Well it’s difficult to talk about football today, but I’ll try my best. Maybe keep it brief and scattergun, look at the results in general and try not to focus too much on all the stuff that’s been going on in Catalonia. Too much of it in a football-related context can become slightly tedious – I’m aware – but when one of the games this weekend is played behind closed doors because of a referendum/non-referendum (call it which you prefer), then we’ve reached rock-bottom. So after we get that one analysed, the only way is up.
In this column last week, you may recall that we discussed the unfortunate coincidence of the Girona-Barcelona derby, a week before the referendum/non-referendum (let’s give it the abbreviation ‘RNR’ from hence forward, just to save copy space). The column also mentioned the fact that Barcelona were due to play Las Palmas on the Sunday of the RNR, at 1600 hours, whilst voting would be taking place, to celebrate the RNR. As you may know, two hours before the kick-off Barcelona’s administration decided the game would be played behind closed doors, reacting to the violence in certain areas of the capital that had preceded the game. Well, no surprises there, of course. The Spanish police have always suffered from ‘twitchy-baton syndrome’ (that’s TBS as an abbreviation), but let’s not get too political folks. Before the closed-door decision, Barcelona had asked the league to suspend the game – note the word ’suspend’ as opposed to ‘postpone’, because had that happened, Las Palmas would have taken the three points, with a default score of 0-3, and Barcelona would have been deducted six points. The Liga authorities refused to call the game off, the Police bosses deemed the game as safe to go ahead, so Barcelona decided to close the doors, although journalists who had their passes were allowed in.
Las Palmas, from the Canary Islands, were unfortunate to have been the invited guests on such a tricky day, but their press release after the game (which ended in a 3-0 win for Barça) in which they complained of poor treatment by their hosts – who apparently failed to inform them about what was going on – was an interesting example of how Spain feels and thinks. They weren’t too happy because Barcelona’s directors also called off the traditional mid-day dinner with the visiting directors that is the custom here in La Liga, but their complaint seems rather laughable given the fact that in the late hours of the morning, Las Palmas had declared that their players would take to the field with their yellow shirts carrying a new symbol in the top right-hand corner, namely the Spanish flag. This design change had been apparently approved by the Liga authorities a few days before.
Now if you’re a Spanish nationalist, then you’ll see this as a valid act of freedom of expression. If you’re not a Spanish nationalist, you’ll see it as a dumb-ass act of provocation. You decide. But what was most definitely dumb-ass was the fact that the game was played on the Sunday. The schedules were only confirmed three weeks ago, and despite the fact that Barcelona had a Champions League game on the Wednesday (in nearby Portugal) would it have been too much to have brought the game forward to the Saturday? Was this even discussed? Surely, if Europa League participants can play Sunday after a Thursday game, Champions League chappies can trot out their reserve side on a Saturday following a Wednesday? Not ideal, granted, but in these extraordinary circumstances it wouldn’t have required too much imagination. In this sense, Barcelona are as guilty as the rest, because they could also see the trouble that was brewing. This column predicted possible problems, but it was hardly rocket science. Whatever – I promise, the next paragraph won’t be about politics.
I went to the Sunday mid-day kick-off between Real Sociedad and Betis, and was rewarded with an open-plan bonkers game which ended 4-4 but could have easily been 6-6. Sociedad had lost three on the trot after their 3-game nine point start-up, conceding nine goals in the process, a result of both their cheerful open style and their fragility against sides who can counter-attack effectively, rather like Betis, who are on a bit of a roll. It was never going to be 0-0, but the 4-4 draw was among the most entertaining games I’ve seen for years, despite the calamitous defending of both sides. Sociedad will benefit from the return of Iñigo Martinez, but elsewhere on the Basque horizon, things continue to stutter, with Athletic Bilbao succumbing again (3-2 at Valencia), which makes it four games without a win. Iker Muniain’s injury won’t help to clear the gloom either, although Alavés got their act together at last, and beat Levante 0-2 away, in what was the surprise result of the day. The other Basque side, Eibar, continued their run of poor form, losing 3-0 to Villarreal, a side that can’t decide whether it’s recovering or not. Eibar have now conceded 13 in their last three games, a bad sign considering the strength of this facet of their play since their surprise appearance at the La Liga top-flight party back in 2014.
Real Madrid recorded their standard annual victory against Espanyol (2-0) to build on the feel-good factor of their impressive Champions League victory in Germany last Tuesday, and although I said we’d cut the politics, the Bernabéu was a sea of Spanish flags and a call for unity, which is fine, of course. That’s what the club represents, and there’s nothing wrong with the expression of Spanish solidarity, as long as it’s done in a civil manner, as opposed to doing it with coshes and rubber bullets. Isco scored them both, and everyone went home happy.
Not so neighbours Atlético, bogged down in the mire prepared for them at nearby Leganés, provoking the substitution of starman Antoine Griezmann with 30 minutes remaining and the game scoreless – which is how it remained. Such is Griezmann’s status now, the substitution provoked the kind of media reaction that would have once accompanied Cristiano Ronaldo not playing the full ninety. Nevertheless, Atlético remain a potent force, despite their home loss to Chelsea in midweek and this latest poor performance. In two weeks, they entertain Barcelona in their new Wanda Stadium, which should be interesting.
The league takes a two-week break now for the World Cup qualifiers, and one hopes that when hostilities resume they’ll be the right type of hostilities, if you see what I mean.