La Liga: Jornada 16, the Copa del Rey, and the story of the season to date

by Joseph Sexton

It’s been an epic year in Spanish football. Here, Joseph Sexton takes a look back at the opening phase of the season and a frenzied week of Copa del Rey action; and, of course, the final league program ahead of the winter shut-down.

“Everybody makes mistakes, but I feel alright when I come undone.“

Okay; confession time. In my preview for last weekend’s final match-day in La liga before the winter break, I broke my own golden rule; I made a clear and unambiguous prediction. Bad enough in itself, that. But, not only did I make it; it turned out to be on the money and yet I failed to heed my own advice. Uffa! What I said at the time was something along the lines of “Hércules’ trip to Santander? There’s a [good] reason why the schedulers have buried it in the televisual netherworld of the Monday night slot… But the visiting side have adapted well in the top flight, and come into this game off the back of a 4-1 shellacking of Málaga; so, who knows?”.

Bigger fool me, then. What a horrible game that turned out to be… A 0-0. Snorefest. ‘Telebasura‘; I’d sooner recommend watching a 72-hour special edition of Estudio Estadio than to sit through anything like that one again. Yikes!

“CATALUNYA ES MÉS QUE UN CLUB”

So read the pithy banner at Cornellà on Saturday night, where Barcelona were finally given a game by somebody. And while the wall of noise designed to knock the champions off their stride was impressive, we also had a moment of tenderness as little Andrés Iniesta- who famously celebrated winning the world cup by unfurling his shirt to reveal a slogan dedicating his goal to the late Espanyol captain, Daniel Jarque- was treated by every soul in the house to a standing ovation as he left the field. On it, it was a different story.

Little matter that the kings cantered to a 5-1 win in the end; at least their opponents, Espanyol tried. And try, they did. In truth, they didn’t play badly at all; it’s just that playing well simply isn’t enough against this Barça, at least when you fail to prevent them from playing. And this is where Espanyol fell flat on their arses.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, the corpse that is Sevilla finally showed some signs of life. Okay; they might have gone down 1-0 to di María’s 77th minute winner but, unlike those countless other games of late, they did themselves some credit here at least. Nobody will be happier than Gregorio Manzano, who, after a run of results that was nothing short of pitiful ahead of this impossible visit to the Bernabéu, finally saw his side grow a pair of pelotas and act more like a team of professional footballers than the touring ensemble of clowns they’ve resembled latterly. Small mercies, and all that… and their week got better still in the Copa.

And let’s be thankful for small mercies, because Valencia v Villarreal in the Copa del Rey on Tuesday -amazingly!- was even worse than Monday’s league dirge. Barcelona’s 0-0 draw with Bilbao in the same competition that night wasn’t much better; but more on that later. And as for second division Córdoba CF’s 1-1 draw at home to Deportivo? A fine result for sure, but the less said, the better.

We’ll have more on last weekend’s and tuesday’s Copa del Rey action later; but now, let’s skip straight to Wednesday night’s Copa ties, where – finally- we were treated to an avalanche of goals. Not just in the form of Karim Benzema’s virtuoso display in Real’s eight goal humping of Levante; that result itself was no great shock in the greater scheme of things, but some of the football on display was simply scintillating.

Benzema grabbed all the headlines: helping himself to three goals and doubling his tally for the season in the process. Take your pick; on 5 minutes he opened the scoring, robbing Miquel Robusté and turning poor Xavi Torres inside-out before precisely slotting the ball home for one of the goals of the season. Half an hour in, the Frenchman was at it again. This time Angel di Maria, who was to have a pretty amazing night in his own right provided the cross, but Benzema still had much to do. But despite the best efforts of the onrushing keeper Munúa and his desperate colleague Robusté, Benzema made it 3-0 with consummate ease.

For his third, as the game entered the final stages, much credit is due to Pepe and di Maria; the Portuguese sending a 60 metre pass of astonishing precision to find the latter on the right wing. Di María’s cross was inch perfect; Benzema didn’t need to be asked twice, and cooly lifted the ball over Manúa. In truth we could spend the whole column talking about the magnificence of this performance, but with much more to discuss, get yourself down to youtube and admire it for yourself.

Sevilla, Sevilla, Sevilla;

For two months, they’ve been the biggest gimme in La Liga. But in an all-Andalusian affair against a game Málaga side, they finally came out on top. In a game rich with incidents, the visitors hit the the front twice early only to be pegged back. Undeterred, the were leading 3-2 come the break. But this was to be Sevilla’s night, Manzano’s night; and that it was was largely down to the second half efforts one man, the irrepressible Romaric. Two unanswered goals from the striker were followed by a late effort from Diego Capel. Full-time came. 5-3. At long last, Sevilla had done it.

