Ave Princeps! We have a new leader! Step up to the podium Sevilla FC, who have already been there twice this season, but who had to wait quite a while before that – since the 2006-7 season to be precise, under the currently unemployed Juande Ramos. They took over the top spot from Barcelona, (who drew in the last gasp at the Willy Wanda) by defeating Valladolid 1-0 in slightly controversial circumstances, the visitors having had two goals disallowed.
It was quite a weekend, as you probably know, and a welcome one too after the international break. Real Madrid, who seem to specialise in losing or playing poorly after such breaks (draw at San Mamés, lose at home to Levante and then lose to Eibar) were turkey-shot 3-0 at Eibar, where the locals ran riot in front of a 6,500 crowd (the equivalent of the number of stewards and police employed to protect the Bernabéu every fortnight) and Santi Solari’s clean-as-a-whistle start was derailed in spectacular fashion. In fact, had it not been for the albatross arms of Courtois, it could have been a ‘manita’ (five goals, a little hand) and Real Madrid don’t like those, oh no sir. They tend to be signalled in their records as dark blots on an otherwise golden copybook of world domination, and anything that threatens to puncture the myth/image (delete as you wish) tends to come in fives. A Real Madrid fan once told me that it was actually better to concede six than five due to the fact that there was no corresponding concept for a half-dozen goals shipped.
Be that as it may, losing by a three-goal margin to the league’s minnows is no fun, particularly when the defeat is accompanied by such a flaccid performance. To his credit, continuing with the testosteronic theme, Solari commented in the after-game interview that Eibar had ‘metió dos cojones’, one of Spain’s finest phrases which basically means ‘put their balls on the table’ as all good hairy northern chaps should. Madrid, on the other hand, looked around for some leadership but Sergio Ramos seemed to have other things on his mind, such as a pending court case perhaps, or certainly a meeting with his lawyers. He didn’t seem very focused. Neither did Gareth Bale, but then again he never does. Even worse for Madrid was the fact that they were played off the park by an on-loan chap from Barcelona with a Marcelo haircut called ‘Cucurella’, which means ‘cucumber’ in Catalan, in case you didn’t know. Beaten by a cucumber, and in Barcelona colours to boot!
I don’t wish to rub salt into the wound, but Eibar’s opening goal said a lot about Spanish football and the gift that the VAR may well become, once everyone settles down and uses it properly. Amrabat’s famous ‘The VAR is bullshit’ phrase is not a sustainable piece of data. In writing about La Liga for twenty years, I’ve been obliged to face the issue time and again of whether referees still favour Real Madrid and/or Barcelona, and every time I’ve replied ‘no’. In my book ‘Morbo’ I seemed to upset some people by also suggesting that this was true during the dictatorship, but what I meant was that nobody held meetings and said to refs, ‘You must let us win or we’ll fire/shoot you’. They still don’t. What I did say (having talked to some of them who officiated back then) was that the officials knew what side their bread was buttered on, and in a relatively poor country at the time, demotion from the ranks was not a good prospect.
Referees are paid far more today, but the same principle holds. Upset the big boys too often, and you’ll find that those international call-ups begin to fade. Or at least you could expect that when Angel Villar was president and the VAR had not been introduced. Real Madrid have now been ruffled seven times by the VAR in thirteen matches, and only once did it rule in their favour (at Girona). Statistics suggest that they would still be sixth but with a point more.
And your point is, I hear you say? Well obviously it’s the feeling that the VAR is levelling out the playing field, if not yet in terms of points then at least in terms of our perception of the game and just how wrong the referees have been getting it with regard to Real Madrid’s games, and those of others, of course. Had Eibar’s opener been ruled out, who knows how the game might have panned out? Refs (some of them) get easily intimidated by the big players too, especially in the big arenas. The feeling that the VAR can now help them (as opposed to exposing them) is surely a positive thing.
That said, certain things remain inexplicable. Inigo Martinez’ foul on Getafe’s Mata in the 94th minute of Sunday’s 1-1 draw in San Mamés should surely have gone to VAR, but instead the ref blew for full time. If the ref’s committee cared to look into that one, Iglesias Villanueva would probably be called in to explain himself.
Now if you’ll excuse a little self-congratulation, it seems to have been missed by all media coverage in Spain except Liga Fever that Saturday’s game took place four years exactly to the day (November 24th, 2014) when Eibar first played Real Madrid in the league in Ipurua. I was there and wrote a piece for Sport 360 for the occasion.
RM won 0-4, and the stellar constellations and all the laws of the universe remained untroubled at the end of that distant evening. Four years later, the scene is rather different, and RM lie sixth in the league with 20 goals scored and 19 conceded, on the same number of points as Girona and with only two more than Eibar themselves, which is how it should be. Three points separate the top four sides, and that’s after 4th placed Alavés lost surprisingly to Leganés on Friday night. Had they won, they’d be joint leaders with Sevilla with Barça down in 3rd place, oh Lordy! I don’t know about you, but I’m as happy as a sandboy with all this. I can’t wait for the weekend to come around, and the time between ‘jornadas’ suddenly seems like an existential inconvenience. Bring it on!
The other game of note was of course the titan-clash between Atlético and Barcelona which I also watched from start to finish. It was actually a poor game, enlightened only by the pantomime villain antics of Diego Costa and the final fifteen minutes when all hell let loose. ‘Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war’. Perhaps Shakespeare was anticipating Diego Costa, a man who looks remarkably like the baddy in the film ‘Ghost’ (Rick Avilés). Diego could make a good living from playing the baddy, even when he retires from football. His celebration of his goal, aided and abetted by Ter Stegen, was great stuff, as was the flapping of Simeone’s arms as he conducted the Wanda orchestra like a manic professor expounding some profound truth to a lecture hall of star-struck students.
Alas, the naughty boy Dembele came on and yet again proved decisive, picking up a brilliant pass from the otherwise subdued Messi and equalising in the 90th minute. Simeone thus remains winless as a coach against the Catalans but emerges intact from the game, with his side in a more-than-decent 3rd position and a win at home to Monaco on Wednesday in the Champs League guaranteeing them a place in the next phase. El Cholo has reasons to be cheerful, certainly more so than his neighbours. If RM lose at Roma on Tuesday (which seems eminently possible in the present climate) and CSKA beat Viktoria (also eminently possible) then Madrid would lose the top spot and need to get a result in their final game to go through. Anything else would be distinctly calamitous for the White House in the present climate.
In short, Sevilla can dream. There is no reason, given the present circumstances, why they cannot aspire to the league title. Next week they travel to Alavés, which could be interesting, as will be Real Madrid’s home game to an improving Valencia. Atlético won’t be looking forward to visiting Girona, who pulled off the result of the weekend (after Eibar’s) with their 1-3 win at Espanyol and Barça entertain Villarreal, eternally promising this season and actually happier now after beating Betis 2-1.
In the 14th week, after almost 20 years of Sunday night columns, I confess that the phrase ‘all to play for’ has not figured too often in my repertoire.