They say a week is a long time in politics, but not in Spain it’s not; not where 78 days after the general elections there’s still no government and no sign of one, either.
Which, on reflection, may not be such a bad thing. It can be a long time in Spanish football, though. This, after all, is the world where Joaquín Caparrós – the man one sports paper has just declared the standout candidate for the Spain job, two days after it was revealed that he once motivated his players with a pre-match porn video – says you can go “from whore to nun in five minutes”. Or, if you’re Rafa Benítez, from “solution” to sacked. Where Cristiano Ronaldo can go from whistled to worshipped in 82 seconds.
A lot can happen in a week, and a lot can change too. Especially if it’s like last week, one of only three all season with a full round of midweek fixtures wedged in between two weekends. Just ask David García. “It was all dark, all black,” the captain of Unión Deportiva Las Palmas admitted on Saturday night on Vila-Real. He can say that again. “It was all dark, all black,” David García says. “We were very pessimistic,” agreed team-mate Ángel López. And another player privately went further, describing the team as “dead”. And now? “Now,” García added, “we’ve taken a step forward.” Now, they’re alive. They’d hit rock bottom, one Canarian daily claimed, but now they’re “a team to make us dream”.
David García is 34 and has spent his entire career at Las Palmas, but he had never played in the first division before. López had, once: for a single season back in 2002. On Saturday night, García scored his first goal in primera, while López, injured in the final training session before the season began, came running on for six minutes: his first minutes with Las Palmas in the top flight for 13 years. The fear was that they would be among his last. Instead, García’s goal secured what even their manager described as “an unexpected victory”. A vital one, too.
Las Palmas went into last weekend, week 26, in the relegation zone, three points from safety. The problems were mounting for the club for whom pretty much every away game is a 4,000‑kilometre round trip, further than Madrid travelling to Rome, Atlético to Eindhoven or Barcelona to London. Carnival was over and so, it seemed, was their time in the first division.
Nauzet Alemán was suspended after an unauthorised night out at a disco ended with the midfielder needing 18 stitches in his face. The father of the under-performing, rarely playing striker Sergio Araujo, last season’s top scorer, had threatened to take him elsewhere, prompting the coach Quique Setién to reply: “I won’t give in to blackmail.” The injury list was growing. And they just weren’t winning.
At the same time almost everyone else in trouble seemed to have something; not much, admittedly, but something. Las Palmas, on the other hand, had won just once in eight games.
And then it happened: on Saturday night, García’s header enabled them to defeat Villarreal. More importantly, it was not just Saturday night. “Unexpected victory”? Unexpected victories, more like, all at once.
Week 26 began with a 1-0 win at Eibar; week 27 continued with a 4-0 hammering of Getafe; and week 28 closed with a 1-0 win at the Madrigal.
In week 29 they face Madrid on Sunday. They have changed their tune in Gran Canaria. “Bring them on!” ran one headline on Sunday morning. And why not? No one had beaten Villarreal in 14. Hell, no one had even scored against them in 620 minutes until Las Palmas came along.
Las Palmas had not managed to string together two wins before; now they’ve won three in a row and by arriving now, all together, the impact is greater still, the shift more dramatic: eight days, nine points. They headed into week 26 in the relegation zone three points from safety and headed out of week 28 four points clear of it, up in 14th, three points ahead of 15th and with three other teams between them and the drop.
Around them are teams who are struggling, too. More so, it seems, than Las Palmas are, although life remains unpredictable down where only Levante are starting to get cut off, three points adrift at the bottom, where only three points separate the next five teams – Sporting, Granada, Rayo, Getafe and Espanyol – and where Las Palmas, three points above that, have Deportivo, Málaga, Valencia and Betis within four points, and the chance to climb even higher.
It’s shifting constantly at the bottom. On Saturday night, Getafe got a late equaliser against Sevilla that may yet be huge, emotionally at least, after a seven-game run of defeats, six of them without scoring. Three days before, midfielder Mehdi Lacen had said: “Right now, we’re a real piece of shit and if we carry on like this, we’re going head first into the second division.” At the same time, the Sporting manager Abelardo Fernández had launched a wild rant at the refereeing at Granada, where he said his players, “fighting for their lives”, were “in tears in the dressing room, devastated”.
Granada have sacked their manager, but that remains their only win in eight. And Sporting have not won in seven and the rant didn’t do much good. Watching from the stands – he is suspended from the dugout for two games, not the 50 he said he would happily serve to denounce the “disgrace” – Abelardo on Sunday night saw his team win 2-0, despite having the referee on side this time.
Levante’s point at Real Sociedad helps a bit, but not much. Deportivo – who drew 3-3 with Málaga thanks to Arribas’s last-minute own goal, their 15th draw of the season and their 14th game without a win – shouldn’t get dragged into trouble, but might. Espanyol, whose players intervened to prevent the manager Constantin Galca getting sacked – take note, you lot – beat them in week 26 and Sporting in week 27 to give themselves a bit of breathing room, but were defeated by Betis on Sunday night.
