Sunday, March 29, 2015

Morata makes his mark for Spain

Morata makes his mark for Spain.
THE SPANISH WEEK IN REVIEW

* Spain beat Ukraine 1:0 unimpressively in Seville to stay second in Euro 2016 qualifying Group C three points behind Slovakia and three ahead of Ukraine. The top two qualify for France.

With Diego Costa injured, Juventus' Alvaro Morata took his chance and grabbed the game's only goal in the 28th minute, latching on to a through-ball from Koke and exploiting the gap between the two centre-halves to beat the goalkeeper via a looping deflection from a defender's leg.

Spain probably deserved to win given they had 64% of the ball, outshot Ukraine 17 to 9 and outpassed them 647 to 271. Yet two fingertip saves from Iker Casillas in the second half and Spain's failure to threaten the goal for any meaningful spell after scoring left a lot of scratching of heads.

Their flat second half left coach Vicente Del Bosque with in his own words, "a bad taste in the mouth."

Del Bosque, the kindly, huggable grandad on the touchline still seems impossible to hate, which is a huge advantage for a national team manager.

Most coaches would have been shown the door after such a disastrous World Cup, but there is also a lack of real alternatives, assuming the RFEF wants a Spaniard. La Liga's highest-placed coach from the country is the Basque Unai Emery, in charge of Sevilla.

Spain still has a panoply of attacking flair, so much so they could leave Santi Cazorla and Cesc Fabregas on the bench, but is fumbling in search of a playing style following the eclipse of the golden years of tiki-taka.

Xavi has left the scene along with it seems Fernando Torres, and while Andres Iniesta is still only 30 and played 74 minutes, he is not quite the outstanding player as before.

David Silva has taken over as the hub of creativity in La Roja, and his changes of pace, creation of angles and general unpredictability were in evidence again at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

Atletico's Koke & Real's Isco stepped up in midfield, hinting at the future heart of the side, but otherwise the veterans Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos ran the show at the back and Casillas ruled the roost between the sticks, reminding his critics of how agile he still is aged 33.

Morata read his lines perfectly by scoring the winner, but admitted it had not been his best match for Spain.

The Juve striker explained Ukraine had been "very tough and very physical" and had made it hard to impose himself on the game.

The evidence the 22 year-old can dislodge Costa for good as Spain's main golscorer remains inconclusive.

Jordi Alba hobbled off with a hamstring pull and the Barça full back is expected out for about ten days.

La Roja have a friendly away to Holland on Tuesday before resuming 'Eurocopa' action in Belarus on the 14th of June.

* The inquest into Barcelona's El Clásico triumph dominated much of the week in the Madrid-based press, while Catalonia's equivalents rejoiced.

The most extreme reaction was from three Real aficionados who had waited up into the small hours outside Real's training ground and struck the cars of Gareth Bale and Jese as they drove away in darkness, hurling insults.

Sergio Ramos then bravely stopped his vehicle, wound down the window and tried to reason with one of the morons, a club member who was subsequently banned from the Bernabeu.

68% of Real fans when polled said they would drop Bale from the side, as stats showed he misplaced half of his passes at the Camp Nou, although he was arguably wrongly flagged offside for a goal.

The linesman signalled an infraction by Cristiano Ronaldo who was in an offside position as the ball sailed over him to Bale.

Luis Suarez's poacher finish decided the game and came from a route one launch from Dani Alves, an apparent confirmation that tiki-taka is a thing of the past.

That system of course hinged upon the magic triangle of Andres Iniesta, Messi & Xavi, which has been supplanted by the 'MSN' of Messi, Suarez and Neymar.

Suarez played as a traditional No.9 against Real and it paid off, but it came at the expense of isolating Neymar, who but for one exciting dribble, was comparatively peripheral.

Yet the Catalan fans had little to gripe about and have been on a victory lap, reveling in their four-point lead. El Mundo Deportivo hailed Gerard Pique's imperious defensive shift, christening him 'Piquenbauer'!

The title is now definitively in Barça's own hands, but if there is a silver lining for Real, it is that they have a slightly easier run-in.

Six out of their last eleven games are at home, compared to five for Barça, who also have to travel to Atletico Madrid, while Real's hardest trip is to Sevilla. Both have to play Valencia at home.

Nou Camp legend Johan Cruyff was as barbed as ever, opining without a hint of irony, "It is fantastic to win a game when you are playing badly."

* The Camp Nou will host the Copa del Rey final on the 30th of May despite the fact Barcelona will effectively be playing a home game against Athletic Bilbao.

Real Madrid declined to offer the Bernabeu for the final, which seemed rather churlish but in character for owner Florentino Perez.

