Pictures from West Ham's warm weather training camp at Dubai Sports City.
It’s all change at the top. After 16 weeks of white, it’s now scarlet blue, and with two weeks ‘til the clásico, Real have plenty to rue.
– Inside Story: Eibar competing with La Liga giants on a shoestring
– Off the Bar: Tim Sherwood is the EPL’s David Hasselhoff
– Follow: The football action with Sport360’s new LIVE SCORE CENTRE
Well there’s a poetic start for you, but you may recall that a fortnight ago in this column, mention was made of the fact that Real Madrid’s two subsequent games, at home to Villarreal and away to an improving Athletic Bilbao, looked like tricky terrain to negotiate for a team low on morale.
The absences of Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and James Rodriguez haven’t helped their cause, nor the drop in form of Cristiano Ronaldo (suffering one of his occasional mortal phases) and the problems of Toni Kroos, who suddenly looks as though he isn’t really a defensive holding midfielder (he isn’t).
But in the new San Mames on Saturday evening against their lion-hearted hosts – fresh from qualifying for the King’s Cup final in midweek – the visitors lacked leadership, a game plan, and a further plan ‘B’ after Athletic decided to shut down Isco and then go for the game themselves.
Aritz Aduriz, the goalscorer on Saturday night, merits a mention. There is an annoying tendency in the Spanish press to headline ‘Real Madrid lose!’ as opposed to ‘the other team won!’, but that’s the way things are.
Nevertheless, Athletic’s centre-forward Aduriz is now 34, and has one Spain cap back in 2010 against Lithuania to his name. Despite the competition for a place in the national team over the years, the strange truth is that Aduriz seems to improve the older he gets.
This is true of most footballers, of course, but the range of the improvement rarely extends beyond a player’s late twenties, especially for forward thinking players.
Aduriz is a traditional striker; big and solid, good in the air and decent on the ground, with the ability to ‘hang’ when challenging for aerial balls – but there is nothing about him which suggests he should be playing the best football of his career.
Athletic’s high-tempo game requires him to be constantly on the move and to harass opposing defenders who try to bring the ball out to supply their creative midfielders.
His goal in the first half of the game on Saturday was a beauty – one fashioned from the old-school. Mikel Rico whipped in a cross from a diagonal position, and Aduriz rose in front of Pepe and bulleted the ball into the top corner where Casillas couldn’t reach and the spider-webs wobble.
I saw Aduriz back in the late 1990s playing for the incredibly productive youth academy side Antiguoko in San Sebastían, and apart from looking big he seemed nothing special. Teams were rumoured to be watching him, but graduate outfit Real Sociedad weren’t interested.
He managed three appearances for Athletic in 2002 before moving to Burgos and Valladolid, before returning for three seasons in 2005 before the emergence of Fernando Llorente deemed him surplus to requirements.
A couple of seasons at Mallorca followed, and Aduriz scored goals again, earning a move to Valencia where he managed 17 in two seasons before a third spell at San Mames beckoned.
He’s managed 40 goals in 89 appearances now, and nobody remembers Llorente. Wouldn’t it be nice if Del Bosque called him up, just for the late show? He wouldn’t disappoint.
Neither did Barcelona on Sunday, deciding to gorge from the food tray they were handed by Real Madrid the previous evening. The runes were good.
— Athletic Club (@AthleticClub) March 7, 2015
In their previous seven meetings, Barcelona had scored 31 times against Rayo Vallecano, with the Madrid-based outfit replying just once. In some ways the figures speak highly of Rayo, since they are not a side who set out to defend. They try to play football – possibly because they have no bus to park.
It seemed to be going quite well up to half-time, with Luis Suarez’ early goal not too much of a mountain to climb, but the second half turned sour for them and Leo Messi ended up with yet another hat-trick.
It was the Argentine’s 32nd of his Barcelona career, making him the player with most hat-tricks in the history of La Liga. Is Messi now going for a record of records? Does that category exist in the Guinness annals? Perhaps they should include it now.
In Barca’s 6-1 victory over Rayo, Messi overtook Zarra in La Liga hat-tricks, the same player whose 50-year goal-scoring record was broken by the diminutive forward recently.
At the same time Messi caught up with Ronaldo in league goals this term, the two players now tied on 30 goals. To continue the extraordinary stats about Messi, it is worth mentioning that he has now scored 40 or more goals (in all competitions) for the last six seasons.
