I suspect that there has never really been a game quite like the one on Saturday night at Eibar, at least not in the history of La Liga. Real Madrid were in town, or more accurately they were staying in Bilbao, down the road – and Eibar’s entire populace (27,000, or a third of the Bernabeu’s normal crowd) were out on the streets as if it were an important local fiesta. Real Madrid had actually been before, back in January 2004 for a Copa Del Rey match with a posse of reserve players, and I was at that game too. It ended 1-1, Guti scored, and Iker Casillas was between the sticks. He probably never expected to be returning 10 years later for a league fixture, the only surviving member of that 2004 side to do so.
This sort of David v Goliath clash has become a concept that we associate with Cup matches, and wonderful though those occasions can be, it’s really quite unusual to have one in a league match. And just in case Eibar’s surreal rise to the top flight of Spanish football eventually becomes a brief footnote in football history, the residents of the town were determined to squeeze the maximum from the day, as if royalty had come to town and conferred something special on the little community, isolated up in the Basque Country – a town clinging to the sides of a small gash in the mountains.
Two hours before kick-off and everyone seems to be out on the streets, the bars are awash with folks, and the narrow streets that surround the ground are lined with a steady stream of hyper-active ants, all of whom seem to know each other. Occasional clumps of Real Madrid fans creep by, looking like people suffering from the early symptoms of culture shock.
This is, after all, the ultimate ‘compare and contrast’ game, with Eibar’s entire annual budget of 15 million surpassed by the salary of Cristiano Ronaldo. The night’s attendance of 5,859 is a record for the ground, aided and abetted by the rather wonky temporary stand erected along half of the northern stand’s side, overlooked by a tall block of flats which probably affords the game’s best view. Each balcony of the high-rise is packed with spectators, and on the small hill to the south of the ground an impromptu crowd has gathered to watch the game though the gap in the terracing. I take a photo of four smiling Chinese men, each decked out in Eibar’s Barcelona-like colours. Inside, there are no spare seats, and obtaining a press pass has been difficult. My allocated seat is quashed up beneath an improvised iron table, pushed up behind the top row of the eastern stand.
As the players warm up, Basque heavy-metal shrieks out from the stadium’s metallic speakers and the Real Madrid players look uncomfortable and out of place, like the first human visitors contemplating the alien landscape of the planet Zarg. The well-groomed Italian journalist to my right is from Gazzetta dello Sport, and obviously accustomed to his creature comforts has put his laptop away and is shrugging at the absence of an electric socket and some wi-fi signal. He looks completely bemused. “What language is that music in?” he shouts in my ear, stressed out by the din. I reply that it is Basque. “Ah!” he shouts, and scribbles a quick hand-note onto his pad. He points behind us to a small table on which the club has kindly plonked an old coffee machine, out of courtesy to the visiting journalists. “Don’t drink it!” he squeaks in English. “It’s pessimo!”
With the light fading behind the west stand and the inky sky merging with the dark line of the mountains, the game gets under way. Eibar are on a run of three consecutive home draws, and have not won in Ipurua since the opening day of the season, lending a statistical lie to the old cliché that their little ground is a place to fear – especially for their aristocratic visitors who have won their last eight league games on the trot. Luka Modric is out for three months, however, and there is hope that their midfield will thus be weakened. Before the game the local press has insisted that speedy types such as Gareth Bale will find it difficult to play a counter-attacking game, because of the lack of braking space between the pitch’s lines and the stands. Eibar are missing Raul Navas and Lillo from their defence, plus their relatively exotic Italian striker Federico Piovaccari, who is carrying an injury. Madrid decide not to replace Modric with Sami Khedira after all, and James Rodriguez sits back in the centre of midfield alongside Isco, with Toni Kroos behind as the sole defensive pivot.
The game starts at a predictably frenetic pace, and every physical challenge by Real Madrid sends the spectators into a collective frenzy, howling at the referee and generating more decibels than 85,000 at the Bernabéu. Jon Errasti, the only local boy, goes on a run which involves a nutmeg of James, and the crowd leaps to its feet and dances, as if their seats have suddenly been shot through with electricity. Eibar look to have settled when Madrid suddenly score, Ronaldo magically chipping the ball over Ekiza’s challenge, crossing to Karim Benzema – who looks offside – then crossing again from an offside position himself for James to score with a header at the far post.
