The most eagerly awaited match-up of the 11th round of games in La Liga took place at Camp Nou on Saturday night, with champions Barcelona hosting a Villarreal side in a rich vein of form. This writer was left faced with one of life’s more pleasant dilemmas; to cut the tale short, the lure of seeing up and coming New York hipsters The Drums won out, which means we won’t be focussing on the Blaugrana’s 3-1 victory in any depth. But happily Sunday’s encounter between Real and struggling Sporting Gijón, against the odds and all semblance of logic, turned out to be a cracker of a game with plenty of talking points. As the suspended José Mourinho glared down from the stands, Real, individually and collectively, appeared to fall back on some of their worst habits of recent years. But the manager will surely have cracked a wry smile as his side did what Mourinho sides always do; somehow, when the game and decisions appeared to conspiring against them, their determination saw them literally (note- not ‘literally’ in the Jamie Redknapp sense of word!)scramble over the line and win when the possibility of a humiliating defeat appeared palpable.
It wasn’t sexy. It wasn’t pretty. And a sulking Cristiano Ronaldo, whose only tangible contribution to the game aside from one moment of sheer brilliance was to incite the crowd in the aftermath of Alberto Botía’s injury time expulsion, cut a figure more akin to his infuriating 2004 vintage than that of the behemoth we’ve become accustomed to seeing in Real’s colours. Equally, Gonzalo Higuaín, who ludicrously transpired to be the match-winner appeared to be having one of those days which leaves the meringues’ faithful throwing their sunflower seeds to the ground in disgust, muttering all manner of obscenities; and seasoned followers of his precociously talented but at times strikingly ineffective compatriot Angel di María, would have read all the signs and felt this wasn’t going to be Real’s day. Ozil was below par too. But as it was, and with the exception of Ronaldo, the men in white refused to be dispirited and emerged victorious after a mammoth effort from the Rojiblancos.
It could have been very different. Aitor Karanka, the special one’s assistant, prowled the technical area with all the menace of a frightened chihuahua. Mourinho grimaced behind the tinted glass of the directors box, at one point flicking a v sign towards the home support. The outstanding Gastón Sangoy, who gave Marcelo a torrid evening on the right flank might have had the presence of mind to centre the ball on instead of blasting wide early in the second half. Moments later, Higuaín had a perfectly good goal ruled out for offside. But it was hard to find fault with Sangoy later in the half. From the same position, advancing in from the right wing, his low effort blazed just inches wide of Casillas’ far post.
The contrast between the Catalan and Madrid presses’ reaction was depressingly predictable. The Barcelona dailies recalled last weeks war of words between the two managers. ‘Ganada Canalla’, the insult directed at Mourinho as Manolo Preciado finally lost his temper at Mourinho’s constant provocations, ran the headline in Sport. It’s an antiquated term, but probably best translated as villain. A villainous victory. The Madrid press, not surprisingly emphasised the positives, the winning mentality Mourinho has brought to the club. But perhaps Mou should choose his battles more carefully in future; after accusing Sporting of rolling over against Barcelona, they played out of their skins last night.
The game was intriguing. Aside from the level of technique on display, it resembled an exciting Premiership contest. Sporting out-Mourinhod Madrid when not in possession, squeezing the space and cutting off the more dangerous passing options. But they weren’t content just to sit back; every time a Madrid attack broke down, they looked to get the ball forward quickly. But for a lack of guile in the final third, they might easily have broke the deadlock.
Meanwhile Madrid were equally manful in trying to initiate rapid counter-attacks. Juan Pablo, perhaps unfairly blamed in some quarters for his part in the night’s only goal performed heroics. Higuaín was thwarted on several occasions, and a rasping di María effort early in the second half was turned behind for a corner. At the other end, Casillas dropped a clanger and played a near-suicidal pass to Carvalho with a Sporting forward bearing down on the Portuguese. It was end to end stuff, and the fun didn’t end when the goal finally came.
It was the introduction of the much maligned Karim Benzema for di María that proved to be the catalyst. Moments after arriving, he tested Juan Pablo with a rasping drive from distance. Later he was penalised for handball whilst trying to create an opening for his team-mates, although the ball appeared to strike his shoulder. It appears Mourinho’s harsh words earlier this season about the young Frenchman are beginning to pay dividends. On 82 minutes, Sergio Ramos swung a cross into the box from the right; the sort of cross which had thus far been meat and drink to the Sporting defence. But Benzema rose above his marker at the far post and powered a header towards the goal. Juan Pablo got a strong hand to it, but it wasn’t enough. With the ball already trickling over the goal-line, Higuaín stole the Frenchman’s glory by prodding home.