“It was a great reaction,” said a relieved looking Manzano afterwards. “Our response after the break was marvellous, but we can still see all the familiar defensive frailties and unless those are corrected, we’ll continue to struggle. Sure, I’m thrilled… but more work needs to be done”.

His opposite number, the crestfallen erstwhile Real Madrid tecnico, Pellegrini cut a disbelieving figure. “The just isn’t normal” he said of his team’s collapse; “We are going through a bad moment, especially on the psychological level, for sure. but we need to change what we are doing because this… above all, tonight; it’s not normal. We need a cure if we are to put things right.”

And it wasn’t just down south that we saw a game of such thrilling thrills and counter thrills; up at Almería the hosts overcame Mallorca 4-3 in another insane encounter. Ulloa’s early penalty was cancelled out by Jonatan De Guzman equalising strike, before Ulloa struck again. Then Victor missed a penalty for the Balearic side; all of this coming in a frantic opening 35 minutes. Victor made amends on the stroke of half-time, but Uche and Ulloa’s third as the game entered it its final quarter rendered Pierre Webo’s late strike for Mallorca purely consolatory.

We need to return to tuesday’s striking result at the Camp Nou for further inspection. Not because it was a great game; it wasn’t. But it was certainly an amazingly effective defensive display by a distinctly understrength Bilbao team. You can’t even make the case that Barcelona were severely depleted; their starting XI would be a match for pretty much any team. The big guns on the bench, Leo Messi and David Villa, were both unleashed early in the second half, but to no avail. Bilbao kept their hosts to a measly four shots on target in the whole 90.

Paper-talk: Mourinho guff, Benítez, and Catalan howls

The response of the Catalan press was, predictably, howls of derision. “An affront to football!” screamed Mundo Deportivo’s subeditor, whilst wiping foam from his mouth as he finished his headline. “They Parked the Bus” is probably the most apt summation of their front page verdict. It happens so infrequently that’s it’s hard to forget that, for the neutral observer (not that there are ever many of those in this country), the hilarious pomposity of the Catalan press’s reaction to games where Barça don’t win can almost be as entertaining as the moments of spellbinding beauty we are treated to on the pitch on the 99.9% of occasions that they do.

The same title provided the biggest laugh of the week the same day. Many hours before Rafael Benitez was relieved of his duties at Internazionale, they were already writing about José Mourinho’s return to the San Siro as being a done deal; With Benítez moving across to the hot-seat at the Bernabéu. Keep dreaming. There was never any hope of Mourinho walking back to his former club because of a ‘lack of control’ at his new one.

As for Benítez, he still retains many admirers is his homeland, but it is increasingly being recognised here that he doesn’t know when to stop running his mouth. It essentially cost him his job at Valencia, and divided opinion on him at Anfield once the initial burst of glory wore off. For a man possessed of such clear intelligence to- with the prior verbal backing of a loyal president, and surprise defeats for some of his main rivals in their absence at the World Club Championships- come out so vehemently and critically in public against Massimo Moratti, his playing staff, and his revered predecessor as he did was nothing short lunacy.

The fact that his amazing outburst contains certain points of validity (it’s no secret that Inter have been an ageing squad for some time, have had a bad run of injuries, and do need some rejuvenating) were lost amidst the vitriol. Had he been more discrete, Benítez would surely still be at the helm of a still-formidable squad, better placed to make a push for the scudetto given those surprise results, and an eminently winnable Champions League tie due in the spring. That said; his undoubted tactical acumen, his astounding destruction of Juande Ramos’ Real Madrid in the spring of 2009, and those titles at Valencia still outweigh the negatives in the minds of many footballing folk here in Spain. You can be guaranteed that when the first big job comes up in La Liga, he will be the most sought after candidate.

It certainly won’t be at Madrid, however. After the initial story lost its final shreds of credibility, Mourinho spoke to AS on Thursday to make his position absolutely clear.”It is my clear intention to remain here in Madrid for the next four years.”. And had the cup win over Levante been the icing on the cake of an amazing calendar year for the Portuguese? Yes, and no. “I feel sorry for Levante. 8-0 is never easy. This year, on a personal level has been fantastic for me; and I guess we did finish it in the best possible way. Out of 25 games, we have lost just once. It’s a great record, and my players are very dedicated. We sit a point off the top in La Liga; only that fact could be improved upon.”

