It might seem ludicrous to pronounce a championship dead with 17 games remaining. Okay, a 7 point difference at the head, but dead; utterly dead? In most countries one might be accused of getting ahead of one’s self. But Spain, and La Liga in this case, is different. Yes, España es diferente.
It’s simply a natural reflection of the increasingly warped power balance in Spain that 85% of respondents to a poll run on the rabidly pro-Real sports daily’s website, Marca, have already conceded this year’s league to be done and dusted. The average Marca reader (and indeed writer) is no stranger to self-delusion, but they’ve already given up. ‘Capello’s Real turned over a 5 point deficit in 2007’ read the byline. Yes indeed, and that was that was produced by a litany of miracles working in Real’s favour; and the rot setting as the hitherto successful Frank Rijkaard’s glittering Barcelona reign descended into a slow, painful ultimately terminal decline. 2006/7 was utterly singular, and utterly different.
So why is Spain so different? It all comes back to one simple matter. Yes; Real and Barcelona have dominated this league over decades. But never to the extent that exists currently. The comparison has been made with the Scottish Premier League, and while this has validity, it’s only fair to a point. Money matters. Power matters. And since they advent of individual media rights selling, the concentration of power and money has allowed the big 2 to dominate in a manner never witnessed before.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Deportivo and Valencia won three league titles between them out of 5; a period when Real Sociedad, inspired by a young midfielder called Xabi Alonso, should have won another one to boot. A bewildering array of sides made the European places, made Champions League finals, made semis; had not mighty Real won Europe’s premier prize in 2000, they would have had to make do with UEFA Cup football the following year.
But individual rights selling has changed all of that. It changes everything; even the pioneer of this model amongst Europe’s top leagues, Italy, has repented and recognised the devastating effects wrought upon their championship, and reverted to something more akin to the English top flight’s collective model. Italy is not Spain, and vice versa; there are unique factors, and their interplay with individual rights, -which saw havoc wrought to such a degree on another league, which had been Europe’s dominant force and characterised by real strength in depth- which may not necessarily all apply in the Spanish context. But the universal truth of the model remains the same; it inherently distorts the balance in favour of those sides who barely need outside assistance to begin with. It makes a mockery of fairness and competition.
And so, losing a game becomes a crisis for the top 2. Even dropping two points (as Real already did a fortnight ago at Almería) is an epic upset. Lose one when you already trail your rival at the top by four points? With 17 games still to play? The point of no return.
Osasuna came into this game without a league win in 8; Real having dropped just two points since the clásico, and fresh from a fortuitous midweek Copa del Rey side against a driven Sevilla side down south. But these figures can deceive, even in this context. Real had played very poorly in their last two league games. Before that, they’d rode their luck against Villarreal. In midweek, despite playing well for the most part, they had to rely on some smart saves by Iker Casillas and a preposterous disallowed goal call to claim victory at the Sanchez Pizjuan. Osasuna might not be winning many, but nobody relishes taking them on in Pamplona; they had in fact been unbeaten at home until Barça eventually arrived there amidst the chaos of the Spanish air traffic control strike last month. They like to let you know you’ve been in a game, and their support can be raucous. In short, expect a few bruises.
And it wasn’t that Real played horribly, though they did in parts; it isn’t just that Osasuna played very well, though they most certainly did. This was one of those nights, reminiscent of those dropped points at the outset of season (and that clásico) where José Mourinho’s uncanny ability the bend situations to his well deserted him. The Meringue had a giant, Xabi Alonso-shaped hole in the heart of their midfield. Real had chances; the hosts too. Osasuna took the lead on 62 minutes, Javier Camunas effort springing in off the base of Casillas’ right hand post. If Real’s offside trap could be faulted, their keeper certainly couldn’t.
You held your breath as home support expelled all theirs. You expected Real to somehow come back; they always come back, don’t they? This time there was to be no remontada.
