Phil Ball: Taking stock of La Liga at the festive break

In this week's column, Phil Ball analyses how La Liga clubs go into Christmas: pickle or plight.

Phil Ball
by Phil Ball
19th December 2016

article:19th December 2016

It has been an eventful season so far.
It has been an eventful season so far.

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.