The British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once observed that ‘A week is a long time in politics’. Eduardo Alvarez more recently remarked that ‘three weeks is a long time in football’, and so here’s Liga Fever again, just as you were beginning to think that you could no longer stand the silence of the international break. It’s tough out there, I know. During a fortnight in league-less space, nobody can hear you scream.
So what have we learned in the first three weeks of the Spanish footy season? Perhaps we should start by asking what some of the teams themselves have learned, after a summer in which the only action in the trenches was performed by the ladies.
- Real Madrid have not learned anything whatsoever, which suggests that they will once again struggle this season and finish in a shocking third position. Stranger things have happened, and they might surprise us all – but it’s baffling why folks ask what the problem is….when in fact it’s rather obvious. The problem is the lack of a Football Director. These types are often despised, and when Jorge Valdano held the position he was accused by many of prevarication and back-stabbing, but nevertheless represented a crucial buffer between the president and the coach – which is the whole point of the position. This is particularly important in RM, where Pérez cannot help but interfere and continue to fantasise that he actually understands player-recruitment, whilst Zidane sits stubbornly on his own cloud and insists (subjectively) on a narrow range of options.
He’s right about Pogba, because he is the type of player they need to correctly complement Casemiro, but wrong in his scatter-gun discarding of other valid players, particularly given the injury to Asensio. Ceballos, Llorente, Odegaard perform well for other teams, whilst Isco and Kroos continue to stutter and Modric declines. Oh, and players such as Bale make his judgement seem questionable. But in the end, it shouldn’t be a question of Zidane’s judgement but a policy determined by committee and consensus – two words that hold little weight in the Bernabéu. That’s why they’ll be shite again this season. The only thing to add is that a poor season for Madrid is not equivalent to a national crisis. Far from it. For many it is a cause of national celebration.
- Which brings us to Barcelona. The Neymar farce was always going to end in tears, but sometimes you just look on in astonishment at the apparent idiocy of those in charge, in this case Bart-Simpson-omeu. Apart from the fact that this summer’s cluster-wobble may further encourage Leo Messi to pack his bags and join Grimsby on a free, let’s just look at the Neymar case. Because whilst it may be true that he is the world’s second-best player, why would you break the bank, offer half of your playing staff and the loyal tea-ladies to PSG in order to bring back a guy who walked out on you in the first place? And all because he’s missing his mates? Do me a favour. Liga Fever has little more to add. People like Neymar are poisoning the game, even though it was already a pretty lethal cocktail. Don’t take his weakness for kindness, and never trust a man whose dad is his agent.
In that regard, the only good thing that Real Madrid did this summer was to stay out of that particular vortex, despite the tabloid Marca’s embarrassing attempts to influence the club’s policy. Marca’s writers knew full well that Neymar would be a disruptive influence in the Bernabéu, in every sense of the word, but their desire to annoy Barcelona knew no limits. Oh, and Barça have started badly, but they’ll be fine once their big guns come back. Their squad looks much more impressive than RM’s, a statement for which no football analyst should really seek payment. The only word of caution would be that their Champs League group will be a tricky one. Inter and B Dortmund have arguments enough to cause them to sweat.
- The opening goal of the season was a joy to behold, a scissors kick from the pensioner Aduriz against Barcelona. One is tempted to say that it’s all downhill from there, but it would be interesting, come next spring, if the goal of the season is judged to be its first. This has also turned the country’s attention to Athletic who currently lie second to Atlético, in contrast to last season when the Basques struggled in apparent agony to climb out of the relegation zone – only to almost qualify for Europe once Garitano took over the reins. But I wouldn’t get too excited. Their squad is pretty thin, due to the noble but self-imposed limitations of their recruitment policy, and their win over Real Sociedad was largely done by running a lot and kicking their cousins into the air, but of course I’m biased. I just don’t think they’ll do very well.
