Phil Ball: Windy win for Sociedad, Madrid's fixture pile-up

Phil Ball 6/02/2017
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Phil Ball rounds up the La Liga action.

I moved to Spain in 1991, to the wilds of the far north where the winds blow fiercely and the Pyrenees mountains cast their shadows over the wolf-trodden foothills. Over the years, my mother, resident in England, would phone and always express surprise when I told her it was raining, or that is was cold and snowing.

Although she visited me several times, her default notion of Spain – similar to that of so many other Brits – was that I was dancing sevillanas in the baking mid-day sun, fanning myself in some cool cabaña and meeting señoritas by the score, España por favor! The reality is that Spain is the highest country in Europe per square metre, has the highest capital city in the European Union, and thus gets very cold in the winter, even as far south as Granada. But my mum preferred to stick to the more stereotypical view.

For example, as I sit writing this on Sunday evening, the wind is battering the porch windows, there’s a rat-a-tat-tat of hailstones on the roof, and I’m still thawing out after ninety minutes of sitting high up in the wind-blown stands watching the derby between Real Sociedad and Osasuna, which finished 3-2 to the former. The game was buffeted by apocalyptic winds, and one minute from the end the lights went out, prompting home-fan fears that Osasuna would escape and live to fight another day, but fortunately for Sociedad the resident electrician managed to mend the fuses in double-quick time.

Over to the west in Galicia, two people have died in the past two days, and Deportivo’s game against Betis was suspended on Friday night due to high winds. Depor’s ground is right on the seafront of the ‘Costa do Morte’ (The Coast of Death). More controversially, over in the larger Galician city of Vigo, Celta’s home game versus Madrid, scheduled to follow Sociedad v Osasuna on Sunday night, was called off on Saturday evening, throwing the league into yet another controversy.

Part of the main stand of the roof at the Balaidos stadium was blown down, and with firemen unable to get up to the structure due to the fierce wind, the fear that more pieces might unattach themselves prompted the city mayor – technically the owner of the municipal ground, to call the game off. So gone with the wind, Real Madrid stayed at home and organised a practice match between the first team squad and the Castilla ‘B’ team reserve players who had not played in their Saturday game against Leioa, just to keep the first-teamers fit for next Saturday’s game up at Osasuna. The big boys won 5-1, in case you were interested.

The decision to call the game off, correct as it was, has provoked an interesting chain of consequences. Real Madrid remain top of the table by one point over Barcelona (who beat Athletic 3-0 at home on Saturday), but with two games fewer played. The game at Valencia, postponed due to Madrid’s pre-Christmas jaunt in Japan, has now been re-scheduled for Wednesday February 22nd, but the Celta game remains a problem, with Madrid claiming there are no free dates until the month of May. The league programme ends on May 21st, when Madrid visit Málaga, and if they remain in the Champions League they will have six more midweek fixtures to fulfil before the final in Cardiff in early June. Zinedine Zidane’s remaining in the competition is a big assumption, of course, but it nevertheless raises a dilemma for the league’s fixture planners. It also means that the league table will never look quite right, until possibly quite late in the season.

Celta, on the other hand, were extremely happy about the cancellation. In fact it wouldn’t have been surprising to have read (in Madrid and Vitoria) that someone had clambered up to the Balaidos roof deliberately, or that the infamous meigas (witches) of Galicia had cast a spell on the weather, in order to give their players more rest time than Alavés, their opponents in the King’s Cup semi-final 2nd leg on Wednesday. Alavés, who snaffled a more than useful 0-0 draw from the first leg in Vigo, have nevertheless decided that the playing field is now less than level, and that Celta will have enjoyed an entire week’s rest by the time Wednesday comes around. Alavés played at Sporting on Sunday afternoon and won 4-2. That means that the newly-promoted side have only lost one of their last 12 games (counting league and cup), and guess who that was against? Yep – away at Celta in mid-January. Maybe the witches hadn’t noticed. The game is unlikely to be changed, however. Besides, Alavés are on a roll and hardly broke sweat to beat poor Sporting on Sunday, so they’d probably do best to just get on with it.

Meanwhile, the other semi-finalists were enjoying a reasonable trot in the less windy conditions in Barcelona and Madrid, with the Catalans strolling to a comfortable 3-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao, in a game that permitted Luis Enrique to rest Luis Suárez, take off Leo Messi after 64 minutes (an unusual sight), and witness a goal from Paco Alcacer, perhaps an even more unusual sight. Aleix Vidal also seems to be making a claim for more recognition, after seeming to be on the verge of leaving the club. He played very well, scored the third goal, and generally made a nuisance of himself.

