La Liga: It's tough at the top for Leganes

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  • Leganes' Unai Lopez resists fouling Lionel Messi as Barca score their second.

    Six years ago I was watching Real Sociedad’s feeder team (Antiguoko) play Alavés in the U-14 league.   The weather was murderous – with a gale blowing straight down the length of the pitch and the cold rain hammering down onto the corrugated iron roof of the municipal stand. 

    My son splashed into a tackle, won the ball and played it forward to his more advanced midfield colleague, as he had been instructed to do. The small stocky midfielder received the ball with a backwards glance, looked up and in the same movement chipped a 40 metre pass into the teeth of the wind, the ball angling slightly to the right. The backspin, deliberately applied, dumped the ball perfectly beyond the Alavés centre-back, but held the ball momentarily so that the Antiguoko right-winger, making his run from the moment my son had initiated the move, could collect it without breaking stride, shoot past the skidding full-back, draw the hopelessly exposed keeper and score. 

    It was the best pass I’d ever seen in a football match, and was technically more difficult to execute than Cantona’s famous chip to Denis Irwin in the 1992-93 season, partly because of the foul weather but also because it was harder to see the right-winger’s run.  Cantona could see Irwin in front of him, and the pitch was dry. Awestruck, I turned to a fellow parent and said ‘That kid will play for a top club. Barcelona or Madrid.’ 

    Scroll the clip forward six years, and the kid, Unai López, is trotting out for Leganés against Barcelona in the Saturday mid-day sunshine.  He sports orange boots and a rather unconvincing beard, but he is still relatively small, not quite as stocky as six years ago but with the same slightly cocky gait, and the focus that characterised him that season when my son was charged with protecting him in midfield. 

    Barcelona’s stars strut and preen in the line-up, and López, six years on from my prediction, shakes Leo Messi’s hand as he passes, but is not in the same team.  López now belongs to Athletic Bilbao, but unable to shift Beñat from the central midfield position has been loaned out to La Liga’s newcomers for a season, and has played in all their games so far. 

    There’s an interesting tussle in store.  Leganés is a satellite-city in the south-west of the Madrid conurbation , and its team’s inaugural appearance in the top flight has come 88 years after the club’s foundation, in 1928. 

    Last season Madrid lost two of its satellite clubs to relegation – Getafe and Rayo Vallecano, so Leganés is shoring up the capital city’s football stock.  Written off before they kicked a ball in anger this season, they won their first game away at Celta, gained a worthy draw in their first home game against Atlético Madrid and then fell narrowly to Sporting in Gijón after the international break. 

    Barcelona’s last league game was a surprising 1-2 home reversal to another promoted club, Alavés – none of whose players were playing that day six years ago. Barcelona have since jollied themselves up a little by pummelling Celtic 7-0 in the Champions League, but are taking no chances. The MSN is back in all its hair-dyed glory, but Sergio Busquets is missing and Javi Mascherano, playing poorly of late, is supplanted by the new rock of ages, Samuel Umtiti, and has to settle for a full-back role with Sergio Roberto surprisingly confined to the bench.

    Leganés start well, buoyed possibly by the banner in the Butarque ground which announces ‘Que sea lo que Dios quiera’ (let things turn out as God decides), and López is determining the pace of their play, pressing high up so that the MSN don’t see the ball, and passing quickly and simply to colleagues. It’s odd to watch him in this company, and realise that he can live with it.  But the party lasts for only 15 minutes, when Luis Suárez, looking slightly tubby of late, bulldozers down the right side, flattens poor Unai Bustinza (another Athletic loanee) and crosses for  Messi to open the scoring. 

    Undeterred, Leganés still look lively with Darwin Machís making life uncomfortable for Mascherano and the Algerian Carl Medjani aggressive and decisive in the centre of midfield. López is doing ok until the fatal 31st minute, where over on the right of midfield he under-hits a back-pass intended for Lluis Sastre which Messi picks up at full pelt. López tries to get back and thinks about fouling Messi in the area, but it’s too late as the Argentine holds him off and squares to Súarez who taps in. López runs to the post and kicks it in frustration.  He knows he’s messed up. 

    The goal kills Leganés off and Neymar more or less seals the points with a third just before half-time. López’ famous pass from six years ago replays in my mind, from the kid who I saw develop  as a player from the age of ten. When reality hits and you’re up against the world’s best forward line, you simply cannot afford the slightest error, and the pass was ill-judged, possibly caused by Neymar’s pressing.  But he’s made it – he’s here, playing in the world’s top league (at least in terms of quality), and he’ll learn from the mistake.

    I text my son far away, about to take the field in the East of Scotland Premier against Leith, and tell him Unai has ‘messed up’ for Messi’s goal. He replies immediately, telling me that another player from their old circle, now in the Eibar ‘B’ squad, has already texted to tell him. The power of digital media to leave no stone unturned – to unite a dispersed collection of acquaintances in an instant – never fails to amaze.

    Meanwhile, up in the north in San Sebastián, in López’ old stamping ground, the player he passed to that rainy day six years ago day (Martin Merquelanz) is racking up a hat-trick for Real Sociedad ‘B’ against Guernica.

    You wonder for Leganés, despite their bright-ish start. In the end they lose 5-1 and their short squad, buoyed by loanees (there are eight in the squad of 24) and last-minute signings, might suffer as the season wears on. The loaning clubs will eventually benefit from the exercise given to their ponies, but the hosts need to ensure that they can live with the best for a nine-month slog. At least their next three games look accessible – away to Deportivo on Thursday night, at home to struggling Valencia next Sunday (another lunch-time kick-off) and then away to Granada. It seems rather premature to say it, but the next three games might well have a significant bearing on their season.

    Barcelona, seemingly recovered from the trauma of their home defeat to Alavés, host Atlético Madrid on Wednesday night in the first real hum-dinger of the season. Atlético seem to be warming their engines up after a cold start, and dispatched Sporting with a 5-0 trouncing, Antoine Griezmann again scoring twice. That’s four goals for him in two games, and nine for his team.

    The only cloud on the club’s horizon was the curious incident this week that saw Diego Simeone’s contract reduced by two years from 2020 to 2018, with no reason given apart from the rather odd message that it was ‘in the best interests of the club’. No newspaper seems to have come to a satisfactory conclusion about this one, but the rumour mill suggests that Simeone has an eye on the Argentina job, post-Russia.  It may be the case. Meanwhile, the team rolls on. 

    Over in the other part of Barcelona, Espanyol were ceding the usual three points to Real Madrid when they visit (0-2), but this time it allowed Zidane’s side – missing Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale – to equal Pep Guardiola’s record of sixteen consecutive league wins with Barcelona – a record that was set in 2011, oddly enough after a 3-0 win against Atlético. If Madrid defeat Villarreal on Wednesday night then they’ll set a new record.  Happy times for the leaders, for whom James Rodriguez opened the scoring in an act of self-vindication,  Karim Benzema doing pretty much the same on 70 minutes. 

    After a slow start to the season, with the international break interrupting the flow, things are getting busy now. I’ll be taking a live look at the season’s surprise package on Wednesday night, Las Palmas.  Stay tuned.