The crowd are suitably incensed, and a spectator turns to me and shouts “Diles que es un robo! Diles que siempre es así!” (“Tell them it’s robbery. Tell them that it always is”). I give him the thumbs up. The Italian journalist looks as if he would prefer to be somewhere else. But despite the righteous indignation, one thing is very clear. This Madrid is a very different model to last season – happy, quick, and confident, stallions in a field of shire horses. Eibar try to intimidate, bless them, but Madrid can look after themselves. Pepe growls, Kroos struts, Carvajal races up and down the flank like a man possessed, and whereas Eibar have decided to play a pressing game, they are simply overwhelmed by the combination of Real Madrid’s work-rate and quality. Nevertheless, they almost score, Casillas responding to a quick break by foiling Saúl Berjón with his feet, but before half-time the inevitable happens and Ronaldo scores his 19th league goal of the season. Only Bale looks vaguely out of place. Like an overgrown schoolboy who forgot his uniform, he fails to connect with the other players, and wanders around rather aimlessly.
El Eibar recibe a accionistas chinos y nuevo patrocinador del partido de hoy. pic.twitter.com/LobcQnS8Ig
— S.D. Eibar (@sd_eibar) November 22, 2014
The second half is witness to a display of orchestral magnificence from Kroos, who continually robs the ball, anticipates everything, and distributes with perfect timing and sense. He hardly seems to break sweat. Benzema scores a controversial third, Ronaldo buries a penalty, and the party balloons begin to sag. But even at 0-4, Madrid are pressing higher than Eibar, sliding in, going for more. They have now won 14 consecutive games, one shy of Mourinho’s record, and could equal it in midweek in Basel.
On the way out, the traffic police direct me down to the square, where the road back to San Sebastian is blocked off and a massive crowd has gathered. I feel like a fish in a goldfish bowl. Annoyed, I open the car door and ask a policeman why the crowd is gathered. “To watch the Real Madrid bus go by, of course!” he replies, as if I must be mad.
Strange indeed the passions football unlocks. Way over to the east in Barcelona, Leo Messi is about to surpass Telmo Zarra’s 251 league goals, a record which has stood unmolested since 1955. Messi scores a hat-trick, the 16th of his career, but it is his second goal that breaks the record. He has achieved this in eleven seasons, whereas Zarra took fifteen. All this in a week when the Argentinean hinted that he might be looking for a new challenge in his career. I can confirm that Grimsby Town are interested, and that I’ll happily help to broker the deal.
November isn't over and Arsenal are well off the pace in the title race, heaping pressure on Arsene Wenger.
Our #360debate today is: Time for Arsene Wenger to go?
Martyn Thomas, Reporter, thinks YES
It was telling that the boos that greeted Arsenal’s defeat to Manchester United on Saturday night were no longer a surprise.
Jeers could be heard at Swansea’s Liberty Stadium prior to the international break, and were also audible as Anderlecht came back from 3-0 down at the Emirates in the Champions League.
Large sections of the Gunners faithful have become exacerbated by a team that has equal potential to self-destruct as it does to dazzle.
Ultimately Arsene Wenger must carry the can for his side’s deficiencies, and although this is said with something of a heavy heart, the time has come for him to walk away from the club.
That is not to say he should be imm-ediately removed. What he has done for Arsenal, and English football, deserves respect and he should be able to pick his own exit date. But what has become patently obvious is that his view of the game has become increasingly inflexible, and his philosophy is simply no longer successful.
Jose Mourinho infamously referred to Wenger as a “specialist in failure” last season, and while that is grossly unfair it is his own stubbornness that has contributed to Arsenal’s mal-aise. The Frenchman has steadfastly refused to buy an out-and-out defensive midfielder while the back four has also been woefully under sourced.
