Well shiver me timbers – what an awesome three days of matches in Spain! Just when you were thinking that it couldn’t remain so interesting and competitive, and that things were gradually reverting to the old hierarchies, LaLiga comes up with a cracker whose glow will warm the Spanish firesides for the next fortnight. The teams that won can spend the international break all smiley and positive in training, whilst the victims can search in the rubble for the positives and just keep on working, as the clichés go.
The 12th ‘jornada’ had started inauspiciously. Friday night games are a problem if your side is playing, since a home game coincides with supper and bar-hopping time and an away game means that you need to find a place where you can combine being out on a Friday night with seeing a decent chunk of the 9 o’clock game. League boss Javier Tebas is not too concerned with these matters, and indeed, with a series of friends and acquaintances having arranged a gathering on Friday night, I was devastated to find, on arrival at the restaurant, that Levante had already scored against Real Sociedad after 4 minutes. The television was downstairs but our sheer numbers meant that we were moved upstairs to the larger room, unfortunately without a telly. This meant that I was obliged to reluctantly keep up conversations with various people for several hours, and not look at my mobile. Terrible eh? At midnight, when we spilled onto the darkened drizzly streets of San Sebastian, I discovered that we had won 1-3, and whooped into the night air. It meant that the weekend would be okay. Tebas doesn’t get this, but losing on the Friday night will colour the entire weekend, make you miserable and envious of the sides who subsequently win. You spend the next two days in a cloud of resentment, watching teams creep up on you in the table whilst you mentally lament those missed chances. Dumb but true. Sociological research conducted in Nottingham in the 1990s even found a correlation between work productivity in a given week and the weekend result that preceded it.
Whatever, in the happy afterglow I decided to watch the Atlético v Athletic game on Saturday at home early evening, pre-socialising time. This is usually an interesting game from a number of perspectives, not least the fact that although the two sides seem chalk and cheese in politico-cultural terms, Atlético were in fact founded by three Basque students studying in Madrid in 1903, missing their local side back in Bilbao. They thus founded the side as Bilbao’s representative branch in Madrid and used the same colours, which were actually blue and white back then. The change to red and white stripes occurred at the same time (eight years later) which was attributed to the cheapness of the cloth from spare mattress material, also manufactured in red and white. Anyway – most Atlético fans are either unaware of this or would prefer not to know it, but of course the clubs have grown apart since, and the final schism came after the Civil War when Atlético (called Atlético Aviación) cherry-picked players from the military, moved way to the right of the political spectrum and buried their ancient roots, as it were. Athletic began to lose their pre-war powers (with many players in exile) and Atlético began to grow in stature. Bilbao would go on to win four more titles (two in the 1980s) but their post-war stature no longer reflected the fact that in spirit at least, they were the real founders of the club.
Teams from the Basque Country were never too keen on visiting the old Metropolitano, and although the Willy-Wanda is a much less politically-charged place, it’s still a needle fixture. Athletic are having a bad time of late, but it’s the kind of game they normally relish in order to get the sword back between their teeth, and for long spells it looked as though they might pick up their first win since the opening fixture when they beat Leganés 2-1. Iñaki Williams, a player who could become a star but probably won’t, is basically a fast and direct striker who simply doesn’t keep his head enough in finishing situations, and who makes too many poor decisions in his link-up play – but if you leave him space behind your defence then he’ll kill you for pace, as Diego Godín, nine years his senior, found out to his cost for the visitors’ second goal, expertly set up by a wonderful pass from the tricky Muniain. In-between, the much underestimated Thomas Partey had scored a fantastic equaliser, exploding a sudden shot with such power that Herrerín was left grasping air. I like Thomas – he’s much more creative than he seems and was Atlético’s best player on the night.
Ed Berizzo then took Williams off to protect the lead, and Atlético were freed from their main worry. Raul García, an ex-Atlético, replaced Williams to applause from his old crowd, but despite his fearsome appearance, he was never going to have much influence on the game. García is a genuine bad guy, one of the last of a dying breed. As my grandmother would have said ‘You wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night’, but his old mates largely ignored him and won it at the last gasp, a surreal goal from the limping Godín, converted to emergency centre-forward because of his lack of mobility but heading the ball into the net to a backdrop of raucous fist-pumping and Simeone-scurrying. Whatever your feelings towards Atlético, it doesn’t get much better.
They would have been even happier to know that 24 hours later, Barcelona were destined to fall in an equally lung-gasping affair, 3-4 at home to a wonderfully free and easy Betis, taking their leaf from the recent victory in Milan and basically just going for it. If anything characterises LaLiga this year then it was this game, whose result means that the top four sides are separated by a single point, with Real Madrid down in 6th place but beginning to show signs of life.
I watched the Betis game too, and it was outstanding stuff. Given the way that both sides have set out their stall this season, it was basically never going to be a scoreless draw. Barça have now conceded 18 goals after 12 games, whereas last season at the same stage they had only conceded four. The statistic, as they say, is significant. Betis had scored more at this stage last season, but in also conceding more they were setting the template for their open style under Setién. What was interesting was their short-pass quick-move tactics that flummoxed Barça and sent them into a spin, with two ex-Masia products Tello and Bartra substantially involved.
Betis’ opener was terrific, with Junior morphing into a green and white Jordi Alba, haring onto Carvalho’s perceptive pass and beating Ter Stegen with his right foot. It was a goal from a team encouraged to roam. Busquets, Rakitic and Arthur were basically being overrun in midfield and the second came from a similar break down Barça’s right side, opened up into a motorway. The evergreen Joaquin popped it in, but when Messi scored from the spot in the 2nd half you felt it was game over and that the usual would occur.
Nothing of the sort, because Betis, in a bold move, decided that attack was the best form of defence and scored again, after an unusual Karius-like error from Ter Stegen. The excellent Canales got another for 2-4, and it was all looking quite surreal. Even then Barça threatened to come back (with 10 men) and when Messi made it 3-4 it wasn’t altogether clear that they’d lose, but lose they did in a game which would light up any weekend. Barça haven’t conceded four at home in a league game since 2003, when oddly enough they lost twice to the tune of 2-4, once to Valencia and then to Deportivo.
Talking of 2-4, that was the score that Real Madrid racked up at Celta Vigo, with Karim Benzema scoring and assisting and generally looking rather ace. Celta weren’t as bad as the result suggests, but it seems that the Champs League 0-5 stroll in midweek at Viktoria Plzen has raised the morale at the White House. Benzema, a chap who needs confidence and affection, scored a cracker to open that 0-5 romp, and seems to be a man restored – but you never know with him. And what of the ‘provisional ‘ coach Solari? Four wins in four games ain’t too bad, even though two of the wins were against ropey opposition. But the rumour-mill is pretty quiet. Perhaps he’ll be invited to stay at the helm? Whatever, the two-week break means that Pérez has some time to think about it.
Alavés won again and stay in contention, and another cracker at Sevilla saw the home side come back from 0-1 down to Espanyol, who drop to 5th position but won’t be exactly suicidal because of that. In two weeks’ time Atlético entertain Barcelona at the Wanda, in one of those games that seem unbelievably prescient, as if it had been thus planned all along. That said, Alavés or Sevilla could also be top after the next set of fixtures are completed. Hold on for the ride – it’s going to get bumpy.