Is Levante’s Pretty-Ugly Fairy Tale Finally Over?

Never ever give up
Inspirational jackets can’t save Levante now

As I watch Levante crash to a 4-0 defeat at home to Real Sociedad, a performance described by the Revista podcast as the worst by any team in La Liga so far this season, a kid sits in front of my wearing a coat bearing the slogan “Never EVER give up.” He left before the end.

To be fair, an awful lot of the faithful did, and those that didn’t only hung around to show their side the contents of their pockets as they left the pitch.

Whte hankies at the final whistle
White hankies at the final whistle

The progressive reaction to the four goals followed the classic stages of football depression:

Goal 1: Shock.

Goal 2: Anger.

Goal 3: Early departure.

Goal 4: Ironic applause of the opponents.

And soon afterwards coach Lucas Alcaraz had paid with his job. You could never criticise him for a lack of effort as his touchline gurning and gesticulating makes Jurgen Klopp look like Niles Crane. A cruel critic might have asked whether there was anything behind his exhortations for hard work. If his preparation for this match had amounted to something more than hanging that kid’s jacket on the changing room wall and chanting “Never EVER give up.” at his team until their ears bled it didn’t show against La Real.

So does this mark the end of Levante’s gritty fairy tale? Sid Lowe wrote evocatively of the side’s glorious flirtation with the top of the table four years ago, dubbing their collection of gnarled journeymen “The Expendables” as they battled their way to the top of the table. They held on well enough to finish sixth and enjoy an unlikely European adventure the following season. And now it looks like they have come full circle.

In the week after Lowe’s article Levante actually took outright top spot in the league, ironically beating Real Sociedad 3-2. Just one day off the anniversary, La Real delivered the coup which cost Alcaraz his job and leaves the Granotes looking green around the gills. (I know frogs don’t have gills, but it’s so close to a good metaphor I had to follow it through).

By the end of the weekend, there was an even more poignant illustration of Levante’s decline. In a separate piece Lowe wrote of Raimon the groundsman, who arranges the SPanish teams’ flags in order of their league position on the flagpoles that run down the side of the pitch. It was a happy task four years ago; it will have been rather different this week as Raimon shifted Levante’s pennant to the last position on the right side of the stand.

The flags of the Liga sides, always arranged in league position. Levante ended up at the end of the row after this one.
The flags of the Liga sides, always arranged in league position. Levante ended up at the end of the row after this one.

So what has gone wrong? To put things in context, over-achieving is always a fragile business. Surviving in a league where the TV money doesn’t trickle down on crowds of between ten and fourteen thousand isn’t easy. Once you fail to get the fundamentals right, deterioration can set in fast, and three key factors have gone against Levante this year.

JIM announces his candidacy for the Valladolid job
JIM announces his candidacy for the Valladolid job

Firstly, their success has been on the back of some excellent coaching. The trouble is, when you show your quality at Levante the natural next step is to move on. Luis Garcia established the side in the top division in impressive style, and his predecessor, the much loved Juan Ignacio Martínez, took his work a step further. After a couple of sure-footed managerial appointments, the club’s luck was always likely to run out though – show me a club that have made three consecutive good choices of coach – and Levante haven’t bucked the trend. If Rubi, the new man, is a gem, then they might have a chance, but my money’s on him not being in the hot seat by the end of the campaign. Rubi’s credentials – a spell on the staff at Barsa and an isolated, albeit impressive, successful campaign at Girona in fifteen years of coaching, leave him feeling like a punt more than a sure thing. But then Levante were never in a position to draft in a sure thing, were they?

Rubi: just happy to be here
Rubi: just happy to be here

Secondly, any good players Levante might uncover are always going to snapped up by someone with more cash. From Felipe Caicedo through Arouna Koné to Kaylor Navas, players have moved on to bigger and better things. It’s hard to constantly dig up diamonds in the rough, so there’s bound to be an inevitable creep downwards in quality. If you want a graphic illustration of this point: consider this. Navas, on current form for Real Madrid, might just be the best keeper in the world. They’ve replaced him with Rubén, whose most memorable contribution to a Levante match was this, when he was a Málaga player. Clearly he stuck in the Levante scouts’ minds!

So who have Levante lined up as their latest find, to groom and sell on? Deyverson is an interesting striker, but there’s work to be done if he’s to make a step up from here: a blunt performance against Real was prematurely ended by a red card for diving, which summed up his and his team’s day.

A red for Deyverson
A red for Deyverson

And then what do you have? Nabil Ghilas is fun to watch if you’re a neutral and enjoy seeing a chunky lad put himself about a bit, show flashes of quality, and threaten to do something decisive without ever quite managing it. He’s probably not so much fun to watch if you’re relying on him to pull something out of the fire for your team, and he’s not even Levante’s if they wanted to turn a profit on him.

And then there’s Roger, who runs about a lot.

nabil_ghilas

Ghilas is fun to watch if you’re a neutral and enjoy seeing a chunky lad put himself about a bit

The third issue is hard to define, never mind to address. The quality of players haemorrhaging out is one thing; their character is quite another. Losing leaders like Sergio Ballesteros is not an issue which is easy to address. Juanfran remains, but his half time substitution against Real Sociedad illustrated the danger of relying on a 39-year old to hold your defence together and provide character. Juanfran has been a fine player and a great servant to the Expendables,  but there comes a time when even their value expires.