It is an overused expression in the British game but the Gunners lack leaders, and in key positions their team is often found wanting. The window dressing remains impressive, but Arsenal’s ability to challenge for the Premier League title has diminished every year since they won it unbeaten in 2004.
From the glory days of Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry, the Gunners now have a spine of Wojciech Szczesny, Per Metersacker, Mikel Arteta and Danny Welbeck.
It does not take an expert to tell you the latter does not win league championships. Were Wenger to be given another season in charge could he be relied upon to rectify the problems facing his squad? The last decade would suggest not.
Alam Khan, Reporter, thinks NO
It may not be easy for Arsenal fans to accept they are a distant third behind Chelsea and Manchester City in the domestic rankings, but it is unfair to blame Arsene Wenger entirely for that.
Since they last won the Premier League title a decade ago, those two teams have spent significant sums on improving their squads to turn them into champions.
Arsenal have, in turn, lost so many of their key players, not only inspired matchwinners like Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp or Robin van Persie, but the industrious ones such as Patrick Vieira, Cesc Fabregas and even Gilberto Silva.
They have not had the resources to replace them and compete against Chelsea, City and even Manchester United.
The expensive purchases of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have seen a shift in mindset, but the gap has not been easy to close and it could be another couple of years before Arsenal benefit as Financial Fair Play begins to have a greater effect and restricts the big spenders.
And that is why the Gunners fans need to support Wenger rather than turn against arguably their finest-ever manager. Their expectations should be more realistic and the target should be the top four and a cup, not the title.
With the break-up of his great 2004 side, Wenger has had to regroup and reshape and revive Arsenal. He has done that with a limited budget, and turned to youth.
There is hope that the current contingent, English players such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Callum Chambers, Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck, will develop and thrive together. Of course there is room for improvement and areas, notably defensive, which Wenger needs to address in January.
Managerial change is rarely the answer to a club’s problems and 17 successive seasons in the Champions League – essential to surviving among the elite – in his 18 years should serve as a testament to Wenger’s qualities. Wenger has proved he is a fighter and he will relish another scrap and the challenge of proving the doubters wrong. He has to stay.
What is your opinion? Leave your comments below or on Twitter using the hashtag #360debate.
When David Moyes was sacked by Manchester United in April, few would have predicted Real Sociedad would be his next destination.
On the face of it, a Basque club appointing a dour Scotsman who doesn’t speak the language and had never previously worked abroad was a strange decision, especially when a more obvious and much cheaper candidate was readily available in the form of former Real Betis boss Pepe Mel.
So why and how did it happen?
The catalyst for the appointment was the determination of La Real president Jokin Aperribay, who made it his mission to convince Moyes to take over at the Anoeta ever since he reluctantly dispensed with the services of predecessor Jagoba Arrasate a few weeks ago.
“The biggest reason I’ve chosen Sociedad is the persistence of the president,” admitted Moyes.
“The president was so determined he wanted me to come here, he gave me great belief in what he’s doing.”
Moyes is well-known for his refusal to rush into big decisions, but his initial reaction of intrigued scepticism eventually gave way to outright enthusiasm to relaunch his career largely away from the glare of the British media – or, as he put it: “This opportunity is the right one for me and my learning… and my family.”
To understand Aperribay’s unshakeable determination to land Moyes, we have to go back to the end of April, the time of Moyes’ departure from Old Trafford and his sudden availability in the managerial marketplace.
Back then, Aperribay had just handed a new contract to rookie coach Arrasate, who had overcome a poor start to his first campaign in charge and led the team through a promising second half of the season.
However, not everybody was convinced.
Even though he was a fellow Basque and one of their own, many Sociedad fans had never been won over by Arrasate’s credentials, and a final day defeat against Villarreal was met by a barrage of whistles towards the coach – even though his team had reached the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey and qualified for the Europa League by finishing seventh, bringing two consecutive seasons of European football to the Anoeta for the first time since 1989.
Arrasate’s problem was his lack of experience and inability to exude authority.
He only played at a low level and was a primary school teacher until 2010, when he joined the club’s youth coaching ranks and then became number two to previous boss Philippe Montanier.