Under the “interim” manager Juan Merino, who won four out of four last time he temporarily took over last season, Betis have now won three and drawn three of the past six. Merino, though, says that “fear” means he is still “looking down”. And while Rayo were hammered by Barcelona in midweek, they had won seven in a row before that. On Monday night, they face Espanyol.
So it was that no one came out of this nine-point week better than Las Palmas. “We were very pessimistic,” Ángel López said. “It’s all happened this year: injuries, off-field problems, bad moments. In any case, though, it would be stupid to think we’re on track now. We have to think about what happened to Eibar last year or Depor this: two teams that looked safe but found themselves in problems.” True, but for a team who were “dead” eight days before, survival looks probable now; there is a cushion, comfort and confidence for the first time. Four points clear of relegation, they have 30 points. Three wins in 10 should be enough; they may not even need that many.
It has been so unexpected, yet this was no fluke and it was not a one‑off, either. Three wins in a row is a surprise but some success has been coming.
The game before this run was a 2-1 defeat against Barcelona from which they deserved more, they destroyed Getafe and they were impressive against Villarreal.
Characteristically so: organised, well-positioned, keen to have the ball and pass it. “We did a lot well today,” Setien said. “All of the players deserve the highest marks.” Marca’s report described them as a “triangle factory” – and while that might be odd thing to be, it certainly isn’t pointless. They’ve been among one of the better sides to watch, keen to have possession, prepared to attack. Built in the image of their manager, Setien, in fact. In his image and in theirs. Or so it goes.
When Setien took over from Paco Herrera, the first coach to get sacked this season, back in week nine, Las Palmas had picked up five points and won just once. Most considered the sacking deeply unfair and there was a kind of sorrow in the way the decision was taken, and an apologetic tone to the way Setien spoke. He even said that he would stick with much of the work his predecessor had done. Herrera, universally liked and respected, had brought the team up in his first season, beating Zaragoza in the play-offs. Survival was the best that anyone could hope for and, deep down, many did not expect it. Replacing him did not seem likely to change that.
And yet in the 20 games under Setien since then, Las Palmas have picked up 25 points.
Setien is a little different. As a player, he was skilful, creative, a member of Spain’s 1986 World Cup squad, a footballer who never had much of a problem speaking out about directors (later he was one of the few speaking out against Ali Syed), and who reckons that the game has become so fast that these days he wouldn’t have made it. Back then, there was interest from Real Madrid, although it never happened. Jorge Valdano called him a “dissident”, a creative, slight footballer, all finesse, rebelling against a physical game.
Setien cheerfully admits that one of the reasons that this is his first managerial job in primera, aged 57, is that he’s never had the ambition to really pursue a coaching career. “I don’t aspire to be a famous coach,” he said. “I just hope to be honourable and leave good memories.” He claims to have only taken over at Racing Santander, his home town club, back in 2001 because they needed him, and his career path is a curious one, Poli Ejido and Equatorial Guinea included. He complains that football has been distorted by money and doesn’t seem to much like the way the game has gone, saying in one interview that he’d sometimes rather play chess than watch a game on telly. But then needs must, so here he is.
Before this, he was at Lugo for six years, because he said it felt right.
He needs that, he says; he talks, too, about needing to feel close to his players. He needs to connect. As coach, he says that touch and combination, technical football, the kind of game he represented when he was a player, are non-negotiable. He admitted that watching Juan Carlos Valerón made him cry, that when he met Johan Cruyff he told him he would have given his little toe to have played in a team like his, and that when he went to watch Barcelona train he met Lionel Messi afterwards and asked him: “Please keep playing until you’re 60 ... or at least until the day I die.”
Las Palmas felt like the right place, somewhere where youth-teamers of a certain profile are prevalent. There’s a touch of the cliché about it but Canary Islanders are usually assumed to be skilful, creative, fun players.
“It’s implicit in the island’s life, spent on the street; the climate brings people outside,” the sporting director insists. “How can we tell players not to dribble? Dribblers are an endangered species.”
There’s something in that, but only something. Setien has made Las Palmas one of the most attractive sides to watch in Spain; when they are good, they are very good. Tidy, precise, with the ambition to create more than destroy. Patient with the ball, rarely resorting to hoofing it. In one newspaper, Diego Maradona’s famous phrase was trotted out again this weekend to refer to them: “They could have ‘the ball is the one thing that never gets stained’, written on their shirts,” the report ran. The game against Barcelona a fortnight ago was a good example: there they were, pressing high, having a lot of the ball, making chances, but lacking a cutting edge, finding themselves caught out. Some players admitted wondering if they were naive. Or maybe unlucky.