The cruel thing about it all is that while the dismissal of Alcaraz was inevitable, the Real defeat really did illustrate one of the classic patterns of football, played out throughout the ages. There were signs of promise in the last couple of weeks. Okay, they’d lost five of the last seven, which is relegation form in anyone’s book. But some of those performances offered up hope. Obviously there was the derby win over Villarreal, a terrific victory against a side tilting at top spot and in fine form.


Admittedly the Yellow Submarine had a player dismissed in the first half but still, the way a usually progressive side retreated so completely into their shell said something about how Levante imposed themselves on the game. Anyone who saw José Luis Morales and Toño ripping down the flanks and delivering a stream of crosses into the box would have thought this was a side with something about it.


The following week Levante arrived at El Bernabéu and showed plenty of cojones in a 3-0 defeat which saw them stretch their former keeper Navas when the result had yet to be cemented. They’d also shown heart to fight back from two down to claim a draw against Eibar, La Liga’s feistiest side.

But that’s how football goes, isn’t it? Teams start to show promise, often exhibiting fight in defeat against superior opponents, and you hope that level of performance will be sustained and lead to an improvement in results. But once they come up against beatable opposition, all that promise melts away and the cold facts of six points from nine games is all that’s left. The street smarts of Garcia, the quality of Navas, the heart of Ballesteos were all gone. So what’s left for Levante?

Gallery

SLIDESHOW: Levante UD v Real Sociedad

The Final Week of San Mames

There might be one more, meaningless game to come, but last weekend saw the final game at San Mames, the first football ground built in Spain. It looks its age, but it’s packed with history. The new stadium, already overshadowing the old and waiting for its opportunity to engulf it, has a lot to live up to.

La Liga: The spectre of match fixing looms

Dani Benitez’s water bottle makes matters worse.

A week after the vice–president of the LFP, the governing body which runs Spanish football’s top two divisions, claimed there is match fixing in La Liga, how appropriate that this weekend sees a rematch of perhaps last season’s most controversial match.

Granada versus Real Madrid doesn’t immediately grab you as an obviously hot fixture, but when the sides met last May the combustible context of the match led to an explosion of pent-up anger from the home side. It might not have been directed in the right direction, but it offered an illustration of the danger football faces if it allows allegations of corruption to fester. That match, in the penultimate round of last season, was a textbook illustration of mass hysteria.

Put simply, Granada lost it completely, and nearly wrecked their season as a consequence. The paranoia had taken root before the match had even begun. Their effort to stay up looked on track – they stood five points clear of the relegation places before the match – but the spectre of Real Zaragoza was on the horizon as their remarkable run of wins under Manolo Jiminez was threatening to raise them from the dead.

This prompted some rather bold accusations from Granada president, Quique Pina, who felt a run of eight wins out of ten from a side which had previously been catastrophically out of its depth was about as believable as Lance Armstrong’s career. Referring to his counterpart at Zaragoza, Agapito Iglesias, he complained “I do not trust in the cleanness of a director who I do not see as clean and who many of us in the game know has not got good intentions.”

The mood around Los Cármenes, was hardly helped by the idiotic appointment of Carlos Clos Gómez as referee. That would be the Carlos Clos Gómez who’d had to abandon a game at Granada earlier in the season because one of his linesmen had been hit by an umbrella thrown from the crowd. It would also be the Carlos Clos Gómez who comes from…yes, you guessed it…Zaragoza!

So Granada were looking for a conspiracy theory to come true. The fact that it didn’t wasn’t about to stop them from hitting the crazy button when things went badly wrong for them.

It all started so well too: within six minutes they had the lead which would guarantee them safety thanks to a moment of brilliance from Franco Jara, who robbed Marcelo and ran through the Madrid defence to score a superb goal. Other results started going their way, and they were holding onto the lead pretty comfortably. Even when some of their relegation rivals started to fight back in their games, it didn’t matter: a famous win over Real was about to secure Zaragoza’s safety.

And then, in the 81st minute, the madness began. Moisés Hurtado turned his back on the ball as a set piece was about to be delivered into the Granada box, ducked his head into Cristiano Ronaldo and shoved him over. Complete lunacy and a blatant penalty, not that such trivial matters as the facts stopped Hurtado from going crazy at the referee. Undeterred, the Portuguese got up and dispatched the spot kick himself to equalise.

Still Granada clung onto their point. At least until the 94th minute. That was when Karim Benzema broke down the right and drove in a cross which bypassed the goalkeeper but merely picked out David Cortés six yards out. Unfortunately, the defender’s attempt to put the ball over his bar sent it into the roof of the net.

Granada, facing their nightmare, roared up the other end from the restart and won a corner. But time was up, and Clos Gómez blew up. Another victory for the battle-hardened visitors, but for once, it wasn’t going to be all about Real.

All hell was let loose. Clos Gómez was surrounded by furious Granada players: his match report alleged more dirty talk than the whole series of “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Meanwhile, Pina claimed “the referee can go back to Zaragoza happy and they’ll build a statue for him.”

Carlos Clos Gomez: always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hurtado went too far and got a red card. Then the same fate befell Guilherme Siqueira. And then Dani Benitez snapped. Sneaking around the side of the crowd, he took aim and threw a water bottle, hitting the referee in the face.