When pressed upon speculation of divisions with in the club, more specifically between him on one side, and Florentino Perez and Jorge Valdano on the other, he was having none of it. “No, I don’t have a problem with anybody. Whether you work at a football team, a bank a newspaper… there are always moments where differences of opinion arise. I see this as a positive thing. Whatever small differences we have here, on a practical or philosophical level, it’s a thing of nothing.”

He again rebutted talk of a rift with Valdano, and said he cared nothing if there existed an image of a club divided. “No, I never worry about ‘image’. I’m not a ‘yes man’. Criticism is healthy, but personal problem with Valdano? No, nothing, zero. We had a situation at Chelsea where everything was great, we won everything, but then two people arrived at the club who I found it utterly impossible to work with and within two months, I was gone. It is not like that here. I will be here for four years, because I feel good. There are tiny differences of opinion at times, but this doesn’t matter.”

Asked if Benzema would now be a regular, he said “I don’t know. All that matters is he played well again tonight. From the first minute I saw him, I knew he was quality player and that shone through tonight. But the next game is the next game, and until then i can’t say much more”.

And finally, l’Equipe reported that Valencia intend to sign Adil Rami from Lille during the January transfer window, and thensend him back to them on loan for the remainder of the season. €6.5M was the fee mooted by the French daily.

It’s that time of the year again.

Yes indeed folks; it’s that time when Spanish football goes into hibernation, where the South American stars head back to spend time with family and friends in the sun, returning a few pounds overweight; and the local lads tuck into some well earned turkey, turrones, and all manner of unfathomable confectionary before returning to duty refreshed and raring to go again in mid-January.

This season’s mid-term review will be short and sweet. The top of the table contains few surprises. The top two are unchanged, and streets ahead of the rest. Both are even better now than they were last season. Barcelona are still too good for Madrid but the gap is narrowing. Yes, we all remember that clasico hiding, and will for years to come. But the tangible improvements brought around by Mourinho are indisputable.

The defence is now functioning as a unit, where in recent years it often contained individually great players who were never quite the sum of their parts. Pepe, back from injury and back to his best, has been a beast. Partnering him with that wily and trusted lieutenant of his, recreating the miserly defensive pairing of the Portuguese seleccão has been a master-stroke on Mou’s part.

Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, and Angel di María above all have all settled in well, despite betraying hints of immaturity on occasion. Kaká is waiting in the wings, keen to make up for his annus horribilis in 2010. Benzema has, slowly, improved and continues to do so. With such a wealth of attacking talent available, and Gonzalo Higuaín’s injury prognosis better than initially feared, they probably won’t be going into the market in January. They mightn’t be ready yet to overhaul this incredible Barça side domestically, but expect them to run them bloody close in trying; and on the continental front, there will be absolutely no side relishing the combined prospect of this Real team and its coach in the Champions League.

Valencia have rallied after their wobble; Espanyol continue to impress. Atlético remain Atlético, but are on the up again. Getafe look more than capable of joining this trio in a four-way battle for the final Champions League place, but sitting just below those sides the Basques of Bilbao and Sociedad could struggle to stay the pace for the second half of the season.

Sevilla; I think we’ve said more than enough about them this week. Manzano has bought time and more importantly, more credibility. If he can sort that leaky defence out, and if their nasty injury situation clears up, they could be well placed to sneak a run on the UEFA Cup places; a competition which they still retain an interest in, of course.

At the bottom it’s extremely tight with just 9 points separating 12 placed Hércules from the bottom. But one thing is glaringly clear; the side occupying that bottom position, Zaragoza, have been absolutely awful. All of the sides above them have shown, even just in glimpses, grit, quality and fight. The Aragonese side have shown us nothing, and despite the fact that a win or two for any side in the bottom half would alter the situation radically at any time, Zaragoza appear too hapless to take advantage of these swings and roundabouts. The Liga Adelante surely beckons; survival already looks well within Hércules grasp.

Thus we draw the curtain on a vintage year of football in Spain, perhaps the greatest ever. World Champions at international level, and with a seemingly endless production line working overtime to produce talent unparalleled in world football just now, the selección have certainly never had it so good. And as for Barça; well, they were never going to be able to better 2009, but will have enjoyed meting out the most delicious revenge imaginable upon their bête-noire, Jose Mourinho, in a game that had pundits world-wide falling over each other to proclaim it as the finest performance of all time. Yes, the league continues to fuel the fire of its sceptics, who compare it to the SPL; but we saw Atlético end their 14 year wait for silverware against Fulham in May, and the clubs that have suffered the most from the country’s financial crisis, neighbouring Valencia and Villarreal have shown that you don’t have to spend big to remain competitive. Or spend anything much at all in the case of plucky little Hércules; the only team to bring Barcelona to their knees in this campaign to date.

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