Let’s begin with a rant, which is always a jolly good way to end the weekend. The word ‘rant’ contains a rat and an ant, the former perhaps characterising the two teams from Madrid who decided not to play this weekend, and the latter the obedient non-thinking workers of La Liga who would prefer not to upset the more powerful members of the nest.
Real Madrid’s home game against Athletic was granted postponement because Vinicius and Valverde would have been at home sleeping off their jet-lag (Militao was crocked anyway) and had Conmebol not decided to extend the time period for the games they would probably have been on the bench anyway – as is often the case for returning internationals. But common sense apart, whilst it is true that both players have appeared at some point in all of RM’s eight league games so far, are we really talking about a major problem for a squad of 25 players who, the last time I looked on Wikipedia, were all internationals to a man? It’s true that Mendy, Marcelo, Bale, Ceballos, Carvajal, Mariano, Asensio and Isco were all on the injury list after the defeat to Espanyol, but that is no reason to not fulfil a league fixture – or am I missing something here? The point being that whilst the absence of Vinnie-Verde was presented as the reason for the postponement, the underlying motive was clearly the injury list. And do Athletic count here? They beat Alavés on October 1st, but their next game will now be 22 days later, at home to Villarreal. Sorry – it ain’t cool, and it ain’t fair – and it sets a problematic precedent. Am I saying something original here? Nope. Just in case you were wondering. Does the Spanish FA act with wisdom and intelligence? Nope – just in case you were wondering. Well, the ‘Spanish Superior Sports Council’ made the decision, independently of all persuasion of course. I’d hate to know what the Inferior Sports Council gets up to.
Atlético, another sleek vehicle with its boot stuffed with international players, didn’t fancy a road trip to Granada either, an opponent whose last game was a 1-0 win at home to Sevilla, doing Atlético a favour in the process. You’ll recall that last season poor Granada were forced to play at Real Sociedad with only seven senior players available, due to Covid and a Europa game the Thursday before in Cyprus. Three days later they took their youth team up to San Sebastían, plus a couple of blokes they’d recruited in the motorway service station on the way up. They’d asked for a postponement, but it was not granted. Ah – different circumstances, you say? Sorry to be so tedious, but we all know what would have happened had it been a request from a team whose influence on league matters is rather more substantial. Atlético this weekend would have lost Rodrigo de Paul, Correa and Súarez, significant players indeed, but surely – the squad had quality and quantity enough to man up and fulfil the fixture? But hey – who gives a flying flamenco about Granada? Exactly.
And of course, when Real Sociedad return on Thursday night (or more probably Friday lunchtime) from Graz after this week’s Europa League tie, they will have until the end of the next day to desperately prepare themselves before flying down to the Wanda for Sunday’s game against Simeone’s much better-rested troops. One cannot help thinking that the Granada trip was just an inconvenient obstacle in Atlético’s preparation for the visit of Liverpool to the Wanda on Tuesday night. Conmebol presented the perfect excuse and the RFEF went along for the ride – and you might say the same for Real Madrid’s awkward little trip to Ukraine the same night. Plus ça change my friends. We can’t upset these chaps or they might bugger off and form a Super League. Imagine that?
Ok, rats and ants over. What happened this weekend? Ah – Real Sociedad, another side whom the authorities would prefer to keep down, went top of the league by 3 clear points after beating Mallorca with a last-minute goal by a B team forward (Julen Lobete) who was playing because Isak went off knackered after playing twice for Sweden last week, Carlos Fernandez is out injured for a year and the other striker, Sorloth, was also coming back timidly from injury. Different circumstances I hear you say? Depends on your interpretation, but Real Sociedad (also with six other players injured) just shrugged and got on with it, as should be the case. When their full-back Aihen was sent off in the 45th minute for allowing Mallorca’s Ruiz de Galarreta to demonstrate how to do the dying swan when he had not even been touched (he knew that Aihen already had a yellow), the home team still refused to be denied top spot by referee González Fuertes, dug in and won the match.
Now González Fuertes is very poor, but in the 9 matches in which he had previously officiated Real Sociedad, the Basques had won only once. Coincidence? Maybe, but if I’d been a ref assessor on Saturday night, I’d have asked Fuertes some serious questions. The first one would have been ‘Do you have a second residence in Mallorca?’ and the second would have been ‘Do you, for some curious reason, dislike Real Sociedad’? This may appear to be nonsense, but despite the possibility that I am a bitter old cynic, I’ve seen an awful lot of football since I learned to stand in 1967. If Saturday’s game in Anoeta was anything to go by, Real Sociedad have not a cat-in hell’s-chance of winning the title this year, however interesting and refreshing that could be. It simply doesn’t fit the narrative any more. It probably never did, but it fits even less now. So forget it. They’re a well-run club, play great football, produce oodles of home-grown players and put nobody’s noses out. But they don’t belong. They’re not a part of the caste. It motivates them, nevertheless. When Lobete scored I went embarrassingly apeshit, but then again so did everybody else (apart from the ref and the Mallorca players, obviously). Good times at the mill, but let’s not get carried away.
Talking of referees, Gil Manzano, a rather better one, caused a bit of a stir in the Camp Nou by awarding Barcelona a penalty towards the end of the first half of their game against Valencia on Sunday night. It was a tricky one – because did José Gaya (who opened the scoring for the visitors) get the ball first before he got Ansu Fati? Hard to tell, but the visitors’ complaint that VAR is there to help seems a reasonable argument. Gil Manzano’s refusal to check on the monitor can only mean that the VAR team considered his decision to be correct (and had not contradicted him), but you kind of suspect that these situations are more about the referee’s authority than establishing the truth. And that’s the whopping problem about VAR, is it not? Is it there to support the referee, or to protect his reputation? It’s kind of silly because we all know refs are shite and it’s a tricky profession blah blah, but a bit of honesty wouldn’t go amiss, from time to time. Great pen though by Memphis. Barça then scored a third through Coutinho, a minor miracle, and Koeman went home happy after beating the club where he once worked, and where he fell out with everybody bar the tea-lady, although she told me that’s not true.
Rayo Vallecano continued with their whoppingly good home form and made it four from four, beating a combative Elche 2-1, whilst Osasuna made it four wins from four away games, amazingly enough, with a 1-2 win at fancied Villarreal. They now have the same points as RM, Sevilla and Atlético, albeit with an extra game played. And are Villarreal really as good as everyone is saying? I’m not so sure, despite their scary squad. There’s something a bit fragile about them, despite their undeniable potential. Maybe it’s the Emery effect, which one ex-player described to me as: ‘He’s a decent bloke and an interesting coach, but he just never shuts the fuck up.’ The simpler explanation could be that Mandi is a central defender prone to error, and Pau Torres is not the genius that everyone assumed he was. Up steps Chimy Avila, a fleet-footed little forward weighed down less by expectation than by his tattoos, robs poor Mandi (oh Mandy….you came and you gave without taking) and it’s game over. Villarreal’s unbeaten record goes up the spout, and now their rather poor baggage of two wins is looking distinctly unimpressive. Next week it’s super-rested Athletic away, with a trip to Young Boys in-between in the Champs Cup. Tough times at the Cerámica Mill.
Alavés v Betis and Espanyol v Cádiz close out the jornada on Monday night, but neither game will affect the table much. Alavés will want to build on their surprise win against Atlético and pull out of the bottom positions, and Betis have been looking a bit wobbly recently. Ordinary teams, with ordinary fans – but they all deserve the same treatment. It would be nice if the chaps in charge could tune into that rather simple message.