The famous exam question says ‘Compare and Contrast’ but we all know the chasm under the bridge that separates the land of Real Madrid from Planet Huesca. Sunday’s visit to the Bernabéu was their first in 59 years as a professional club, with the most recent precedent of Burgos winning in the Bernabéu on their first visit, back in 1990. 2,000 fans decided to go along, despite the game being scheduled as the ‘partidazo’ that closes the week and is played at 20.45 in the evening. But as Sir Mick once said, catch your dreams before they slip away. Huesca are bottom, rather as they expected to be, but with Villarreal losing at Celta (after being 0-2 up) the final safety position was still at a possible, but not very probable seven points. Whatever, enjoy the status of top flight while you can, and meanwhile, try to upset the merengue cart.
It’s been a bit quiet of late in LaLiga due to international shenanigans, enabling Zidane’s merry men to settle into a new routine with the one they love. The starting line-up excluded some of those away on international duty (Kroos, Varane, Modric and Asensio) and in came Ceballos, Brahim and Llorente, plus the surprise addition of Luca Zidane, the second in the line to the Zizou throne (the eldest, Enzo, plays now at Majadahonda – the team nobody can pronounce). Courtois was injured with a muscle pull in his bum and doesn’t seem to be Zidane’s favourite chappy at the moment, but it was still surprising to see the little stroke of nepotism being struck, with Keylor left on the bench. Luca has played once before in the league last season, but anyway, with two more games for RM in the space of six days (Wednesday at Valencia and Saturday at home to Eibar) I suppose you could argue that it was ‘rotation’.
It’s never easy coaching your own kids although Zidane seems to have thick enough skin. Nigel Clough, after having to play for his father was famously damning of the idea that it was possible and Periko Alonso eventually quit Real Sociedad rather than coach Xabi, who was farmed out to Eibar on his father’s orders. Jordi Cruyff wasn’t bad, but one wonders whether he would really have got to play at Barça without his dad, and Darren Ferguson might have had to wait longer for his Man Utd debut without pop at the helm. With the exception of Alonso, however, few of these famous sprogs ever really got to hit the heights, with the further exception of Cruyff who went on to have a half-decent career, despite the obvious pressures. But one wonders how the players react – or more specifically Keylor Navas, when daddy’s boy is picked before you.
Whatever the case, Luca’s first touch was to pick the ball out of the net on three minutes, when after a mistake by Nacho, Cucho Hernandez joyfully swept the ball past Zidane from the excellent Chimy Aliva’s low cross. Oh dear, and the historic occasion got even more historic with their first goal on the hallowed turf. I was watching the game in the bar I usually drop down to, the Urgain in San Sebastián. I’ll give them a bit of publicity because the food and wine are good and anyway, I’ve known the jolly bar staff for years. If this sounds like some recipe for alcoholism, you have to understand that in Spain the bars are more oriented towards social gathering, and if you just go in and watch the game (without drinking) nobody turfs you out. Besides, these places are second homes, for breakfast in the morning, ‘pintxos’ for pre-lunch and often a quiet place to read the papers.
Close to a big hotel, it’s a good bar for star-spotting too. The aforementioned Xabi Alonso occasionally pops in when he’s back at his flat, and nobody pesters him. Indeed, on Sunday morning as I sat sipping my coffee, the Levante v Eibar game was chuntering in the background on the telly. Sitting at the bar in an Eibar tracksuit was one of the injured players (who shall remain unnamed), looking up at the 2-1 scoreline as if he were suffering from acute constipation. It’s odd to see a top-flight footballer watching his team on the TV (Eibar’s budget is such that he wasn’t allowed to travel) and especially when his team is losing. His girlfriend, sitting behind him, kept patting him on the leg in consolation, but this only seemed to make him more agitated. At one point, wonderfully, Eibar’s Enrich crossed the ball and Orellana, arriving for the pass, inexplicably failed to shoot, choosing to hold the ball only to be dispossessed. As the pass arrived at Orellana’s feet, the player at the bar-stool moved forward almost imperceptibly and his right foot twitched instinctively in a sort of ersatz shot. ‘Chuta hostia!’ (Shoot for f**** sake!) he muttered miserably into his cupped hands, advising his distant team-mate.
I didn’t see the equaliser, but I suspect he kept his joy under wraps. Six hours later I was back, watching the second half of the Valladolid v Real Sociedad game and deciding to stay for the ‘partidazo’. Well somebody had to do it. The explosion of joy at Huesca’s opener was typical for this part of the world, but as the noise died down the wisest of the bar-flies who gather for these occasions, the alpha to whom the others tend to kow-tow, announced ‘It’s of no importance. Madrid will win 4-1.’ It turns out that he was wrong on the specific details, but not on the general outcome. When Benzema hit the splendid winner – accompanied by a sepulchral silence in the bar – he simply nodded and announced ‘told you so’.
Poor Huesca – the point wouldn’t really have been of much use to them, and they’d been caught in the classic conundrum of settling for a prestigious point or actually trying to achieve a result which might have helped to save their bacon. In historical terms, the game’s events also meant that they had played in Spain’s two most iconic stadia for the first time, and on both occasions scored the opening goal. You may recall that they also took the lead in the Camp Nou. On Wednesday they entertain Celta and on Saturday travel to Levante. Both games are feasible for them, but you get the feeling that it’s make-or-break time. Villarreal and Celta look to be perking up, and soon that gap might be unassailable.
As for Madrid well….they appear to have accepted that the rest of the season will simply be an exercise in self-preservation for those who are not in Zizou’s inner circle, whilst players less accustomed to him (Odriozola for example) will need to convince. Isco, Marcelo and company should, however, beware of easy assumptions because if Emperor Pérez is really serious about Eriksen, Mbappé, Hazard and or Pogba, he’ll need to flog some of his dying horses to make way for them. Nevertheless, the real and present danger is the visit to Valencia on Wednesday night. The bats from Mestalla are on flapping on a high, particularly after their meritorious win at Sevilla on Saturday. They won’t want any nonsense in their push for the 4th Champs League spot, so it’s going to be a tricky one for Zidane – certainly the trickiest he’s had since his return.
Meanwhile, Messi continues to equal or break a record every week. Next week he’ll break the record for breaking records, but for this week’s statistic he drew level with Iker Casillas by reaching 334 victories in the Spanish league. Casillas took 510 games to achieve this, whilst Messi took a mere 444. Nuclear war or bubonic plague may intervene, but one rather suspects that Messi will take the record rather soon, maybe on Tuesday at Villarreal. I promise to stay away from the bar.