Lionel Messi has now been directly involved in 22 La Liga goals during 2015; no other TEAM has scored more than 21. pic.twitter.com/ckJpVmUFuL
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 8, 2015
In 2014-15, he now has 41 after 38 games. It’s all a bit astonishing, but it shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that the surge in Barcelona’s form has also coincided with a parallel improvement in Luis Suarez, and his unselfish repertoire of high-speed passing and positional changes.
It’s all looking a bit scary now, and the more Luis Enrique realises that the best way to man-manage at the Camp Nou is to basically keep a low profile, the better it will become.
Next week his team visits little Eibar, a team recently down on their luck with seven consecutive defeats. Teams have begun to find them out – not that there was anything to find out really.
Eibar have made no pretence of their humble origins and lack of spending power to compete with the rest, but the lack of top-flight quality is beginning to show as they tire, players get injured, and the fairy-tale novelty begins to wear off.
If they stop Barcelona next week, then it may be time to believe in miracles. Real Madrid play the late game on Sunday at home to Levante and will desperately need a good performance to put them in the mood for El Clasico, although at least they get their Champions League game with Schalke out of the way this coming week (they’re 2-0 up from the first leg in Germany).
On the other hand, Barcelona play Manchester City four days before the derby. Just think, if José Mourinho were still here he’d have nothing to complain about.
Behind them, the game of the day at the Calderón between Atlético and Valencia ended all square (1-1) with Koke’s first-half goal cancelled out by Mustafi later in the game. Atlético will be kicking themselves, missing out on a chance to make up ground on their city neighbours.
Valencia are only a point behind Atlético, and have earned the right to still be taken seriously. Their point at the Calderon was proof of the pudding. They’ve only lost once in their last thirteen games.
The other news of the week is the shocking case of Osasuna, whose ex-Director, Txuma Peralta, has just been jailed for suspected match-fixing last season.
His president at the time, Miguel Archanco, who (normally) lives about 50 metres down from my house, has been let out on bail of half a million euros, but as the news continues to grow over this case, and the list of people involved expands, it may be a week or so before we know the full details of the case.
— Luisja (@luisja_7) March 7, 2015
Suffice to mention – at this stage – that this is actually the first time in the history of La Liga that someone has been jailed for alleged match-fixing.
Early claims suggest the investigation will turn up all sorts of gems from last season’s messy relegation struggle, in which Osasuna failed to stay up.
It’s all juicy stuff, but the poor Osasuna supporters must be wondering what has hit them. In an ironic twist, they visited Racing Santander on Saturday in Segunda ‘A’, in a game that pitted them against another side that has also been involved in multiple financial scandals in the last three seasons, although not of a match-fixing nature.
Racing are still not out of the woods, but they beat Osasuna 2-0 in the duel of the dungeon teams, condemning their visitors to their fifth consecutive defeat. With players unpaid and the club in turmoil, Osasuna’s form is hardly surprising.
The fall-out from this case, however, may cast La Liga in a rather poor light. This is because Valladolid, Betis, Espanyol and Getafe – all of whom were involved in games that directly influenced the relegation spots both last season and the season before – stand accused of receiving ‘financial motivation’ from Osasuna. Watch this space, as they say.
This coming weekend’s La Liga fixture list contains arguably the most extreme example of David attempting to fell Goliath to be found anywhere in the world of professional sport.
Although cup competitions occasionally throw up even greater mismatches, in terms of meetings between supposed near-equals in league contests, Barcelona’s visit to tiny Eibar on Saturday evening will present a rags against riches tale of unrivalled proportions.
The vast gulf between the two teams is evident in a number of ways across all areas of the clubs.
In financial terms, for starters, Eibar’s annual budget of €18 million (Dh71.6m – the lowest in La Liga) pales into insignificance against Barca’s yearly spend of €539m (Dh2.1bn). Indeed, the €85m (Dh338m) forked out by the Catalans on Luis Suarez last summer would be enough to run Eibar’s entire operations for nearly five years.
On the subject of superstar players, whereas Barca can boast arguably the world’s most potent strike force in the form of Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi, the best-known player on Eibar’s books is probably veteran Ghanaian international midfielder Derek Boateng, who signed on a free transfer last summer after a brief and notably unsuccessful stint with relegated Fulham.
In fact, Eibar’s entire squad, with just one exception, was assembled without charge either on free transfers, loan deals or as youth team products – and that sole exception is winger Dani Nieto, who was signed for just €75,000 from none other than Barca’s reserves.