Atlético defeated neighbours Leganés 2-0 with a brace from Fernando Torres, two goals that framed an interesting counterpoint to his career. It was against Leganés in 2001 that Torres made his debut in the Calderón, in a 2nd Division match they needed to win to keep up their promotion campaign. They won 1-0, with the freckly 17 year-old Torres coming on in the 64th minute, but they had to wait until the next season, with ‘El Niño’ then a regular, to return to the top flight. El resto, as they say, is historia. He may not start in the Camp Nou on Tuesday night, although Atlético need to score at least two to turn the tie around (1-2 first leg).

With only seven games played at the weekend (the lowest since 1992), the other eye-catching result was Eibar’s 4-0 romp at Mestalla, crushing any hopes that Valencia were on an upward curve, and prompting more calls for the resignation of the board. The day after the defeat, following ex-player and Valencia legend Mario Kempes’ criticism of the team and the club administration on his ESPN twitter account, Peter Lim decided to relieve him of his ‘ambassador’ duties (although his contract had actually expired in December). Lim probably had no choice, but the public removal of such a popular figure, and the implication that Lim will not tolerate public criticism from within the ranks will hardly improve matters.

The result was Eibar’s biggest ever away victory in the top flight, and although they were aided and abetted by Valencia playing with ten men for the second half, they still ran them ragged. Dani Garcia’s goal (Eibar’s third) is worth watching in case you haven’t seen it. Eibar, themselves immersed in board-related problems off the pitch, are nevertheless looking determined not to do their usual dying-swan act in the second half of the season, and stand 7th, at the gates of Europe. It still seems slightly surreal, but there they are, only 3 points shy of Villarreal.

Finally, as they say, it’s an ill wind that blows no good – but two sides will emerge from the forthcoming cup semi-finals as victors, weather (and witches) permitting.

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WATCH: Ronaldo and Navas' perfect give-and-go

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Fresh from one of his best performances since the winter break, Cristiano Ronaldo looks in good spirits ahead of Real Madrid's game against Celta Vigo on Sunday.

Ronaldo teamed up with goalkeeper Keylor Navas in training during a 2v2 drill, and the duo showed off some impressive teamwork. A Navas save fell to Ronaldo, who was under pressure but managed to dribble his way out of trouble and get the ball back to the keeper.

As Ronaldo then raced past the defenders, Navas delivered an excellent chipped pass, which Ronaldo finished first time on the volley.

If the duo can replicate their magic on the pitch on Sunday, then Madrid will fancy their chances of revenge against the side that dumped them out of the Copa del Rey last month.
Share with us your thoughts by commenting below, using #360fans on Twitter or getting in touch via Facebook, and check out our YouTube channel.




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Phil Ball: Sociedad's record shouldn't be consigned to history

Phil Ball 30/01/2017
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Real Madrid cruised past Real Sociedad on Sunday night.

Setting the record straight

There are lies, damned lies and statistics – of course. And in the age of misinformation, we’re even more aware of the truth of Disraeli’s pre-digital observation. The trouble is, for football fans particularly, there are records too. Records are a tributary of the river of statistics, but their main function is to exist in order to be broken. If you’re going to break them, however, they first need to be accurate.

The English Premier League, to take an example, is a troubling arena for records. Founded in 1992, it represented a ‘break-away’ from the then Football League, itself founded in 1888. The sport which the EPL went on to practise, and the teams who participated in this so-called breakaway were, however, the teams who had been competing in the previous competition, for over a century. Nevertheless, EPL journalists now routinely quote statistics and records as if the universe had been created in 1992, making no reference to anything prior to football’s Sky-led big bang. This is both inaccurate and charmless, and it shames the entire set-up.

Which brings us to Spain’s La Liga. Supporters are very aware of historic records here, probably because the league’s foundation in 1928 is relatively recent, two sides have more or less dominated since the arrival of Alfredo Di Stéfano in 1953 (in a sense La Liga’s year zero), and there has been no similar breakaway to confuse matters and allow the mis-informers to re-write history so easily. Nevertheless, the Spanish media’s increasingly hysterical insistence on focusing exclusively on the triumphs and tribulations of the big two, perhaps more than was ever the case (there are now solid financial reasons for doing this too), has seen some data-massaging creep in.

