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.

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!