The riot police closed in and ushered the referee to safety. Theoretically. But the changing rooms were no safer than the pitch, and what happened there would occur without the cameras to record the evidence. Again, according to the referee’s report, which arrived late as the internet connection and hot water to the referee’s room were cut off, his door was hammered and kicked by Granada’s goalkeeping coach until he smashed it in, so he could threaten “you’re dead, you son of a bitch.”

The home side’s website ran a match report under the headline “Granada couldn’t do it against 12 men.” A discordant air of dignity was struck by coach Abel Resino, who had tried to restrain his players at the final whistle and complained that they had brought all this on themselves, and by Benitez himself, who seemed genuinely contrite and complained that his head had been filled all week of talk of how Clos Gómez was a season ticket holder at La Romareda.

The consequences, in the short term, were that Granada had to go through that dramatic last day of the season at Rayo without the suspended trio of Hurtado, Siqueira and Benitez, but would survive their last gasp defeat because other results went their way. And Resino, of course, paid with his job.

It seemed appropriate that the one man who seemed able to act with decency ended up paying the price. This was a grubby affair and, if Javier Tebas is correct in asserting there’s still plenty of match fixing going on, it won’t be the last time emotions become so enflamed. With the relegation battle as wide open this season as it was last, and Granada slap bang in the middle of it again, the same combustible conditions prevail.

Last Chance To See: Juan Carlos Valerón

Their remaining time on the pitch is running out: some bewitched us and are embarking on a final lap of honour; others won’t be missed until they’re gone. It’s time to raise our hats to the players who won’t be around forever.

1175351055_0[1]

Last night Juan Carlos Valerón watched his side’s latest collapse from his new position: the bench. Sadly, it looks like the career of our of football’s more delicate talents of the last couple of decades is going to end in sadly subdued circumstances.

At the age of 37, and with a history of injury running through his career, this might well be his last campaign. Valerón never quite fulfilled his potential, but that’s no reason not to value him.

His elegant style, drifting between midfield and attack, finding space and delivering killer passes with accuracy and artistry, has always caught the eye. Sometimes, it threatened to take him to the very peak of the game, yet that promise always faded at the crucial moment.

He was a regular member of a Spanish side whose nature is hard to imagine now, in this era of dominance for Vicente Del Bosque’s side: they were packed with talent but constantly under performed. Valeron’s international credentials include over fifty caps and trips to three disastrous finals tournaments, on both continental and world stages.

For his clubs, Valerón was often a leading light, yet the success he deserved constantly evaded him. He sparkled for an Atletico side which was relegated, then was the beating heart of Deportivo’s brief blossoming at the peak of European football. Yet their dream was unfulfilled: they narrowly lost out to Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the semi-final and fell a missed penalty short of clinching the Spanish title. Valerón was always there, always prompting, always falling just short.

And then came the decline. A series of serious knee injuries punched a hole in the heart of his career, and inevitably Depor crumbled in his absence. He dragged himself back onto the pitch and tried to inspire the club with whom he’d signed a huge contract at his peak, never once giving the impression he regretted signing away the rest of his career to the Galicians.

As relegation loomed two seasons ago he beavered away in a doomed attempt to turn back the tide. Needing a win in the final game, Valerón was brilliant. He created chance after chance; his team mates squandered them. And the Depor dream had died.

Except there were still a couple more twists left in Valerón’s story. Depor, stricken off the pitch and demoralised on it, somehow dusted themselvs off and attacked the Liga Adelante with vigour. Valerón shone, leading his beloved side back at the first attempt.
Valeron[1]
Things were beautifully set up for this season to be a valedictory tour of La Liga for him, bringing back memories of the warmth Gianfranco Zola experienced when he made the rounds of Serie A one last time with Cagliari. Valerón has never quite been able to beat the odds though, and Depor’s promotion had merely papered over the cracks of their massive financial problems. Valerón’s story was clearly never meant to be so straightforward though, and it appears that farewell tour will be denied him.

Things started well enough: he was featuring regularly at the start of the season, starting fourteen of the seventeen games before the winter break, with two further substitute appearances, and being nursed through the campaign by being left out of the Copa del Rey squad.

There were flashes of the old brilliance too: in the Derbi Gallego he earned a point with a beautiful assist, his dancing feet bewitching the Celta defence. But then circumstances changed.

Depor’s struggle to stay in the top division intensified, and coach Jose Luis Oltra paid with his job. His replacement, Domingos, has a much more practical aproach to coaching and wants to organise his side to fight against the rising odds of relegation. His reputation in previous jobs has been for creating sides which play with high energy both with and without the ball. Bad news for a luxury playmaker like Valerón.

Since Domingos’ arrival Valeron has been watching from the bench, managing just ten minutes on the pitch from four games. There’s no logical reason to assume this will change any time soon, unless the situation becomes so desperate that Domingos is forced to abandon his gameplan and throw caution to the wind.

It’s hardly the dignified farewell Valeron deserves, but if he’s succeeded in nothing else during his career, he’s clearly established himself as a loyal, decent man. He might be worthy of a more glorious send-off, but going down with the ship seems a sadly appropriate way to end a career which is filled with honour and a faint whiff of unfulfilled potential.

Can Only Klopp Unlock The Sahin Enigma?

Nuri Sahin: Back where he belongs?

The Bundesliga returned last weekend, and in the process welcomed back its player of the year from two seasons ago. Nuri Sahin’s failure to flourish after leaving Germany is a surprise. Whether it says more about him or the coaching he received during his sojourn is something we may be about to find out.

