Sunday, April 5, 2015
A Dutch Treat for La Roja then Real hit nine
* Holy Week, when the nation shuts down for some colourful parades of its Catholic roots, began with Spain losing 2-0 to the Netherlands in Amsterdam, provoking a round of navel-gazing about La Roja's chances of defending their Euro crown in France next year.
Much of the criticism seemed misplaced: It was a friendly after all, Vicente Del Bosque had made nine changes to the side which had beaten Ukraine four days earlier and Holland's first goal was one of real quality, although there were seven Spanish defenders in the box when Davy Klaassen poked home the Dutch's second.
But Spain have now lost six out of their last eleven matches, and crucially, three of those to big European nations they will have to overcome next summer - France, Germany & the Netherlands (twice), as well as the defeat in Slovakia.
Although Del Bosque's side sit second in their Euro 2016 qualifying group and should make it to France okay, the World Cup 2014 debacle now looks like it was not a flash in the pan.
After six years of being ranked the world's No.1 nation, Spain are currently rated 11th by FIFA, their lowest classification since being 12th in 2006.
The generational shift in the side has not been completed and the manager is ploughing the same furrows he has for the past few years, even though the team is no longer defeating allcomers.
With no Xabi Alonso or Xavi and the twilight beckoning for Andres Iniesta, the creative heart of the midfield has been torn out. As with Barcelona, tiki-taka is no more for La Roja, but unlike Luis Enrique's team, Del Bosque's Spain have not adopted a successful substitute style.
Alvaro Morata and Vitolo did enough to suggest they could play up front alongside or instead of Diego Costa and the dribble king Pedro once more looked dangerous without scoring.
But the sum total of the new Roja - De Gea, Isco, Juanmi, Koke and San Jose as well as the players above, while all decent performers at club level, have yet to find much telepathy for the national side.
No one is really sure how Spain should be playing or what the starting eleven should be, but agree they should at least muddle through to France 2016 where the real test will arrive.
To be fair, after taking a double-whammy in the first half, Spain dominated the meeting in Amsterdam and should have scored at least one in reply.
Iniesta, Alvaro Morata, Pedro, David Silva and Vitolo all forged goalscoring opportunities but were foiled by a very hard-working Dutch defence, which was all the more remarkable as Holland are languishing third in Euro 2016 Group A and in serious danger of not qualifying.
There is no clamour to pick uncapped players, just to get the existing ones playing better. All possible suspects have been given a go. And no country should complain if its B team features starters from Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid.
One humourous note on the night was the Dutch fans' booing of Iniesta in reference to his World Cup-winning goal in 2010. The fake outrage from the managers ignored the fact it was done out of jealousy and was a pertinent reminder of Spain's recent golden age.
* Gareth Bale's two goals and leading role for Wales in their win against Israel made the front pages of the sports section, apparent proof that his frustrating spell in Madrid has been down to Carlo Ancelotti's tight system, which has not made the most of his talents this season.
Lionel Messi's 3,500 mile (6,500km) round-trip from Barcelona to the USA only to stay on the touchlines for two Argentina matches raised a chuckle or two, smacking of the firm hand of FCB.
Despite the 53,000 fans in Maryland and 48,000 in New Jersey chanting his name, Leo stayed glued to the bench the whole time.
*Real Madrid's €32 million capture of Danilo from Porto quickly pushed Spain's floundering national team off the front pages.
The 23 year-old Brazilian right-back, who has been nicknamed 'the new Maicon', has penned a deal until 2021, implying he will be a lynchpin of the first team, which will probably mean the exit for Alvaro Arbeloa this summer and competition with Daniel Carvajal.
Danilo won the Copa Libertadores alongside Neymar for Santos in 2011, before two league titles in Portugal. He has 13 caps for Brazil and played in the 2012 Olympics in London.
* How long before we see a Chinese star at Atletico Madrid? The Dalian Wanda group, who now own 20% of the club, have already sent 90 young footballers from China to work with Atletico's academy...
* Real Madrid sank a hapless Granada 9-1 early on Easter Sunday with Cristiano Ronaldo bagging five goals to leapfrog Leo Messi in the pichichi (top-scorer) race.
Gareth Bale also took another step on the road to redemption with the opening goal and James Rodriguez played one hour in his first game for a couple of months following injury.
Impressive as the cavalcade was it also offered more proof that the top flight is in desperate need of collectivised tv rights to remain credible.
Atletico Madrid won 2-0 at Cordoba to stay third five points behind Real, while Valencia could only draw 0-0 at home to Villareal. Sevilla beat Athletic Bilbao 2-0 to close the gap on the fourth Champions League spot to three points.
Late on Easter Sunday, Barcelona scraped a 1-0 win at Celta de Vigo to stay four points clear at the top. The Catalans made heavy weather of their win and had to thank Jeremy Mathieu, scorer in El Clasico, again.
The Frenchman stretched to nod in Xavi's 74th minute free-kick and save the day for the league-leaders, although their far from fluent win will have encouraged nine-goal Real that they will slip up in the final run-in.
Celta's Fabian Orellana was red-carded two minutes from time for lobbing a clump of wet grass at Sergio Busquets' face in protest at his delaying a free-kick.
* In this week's transfer rumours, Fabio Coentrao looks set for the exit door from Real Madrid, admitting it would be "an honour to play for Manchester United." Besiktas have also expressed interest.
Chicharito said his lack of playing time at the Bernabeu was "frustrating", which is odd considering he was on the bench at Man Utd too and the 'BBC' is the core of Real's attack. Wolfsburg are keen to sign the Mexican on.
Bayern Munich meanwhile could table a €60 million bid for Real centre-back Raphael Varane.
Man City are eyeing Carlo Ancelotti to replace Manuel Pellegrini, says Gazzetta dello Sport, with a whole host of candidates lined up to replace the Italian.
Zinedine Zidane, coach of Real Madrid Castilla (reserves) is the most obvious suspect, but other names in the frame include Jurgen Klopp, Rafael Benitez, Jogi Low and Porto coach Julen Lopetegui.
Atletico Madrid are set to recall attacking midfielder Oliver Torres from Porto and central defender Toby Alderweireld from Southampton in the summer, though centre-back Miranda could be heading to Old Trafford.
This week's big games; kick-off times GMT
Tues 7th April
Atletico Madrid v Real Sociedad 7pm
Levante v Sevilla 9pm
Weds 8th April
Barcelona v Almeria 7pm
Rayo Vallecano v Real Madrid 9pm
Thu 9th April
Athletic Bilbao v Valencia 7pm
Sat 11th April
Real Madrid v Eibar 3pm
Malaga v Atletico Madrid 5pm
Sevilla v Barcelona 7pm
(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile