Amidst scene of farcical chaos brought about by wildcat strikes launched by Spanish air controllers, the football- just about- proceeded, although not without hitches. Saturday’s late kick off provided Real Madrid with a chance to work the post-clásico blues out of their system, but if ever there was a time for Unai Emery’s Valencia to take on the merengue, this was it.
Real were deeply unconvincing in the opening half. José Mourinho elected to go with a striker-less system, with Angel di María and Cristiano Ronaldo supported by Mesut Ozil; Emery, puzzlingly, opted to leave Artitz Aduriz on the bench, with Roberto Soldado preferred to start up front.
“¡Sal del banquillo!” the Camp Nou crowd had roared as Real crashed and burned in clásico; “Get out off your bench!”. On Saturday, Mourinho spent much of the night glaring from his at the Bernebeu, his face half lit in the shadows, with the dishevelled look of a man on the back of several sleepless nights. Real’s start did little to ease his mood, and one must wonder how things might have panned out had Emery- ever conservative in the bigger games- had opted for a bolder game plan to test his hosts.
As it was, Valencia created the first real opening of the game when Juan Mata tested Iker Casillas’ reflexes some 12 minutes in. A flurry of early bookings saw David Albelda pick up a soft yellow which would prove to very costly for Los Che.
Real lacked fluency in attack, where only di María shone intermittently; though they created several half chances, their first moment of real danger came five minutes from the break, when Mesut Ozil drew a save from a free-kick some 25 yards out. The German then fed Ronaldo deep in stoppage time, only for the Portuguese’s improvised back heel to trickle wide off the far post. Ronaldo popped up again two minutes after the break but Vicente Guaita was at hand to turn his shot behind for a corner kick. Di María scurried through a gap moments later but the young Argentine betrayed poor decision making, in attempting to lift the ball over Guaita as the keeper advanced.
Valencia were largely successful in shackling the Madrid attack, and managed to ask some questions of their own of the Real backline on the counter-attack. As the half progressed, however, Real’s forwards began to get their act together ,and the substitute Karim Benzema saw a decent effort pushed wide against the woodwork just short of the hour mark.
The game swung decisively in Real’s favour with 25 minutes remaining. From an innocuous position just inside the visitors’ half, Lassana Diarra’s pass was blocked by Albelda. The Valencia captain was stunned to see the referee pull out a second yellow card for deliberate handball, protesting vigourously and cursing the match official before walking off. The general consensus, even amongst sections of the Madrid press was that he was indeed hard done by. Replays of the incident are not entirely conclusive, but it does appear as if the ball indeed struck his chest or at least his upper arm. Nonetheless, walking the tightrope of a yellow card it seems a foolish action on Albelda’s part to have leaned into the ball as he did. Whatever way you look at, it was a senseless dismissal and now Valencia found themselves in deep trouble.
Thus, when the first goal came it had a certain air of inevitability about it. Ozil, breaking through the centre, played a delightful disguised pass into Ronaldo’s path on the left. This time the Portugal captain was utterly ruthless in his finish. With 17 minutes remaining, there was no way back for the visitors.
Three minutes from time, Ronaldo doubled the pain, picking the ball up just inside the opposing half. After screaming for support he went it alone and after several step-overs, sent a rasping right-footed effort into the top left hand of the goal after working ample space inside the area. The result was harsh on Valencia, and sees them slip further in fifth position, now some four points off the Champions League places ahead of their midweek visit to Old Trafford.
Earlier that day, we had witnessed ridiculous sub-pantomime capers as leaders Barcelona made their trek to Pamplona to visit Osasuna. The Guardian’s Sid Lowe gives a gripping account of this whole idiotic mess, with Barcelona seemingly without any sort of contingency plan at hand to deal with the strike, and the Spanish football federation once again covering themselves in glory, announcing the postponement of the game until Sunday before prevaricating and the 11th hour, leaving the Catalans with little time to fulfill the fixture. Barça arrived at the ground shortly after the scheduled 8pm kick-off slot, with the game eventually getting under way 45 minutes behind schedule.
Osasuna were unbeaten at home in the league and a raucous 20,000 strong crowd, frozen and clearly angered by the days shenanigans, were in full voice. Not unexpectedly, Barcelona opened very sluggishly and the hosts really ought to have had a penalty early on. Pedro, who had barely even made the train for the trip, popped up to break the deadlock as halftime approached. In the second half, Messi put the game beyond the hosts from the penalty spot, before adding a third to continue his stupefyingly good run in front of goal. Barcelona’s president Sandro Rossell, in an open letter the following day, accepted full responsibility for the whole travel farrago; that didn’t impress certain sections of the Madrid press, who went on to label Pep Guardiola as the ‘Ayatollah’ Barcelona remain two points ahead of Real.
