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!

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.

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!