Category Archives: La Liga

Wheel of Gaffers (Unemployed Managers, Part III)

tim-sherwood-449897

Even Tim Sherwood can’t believe he has a job before these five guys.

Tim Sherwood is now in charge of former European Champions Aston Villa.  Tim Sherwood.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Now look at these guys who aren’t working.

I'm sure that scarf is hanging above Juande's mantle...

I’m sure that scarf is hanging above Juande’s mantle…

Juande Ramos
Age: 60
Nationality: Spanish
Honours: 2006 & 2007 UEFA Cups, 2007 Copa del Rey with Sevilla; 2007 League Cup with Tottenham Hotspur

If there is a manager who personifies the “What Have You Done For Me Lately” epithet, it’s Juande Ramos.  Any other manager would have been lauded for his accomplishments.  But unfortunately, the Spaniard made his mistakes under two of the footballing world’s most intense spotlights.

Ramos’ career started well.  After almost a decade of managing lower-level clubs, he took over a second division Rayo Vallecano in 1998 and led them straight into promotion… and kept them there. He did even better with a newly-promoted Real Betis, steering them to a decent sixth place.  But a switch to Espanyol the next season ended badly;  Ramos was fired after only six matches with the club sitting in 19th.   He then did a season at Málaga, before joining the club that would make his reputation.

Sevilla was a consistent mid-table side when Ramos arrived in 2005; he took the Andalusians and made them winners.  They only improved by a single place in their first season, but with eight more points, they only barely missed out on a Champions League spot due to their inferior head-to-head record against Osasuna.  More importantly, they won the UEFA Cup, beating teams like Lille, Zenit St. Petersburg (who were semi-finalists the year before), and Schalke before demolishing Steve MacLaren’s Middlesbrough 4-0.  After beating Barcelona in the UEFA Super Cup, they finished the next season on a mega-high, retaining the UEFA Cup by beating Ramos’ old side, Espanyol.   Los Rojiblancos then ended at a very strong third place, falling only two points short of giants Barcelona and Real Madrid (Barça won the title on GD), and challenging the Big Two’s league hegemony.  The annus mirabilis ended by beating surprise finalists Getafe to win the Copa del Rey, Sevilla’s first in almost 60 years.

After Tottenham sacked Martin Jol in October 2007, Juande Ramos slipped into place in North London, having faced Spurs in the UEFA Cup semi-final just five months before.  The club fell to 11th, after finishing fifth the previous season: not a great return.  But Spurs took two significant scalps, beating the hated Arsenal and then Chelsea in their march to win the League Cup.   The semi-final was their first derby win in nine years; as was the trophy that followed.  But after making a hash of the summer transfer market, two points in their first eight games left Spurs in dead last… and that was it for Ramos.

Not that it mattered.  Six weeks later, Ramos was the head coach of the world’s biggest club.   Real Madrid went on an incredible run, winning all but one of 18 games (the single stumble was a draw) and pulling themselves back into the title race.  But then Madrid lost 2-6 against Barcelona and proceeded to lose their last four after that.  The Catalans had the title and Ramos’ contract was not renewed.   After that, he pulled a Brian Clough in Moscow, lasting only six weeks at CSKA, before spending four years at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.   He left in the spring after eastern Ukraine blew up.

Ramos is a winner… you can’t say otherwise.  But his rough ride by the English media may have tarnished his reputation, despite a trophy.

claudio-ranieri_1384968cClaudio Ranieri
Age: 63
Nationality: Italian
Honours: 1996 Coppa Italia with Fiorentina, 1999 Copa del Rey with Valencia

Perhaps the opposite of Juande Ramos is The Tinkerman, Claudio Ranieri.   After 11 top-flight clubs, and one disasterous stint on a national team, Ranieri is an example of someone who’s acquired new positions on his past successes, but has never been able to replicate them.

Like so many young managers, Ranieri first garnered attention by leading a club through to promotion. He did it in successive seasons with Cagliari, taking them from Serie C1 to the top flight.  But when they finished just above the drop zone in 1991, he jumped ship to Napoli.  Here again was the same pattern: a great initial season followed by decline.  The southerners finished in fourth in 1992, and then 11th the next season; so back down to the lower leagues he went, taking over at Fiorentina and getting them promoted.    He secured their place in Serie A, and then brought them to fourth the next year.  More importantly, he won the 1996 Coppa Italia… their first trophy in 21 years.  But even that has a mental asterisk after it: La Viola didn’t face top-flight opposition until the semi-final against Inter, and both they and finalists Atalanta struggled in the league that season.  Still… silver is silver.

