La Liga: Pellegrini in Peril as Madrid march on

by Aarony Zade

We’ve come to the end of a particularly hectic spell in La Liga, which culminated in a whopping 10 days of fixtures in the last 11. No less hectic were matters off the field, and two men have loomed larger than everyone else; Manuel Pellegrini and José Mourinho.

It’s a story that’s ebbed and flowed, with Mourinho apparently losing the plot prior to to the return of his Chilean predecessor to the Bernabéu in the face of some rather innoucuous questioning from a journalist during a press conference. “You’re a hypocrite!”, the Portuguese ventured having been pushed on his claims that the fixture compilers were out to get Real Madrid. The resumption of Marca’s vicious campaign against Pellegrini, and the Málaga técnico’s dignified public utterings, in the build-up cast him in a noble light. Erudite, humble, persecuted; how not to sympathise with this man?

But, that well-worn cliché about a week being a long time in football rang true in the end. Last Monday night Pellegrini’s side produced a spirited comeback to overhaul fellow strugglers Almería by three goals to one. Come last Sunday night he was left to look, if not the incompetent, amateurish eejit Marca would have us belive, then certainly imperilled by his own foolishness. And once again, left with the haunted countenance of a man without a friend in this cutthroat world.

You could say that he started to go wrong just at the very moment where he appeared to have gotten it so right; although that’s not necessarily a fair statement either. Not fair, that is, within the realms of reason. Unfortunately- and particularly where Manuel Pellegrini is concerned- the realms of reason represent unfamiliar territory to the unrelenting attack dogs of Marca.

Go back that night at the start of last week. La Liga’s graveyard shift. Goals from Enzo Maresca, José Rondon, and an absolute screamer from Juanmí in stoppage time suddenly put wretched big-spenders Málaga in a position that had looked utterly beyond them just 45 minutes prior. Who could begrudge Pellegrini being pleased? His side had looked dead and buried, but his half-time reshuffle had paid off. The post-match press conference had begun. All looked to be going swimmingly.

And then, as soon as he opened his mouth and began to answer in that understated, dignifed manner of his, you could already hear the knives being sharpened.

And for what?

“I’m satisfied. We needed this win, [and] improved our situation. Hopefully we can now press on… I will always be grateful to the Real ]supporters], I will always be proud of what we did manage to achieve in my time there. I will always feel honoured to have presided over a record-breaking campaign”.

By ‘record-breaking’, even the dogs in the street know that Pellegrini was not referring to trophies won. Nor was their any tone of presumptuosness or arrogance underlying his words. No; he was dealing in facts. Simple, straightforward facts. Not the ‘facts’ which were in reality unfounded complaints which saw Mourinho upbraid the hapless aforementioned journalist the following day. No. Real had scored more goals and garnered more points than any season in their history last term, yet won nothing. This year, they may well match that total. And they still won’t win La Liga. But this wasn’t Pellegrini’s point. His words weren’t chosen to stir things. But Marca didn’t care. Neither did José Mourinho. In an interview which left the mayor of Málaga up in arms, calling the Special One an ‘uneducated clown’, he poured petrol on the fire. Was he like Pellegrini? Would he too be out the door should he fail to bring silverware home before the summer? “No. The difference between [us] is that if I am fired, I will go to England or Italy and manage a big club. I will never manage Málaga.”

And on Thursday, the baying anti-Pellegrini mob were given enough ammunition to go to town on him with.

This is where Pellegrini did go wrong. Not in admitting that his team stood no chance of gaining anything at the Bernabéu; no. After all, Real had yet to drop a single point at home in the current campaign. Nor in, say, making changes per sé ahead of the relegation six-pointer to come against Osasuna. But in admitting the hopelessness of the situation- and crucially, in making 6 changes from Monday’s victorious side, he inadvertedly created a rod for his own back. And when the inevitable arrived, its transpired in the most unforgivable manner. Málaga weren’t just beaten. They weren’t just crushed. They laid down, and were utterly obliterated by seven goals to nil.

And then they proceeded to lose in the 93rd minute at home to Osasuna into the bargain.

In the interim period, Almería gained a point at home to Racing and picked up all three points on the road to Hércules. The table now shows they have two more points to their name than the side immediately below them, Málaga, who once again prop up the table. The Andalusian side, for all their (relatively) costly signings, have eleven games to save their season. In an incredibly tight relegation fight, where 7th placed Sevilla find themselves as many points off fourth spot as they to from 18th, the measly four that Málaga need to haul themselves to safety looks as forlorn in hope as attainable as they should in reality. Simply put, so abysmal have Málaga been this year that this column wouldn’t put your money on them beating the drop. And should they fail to so, it’s hard to see the stock of their head coach- for so long one of the leading lights of La Liga, whose Villarreal side cruised to second ahead of Barcelona just three seasons ago- will have taken a hammering from which is may never recover. And cowardly, snivelling Marca will be right there at the wake to dance on his corpse.

