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Wheel of Gaffers (Unemployed Managers, Part III)

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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

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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A World Cup Without Them

zlatanWe are now 164 days away from the opening ceremony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and with almost every league hunkered down for a Christmas break (with the exception of the Barmy Brits… but that’s a discussion for another post), we can start to look towards June in what should be an epic tournament.

Why epic? When you look at the teams that have qualified for Brazil 2014, there isn’t a nation that makes you think, “They shouldn’t be there”.  Conversely, I can’t think of a team that, based on recent form, has been hard done by not qualifying.   That means that all the past champions will be going, all the heavy hitters and nearly men (Dutchies, I’m looking at you).

I was recently reminded that, despite appearing in three World Cups, the great Zico had never won the thing.  That’s gotta hurt, but he’s not alone.  In fact, the list of players who have never lifted the Jules Rimet trophy is extensive.  Think about it: Sindelar, Puskas, Di Stefano, Fontaine, Eusebio, Cruyff, Platini, Stoichkov, Baggio, Maldini, Figo… none of them have ever won the biggest tournament on the planet.   It’s probably as good as any argument that football is won and lost as a team, at least internationally.

But you can’t win the Coupe du Monde if you don’t get to go in the first place.  Some major marquee players won’t be appearing in Brazil because they and their compatriots couldn’t get it done.  Here are the top 10 players staying home in June:

Alaba: still only 21

Alaba: still only 21

10) David Alaba (AUT) — Is he a fullback? Is he a midfielder? All we know is that the Austrian wunderkind will be off the pitch, while  just about every other one of his Bayern Munich teammates will be in Brazil (except for Claudio Pizarro).  Austria actually held their own in qualifying , but were done in by double losses to Germany and then to Sweden on the penultimate match day.  No worries though, as Austria’s youngest-ever Player of the Year is only 21 years old, so he’ll have a few more shots at it.

Serbs have to sit out

Serbs have to sit out

9) Branislav Ivanovic (SER) — Speaking of fullbacks, pundits are calling Ivanovic the best right back in the world right now.   His is the first name on Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea team sheet, and he is a menace in attack and defence.  But after starting with a 1-1-3 record in qualifying, the Serbians were pretty much doomed, even though ultra-rivals Croatia finished with two losses.  The Croats went through, which has to sting more than a little.

Ta ra, Turan...

Ta ra, Turan…

8) Arda Turan (TUR) — There was a time when Turkey’s national football team was filled with German-born Bundesliga players who were considered too much Türken and not enough Deutsch.  The DFB has become far more progressive — look at Germany’s multicultural line-up now — and Turkish football has come into its own, with Turkish-born players staying in the Superlig.  The one notable exception is Arda Turan, the tough winger who has helped put Atlético Madrid in the running for its first Liga title in 18 years.  The good news for the Atleti?  Turan will be able to rest up this summer before they sell him off to a bigger club.  Hooray.

Trying to read the name on his kit…

7) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (GAB) — Like many African players, Aubameyang was born in France, but decided to represent the nation of his parents.   Too bad.  The young Gabonese had a high enough profile at St. Etienne, before lighting up the Bundesliga with Dortmund this season, to find a place on a troubled French squad.  Instead, he has become the African version of Dimitar Berbatov playing for Bulgaria, a great player on a team that will do nothing.   It’s just as well: that name is a nightmare for the kit makers.

DAMN YOU, ARMENIA!!!

DAMN YOU, ARMENIA!!!

6) Petr Cech (CZE) — Oh how the strong and steady goalkeeper must pine for the days of Koller, Baroš and Nedved, when his countrymen were qualifying for European semi-finals and actually appearing at the World Cup.  Alas, the veteran netminder (a 31-year-old who has looked 50 since he was 20) will have to settle for glory at Chelsea, where he and his club have won every major European and English title.

Hamsik

“Oh Mamma Mia, let me go!”

5) Marek Hamsik (SLO) — Slovakia did alright at South Africa 2010, their first major tournament since they split from the Czechs.  Hamsik captained his side to the Group of 16 by shocking the Italians 3-2, before losing to eventual finalists, Netherlands.  But when they tried to qualify for Brazil, they were outdone by a lack of adventure: only once did the Slovaks score more than one goal from open play.  Too bad… because Hamsik’s Mohawk/Kid n’ Play fade looks awesome streaking up the pitch.

Wales v Scotland

Air guitar…

4) Aaron Ramsey (WAL) — This one will elicit the most groans as undeserving,  but the young Taffy has been a revelation this season.  Arsene Wenger has kept faith in his midfielder, who has had trouble keeping off the treatment table.  But he has been Arsenal’s best player since August and has overshadowed teammates who are offensive threats in their own right.

"Will not let you go!"

“Will not let you go!”