Fiorentina declined the next season, finishing ninth and Ranieri left for Sunny Spain, albeit still a hero in Tuscan eyes.   The Tinkerman landed in Valencia, where he reversed his pattern.  His first season was middling, but the next season, Los Che jumped into fourth spot and into a Champions League place.  However, it was the Copa del Rey campaign where Valencia really shone.  Jumping in at the Round of 16, Ranieri’s side pumped their derby rivals, Levante, 4-0.  Then they overcame Barcelona in a goal-scoring slugfest, beating the Catalan side 7-5 on aggregate.  In the semi-finals, they embarrassed Real Madrid at The Mestalla, 6-0; a 2-1 loss back at the Bernabeu became meaningless.  A 3-0 win over Atlético Madrid in the final was almost anti-climatic.  Claudio Ranieri’s Valencia scored 21 goals over five games… and he now had more silver and more accolades.

That was 16 years ago, and after nine more jobs over 15 seasons, the Italian has yet to win anything else.   Atlético Madrid were relegated in his sole season in the Spanish capital.   He then took over from Gianluigi Vialli at Chelsea, slipping backwards in the league, but taking them to an FA Cup final and a Champions League semi-final.  A stint back in Valencia ended badly, after he took over the Spanish champions from Rafael Benítez… and finished in seventh.   He moved to Italy, taking over at Parma and then a newly-promoted Juventus (after their relegation for the Calciopoli scandal), followed by stints at Roma and Inter Milan.  He helped AS Monaco win promotion back to Ligue 1, before a disastrous stint as Greece national manager, with the side losing to the Faroe Islands in Athens.

At 63, the Tinkerman may not be able to tinker with the machinations of Time.

Frank-RijkaardFrank Rijkaard
Age: 52
Nationality: Dutch
Honours: 2005, 2006 Spanish Champions, 2006 Champions League winners with Barcelona

There might not be a more decorated unemployed manager in the world than Frank Rijkaard. As a player, the Dutch star was a member of some of the best squads that ever were, including the Ajax sides of the 80s and 90s, along with a stint at Arrigo Sacchi’s great Milan side that dominated the late 80s (speaking of unemployed managers, this might explain why Sacchi is no longer employed).   He was also a member of that golden Dutch side that won the 1988 European Championship.

Rijkaard’s big management break came early, when at 36 years old, he took over the Netherlands national side.  The Oranje only missed out on a trip to the Euro 2000 final after losing on penalties to Italy.  He then moved into club management, suffering relegation with Sparta Rotterdam before moving to Barcelona.  Like his famous compatriot, Johan Cruyff, he helped Barcelona develop its “Golden Generation” of young Masia graduates, including Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Victor Valdes… and  a certain Argentinian midfielder.  By 2005, Barcelona had their first La Liga title in six years; the following season, they would repeat as champions.  But more importantly, Rijkaard’s Barcelona would win the first of three Champions League titles in six seasons.

Then things started to go south.  The Catalans missed out on the following season’s title due to its head-to-head record with arch-rivals Real.  The following season, Barça finished third, and were knocked out of the semi-finals in both the Copa del Rey and the Champions League.  Barcelona President Joan Laporta finally pulled the plug, removing Rijkaard and replacing him with Pep Guardiola.   The Dutchman then spent a decent season at Galatasaray before taking over as manager for Saudi Arabia.  But a poor showing in World Cup qualifying and then in the Gulf Cup of Nations meant another exit.

The same rumours of arrogance and prickliness that surround his  former teammate, Ruud Gullit, also permeates Rijkaard’s reputation.  But the man won the Champions League and now he’s working at a Florida prep school.  Come on…

Rossi wins friends wherever he goes...

Rossi wins friends wherever he goes…

Delio Rossi
Age: 55
Nationality: Italian
Honours: 1999 Coppa Italia with Lazio

Delio Rossi’s first taste of Serie A managerial life began when he gained promotion — and subsequent relegation — with Salernitana in the late 90s. However, that single solitary season was his only stint in the top-flight for the first 13 years of his head coaching career. It’s when he took over at Lecce that his career took off… sort of. After guiding them to a decent 10th place, he jumped ship to Atalanta in 2004, and was promptly relegated again. Undeterred, he joined Lazio, where his side played decently, but they were prevented from playing in the following season’s UEFA competition because of the club’s involvement in the Calciopoli scandal. But the following season, the Romans made good, finishing third… good enough for a qualifying spot in the Champions League.

After that, it was tough for Rossi.  The club finished in a miserable 12th place and came dead last in their CL group.  Their league form barely improved in 2008-2009… and there were rumblings that Rossi’s infamous temper did not sit well with Lazio chairman Claudio Letito.  But their Coppa Italia run that season was inspiring.  The Biancocelesti took out Rossi’s old club, Atalanta, before beating Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan side in extra time, then won against Turin’s big clubs in three straight games: a 3-1 victory over Torino, then subsequent 2-1 victories in the two legs of the semi-final against Juventus.  In the final, it took six penalties to beat Sampdoria to take the cup.

