Although you have to be a bit careful with your pronunciation, it’s an inescapable truth that football loves a bit of rancour.
Games with an ‘edge’, ‘bad blood’. Grudges.
Even though the last three Valencia Priméra División titles were won by coaches who were Real Madrid ‘purebloods’ (Alfredo di Stéfano in 1970/71 plus Rafa Benítez in 2001/2 and 2003/4) the animosity felt by Los Che towards Los Blancos has pushed this clash into the bronze medal position behind the Madrid derby and El Clásico. In terms of rancour.
Aside from two big clubs locking antlers every rutting season the special spice actually stems from the contentious move of Predrag Mijatovic from the Mestalla to Madrid as far back as 1996.
Valencia’s player of the season with 28 goals, and within a few months of becoming runner-up in the Ballon D’Or, he bought himself out of his [1,250 million peseta] contract and moved to the Bernabéu. Title first year, winning goal in the Champions League final the following. Cue increasing Valencian bitterness.
And football fans nurture grudges, keep them warm, hand them down to following generations.
Which is partly why there’s been a big internal debate at Los Che as to whether Madrid should or shouldn’t be given a guard of honour as they run out at the Mestalla on Sunday evening having made themselves World Club champions with their last game of 2014.
Valencia have a code – if their opponents have won the title, the Copa Del Rey or the Champions League they get applauded on to the pitch by Valencia’s players. The temptation, given that the World Club cup isn’t mentioned, was to set a hostile, ‘We’re Valencia, who the hell are you…?’ tone to the match.
The home side just spent their equal highest transfer fee to finally buy Enzo Pérez from Benfica [greeted by 8000 fans] and he’ll replace Javi Fuego in midfield.
Just to add to the match’s ‘bite’ it was Valencia’s 2-2 draw at Madrid last May which significantly helped cost Carlo Ancelotti’s mob the title.
For those who treasure numbers more than words six of the last seven of these Liga meetings at the Mestalla have resulted in five or more goals – 35 of them in total. Significantly, the only game in that run which did NOT yield five or more was the last time Valencia beat Madrid at home, 3-0 in 2009 thanks to the impact of Juan Mata, David Silva and David Villa.
Ronaldo, of course, and Benzema enjoy scoring against Valencia but if you want to look elsewhere Gareth Bale notched the goal of his career to win the Cup here last season, Isco was trained-up as a kid at the Mestalla but has never scored a Liga goal there while Álvaro Negredo was trained at Madrid and has three wins and four goals in 12 meetings with them since. At stake is Madrid’s run of 22 competitive matches unbeaten plus Liga leadership. Only four, not five, goals this time – and shared too!
So, imagine the scenario. Barça goes out for a right good bevvy with the lads on Hogmanay to celebrate the end of a damn awful 2014.
It’s good but wild and on New Year’s day heads are heavy, coffee is needed and there is talk of ‘hair of the dog’. Then Mrs Barça shrieks down the stairs ‘don’t forget you’ve got a game on Sunday’.
‘Who the bloody hell against?’ roars the hungover Barça from the sofa, ‘Just tell me it’s NOT Real Sociedad away … is it? ‘Please don’t let it be them …’
Think of this: across the decades Barcelona have been one of the world’s great clubs, consistently powerful. Yet only twice since the mid 1950’s have they won consecutive matches in San Sebastian.
No matter the gulf between the sides Real Sociedad somehow consistently come up with wins and draws. The last fifty years have seen only 12 away wins in 52 visits compared to twenty defeats and twenty draws. Indeed they’ve lost three and drawn the other in their last four Anoeta nightmares.
For those who’d like to think of another of those it may interest that neither Neymar nor Messi returned to training until Friday [with Luis Enrique’s permission] which would often be not soon enough to start. Perhaps the Barça coach views that subject totally differently. Equally, while La Real look beatable if Barcelona are on form it’s a stark fact that the Txuri-Urdin have beaten both Real Madrid and Atlético with high-octane performances already this season. The post-break training sessions have seen both Mikel González and Imanol Agirretxe back at work with the group but most attention will centre on whether Carlos Vela is fit to start [80/20].
This has the air of a Jack Spratt and his wife type of match. One of them could eat no fat, the other no lean. Barcelona consistently spend 45-60 minutes looking dull and sluggish in matches then [often] roar away with them or get late winners. On the other hand La Real don’t seem to have massive stamina and regularly start more brightly and then see opponents finishing with a flourish. Tempting to think of the match going lose-win for Barcelona in terms of half-time/full-time.