3) Robert Lewandowski (POL) — Poland’s failure to qualify for even the playoffs is a case of a team’s parts being better than the team itself.  The squad has some great talent (with tricky names): Blaszczykowski, Piszczek, Boruc, Szczesny, and Dortmund’s highest scorer over the last three seasons, Lewandowski.  Last year, he was a goal away from the Bundesliga scoring title, and two away from being the Champions League’s top marksman.  He is among the top 10 strikers in the world, but unfortunately he will not be able to play with his peers in Brazil.

Bale hearts Wales... which means no World Cup

Bale hearts Wales… which means no World Cup

2) Gareth Bale (WAL) — Surely the world’s biggest tournament should feature the world’s most expensive player.  When Gareth Bale went to Real Madrid for €100M, most people thought that the whole affair was ridiculous.  But the spectacle of the transaction should not take away from a player who is starting to reach the height of his powers.  Nine goals in fifteen games for Madrid: he’s no Ronaldo, but he doesn’t need to be.  Unfortunately, he plays for a nation that has never fully embraced association football and may not qualify for a major tournament for some time.

1) Zlatan Ibrahimovic (SWE) — You could hear the collective groans around the soccer world when Sweden was paired with Portugal in the qualifying play-offs.  We knew that either Christiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic would not be playing in this summer’s tournament.   That’s a shame because if there is ever a place for massive egos, it is the World Cup… and they don’t get much bigger than CR7 or Ibra.   In the end, it was a battle between two huge talents on otherwise mediocre teams.  After a tight first leg, it was left to the big striker to tie everything up on aggregate. Unfortunately for the Scandanavians, Ronaldo showed why he is better than everyone else… include Kung Fu Zlatan.  Still, we will miss the sound bites, the temper tantrums, and the awesome, awesome goals.  Ibra’s take on the loss: “One thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing to watch.”

Brent Lanthier

No Ibra means none of this...

No Ibra means none of this…

... or this...

… or this…

... or this.

… or this.

 

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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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World’s finest come from too few teams

First of all, congratulations to Lionel Messi for capturing his second consecutive World Player of the Year award. Though Xavi and Andres Iniesta were also worthy finalists, little Leo’s tally of 58 goals in 54 games for Barca last year was simply too outstanding for voters to ignore. Congratulations also must go out to every player named to FIFA’s world XI, all of whom were outstanding at their respective positions last year:

GK: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid)

RB: Maicon (Inter)

CB: Lucio (Inter)

CB: Gerard Pique (Barcelona)

LB: Carles Puyol (Barcelona)

MF: Xavi (Barcelona)

MF: Andres Iniesta (Barcelona)

MF: Wesley Sneijder (Inter)

FWD: Lionel Messi (Barcelona)

FWD:  David Villa (Barcelona)

FWD: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

A look at the players, however, shows a disturbing pattern. All of the XI belong to just three clubs! And the way Real Madrid and Barcelona are tearing up La Liga this season, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that next season’s World XI will be comprised entirely of players from just those two Spanish squads.

We all love to watch soccer for various reasons, but I think everyone can agree that one of the most compelling reasons is the game’s unpredictability. If European soccer continues to be dominated by so few teams, then the game will begin to bore us all. Yawn. Wake me when Real and Barca make the Champions League final, will ya???

Hadi Zogheib

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Know Thine Enemy

Ronaldo shows us the dimensions of his bathroom mirror

My main interest has always been in the Premier League.  But football is a global game, with so much movement for players between leagues that — as a soccer pundit — you have to know your stuff.  So I found said stuff, pressing my nose to the computer screen, scanning for facts and figures, and forcing my brain to sharpen its knowledge of all the big leagues.

Fast forward to November.  After Real Madrid’s humiliating defeat in El Clasico, I became intrigued.  Now I wanted to see how Real’s season plays out.  Of course, Los Merengues are the biggest football club in the world (and I’m saying this as a Liverpool fan).  Their manager might be the best football mind in the game today (sorry, Manchester).  But my reasons for watching them aren’t entirely academic.

I despise Real Madrid and I want to watch them lose.

Jose Mourinho: Madrid’s Dark Angel

I think Jose Mourinho is an evil genius, a Professor Moriarty.  I remember his time in the Premier League as an instigator, an irritant in front of the microphone who could make an enemy out of Doug the Dog.

I think Cristiano Ronaldo is an enfant terrible, a child prodigy whose ascent into adulthood has done nothing to curb his toys-out-the-pram attitude.  If anything, it has enhanced it.  Every time I see a call go against him, I secretly revel in his misfortune.  Well, actually, there’s nothing secret about it: I swear at him through my TV screen.

I think Real Madrid are what’s wrong with football. They are a club who started the inflationary economics of today’s game with the assembly of the Galacticos teams ten years ago.  I hate it when they trot out their nine European titles, even though the first five came when the competition was still finding its legs.