The the fun wasn’t over yet. Barral went close with a header with Casillas grateful to hear the referee’s whistle after he made a pigs ear of collecting the ball. Immediately Higuaín threatened on the counter, but this time the assistant was justified in raising his flag. Ronaldo, who had resorted at times to kicking opponents in frustration- on one occasion, winning a free when a card for the Portuguese would have been more appropriate- drew a foul from Botía deep in injury time. It was cynical and late, the sort of tackle that might merit a yellow in Britain but is generally worth a red in those parts of the world where referees don’t take an á la carte approach to FIFA directives. But his reaction, all pumped fists and beating of chest was a display of motivation conspicuously absent in his preceding 93 minutes on the pitch.
In the end, Real closed the game down. Immediately after the goal, Higuaín made way for Lassana Diarra and shortly afterwards Ozil was replaced by Arbeloa. Casillas and assorted Madrid players drew the ire of the home side by taking the proverbial in wasting time at every opportunity, which the referee deigned not to sanction. It had been a marvellous game, particularly in the second half. But, although Mourinho may have been in the stands the late substitutions were true to his instincts and Real closed the deal expertly. It was a hell of a battle. The final statistics showed possession and goal chances to be more or less even, But with just two weeks to go to El Clásico Madrid remain one point ahead of Barça. And for the first time in Pep Guardiola’s tenure, they can justifiably dream of victory, But more on that later.
As for Barça, this writer’s temptations to attend were tempered somewhat by the uncertainty of what would transpire. Would Villarreal give it a real go for thirty minutes but end up shipping three or four? In the end they did ship three, but the game was closer than one might have feared. Villa gave Barça the lead on 22 minutes, only for Nilmar to equalise 4 minutes later. Messi and Xavi were imperious throughout, but it took 58 minutes for the Argentine to restore the home side’s lead. A comeback by the visitors still remained a possibility, but Messi finally settled the crowd’s nerves with an 83rd minute strike. Ronaldo’s hot-streak may have cooled this weekend, but the Argentine’s show no signs of slowing.
Elsewhere, Hercules secured the points with an impressive comeback at home to Real Sociedad. David Trezeguet turned back the clock to produce a classic finish to level matters just after the break. On 51 minutes, Royston Drenthe struck a belter of a free kick which proved to be the decider. But the game was marred by sad scenes at pitch-side later on when a ballboy collapsed. With the well documented spate of deaths due to SADS and near death experiences in Spanish football in recent times in unprecedented numbers, people feared the worst initially. Thankfully, it transpired that the ballboy had suffered an epileptic fit, and has recovered.
Mallorca v Malaga and Racing v Espanyol proved to be bore draws, with Espanyol indebted to keeper Kameni’s penalty save to secure a point. Alavaro Negredo paid back a chunk of his hefty transfer fee to net a last minute winner for a ten-man Sevilla at Zaragoza. Costa scored a stunning opener as Valencia ran out 2-0 winners against Getafe at the Mestalla.
The story of the week has really been the war of words before and after the game between José Mourinho and his counterpart Preciado. As Sid Low’s piece which has just gone live on the Guardian’s football site deals fantastically with this entertaining fiasco, we’ll skip that here. But the other main talking points of the week were the rather suspicious happenings at FIFA, where, already under a cloud of suspicion over alleged collusion, the president of the Spanish Football Federation was seen to pass a note to his Qatari counterpart reading ‘Congratulations’ and ‘Hemos ganado’. – “We won!”. Needless to say, both deny that there was anything untoward in this, and in truth the story has barely been mentioned in the spanish press. Finally, the upcoming clásico has been moved to Monday due to the Catalan elections taking place on the Sunday of that week, the originally scheduled date. “We’re going to have up to 80,000 volunteers working for us that day, many of them Barcelona fans”, said a local Politco, understatedly. “It wouldn’t be fair to deny them to chance to see this game”. Quite right.
Athletic Bilbao 1 Almeria 0
Atlético Madrid 3 Osasuna 0
Malaga 1 Levante 0 (Manuel Pellegrini’s first win at his new post, courtesy a a wonderful strike from Eliseu)
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