‘Twas a weekend of derbies, and Liga Fever was physically present at one of them. I have to report that the Real Sociedad v Eibar game was a dull affair (1-1) and that Eibar were by far the better side, but Real Sociedad were suffering once again from the absence of four key senior players, and maybe hoping a little too much from some of the young kids who were replacing them. Eibar have some experienced and canny players, and it showed. It’s something of a myth that they’re merely a huff and puff side. Nothing of the sort. They have some players who are not afraid to mix it (Escalante, for example) but Orellana remains an exquisite player (when he’s in the mood) and Marc Cucurella from Barça B looks the business. If Barcelona aren’t to fish him back for next season, then he won’t be short of suitors.
If the game was poor, it is still worth reflecting on the fact that the Basque region of Guipuzcoa, with a population of 700,000, has two sides in the top flight. Sociedad have now given nine players from the youth set-up their debuts this season, with possibly more to come before the end of the campaign. If the end of the season is proving to be a damp squib, at least the future looks bright. All nine of these debutants have come through the ranks, and seven of them were born in the region.
Eibar, alas, had no locals on the field, Dani García and Ander Capa having departed for San Mamés last summer, but you could argue that anything approaching a Basque-preferable policy would be unsustainable for them, especially with their wealthier cousins equidistant and able to pay higher salaries. Indeed, the only player from Eibar on the pitch was Sociedad’s Mikel Oyarzabal, who was hewn from Eibar’s quarry at the tender age of 14. If he is the one from the current crop who looks like being the next Griezmann, Real Madrid have apparently had a look at Igor Zubeldia, Sociedad’s answer to Casemiro. Is he better? Not yet, but he will be.
Down in Seville, of course, the derby was a much more passionate affair, and the good-humoured relationship between the two Guipuzcoan sides is not quite reflected in the Sevilla-Betis cat-and-dog rivalry. Real Sociedad and Eibar had fleeting possibilities of Europe to play for, but in Seville the two teams’ circumstances are irrelevant to the jamboree. It’s always a decibel-soaked affair, and each side desires the worst for the other.
All is fair in love and derbies, and Sevilla’s 3-2 win has maintained their bid for the 4th spot whilst Betis remain poised but sputtering on 43 points. It’s been a long season for the both, but Betis are beginning to show wear and tear. Still, had Jesé Rodríguez shown a minimum of perception early on, and passed square to the unmarked Canales, it might have been a different game. Jessy James went for glory, and the rest is history. Will PSG want him back? Probably not. But hey – he’s another victim of the ‘next thing’ syndrome, along with Deulofeu, Bojan, Asensio (possibly), Portillo, Tello, Munir.…the list is quite long.
Whatever, in the historic league table, Sevilla are now winning 60-38, with 31 draws in-between. And for all the influence that these two sides have had on the Spanish league, with their essentially deep Spanish identity and the raucous support they both enjoy, it seems odd that they’ve both only won the league title on a single occasion, Sevilla in 1946 and Betis in 1935. Right now it’s the Champions League that interests the former, and despite the win Getafe lurk only a point below and Valencia are galloping up on the outside rail.
Talking of Valencia, the city completed the weekend’s derby fest in the late partidazo on Sunday night – Leganés and Real Madrid’s sort-of-derby being held on Monday night, so that Pérez’ boys can get a feel of what it’s like for the plebs down below. Valencia beat their Levante neighbours 3-1 in the end, with more goals from Santi Mina and the born-again Guedes. The result is again a rather yin-yang circumstance, with Levante dropping down into the murky depths of the ocean, only two points above Valladolid now, the side in the third relegation spot. You want the stats? Okay. They’ve played a mere 32 times over the years, Valencia winning 18 of them and Levante only 7. They first met in the league in 1963, the first year that Levante trod the top-flight walk after being founded in 1909 (before Valencia, I’ll have you know), but Levante haven’t won in Mestalla since 1937. When they equalised through an own goal in the 56th minute, there was a brief glimmer of hope that 82 years of hurt could be reversed, but it wasn’t to be.
Barcelona drew 0-0 at bottom club Huesca, sparking some controversy by sending a side consisting of B team players and some bit-part first teamers (Vidal, Malcom, Umtiti, Aleña) although the supporters did get to see Coutinho, Alba and Dembelé, to be fair – but the truly big names stayed at home. What’s the point of paying for your season ticket if you can’t insult Gerard Piqué when he makes that single visit to your pad? Huesca probably won’t be around next season, although they’re still mathematically alive, and there’s something slightly awry about this kind of ‘rotation’, however much one might wish to sell it as a chance for the younger bucks to shine, such as the much-vaunted Riqui Puig.
It’s understandable that Valverde decided to save his Pretorian Guard for Tuesday’s game at home to Manchester United – and you could also argue that by virtually winning the title at this point they deserve some slack, but it’s kind of a shame when a game at a fellow professional club becomes a sort of trialling friendly for the young players and a chance for some others to get some playing time. You could even argue that it adulterates the competition because if Huesca had won you could bet that the faces would have been very long indeed in Vallecas, but anyway – it’s clear that nobody cares much about the issue in Spain, so let’s shrug our shoulders and march on. Barça have bigger fish to fry on Tuesday night, and business is business.
Talking of Huesca and relegation, the Second Division is hotting up and Liga Fever must pay a visit in the coming weeks. Indeed, leaders Osasuna are just down the road from one of this site’s scribes, and are looking good for a return to the top flight – just as well after their last relegation in 2017 left them in a parlous state of affairs, economically speaking. Albacete, who were the first team I saw in an official league match here in 1991, lie second, and would be looking for a first return since 2005. Granada are just behind them on goal difference, but Mallorca, Malaga, Cádiz, and Deportivo can all reasonably aspire to automatic promotion still. At the other end, it’s strange to see Zaragoza struggling, only two points above the drop spots. How the semi-mighty have fallen.
Anyway, next week Rayo v Huesca looks like a cracker of sorts, and Sevilla visit Getafe in what is the game of the week, with the 4th spot very much up for grabs. Valencia will want to pounce on any let-ups, but must visit Betis in what should amount to an attractive game, at the very least. Barcelona host Real Sociedad and it would be nice of them to rotate again after their tribulations against Man Utd, but I’m neither holding my breath nor wishing to contradict myself. On that note, I do hope they keep a LaLiga presence in the Champions League. All those scruffy English teams buzzing around. It’s not healthy……