But trophy or no trophy, Letito had enough of his manager by the end of the season.  Rossi had to wait until November for another gig, this time in Sicily with Palermo.  He guided them from 12th to fifth, only missing out on a Champions League spot by a point.   The next season, they slumped in the league and dropped out of the Europa League in the group stage, leading to Rossi getting fired for two months before being rehired again.  Then cup lightning almost struck twice, as he reached the 2011 Coppa Italia final, going through eventual champions Milan again to lose 3-1 to Inter.

But the moment that will define Rossi — and probably a big reason why he is out of work — is an incident in Fiorentina.  He joined the Tuscan club in November 2011 but they struggled, sitting just six points above the drop zone at the beginning of May 2012.  Fiorentina were losing to Novara 2-0, when Rossi substituted Adem Ljajić. The Serbian sarcastically applauded his own manager, which made Rossi lose. His. Mind. He attacked his own player on the bench… and was dismissed the next day.

Rossi’s last job was at Sampdoria in 2012-2013, where the Genoese side finished 14th and were humiliated in the Coppa by Serie B side, Juve Stabia. He was relieved of his position in December 2013, with Samps sitting in the drop zone.  Rossi was replaced by the man he took over from at Fiorentina, Siniša Mihajlović, a man who is no stranger to fisticuffs himself.

FOOT - RCLJacques Santini
Age: 62
Nationality: French
Honours: 2002 Ligue 1 winner with Olympique Lyonnais

Jacques Santini is considered the architect of the mighty Lyon team that dominated French football at the dawn of the millenium.  As the club’s technical director, he built up the club and took over as manager in 2000.  The next season, he led the club to what would be the first of its eight straight league titles.  So it’s no surprise the French national team came calling, after the defending World, European and Confederations Cup champions failed to score a single goal in South Korea at the 2002 World Cup.

Under Santini, Les Bleus were an unqualified success, losing only single match — a friendly — to the Czech Republic in early 2003.   The French team sailed through Euro 2004 qualifying, and won the Confederations Cup again along the way.  In the actual tournament, there was the infamous opening win against England in Lisbon, when Zinedine Zidane scored a monster free kick in the 90th minute to tie the match, followed by a converted penalty three minutes later.  The French would draw the Croatians and beat rivals Switzerland to earn a quarterfinal against unassuming Greece.  The rest is history… and so was Santini as France’s manager.

Really though, the former St-Etienne star had already agreed to take over at Tottenham Hotspur from caretaker David Pleat.  But 13 games into the season, Santini quit… apparently because the former football executive couldn’t agree with his higher-ups at the club.  Of course, it didn’t help that Spurs were sitting in 14th spot at the time.  He took over at Auxerre in 2005-2006, but was sacked after losing the last five games of the season and dropping out of a European spot.

Recently, Santini has been linked with jobs in Africa, including the top spot at 2015 African Cup of Nations semi-finalist Equitorial Guinea.  But he is 62, he hasn’t managed a team in almost a decade and he has a reputation for conflict with his bosses.

Still… if Tim Sherwood can get a job…

Brent Lanthier

 

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Filed under Champions League, English Football, Europa League, La Liga, Ligue 1, Premier League, Serie A

Boss or No Boss (Managers, Part II)

So long, 'Arry!

So long, ‘Arry!

Harry Redknapp’s resignation as Queens Park Rangers’ boss likely means the end of his 32-year managerial career. Despite his colourful quotes and allegedly dubious transfer dealings, the man was still a winner… sometimes. He did take a flailing Portsmouth team, save them from the drop, and then went on to win the 2008 FA Cup (the last English manager to win a major English trophy). While ‘Arry found work… these guys are still looking for jobs.

vahidd1Vahid Halilodžić
Age: 62
Nationality: Bosnian
Honours: 2004 Coupe de France with PSG

Vahid Halilodžić is probably known more in the present day for what he didn’t win than what he did. The Bosnian should be feted in Algeria for bringing that country farther than it’s ever gone in a World Cup. The men in green played well in Brazil, pushing Germany to extra-time before the eventual champions came out ahead, 2-1. He then resigned in tears, blaming a resentful populace and media for unconscionably castigating him, despite his results.

Halilodžić’s accomplishments have been quiet, yet solid. He coached Lille OSC through promotion in 2000, and then into third place the next season; they’ve been up and competitive almost every season since (except this one). His move to PSG in 2004 resulted in winning the Coupe de France at first go, and propelled the club into second place. Although his second season resulted in his dismissal, his stints as coach of the Côte d’Ivoire (where he was dismissed despite qualifying for the 2010 World Cup) and Algeria national teams showed that he is capable of leading teams on the big stage.

glacombe_921161139

France’s answer to Tom Skerritt…

Guy Lacombe
Age: 59
Nationality: French
Honours: 2006 Coupe de France with PSG

Guy Lacombe became something of a cup specialist, winning the 2004 French League Cup with Sochaux in their second straight final. He then moved to Paris Saint-Germain and won the Coupe de France in his first season in the capital. However, his league results were middling at best… but he moved onto Rennes and Monaco, leading each side to the French Cup finals in 2009 and 2010, respectively. By January 2011 though, Monaco was in 17th place and Lacombe was fired.  Les Rouges et Blancs never recovered and were sent to Ligue 2.  Lacombe now works for France’s National Technical Director, François Blaquart.