With 14 games of the season gone, we can already see some clear patterns emerging in La Liga. Unsurprisingly, it’s Barça and Real doing the two-man act at the top. Behind them, Villarreal look here to stay; Nilmar’s impressive opening to the season continues, the Brazilian proving the match-winner against Sevilla at the Madrigal on Sunday. Speaking of Sevilla, they remain in free-fall; this was their sixth loss of the campaign. Another side joining them on their slide is Atlético, whose autumn form has all but evaporated and were again beaten, this team in embarrassing fashion at Levante; media speculation about the futures of both sides’ respective managers- Gregorio Manzano and Quique Sanchez Flores- is beginning to gain credence by the week. Amidst all of this, RCD Espanyol’s excellent run continues; a 1-0 win courtesy of Luís García’s second-half strike against Sporting at fortress Cornellà cements their position in the top four.
Elsewhere, Hércules’ good run was terminated on Monday night, with the Alicante side slipping to a 1-0 defeat away to Deportivo La Coruña; Bilbao came away from San Sebastian smarting after a 2-0 reverse to Real Sociedad in the Basque derby. And Getafe followed up their unexpected victory at the Sanchez Pizjuan with a resounding 3-0 home victory over Manuel Pellegrini’s Mallorca.
It took a couple of days, but the Madrid press finally found their voice as the weekend approached following a chastening clásico for Real. First up, we had the fines and suspensions meted out in the wake of the Ajax Champions League game. “I don’t see this as a matter of insult, I see it as a badge of honour,” bellowed Mourinho; “my grandmother once told me that when people hate you, it’s because they envy you”. On Monday, we learnt that the punishment had been eased; the club and the manager’s fines had both been reduced on appeal, with Mourinho’s second (suspended) one match ban lifted. The fines against the four players in question, Jerzy Dudek, Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos remain untouched.
Laughably, Ramos picked up a fair play prize from his native Andalucía over the weekend. The papers pathetically questioned the legitimacy of his second yellow against Barcelona, in a list of complaints beginning with “We’re not saying this would have changed the outcome of the game, BUT…”. Ignoring the exceptional leniency shown to Ricardo Carvalho, they also made the more valid claim that a penalty ought to have been awarded to Real early in the second half with the score still at 2-0. And of course, Saturday’s fiasco as Barcelona made their way to Osasuna allowed them to end their phoney war-truce against the Catalan side; Guardiola was installed as public enemy number one, the man who controls the Spanish federation. It’s reassuring to see normal service restored, even if this season’s Villaroto is every bit as ridiculous as last season’s.
Italy’s Gazzetta Dello’ Sport broke the news early on Sunday morning, announcing that the Barcelona trio of Xavi Hernández, Lionel Messi, and Andrés Iniesta had all made the final running for the inaugural amalgamated FIFA Ballon d’Or award. The Italian press raised the fair point of Inter’s former Real man Wesley Sneijder’s omittal, concluding that the friendless Rafael Benítez must be to blame. Incidentally, Spain’s captain Iker Casillas (not allowed to vote for any of his fellow Spaniards) gave his 1-2-3 to Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and another former Dutch team-mate Arjen Robben. Whether the Gazzetta’s further speculation that the award will ultimately go to Iniesta is as on the mark remains to be seen; FIFA will announce the winner on January 10th.
Away at the opposite end of the mediterranean another former Real favourite, Guti, was making headlines for all the wrong reasons in Istanbul. The current Bekitas player was picked up with his blood alcohol more than four times above the legal limit- a staggering 2.71- after crashing his car into a bus, and fined €280, as well as having his license suspended for 6 months. “It’s a lie that I was drunk”, slurred a barely coherent Guti, at home and ‘tired’ and convincing nobody; the forward went on to make the risible claim that he’s only downed a solitary glass of wine. Finally, on Tuesday afternoon, José Mourinho announced that he wouldn’t be splurging in the January transfer window. “Kaká will be the biggest signing of the winter, there is no other player of his calibre in the market. Kaká is the solution”.
Levante 2 Atlético 0
Osasuna 0 Barcelona 3
Real Madrid 2 Valencia 0
Almería 1 Zaragoza 1
Espanyol 1 Sporting Gíjon 0
Getafe 3 Mallorca 0
Málaga 4 Racing Santander 1
Villarreal 1 Sevilla 0
Real Sociedad 2 Athletic Bilbao 0
Deportivo La Coruña 1 Hércules 0
Week 15 Fixtures:
Saturday (all times CET)
Getafe v Villarreal 18:00
Sevilla v Almería 20:00
Atlético Madrid v Deportivo La Coruña 22:00
Sunday (all 17:00 CET unless stated):
Athletic Bilbao v Espanyol
Hércules v Málaga
Mallorca V Racing Santander
Sporting Gíjon v Levante
Barcelona v Real Sociedad 19:00 CET
Zaragoza v Real Madrid 21:00 CET