betis won, and plenty of column inches on why Real Madrid lost. Back in 1991 when I began to watch Spanish football seriously (I’d come to live here) I thought that this tendency was just temporary – a sort of hangover from the days of Franco and the propaganda programme ‘El Nodo’ (News and Documentaries), the Spanish version of Britain’s Pathe News – but 27 years later I’ve conceded that this behaviour is in the give of the soil, in the very air the Spanish breathe. It will never change. So let’s just arrive at the conclusion before the chit-chat; Betis scored and Real Madrid didn’t, despite 27 attempts to do so, bless them. So at least they tried. And incredibly, that put a stop to Madrid’s 73-game consecutive scoring run, foiling their attempt to beat Santos (who also managed 73). It’s amazing enough to get so far, but to lose your wicket on 99 seems almost bizarre.
But back to Betis. They have already won a couple of games, which put them on a par with Real Madrid in the league so far this season. They are also under new management and have a livelier look about them than they had for most of last season. The ever-green (and white) Joaquin looks like he’s up for a major swan-song, and with players like Barragan, the excellent Zouhair Feddal, Sergio Leon and Camarasa (another Alavés exile), Betis have invested the 18 million they got for Dani Ceballos rather well. And talking of this young chap, rumours persist that he was unhappy not to get on against his old side, particularly considering that the substitutions of Modric, Isco and Marcelo could each have led to his getting onto the park. Poor Dani. He’s trudging off after training now, beginning to believe that it was true after all – Madrid only signed him so he wouldn’t go to Barcelona. Now who could believe such a thing?
Madrid had drawn both their previous home games – and although it’s easy to reflect wisely with hindsight – there was really nothing to suggest that Betis were going to roll over. Madrid played well in their 1-3 win in Anoeta on Sunday but the performance papered over a few awkward points, none of which this columnist highlighted last Sunday night when at the keyboards, but hey, I’ll mention them now. The obvious one was that at 1-1, Real Sociedad hit the bar, the ball rebounded to Modric’s boot, and his long hoof arrived at Mayoral and Llorente. Mayoral appeared to foul Llorente, but the referee played on, and the rest is histrionics. Had Sociedad scored at that point, it might have been a different story, and Madrid would be hanging around the relegation zone. Was it a foul? I think so, but the referee, Iglesias Villanueva, has now officiated 18 times in matches involving Real Madrid, resulting in 16 wins and two draws. Well, Madrid win a lot anyway, but draw your own conclusions. Had the tussle occurred in Madrid’s half, you know he’d have blown.
Real Sociedad’s coach Eusebio also put out a slightly strange line-up, given the circumstances, and it didn’t help that he had his two main centre-backs injured. But let’s not dwell on the past. The point is simply that Real Madrid hadn’t suddenly turned their season around in Anoeta. They’ve also suffered a little without Ronaldo – a fact that his critics have been slow to point out – but to some extent the team had got used to playing without him, and there was a sort of liberated look to players like Asensio and Isco, keen to just take the limelight themselves. And now, horror of horrors, Barcelona appear to be unaffected by the summer turmoil, and Messi is scoring with scandalous frequency – nine goals in five games is more than Real Madrid have managed in total and is also his best start to a campaign ever. The only hope that remains is that Catalunya votes en masse on October 1st to leave the Spanish state, the central government accedes to the wishes of the majority, and Barcelona become the biggest side in the new Republic. The secession will take a while to administer, of course, so that by the time the Republic hoists its flag, Messi will be too old to go and join his mates at PSG.
It’s interesting, nevertheless, that whilst the region is in turmoil and the club is clearly suffering from an internal crisis/civil war, the team is doing just fine. Despite all the failures to sign a big name in the wake of the Neymar departure – perhaps a sign that there is some sense in the system after all –, the two signings that were derided as insufficient (Paulinho and Semedo) are proving more than half-decent. Again, you have to question the penalty that opened the floodgates against Eibar, another example of how referees do not favour Real Madrid or Barcelona but rather do not dis-favour them, whatever the verb is. There’s a subtle difference.
Referees are paid well these days. A ref in the top flight in Spain gets about 18,000 euros a month, with expenses included. That ain’t bad at all, considering that some of them continue to work part-time in civvies. When you drop down to Segunda B, the match fee is 150 euros. It’s a scary difference, and those who have got to the top make sure they don’t get sent back. The ones who earn public praise from the big two, and from the big sports tabloids, are the ones who least ruffle the hierarchy. It’s an unspoken but simple rule, a sort of indirect corruption. The amusing thing is that both Real Madrid and Barcelona feel that they are both conspired against, and the other receives more favours (or fewer dis-favours). It’s all part of the panto, but we love it all the same. Would Barcelona have beaten Eibar anyway? Probably, yes. But opening goals change games. I thought it was worth a mention.
Whatever – Barcelona are top, Atlético are waking up (and have re-signed Diego Costa for January), Sevilla have started well and Málaga and Alavés are still pointless – I mean that in a statistical sense. Poor Alavés, having lost all their decent players in the summer, have now lost their coach and are yet to score. It’s not looking good, and Michel at Málaga is looking increasingly fraught as his side gets stuffed on a weekly basis. Atlético v Sevilla thus looks a decent prospect on Saturday, and Girona v Barcelona has a nice twang to it. Let’s see what Eduardo can make of all that in his latest quiniela.