Felix-Magath_EPA_2846160bFelix Magath
Age: 61
Nationality: German
Honours: 2005 & 2006 Bundesliga titles, 2005 & 2006 DfB Pokal winners with Bayern Munich; 2009 Bundesliga title with Wolfsburg

Few managers have as much pedigree as both a player and a coach as Felix Magath. Few managers inspire as much dread amongst players as well. As a player, Magath won every major European trophy, save the UEFA Cup (although he was in a final), with the mighty Hamburger SV team of the late 70s and early 80s.  He was also a member of the West German side that won the 1980 European Championship.  As a coach, he won successive league-cup doubles with Bayern Munich in 2005 and 2006; three years later, he won the league again, this time with Wolfsburg.

But then you hear the stories about his training regimens, his falling out with players, his desire for absolute control. Fulham loanee Lewis Holtby was reportedly aghast when he found out that his former tormentor was taking over at Craven Cottage. But “Saddam” could not save Fulham from the drop, and now no club in Germany wants him back.  Still… some English club must need a good ol’ fashioned spanking.

MazzarriWalter Mazzarri
Age: 53
Nationality: Italian
Honours: 2012 Coppa Italia with Napoli

Before Walter Mazzarri, Napoli’s recent history was not great. Relegated in 1998, promoted in 2000, and then relegated again right away, Gli Azzurri slipped into insolvency and oblivion. The team reformed in 2004 in Serie C1 and took four years to climb back into the top flight. Enter Mazzarri a year later. He brought them into the Europa League at his first go. The next year, it was the Champions League.  The year after that, Napoli won the Coppa Italia.  He topped that by leading Napoli to second place; they were never going to challenge Juventus, but they certainly beat traditional powerhouse AC Milan, along with upstarts Fiorentina.  After that season, Mazzarri bizarrely decided to take over at diminishing Inter Milan.  That lasted five months.  Cavoli!

VictorMunoz-reacts121201R300Victor Muñoz
Age: 57
Nationality: Spanish
Honours: 2004 Copa del Rey with Real Zaragoza

Victor’s managerial league record is not great. The former Barcelona, Sampdoria and Spain star couldn’t replicate his success as a player. He was in charge of several middling La Liga teams, along with stints in Greece, Chechnya (replacing Ruud Gullit at Terek Grozny) and Switzerland. But in January 2004, he stepped into the manager role mid-season at his boyhood club, Real Zaragoza and led them past Barcelone in the 2004 Copa del Rey quarterfinals, before taking out Real Madrid in the final. He would return to the Aragonese side last spring and then leave only eight months later. But for a brief moment 11 years ago, Victor was the King of Spain.

Coming Up: A man who’s name is synonymous with collapse in London and Madrid, and another who’s name means collapse everywhere else!

Brent P. Lanthier

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Where in the World Is…?

Matt Broderick discovers Football Manager
Matthew Broderick discovers Football Manager

Shall we play a game? Let’s play Find the Winning Manager.  Wouldn’t you rather play a nice game of FIFA 2015? Later… let’s play Find the Winning Manager.

It’s not Global Thermonuclear War, but the managerial shuffle  in Europe’s biggest leagues sometimes feels like the end of the world for football fans.  What makes the hiring and firings of managers so frustrating is the constant recycling of coaches who have never won anything.  Nada.  Zip.  Sixty-year-old Big Sam Allardyce is on his sixth English club, four of them in the Premier League. Yet he has won exactly zero trophies.  Tony Pulis? He’s 57 and on his eighth club.   Hull City is 54-year-old Steve Bruce’s seventh club as a manager…nothing.  Let’s not even talk about Serie A…

A club’s choice of manager is an obvious reflection of its ambition, and it has to be disheartening to see your team hiring a gaffer who’s been run out of his previous job.  Yet there are coaches who have winners’ medals for major European and domestic trophies, but are not currently in charge of a team.

So this week, let’s play Find the Winning Manager.  Here are the rules:

1) The manager must have won a major domestic or European trophy in the last 20 years.  That means Champions League, UEFA Cup/Europa League or Cup Winners’ Cup in Europe,  one of the top five domestic leagues (Spain, England, Germany, Italy or France… sorry Portugal) or one of those leagues’ major knockout trophies.  I’m biased so I’ve included the English League Cup, just to show you the dearth of winning English managers.  Oh and Super Cups don’t count.

2) The manager must not be leading a club.  This includes serving as an executive ie. Gérard Houllier at New York Red Bulls.

3) The candidate must be under the age of 65 by the end of the domestic season, just to counter the “oh he’s too old” argument.

