Two games obviously stood out this weekend, one at the new San Mames and the other in Girona. The rest seemed like a sideshow, although Valencia’s 1-2 win at Alavés which opened the weekend’s sparring on Saturday lunchtime was both predictable and useful, since it obliged Barcelona and Real Madrid to ensure the three points in their respective games. Valencia had to work hard, but they remain undefeated and have now won six consecutive league games since their draw with neighbours Levante back in mid-September.
Barcelona travelled late on Saturday morning from the newly-proclaimed republic over to Bilbao in the Basque Country, probably the only place on the Iberian Peninsula where they could realistically expect a welcome. Many Basques, for obvious political reasons, were unlikely to condemn the Catalan Government’s unilateral declaration of independence last Friday afternoon, making Barça’s first post-UDI trip into Spanish territory a relatively comfortable one. For footballing reasons only, Barcelona have become less popular in Bilbao over the past few seasons, mainly because of the perceived arrogance of some of the squad – two of who have now departed for other shores – but the return of coach Ernesto Valverde to his old stamping ground, to compete against his old mate Cuco Ziganda (his successor at Athletic), lent some human piquancy to the event, above and beyond the political context.
Still, they didn’t plan to stay too long on friendly territory, and were to catch a plane back to Barcelona at 00.30 on Sunday morning, less than two hours after the completion of the game in the new ‘catedral’ (cathedral). Maybe they thought that if they stayed too long in Bilbao, somebody might have changed the locks by the time they got home, but whatever the reason, the 0-2 result was a satisfying one, albeit achieved more through Ter Stegen’s brilliance than any dominance on Barça’s part, although they deserved to win overall. Athletic are struggling at present, and it was hardly the game they needed to turn things around, but they had their chances, it must be noted.
One or two things emerged from the game that are worthy of note. One is that Sam Umtiti is turning into the complete defender, although one already suspected as much. Gerard Piqué, still a little queasy after the events of the past month, can now rest assured that when he’s only firing on half cylinders, Umtiti can actually cover the entire back line for him. Paulinho too, a much -questioned signing in the summer, is proving to be a useful asset, taking the pressure off other midfielders with his box-to-box instincts, and occasionally turning up for a useful goal, killing off the match in the final minute after poaching a rebound from a counter-attack. He adds to a sensation of increased physicality in the Barça side this season, a factor that has proved decisive so far.
But back to ‘Txingurri’ (which means ‘ant’ in Basque). It appears that Javier Clemente – whom Valverde surpassed in games as coach for Athletic (306 over two spells, against Clemente’s 289), gave Valverde the nickname when he was younger, due to his skinny frail appearance. He is highly considered in Bilbao, although his return as coach of another club has several precedents. He visited twice as manager of Espanyol (for whom he also played), and twice more with Villarreal and Valencia. Up to Saturday, he’d never managed to win, so the duck is broken. He probably won’t lose sleep over it, but there’s no doubt that the Basque club is special to him.
During an interview on Talksport last week, I did remark that Barcelona had signed him precisely because he was the perfect Luis Enrique antidote, calm where the Asturian was edgy, consensus-seeking where his predecessor sought conflict, and polite to the press in a way that Enrique just couldn’t manage, bristling as he did at every question as if it were a personal attack. Valverde exudes calm, and although he possesses the charisma of a dead sheep, that’s exactly what Barcelona need at the moment – to ‘no hacer ruido’ (to not make a song and dance about everything). He has remained discreetly silent on the political question, not being a Basque by birth (he is from Extremadura) but ‘qualified’ to play for Athletic because he moved there as a kid. As a testament to his ability to slip through the net of this regional stereotyping in Spain, his 72 appearances for Espanyol neither disqualified him from later playing for Barça (22 appearances) nor from subsequently coaching them.
Others with such a problematic CV might never have been considered. Barcelona are much more likeable with him at the helm, it must be said. It must have been strange, nevertheless, to go back and try to defeat a team that you basically shaped. Not only that, but Enric Saborit, Iñaki Williams, Kepa and the excellent Mikel Vesga were all handed their debuts by Valverde. He will remain popular, one supposes, until he takes one (or two) of these four players to the Camp Nou.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid travelled to the new republic, but managed to cross the border successfully without being obliged to show their passports. The game in Girona, fatally destined to occur two days after the proclamation of UDI, set up one of the most ‘morboso’ games ever in La Liga, and that’s saying something. Girona city is very much a hive of Catalan nationalist sentiment, and the Catalan President (or ex-President, depending on your point of view) is a home-town boy and the ex-Mayor. Would he, or would he not go to the match? Symbolically it would have been interesting, and the sight of Puidgemont sitting beside Florentino Pérez would have gifted the meme-makers an early Christmas. Alas, sense prevailed, and the man at the centre of the most serious political crisis in Spain since democracy was restored, decided to stay at home and watch on TV. Which was probably just as well, given the remarkable result. He did tweet afterwards, of course, remarking that the victory against one of the biggest sides in the world was ‘a reference for many situations’. Ok – we get the picture.
Real Madrid blew a 1-0 lead, courtesy of the ever-effervescent Isco, losing 2-1 to a swift one-two from Portu and the old warhorse Stuani. The atmosphere didn’t help them, of course, but in general the Girona fans (and public) were hospitably hostile, if we can invent a new phrase. Republican flags were waved (and some Spanish ones too), but there was no violence – lending the lie to several alarmist Madrid-based football writers, who had called for the game to be postponed. Catalunya, so far at least, hasn’t resorted to violence. One wonders how it might have been had Barça (or Girona) had the misfortune to travel to one of the more Spanish flag-waving clubs in La Liga. I’d prefer not to say, but the most Real Madrid had to suffer (apart from the result and the 8-point gap with Barcelona) was the mass-waving of Republican flags as their bus weaved away from the stadium on Sunday afternoon, a snapshot that the Spanish media tried desperately to avoid showing later on their highlight programmes. Oh well – at least they’re consistent. And maybe you can’t entirely blame them. Next week, Barcelona entertain Sevilla (after visiting Olympiakos on Tuesday), in what might also be an edgy occasion.
Madrid’s remarkable run of 13 consecutive away league victories (a record) thus came to an end, a run that began way back on the 24th game of last season, in Villarreal. It wasn’t the best mental preparation for the trip to Tottenham on Wednesday night, but at least they can look forward to the visit of Las Palmas next Sunday, a team that usually lie down and die in the Bernabéu.
Lastly, the half-mast flag in Málaga has finally been hoisted to the top after they won their first game of the season, 2-1 at home to Celta on Sunday night. Alavés sink to bottom spot, Málaga live in hope and Las Palmas, Deportivo and Eibar twitch nervously above them. It’s all happening. Tune in, same time next week.