It’s been a hectic football-full week. I got back to Spain from Moscow in the early hours of Thursday morning but awoke from slumbers 16 hours later to effect a quick motorbike trip to Anoeta to see Real Sociedad aggressively annihilate Atlético Madrid and become the first side to score three against them in a league game this season.
Three days later, with a much-changed side, Real Sociedad lost to relegated Málaga without committing a single foul – the first time this has happened in La Liga since 2003. To continue the Russian theme – it’s Tolstoy football – war then peace. Then came Saturday night and the King’s Cup Final, the annual attempt by the Spanish authorities to find some musicians who can play the national anthem, preceded by the ministerial letter to TVE1, Spain’s main public channel, to remind them to turn down the volume during the ritual whistling of the monarchy – this year King Felipe VI in the Willy Wonka Metropolitano stadium, the ground of the team (Atlético) that he allegedly supports. I hope he was watching the 3-0 defeat on the telly last Thursday, assuming they can afford the subscription at the palace.
That pesky team from Barcelona keep getting to the King’s Cup Final. Saturday was the 7th time in the last 8 seasons, the only break from the annual boo-the-anthem fest coming in 2013, when Atlético and Real Madrid scrapped it out in the Bernabéu. Oddly enough, every year since then, Florentino Pérez has preferred to have the grass cut. Oh what a nightmare for the grey suits, this competition – dominated year after year by a club with republican and secessionist sentiments lurking among its supporter base. Perhaps they should just re-name the trophy ‘Cup of the Autonomous Regions of Spain’ and invite a different regional president to hand the trophy to the winning captain every year, or maybe a celebrity – Javier Bardem, Miguel Ríos, Cristina Cifuentes…..they could get creative. But it’s getting serious. That’s four seasons on the trot that Barcelona have won it now, the last three in a stadium owned by Atlético Madrid. That 2003 final between Mallorca and Recreativo de Huelva (played in Elche) seems like some sort of distant dream.
King Felipe, who to his credit actually speaks Catalan, would probably have been happier handing the trophy to Sevilla, but hey, I don’t wish to assume what goes on inside a monarch’s head. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. He did seem genuinely happy to shake the hand of the great Andres Iniesta, however, who was climbing the podium for the last time to receive this particular trophy. The league title awaits his little manchego mitts very soon, probably in Galicia next week (at Deportivo) before he jets off to China. More about him later, but for now, there isn’t a great deal of analysis necessary of the game itself.
Only one team turned up, and they scored five. Sevilla failed in all aspects, miserably confirming their decline since the turn of the year from a side challenging for another whack at the Champions League to a shrunken band of ne’er-do-wells who’ll be lucky to even qualify for next season’s Europa. They actually blew it on the Friday, when their coach, Vicenzo Montella, declared in the press conference that his team’s intention was to ‘work hard, and stop Messi’. Montella’s nickname as a player in Italy was ‘the little airplane’ but on Saturday night he never even got out of the hangar. He should have known that on the very few occasions that other top-flight sides have tried to annul Messi, the only consequence has been the further liberation of the rest. Indeed, you could see that after the opening twenty minutes’ pummelling of Sevilla’s plan, the players were looking pleadingly to the bench with that ‘what do we do with the other ten?’ look in their frightened eyes.
Ironically, with Messi temporarily on hold, the opening goal arose from a splendid pass from spare goalie Jasper Cillesen, plonked expertly into Coutinho’s path and thence into that of Luis Suarez, who arched backwards and hooked it into the net. Messi himself shook off the shackles and scored the second on 30 minutes, after a nifty back-heel from the ubiquitous Jordi Alba, and when ten minutes later Suarez made it three it was basically game over. The cameras showed Sevilla fans with their heads in their collective hands, bowed down as if at silent prayer. It couldn’t have been much fun, waiting for further humiliation in the second half. Their expectations, at least in that sense, were entirely fulfilled.