It wasn’t for want of trying every method at their disposal. Instant triple substitution. On came debutant Emanuel Adebayor, and finally Mourinho had the sort of target man he’s been screaming out for all season, in the game where one was needed more than ever.
Mehmet Ozil came close; Karim Benzema came close. Ronaldo forced a save. But in the end, it was Osasuna who came closest to scoring again.
Mourinho refused to criticise his players in the end, paying due respect to José Camacho’s team. “We have dropped points in this championship. It doesn’t matter whether you drop them against Levante or Almería; it’s an accumulation of points lost. Here we lost three which might have been harsh; but in this manner, against a team playing to the absolute limit of their powers, it’s hard to say they didn’t deserve a positive result.
“They played great. My players played with dignity, and I have nothing to reproach them for. The situation is much more difficult because of Barça, [who just keep on winning]. I always hate to lose points when something goes against my teams, or my team doesn’t fight. Again, I fault no-one. The referee played a great game, there were no bad calls. We didn’t merit the win, perhaps a draw. But no, I cannot have any complaints”.
One man who did have a few on the radio was Cristiano Ronaldo, who moaned about Osasuna’s excessively physical tactics. But he was quickly told to ‘Shut it!’ by the man who scored the winner. “Ridiculous excuses”, he began. “He’s a winner, incredibly competitive, just like his manager. Madrid know perfectly well that they can do many things better than us, so we have to play to our strengths. That is why we won, and for us to to be able beat a team like Real is part of the beauty of football.”
Well, after all of that, where to go? Barcelona, of course, won again; 15 on the trot now. Pedro opened the scoring, with Lionel Messi adding a late double, but hosts Hércules again showed the kind of tenacity that marked their opening day win at the Camp Nou. David Trezeguet really should have given the hosts an opener in the first period, but didn’t. And that was that. Period.
The League is a lot more open outside the very summit, but Villarreal are increasingly looking good to secure a return to the Champions League. Not many sides go to Cornellà and take anything, but a peach on the stroke of half-time from Giuseppe Rossi saw them take all three points against Espanyol in Sunday’s late kick off. This column questioned before the Christmas break whether the Basque sides could maintain their impressive form. Sociedad have slipped a little, but won 2-0 at home to Almería on Saturday. Rivals Athletic keep going from strength to strength, winning by the same margin away to Atlético on Sunday. Luís Perea was sent off for the hosts, with Fernando Llorente missing the resultant penalty kick. No matter. Toquero was at hand to strike twice as the visitor’s numerical advantage prevailed. Bilbao now move 5 points ahead of their opponents, and sit just two off Espanyol who remain fifth.
Sevilla’s topsy-turvy form continues, but the trend remains largely positive. They now sit 8th and recovered from 2-0 down against Deportivo at Riazor to lead 3-2 late on; with substitute Álvaro Negredo hitting a brace. This is still Sevilla, however, and Depor rallied to level the game through Ruiz shortly before full-time. As for Zaragoza? For a side that looked utterly doomed just five weeks ago, they’ve certainly turned things around. Florent Sinama Pongolle was at hand three minutes from time to give them a 2-1 win away to Málaga. For Zaragoza several weeks back, now read Málaga. They sit joint-bottom with Almería. Zaragoza sit 15th, and level on points with 12th-placed Sporting. A mere 11 points separate 9th-placed Sociedad from the bottom, so within that straggle there is plenty to play for; and of course, for the sides now in the upper reaches of that group, the prospect of Europa League football retains every possibility.
Levante 2 Getafe 0
Málaga 1 Real Zaragoza 2
Mallorca 0 Sporting Gijon 4
Real Sociedad 2 Almería 0
Hércules 0 Barcelona 3
Deportivo La Coruña 3 Sevilla 3
Atlético Madrid 0 Athletic Bilbao 2
Osasuna 1 Real Madrid 0 (!)
Espanyol 0 Villarreal 1
Monday night’s abyss encounter:
Racing Santander 1 Valencia 1