Cristiano Ronaldo, scorer of a hat-trick, had gone off injured towards the end and missed his first game of the season for the trip to Santander on Sunday. Not that he was missed in the slightest on Sunday, where Real gave arguably their best performance of the season to despatch Racing Santander 3-1. Karim Benzema’s upswing in form continued, with Frenchman bagging a brace, and on-loan Emanuel Adebayor would have matched him had he not wasted a penalty kick. In behind that pair, Mesut Ozil sparkled at the spear of a midfield diamond and on this sort of form it’s exceedingly difficult to see just Kaká might fit into the team. More on the Brazilian later.

The most gripping encounter over the two matchdays came at the Mestalla last Wednesday when Barcelona travelled to take on third-placed Valencia. Unai Emery is occasionally derided for employing a safety first approach, but this Basque coach is one of the sharper tactical minds in the division and Pep Guardiola, who nearly missed the game due to his back problem (and was, in fact, rushed to hospital no sooner than the team had returned to the Catalan capital afterwards) made a sharp strategic change in the hope of securing his first managerial victory at this stadium. Barcelona started the game with a three man central defence, with Sergio Busquets dropping back to be replaced in the middle by Javier Mascherano. Abidal joined move to the centre, with Adriano employed on the opposite flank to Dani Alves in a more advanced wing-back set-up. This didn’t quite have the desired effect, however, and it wasn’t until the champions had reverted to their standard set-up that they got their noses in front through Lionel Messi but once they hit the front they looked comfortable and were well worth their one goal victory. At the weekend, they were faced with a remarkably unadventurous Zaragoza side who were content to play with every man behind the ball, even after Seydou Keita had netted the night’s only strike just before the interval.

The most preposterous story of the week- no, not Deportivo scoring to twice to win on Monday- came courtesy of El Pais journalist José Marcos who posited that Atlético Madrid were riven by a cabal refusing to pass the ball to the blondie up top, Diego Forlan. This was borne out in part by a statistic showing that José Antonio Reyes was more likely to attempt to beat four men rather than lay the ball off to his Uruguayan team-mate. In fact, when cornered on the matter in a radio interview, the former Arsenal attacker made little attempt to deny the matter but in the event Forlán, enduring his most wretched season with the capital side, finally bagged himself a goal in their 3-1 victory over Villarreal on Saturday. Reyes himself had opened the scoring with a breathtaking strike earlier on, before another sublime effort from Giuseppe Rossi brought the yellows back on level terms.

Espanyol, meanwhile, continue to sink like a stone. Their 1-0 reversal at Levante was a priceless result for their struggling opponents, and if their was any lingering doubts that the Catalans might be able to sneak back into the Champions League reckoning those hopes have surely now been extinguished. Above them, Bilbao secured another victory, this time against fellow Europa League hopefuls Sevilla. The Andalusians key striker Luís Fabiano meanwhile is expected to spend six weeks on the sideline, according to Monday’s reports.

With so little time remaining to this week’s juicy Champions League face-off between Barcelona and Arsenal at the Camp Nou, we won’t waste time analysing the game here. Rather, we’ll head straight to this week’s paper talk; at least that little part of it that doesn’t centre around the build up to the aforementioned encounter.

Understandably, it’s slim pickings. The most tiresome interesting tale is how the Kaká to Milan story is growing legs, though this of course depends on your source as ever. Once again, it was the Gazzetta dello Sport who got the ball rolling on Monday with quotes from Milan capo Adriano Galliani, which were later picked up by Marca and AS. Whilst not denying the Serie A leaders’ desire to become reacquainted with their erstwhile talisman, Galliani was somewhat sceptical about the two clubs’ ability to reach a mutually acceptable valuation for the playmaker, and stressed that any potential deal would be subordinated to Milan’s ability to meet the considerable wage package necessary to make Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s loan deal permanent come the summer window. Embattled sex-pest Silvio Berlusconi, who really ought to focussing on more important matters, was quoted in Tuttosport on Tuesday stating that he didn’t believe a deal was likely at present, but went on to the say that he and the Milan faithful would welcome the possibility with open arms. At the same-time, fixer Ernesto Bronzetti was unequivocal in denying that a deal would go ahead, baldly remarking that there was “no possibility that Kaká will return to Italy. He will not leave Madrid at the end of the season, and will remain with the meringue”. More muted speculation has emerged linking Kaká with a move to Milan’s cross city rivals, Inter. At present, Madrid are more concerned with getting their man back to optimum physical shape and have put him on a specific 15 day plan to help him regain something resembling the sharpness that persuaded Florentino Perez to spend such an astronomical sum in securing his transfer less than two years ago.

Results

Matchday 27:

Mallorca 1 Valencia 2
Barcelona 1 Real Zaragoza 0
Atlético Madrid 3 Villarreal 1
Hércule 1 Almería 2
Levante 1 Espanyol 0
Málaga 0 Osasuna 1
Sporting Gijon 2 Getafe 0
Athletic Bilbao 2 Sevilla 0
Racing Santander 1 Real Madrid 3
Deportivo La Coruña 3

Matchday 26:

Espanyol 1 Mallorca 2
Seviila 3 Sporting Gijon 0
Getafe 1 Atlético Madrid 1
Osasuna 0 Deportivo La Coruña 0
Real Sociedad 1 Levante 1
Real Zaragoza 2 Athletic Bilbao 1
Valencia 0 Barcelona 1
Villarreal 1 Hércules 0
Almería 1 Racing Santander 1
Real Madrid 7 Málaga 0

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