Barça were magnificent, even permitting themselves the luxury of a goal from the man-of-the-moment Iniesta, but Sevilla were oddly flat, stage-fraught and entirely lacking aggression or thought. Navas had a go, Sandro was much better than the timid Correa, whom he replaced, and Vazquez was half decent, but the rest, including the normally useful N’Zonzi and Banega, were awful. Nevertheless, the abuse they received on returning to Seville was a bit harsh, despite N’Zonzi’s rather dodgy decision to leave the Wanda and nip to a nightclub. You can understand why he’d want to drown his sorrows, but these days social media is unforgiving.
Maybe it’s just an accumulation of factors for Sevilla, plus the classic slap on the arse that Betis’ great season has conferred upon them. In the end, finishing below Betis is much worse for them than losing the King’s Cup Final. And of course, losing to Barça is not a shameful act, but losing in such a manner certainly is. There will be consequences, but Sevilla will be hoping that the most serious one won’t be a Europe-less season. They’ve grown kind of accustomed to the ride in the last few years. And just to complete a perfect weekend, their women’s side also lost 5-0 to Barcelona on Sunday. Spooky but true.
Iniesta deserves a homage from Liga Fever at the end of the season, but suffice to say for now that he’s basically a really nice geezer. There’s nobody quite like Iniesta, who has successfully resisted all attempts to turn him into a sex-god, or a product-pushing endorser. The Catalan bank ‘La Caixa’ managed to recruit him, but only as a sort of comfortably smiling sofa-sitting presence. Most players, even Messi, can be made to look almost handsome and endorsement-worthy by a combination of haircuts, hipster beards, lighting and surgery, but nothing could ever change Iniesta from looking like some sort of American horror B-movie goof, the guy who turns up at the grad party when he was supposed to have died two years previously. He is so pale he looks disinterred, recently exhumed. When he smiles it doesn’t quite extend to his entire face, as if any obvious emotion might somehow fragment his fragile body.
But he’s so popular that even the Sevilla fans applauded him off the pitch when he was substituted. He’s like a Bobby Charlton without the comb-over, a sort of latter-day-saint who would quietly wish to save the world from all its hellishness and harshness. We might never see his like again.
In the 66th minute, he was brutally upended on the edge of the area and, unusually for him, began to complain to the clueless ref, Gil Manzano, who had given no foul. It was a tricky moment for the latter, conscious of the significance of the event for Iniesta, and aware that he had probably made yet another blooper in his calamitous career. Iniesta, unusually incensed, took it a bit too far, obliging Manzano to book him – an event which prompted the TVE1 commentator to offer up the imbecilic phrase ‘I hope he doesn’t end his career like Zidane’. Five minutes later, Iniesta brushed past Manzano and tapped him on the shoulder in a peace-making, apologetic gesture. No other player on the planet would have done this, particularly given that Iniesta was quite right to have complained. It was a great moment, entirely spontaneous and typical of the man. Spain’s loss is China’s gain.
Anyway, just before we leave the Cup Final, you’ve probably read about the Spanish Police confiscating all yellow t-shirts from the Barcelona fans, before they could enter the stadium. This is because, as you’ll know, yellow is now the colour associated with Catalan nationalism. Ah well, that’s okay then. They couldn’t possibly promote freedom of expression in Spain. Someone might get hurt. And it’s interesting because I often write this column in rubber gloves. I hope the Guardia Civil don’t close Liga Fever down now. I just really like the yellow ones, M’lud. I hate those pink ones from Walmart.
Elsewhere, Atlético blew it again, 24 hours later in the Willy-Wanda, drawing 0-0 with on-fire Betis. This means that Atlético have now gone 10 home games without conceding a goal, Betis have gone eleven games without losing, and Barcelona are now a mere point from the league title. They travel to Deportivo next Sunday to very probably claim it, although the Galicians are not mathematically down as yet. If they do lose to Barça, and Levante beat Sevilla (which is quite likely) then Depor will join Las Palmas and Málaga in the silver division next season, and the Catalans will lift the trophy. Looks like an exciting weekend to come, and oh….Real Madrid play at Bayern on Wednesday. Hold on to your horses. There’s plenty of action still to come.