This may be due to either ignorance or conspiracy, but this weekend’s encounter between Real Madrid and Real Sociedad – the ‘partidazo’ (big match) of the weekend and thus accorded prime spot on late Sunday night – was an interesting case in point. Real Madrid’s recent run of 40 games undefeated was described in various prominent media as a record for the Spanish league, but that depends on what we’re talking about. Real Madrid’s admittedly excellent run took in league matches, King’s Cup ties (two against a Segunda ‘B’ team), Champions League, the European Supercup and the Club World Cup. What the data therefore fails to acknowledge is that the record for consecutive league games undefeated still stands – and it belongs to Real Sociedad. How interesting it would have been, and how more historically significant, if Madrid had preserved their record up to Sunday’s game. Alas, Sevilla robbed us of the analysis that would surely have been forthcoming – that Real Sociedad hold the record, 38 games undefeated straddling two seasons (April 1979 to May 11, 1980). The run came to an end on the final day of the 1979-80 season when Sociedad lost 2-1 in Sevilla, curiously enough. The Sanchez Pizjuan stadium, it would seem, was destined to be the terminus, the grim reaper of record-breakers, the party-pooper.

Neither during nor after Real Madrid’s recent run was this feat once mentioned. It’s kind of strange, but then again Real Sociedad don’t sell as many shirts as Real Madrid, and their record has thus been confined to the backroom cupboard of La Liga’s history. It’s a controversial one, of course, but you could argue that Sociedad’s run back then was more virtuous than Real Madrid’s present one, for a variety of reasons. The Basque side actually blew the league that season (Real Madrid pipped them at the post) but nevertheless went on to win the next two league campaigns, reaching their historical high-point. The run of 38 games was achieved by a team composed almost entirely of local players, only two years after the official political transition was signed and delivered (1978), ending the Franco-run era of almost 40 years. It may be one of the great myths of Spanish football history that Franco fixed things in favour of Real Madrid – but the referees and league authorities obviously knew which side their bread was buttered. If Spanish referees seem under unspoken pressure now to ‘favour’ Madrid and Barcelona for commercially-driven reasons, then under Franco there was no doubt as to their duties. They just had to make things look vaguely competitive. The fact that Sociedad pulled off 38 games undefeated, in the long shadows cast by the Franco regime (whose nostalgic supporters were busy attempting to restore the good old days) is quite extraordinary. It was a tough league. The 38 games did not include tranquil run-outs against Cultural Leonesa (with all due respect) nor the strange opposition encountered in the Club World Cup. Sociedad’s record should not be forgotten and buried.

No other team has come near it. Barcelona lie in 2nd position, with 31 league games undefeated under Pep Guardiola – the same number as previously achieved by Real Madrid under Leo Beenhakker back in 1988-89. To be fair to Madrid, you could argue that their run involved such a variety of competitions that its virtue is greater, and that the Basques did not have to face the rigours and travel of a Champions League campaign. But it’s not a case of compare and contrast – the two records are of a different nature. The crime lies with the conflation of these two different paradigms, mingling them into one. The record of the Spanish league belongs to Real Sociedad, not Madrid.

Sunday was potentially a good day for both of them. Barcelona were held to a draw at Betis, albeit in controversial circumstances that would seem to lend the lie to the ‘favours’ theory. Still, the ‘goal’ cleared from behind the line by Betis’ Aissa Mandi, after having blatantly fouled Neymar, goes down as another chapter in referee Hernandez Hernandez’ recent Doctorate in Incompetence. That said, Barcelona were fairly awful, and were lucky to escape with a draw.  Sevilla stumbled too, surprisingly losing 3-1 at Espanyol although in fairness they had Nico Pareja sent off in the second minute, somewhat rigorously. They consequently missed the chance of going top, at least temporarily, and saw their run of five consecutive wins firmly terminated. They shouldn’t despair. Atlético could only draw 0-0 at Alavés, the latter having finished off a great week by reaching the King’s Cup semis and being drawn against Celta – a pairing that leaves them with the distinct possibility of reaching the final for the first time in their history. And since this week’s theme is of data and records, Alavés have actually been in the semis before on four previous occasions, the last time being in 2004. Interestingly enough, they reached the same stage in 1928, in the first cup competition of the officially professional era.

Which all meant that Real Madrid’s 3-0 win over Sociedad, achieved through some ruthlessly efficient counter-attacking, puts them back in the league’s driving seat. They’re four points clear now, with a game in hand, whilst Barcelona have the added distraction of two tough semi-finals against Atlético.  After their mini-crisis, things are looking up again, although they’ll be relieved to see some of their injured troops back again soon. To further motivate them, that’s two league games undefeated now. Only 37 more and they can lay rightful claim to the Spanish league record.

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