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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.