I’ll be brief this week, since there is no mystery to the round-up. Almost everything went to plan, with no surprises – which means that if anyone got a high score on the quiniela (football polls) this week in Spain, they’ll be disappointed with the prize money.
Pride of place must go to Jeremy Jesus Pine-Tree (Yeremy Jesus Pino), who scored 4 of Villarreal’s five goals in their win over Espanyol. Pino’s only 19, has already played twice for Spain and has plenty of time to score another poker, as they call it here. Mind you, Espanyol, who haven’t won as of 2022, made it fairly easy for him, so let’s not get carried away just yet. That’s nine in two games for the yellow submarines, who are still alive in the Champs League and looking up to that 4th spot now occupied by Barcelona, who themselves are getting a little trigger-happy these days. Their 4-0 victory over Athletic, who had their minds on the King’s Cup semi on Wednesday at Valencia, was fairly predictable, but at least they lived up to the billing. That’s fourteen in the last four games, with Aubameyang again on the scoresheet. The most significant thing for Athletic was the fact that Iñaki Williams came on for the last 13 minutes, thus preserving his record of having played consecutively in every game since Raquel Welch strolled the Earth with dinosaurs.
Barça’s last two goals came in added time, but now that Pedri is back, you can see how things are fitting into place. What an extraordinary player he is, always making the right choices, always moving things along. He doesn’t have the metronomic quality that his coach once had, but rather that odd ability – almost impossible to analyse – of making every pass significant. If you watch him carefully, he rarely dwells on the ball because he doesn’t need to, having already calculated his pass before he receives. The most innocent of passes, so often made first time, suddenly open up the chess board – but you the spectator, with the privilege of the panorama from on-high, had not seen it. He’s also put a little bit of weight on, although that’s taken him from fly-weight to bee-weight. He still needs a bit more butifarra down him, or maybe not. Maybe it’s the light frame and the drifty, slowish movements that define him.
Barça are suddenly looking scary again, and have wrapped up their Europa League tie with Napoli, freeing them up for more stress-free league action. They’re warming up for that interesting-looking clásico on March 20th. And talking of Real Madrid, they also coped pretty well at the weekend with an awkward-looking visit to neighbours Rayo, over on the edge of town. Mind you, after the 1-0 win for the visitors, it’s interesting that after building up the best home record in Spain, Rayo have now lost the last three in their singular little stadium. In fact that’s five straight defeats now in the league, and they haven’t won in eight. Perhaps it was always bound to happen, with a threadbare squad and other sides getting used to the way they play.
Real Madrid thus hit the magic sixty-point tally, keeping them six clear of Sevilla, who deservedly won the Andaluz derby 2-1, a result which means that Betis trail them by eight points and will now be more concerned about the sides below them than the two above. They were the only side in the top seven to lose, and the injury to the excellent Fekir (after a nasty foul from Acuña) might be cause for concern. Then again, apart from a bit of handbags after that particular foul, the game was played in a reasonable enough atmosphere considering the jiggery-pokery that went on in the recent cup game. Sweet revenge for Sevilla anyway, and it keeps the league alive. A pity only for old man Joaquin however, for whom it may have been his last derby. I think that was his 27th, although I stand to be corrected. One curious fact about him (and there are several) is that he is the only pro player in the history of Spanish football to have scored goals in four separate decades – the 1990s (in Segunda B) and the following three. We’ll leave the breastfeeding story for another day, but of course, if he does retire at the end of the season he will inevitably become a football commentator, and given the standard of his jokes, that may become a problem for us all.
Atlético confirmed their recent improvement with a comfy win over a shot-shy Celta, with two goals from Lodi for the hosts, the man who seemed to be on his way out at Christmas. That’s three wins on the trot now, and a decent showing against Man Utd. You wouldn’t bet too easily against them for the game at Old Trafford, but at the very least, the recent performances have calmed the nerves at the Willy Wanda.
I spent the weekend in deepest rural Navarra, where the cows seemed oblivious to geo-political conflagration and where I attempted to similarly chill and chew my cud, enjoying the wonderful food that the region produces. Even the fried eggs taste better somehow, but I was sensitive to the hotel owner’s obvious support of Osasuna, the team it was my intention to watch in the ‘derby’ (for some) on the Sunday evening in San Sebastián.
I managed to avoid entering into pre-match banter, but there was no need to worry because Real Sociedad eventually ran out 1-0 winners, their favourite score this season. However, I mention the game because it featured the re-appearance of the ‘revenant’ Asier Illarramendi, gravely injured in the pre-pandemic derby in San Mamés in 2019 (the third game of the season). ‘Pea-mountain’, which is what his surname means, has been remarkably patient all this time, despite rumours of his impending retirement.
He has played (very) occasional games in that long period, but he always seemed to suffer further setbacks. Against Osasuna he started and lasted 71 minutes, but it was enough to see what La Real have been missing, despite the emerging talent of Zubimendi (‘mountain bridge’), the pretender to his throne. It’s all about tactical nous, in the end. Illarra has it in abundance, can dictate the pace of the game, and his instinctive link-up with David Silva was a joy to behold. It may not last (Silva certainly won’t) but it lends the lie to those who still view him as a Real Madrid failure.
Enough. Time for work.