A vital, vital match for the Blaugrana. Should they continue their recent habit of losing here and Madrid win at Valencia then Barça would probably be, at best, one more defeat away from kissing goodbye to the title. In January. Tempting to perm between Luis Suárez, Pedro, Messi [only three of his fifteen league goals away from home and no away goals since week 7 at Rayo], Alfie Finnbogason, Vela and Zurutuza for the goals. Over to ‘Mister’ Moyes.
Start the year by backing the champions to settle an old score.
Last May Levante kick-started the ‘just as well we’re wearing brown shorts anyway’ sequence of the La Liga run-in for Diego Simeone’s champions-elect with a 2-0 win – a sequence which saw Atleti squeak home despite only winning two of the last nine points on offer.
That defeat was in Valencia but even the equivalent of this match last season was only a well-contested 3-2 win for Los Colchoneros, causing Simeone to say on Friday:
“Levante are a tough bunch who know exactly how they want to try and play. “It’s a hard test for us and I expect a full, noisy stadium to try and inspire us.”
Stadium-noise and raucous support are usually to be taken for granted at the Calderón – there was a genuine ’12th man’ effect during the title win. But since the hooligan violence before the Depor match and efforts to squeeze the ‘Frente Atlético’ Ultras out there has been a seeping away of atmosphere, almost a divisive feel to the general mood. Perhaps New Year-old sentiments is what the manager most wants.
That, alongside the form they showed last time out in the second half away to Athletic when they hammered the Basques thanks to a Griezmann hat-trick [he’s zero for nine in matches against Levante in his career]. Mario Mandzukic and Koke both return from suspension but Miranda’s not fit and Fernando Torres doesn’t make this squad [paperwork]. Atleti keep on scoring from dead-ball situations so perhaps picking one of them for a first-goal isn’t a bad thought. “Atleti are intimidating at set-plays” admitted Levante coach Lucas Alcaraz before the match.
As to the chances of a Gabi goal let’s just tell this straight as a die. Both he and Arda are at risk of missing next week’s huge match at the Camp Nou – a booking and they are suspended. Gabi is also one of 41 charged with fixing a match against Levante back in 2011, a match which saved his team, Zaragoza, from relegation thanks to Gabi’s two goals in a 1-2 win. Streetwise to leave him out for this one against Levante then? Perhaps … but would that be typical of the chin-out, ‘no-one pushes me around’ Cholo Simeone?
Perhaps it’s worth nothing that Levante have never won at the Calderón on league duty and they are third lowest scorers in La Liga, boasting the fine record of having failed to score in eight of their matches. David Navarro is suspended so 38 year-old Juanfran, sent off in this fixture last season, returns. Atleti lost their last home game of 2014. Unthinkable that they don’t put on a show and win by two clear here.
If you are perverse, if you hate the ‘obvious’ then this profiles as a guaranteed away win. Sevilla are Spain’s only team to get this far in the season unbeaten at home. The reigning Europa League champions haven’t lost at the Sanchez Pizjuan for sixteen matches. Celta, on the other hand, haven’t scored in the league for 575 minutes, losing all but one of their matches since the first day of November. Adding nicely to that stat is the fact that Nolito and Larrivey, authors of 12 of Celta’s 17 Liga goals thus far, are both suspended for this match.
So, there you have it. How can Celta possibly lose?
In fact since the Galicians returned to the Primera they’ve three wins and just one defeat to their higher-profile, more successful rivals.
To judge Sevilla’s readiness you’ll have to decide whether you’re a cup half-full/cup half-empty type of punter. Do they have the greatest chance of cobwebs given that they last played on December 14 because their match against Madrid was postponed? Or are they likely to be sharper, rested and fine-tuned, having been back in training since Boxing Day?
A special match for two diehard Celta fans in the Sevilla ranks, Denis Suárez and Iago Aspas, so football history suggests you back one of them for an ‘any-time’ goal. Back from injury, Charles should start up front for the visitors, Fabián Orellana gets the odd goal but for the romantics Borja Iglesias, prodigious in the youth team, debuts in the first team squad and if there’s to be a surprise it’d be kinda cool if he produced it. Form says home win though, perhaps 3-1.