Osasuna’s exercise in magnificent futility

Are Osasuna about to set a new standard? They could end the season as the best awful team of all time.

For much of the season, La Liga pundits have been united in their view of the relegation scrap: ” Stick a fork in it, it’s done.”
Their logic is compelling: the bottom three are awful and would need the best part of the season to accumulate enough points to catch the total the sides they are chasing already have. As those sides are ultra-minnows Leganes and the dismal Valencia, that’s saying something.
It’s true though: if they score points in the second half of the season at the same rate they have done so far, there won’t be many games left by the time they hit Leganes’ total, assuming the side from the Madrid suburbs don’t gain any in the meantime.
Yet something is rumbling in Pamplona. Something exciting. Something entertaining. Something futile, but fun. Osasuna, under their third coach of the season, seem to have rediscovered their identity, even if they haven’t rediscovered their ability to win points. Watching their doomed efforts to wriggle themselves into the safety zone is a little like trapping a wasp under your upturned pint glass to enliven a sunny afternoon in a beer garden; there’s a certain “there but for the grace of God” compulsion to it, unless you’re a Sporting or Granada fan and know your team can’t even summon up that level of pointless struggle.
The defeat to Real Madrid summed Osasuna’s plight up perfectly. They were magnificent, defiant and defeated. With Sergio León suddenly in extravagant form and Real looking oddly ill-at-ease, Osasuna showed heart and quality in the first half, fighting back to equalise and dominating long periods of play.
The league leaders fought back to inevitably get the three points. Inevitably because that’s what league leaders do, and inevitably because Osasuna have specialised in feisty failure since club president Luis Sabalza flexed his itchy trigger finger for the second time this season.
Out went Joaquín Caparrós, and in came sporting director Petar Vasilijević. Sabalza announced “We have a crucial month ahead of us and we felt it was the right time to make the change.” He was right: massive six-pointers against Valencia and Granada were the first two obstacles the Serb had to negotiate.
petar-vasilejevic
Sabalza got a response. Under Vasilijević, Osasuna have rediscovered the traditional values the club embodies. Spirit, aggression and directness have returned to a club which relishes its underdog status and, in the good times, made El Sadar an unpleasant stadium to visit with their combative manner both on the pitch and in the stands.
Vasilijević’s Osasuna has heart, as befits a club whose name conjures up notions of vitality, and has stoked a new sense of noisy belief in the stands. But despite a significant improvement in their performances, they’re still dropping points hand over fist.
In seven games he’s won four points and is still awaiting his first win.There are extenuating circumstances around some of their results under him. But sob stories aren’t points.
The Valencia match saw a new cutting edge up front as an injury time equaliser clinched a 3-3 draw, and a new spirit as they equalised three times; then they led for nearly an hour at Granada, who clung on with nine men for a 1-1 draw.


Then came title contenders Sevilla, and again Osasuna were close to glory, but not close enough.Having lead twice, they were level with ten minutes left, but cracked and ended up losing 4-3.


They led with 11 minutes left against Malaga, but drew, then led at half time at high-flying Real Sociedad, but lost 3-2. Throw in a goalless away draw at Eibar in the Cope del Rey and there’s been a genuine stabilisation in performances. The spirit’s now willing, but the return remains weak. They’ve led in four of their six league matches and equalised four times in the other two.

It’s admirable.

It’s progress.

It’s over, isn’t it?

What will Rafa Benitez’s demise at Real Madrid mean for Florentino Perez?

A penny for your thoughts Rafa. Understanding what’s going on in the now ex-Real Madrid coach’s head at the moment would be fascinating.

If nothing else, Benitez has given the impression throughout his career that he knows his own mind. Often his strength of opinion has ultimately been to the detriment of his job security: his desire to do things his way often rubs people up the wrong way, as his messy departure from Valencia and his grapples with internal politics at Inter showed. He doesn’t like having someone above him, telling him what to do, yet in the summer he finally took the job which has been seen as an inevitable embellishment to his CV, even though it meant working under the most manipulative football figure outside the halls of FIFA.

Florentino Perez is the sort of figure that draws derision from British fans: the club president with no football background who claims he knows more about the game than the professionals, and puts his money where his mouth is by essentially appointing himself Director of Football.

Benitez’s desire to return to Real clearly overwhelmed the logical part of his brain when he agreed to work under Perez. Perhaps he’s been able to win battles against Directors of Football in the past, although they ultimately tended to be pyrrhic victories, damaging him in the long term. However, here was a battle he couldn’t possibly win.

He lasted just seven months, but he looked like a lame duck for at least half that time. Some might argue, with justification, that he was a dead man walking the moment he was appointed, with sections of the afición and the press on tenterhooks, waiting for things to go wrong.

It might be argued that Benitez would have lost the job earlier if Perez had not positioned his coach between himself and the firing squad, his survival underpinned not by a desire to give him a chance, but Perez’s realisation that giving him the shove would expose him.


The defeat to Barcelona, humiliating as it was, felt like a point of no return even though the fact is that the sides were only separated by two points when Benitez took the fall. It wasn’t just the disjointed tactical mess which Real laid before their fans which made it feel significant though: it was those fans’ reaction. They didn’t turn on hate figure Rafa. They turned on his boss. That meant something had to happen.

Initially it seemed that the consequence was Perez using Benitez as a human shield. Benitez would inevitably go in the Summer, but if he could deflect criticism from Perez he might still be of use. However, the atmosphere has merely become even more poisonous. For heaven’s sake, Real scored ten goals in their penultimate home game, but no-one seemed terribly happy about it. Even the goodwill banked by scoring eight in their previous home game didn’t count for much. If that isn’t a definition of an unhealthy club, then what is?

Or let’s put it another way.  Rafa Benitez has been sacked after a run of seven wins in nine games. Since losing to Barsa, their only failures have been an admittedly weak showing at Villarreal and Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Valencia. That would be a draw away to one of the biggest clubs in Europe, unbeaten at home in the league since 2014, in which Real were generally the better side and were winning with seven minutes left despite having been down to ten men with half the second half still to play. Those are high standards. Impossibly high standards, perhaps.

There have been unsatisfactory themes running through that pretty successful run of results, of course. The officials certainly helped the last two home wins, Ronaldo is clearly not the player he was, and then there was the Copa del Rey fiasco. Yet surely only the mediocre showings against Rayo and Real Sociedad could be traced back to Benitez, and the ugly manoeuvring of Ronaldo towards the exit, setting him up to look bad in the way Mesut Özil was treated, is all the president’s work. There are mutterings that James Rodriguez might be getting the same treatment.

Marcelo Bielsa said when you look into the eyes of your new boss, remember that he will be the man who sacks you one day. Just sayin'
Marcelo Bielsa said when you look into the eyes of your new boss, remember that he will be the man who sacks you one day. Just sayin’

Perez recently imposed some comically prohibitive conditions on prospective challengers to his presidency. He seems untouchable, but so did Sepp Blatter. Even Machiavelli was removed, tortured and exiled by the Medicis in the end. Perez has now discarded his human shield and appointed a legend of the game who, nevertheless, only has coaching experience at a very low level. It sounds like another bad decision. Could he possibly have exposed himself at last?