It’s going to be a busy week. Tuesday night there’s a whole midweek league programme starting, with Espanyol v Real Madrid providing the kick-off, followed by Girona and Celta that same night. The Russian-driven need to finish the domestic campaign earlier this year is beginning to bite, but anyway, that’s entertainment.
We should really start in the Second Division, where the big match on Saturday was between 2nd placed Rayo Vallecano and surprise leaders Huesca. Rayo won 3-0 in a rocket-paced match, breathless and raucous as Rayo games tend to be. I miss them terribly, and hope they come back up. Huesca would also be an interesting addition, to join up with the unfashionable twins Eibar and Girona, but it would also be nice to see Oviedo return too, after so many years in the shadows – not forgetting 4th placed Cádiz, another of the historically quirky sides who have lit up many a dark evening. But Rayo are looking on course, and have some useful-looking players, with Adri Embarba and Alex Moreno on fire.
So is the Bilbao loanee Unai López, the player whom my son used to protect in midfield some years ago, and about whom I wrote a couple of seasons back (see link). Glad to see him doing the business with Rayo but I suspect that Athletic will want him back in summer, with Beñat’s powers declining, Mikel Rico a less creative player and Mikel Vesga, the player promoted in front of López this season from the reserves (after a spell at Sporting), not quite convincing so far.
Returning to the top flight, the ‘partidazo’ (big game), or so the league has decided to baptise it, was the late Sunday match at the Sánchez Pizjuan, which always had a tasty look to it. However, the 2-5 result surprised everyone, despite the host’s nagging inconsistency this season. The score confounded the pundits – the two late goals conceded by Atlético taking their total conceded this season to a paltry eleven. The fact that they’d only conceded two in their last eleven league games puts their record into perspective (and says something of Sevilla’s forward line, perhaps), and the further amazing fact is that Atlético had not conceded more than a single goal in any La Liga match since the first day of the season, when they leaked a couple at Girona in my presence.
The other point to make about the game is that Atlético haven’t exactly been free-scoring this season either, so they’ll be happy to see Antoine Griezmann get a hat-trick, and set up Koke too (for the 4th). Fernando Torres stayed on the bench, looking up hotels in Dalian on his mobile. If Costa and Griezmann begin to hit it off, and there is every reason to suppose that they could, then Barcelona will need to keep their form consistent.
They pummelled the aforementioned Girona 6-1 in the Catalan (nationalist) derby, surprisingly low-key on the political front, in marked contrast to the previous fixture in Girona. In that fixture, the other fact of note was the man-marking job that Maffeo did on Messi, keeping the score down to a 0-3 that rather flattered the visitors. This time Girona, more confident and with the wind in their sails, attempted to play a more open game, and actually opened the scoring, courtesy of the excellent Portu in the second minute – but Messi had one of those nights when you might as well just pack up and go home. Coutinho is warming up too, and looks as if he’s been playing for Barça for ever. With Luis Suarez back to his raging-bull self, it’s all looking a bit scary.
So scary, in fact, that ‘Marca’ surpassed itself this Sunday when reporting on Real Madrid’s 4-0 victory over Alavés, not quite the romp that the scoreline suggests. The newspaper’s insistence on suggesting that the BBC (who all scored) is still a valid package – after publishing an article earlier in the week suggesting that Gareth Bale was on his way out – is akin to a conversation you might have had with a family member over your ailing 95 year-old grandpa, who has long been fading but who suddenly perks up. Maybe it was the fish soup, or the sunny weather -who knows? But the family perks up too, imagining that everything will be fine again. Grandpa’s on the mend!
‘Marca’ managed a similar piece of self-deception with the sub-header ‘Apoteosis de la BBC’ (which you don’t need me to translate), but ‘apotheosis’ is an interesting word to use in this context. It actually means ‘the highest point in the development of something’, which is going some length when you consider that Bale is probably on his way back to Wales, Benzema only scored because the (suddenly) saint-like Ronaldo let him take the penalty, and Ronaldo himself scored two – admittedly pretty decent goals. Benzema actually played rather better than of late, and apart from a classic fall-on-his-arse shot in the first half set up two of the goals and looked a bit livelier. But Alavés didn’t play badly, and Navas had to be smart to keep them out on several occasions. Grandpa looked good today, but he’s still a bit fragile, largely because he had his apotheosis long ago.
Anyway, after Atlético probably dispose of Leganés in midweek and Barcelona do the same with Las Palmas, albeit away, the acid test of the season will be next Sunday in the Camp Nou, when Barcelona can try to put paid to Atlético’s determination to keep the league alive. It should be a fascinating encounter, and probably represents the Wanda boys’ last chance to make their mark on the season. Were they to win, then things would get more interesting. It would put them 4 points behind, praying perhaps that their neighbours could do them a favour in the clásico in early May. It’s all a bit wishful thinking, but with the leaders in such imperious form that’s all that the non-Barça fans can do.
Last week’s Europa League fixtures were overshadowed by the death of the Basque policeman in the riots outside San Mamés, before the game against Spartak Moscow last Thursday. Sky TV in England asked me to comment on the incidents, but I found that a bit tricky to do, since I wasn’t at the game. In the end, the interview didn’t go ahead, but I’d nevertheless talked to some people who I knew had been at the game.
What can one conclude? Well, it seems that the Athletic ‘radicales’, known as ‘Herri Norte’ were the ones who started the action on the evening, but only because Spartak were actually there – not a justification but an explanation. Spartak’s president commented this week that their fans had felt ‘obliged to defend themselves when attacked’ which was a characteristically dumb thing to say – particularly from a club with plenty of previous history in this regard. The Spartak fans, many of whom had travelled with scant intention of attending the game, were not there for cultural reasons, let us say. Some of their supporters are very good fighters too, with a paramilitary look about them. See pic below of Spartak’s most famous fan (Vasily the Killer), just before he signed up for the Moscow branch of the Mensa Society.
The Basque police stood little chance, once the battle was under way. The agent who died actually suffered a heart attack, but by then his colleagues had been skilfully dispersed by the Spartak fans, with pre-planned tactics. They even pinched a police van, which was kind of amusing, but not in the context of the evening’s overall fall-out.
Interestingly, when Real Sociedad played Zenit St Petersburg in the group stages, a deep-throat policeman acquaintance of mine told me (because I asked him in the gym) that they had been working with the Moscow police to send a number of plain-clothed agents with the supporters, to control their movements etc. The Russians agreed on a plan of collaboration, only to withdraw the agreement 3 days before Zenit travelled. Draw your own conclusions.
Now that Spartak are out of the competition, CSKA Moscow have been drawn with Lyon in the next round, which should be an interesting one for the police in France, since the Lyon ultras are also well-known for their vegan habits, their pacifist literature and their love and appreciation of Russian culture. CSKA fans are also on a similar intellectual level. What’s the answer to this new paramilitary-exercise phenomenon, tinged with racism and mixed with all manner of testosterone-fuelled euro-macho posturing? Ban the teams whose supporters consistently practice it? Yep. UEFA could do that, but it prefers not to, and knows that the law would probably support the defence of the perpetrators, because it is so difficult to really identify responsibilities in these cases. I’m not sure about you, but I have a bad feeling about the World Cup this summer. I hope I’m wrong.