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?