SLIDESHOW: Atletico Madrid v UD Las Palmas

With just twelve league games left before they bulldoze the Estadio Vicente Calderon, Las Palmas make their final La Liga trip to the world’s first all-seater stadium.

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!

The Inevitable Demise of Jose Antonio Reyes

From Soccerlens
When Jose Antonio Reyes scored the fastest goal in the history of the Seville derby last weekend, snatching that record from opposing manager Pepe Mel in the process, it seemed too good to be true.

Jose Antonio Reyes celebrates during Sevilla’s remarkable derby win

When he added another goal and an assist before half time Sevilla fans wondered if they’d died and gone to heaven.

By the time of the final whistle, when a final score of 5-1 was confirmed, ending the home side’s disappointing win-less run against their great rivals, it must have felt like football just couldn’t get any better.

Sadly, it was too good to be true, and things won’t get any better. Sevilla will return to mediocrity, and Reyes will revert to being a disappointment, starting this weekend when he returns to Atletico Madrid with the world waiting to see what he does next. It’s the cruel way football is.

Some basic, unbreachable laws of football are sacrosanct. Reyes’ goals might have raised hopes among the Sevillistas of a wonderful, touching resurrection, but it isn’t going to happen. Football doesn’t work that way.

Jose Antonio Reyes was the golden boy of Sevilla in his youth: a lifelong fan of the club who made the transition to the pitch and immediately established himself as one of Europe’s most exciting young talents with his searing pace and dazzling footwork.

And what did he spend his money on once he hit the big time? A mosaic of the Sevilla badge in the bottom of his swimming pool. Even when he was embroiled in  moments of controversy, they only served to enhance his cult hero status: a brilliant goal led to team mate Francisco Gallardo embarking on a highly unorthodox celebration, going down on his knees and then going down on Reyes!

The Spanish media erupted, but the bemused Reyes merely had another crinkle added to his public persona.

In terms of his game, things were going swimmingly. With a youthful Dani Alves in support and Julio Baptista feeding off him, Reyes was at the heart of a template which would serve Sevilla well in their decade of glory, a side with width and pace, devastating on the break.

Of course, it couldn’t last. Jose Antonio Reyes was destined for better things. The big clubs of Europe were lurking, and they were not to be denied. Arsenal had been long term suitors, and seemed the ideal location for a boy with a small town mentality with their reputation for nurturing young talent and playing constructive passing football in the hurly-burly of the Premier League. The deal went through.

reyes The inevitable demise of Jose Antonio Reyes

Reyes celebrating in an Arsenal shirt

It didn’t work out. Reyes actually didn’t play too badly, but the perception of him as an unhappy export was accurate. He wasn’t happy, but the tie had been cut. He was now operating in a higher sphere than Sevilla’s, trapped in the spiral of an itinerant existence, schlepping around Europe, never finding his form, never finding happiness.

His return to Sevilla last season, his currency reduced, was greeted with delight. But that glee ignored a key tenet of football: you should never go back. He has failed to catch fire at all at the Sanchez Pizjuan, surely leaving Sevillistas wishing he’d not returned, and they could have been left with warm memories of his greatness rather than constant, if fleeting, reminders of how his promise was never fulfilled.

Until El Derbi Andaluz, Reyes’ performance was bewitching. In taking Mel’s record for fastest goal in the fixture he not only set the tone for the match, he also stuck it to one of the totemic figures of Seviila’s great enemy, and to fans that sort of thing matters. A lot.

And that’s why that performance is so cruel. It represents a false dawn. Jose Antonio Reyes won’t hit those heights again. This isn’t the beginning of his rebirth. Sevilla fans will be buoyed by the hope that he can maintain this level, but the fact is that his display was a fluke, an isolated bubble of memory rising from the wreck of a promising career.

It won’t happen again and the fans’ expectations that it will merely adds to this self-fulfilling prophesy: the pressure to repeat will ensure Reyes can’t do it. He’s not cut from that sort of cloth. Defiance isn’t in his nature.

In the future, the last spasm of Reyes’ talent will be revered by Sevilla fans. The perspective of memory changes everything, and long after Reyes has retired, his legacy will be created and his career reinvented. He will be recalled as the kid genius who went off to see the world, but returned to set up one of the club’s greatest moments.

Living through the mediocrity, the disappointment, the bitter betrayal of thinking he was back but finding he wasn’t will be forgotten. It’s like when cricket fans deify Ian Botham, lionising his great feats but selectively forgetting his long, impotent decline in a weak England side.

Jose Antonio Reyes will disappoint. Football disappoints. If you don’t know that yet, you’re young. But you’ll learn.