Given the foul weather on Sunday morning, I wandered down to the local bar with my papers and pored over the footy stuff, accompanied by my ‘Tejano’ coffee (Texan – which is an ‘Americano’ with a bit of cold milk) and a croissant whose sugary nature will mean some gym-ridden penance sessions this coming week. I like these coffee visits to the bar, usually alone. I can read all the Spanish news and all the sports tabloids, in perfect peace. In fact I stayed so long that Valladolid v Huesca began on the telly. ‘They’re going back down, that Huesca lot’ pronounced the owner of the bar from within shouting distance – aware of my weakness for football. I nodded. ‘They try to play football, but it doesn’t work for them – look!’ he proclaimed, as a pass went astray.
Anyway, the tabloid Marca had also just proclaimed to me that Real Madrid have now gone four games without a win and 6 hours 49 minutes without scoring a goal. This put me in mind of the phenomenon of tantric sex, although I’m no expert on the topic. Six hours of frenzied activity, ending up with nothing? Was it Julie Christie who got so fed up of Warren Beatty one day that she actually asked if he could get up and make a cup of tea? Interestingly, a young Beatty allegedly handed the Real Madrid players their medals after they defeated AC Milan in the 1958 European Cup Final, so there is a connection. Now there’s an exclusive piece of trivia that you won’t get on any other site.
Whatever – Madrid’s lack of ability to finish things off (if you’ll excuse the extension of the metaphor) means that they are now officially in a ‘crisis’. The Spanish word ‘crisis’ is the same as the English one, but it is never official until the club’s mouthpiece (the aforementioned Marca) leads with the word as its headline. On Sunday as I was munching my croissant, I was treated to the ‘Crisis Real’ header, the literal and figurative meaning of the phrase meaning ‘royal crisis’ – as in a BIG one. RM have not been so tantric since a similar run in 1984, when they went 496 minutes without scoring. The current 406 means that they’ll beat the record in added time during the next match, if they don’t change their strokes. There’s a break for internationals next week, but the next encounter sees Levante visit the Bernabéu. If they can’t score against them – Getafe failed to this weekend although Sevilla put six past them a while back – then the royal crisis will worsen.
Madrid’s 1-0 defeat up at Alavés was made all the worse by occurring in the 95th minute, when the old local warhorse Manu Garcia, who came on for Wakaso in the 73rd minute, gleefully buried a header that had been nodded back in his direction after a late corner. The visitors started with Bale, Benzema and Ceballos pushed forward, and ended up with Mariano, Asensio and the young Vinicius – all to no avail. It looked a bit desperate, especially given that their best attacker was the full-back, Odriozola. Alavés are now 6th, level on 14 points with RM and only two from Sevilla at the top. Nobody gave a bin-bag for them at the beginning of the campaign.
The only slight reduction in Madrid’s pain was the fact that late on Sunday night, Barcelona also failed to win for the 4th time in succession, although those four games all correspond to the league programme. Madrid have failed in three league games, but have added their defeat in Russia to the roster of shame. Barça’s 1-1 draw at Valencia was rather more predictable, given Valencia’s improving form, with their draw at Man Utd not quite superseding Barcelona’s excellent display at Tottenham but their recent displays nevertheless suggesting that it would be no cake-walk for the Catalans. Indeed it wasn’t, with Garay scoring in the second minute and Messi, as ever, coming to the rescue 20 minutes later. After that it could have gone either way, but Barça have now slipped second, a point behind Sevilla and a place above Atlético by virtue of goal difference.
Is their situation also a crisis? Well before we discuss that, I reckon we should look at one of the other guys who are making this start to the season so interesting and unusual. At this point last season, after 8 games, Alavés were on three points and looking as though they were shaping up for a return to Division 2. Now they’re two points shy of the top spot. Amazingly, the last time they beat Real Madrid at home was in 1931, 2-0. Both goals were scored by Baltasar Albéniz, who, having survived the Civil War went on to manage them in the late 1940s. Albéniz was from Eibar, which is quite close, but Manu Garcia, who scored 87 years later, was actually born in Vitoria – which gives the result a poetic touch. But hey, 87 years! Even Julie Christie didn’t have to wait for as long as that.
If we look back at the more recent past, that is last season at this 8-game stage, the contrast couldn’t be starker. Barcelona were top with 22 points and Valencia second with 18 (they’re on 9 at the moment). Sevilla had 16, as they do now, but it only secured them the 5th berth at that point. Ten points separated the top eight clubs, whereas at the time of writing, the top eight are only separated by four. You can call that a crisis for the big clubs or a bonanza for the smaller ones. I prefer the latter personally, but anyway, that ain’t how the world goes round. If the order isn’t restored soon, who knows what storms and tempests will wrack the world? Next up for Barcelona is Sevilla at home on the 20th, a game which might well define the rest of the opening phase, up to Christmas. If Sevilla were to upset the cart at the Camp Nou, things could get really interesting. Until then, I’m keeping my keyboard strikes fairly calm.
The odd thing about this season is the weird about-turns for both of the big boys. Last season, RM couldn’t stop scoring, but needed to do so because of their leaky defence. Now they rarely concede, but can’t score. The departure of Ronaldo is only half the story. Barcelona last season were tight at the back and reasonably prolific up front, but this season their defence seems to have forgotten the basics. The injury to Sam Umtiti hasn’t helped, of course, but the insecurity that stalks their play at the moment is surprising. The longer it goes on, the bolder opponents will become. Sevilla will be very interested indeed about that game on the 20th.
The other attractive game of the weekend was in the Willy-Wanda, where Atlético faced Betis and beat them 1-0, with a goal from Correa. As such, they’re nicely placed in the pelotón, as they say in cycling. And once again, although they aren’t exactly perforating the net with abandon (only 9 scored) they are, as usual, the meanest at the back, where the wonderful Oblak has only been beaten four times.
They travel to Villarreal in a fortnight, and will be looking to capitalise on the submarine’s awful form. They lost again this weekend, this time to the other surprise package, Espanyol. Barça’s neighbours are also on 14 points, an incursion into the top five as unexpected as that of Alavés. Most LaLiga observers, me included, had them down as relegation fodder for the season, but so far they’re playing out of their skins. Ekambi’s goal for Villarreal was the first that Espanyol have conceded on home territory this season, which tells you a lot. New coach Rubi has been around a bit, having coached eleven sides before this season (he coached Huesca to the top flight for this season) but has rarely been associated with much top-flight success. This season things might be changing for him, after his golden season at Huesca. Indeed, that’s exactly where Espanyol play after the break, and Rubi’s return could even see them go second, the Barça v Sevilla result permitting.
To conclude, I watched the Basque derby on Friday night on the TV, and feel the obligation to point out that the victors in San Mamés, Real Sociedad, started with seven local players from the small Gipuzkoa region, and finished the game with eight. They have all come through the ranks at Sociedad. Athletic, on the other hand, had only four players starting from their own Vizcaya region, which is a fact rarely considered when folks from the outside look romantically upon their Basque-only policy. Real Sociedad would love to be Basque-only too, but cannot because of the raids over the years from Athletic. It might seem cool to play with Basques only, but the policy becomes more questionable when it means that you consider the youth systems of the other Basque sides as your rightful territory. Wonderful idea, or lack of respect? Athletic started with four Gipuzkoan players in their ranks, and if you look at the two squads, an amazing 17 of the players selected to either play or sit on the bench were from Gipuzkoa, a region of 700,000 people.
Has any other similarly small region contributed to so many top-flight footballers in any of the major European leagues? Answers on a postcard please, and see you after the international break.