Sahin is no stranger to strong coaches. After all, his excellent spell as the driving force of Borussia Dortmund’s rise to the top of the German game was achieved under the tutelage of Jurgen Klopp, an idealogue who is no shrinking violet. Yet once he left Klopp’s domain, neither Jose Mourinho or Brendan Rodgers were able to get anything like the best out of him.

To be fair to Sahin and The Special One, untimely injuries didn’t aid his time at the Bernabeu: he managed just 24 minutes in La Liga before the winter break last season.

Mourinho’s treatment of him wasn’t terribly helpful either though. The Portuguese auteur’s recent adventures in the world of man management hardly reveal a man who prefers a softly-softly approach, as Sergio Ramos, Mezut Ozil, Iker Casillas and most recently Cristiano Ronaldo have been very publicly put down.

In comparison Sahin certainly didn’t have much to complain about. However, Mourinho clearly didn’t have much trust in the Turkish midfielder, and wasn’t looking to fast track him into his side when he was fit. He only got as far as the bench for a quarter of the side’s matches, and Mourinho’s persistent pursuit of Luca Modric showed that he wasn’t about to give Sahin a run in the team.

Mourinho’s eagerness to offload him on loan last Summer spoke volumes, despite Sahin declaring at the end of June:

“Since I arrived here, it has been like living a dream.

“It is one of the best clubs in the world and for this reason I do not see why I should go. I have no intention of leaving.”

Perhaps Mourinho detected complacency in such talk from a player who wasn’t getting pitch time, or maybe he wanted to see Sahin firing on all cylinders somewhere else before trusting him in his own team. Whatever the reason, it was clear he was surplus to requirements at the Bernabeu and he ended up decamping to Liverpool.

Back at Dortmund, Sahin’s nose is back in joint.

Like Mourinho, Rodgers is not a man to hide his light under a bushel. Anyone who announces “I am not a magician” wants one of two things from his audience: sympathy or a resounding chorus of “Oh yes you are!” Rodgers clearly hopes for the latter.

Rodgers made the claim this month in drawing attention to his much-vaunted ability to get the best out of his players. There’s a great deal more than mere self-aggrandisement in that statement: he’s rather immodestly put his finger on the main factor in the rise of his reputation. Rodgers is an excellent coach, and certainly does improve players. The performance of his Swansea side is evidence of this: while he built on sound foundations, clearly this was a squad performing above and beyond its pedigree.

Equally, there’s a great deal of validity to his claim that he has made the most of the lot he inherited at Anfield by improving the players at his disposal after the transfer window slammed shut on his fingers as he tried to pull a striker through:

“It is all about the materials….I will be able to improve players – that is my work and I have confidence in that. If I look at the first six months, I believe there has been improvement in a lot of the players.

“I will be able to rinse everything that I possibly can out of them, but the bottom line is about talent. If you don’t initially have that then it can be difficult. That is also why I was brought in here, because we will get talents and we will try to maximise what we can out of players.

“You look at Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and José Enrique since the start of the season and we have added value back to them. Absolutely. That is the job of the manager and the coach, as well as winning games.”

That’s not the full story though. His failure to live up to the billing he has created for himself with Sahin, probably the most promising raw material he had at the club, is genuinely surprising.

Sahin seemed a perfect fit for Rodgers’ philosophy. A busy midfield anchor man, adept at keeping the ball moving and reading the game intelligently. Snatching him from Madrid looked like a coup for a coach able to get the most out of his charges. But it didn’t happen.

Sahin’s pitch time was limited, his arrival in close proximity to a similar player in Joe Allen, who was Rodgers’ protege and most expensive Summer indulgence, baffling.

When Sahin got onto the pitch he showed snatches of his passing range but he tended to be restricted to low profile games, amounting essentially to a match winning performance against WBA in the Capital One Cup and some moderate Europa League performances.

Furthermore, he was often utilised in an attacking midfield position, and told Liverpool’s official website:

“I’ve played my whole career deeper and that’s my position,” said the 24-year-old. “But I have also played as a No.10 here. It was new for me but I tried to help the team and do my best.

“But if I could choose a position it would be holding as I feel more comfortable playing deeper.”

Those comments came in the context of a positive interview on the challenges of adapting to a new league, but soon German paper Sportsbild were claiming darker realities, of betrayal, lies and jealousy.

“Şahin has been betrayed at Liverpool because coach Brendan Rodgers lied to him when he signed, telling him that he would be the club’s number six.

“Steven Gerrard is said to have also been jealous of Sahin, and when they played together, Sahin barely got the ball.”

These sentiments weren’t direct quotes, but before long the article’s claim that he was returning to Dortmund came true.

Some of the comments coming out of the Westfalenstadion following Sahin’s return made you wonder if he was ever going to prosper once he strayed from the nest. Indeed, he seemed reluctant to go to Madrid in the first place, even announcing he was inviting Borussia’s playing and coaching staff plus the general manager to the Classico the following season!

“I am delighted to be back home. My contact with the bosses, the players and the coaching team of Dortmund has never broken down over these last 18 months.”

Perhaps Sahin has been misunderstood by two of the game’s most modern coaches and renowned motivators. Perhaps his injury means he’s not quite the player he was. Perhaps he simply can’t settle down away from home.

