Just when you thought that LaLiga might stay interestingly competitive, Leo Messi decided that he’d had enough of democracy and that he’d prefer a return to dictatorship. Espanyol, who a month ago were looking like serious contenders for the Champions League places, have now lost four on the trot and hey presto, lie ten points behind their illustrious neighbours who destroyed them 0-4 at the Cornella-el-Prat. Wanna win the league? Well – you’ve gotta find some consistency, pick a pocket or two or even better, sign a Leo Messi.
There’s not much point trying to add to the splurge of Messi-based eulogies this weekend after his two impeccable free-kick strikes. Messi almost always gets the ball on target from free-kicks, and scores with a ridiculously high success percentage, but the set pieces can sometimes detract from other aspects of a winning performance. For me, the best thing I saw all weekend was Barça’s second goal by Dembele – not the goal itself – good though it was, but rather the set-up by Messi. Attacking a group of three Espanyol players on the edge of the area, he dribbles dizzily into their midst, appears to lose it in a forest of legs only to emerge from the woods and play a slide rule pass to Dembele to his left, up to then ignored by Espanyol because of the alternative focus of their obsession. Dembele draws the defender with a left feint and then a move right before floating it rather nicely into the net. But Messi’s action is ridiculous in the circumstances – the way he suddenly sees the angle and the weight that he applies to the pass. Folks have since been posting their amusement at the Argentine’s 5th position in the Ballon d’Or but hey, does anyone really care? We know he’s the best player of all time, and he’s already won it five times anyway. Give someone else a chance. The most interesting thing about the Ballon D’or these days is not who wins it but which players fail to turn up because they’re having a hissy-fit at some perceived slight, fictional or otherwise.
Whatever, the league table is beginning to re-sort itself into some sort of normality. Sevilla blew their chance to stay on Barça’s coat-tails by allowing Valencia to equalise at the death in the Mestalla, where the famously impatient home fans nevertheless dedicated a ‘pañolada’ to their team at the hand (a hanky-wave) as punishment for subjecting them to yet another draw (six from eight at home). To most, it might seem a decent result against a high-flying side, but the Valencia fans’ expectations have once again been twisted upwards by last year’s unexpectedly good campaign, and 15th spot just ain’t cutting it for them.
Atlético stay in contention with a 3-0 thumping of Alavés, a win rather similar in its symbolic value to that of Barcelona’s. So you thought you could live with the big boys eh? Think again. Real Madrid, returning to the Champions spots after a brief spell of fasting in the wild, won in rather more timid fashion at poor Huesca, 0-1 thanks to a tasty volley from Bale and a bizarre miss by Gonzalo Melero, once of Real Madrid ‘B’. Conspiracy theorists step forward, but actually he just heads it with too much angle, with Courtois helpless. Since Huesca don’t score many – only four at home so far, the game more or less responded to previous patterns.
Madrid had never played there before, and were actually making their 62nd visit to a different opponent’s stadium since 1929 and the dawn of professionalism in Spain. Put that one in your anorak pocket. It was also the first time they’ve managed to break the ‘azulgrana’ hoodoo this season, having lost to all the sides who play in Barcelona colours so far (Barcelona, Eibar, Levante, CSKA), a phenomenon which was beginning to cause a certain level of paranoia in White House circles.
Of course, Madrid were conveniently in Huesca to enable the Copa Libertadores Final to be played in the capital of the country from which the South Americans eventually liberated themselves, but never mind about historical ironies. Doha and Paris had been sounded out too, but Florentino Pérez obviously fancied the idea in the end and gave it the go-ahead, sparking 4,000 policemen into weekend duty. I watched the game after slinking in disappointed after Real Sociedad’s 1-2 slump at home to an impressive Valladolid, and after all the rather ludicrous circumstances surrounding the game, it was average quality, high-tempo stuff. The Colombian Quintero stood out most for River, as opposed to the much vaunted Palacios, and nobody really stood out for Boca, making you pray for the appearance of a Joan Roman Riquelme and a bit of pause, a bit of subtlety.
River kept their heads better, and just about shaded it. I must confess that I would’ve preferred Boca to win, simply because of the River-induced riots that led to the second leg’s postponement, but you could argue that the vast majority of sane River fans should not have been deprived of attending the return leg in their own stadium, once it had been decided that the game would go ahead, sometime someplace. It was a Pyrrhic victory nonetheless. It seems to me that the more sensible decision would have been to have given Boca the trophy and be done with it, as a warning to those who casually turn football into a war-zone.
The River-Boca rivalry is an interesting one, from a socio-historical viewpoint, and one of the world’s great fixtures, but beyond a certain point the violence annuls the core principle of the encounter. Conmebol’s president, the wonderfully named Alejandro Dominguez Wilson-Smith, was called ‘hijo de puta’ (sonovabitch) by Diego Maradona last week because of the decision, which did indeed seem more about the business possibilities than the ethical dimension of even playing the game. Wilson-Smith is actually from Paraguay, but it remains significant that the three previous Conmebol Presidents are all facing extradition charges to the US – one of them Wilson-Smith’s best mate.
As Maradona once said in one of his more intelligent outbursts about Argentinean football, ‘La pelota no se mancha’ (the ball has no stain), by which he meant that whilst the entire structure might be in a state of permanent moral decline, the football itself was still a vibrant spectacle. My mate Xabier Rodriguez actually wrote a decent book about Argentine footy using Maradona’s quote as the title, and there’s plenty about the super-clásico within its pages. A recommended read if your Spanish is up to it.
Don’t forget that the final games of the Champs League are this week, to get it all over by Christmas. Barça v Tottenham on Tuesday looks an interesting one, since the Londoners will need to win because of the likelihood of Inter defeating PSV. Atlético are through, but need to assure top spot away to Bruges, and Real Madrid are also through but need a point against CSKA to assure top spot. Valencia v Man Utd sounds like a great fixture, but only United have a stake in the game. Still, the hanky-wavers might feel a bit better about themselves and their club if they were to put one over on the mighty Mourinho men. Liga Fever will be neglecting partners, work and children (as usual) to watch some of/most of the games. Stay tuned.