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?

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?

SLIDESHOW: Levante UD v Real Sociedad

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!