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

In his latest column, Phil Ball looks back on a windy win for Real Sociedad in the far north of Spain, Real Madrid's fixture pile-up and teams gearing up for Copa del Rey semi-final second leg action.

Phil Ball
by Phil Ball
6th February 2017

article:6th February 2017

Phil Ball rounds up the La Liga action.
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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