Alvarez: Pushed aside by Sevilla

Alvarez: Pushed aside by Sevilla

Antonio Álvarez
Age: 59
Nationality: Spanish
Honours: 2010 Copa del Rey with Sevilla

Okay, we might be starting with a bit of a dodgy example.  Antonio Álvarez was a club legend who became essentially a caretaker manager; he was Sevilla’s assistant coach when Manolo Jiménez was sacked, and took charge of Los Rojiblancos who were in fifth place with 10 games left… oh, and still had to play a Copa del Rey final.  Álvarez led them into a final Champions League position, and then a 2-0 win over Atlético Madrid for Sevilla’s second King’s Cup in four years.   But two nail-biting losses to Braga in UCL qualifying that summer, followed by a 1-0 home loss to Paris-Saint Germain and a mediocre 2-2-1 start to La Liga season, and Álvarez was out.   Who knows how influential he was?  Think of him as a Spanish version of Roberto Di Matteo.

Elie-BaupÉlie Baup
Age: 59
Nationality: French
Honours: 1999 Division 1 Champions with Bordeaux

“*Blitzkreig” Baup won the French league in his first year in charge of Les Girondins, and then leading them to a top-four finish in all but one of the next four seasons, while picking up a League Cup along the way.   But after a disasterous start to the 2003-2004 campaign, Bordeaux let him go.  An unimpressive stint at Saint-Étienne then led to his move to Toulouse in 2006, when he led the constantly relegation-threatened club to third place and a Champions League spot.   He moved onto Nantes and then Marseille, taking over from Didier Deschamps in 2012.  The mighty Marseille had finished a lowly 10th spot when Deschamps left; yet again, Baup moved in and guided his club into a Champions League spot.   But again, poor results last season got him the sack.   He’s been without a job just over a year… surely there must be something for him in England.

*Not his real nickname, to my knowledge

18FEB11LuisFernandez_800x600_t325Luis Fernández
Age: 55
Nationality: French
Honours: 1995 Coupe de France, 1996 Cup Winners’ Cup with Paris Saint-Germain

Luis Fernández is another example of a young manager whose career sputtered after a flash of brilliance.  The Spanish-born Frenchman left Cannes at 34 years old to coach in the capital, and led PSG to two domestic cups, a third-place league finish, and a Champions League semi-final.   The following year, he would win what is still PSG’s only major European Trophy, the Cup Winners’ Cup.  He then left for Spain  where he guided Athetic Bilbao to its best finish in 14 years.   But a few mid-table seasons later, then a return to PSG,  was followed by some more work in France, Spain and Israel (including with the national team).  Fernández has not managed since 2011; just this week, he told French media that he wants to return to coaching.


pacoflores169Paco Flores

Age: 62
Nationality: Spanish
Honours: 2000 Copa del Rey with Espanyol.

Señor Espanyol himself, Paco Flores spent almost 20 years — off and on — managing at the club’s various levels.  His first real managing job was filling in for the fired Miguel Ángel Brindisi, coming up from the youth side in 2000 to lead Espanyol away from the relegation zone and winning the club’s first Copa del Rey in 60 years.  He then got Real Zaragoza promoted,  and followed that with stints in lower-league Almería and then Gimnàstic, who got relegated in 2007.   Flores hasn’t coached since… and at 62 years old, he may have decided to stay away from the benches.

Gotta love the Predator years...

Gotta love the Predator years…

Ruud Gullit
Age: 52
Nationality: Dutch
Honours: 1997 FA Cup with Chelsea

One of the world’s best players during the 1980’s, Ruud Gullit won trophies in every country in which he played.  But he will forever be in Dutch hearts as the captain of the Netherlands team that won the 1988 European Championship against the hated Germans.  So it was a natural sight to see him transition from Chelsea player to player-manager in 1996.  The move paid off: he led his side to Chelsea’s first FA Cup in 27 years.  But disagreements with owner Ken Bates led to his sacking, despite the Blues riding high in the tables.   Gullit then moved to Newcastle United and lasted exactly one disasterous season, with rumours abounding about Gullit’s “lifestyle” issues in the notoriously fun-filled city.  The Dutchman didn’t get another managerial position for five years, taking over back home at Feyenoord, but lasted less than a season.  Two years later, he moved to MLS, coaching David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy.  There reports of clashes with the team’s big players meant he was out… again after less than a year.  Gullit spent six months in Chechnya (Chechnya?!?) at Terek Grozny but was again shown the door.  That was in 2011… still no takers.

Coming Up Tomorrow:  Five more managers, including a 2014 World Cup manager without a job, and possibly the scariest coach in the game.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Real dominates Rayo Vallecano in Derbi Madrileño

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Nine minutes… that’s how long it took Real Madrid put down Rayo Vallecano in today’s La Liga match.  Sure the two sides played out their 90-plus minutes.  But such was the domination of the European Champions against their tiny Madrid neighbours that the result was really never in doubt.

