Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Espanyol V Villareal, La Liga, October 18

As I reached home numbed from a ten hour flight and switched on the TV, La Liga was the tonic I needed to take me through till the early morning hours when sleep would eventually come thanks to jet lag. The first image I saw was of Drenthe fouled in the area deep into injury time and then Higuain step up to convert the penalty to give Real Madrid a 2-1 derby win over Atletico.

Worried that I might have missed all the football action for the night, I was pleasantly surprised to see Espanyol and Villareal kick-off within moments of the final whistle sounding in Madrid. This was a game that ended nil-nil and yes I did fall asleep just as injury time ended in the second half, but it was definitely not the football that put me to sleep.

This was one of those scoreless games that can be a treat to watch and though a few days on, a lot of the details have been erased from my memory, I remember going oooh and aah many times over the course of the game. The great thing about this game was the way it changed its course and style every few minutes. From languid passing to scrappy to counter attacking to through balls to moments of dullness.

What I distinctly remember are two great passes from two great midfielders. In the first half de la Pena, the heart of Espanyol played a lovely through ball between the defenders which Luis Garcia failed to spot on time and did not make a run for. The second a similar, though even better pass from Marcos Senna which was latched on to by the Villareal right winger Javi Vente (I think) who in turn was brilliantly blocked out by a home defender. I remember thinking that Senna’s pass was like an invitation to a party you would never want to miss! Just beautiful.

Of course, it was great to see Robert Pires in action after a long time and he had a good though not great outing, playing behind the striker instead of out wide. It was also great to see the Estadi Olimpic, one of only three European venues where I have been at the venue not just in spirit but in the flesh as well. Espanyol will be moving to a new stadium next season and rightly so, as this one is too large for the 25K fans o so who turn up to cheer the second team from Barcelona. A number of stands are kept empty and the home crowd though loud and supportive, find it hard to create the home atmosphere that their team would love.

The thing about watching Espanyol is that you can’t fail to notice how much of their play is down to one man – de la Pena. Almost everyone looks to get the ball to him and then let him decide how he wants the move to develop. And by God he is good. Amazing awareness, delightful passing but what stands out is his ability to keep hold of the ball under immense pressure. He’s a joy to watch.

Which was partly the reason that Espanyol’s deployment of a lone striker drove me crazy. Tamudo is fast and all records suggest that he is a very decent finisher. But, he is not Didier Drogba. When Riera was around a lot of the balls were played to him and the left wing was a source of creativity for the team. I had a feeling that Pena does not have the same level of trust in Nene, the Brazilain playing wide left in the 4-3-3/4-5-1. Very often the only option the midfield maestro had was to look for Tamudo amongst a host of defenders and the ball went to the Yellow Submarine who then built an attack of their own. My point is, if you are really relying on one player in midfield then why not take someone else out and provide more passing options up front? There must be good reasons for Tintin Marquez (yes that’s the manager – Tintin) to adopt the strategy that he does, but then I failed to see it.

On Villareal and their play, my memory has been wiped out. I swear I made mental notes but can’t remember a thing now. Apart from the pass and Pires and that Vente had a great game. And once in between I do remember thinking that the reason the game was end-to-end was that both teams were receding quickly to their boxes when they lost possession – so that includes Villareal as well. There..pearls for you.

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