Back in the old analogue days of 1990, the Spanish league authorities decided to implement a two-week winter break over the Christmas period. The growing demands of European competition, among other factors, persuaded them to make the decision and, in the main, it was well received. Ice-bound leagues such as those in the UK continued to merrily skate through a fixture log-jam over the festive season, but Spain took a rest, earning it some envious glances from European neighbours plus some accusations of indolence. In 2015 the tradition was broken, mainly due to the early start of the European Championship, but this season has seen it restored. The break comes 16 games in and brings forward the psychological frontier of 19 games as La Liga’s official half-way point – usually the week when journalists like to take stock of what has been, and what is likely to come. They still do, but the Christmas break nevertheless conditions the league’s progress in interesting ways.
This weekend’s games were not strictly the final ones before the weekend of January 7-8 because this week the return legs of the King’s Cup 4th round are played. The top-flight clubs at this stage play away to lower-league opposition by default in the opening game, so that if they resolve matters in the first ninety minutes, the subsequent midweek fixture can be taken care of by the habitual bench-warmers of the home squad. Take Atletico Madrid, for example. On an uncharacteristic run of only one win in five, with a weird crisis regarding the sudden change in the design of their club badge, 675 minutes without a goal from Antoine Griezmann and goalkeeper Jan Oblak out injured for two months, the pre-Christmas gloom was palpable over the Calderon. The home game against Las Palmas represented the only possible way of breaking up the bad vibes and stifling the media speculation of ‘unas vacaciones movidas’ [a stressed-out Christmas], whatever that was supposed to mean. Well, it usually either means the sacking of the coach – unlikely in this case – or a frantic dip into the transfer market – rarely a good idea at this time of the year.
Atletico resolved the problem by winning 1-0 from a goal by Saul, but the performance was hardly vintage. At the very least, Wednesday night’s cup game at home to Guijuelo, hovering above the relegation spots in Segunda B Division, should now keep the substitutes warm. Atletico won the first round in Guijuelo 6-0. This was just desserts for the little club from near Salamanca, for the sin of bearing a name that no foreigner has ever pronounced correctly since the dawn of time, but anyway they’ve done their bit to help Atletico’s psychological well-being over the festive period.
The win moved them to a mere nine points shy of leaders Real Madrid, but they’ll be thankful for small mercies. The day after this timid 1-0 victory, their noisy neighbours were over in Japan disputing the FIFA Club World Cup final against Kashima Antlers in Yokohama, a two-hour drive for Kashima’s fans. Whatever your view of this slightly annoying tournament, its impact on this period of La Liga’s calendar has become significant, basically due to the fact that Spanish clubs [well, Barca and Real Madrid] have travelled to the tournament five times since Barcelona broke Spain’s duck in the competition, in 2009. It means that the participating team gets an early break from the league, their game is postponed until a date can be agreed [usually at the big clubs’ convenience] and the game-in-hand factor thereon hangs over every week’s statistics, until the game is finally resolved. The long journey to the tournament and the almost immediate call to action can also damage a team’s rhythm. In 2014, Ancelotti’s Madrid were on a run of 22 consecutive victories after winning the tournament in Morocco, only to return home and suffer an alarming drop in form which eventually allowed Barcelona to win a league that had seemed gift-wrapped and under the Madrid tree by Christmas.
Real Madrid won the game in Japan 4-2, of course, but not after a struggle, with the Antlers battling back and taking a shock 2-1 lead at one point. Madrid won the game in extra-time courtesy of a hat-trick from Cristiano Ronaldo, but only after the Zambian referee had mysteriously decided not to award Sergio Ramos a second yellow for a foul on Kashima in the 90th minute – with the home player about to launch an interesting-looking counter. Interestingly the Spanish press have so far declined to comment on this being a further example of Ramos’ ability to save his side in the final minutes of crucial games. Still, it’s another trophy to add to the creaking shelves of the cabinet, but I wish I’d not had to listen to the appalling commentary by Spain’s TVE1 team, describing the situation at 2-1 to Kashima as a potential ‘ridículo histórico’ [history-making joke]. One was tempted to ring the TV station and ask if perhaps Madrid could have been given the trophy without playing, since presumably it was so pointless that any other team could possibly aspire to winning the game. Kashima didn’t look so bad to me and it was a great game. Shibasaki’s two goals were the best of the match, and since he’s only valued at 2 million on the market, Madrid’s bargain-hunting scouts might actually have learned his name by now.
