Despite the winding-down of La Liga, now in the dying-swan phase of the season, the penultimate weekend produced some interesting stuff and the Second Division scene heated up a little bit more, with three games still to go and nothing at the top decided. And as we know, all good runs come to an end, empires eventually fall, Michael Jackson’s Thriller will one day be replaced as the biggest-selling album of all time and Barcelona will lose their record run to Levante in a 5-4 bonkers game, a thriller of its own with various zombies appearing in the Catalan defence, Yerry Mina and Jordi Alba in particular.
Who would have thought it? Just as they appeared to be closing the season unbeaten, their 43 league-games-undefeated run came to an end, significantly with Leo Messi on the sofa at home. The last time they lost in the league was to a similarly modest outfit, down at Málaga in week 31 of the previous season. Not only that, but the last occasion on which they conceded five goals in a league game was back in 2003, at Málaga again. The team whose 38-game record they overcame this season, Real Sociedad, will be their opponents in the Camp Nou next weekend, for the Andres Iniesta farewell game.
Levante had won their previous four games, but nobody had noticed that beforehand. Valverde put out a new centre-back pairing and left Leo Messi to rest, and by the 56th minute they were 5-1 down, even though Thomas Vermaelen had by then been replaced by Piqué. As king-killer Macbeth remarked in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, ‘Twas a rough night’. It was indeed, and it could have got rougher had Coutinho not pulled out the stops and done a mini-Messi, scoring a hat-trick and bringing Barça back to the brink of an improbable ‘remontada’ (comeback), Suárez getting the 4th with a penalty in the 66th minute, leaving plenty of time for the champions to preserve their record, albeit in bonkers circumstances.
Levante hung on, and Barça lost their wicket on 99, as the cricket parlance goes. It’s been an extraordinary run, with several games saved at the bell, but nobody quite expected it to end in this fashion. Had they managed to come back from 5-1, the rest of La Liga might just have decided to call it a day, and retire from the competition. Barcelona’s immortality would have been up for serious consideration. As such, they have been proved mortal, just.
Real Madrid slaughtered a tame Celta 6-0, with two goals from Gareth Bale (one a cracker), a result which will keep them happy for Kiev, and in the Seville derby, Betis and Sevilla drew 2-2 in a wonderful game, with the noise accompanying the Betis goals causing wobbles on the Richter Scale. It could have gone either way, but the result eventually favoured both sides, cementing Betis’ excellent season with a Europa League place secured, and handing Sevilla the 7th spot – although this will spoil their summer holidays with three qualifying games to get through. Is it worth it? Well, Sevilla, habitual winners of the trophy, obviously think so. They only made it, mind you, because Getafe blew it after a decent season, losing 0-1 to Atlético who were expected to put up less stiff resistance, their Europa League final on the near horizon.
In the Second Division, leaders Rayo lost at home to struggling Cordoba, in one of those weird end-of-season dogfights that upset the formbook. Rayo still lead, with three games to go, and were helped by a similar result at Sporting, where Barça B, clinging on like Cordoba, managed to win 2-3 in an excellent game. Cordoba and Barça B can still survive, but at the top, you’d still reckon on Rayo and Huesca taking the automatic spots.
To finish, if I may be so bold, I’d just like to reflect on a sunny September evening in the green rural surrounds of Zubieta, Real Sociedad’s training ground. It must have been around 2013, because my son was up there training with one of the affiliated teams, on the old elevated pitch to the side of the main buildings, up a little track and out of sight. Before the recent refurbishments, cars could drive up to the grass pitch to leave cones, posts and the sundry stuff you need for daily footy.
I’d been there for about half an hour, watching the session and chatting to one of the physios when up the track a small black VW Golf came pootling, and parked to the side of the pitch. It was one of those old ones, kind of square and lower set than the new tubbier versions. Out stepped Xabi Prieto, recently elected club captain. Taller than he looked on the pitch, he ambled slowly and gracefully across to me, since I was the first person in his visual orbit. ‘Nice evening eh?’ he opened, as if he had nothing else to do. His face seemed curiously lined, like a charismatic actor of old. ‘Nice game last weekend’ I offered, in which he’d scored. ‘Nice header’ I added. ‘Yes’ he smiled. ‘But I didn’t mean it’ he answered. ‘I meant to head it back across the area. Not score. Well, sometimes things go right, don’t they?’ he smiled. It was a strange thing to say, particularly because there’d been no hint of it in the press. And although Prieto might have seen me hanging around Zubieta before, to all intents and purposes I was a stranger, watching the youngsters train.
We chatted for a while longer before he ghosted back silently to his car. At the time, Sociedad had a policy of asking their players to refrain from buying flash vehicles, as a statement by the club of its more humble nature, closer to the average fan. But Prieto wouldn’t have bought a flash one anyway. The old anonymous Golf suited him fine, and his admission that the goal had been accidental was a typical mark of self-deprecation from a player who could have been someone on the wider stage, but preferred to be someone on the smaller, local one. Call it agoraphobia, or lack of ambition, but Xabi Prieto, who played his final home game in Saturday’s 3-2 win over Leganés, is up there with Andres Iniesta in the gentlemen one-club-man league, but sadly devoid of the trophies that the Barcelona player won in a career of similar longevity.
Prieto made his league debut in 2003, a year after Iniesta, and went on to play 531 games for the club. He came on for the last 10 minutes of the game against Leganés, since he had been out injured for two months, but it would be wonderful if he could play in the Camp Nou next weekend, and accompany Iniesta as they both ride off into the sunset. Prieto has often been named at the head of the ‘great players who never played for Spain’ list, although he made a pre-call squad for one game and played 5 for the Under 21s. There are two reasons for his absence from the international scene – one that he never played for a ‘big’ club, and two that he coincided with a golden generation of midfielders. Mikel Arteta, who grew up in the same city, would probably say the same.
Prieto was in Liverpool’s sights when they tried to sign him on a swap deal with Mark Gonzalez, but Prieto said no. He liked the food in San Sebastián. Then, when Sociedad went down in 2007, Ajax came in for him but again he turned them down, reluctant to play in the Dutch league but also just happy to stay where he was. No wonder they replaced the club crest on the shirts with his face for the Leganés game and held up the Number 10 as the game began.
Sent off only once (in the Camp Nou in 2005) and booked just a handful of times, he started off as a winger and eventually became a floating midfielder, expertly linking defence and attack with his curious ability to make the ball stick, and an odd aura of slow-motion pause to his play, like Riquelme or Valerón before him. Like Bergkamp, if he’d played in the snow he wouldn’t have left footprints.
Quiet and almost reserved, there were those who questioned his elevation to the captaincy, but he eventually proved that you don’t have to be shouty to be a leader. As John Wayne remarked, ‘Big mouth don’t make a big man’. I’ll miss Prieto, infuriating though he could be at times. Iniesta too, because in a sport which increasingly seeks to distance its gods from its believers, and which praises the art of Neymar-like mercenaries – as if their ego-fuelled careers were something to admire – it’s comforting to know that there are still players who just want to make folks happy, who still understand that they’re enormously privileged to earn bucketloads of money for possessing the dubious talent of kicking a ball rather well.