The truth is that Real are a very good squad right now.  But they share a league — and a bitter rivalry — with what could be the best team that ever was. So yes, Ronaldo scored two more goals tonight, putting him ahead of  likely Ballon D’or winner Lionel Messi.  And yes, Real dominated their neighbours tonight — but not like they have other teams this season.

It might be that, despite their best efforts, Real Madrid will be pipped to the league and European titles by an incredible Barcelona side. Of course, there is still half the season to play, and I don’t know how it will play out.  But I’ll be watching.

Brent Lanthier

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Fear and Loathing in La Liga

They call it El Clasico. Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.  A literal Clash of the Titans.

It was Version 20-10, Round One, The Nou Camp. Actually, for us, the actual locale was Scallywag’s in midtown Toronto. But it was a memorable afternoon, in that Ian and I got to drink pints and watch a stunning rivalry, all the while texting and taunting Kev and Len — two other ATR contributors — because they had to work.  But on the pitch, only one team showed classic form… and the other failed to live up to its superstar credentials.

The media build-up to the game was epic.  Thirteen World champions were facing off, along with the two greatest players in the world at the moment: Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi.  Both acted according to type: Messi was a genius (although he failed to score) and Ronaldo once again threw all his toys out the pram.

Let’s just get down to it. Final score: 5-0.  After a build-up of rhetoric — mostly from the evil genius, Jose Mourinho — the game was nothing short of a blood bath and an embarrassment for Real Madrid. Barcelona tore their rivals apart and left them bent — and possibly broken. Real had gone into this game undefeated but now they sit second, humiliated by their rivals. Nothing but sour grapes for the arrogant side of the Spanish capital.

Everyone talks of how Messi is the best player in the world, but Xavi Hernandez is the best playmaker on the planet… and he proved it with a lucky, flukey goal that looked like he was giving a camp course.  The midfielder took a pass off his back heel, flick it up his over his shoulder, and onto the toe of his boot. Some fortunate physics may have been involved but  it was a massive, massive 1-nil.

Xavi: The “Real” Special One…

From then on, it was all Barcelona.  And regardless of  their club stripe, all Spaniards will take small consolation that Xavi — along with teammate David Villa — embarrassed the national goalkeeper, Iker Casillas.

But none of it was as embarrassing as Ray Hudson’s colour commentary on Gol TV.  Sounding like someone who forgot to take his Ritalin, the Geordie was over the top on every single play, making inappropriate and/or nonsensical references. Examples:

On Victor Valdes: “He looks like Mussolini looking over the balcony…” Nice… comparing the Barca keeper to the second-most infamous Fascist in history.

On David Silva: “He’s on fire… He looks like a Peregrine Falcon.” Um… I believe you are referring to the phoenix, which is born out of a fiery demise. Peregrine Falcons are known as fetchers for their master.  Perhaps you can get one to find you the definition of mixed metaphors…

On Lionel Messi: “He’s the world’s best player… on account of his powerful little legs.”

Scintillating analysis….

Back to La Liga.  Like it or not, Mourinho has finally lost, a defeat that he is  calling the worst of his career.  More importanly, the landscape has changed on the Iberian Peninsula, with the Catalans walking as softly as their gaffer, but carrying a big stick.  All the while, Madrid will look back at a performance where they began as Los Merengues… but ended as lemons.

Ole…

Brent P. Lanthier

Only it wasn’t supposed to end up like this. Madridistas around the world were so sure their team was finally up to the challenge of beating Barcelona. They had the players. They had the manager. They had the confidence of being unbeaten all year.

But, as the saying goes, that’s why they play the games. The end result was a thrashing of historic proportions, handing Jose Mourinho the worst defeat of his managerial career. The new boys of Real were supposed to make the difference. Angel Di Maria, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, and Ricardo Carvalho were playing scintillating football all season. The blistering Madrid counterattack was touted by pundits as the key to unlocking the slower Barcelona defence. But, the newbies seemed absolutely overawed by the occasion.

Instead it was Barcelona who were majestic. Over six hundred completed passes in the match. Six hundred!! That’s how you play, baby. Forget Messi vs. Ronaldo. Ronaldo has a long way to go to play up to the standards of Xavi and Iniesta, let alone Leo Messi. This was team football at it’s finest. The mesmerizing movement of the blaugrana showed the world that years of playing as a unit trumps any amount of bought talent. Sure Barcelona has some big name buys too (David Villa, Dani Alves, etc.), but it was the interplay between Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, and Messi that unlocked the toughest defence in La Liga.

It may only be one game and there’s still a long way to go in the season. But it’s clear for all to see that Real Madrid has a long way to go if it is to be considered Barcelona’s equal. For those of us who had the privilege of witnessing the game, it was one we will not soon forget.

Hadi Zogheib

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