Two hours of negotiations in Madrid followed between Barca, Athletic and four Spanish league representatives, the latter of whom offered Valencia's Mestalla and Rea Betis' Benito Villamarin stadia as venues.

The Seville venue was apparently discounted because a medical conference had prebooked most of the hotel rooms but it is unclear why Valencia was rejected too. The two clubs instead decided to choose one or other of their home grounds and passed the vote over to the league's general assembly, who voted 26-18 in favour of the Camp Nou.

In actual fact, Barça President Josep Maria Bartomeu wanted Bilbao to win, as he was afraid of a large Catalan crowd booing the King.

Bilbao fans meanwhile, are livid that the flights and hotel rooms have trebled in price since the announcement.

* Three La Liga stars are the best-paid footballers in the world according to France Football. Lionel Messi is the richest, with an annual take of £47.8 million, of which £26 million is his club salary and the rest commercial endorsements. Cristiano Ronaldo comes in second on £39.7 million and Neymar third on £26.8 million.

* Atletico Madrid have extended manager Diego Simeone's contract until 2020. The Argentine has been attracting admiring glances from big English sides but has opted it seems to stay in Madrid.

Simeone's reputation is still growing, but his future may depend on whether Spain can rejig its distribution of television money.

Last season Cardiff City earned more than twice that of the La Liga champions and Champions League finalists.

If the Spanish league can agree on collective rights instead of letting the big two hoover up the lion's share, and if Atletico can finally complete their new 73,000-seat home too, the increased revenue streams could make them a permanent challenger to the Barça-Real hegemony.

La Peineta stadium has been beset by delays and will not open until 2017 now at the earliest.

For now, it seems Simeone has made the right call in sticking with the project, but outside factors will dictate how long the Argentine stays in Madrid.

* Manchester United's Ander Herrera gave a great interview to El Pais this week, revealing amongst other things that Wayne Rooney insults the Spanish-speaking players in their own language when he needs to.

The 25 year-old, who awaits his first Spanish cap, added he tried to engage Rooney in football chat because the Englishman loves boxing and,"I'm not sure what he might try to do to me."

Herrera also confirmed Louis Van Gaal's soccer philosophy. "He loves possession football," he confirmed. "Van Gaal believes in getting numbers out on the wing, passing triangles and not running with the ball," a style of play he contrasted with Marcelo Bielsa, his coach at Athletic Bilbao.

"He liked to have the ball for attacking," Herrera said of the Argentine. "He believed in player movement, passing defensive lines and breaking into space." According to Bielsa, the perfect goal was one winger crossing it for the other winger to slot in.

Herrera said he enjoyed the Premier League for its honest play and noted the expectation to go in hard in the tackle. He also said the Spanish-speaking contingent at Old Trafford like to joke around more as a group than the English, who prefer to "seek solitude", and that there was less craziness around Manchester United than at Barcelona or Real Madrid.

In a gem of cross-cultural appreciation, the Basque-born midfielder quipped, "I'm an old romantic and I was touched at the match with Yeovil Town when a stadium of 8,000 people were on their feet shouting 'Who are you?'".

Herrera's club have slapped a €68 million price tag on Spanish goalie David De Gea, who is under contract until 2016, while Liverpool are said to be keen on Real striker Karim Benzema.

* This week's transfer rumours included Barcelona eyeing Chelsea's Diego Costa and Filipe Luis and Man Utd offering £80 million to secure Cristiano Ronaldo's return.

Valencia was the centre of attention however with 'Los Che' said to be more on the trail of Falcao while fighting to keep hold of some of their own stars.

Portuguese midfielder Andre Gomes (21) is said to be attracting his compatriot coach Jose Mourinho, with Chelsea preparing a £36 million offer.

Valencia have also slapped a £37 million release clause on Argentine central defender Nicolas Otamendi (27), who has been getting admiring glances from Man Utd and others.

German defender Shkodran Moustafi (22) and Algerian midfielder Sofiane Feghouli (25) also from Valencia, are candiadates for moves to the Premier League in the summer.

Meanwhile, Tottenham are looking at recruiting Spanish striker Fernando Llorente from Juventus, after having mixed fortunes with fellow Iberian Roberto Soldado.

THIS WEEK: Kick-off times GMT

Tue 31st Mar - Friendly   Netherlands v Spain 7.45pm

Sat 4th April - La Liga     Cordoba v Atletico Madrid  5pm

Sun 5th April - La Liga    Real Madrid v Granada 11am, Valencia v Villareal 4pm, Celta Vigo v Barcelona 8pm

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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