Phil Ball: La Liga's 'B' teams step up and make their point

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  • Time for teams to put more faith in B team stars?

    At some distance from Spain’s La Liga, Tweedmouth Rangers FC, despite being on the English side of the border, play in the East of Scotland Premier League, two tiers below the professional leagues in Scotland. Currently third from bottom, still not safe from relegation, they faced Stirling University at home on Saturday – who are the Scottish University champions but also play at this level, with fifth place more or less secured.

    The university side, captained by my son, was severely depleted due to the exam period, injuries, illnesses and everything but bubonic plague. The manager had also departed, three weeks before.

    With only six players available for the trip, and under doctor’s orders not to play, my son recruited four ‘triallists’ from friends and acquaintances who could more or less kick a ball, and registered them for the game – a restricted but legitimate practice under the league’s rules. My injured son would have to play, to make up the numbers. A ‘no-show’ for the game would mean a fine of £200 pounds and the deduction of three points.

    The Tweedmouth ground.

    Inexplicably, Stirling won 1-2, and on Tweedmouth’s social media site the local scribe complains that the home side should have won easily, but missed chance after chance. My son, though not wishing to delight in the opposition’s darkened prospects (Tweedmouth have games in hand and should stay up), texted me after the game to say that it was the most satisfying result of the season, due to the extreme circumstances.

    What is the relevance of this result to the current situation in La Liga?

    A fortnight ago in this column we discussed the way in which the ‘six-games-left-to-play’ syndrome would begin to affect the way coaches picked their sides, especially as issues at the top and the bottom of the league became clearer. This last weekend, book-ending a frenzied week of three league games and prefacing a midweek of big European matches witnessed the first wave of what the press is beginning to call the ‘B team’ epidemic.

    None of the players in La Liga’s top flight faced university examinations, and none of the teams suffered any injury plagues, but the sheer amount of games played this week and the slowly unravelling realities as La Liga now approaches the ‘three-games-left’ syndrome is beginning to determine who plays and who sits on the bench, far more than form or even logic should dictate.

    Real Madrid are an interesting case in point. Their ‘B’ team (Castilla) is of course still packed with internationals, but the 6-2 hiding they gave Deportivo in midweek with the BBC conspicuous by their absence, and the delightful football they played (Deportivo, like Tweedmouth, are still not safe) contrasted brutally to the two games either side when their habitual and better-paid suspects were performing.

    Maybe they’re just tired (it’s a fair point), and Cristiano Ronaldo continues to score when on the pitch, but at this stage of the season the fresher and keener members of the squad – Marco Asensio, Alvaro Morata, Lucas Vázquez, Isco, James and Mateo Kovacic – all have their points to prove and fresher legs with which to do it.

    Will it earn any of them a place in the starting line-up on Tuesday night in the Bernabéu against Atlético? Good question.

    Of course, not all teams in La Liga can call on such quality in their reserve tanks, but elsewhere in La Liga the idea that the appearance of ‘B’ teams somehow adulterates the league is questionable. The triallists who turned out for Stirling, having never played even at university level, probably put in a more motivated performance than the usual guys who’d been playing all season but who’d decided to prioritise their exam revision. It’s the same in La Liga.

    Players given their chance at this stage of the season – think of the Alavés team who travelled down to Betis with an almost entirely different side to the previous weekend – go and win the game 4-1. Betis, safe from relegation but playing with the usual suspects, were mercilessly overwhelmed by players with an eye on next season and also a place in the squad for the forthcoming King’s Cup final against Barcelona. Nothing to play for? Pull the other one.

    Osasuna, mathematically relegated in midweek after their 7-1 pummelling in the Camp Nou, put out a side containing five non-habitual players at home to Deportivo on Sunday and played much better, drawing 2-2 and prolonging their opponents’ agony. The Galician outfit only need two points from three games, but their alleged greater motive to win the game did not produce the expected outcome. Osasuna’s players were performing for their pride, which is how it should be, but also with an eye on the terms of their future contracts.

    Sunday night’s Celta-Athletic game was the most obvious example of this trend, but the result (0-3 to Athletic) bucked it rather than proved it. Celta, comfortably afloat in the league’s middle spot, put out a ‘weakened’ XI as expected because their minds were more focused on Thursday’s semi-final Europa League visit of Manchester United. Athletic Bilbao, on the other hand, were obliged to win in order to keep up their prospects of playing in that competition next season, and duly won the game at a canter.

    Neighbours Real Sociedad, also vying for a place in the top six, can rightly feel let down by Celta’s choice of line-up, but only if we subscribe to the default theory that the ‘B’ team will almost always lose the game.

    Talking of Real Sociedad, their opponents in Anoeta on Saturday were Tony Adam’s Granada, who had to win the game to even dream of staying up – unrealistic though the dream may have been. Their eventual 2-1 defeat to an in-form and Europe-chasing Real Sociedad was their best performance for some time, prompting Adams to say in the press conference that if they’d played like that all season, they wouldn’t have been relegated. Well – he omitted to mention that he wouldn’t have been there either, since ex-coach Lucas Alcaraz would have kept his job, but never mind the semantics.

    Granada’s performance was not a ‘B’ team display but rather the performance of a team liberated from the tension of potential relegation. They knew they were down in reality, but these circumstances also make a mockery of the form book, which is why this stage of the season is always so fascinating. If Adams stays, and one hopes he does (he’s actually an interesting chap), he will have taken note of how certain players approached the game.

    Also bucking the trend were Atlético Madrid, who despite the forthcoming Champions League visit to the Bernabéu on Tuesday night put out a strong side away to Las Palmas, and won handsomely (5-0). You would have to ask Diego Simeone why few of his main players were afforded a rest and he would probably have replied that the third spot in the league (which guarantees an automatic Champions spot next season) is worth preserving, with Sevilla still hot on their tails.

    There are certainly plenty of players in the squad (Alberto Rodriguez, Cerci, Tiago) who would have been happy to have shown their mettle, but Diego decided otherwise.

    Barcelona, released from Champions League pressures, decided not to risk it at awkward neighbours Espanyol – themselves in with a vague shout of European football before the game – and won 0-3 with two goals from Luis Suarez, breaking his five-game drought. They thus keep up the pressure on Real Madrid, still with that vital game in hand but with rather more on their plate at the moment.

    Indeed, to conclude this week’s column, it must be said that Madrid’s prospects of winning the league title seem strong if based on one fact only – their ability to save seemingly lost causes in the latter stages of matches. Marcelo’s late winner against Valencia on Saturday, four minutes after Parejo had equalised in the 82nd minute, is testament to the side’s doggedness, if nothing else. They have now seventeen points this season by scoring winners in the 80th minute or beyond.

    It’s a strange statistic, and you could argue that a title-winning side should be able to administer games more effectively, but it certainly makes for good entertainment. Tuesday’s perennial Champions League derby match is nicely set up, and the league title still looks like it will go down to the wire.

    Stay tuned.