Not any more. “A high percentage of football is chance and right now we’re getting that luck,” Setien said. With injuries and results have come changes, a touch of pragmatism. Maybe it was always there – Setien loves Valerón, who is 40, yet rarely plays him – but now it is clearer. This is not exactly the story that some are selling of a steadfast commitment to a puritanical footballing cause. There has been a philosophy, sure, but also open-mindedness and adaptation too: a shift towards 4-1-4-1, more emphasis on protection, full-backs who attack less. As García put it this weekend: “We have found the balance now between attack and defence.”
The goalkeeper Javi Varas described the last three games as the ones in which he has “taken part the least”.
With those changes, Las Palmas have found the win they needed; they may have found survival, too. Setien was proud when he said: “In the first half we controlled the ball.” He was proud, too, when he added: “In the second half we struggled a bit more but we defended well.” In a week, everything changed; they have 10 weeks to ensure it doesn’t change back, to secure this place in primera. “You can’t come here to El Madrigal and not expect to suffer,” Setien said. “Frankly, it is going to be very hard still, but this result takes us closer to our objective and gives us an enormous boost. I don’t know if this is our best moment, but it is our most effective.”
• A Beatles week, anyway.
• “I would like to remind you that it’s not normal to go 14 games without losing. At times I think that escapes people, including the fans. I don’t understand how people can start whistling after 15 minutes. I go home sad because there are things that I find it hard to understand.” Marcelino is right, too.
• Atlético aren’t giving up. They could perhaps still win the league; although they’re not talking about it, they certainly aren’t going to let it go easily. Their last three games read: a win at the Bernabéu, a win at Mestalla (where neither Madrid nor Barcelona won) and a hammering of Real Sociedad. They were superb on Sunday night, too: fast and precise in possession, with Antoine Griezmann playing a role that the commentators likened to Messi – dropping deeper, passing, running, involved in everything they did.
Scoring, too. His excellent opener was equalised by Denis Cheryshev, who finished Paco Alcácer’s lovely lay-off, before Fernando Torres scored in his 300th game. Carrasco added a third. And it was deserved, too.
• The problem for them is that Barcelona aren’t giving up either and nor is Messi, superb at Vallecas on Thursday and superb at Ipurua four days later. Munir got the opener against Eibar, while Messi scored twice. One of them was a great run and finish (so what?), with Ander Capa backing off and doing a kind of can-can, knowing that the shot was coming but not knowing when, and hoping to block it. The other was a penalty (wow!), clipped in semi-Panenka style. Then Luis Suárez scored a fourth that was so very Suárez: nutmeg, bumper car, and a thumping finish.
Not that it was about the goals with Messi: it was the passing again, the passing that doesn’t actually get picked up in the stats. Suárez gave the assist for the first, but it was his run and Messi’s pass that made it.
• So, about those 82 seconds. Cristiano Ronaldo had just played a pass that ran straight out of play and the Bernabéu began to whistle him, the frustration growing after a desperately bad first half … so the next time he got the ball, 82 seconds later, he found a bit of space, took a run up and absolutely belted it, dipping and swerving his shot past the goalkeeper from 30 yards, and down into the net. As he ran to celebrate, he reached for his ear. “What now?!” What now? Now, for some more. Suddenly, he was Superman, all over the place, hyperactive and impossible to stop. A moment later, he smashed in a superb free-kick. And a moment after that he took another one from the same angle which came flying back off the bar via Ruben Blanco’s hand. Two more goals followed for him, four in total, plus one for Jesé and another for Gareth Bale, both of them subs, as Celta collapsed and Madrid stuck seven past them.
• Getafe were 10 games away from eight successive wins and Sevilla were 10 minutes away from a first away win all season, only for Velázquez to get an 86th-minute equaliser. So, the team who have won the past 12 at home still have not won at all away. “It’s nine draws, and when you look at them one by one that’s not so bad, but when you look at them together it is,” Emery admitted. “It’s hard to explain. The reality is that every team is stronger at home: Madrid are, even Barcelona. But we have to improve to turn some of those draws into wins. The approach is no different.”
• For Getafe, the goal was huge. They’d not scored since 23 January – and that day they had lost 3-2 – and had lost seven games in a row. At least that run has stopped. “We had entered into a phase of mental block,” Fran Escribá said. “This point does us a lot of good. Not in terms of the number of points but emotionally. We were not so good before [when people talked about them being European candidates] but nor were we so bad as to have gone through this. We’ve tried to work on the mental block but it’s hard.
“This will help. However much you talk to players, real confidence comes from results, like this one. You talk to them, you explain, you encourage, but this is where it happens, in moments like this. At the end of the season we might look back on this as a big moment.”
• This week’s golazos: De Marcos for Athletic, Deyverson for Levante, and Fede Cartabia for Depor.
• Gracias Gaspar.
Results: Real Madrid 7–1 Celta, Villarreal 0–1 Las Palmas, Getafe 1–1 Sevilla, Deportivo 3–3 Málaga, Betis 2–0 Granada, Eibar 0–4 Barcelona, Real Sociedad 1–1 Levante, Sporting 0–2 Athletic, Valencia 1–3 Atlético. Monday: Espanyol-Rayo Vallecano.
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