And perhaps Borussia, their high energy pressing game draining their thin squad’s resources as they look to compete on two fronts, have pulled off the European transfer coup of the season. I wonder if Klopp will take Sahin with him back to the Bernabeu this Summer!

Spy Versus Spy as Mourinho Finds Madrid’s Not Forever

Here’s something I wrote for Soccerlens

Jose+Mourinho+Florentino+PerezIt’s one of those expressions that work equally well in Spanish and English: “Mourinho Tira La Toalla A 22 Jornadas Del Final” – “Mourinho Throws In The Towel With 22 Games Left”. AS’s front page had put it in a nutshell: the game was up in the league. Maybe the game’s up for The Special One in Spain as well.

AS’s front page: Mourinho throws in the towel”

Real Madrid went into Sunday night’s game against Espanyol under yet another cloud of Mourinho’s making. Radio Marca reported last Thursday that Real’s squad are uncomfortable with goalkeeping coach Silvino, whom they consider to be a spy for Mourinho.

According to the author of the claim, Anton Meana, Mourinho summoned him for a private meeting before the Espanyol game and exploded spectacularly, making the brilliant announcement: “”In the footballing world, me and my people are at the top and in the world of journalism you are a piece of crap!” He went on to imply he’d get his revenge once he was no longer coach of Real Madrid.

So far, so fractious, but intrigue is nothing new when Mourinho is around. His departure at Chelsea was, to a small extent, precipitated by his belief that Avram Grant had been installed as a spy for Roman Abramovic, and Silvino was a player in one of Mourinho’s most entertainingly Machiavellian manouevres.

The coach was serving a touchline ban and confined to the stands, barred from contacting his coaching staff for a Champions League game against Bayern Munich, but Silvino was seen constantly shuttling between the changing room and Mourinho’s seat in the stands carrying pieces of paper. His forays were usually followed by a substitution.

Perhaps Mourinho had been enjoying a boxset of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” that afternoon: during the match, Mourinho also appeared to be contacting his fitness coach by an earpiece hidden under the latter’s woolly hat, and reportedly departed the ground hiding in a laundry basket!

Mourinho loves constantly stirring the media waters. The problem is, in Real Madrid he has found himself at an institution which has an inflated sense of the importance of its own dignity, and crucially is too huge to be changed or manipulated.

Which is not to suggest that before Mourinho arrived Real never knew such dramas: on the contrary, it is possibly the most political football club in the world, with an attendant media closer to a Parliamentary lobby than a sports press. Mourinho has bitten off more than he can chew by taking on such a well-established set-up.

A couple of factors mark this incident out as significant. One is the nationality of the accused coach.

Don’t picture Silvino as some supine lapdog: he played in two Champions League finals, captaining Benfica in 1990, won 23 caps and has carved out a significant career as a goalkeeping coach, following Mourinho from the days he arrived at Porto. You’ll have worked out he’s Portuguese by now, and this, coupled with his ten year association with Mourinho, fits neatly into the perceived split in the camp.

We’re regularly told the Madrid camp is split between the Portuguese-speakers and the Spaniards and last season’s success was achieved through an uneasy truce between the two camps, often by people who know what they’re talking about.

Fuel was added to that fire by Meana’s assertion that Mourinho had gone on to have a Brendan Rodgers envelope moment: “There are 21 players that get along great with Silvino and, like anywhere, there are three black sheep that harm the group.”

Mourinho often thrives by creating a creative tension, but it seems to have bubbled out of his control this season, with tales of changing room defiance and anger that he has abandoned a promise made to the senior Spanish players to draw in his horns and not court controversy so eagerly.

The other issue about Silvinogate is the fact that it was reported at all. The highly-politicised Madrid media take their lead from the club, and it was no coincidence when they speculated on Mourinho’s future in the wake of the recent defeat to Real Betis. Clearly Florentino Perez, or his people, had let the papers of the leash, a move interpreted as either a message to Mourinho or a sign his days were numbered. And now here is Marca revealing tales of changing room disharmony and distrust of the coach. You don’t have to be a Kremlinologist to work out that the tide is turning against Mourinho.

Still, at least they had an easy home game against Espanyol to improve everybody’s mood. That would be poor, useless Espanyol, in the bottom three all season and looking absolutely doomed despite the recent arrival as coach of lost cause specialist Javier Aguirre.

However, the visitors failed to roll over and die: they led for 15 minutes before conceding with the last kick of the first half, held Madrid at 2-1 through a combination of stubborn defending and heroic goalkeeping by Casilla, and snatched a point in the 88th minute when Real failed to deal with a corner.

The Madridistas weren’t happy, their dissatisfaction penetrating even the suspicious presence of a cheerleader with a megaphone who kept the positive atmosphere going in a marathon ninety-minute effort, before no doubt popping to the local Ear Nose and Throat for a retread of his vocal chords.

Mourinho didn’t really help matters after the game. While his players came out with all the right noises, defiantly claiming the league ain’t over till it’s over, he declared that the race was run and winning the league is “practically impossible.” Unaware of this, Xabi Alonso was even picked up by reporters and asked why he was contradicting his coach, and had to explain that Mourinho had surrendered the title when speaking to the team after the match.

Ominously for Mourinho, Perez has sided firmly with the players on this, pointedly repeating more than once the message that the side should not give up, before driving his point home face-to-face at Monday night’s club Christmas meal: “Together we can achieve what we have set out to. Real Madrid never gives up its sporting principles, however difficult it may be to face the challenges.”