Carlo Ancelotti changed four players from the mid-week Champions League match at the Bernabeu against Liverpool, not that it truly mattered.  His side still featured two World Cup winners and six nominees for this year’s Ballon D’Or.

Back to the ninth minute, then, and a lovely play that saw Cristiano Ronaldo feed the ball to Toni Kroos at the left of the box, who then slotted it to a galloping Gareth Bale in front of goal.  One-nil Real.

Los Blancos almost doubled their score right away after a similar play; this time, Karim Benzema lanced the ball at James Rodríguez.  The Colombian then quickly turned and passed it to Ronaldo, whose shot went wayward.  The league’s top scorer missed but it was indicative of how Real are playing at the moment; their movement is so good, so fluid that they glide across the pitch, often in anticipation of passes that almost never miss their mark.

That’s not to say that Vallecano were pushovers.  Striker Albert Bueno was on his game, sending a thunderbolt in the 21st minute from 20 yards out that a shaky Keylor Navas struggled to deflect.   The men in red also took to attacking Real’s right flank where Nacho has been playing as a makeshift fullback.  Los Franjirrojos were pesky in the box on set pieces, and a couple moments of Real disarray looked like they would lead to a goal.  On the other end, Vallecano held their lines, and Cristian Álvarez played with awareness, even as the league leaders poured forward with pressure.

But after 40 minutes, that pressure got to the visitors as another cross made its way into the box.  Real centre back Sergio Ramos took the volley on his thigh and deflected the ball into the net, doubling the lead.  It was the defender’s 50th for Real Madrid, a stunning feat for a man whose job is to stop goals, not score them.

However, four minutes later, a bad throw by Navas into a group of Vallecano players caused James to panic with a back pass. Vallecano took advantage and Bueno made no mistake.  It was 2-1 for Madrid but, after a half where the visitors passed and moved as well as their hosts, Vallecano had every reason to feel confident at the break.

That confidence quickly melted away in the second half.   Vallecano seemed to wilt under the onslaught while the home side showed no signs of fatigue from a gruelling mid-week clash.  Real’s third goal in the 55th minute was sublime as Kroos curled the ball around two defenders and into the corner of the net.  Four minutes later, Benzema scored despite being glaringly offside.   Howls of protest from the Vallecano bench fell on deaf ears, although it could be considered payback for other egregious non-calls by the referee, most notably a tackle from behind on James in the first half.   Roberto Trashorras stopped the Colombian as he was about to break, but it generated neither a twitch nor gesture from the officials.

A late goal from Cristiano Ronaldo finished the evening with a 5-1 final score.  Los Nuevos Galacticos have now won 13 straight matches, 10 of those after scoring three goals or more.  The worrying part for their upcoming opponents is that after a post-Lisbon hangover, the champions appear to be picking up momentum.   With a relatively easy schedule over the next six weeks, and progression to the knockout round of the Champions League guaranteed, Madrid will want to keep up their league form before making an almost embarrassingly easy journey to nearby Morocco for the FIFA Club World Cup in December.

Barcelona, Valencia and Atlético supporters might disagree at the moment.  But none of those teams can boast of the firepower that Real possesses. Like Chelsea in England, and Bayern Munich in Germany, Real could be another mega-club that wraps up its league title with plenty of time to spare.

Brent Lanthier

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Deportivo La Coruña: A Cautionary Tale

deportivoSpanish football.  Fútbol español.   Over the last decade, Spain has become the game’s spiritual home.  And why not?  Its national team is the first side to be defend the European title while reigning as World Champions.   Out of the last 20 Champions League semi-finals, a Spanish team has been present for 11 of them.  In fact, Barcelona has reached the semis seven out of the last eight years, earning three titles in the process.   Sevilla and Atlético Madrid have each earned themselves a brace of UEFA Cup/Europa League trophies.   Spain has the best co-efficient in Europe and FIFA has the national team leading the world rankings by a country mile.

But as the nation itself teeters between austerity and economic ruin, so must Spanish football clean up its financial house.   Like the Spanish economy, many clubs have lived beyond their means, wanting the things that they haven’t got… and then paying the price in the long run.

There is likely no better cautionary tale than that of Deportivo La Coruña: a small club that found short-term success through front-office debt and backroom decisions.  Until the early 90’s, the Galicians were a yo-yo club.  But after securing top-flight football in 1991, they picked up two young Brazilians, Bebeto and Mauro Silva.  The pair were excellent for both club and country, with Bebeto earning the Pichichi in 1993, and then scoring three goals as Brazil won the 1994 World Cup.   A year later, the pair helped Los Blancoazuis win their first-ever Copa del Rey.

Roy Makaay was arguably Europe’s best player during his Depor days.

The club’s pinnacle came in 2000, when Diego Tristán and Roy Makaay led Deportivo to their first and only league title.  That win kicked off five straight seasons of Champions League football, culminating in 2004 where they were a penalty kick away from the finals.  If they kept eventual champions Porto from scoring from open play, who knows what they could have done against Monaco in Gelsenkirchen?  Tristán and Makaay won the Pichichi in 2002 and 2003, respectively, with Makaay earning the European Golden Boot as well.   Between 2000 and 2004, Deportivo La Coruña were Spain’s most consistent team in league football.

