It was Monday night and I’d just nipped down to the beach for a cooling dip, as you do. It’d been a muggy day in San Sebastián and I’d been suffering a bit in the office all day. The good thing about going for a swim early evening is that most of the day-trippers have gone home, and I can usually count on bumping into a sort of mate of mine, an ex-pro neighbour who played for several top-flight clubs but who has been retired for a while now, living the life of Riley as an agent. Good bloke though, and always up for a natter. Sure enough, he emerged from the sea five minutes after me and we had a drying-down chat in the fading bronze light of the beach.
The topic moved from the dropping temperature of the water to Real Sociedad and then to Valencia’s good start – and the fact that they would have been top had Benzema not scored that late penalty, putting Madrid equal on goal difference but top on goals scored. Valencia managed four at the always-tough Osasuna, but it wasn’t enough to keep them leaders.
Does it matter at this leaf-budding stage of the season? I said that I thought so, since a change in dynamic was precisely what the ailing club required. It always seems to be doom and gloom at the Mestalla, and who would have thought that the Great Satan, Bordalás, would be presiding over this sudden change? Well it makes sense, said my ex-pro friend. Bordalás is the king of anti-football, the new pantomime villain of La Liga, ‘but he never waivers from his beliefs, and he offers a clear plan to his players. If they don’t like it, they can lump it’. The other interesting thing that he said (in Spanish), which may prove even more significant, is that Bordalás ‘doesn’t give a fuck what people say about him’, which at Valencia may prove key. Long a cemetery for coaches and players alike, the hostility and impatience of their supporters is legendary. ‘I played there a few times, and when you’re a goalie you get to hear more of what the fans say than the other players. Unbelievable. The only other place where the supporters are so impatient towards their own players is Zaragoza. I always hated playing at both places, although it sometimes worked in your favour.’ But his basic point makes sense – Bordalás has the thickest skin of anyone who has been a recent coach there. Celades, Voro, Javi Gracia, Gary Neville….all rather sensitive chaps. Bordalás has the sensitivity of Stalin, and the pitiless stare of the sociopath that he undoubtedly is. He may turn out to be the signing of the season.
Over at Getafe, a couple of hours after this beach conversation, Elche won 0-1 and condemned Bordalas’ replacement, the rather more purist Michel, to a point-free start in four matches. Without the clarity of their ex-coach, and losses such as Cucurella’s move to England, the butchers of Getafe are clearly finding the adjustment to life under Michel more problematic than the softies of Valencia are experiencing under the assassin’s gaze of their new mentor. And it makes sense (as my beach buddy pointed out), because Valencia always have a half-decent squad, in terms of quality. They lose people every year, but a side with Guedes, Maxi Gomez, Cheryshev, Soler, Gayá, the excellent Wass and the new warrior Guillamón was just waiting to be knocked into shape. They won’t win the league – let’s not get carried away – but they’re going to make news this season.
Real Madrid’s 5-2 win at home to Celta was also newsworthy for various reasons, the main item being the return to the spanking new Bernabéu after a considerable exile down at the Di Stéfano – the place Klopp dismissively referred to as a ‘training ground’. The other items were the continuing development of Vinicuis as a finisher (hail ‘Finicius’), an occurrence which is more likely to be attributable to random maths than to Ancelotti’s coaching, but the faithful fans (into whose loving arms he romped after the goal –earning himself a yellow in the process) are delighted. For some reason, everyone wants little Vinny to succeed. It may be his obvious vulnerability or his cuddly appearance that brings out this affection in people not necessarily connected to the Bernabéu, or it could be the fact that he’s actually pretty useless and we all know it – but it’s fun while it lasts. The hunting-cat Benzema, meanwhile, scored a hat-trick and continues to defy the years, Camavinga poached one on his debut and everyone (apart from Hazard) went home happy. The news that Bale is injured yet again will hardly cause a stir now, but Madrid’s continuing sense of vulnerability at the back does not presage well, and with the Champs League game on Wednesday away at Inter and a visit to Bordalás’ bat-cave on Sunday night, there will be some interesting questions asked of RM’s apparently good start.
Talking of vulnerability, Barcelona – whose game at Sevilla was controversially postponed (with several players returning from South America) have now lost Messi and Griezmann to other clubs, Agüero and Dembele to injury, and Braithwaite for the rest of the season. These absences may prove significant on Tuesday night in the Camp Nou, when the hosts welcome Bayern Munich, the ogres from the east. Barça have not lost an inaugural Champions League match since they fell 3-2 at Newcastle in the foggy mists of the Tyne and time, 1997 to be precise. They will do well to preserve their little run, and much now depends on the new kid who ate da pie, Memphis. He’s good, but Barça need Ansu Fati back big-time. He’s on his way, but he may take some time to re-settle.
I hate to point this out, but Braithwaite (whom I like – I hope he knows) was poached from Leganés in mid-season because Barça were allegedly short of fire-power after Dembele was injured, triggering the emergency exception rule outside of the transfer-window. Which was fine for Barça, but crap for Leganés, who were promptly relegated. The signing was perfectly legal, but demonstrated – not for the first time – Barcelona’s contempt for all below them. They’re not the only ones, of course, but the injury to Braithwaite might just be an example of Delayed Karma, as opposed to instant. Meanwhile, Leganés languish at the foot of the 2nd Division and life goes on, in a grubby sort of way.
Anything else to mention? Well….Real Sociedad are looking decent again, and have won three on the trot without conceding, since capitulating on the opening day to Barcelona. They beat Cadiz 0-2 away and Mikel Oyarzabal is the league’s second top scorer with Vinny, one behind Benzema. He is continuing where he left off in summer without a rest (he says he doesn’t want one), having played the entire Euros and Olympics for Spain as their most decisive player. An odd chap Oyarzabal – not much pace, big feet, big nose – but an uncanny ability to read the game, to build the play or to finish it, added to which he is a born leader – articulate and serious in a way that commands respect, at the ripe old age of 24. He’s already played 206 games for RS and scored 58, and he’s not really a striker. It would be nice if he could stay, despite Guardiola’s fancying him. Whatever, they have PSV away on Thursday in the Europa League (I have a ticket but it’s gone to my son, who lives an hour from Eindhoven) and Sevilla at home on Sunday – the latter getting even more rest after their Champs League game at home to Salzburg Tuesday night and their postponed game this weekend. Alright for some eh?
In the deeper recesses of the pond, apart from Getafe, Alaves are looking poor, as are Granada unexpectedly. They just lost at home to Betis as I write, and remain winless on two points. Cádiz, who managed a massive 99 passes to Real Sociedad’s 605 (Cádiz were at home) on Sunday are also looking a bit vulnerable, but they might have enough fight to survive. Celta, 3rd from bottom, are just being Celta. They’ll stay up – last game of the season.
Enjoy the Champs League. Some tasty fixtures this week.