New Year, old socks, as my father used to say. Anything new, borrowed or blue? Well, as far as I can see from my lookout post here in the wild north of Spain, things are pretty much the same. Real Madrid are blue having been defeated by Getafe (they play in blue, in case you didn’t get the joke), and was it simply a case of no-Vinicius-no-party? Possibly, but the old socks would seem to be the tendency of Real Madrid to start every new year with some trepidation, and this year it was a player who is normally borrowed on loan (Enes Unal) but who now plays in blue who did the early damage, from which RM never recovered.
Well, it was a mistake by Militao that led to the early and definitive goal, but the defender had an excellent 2021, so maybe not a good sign for him? Alaba didn’t exactly cover himself in glory either, but hey – this is the first time the men in white had lost since October – fifteen games undefeated to be precise, so we can cut them a bit of slack. Madrid have a tendency to start poorly after a break, as if the cut in their momentum affects them more than sides like Getafe, more accustomed to the ups-and-downs of life.
One curious aspect of the line-up was the backside of Hazard on the bench, when the absence of Vinicius called for a player of similar profile. Ancelotti had actually announced, rather portentously before Christmas that ‘Hazard ha vuelto’ (Hazard’s back), but maybe he’d eaten too much turkey over the Yuletide break, or whatever Belgians indulge in. However, watching Hazard and Marcelo come on in the second half for Asensio and Mendy was to witness a rather strange changing of the guard, like a couple of kids making way for their wiser grandfathers. It didn’t work. Madrid (or rather Modric) played well in the first half, but ran out of inspiration in the second.
On Wednesday they travel again to Alcoyano (over near Valencia) to play a side who beat them in last year’s cup, around the same time. This was a particularly harrowing game for Zidane (remember him?) which laid bare his strange inability to read certain games – particularly ones where the opponents (in Segunda B) understood far better the surface they were playing on. I mean they just kept hoofing it up, and causing Madrid problems, whilst Madrid continued to play as if they were in the Bernabeu. They would do well, in terms of morale, to avoid a repetition of that little nightmare. It’ll be interesting to see the side he puts out. Alcoyano currently sit two places below RM’s B team, but this type of game has a wonderful tendency to dent a giant’s season. Alcoyano have already done for Levante (although at the moment that’s no great achievement) but anyway – one to watch this week.
Talking of kids, the ones at Barça seem to be alright at the moment, although it was an older fellow, Luuk de Jong who scored their winner over in Mallorca. De Jong, rather like the injured Braithwaite and several similar-type players before them, know that it’s cool to wear a Barça shirt for a season or two but that in the end, the feeling that you ain’t really wanted (or rated) starts to nag at your confidence and you depart, for your own good. I actually heard the phrase ‘De Jong scored – the rubbish one’ the other day in the gym, and although one can understand the point of such banter, it’s kind of unfair. But….this is a team that sets high standards, and there is a sense of something building already, so soon after Koeman’s departure. The presence of so many new names on the team-sheet invited scepticism as to their chances of escaping with a result, but escape they did, and even kept a clean sheet. So a good start to the new year for Ter Stegen, who was incidentally wearing the same socks.
Barça are now in 5th place, a point off the Champs League spots, and one supposes that all is therefore fine in the corporate world. The advertisers, sponsors and promoters can breathe a sigh of relief and at the very least count on some visibility in the Europa League next season – a competition where Barça can now get some practice in. But sarcasm aside, the ability of these young chaps to step up from La Masia and do the business says a lot about the set-up. The future looks bright, if they can hang on to the real prospects. The imminent inclusion of Ferran Torres, signed but not quite delivered, is another reason for the Camp Nou faithful to be cheerful at the start of 2022. As the old cliché goers, it would be difficult to have a worse year than the previous one. They travel to Linares in the cup, three places below Alcoyano and seven places below Barça B. So in theory, nothing new for several of those kids who played at Mallorca.
Betis had a rather better 2021, but stepped into ’22 with an unexpected defeat at home to improving Celta. Perhaps they also suffer from the break-the-dynamic syndrome that seems to afflict Real Madrid. They remain 3rd, however, a whole 8 points below their neighbours Sevilla, of whom the inevitable questions are now being asked – can they challenge for the title?
Perhaps this question would be better answered in an entire article dedicated to the issue, but for now, let’s just say that first and foremost they have a motivated manager. Julen Lopetegui would love to get one over on his previous boss, and although there is a reasonable consensus on his coaching and motivational abilities, he only has one major trophy to his name so far (the Europa League). The league title is a big ask, and one that his team has not won since 1946. In fact that was the only time they’ve won it, despite their reputation as a ‘big’ side. However, you feel that if Madrid were to stumble – and there are plenty of reasons to believe that they might – then there could be a chance. Five points behind with a game in hand, they’ve only lost twice this season (as have RM) and Atlético, for the moment, seem unlikely to retain their crown.
Their 1-0 win at Cádiz, late on Monday night, was the sort of game that title challengers need to win, to endorse their credentials. Cádiz were on a pretty miserable run, but the bus-parkers supreme had just got a draw in the Bernabéu – a testament to their awkwardness factor. Local derby and rested, with key players back, Sevilla could have been forgiven for blowing it against them, but they didn’t. Then again, it wasn’t very pretty. One criticism of Lopetegui is that he’s a random system-changer, a sign that he lacks true vision. Others praise his flexibility – so you decide. But the 4-4-3 in Cádiz seemed to go through every permutation possible before returning to the 4-4-3 that eventually yielded Ocampos’ late goal. If you want my own very quick view, I don’t think they’ve got the depth of squad, but they’re aggressive, organised and very good at the back, with only 13 conceded. Real Madrid will certainly be taking them seriously. They visit them in April and will want some more daylight between them by the time that fixture comes around.
Very quickly – Levante? It ain’t looking good. Half the season gone, no wins and a turkey stuffing (5-0) at Villarreal. Watch out for Emery’s team in this second half to the campaign. Alavés got lucky at home to Real Sociedad – check out the penalty that wasn’t blown for the foul on Isak – possibly the funniest of the decade. As they say, if that ain’t a penalty, I’m a Ninja Turtle. Happy New Year.