“One should not yield, either in sport or in life.” Tuesday’s Madrid papers lead with pictures of a sour-faced Mourinho sat next to his president, who appears to be lecturing him over his Brussels sprouts, with headlines declaring “Florentino reminds Mourinho about the spirit of the team” and suggesting he has “rectified the situation” with his coach. The implication seems to be it’s the sort of rectification Tony Soprano brings to a situation. Meanwhile, Barcelona-based paper Mundo Deportivo gleefully revel in Real being “Fed Up Of Mou!”

Mourinho’s analysis of the game will hardly have helped the perceived split in the changing room to heal either. Cristiano Ronaldo had a poor game. Admittedly he scored the equaliser (though it ought to have been disallowed for a high foot) and set up the winner, but apart from that he did little, constantly losing possession in promising positions. Three shots on target in nine attempts was a serious dip from a season average of 56% of his shots being on target, although he had 50% more shots than usual. The stats didn’t lie this time: he was looking desperate.

Still, Mourinho sought to single Ronaldo out for praise in a manner unlikely to quell any jealous accusations of preferential treatment among the rest of the team:

“Cristiano played well, but his teammates, no.”

Surely Florentino Perez’s trigger finger is getting itchy. Watching his side stutter in the league – they’ve already dropped more points than they did in the whole of last season!- will have been hard to take; if he’d then tuned into Barcelona’s destruction of Atlético and heard the home fans chant to Real’s coach “¡Mourinho quedate!”, essentially “Mourinho, know your place”, he will have felt his club’s traditionally proud stature had been further eroded by his coach.

The thirteen point gap between his side and Sandro Rosell’s will be what hurts Perez most though. The last time Real allowed Barcelona to get so far ahead of them in the table was in 2008, and coach Bernd Schuster paid with his job.

There are remarkable echoes of the current situation in what happened four years ago. The German had made a similar declaration of impotence to Mourinho’s, declaring after his final match (a 4-3 home defeat to Sevilla) that it would be impossible to win the next game, against Barsa, a claim publicly contradicted by then-President Ramon Calderon and senior players Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos. Unlike Mourinho, his side were only nine points behind the Catalans at the time.

The Special One is an arch-strategist both on and off the pitch. He needs to chose his next moves very carefully.

Messi makes history, but a Betis star is born

vadillo Messi makes history, but a Betis star is born
Here’s something I wrote for Soccerlens

Lionel Messi hogged the headlines, of course, when he finally broke Gerd Muller’s record for most goals in a calendar year.

Although the Madrid papers were delighted that Radomel Falcao gave them an excuse not to lead on this astonishing achievement: AS led on “Insatiable Falcao” and tucked Messi into the top left corner, Marca’s online edition’s top two stories were on the Colombian.

However, while Messi was rightly the centre of attention in Sevilla, something happened on the other side which might turn out to be of genuine significance. Real Betis’ bright young hope sparkled excitingly.

While the angle the press took was naturally that Messi had finally done it, the actual story of the match was less straightforward. He didn’t have the happiest of games apart from those two goals: an absurd notion, but a reflection of how much Betis troubled Barcelona.

They had to show courage to haul themselves back into the game though. Messi’s two strikes deflated Los Verdiblancos and even managed to suck the life out of the typically fearsome atmosphere the ever-fervent Béticos had created at the Benito Villamarin.

It almost seemed as if they felt it would be the churlish for the hosts to intrude on Messi’s party; at 2-0 Betis appeared on the verge of collapse, scared of asking their pushy guests for their ball back.

However, a brave move by Betis coach Pepe Mel turned things around. When his left–sided attacker Juan Carlos pulled up he ignored the two obvious options on the bench, Jorge Molina and Alejandro Pozuelo, and instead threw on eighteen-year-old Álvaro Vadillo. He would be rewarded for his boldness.

Vadillo was elegant, played with his head up and brought incision to Betis’ creative department. With Beñat beavering away superbly behind him (and probably putting another €5 million on the price tag for any prospective January bidders!) the tide turned.

Switching flanks comfortably, Vadillo always posed a threat. He provided the assist as Rubén Castro pulled one back, drifting laterally before delivering a lovely disguised reverse ball to send the striker one-on-one with Víctor Valdés.

It was a refined moment, combining technique and confidence: the kid had entered the game like he belonged there. After the year he’s had, it was an announcement that an exciting talent had returned.

Vadillo has history, despite his youth. He was hailed as a hot prospect when he broke through at the start of last season, becoming the youngest player in the history of the club and the second youngest in La Liga when he made his debut in an opening day derby win at Granada sixteen days before his seventeenth birthday.

Pepe Mel was clearly looking to ease the youngster into the first team picture and gave him two fairly lengthy substitute appearances in the next five matches before deciding to be bold and starting him at the Bernabeu. It would prove to be a fateful decision.

Twenty one minutes into the match Sergio Ramos clattered into him with typical subtlety. The result: massive damage to his anterior cruciate ligament and a serious setback to a sparkling talent.

Vadillo’s injury might have hampered his development, but equally it took him off the market. Fiorentina, Real Madrid and Manchester United had all made bids for the prodigy, United offering €3 million to take him to Old Trafford.

Betis rejected the deals, and local boy Vadillo pledged his loyalty to the club. He certainly has genuine Bético credentials, but the fact that he attended English classes during his recuperation implied he knew his long term future probably lay elsewhere.