But after a series of mid-table finishes — and no money from Champions League football — the tiny team was in over its head financially.   Players begin to leave with the club still owing them wages.  (Albert Luque claims that he is still owed €2.1M.   He left in 2005).  Deportivo finally hit bottom in 2011 when they were sent back to the second division after a 20-year stay in the top flight.   “Superdépor” was no more.

The club came back on the bounce, but the signs were not good in 2012-2013.  The first half of the season was filled with multi-goal disasters: a 5-1 loss to Real Madrid; a 5-4 loss to Barcelona that could have been uglier; a promising start against Real Zaragoza that ended with the Aragonese side coming back to win 5-3; a disheartening 6-0 loss to Atletico Madrid.  By Christmas, Deportivo were dead last.

The team could find the back of the net and they spread the goals around.  But they couldn’t defend to save their life.  Manager José Luis Oltra was good enough to get them out of the second division, but he just wasn’t the man they needed for the Primera.   Just before New Year’s Eve, the club dumped Oltra and brought in former Portuguese international Domingos.  But the 43-year-old lasted just 41 days (a delicious parallel to Brian Clough at Leeds United, who later also overextended themselves for Champions League football and paid the price).  On March 10th, club brass brought in Galician “national” team manager Fernando Vázquez, who had coached Deportivo’s rivals Celta Vigo just five years before.

The Vázquez era began poorly, but it was to be expected.  His first four matches in charge were against Sevilla, Real Madrid, Barca and then an inexplicably successful Rayo Vallecano.   In those four matches, A Coruña went 0-3-1, giving up seven goals in the process.  It was their season in miniature.

But then came the Galician derby at the Riazor, a nasty affair between two clubs who were trying to claw their way off the bottom of the table.  A 3-1 victory over Vázquez’ old employers sparked a seven-game unbeaten streak, easing fears that Los Turcos were headed back to the Segunda after only one season.  And even though they lost two of their next three games, they were out of the drop zone heading into their last match.

Alas, it was not to be.  Deportivo dropped their final game 1-0 to Real Sociedad, a club hungry to taste European football for the first time since 2003-2004 (a season when Sociedad, Deportivo and Celta Vigo were all Champions League participants).  Meanwhile, down the AP-9, Vigo got past a middling Espanyol to survive another season in the top flight.  It hurt Deportivo to drop back down again.  But to do so while helping your biggest rival stay up? Galling.

It wasn’t the last of Deportivo’s woes.   In January, the club had applied for bankruptcy protection, with an estimated debt load of over €150M, more than a third of that owed to the Spanish government.    Panic set in among the players who demanded the club pay their outstanding wages.   A last-minute deal with creditors at the end of July — literally 15 minutes to midnight — saved them from getting dropped into the third division.  But that meant a) many players were out the door, including their two top scorers, and b) any player acquisitions had to be approved by debt administrators.

Eight of the league’s top-flight clubs — eight!!! — were in administration last season.  Twenty-four of Spain’s top two division teams have done the same over the last two years.  But obviously, not all of them were relegated.  Being a second-tier team makes things tough for Deportivo, who won’t be able to play the Big Two with their massive television audiences, unless they get them in the Cup.   But even though they have had a uneven start, it is still early and promotion is still a reasonable goal.

Bad business practices, player flight, unfair television deals: these aren’t unique to Deportivo La Coruña.   Clubs like Valencia, Villareal, Sociedad, Zaragoza have all been stung in the past few years (Sociedad were relegated after their last CL appearance and spent three years in Primera exile).   Nor are these problems unique to Spain.   But with several good players leaving what is supposed to be the best league in the world, and with so many eyes watching around the globe, Spain’s problems become embarrassingly obvious.

Deportivo’s problems are fixable.  So are Spain’s.  But it will be a long haul back to where they were just a few years ago.

Brent Lanthier

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The Falcao Final

Skittish Colombian…

Wednesday night’s Europa League final between Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was billed as an all-Spanish affair between two teams that live off the scraps of La Liga’s big dogs.  Their kits are almost identical, as are their names.  Both have Argentinian coaches and both teams have been hovering around each other in the league table for some time now.

The similarities end there.

A look at the Bilbao team sheet showed a side that was unabashedly Basque.  Even the sole player born outside Spain is named after a Basque town.  Contrast that with Atlético, who took to the pitch with only four Spaniards, only two of whom were native madrileños.  In fact, no member of the starting XI had taken part in the team’s victorious Europa League campaign two years earlier.