When it comes to supporters, Eibar’s lack of widespread appeal is almost comical in comparison: on social media, for example, the Basque club’s official Twitter feed is followed by 46,000 people; Barca’s total (across eight different languages) is 28 million. And with the population of Eibar standing at less than 30,000, every single inhabitant in the town could head to Barca’s Nou Camp and still leave 70,000 seats empty.
In fact, as their Ipurua home ground holds less than 6,000 spectators and rarely sells out, the cumulative attendance for all Eibar’s home games this term would still not be enough to fill Barca’s stadium.
Eibar’s rapid rise is certainly a wonderful story, the type of which is not supposed to happen in a modern professional sporting world dominated by megabucks television contracts, commercial deals, millionaire players and bejewelled agents. And the fact that they have taken their place among Spain’s elite is even more remarkable because their ascent has been anything but easy.
After spending their 74-year existence oscillating between the second, third and fourth tiers, only once threatening to climb into the top flight (during a young David Silva’s loan season at the club in 2004/5), their recent climb to the top started from the Segunda B (third) division two years ago.
Under the guidance of coach Gaizka Garitano, who had previously only had two years of experience with the club’s reserves, they earned promotion in June 2013. Then, against all expectations and hampered by the smallest budget in the division, they repeated the trick the following season by winning the Segunda Division, holding off big-name opposition such as Deportivo La Coruna and Sporting Gijon thanks to an outstanding defensive record of 28 goals conceded in 42 games.
But the final few weeks of the title-winning campaign were played against a backdrop of uncertainty after Eibar became aware that, irrespective of their performance on the pitch, they would have to raise €1.8m (Dh7.2m) by the start of August to avoid relegation back to the Segunda B.
That came due to a ruling, typical of Spanish bureaucracy’s frustrating inflexibility, that every second division team, irrespective of their expenditure, must possess a certain level of capital. And Eibar, although they carried precisely zero debt, lacked the necessary funds to comply.
Club president Alex Aranzabal was suitably scornful, describing the situation as “nonsense because our economic situation is solid. We are the only club in Spanish professional football with no debt.”
But the rules were not for bending and the club embarked upon a frantic sale of shares, quickly spreading the word through social media and benefitting from the generosity of former players such as Silva and Xabi Alonso, another ex-loanee, and eventually reaching the target to celebrate their first-ever promotion to the top flight.
That meant a rapid re-organisation of a small-town club which had always been backed up by a tiny behind-the-scenes infrastructure, with club employee Gergori Prieto explaining: “We had to restructure the club’s personnel during the summer so we can carry out the day to day work. Last season, I was the only person working in the club’s administration – now there are 10 of us, with new departments like marketing.”
Despite the rapid upheaval, when the new La Liga campaign began Eibar settled like ducks to water, joyfully beating Basque neighbours Real Sociedad 1-0 in their season opener, then being unfortunate to lose 2-1 away to reigning champions Atletico and subsequently picking up victories with sufficient regularity to finish 2014 nestled in mid-table.
More recently, however, the minnows have been in freefall. Friday’s unfortunate 2-1 loss at Levante was their seventh consecutive defeat, leaving them just three points clear of the relegation zone.
For the first time, the last few weeks have seen Eibar look out of their depth at this level, and although a lack of goals has been concerning, their recent slump is more attributable to the ardours of a long and competitive season finally catching up with them.
One of the secrets of Eibar’s success in the last two years has been continuity, with a fortuitous lack of injuries allowing boss Garitano to make remarkably consistent team selections: during last season’s Segunda Division title-winning campaign, for example, eight players started at least 30 games.
At the highest level, however, the downside of having such a settled team is that the physical demands of competing against top-class performers on a weekly basis become overpowering, especially for a team such as Eibar which relies upon hard work and organisation.
Eibar have looked lethargic and avoidable errors – a sure sign of mental and physical tiredness – are also starting to creep into their play, but Garitano has few viable options to freshen things up.
Realistically, Saturday’s meeting with Barca offers little chance for them to stop the rot, and their season will perhaps hinge upon the next three fixtures: away to fellow strugglers Granada, and at home against mid-table Rayo Vallecano and Malaga.
Whatever happens, the club has no intention of following so many others down the path of recklessly gambling vast sums in the transfer market in an attempt to buy their way into the elite.
“We would never consider putting the club in debt,” said Aranzabal. “We do our business with our own resources.”
They are what they are: a smalltown club, getting by on astute management on and off the pitch, and hard work and togetherness on it.
And if they avoid relegation, few will begrudge them another season in the top flight.