4. I think that Real Sociedad will do well, and of course I’m biased (again) – but I’m not the only one who thinks this. Various polls and experts have made the same prediction. The squad is the youngest in the league, which can be a blessing or a curse, but I’ll go for the former. The non-performance at San Mamés was precisely the mirror of a young team in transition, suddenly shorn of its captain after 35 minutes. To dismiss this squad as ‘softies’ (as some have also done) is to overlook the fact that in Zubeldia, they have their Casemiro, and that Llorente, now a Spanish international, does not take prisoners either. It also overlooks the fact that they have played their first three games away from home.
The recent addition of Nacho Monreal from Arsenal is a master-stroke, and this squad has three or four of the most promising players in the country, even before you start cooing at Odegaard and the interesting new signing Isak. Mikel Oyarzabal, Aihen Muñoz, Mikel Merino and Aritz Elustondo are all awesome chappies, but Ander Barrenetxea has yet to figure for a whole game. Wait for this 17 year-old to truly explode onto the scene. After 50 years watching football I’m not easily excited, but this kid’s something else. Watch out too for the ‘media-punta’ Roberto López. He’s still with the ‘B’ team, but he may figure this season with the seniors. He’s very, very good indeed. After almost 30 years of watching this team from within and without, I have never seen such a varied and explosive squad in Zubieta. Of course, it can all go to hell in a handcart, but I feel a moral obligation to inform.
- How about the new kids on the block? Of the three, Osasuna have started the most brightly and lie 6th, as yet undefeated. Their ruffling of Barça’s quiffs might have been more due to the injuries to the Catalans than to the inherent quality of the Pamplona-based squad, but my friend the barman, who is from Navarre, reckons they’ve got some good young ‘uns too. Loved the Roberto Torres volley for their opener, captain Oier is a class act, and Chimy Avila was terrific last season for Huesca. Can’t wait for Pervis Estupiñan to make an impact too. That’s some name.
Granada have started well too. They look physically tough and their 0-3 rout of Españyol was most impressive. Their 4-4 draw on the opening day at Villarreal was also a bit of an eye-opener, and so it’s far from obvious that they’re the relegation-fodder that the idle predictors have forecast. It might be better to talk about them after Week 5 when they entertain Barcelona, but so far it’s clear they’re no pushovers.
Mallorca, for the time being at least, look the weaker of the three, and not just because they have garnered fewer points. I watched them against Real Sociedad and felt that they were a little dazed and confused, unable to quite decide on a policy. They’re quick and enthusiastic, but Reina and Lago Junior aside, I wasn’t impressed. They might have an argument defensively, however, and it was certainly their strength last season. Raillo and Valjent are obviously solid, but it might take a bit more than solidity to win them points. In short – not sure.
- Any other eggs to mention, at this embryonic stage? Well, my son reckons that Betis will do well, despite their current position. Nabil Fekir and Borja Iglesias are terrific signings and compensate for the loss of the excellent Lo Celso, Juanmi can be more than useful, and with a fit Canales and Carvalho there’s great balance in the middle. Valencia, for whom crisis is never distant, are anyone’s guess, and something seems to be wrong at Eibar, whereas Sevilla’s prospects are always tough to predict. One feels, however, that Lopetegui would just love to finish above a certain side who wear white.
- Atlético are my tip for the league title, despite the fact that they will lose in the re-modelled and spanking new Anoeta stadium next weekend. Liga Fever will be there, come hell or high clichés. And before you write in, I know it’s not called ‘Anoeta’ anymore, but Reale Seguros Stadium. But that’s bollocks. I shall continue to refer to it as Anoeta, since a life in which one cannot be awkward and annoying is a life not worth living. Amen.
- On Liga Fever we’ll be writing more occasionally this season. We’re just trying to make it home by Monday and anyway, there’s plenty of stuff out there to keep you busy. But from time to time, assuming you’re up for reading more than 400 words and whistling to yet another podcast, we’ll try to entertain.