He finally returned thirteen months later, for a Copa del Rey tie against Real Valladolid, and dispelled any doubts that he might not be himself with a superb thirty minutes from the bench, setting up two goals as Betis overturned a first leg deficit to go through 3-1.

Vadillo then made his first bow of the league campaign last weekend, coming on with half an hour left, shortly after his side had squandered a 2-0 lead at Deportivo, and helped them go on to win 3-2. He followed that up with his exciting supporting role at Messi’s big show.

Betis are enjoying a fine campaign, and have plenty of talent in the line behind the striker. It’s the perfect scenario for Pepe Mel to bring Vadillo through without rushing him, although there’ll be a real temptation to throw caution to the wind if he continues to captivate like he did against Barcelona.

Mad Scientist Bielsa’s Llorente Experiment Fails

Fernando LlorenteShock horror! Fernando Llorente is leaving Athletic in the Summer! Equally remarkable rumours that the Pope is actually Catholic and bears defecate in the woods remain unconfirmed.

The leaving of Bilbao tends to be complicated, of course: ask Javi Martinez! Llorente, aware of the fact he might actually want to return to the region at some point, has played it flawlessly when it comes to explaining his decision to leave. No criticism of the club or suggestion he needs something bigger and better: instead, the dastardly press have driven a wedge between him and his beloved people:

“It isn’t about money because the offer the club made was irresistible.

“The media have not helped with the negotiations and it is one of the things that has generated the bad atmosphere around me out on the pitch….

“I took the decision when I went out for the first Europa League game at San Mamés [in August].

“Most of what has come out in the press is lies and this has turned people against me. This has meant when I run out on to the pitch people whistle at me. There is a sector of the crowd who do not want me but I feel loved by the majority.”

Fair enough, but that’s hardly the full story. Llorente ended the last season as one of Europe’s hottest properties, and despite the fact that overuse left him looking out on his feet as the campaign sputtered out, there was plenty of confusion about the lack of time he spent on the pitch during the European Championships.

Yet he returned to San Mames and, rather than be seen as the returning hero, was turfed out of the team in favour of a journeyman striker. A decent journeyman striker, but still: Aritz Aduriz is hardly Sergio Aguerro.

Thus far, Llorente the superstar has started one league match this season, despite not having been injured. But that didn’t merit a mention in his valedictory speech!

Llorente is hardly on his own in suffering what players’ union FIFPRO describe as “blackmail”: Wesley Sneijder finds himself in an even worse situation at Inter, not even considered for a place on e bench unless he signs a new contract.

But closer to home, players are being treated very differently. Fernando Amorebieta’s contract runs out in the Summer but he continues to be chosen despite showing no signs of putting pen to paper: indeed, his agent is talking up a possible January move to Zenit St Petersburg, Roma, Liverpool or anyone else with a bit of cash in their back pockets. As far as I can see ( and I’m willing to be corrected on this!) Isma Lopez seems to be in the last year of his contract too.

Marcelo Bielsa, ever the theoretician, seems to have decided to test the question of whether it’s possible to replace Llorente by trying it out before he left. The most cursory of glances at the league table tells you that the answer is not encouraging.

Aduriz has done a good job in the lone striker job, and shares many attributes with Llorente. However, Bilbao have floundered after losing not only Llorente, in essence, but also Javi Martinez. The problem is, having discovered that it’s not going to be easy to replace Llorente, there’s nothing Bielsa can do with this information.

I imagine Bielsa, the football scientist, in his lab, calculating the outcomes from his latest experiment. He deduces that Athletic without Llorente up front, trying to cope with the current squad, doesn’t work. So he wants to discard the plan and try something new. But he can’t. As their transfer policy precludes buying non-local talent, if the good couples of the Basque Country don’t produce another top class target man, Bilbao can’t play with one. No quick fix dips into the transfer market here: all Athletic can do is accumulate the millions from Javi Martinez and please the bank manager. All that cash counts for nothing in the market.

Of course, there are quality Basque players out there for Athletic to sign, but if they think they’re going to get value for money they can think again. If they go sniffing after Benat, Ruben Pardo or Natxo Monreal they’ll encounter clubs who know they’re in a bind. There’s a finite number of Basque players out there who will enhance Athletic’s squad, and therefore if they go for them their desperation is likely to be reflected in a Bilbao supplement slapped on top of the transfer fee.

“Oh, you’re desperate for a quality left back are you? Well, you can pay over the odds for Monreal, or look elsewhere. What’s that, you can’t look elsewhere? My, what a pity!”

Mind you, mad scientist Bielsa might not need be too concerned that his experiment has failed. After all, he’s not going to be around next season to try a new approach, surely?

Javier Aguirre Takes on Espanyol’s Mission Impossible

aguirre Javier Aguirre Takes on Espanyol’s Mission Impossible

The other Catalan club’s new coach Javier Aguirre

Here’s something I wrote for Soccerlens

Harry Redknapp isn’t the only wily veteran to take on a dysfunctional bottom of the table side this week. Javier Aguirre is a master fire-fighter but he’s taken on a massive job at Espanyol.

At least his side isn’t as far adrift of safety as Redknapp’s QPR, but that’s merely an indictment of the quality at the bottom of La Liga this season, because Los Periquitos have been awful this season, both on and off the pitch.