Barcelona will also sleep more easily over the break, resolving their derby game at home to Espanyol rather more easily than some had predicted. The 4-1 win lifts them back above Sevilla and within three points of Real, but with the extra game played. Still, it looks a little better in the papers come morning. Their home return tie against third-tier Hercules on Wednesday looks slightly more problematic, the first game against a side of mainly Barcelona reserves ending in a 1-1 draw, and so it will be interesting to see which first-teamers are hauled into action or at least reserved on the bench , just in case the visitors get a little bit too Herculean. Players such as Leo Messi or Luis Suarez will feel that they have earned their rest after their heroics on Sunday night, particularly Messi who seemed to be trying to emulate an outrageous video-game exaggeration of the real thing, particularly during his run to assist the second goal for Suarez. As Shakespeare might have written of the Argentine – is this reality or a console I see before me? Poor Espanyol were on a decent run too, but when Messi is in the mood you might as well shrug your shoulders and just think about the next game, against terrestrial beings – Deportivo on Friday January 6th, to be precise.
At the other end of the cosmos, Osasuna, Granada and Sporting were busy endorsing their credentials as the early candidates for relegation, all of the losing their games. For Osasuna, their miserable seven-point haul from the first 16 games looks almost impossible to turn around, unless they can gather their wits over Christmas and pledge to start again from zero. It has happened before, and a run of wins in the New Year might bring hope, but they’ll need to improve things fast. Those first two games in January at home to Valencia and away to Granada will be classic dog-eat-dog encounters. If they lose them, adios amigos – or in Basque, agur lagunak. Meanwhile they, and other teams in a similar predicament, can at least staunch the suffering for a while and hope to recharge batteries for a fresh start in January. In almost religious terms, the break offers hope for the downtrodden, and a happy time for the winners to bask in the glow of their achievements so far. However, the beauty of it all resides in the proven fact that everything can change. Beware of feeling sorry for yourself, but of complacency too.
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Up there in the Bernabéu VIP Lounge, with his designer specs and his jacket and tie, Cristiano Ronaldo sat out the Deportivo game in the presence of his apparent new girlfriend, Georgina Rodriguez. Since recent events suggest he needs a new accountant, she might actually be the new one, but they didn’t seem too rapt in conversation for the 90 minutes of the game, and the phrase ‘tax haven’ failed to appear on any of the lip-reads regarding their occasional chit-chat. Neither did Ronaldo seem over-excited when Alvaro Morata finally put Madrid ahead, at which point he took to reading some publication or other – possibly the Rough Guide to Japan, his destination after the game. He took more notice when substitute Joselu subsequently scored twice in the space of three minutes to put Deportivo ahead, prompting nervous grimaces and angst from CR7, none of which won him any comforting gestures or words from Rodriguez. Instead, she stared into space with an icy look on her face, with a definite shade of ‘I wonder if it’s worth it?’ written on her expression.
Real Madrid wanted to get Saturday’s game over as soon as possible for several reasons. The principal objective was to win the game (it usually is) but also to avoid defeat, since this would set a new record for the club of 35 consecutive matches garnering a result. To achieve this, ‘ZZ Top’, Zidane’s new moniker courtesy of the Madrid tabloids, decided to play without the BBC, Gareth Bale being injured anyway. He rested the full-backs Marcelo and Dani Carvajal, and paired Toni Kroos and Casemiro in the centre, two players with very few minutes on the clock of late. Add to that the underwhelming James Rodriguez instead of Luka Modric, and respectable though Zidane’s rotating might appear to be, the underlying sense of ‘It’s only Deportivo, it doesn’t matter’ was difficult to avoid. Trouble was, Deportivo had put five past Real Sociedad last Monday, an opponent in a rich vein of form, and with their tails decidedly up, the mix-and-match look of the Madrid line-up rather invited them to spoil the party. They’d done that once before, winning 2-1 back in 2002 in the Final of the King’s Cup, in Madrid’s centenary year in the Bernabéu. Madridistas far and wide took a long time to forgive them, and with 1-2 on the scoreboard, Madrid’s perfect Christmas party was looking in distinct danger of being pooped.
Of course, just after midnight (or 90 minutes) along comes Santa Claus Ramos to distribute the presents and keep everyone happy. Ramos is making something of a habit of this, after his recent heroics in the Camp Nou and previous late appearances against Atlético Madrid in the final of the Champions League and against Sevilla in the Supercopa. His was to be the winning goal, substitute Mariano having equalised in the 83rd minute. Deportivo’s coach, Gaizka Garitano, commented rather drily in the post-match press conference that Ramos might have been sent off before the winner, after his push on Depor’s Sidnei, and that the concept of added-time in the Bernabéu tends to be that ‘it lasts until Madrid score’. Then again, you could argue that the best thing to do, if you don’t want Santa to come down your chimney, is to block it with something – the metaphor being that it’s not a good idea to concede a corner to the hosts after the 90 minutes have transpired. And if you do, put about five guys on Ramos. It ain’t rocket science.
