Phil Ball: La Liga's early season sensations Sporting

Phil Ball 31/08/2015
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James Rodriguez' goal for Real Madrid was an early La Liga highlight.

Spanish football expert Phil Ball takes in the lessons learnt from the new La Liga football season, including Sporting de Gijón’s promising start against Real Madrid, the new Lionel Messi and Celta de Vigo’s serious challenge.

There’s something particularly pleasing about early-season games – something lazy and hazy about the baize-green of the pitches and the shirt-sleeved optimism of the pubic, all tanned and relaxed after holidays, still enjoying the last rites of the autumn sun. Maybe it’s something in my own personal memory of starting to watch professional football in England as a kid, and being captivated by all the sunlit colour and happy noise, still a few weeks short of the beginning of school, still free of all that angst that accompanies the return to the slog and routine after the hammock-swing days of the summer holidays. You haven’t been given any bad marks yet, and your football team can still win the league title. A time to dream, and why not?

David Moyes predicted Sporting de Gijón would be a tough nut to crack.

It’s not dissimilar here in Spain. School starts in September, and in August nobody works. It’s a badge of status, a cultural routine. If Spain were going through the worst recession in the history of economics, it would still take August off. And little by little, as the month creeps by, people start to engage again in football-related talk, the sort of ‘how-do-you-think-we’ll-do-this-year’ sort of tittle-tattle, which becomes gradually more serious as the action starts, as it did last week. Framed by this annual rhythm, I went along to Anoeta to see Real Sociedad play newly-promoted Sporting de Gijon on Saturday evening, a game described by David Moyes the previous day as ‘tricky’ because it’s always hard to play newly-promoted teams. It sounded like an excuse, but I knew what he meant. Newcomers to the top flight have a double-whammy of optimism to carry them forward. It’s the new season, but there’s also nothing to lose. In this new luxurious terrain, you’ll be praised for trying if you lose, and you’ll hit the headlines if you win. Nevertheless, despite Sporting de Gijón garnering a decent home draw against Real Madrid last week, the media’s analysis concentrated exclusively on Madrid’s alleged failings and mini-crisis, as opposed to actually recognising (let alone analysing) Sporting’s contribution to the result. 

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Having watched the newly-risen team in the flesh, I can confirm that Sporting will do just fine this season, despite their dodgy financial position, accentuated by the league’s ban on their signing players, à la Barcelona. Under these same conditions last season, and with a fairly inexperienced coach in ex-player Abelardo (more famous for his Barcelona years), with some players remaining unpaid for up to five months, the cobbled-together squad only lost twice, blowing the title on the last day but still going up. On the evidence of Anoeta, their prime asset is their defensive organisation and their most exceptional player is the goalkeeper, Iván Cuellar, but I must take this public opportunity to suggest – just suggest – that what Anoeta saw for twenty minutes when the young Croatian Alen Halilovic came on was not due to collective sun-stroke. He didn’t do a lot – there wasn’t time. But what he did manage suggests to me that this might be the next thing. The chap behind me, who is actually an ex-professional footballer, leaned into my ear and said softly ‘Has visto este chico? Te digo – es la leche’ (Have you seen that kid? I’m telling you – he’s the cat’s whiskers). He’s left-footed, he’s small, he runs like Messi, he uncoils like Messi – it’s uncanny.  It says something for the strength of Barcelona’s squad this season that they felt they could loan him out to Sporting. Real Sociedad’s players immediately sensed the threat, and surrounded him like a pack of desperate wolves.  And although it was enjoyable to see the prodigal son Asier Illarramendi looking confident again and responding to the occasion for Sociedad, Halilovic quietly stole the show.  Keep watching for him as the season unfolds.  He may be the anointed one.

Neither Sporting nor Real Sociedad have scored yet this season, but since they haven’t conceded either, the summer optimism is yet to fade. Talking of which on the Sunday, 30 miles to the west, Eibar were hosting their more famous neighbours, Athletic de Bilbao. Last week Eibar became only the 38th side to lead the top flight since its inception in 1929, but in circumstances difficult to believe in a science-fiction novel. Last season they started well too, but as Moyes indirectly implied, their first half to the season was carried along on a wave of enthusiasm and underdog toiling. When it began to unravel in the depths of winter and the chilly green of spring, the nightmare was unceasing. Once Eibar’s lack of quality was exposed, the predators of the top flight  showed no mercy. Relegated on the last day but saved by Elche’s financial ineptitude, they are now living a second life, saved from hangman´s noose by the arrival of the last-minute pardon, and seemingly determined to live life to the full this time – but with a little more thought behind their enthusiasm. Taking advantage of Bilbao’s tiredness after their midweek Europa League qualifier, they looked the better side throughout, won 2-0 and stayed top of the league, albeit jointly with Celta. They also played some decent football, and have mystifyingly managed to cobble together a squad of loanees, top-flight failures and overseas players from anywhere who were available, looked hungry, and had a bit of quality. Throw them all together under new coach José Luis Mendilibar – no tactical genius but a man who can manage a group (he was also at the helm of the club for a giddy season in 2004-05, with David Silva et al), and you have some sort of new concept about building a football team.

Can José Luis Mendilibar keep Eibar top of La Liga?

Elche won’t be enjoying it, as they look upwards, but with players signed from Argentina, Italy and even Japan, Eibar is in danger of becoming exotic. So far, however, their best new imports have been Spanish players, the excellent Keko (signed from Albacete) and the equally useful Sergi Enrich, signed from Numancia. Next week they get a rest when the league takes a break for the European qualifiers, which means they’ll still be top when the kids go back to school – in their Eibar shirts of course.