Both clubs seem to have been gripped by paralysis as their seasons have staggered on, unable to dismiss a coach despite the evidence of their inability to rouse their players being clear to all. The reasons for their hesitation couldn’t be more different.

Judging by his tweets, Tony Fernandes seems to have been gripped by a quaint sense of loyalty, hoping against hope that somehow Mark Hughes would justify his faith in him despite all the evidence to the contrary. Espanyol’s failure to act is a little less edifying.

The scheduling of the club’s presidential elections for this month meant it was left denuded of leadership as a nasty battle for power took precedence over supporting coach Mauricio Pochettino.

It wasn’t as if Espanyol was a finely-tuned machine which could be left to tick over on its own either. Some clubs flourish when they move into a new ground; Los Blanquiblaus certainly don’t fit into that category.

The club has stumbled along, burdened with debt, constantly selling Pochettino’s players from under him during his three years with them. Talents like Osvaldo and Jose Maria Callejon have leaked out of the club. The inevitable consequence was that eventually the coach didn’t have enough to work with.

After winning the election with 61% of the votes, and confirming that at the end of the financial year Espanyol was €144 million in debt, Joan Collet turned his attention back to the pitch and dismissed his coach.

If Pochettino is guilty of anything, it’s being too loyal. He’s a legend at the club from his playing days, holding the record for appearances, and hanging on to try and rescue them from their predicament has damaged his wider reputation, even if it has confirmed him as a decent man.

pochettino Javier Aguirre Takes on Espanyol’s Mission Impossible

The now former Espanyol coach, Mauricio Pochettino

Remarkably, he was La Liga’s longest serving boss when he was dismissed, but certainly isn’t long in the tooth. He quickly established himself at the forefront of the wave of talented, progressive young coaches that emerged across Europe at the end of the last decade, alongside the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel.

The way he weaved together fluent, youthful sides on a small budget caught the eye as he helped gifted loanees like Philippe Coutinho, Vladimir Weiss and Samuele Longo to develop. Losing key players and replacing them with kids, albeit talented ones, was hardly a recipe for success though, and eventually the reality of his working conditions hit home.

Aguirre inherits a dispirited squad. They’ve lost their last four games, collapsing to a 3-0 home loss against a half strength Sevilla in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, and have won only three of their last twenty six matches going back to last March. Such is their bedraggled indiscipline that they’ve finished just seven of their sixteen games this season with eleven men.

When they stunned everyone at the start of the month by snatching a 1-0 win at Real Sociedad, their first away win since last December, they swiftly confirmed that it was a flash in the pan losing their next match 3-0 at home to Osasuna, the side they’d briefly dumped at the bottom of the table, who’d won one in twelve.

Aguirre has a reputation for lifting teams from the dumps. Two years ago he was appointed by Real Zaragoza in very similar circumstances (seven points from safety, flogging quality players like Ander Herrera and Humberto Suazo, €125 million in debt) and managed to rescue them from relegation, although twelve months on he was sacked as they sunk back into the relegation mire.

It could be argued that what he achieved there was still remarkable though: he inspired them to a scarcely believable win at Real Madrid on the way to survival, and let’s not forget that this was hardly a club which did things the right way: his predecessor Marcelinho, the man who’d got them promoted, was dismissed with a club statement which claimed:

“His legacy is the sad title of the worst defence, a place in the relegation zone, just three wins in fourteen and a first round knock-out in the cup.”

Classy.

Aguirre also enjoyed a memorable spell at Osasuna, appointed as the fulfillment of an election promise in 2002 by incoming President Patxi Izco. The little side from Navarre over-performed massively under him for four years, keeping relegation comfortably at bay and enjoying runs to the semi-final and final of the Copa del Rey as well as a taste of European football.

His spell at the Reyno de Navarra ended with his masterpiece, a fourth place finish, and earned him a move up to Atletico Madrid. He brought an element of solidity and a dash of flair to Los Colchoneros, rather as Diego Simeone has done, developing the fluent partnership between Sergio Aguerro and Diego Forlan.

Ultimately, his Atletic side didn’t quite fulfill its potential, but he shouldn’t be judged too harshly for that: tantalising under-achievement is what they generally specialise in.

He has also performed a fire-fighting job at international level, having been brought in for a second spell as Mexico manager in 2009 to rescue their World Cup qualifying campaign after Sven-Göran Eriksson’s disastrous stint in charge.

He succeeded, getting a red card for kicking an opposing player along the way, and can add that achievement to an impressive CV in international management, having led his nation to the knock-out stages of the 2002 and 2010 World Cups, the final of the Copa America, losing the final 1-0 to hosts Colombia, and a Gold Cup Final, won 5-0 against the USA at the Giants Stadium, the first time Mexico have beaten their great rivals outside away from home..

Serious, intense, intelligent, Aguirre is making a welcome back to the top level of management. His most celebrated quality, like Redknapp, is his power of motivation. He creates a fearsome fighting spirit, inspiring an intense loyalty in his players, whom he inspires to achievements that seemed beyond them.

At Zaragoza he famously made an inspirational video, getting club staff to secretly sneak around filming the players’ loved ones making impassioned pleas for victory. Having cajoled and inspired his players to an unlikely escape from relegation a local columnist suggested a statue should be erected in his honour.

If he can rescue stricken Espanyol from the mess they’re in, he’ll deserve a Christ the Redeemer-sized tribute on Montserrat!