He was subsequently elevated to the managerial role in an attempt to maintain continuity after Montanier opted to return to his native France by joining Rennes in the summer of 2013.
But Arrasate was young (35 at the time of his appointment), inexperienced and, for all his intelligence, his understanding of the club’s values and his undoubted commitment to the cause, he came across as a soft touch.
Those concerns, indeed, nearly prevented him from being offered the job at all, with Argentine Tata Martino being the club’s first choice but rejecting their overtures in order to later join Barcelona.
Arrasate never looked like possessing the necessary leadership skills or strength of character to prove a long-term success.
His weaknesses were translated to the pitch, where the team lacked the discipline, consistency and rugged determination to suggest they could solidify a position in the top half.
Although at times they played superbly – beating Barcelona 3-1 in February – on other occasions they rolled over and surrendered.
Two words used often in Spanish football analysis are ‘serious’ and ‘personality’: although there was no doubting the talent within the Sociedad ranks, they often lacked those two qualities.
Aperribay, however, liked Arrasate and wanted to give him more time, so he maintained public support for the inexperienced manager.
But when the new campaign started in disappointing fashion, with La Real dumped out of the Europa League in the qualifying round against Krasnodar and struggling in La Liga, the young manager’s days were numbered.
Even their one triumph at the start of the season – a remarkable come-from-behind 4-2 victory over Real Madrid – only served to further undermine him: How can the same team that thrashes Madrid then lose to previously winless Almeria in their next home game?
The buck had to stop with the manager and Aperribay made his decision after a dispiriting and very badly received 1-0 home defeat against Malaga.
When it came to identifying a successor, Aperribay immediately knew that he needed to find everything that had been lacking in the previous manager.
Whereas Arrasate was thoughtful, unassertive and inexperienced, the president wanted his new boss to be a strong and determined old hand.
Experience would be crucial, as would be the ability to instil a coherent and consistent style of play: it would be someone ‘serious’ and with ‘personality’.
Simply being an intelligent and hard-working Basque who grasped the club’s philosophy would not be enough.
As another contrast to Arrasate, Aperribay was keen to recruit someone of standing and reputation – a manager of “prestige” was his preferred term: someone who would provide a serious boost to the club’s profile in their never-ending quest to snatch some of the local, national and international limelight away from their bigger and more glamorous near neighbours, Athletic Bilbao.
It didn’t take long for Aperribay to settle upon the man he wanted – an experienced, well-known, disciplinarian who, furthermore, was available.
La Real’s president had come to know Moyes over the previous 12 months, initially when his club faced Manchester United in the group stages of the Champions League, and was impressed by the Scotsman’s poise, focused demeanour and the steely determination with which he was confronting his tough task with the Red Devils.
They bumped into each other again in August, when Moyes and his brother Kenny, who acts as his agent, attended La Real’s Europa League meeting with Aberdeen at Pittodrie, and by then Moyes was firmly in Aperribay’s mind as a potential future manager.
Aperribay was also attracted to Moyes because of what he had achieved at Everton, seeing significant parallels between the Merseysiders and his club: they are both long-established top-flight clubs with a strong regional identity, operating on a reasonable but limited budget, and Aperribay believes the Scot can, in time, turn La Real into regular top-six finishers, just like at Everton.
Judging from the early impressions of the players, Moyes is already succeeding in bringing to his new club the precise qualities that were previously lacking.
Commenting on the squad’s first few days of training under their new boss, midfielder Markel Bergara said: “Training has been very intense. He has come here with a lot of enthusiasm and very clear ideas.
He knows what he wants from us and he’s looking for a defined style of play with a lot of intensity.”
And as an indirect but telling of Arrasate’s failings, Bergara added: “He has told us that he wants us to be compact, strong and stand up to our opponents.”
Those words from one of the team’s most senior players will be music to the ears of president Aperribay, who hired Moyes precisely because he is intense, determined and possesses a stated commitment to instilling a consistent and rigorous style of play.
Saying it, however, is one thing. Now comes the hard part: getting the team to do it on the pitch.