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.
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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?

Last Chance To See: Juan Carlos Valerón

Their remaining time on the pitch is running out: some bewitched us and are embarking on a final lap of honour; others won’t be missed until they’re gone. It’s time to raise our hats to the players who won’t be around forever.

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Last night Juan Carlos Valerón watched his side’s latest collapse from his new position: the bench. Sadly, it looks like the career of our of football’s more delicate talents of the last couple of decades is going to end in sadly subdued circumstances.

At the age of 37, and with a history of injury running through his career, this might well be his last campaign. Valerón never quite fulfilled his potential, but that’s no reason not to value him.

His elegant style, drifting between midfield and attack, finding space and delivering killer passes with accuracy and artistry, has always caught the eye. Sometimes, it threatened to take him to the very peak of the game, yet that promise always faded at the crucial moment.

He was a regular member of a Spanish side whose nature is hard to imagine now, in this era of dominance for Vicente Del Bosque’s side: they were packed with talent but constantly under performed. Valeron’s international credentials include over fifty caps and trips to three disastrous finals tournaments, on both continental and world stages.

For his clubs, Valerón was often a leading light, yet the success he deserved constantly evaded him. He sparkled for an Atletico side which was relegated, then was the beating heart of Deportivo’s brief blossoming at the peak of European football. Yet their dream was unfulfilled: they narrowly lost out to Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the semi-final and fell a missed penalty short of clinching the Spanish title. Valerón was always there, always prompting, always falling just short.

And then came the decline. A series of serious knee injuries punched a hole in the heart of his career, and inevitably Depor crumbled in his absence. He dragged himself back onto the pitch and tried to inspire the club with whom he’d signed a huge contract at his peak, never once giving the impression he regretted signing away the rest of his career to the Galicians.

As relegation loomed two seasons ago he beavered away in a doomed attempt to turn back the tide. Needing a win in the final game, Valerón was brilliant. He created chance after chance; his team mates squandered them. And the Depor dream had died.

Except there were still a couple more twists left in Valerón’s story. Depor, stricken off the pitch and demoralised on it, somehow dusted themselvs off and attacked the Liga Adelante with vigour. Valerón shone, leading his beloved side back at the first attempt.
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Things were beautifully set up for this season to be a valedictory tour of La Liga for him, bringing back memories of the warmth Gianfranco Zola experienced when he made the rounds of Serie A one last time with Cagliari. Valerón has never quite been able to beat the odds though, and Depor’s promotion had merely papered over the cracks of their massive financial problems. Valerón’s story was clearly never meant to be so straightforward though, and it appears that farewell tour will be denied him.

Things started well enough: he was featuring regularly at the start of the season, starting fourteen of the seventeen games before the winter break, with two further substitute appearances, and being nursed through the campaign by being left out of the Copa del Rey squad.

There were flashes of the old brilliance too: in the Derbi Gallego he earned a point with a beautiful assist, his dancing feet bewitching the Celta defence. But then circumstances changed.

Depor’s struggle to stay in the top division intensified, and coach Jose Luis Oltra paid with his job. His replacement, Domingos, has a much more practical aproach to coaching and wants to organise his side to fight against the rising odds of relegation. His reputation in previous jobs has been for creating sides which play with high energy both with and without the ball. Bad news for a luxury playmaker like Valerón.

Since Domingos’ arrival Valeron has been watching from the bench, managing just ten minutes on the pitch from four games. There’s no logical reason to assume this will change any time soon, unless the situation becomes so desperate that Domingos is forced to abandon his gameplan and throw caution to the wind.

It’s hardly the dignified farewell Valeron deserves, but if he’s succeeded in nothing else during his career, he’s clearly established himself as a loyal, decent man. He might be worthy of a more glorious send-off, but going down with the ship seems a sadly appropriate way to end a career which is filled with honour and a faint whiff of unfulfilled potential.