So even though one team was full of young giant killers playing for ethnic pride (remember that Bilbao took out a full-strength Manchester United), they faced a side of able-bodied “mercenaries”.  In particular, they were forced to defend against a man who has put a definitive stamp on European nights.  This night was no different for Radamel Falcao.   The Colombian tormented Bilbao’s back eight throughout the match, and needed just seven minutes to find the net, switching feet to find space in the box before unleashing an absolutely lovely effort .  His second came from inside, more of what we have come to expect from the man who has lifted two Europa League trophies over the last 12 months, breaking scoring records in the process.

Heroes, old and new…

It remains to be seen how long he remains at Atlético Madrid.  Despite Falcao arriving only last year from Porto, the man who turned his club’s fortunes around — coach  Diego Simeone — may have a tough time convincing the board not to cash in on the player, even if the continental giants come calling.

But tonight, Falcao remains a Rojiblanco, as yet another trophy begins another year residing in the Spanish capital.

A couple of side bars:

– Atlético captain Diego Godín must be riding high.  Not only has he won the Europa League, but he is coming off a calendar year where he won the Copa America with his native Uruguay, as well as a semi-final finish at the 2010 World Cup.  At 26, the central defender is coming into prime time.

– Chelsea will be both excited and relieved at the efforts of their goalkeeping protégé, Thibaut Courtois.  The Belgian has been on-loan to Atlético all season.  After a shaky start, Courtois — like many of his teammates — seems to have settled down with Simeone’s arrival mid-season.   He wasn’t tested much in the final because of excellent Madrid defending.  But Courtois did make some impressive saves in a major European final, despite not turning 20 until Friday.  Ladies and gentlemen, the heir apparent to Petr Cech…

Brent Lanthier

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Weekend 10: The Misery of Others

Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow

My Mum always taught me not to revel in the misfortune of others, that it could be me getting the bad end of the stick.  Then my French-Canadian father taught me the age-old tradition of dancing gleefully on your enemies’ missteps.  Vive le Schadenfreude!!

1) Manchester United’s Unconvincing season of Invincibility has come to an end, after the Mancs lost 2-1 at Molineux to the league’s last-place team.  United has had this annoying habit of grasping points from the jaws of defeat…. instead they were left grasping their ankles on the weekend.  The loss meant the title race would have been broken wide open except…

2) Arsenal blew a 4-0 lead at Newcastle United.  The Magpies were supposed to be distraught over the loss of Prince Andrew, and probably were after conceding three goals in the first 10 minutes.  But then they remembered that Arsenal’s defence is pants, and let Joey Barton chew at the Gooners’ ankles.  But Arsenal were not alone in their misery because…

3) Chelsea thought they were making a massive move of football irony, playing newly-acquired Fernando Torres against his former club.  But the aging — and fading — champions were bereft of ideas against Liverpool’s back five, losing 1-0.  Three centrebacks! Two wingbacks! One of them is Glen Johnson! And he’s cut his hair AND he’s playing on the left!  It must have been confusing for the old buggers.

It hurts right heeeeeerrreeee...

4) Torres looked like a high school freshman who couldn’t find his first class.   This particular John Hughes movie saw Jamie Carragher starring as the school bully, taking the ball — and lunch money — away from the Spaniard, who thought he was joining the gifted programme, but instead accidentally showed up at remedial gym class.

5) Speaking of audacious debuts, El-Hadji Diouf appeared in his first Old Firm game, less than a week after joining Rangers on loan.  Never a favourite with the green side of Glasgow, The Human Camel was the subject of constant taunting by the Bhoys. Celtic captain Scott Brown received a yellow card for his efforts, calling it “the best booking I’ve had in my life.”

6) Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley says he will freeze ticket prices for the next 10 years.  A club spokesperson says, “We know these are tough times for everyone so we’re trying to do all we can for the fans. Mike is fully on board with this… it is a good way of showing commitment back to the fans… ”

In the words of Homer Simpson, “It takes two to lie: one to lie and one to listen…”

Um, doctor, it's my, er...

7) Schteve McClaren has lost his job at VfL Wolfsburg, after the Bundesliga team only won one match in the last 12.  But rumours abounded that McClaren was really turfed by a faux pas.  Ever the cunning linguist, McClaren was keen to show off what he learned from his German Made Easy cassettes, but then answered a question auf Deutsch about squad formation by mistakenly threatening the “annexation” of the owner’s wife…

8 ) Fabio Capello’s policy follows his predecessors: pick a player for their badge rather than their form.  A hugely slumping Wayne Rooney is getting a game against Denmark, as is Carlton Cole.  Of course, players like Blackpool’s DJ Campbell and Bolton’s Kevin Davies have more goals than them this season, but England managers have never been ones to let success get in the way…

9) West Brom fired manager Roberto Di Matteo after a run of bad results.  No doubt the newly-promoted team will replace him with a gaffer comparable to their other talismanic figures, like Bryan Robson and Gary Megson.  Hey, Roy Hodgson’s available!

10) Cristiano Ronaldo is still a horse’s arse… and I’m not the only one who thinks so

Brent Lanthier

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