Looking further downwards, Barcelona played rather well at home to Malaga, a side that caused them some grief last season, but they just couldn´t score. Indeed, the winning goal eventually arrived in the unlikely guise of Thomas Vermaelen, and Real Madrid predictably put their goal-drought behind them by thrashing Betis 5-0 but with some rather spectacular goals and a more balanced look with the presence of James Rodriguez on from the start. There were rumbles and grumbles about his backside being on the bench last week, so Rafa Benitez will be popular for this week at least. Not only is James an excellent player, strangely calm and poised, he also has a tendency to score wonderful goals. As far as entertainment goes, it helps. His free-kick was further proof that Cristiano should really stop taking them (can’t someone just tell him?), and his bicycle-kick later on was a master-class in quick-thinking and balance. Most of us still can’t do it on the beach, surrounded by no-one. Watch it again and understand why you’re not a professional footballer. Goalie Keylor Navas did rather well too, saving a penalty and in general earning rave reviews from the Bernabéu. Who needs David de Gea?  Good question – but if he turns up just as the transfer curtain closes, Navas will at the very least command a decent exit fee. He deserves better, but that’s the way things go these days.

Celta de Vigo actually sit atop the league, but only because they start with a ‘c’ and Eibar are two rungs down the alphabet.  They both have identical records, but Celta deserve to be taken seriously thus far. They played some excellent stuff last season, finishing a decent eighth, just outside the European places.  Key to this season has been the return of Iago Aspas, after his exile in Liverpool and a decent  last campaign with Sevilla, and the retention of Nolito – the player everyone seems to want, but who always ends up staying in Vigo. Celta’s fans will be happy enough, and their 3-0 demolition of 10-man Rayo Vallecano keeps their pre-school optimism at the highest levels, with 100% success so far.  Talking of success, Granada surprisingly turned things around with a 2-1 win at Getafe, one of the goals being scored by the Nigerian Isaac Success.  That’s a good surname.  It must look good on his CV.

Atlético de Madrid won 3-0 at Sevilla, a surprising and ultimately flattering result, but Sevilla (like Bilbao) will be disappointed by their start after the promise of summer, whereas Atlético look as though they’re gathering a head of steam.  Their new man Jackson Martinez came off the bench to score, and there seems no reason to assume that Simeone’s gung-ho troops will be any different this season.  Like Deportivo, still unbeaten in their first two games, illusions are still intact.  The leaves will fall, the winter will come, and with it the dark nights of disappointment and despair.  For now, the sun’s still shining, the cotton is high, and if we’re bottom of the league hey – there are only six points to make up! It’s all to play for.

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Roy Hodgson full of praise for Jonjo Shelvey after recall

Mark Bryans 31/08/2015
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In form: Shelvey.

Roy Hodgson praised Jonjo Shelvey’s start to the season after recalling the Swansea midfielder into his England squad.

The 23-year-old picked up his one and only cap to date against San Marino in 2012 and could feature against the same opposition on Saturday – with the Euro 2016 qualifying double-header seeing Switzerland visit Wembley the following Tuesday.

Shelvey, who started in Swansea’s 2-1 victory over Manchester United on Sunday, is joined in the squad by fellow one-cap midfielder Ryan Mason.

“Jonjo Shelvey gets another chance as he has been very impressive since the start of the season,” Hodgson said after announcing his 22-man squad.

“Ryan Mason has been unlucky with us – he picked up an injury the last time he was in the England squad. This latest squad shows we are working a good number of players with a claim to be England regulars and secure a place in Euro 2016.

“Before that there are two matches we must focus on. The players must keep going, play well and look to win every match. I don’t want any let up and we want to win both these games.”

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Leicester’s Jamie Vardy was included despite his recent fine for using racist language.

Hodgson rewarded Vardy for his impressive form at the end of last season by calling him up to the England squad for the first time. 

The 28-year-old came off the bench to make his international debut in England’s 0-0 draw against the Republic of Ireland in June and has scored two Premier League goals so far this season – including a late equalising penalty at Bournemouth on Saturday as the Foxes remain unbeaten under new boss Claudio Ranieri.

Leicester hit Vardy with a ”substantial” fine and the player issued a public apology after he found himself in trouble when a video was published of him calling a man a ”Jap” three times during an argument at a casino.

”I wholeheartedly apologise for any offence I’ve caused,” he said at the time. ”It was a regrettable error in judgement I take full responsibility for, and I accept my behaviour was not up to what’s expected of me.”

Harry Kane returns to the senior squad having turned out for the Under-21s over the summer and joins captain Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott as forward options – with Vardy the only recognised striker to have scored a league goal so far this season.

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PSV recover from early own goal to beat Feyernoord

Chrisa 31/08/2015
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Feyenoord’s 100 per cent start to the new Dutch Eredivisie season came to an abrupt end on Sunday with a 3-1 defeat at PSV Eindhoven.

Jeffrey Bruma handed Feyenord an early lead in their game against PSV Eindhoven on Sunday with an unfortunate own goal.

A misjudged attempt clearance saw the ball ricochet into the PSV net off the defender’s knee. That fourth-minute opener was cancelled out by effervescent Maxime Lestienne in the 37th minute to send the teams in all square at half-time. Much to the relief of Bruma.


Some individual skills allowed Phillip Cocu’s men to nudge ahead in the 50th minute. A lovely ball by Luciano Narsingh – followed by a great touch and finish from Santiago Arias put the hosts 2-1 up.








PSV then threatened their own goal once more, as Marko Vejinovic’s free-kick was directed against the post by Nicolas Isimat-Mirin in the 74th minute.


A dubious penalty decision made the three points safe for Eindhoven. Substitute Eljero Elia was adjudged to have brought down Davy Proepper before Jurgen Locadia converted the 81st-minute spot-kick.


3-1 the final score and two wins out of two at home in the Eredivisie for PSV.



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