Barcelona 2-2 Real Madrid. Lionel Messi 2-2 Cristiano Ronaldo. The best two players in the world – or “from another planet” according to Madrid coach Jose Mourinho after a magnificent October Camp Nou clasico, the only time Barcelona have dropped points in the league this season. Madrid fans will remember the league clasico earlier in the year, when Ronaldo got a winner, silenced Camp Nou, overshadowed Messi and all but assured them of a first title under Jose Mourinho. Barca would prefer to remember knocking Madrid out of the Copa del Rey in January. They may play each other a lot, but the intensity and quality never waivers. Not for nothing is the clasico the best game in world football.
There were many, but Falcao’s first half hat-trick in the European Super Cup final against European champions Chelsea in Monaco made anyone who’d doubted the Colombian admit they were wrong. Falcao also scored two in the Europa League final as Atleti won yet more silverware and he’s started this season like a player who justifies Pep Guardiola’s description of him being “the world’s best penalty-box player.”
Athletic Bilbao’s pitiful defence of charging Manchester United fans 91 euros for tickets for their Europa League tie, the highest ever ticket price for a non-final game for United fans, when home fans paid a third of the price for similar tickets. It was so bad it was funny. And it sullied – at least in the eyes of 1,000 United fans - what was a brilliant run for Athletic.
They outclassed United home and away, playing brilliant attacking football in which they dominated. They had 6,800 fans at Old Trafford, the largest ever following for a European game at the stadium outside of the 2003 Champions League final. They were friendly and the Basques also put on a fine party after they’d beaten United in Bilbao, with 50,000 people on the streets celebrating.
Most of Atheltic’s 4-3-3 (Iraizoz; Iraola, Javi Martinez, Amorebieta, Aurtenetxe; De Marcos, Iturraspe, Ander Herrera; Munian, Llorente and Susaeta) became household names during their 15-game run to the final and deservedly so. It was a shame they couldn’t lift some silverware for the first time since 1984, for that would have seen a barge called ‘Athletic’ sail down the Nervion river with the victorious players on board. The hospitable Basques know how to have a good time - their club knew how to rip visiting fans off.
Messi, Ronaldo, Xavi, Iniesta etc. You know the script, know that all are the best in the world. So let’s mention another, Isco of Malaga. If Santi Cazorla was the best player outside of the big two before joining Arsenal, then Isco can now be in contention for that title. Malaga have actually improved without Cazorla, largely thanks to the blossoming local boy (from the Brit-packed Costa del Sol resort of Benalmadena) who ended up joining Valencia before arriving at Malaga for 6m euros in 2011.
He’s a playmaker who’s shone not just domestically, but in the Champions League as Malaga surprised everyone by winning a group containing AC Milan. Isco brings unpredictability to Malaga’s attack, he makes well-timed runs, passes precisely and can finish. He’s starting to justify the tag of “the new Iniesta.”
Aside from Chelsea knocking out Barcelona? Or Guardiola resigning and being replaced by Tito Vilanova? Or Levante qualifying for Europe? Zaragoza had two wins from 16 games at the turn of the year, adrift at the bottom of the table with fans in uproar, protesting against their president Agapito Iglesias. Players were not getting paid on time by the club, who are 100m euros in debt, and were telling their agents to move them as soon as they could – not that they were doing much to interest suitors.
Expectations were much higher for the only team from Spain’s fifth biggest city - fourth judged by economic power. Zaragoza hail from a metropolitan area of almost 800,000 and could easily average 30,000 if they weren’t losing every week. Against that backdrop they appointed former Sevilla player turned coach Manolo Jimenez, a man with supreme motivational powers. He changed their training, their psychology and mentality too. They started to win, usually with last-minute winners. And they survived, with Jimenez the saviour.
Two tragic deaths. Manuel Preciado, the former Sporting Gijon coach who died of a heart attack aged 54 a day after taking over Villarreal in June. He died within days of Betis’ former Liverpool player Miki Roque who was only 23 and had cancer. Barcelona’s Carles Puyol never made it public, but he paid for Roque – from the neighbouring (and rival) village in the Catalan Pyrenees – to have the best treatment possible. Sadly, it wasn’t enough. Many Spain players knew both well. They vowed to win Euro 2012 in their memory. And they did.
It’s all relative, but Espanyol were absolutely appalling in 2012, while Villarreal were so bad they went down. Valencia have been poor this season and the chance of finishing third for the fourth succession season looks remote. Real Madrid dropping so many points in the league this season has been a surprise. They looked to have overcome a barrier when they won their 32nd league title in May, looked to have the measure of Barcelona. But they haven’t.
Their failure (four defeats on the road so far including a 3-2 loss at Malaga) has made the race for second more interesting, but it’s also made the league a monopoly which is all but over at the winter break. Madrid are 16 points behind Barcelona and seven behind their neighbours Atletico.
Who to look out for in 2013
Rayo Vallecano’s Brazilian striker Leo Baptistao is only 20 and has played just 16 top-flight games. He’s fast and versatile enough to be deployed as a forward or on the wing. He’s overcome serious injury and his star is starting to shine, as his six league goals so far illustrate. The last player to do so well at Rayo was a lad called Michu. Anyone know what happened to him?
Happy Christmas to all, best wishes for next year and thanks for reading in 2012.