Now Real Madrid can relax in Japan and will not return to league action until January 7th, at home to the mighty Granada. They will still be leaders then, although Barcelona will probably have cut the gap to three points if they can beat improving neighbours Espanyol in the Camp Nou next Sunday. Madrid’s game at Valencia will be postponed to some later date, which may come as some relief for Los Che, a good example of the way that the arrival of the Christmas break puts the alpha-omega aspect of La Liga into focus. And whilst it is true that this season has thrown up an entertaining and more competitive league in Spain for some time, there are still some guys who will be having a miserable Christmas.
Valencia lost 3-2 at Real Sociedad, and although the score made it look a close-run thing, it was in truth a demonstration by the home aside that the 5-1 defeat last Monday was simply a freak result. Valencia’s rather volatile Italian coach Cesare Prandelli had provided the sound-bites of the week last Thursday when he announced that any players lacking ‘carácter’ (personality) would subsequently be shown the door, and that any player who was not ‘prepared to suffer’ could leave. Prandelli hasn’t been there long – since the end of September to be precise – and such desperate public calls to roll up sleeves and swab the decks represent a risky strategy, especially at a place like Valencia. If the players react, your actions are endorsed, but if they don’t, they’ll still be around when you’ve been shown the door. Valencia, on a run of seven league games without a win, are seemingly immersed in a crisis that has been running since the dawn of time – or the last time they won the league back in 2004. The Valencia fans are big on nostalgia, since that’s about all they have these days. It’s a club on the edge, forever unstable and unable. There used to be sympathy for their plight, but in the end the self-inflicted wounds, the managerial merry-go-rounds, the permanent promise of a new stadium with a new dawn and the impatience of a fan-base that was impatient even when times were happier….it’s all becoming a bit irritating. They now lie one place above the relegation spots, but only on goal difference from Sporting.
📝 Prandelli: "I ask for the respect of everyone, because Valencia CF are a great club"https://t.co/5NxzWaQiuE— Valencia CF English (@valenciacf_en) December 10, 2016
They were one goal down on Saturday after two minutes, and two goals down after 22. Both goals were from corners, and were highly avoidable. Prandelli marched up and down like a man possessed, as if livid that his warnings had fallen on deaf ears. Luckily, referee Estrada Fernandez invented a penalty against Iñigo Martinez just before the break, and hope was restored. Valencia continued to kick lumps out of Sociedad in the second half, encouraged by the referee’s leniency and Prandelli’s warnings but Sociedad finally scored a third after Diego Alves had saved yet another penalty – the first Carlos Vela has missed in the top flight. Alves has now saved 22 of the 45 he has faced in his career, an unusually high percentage and about the only thing Valencia have to smile about. To make matters worse, their coach was attacked by Valencia ‘ultras’ when they got back on Saturday night, protesting at the players and their recent performances. It can’t be much fun playing for them these days. Poetically, their next fixture will be on Monday January 9th at bottom club Osasuna. As they say, there’s always someone worse off than you – for now.
Indeed, in stark contrast with ZZ Top and his stable of stallions, Osasuna’s newish coach, Joaquin Caparros, has now gone 19 games without eating from the sweet plate of victory. This run includes 14 with Granada, a run that saw him sacked, and his first five with Osasuna, who now lie heavily on the sea bed with the oxygen running out. They work hard, and their tightly-packed ground can still theoretically intimidate but Barcelona had a fairly placid afternoon on Saturday in Pamplona, and had no need to run any bulls. Their 3-0 win saw another wonderful goal from Leo Messi to add to his art collection. His second and Barcelona’s third seemed to involve the Argentine beating the entire home defence, bemusing them with his almost impossible stops, starts and lethal intent. His first wasn’t bad either, flicking Jordi Alba’s cross into the net in a single movement, calculating in a split-second the force and angle required to loop the ball over poor Nauzet’s head. Fantastic stuff. It will have soothed the recent wounds somewhat, and led them to keep believing that the title is far from decided yet, which is true. Real Madrid won’t want to let the alpha stuff go to their heads just yet, and the omega guys at the other end can still dream of a fresh start after Christmas.