There’s plenty to talk about this weekend, although many columns have already been filled regarding the ‘clásico week’. The problem, however, with too much focus on the terrible twins is that it can detract from other worthy stuff in Spain, of which there was plenty at the weekend.
Take the 98th minute at bottom club Huesca on Saturday, where Sevilla’s Ben Yedder had equalised home-hero Juanpis’ goal on 84 minutes. A draw would have probably satisfied Sevilla after a tough few weeks at the office (3 defeats in 4 games), but the time it took for the owls of the VAR to conclude that Sevilla should be awarded a penalty were added onto the game at the end, culminating in Chimy Avila’s last-second goal which was also subjected to the VAR treatment. When the goal was given, witness wild scenes in Huesca, the sort that can only occur when you’ve been sprayed by the hose of misfortune for so long that hope has dimmed to a sputtering flame. Suddenly, after deciding that they would need to begin planning for next season back in the more familiar surroundings of Segunda ‘A’, Huesca are permitted to dream. Like Eibar’s original great escape, it’s what makes La Liga’s playground scraps so fascinating, a worthy supporting cast to the big guys doing the Sumo wrestling above.
Huesca have now only lost once in the last six, and although they are still bottom they’re only three points shy of faltering Celta, in 17th place. Celta lost 1-0 at Eibar and sacked their coach Mick Cardoso on Sunday, after a single win in the last ten. Cardoso had been in charge for 14 games, 9 of which Celta had lost. Fran Escribá takes his place and becomes Celta’s third coach this season. The nightmare thus continues, with deadly enemies Deportivo looking half-decent in 5th spot in Segunda. Were Celta to go down and Deportivo to take their place then the winds that lash Vigo from the ‘coast of death’ will seem more cadaverous than usual. You have to feel for Cardoso, despite the decent severance -package he’ll take home with him, because Iago Aspas has been out for most of his time there. It might have been different with him around. Whatever, only five points now separate the bottom five, with Valladolid the latest to join the ranks of the sweating ones.
Up the top end, I went along to Anoeta to see Atlético Madrid on parade, and rather as one expected they won 0-2, too easily than they should have done but then they do have a swagger about them, a sense that nobody is going to score easily against them, and that their chances will come during any game. Like Barcelona in midweek in the Bernabow, they had four chances in the game and took 50% of them, courtesy of some questionable defending from Real Sociedad – but it was enough, despite losing Koke to a sending-off after 62 minutes. Alvaro Morata, the forward about whom there is as much consensus as the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’ scored both goals and is beginning to look a happy chap again, after his struggles at Stamford Bridge. What is it about Morata? He’s quick, keeps his head up, is very good in the air and shows a certain willingness to defend and chase when necessary. He’s scored every 2.7 games in a career total of 348 appearances, and has 13 in 27 for Spain. It’s not a bad record for a player whom Real Madrid could not find a place for. Like Gareth Bale, who has been hogging the headlines for distinct reasons this week, he seems to be a player who thrives on being loved, by his coach and by the fans. Without this love, these players stagger through some kind of internal wilderness, unable to communicate their unhappiness except by body language and with, as my gran used to say ‘A face like a wet weekend’.
Of course, it is also incumbent upon them to roll up their sleeves and face adversity like the overpaid athletes that they are, but it’s hard to know what’s going on in the heads of some of them, for all that the public eye requires them to be wonderful and winners, every week of their careers. Bale seems to have begun a pro-active process of getting the hell out of Madrid, now that his English-speaking buddy Ronaldo has gone and the new coach seems to prefer the 18 year-old Vinicius to him. Goalie Courtois’ sarky little comment about ‘Bale the golfer’ this week also suggests that the dressing-room alphas are starting to lose patience.
It all seems to be unwinding for the greatest British player of his generation, but you have to say that maybe Bale wasn’t made for the foreign experience. Football is not a universal language – as the cliché doesn’t go – and the only way to be happy in a foreign environment is to make the effort to learn the lingo, difficult though that may be for certain people. Unless you do (to some extent), then you cannot really understand or get to know your team-mates properly, the pressure is always on them to help you, and you cannot be happy in a culture about which you have made no effort to understand. It’s like that simple rule of conversation in which you should always ask people about themselves – whether you’re really interested in them or not. They’ll think that you are, and it makes a big difference. Real Madrid fans, as ‘Marca’ wisely wrote on Sunday, will forgive error, but not indifference to the cause.
You could see Bale’s thinking from the bench last week during the cup match, with Vinicius doing everything but score. His glazed expression in the dug-out said, ‘The kid’s good, but he’s not as experienced as me. I should be on from the start, with that whippersnapper on the bench as the surprise package’. Solari may have concluded the same, but he put them both in the starting line-up on Saturday, only to withdraw the Welshman from the fray in the second half. Players like Vinicius will always be loved, despite their relative inefficacy, perhaps because they entertain and they wear their hearts on their sleeves. Madrid were unaware of what they were getting with the Bale psychological package, and despite his obvious virtues as a player, it’s surprising he’s lasted this long. If he can stay fit for the rest of the season, he’ll be on his way to Arsenal, most probably.
Meanwhile, Madrid continue to flounder, and they will be hoping that the collateral damage does not spread to their game against Ajax on Tuesday night. The Dutch side looked very good indeed in the first leg, and were unfortunate to lose. Will Vinicius torment them again? Back in Anoeta on Saturday, I was sitting next to my voluble friend about whom I promised I would reveal more, as the season progressed. He seemed unusually quiet when I arrived but was soon up for the cause, as soon as the hated Atlético appeared. But as the opposition took over the game, our conversation strayed to other matters, one of them being Vinicius. ‘He runs up his own arse’ he opened, comparing him to Theo Hernandez, Sociedad’s flaky full-back on loan from the Bernabéu, and once of Atlético. ‘Dudes like him look good, and they scare defenders, but the way they play is kind of messy. It disorganises stuff. Look at Barça the other night – they did nothing but when it mattered their attacks were brutal. Pim-pam-pum….goal! You can’t base a team on a guy like Vinicius. He might learn, sure, but at the moment he just disorganises everything. It doesn’t work.’
Remarkably, he left at half-time with his son, muttering something about not wanting to witness a thrashing. He missed a better second half, but the point about Vinicius was a good one. Whatever, Madrid now have only the Champions League to keep them going, and even if they get past Ajax there will be plenty of ogres lining up to take their crown away from them. They’ll need plenty of hope, and some love as well.
Talking of hope, Luis Rubiales, head of the Spanish Federation and the guy who sacked Lopetegui, announced last week that the infamous Monday game – now the subject of almost constant live-TV protests – will be abolished next season. Bob Geldof will be happy about that one.
The Friday game , less unpopular but still a source of some friction, may also go the way of all flesh. Rubiales stated that money was important (he meant TV money) but that the priority had to be the paying customer, and that the Monday game was ‘no longer an attractive proposition’. What is this? The Federation talking sense? The world may shift on its axis, but the fans are not holding their breath just yet, until Javier Tebas over at the League officially agrees with his adversary. But the signs are good. Personally speaking, I’m ok with the Friday game, coinciding as it does with the happiest evening of the week and the bar-hopping that accompanies it. But Monday has to go, and good riddance.