After the palate cleanser that was the Córdoba game, it’s time to get back to the serious stuff — as next, we welcome the batmen of Valencia to La Cartuja. It’s easy to see why they finished fourth in the division last season; their squad contains some genuine world-class talents. Aftershave botherer Santiago Cañizares, future “manager” Mauricio Pellegrino and the Basque country’s favourite son Bixente Lizarazu join the likes of Edgar Davids, Kily González, Pablo Aimar, Vicente, Mista and Djibril Cissé at Los Ches, who will surely have a fine old tilt at both La Liga and the Champions League this season.
Having said that, despite their star-studded squad, they’ve made a pretty inauspicious start in both competitions, sneaking past Porto on pens to just make it to the CL first group stage where they immediately lost to Hertha Berlin, and also going down to Deportivo La Coruña and being held by Celta Vigo in the league, leaving them floundering down in 15th place. It’s early days, of course, but the proof is there to be seen: this Valencia side, for all their quality, are beatable — especially given their injury list, which probably rules out Davids, and will definitely rob them of Jean-Félix Dorothée, David Albelda and Miguel Angel Angulo.
They will, however, still have Vicente and Aimar, so I line my side up with a specific plan to deal with both of them. I’m tempted to restore Bergtoft to the side so that Batty can have a rest, but even at 96%, I fancy him to do a job on Aimar, so the Yorkshireman stays in the side. I also replace Mikel Alonso with Arteta on the right of my central two — a Mike-for-Mike change? No you’re right, that doesn’t work — with specific instructions to take out Vincente and his dastardly swooping inside-forward runs from the left flank.
Up front, Batistuta is less spring chicken and more old greyhound that only goes outside once a fortnight, so his enforced rest means that Tsigalko is restored alongside Shearer in a game that could be a fruitful one for him — opposing CBs Marchena and Pellegrino are about as fast as an oil tanker race, and with his 19/17 for Acceleration/Pace, I fancy his chances of getting on the end of Wor Al’s knockdowns. Cristiano’s all-rounder attributes lead me to trust him with a midfield role, remember that later when that completely backfires, while Tonton moves forward into the coveted AMC position with Recoba on the side due to a little fatigue from last week’s exploits. He’s there if we need him.
Valencia surprise me with no Aimar and no Vicente, and Djibril Cissé is on the bench too — while orangey Edgar Davids starts in midfield despite still carrying a gashed leg from their Champions League draw with Arsenal. I wind up Batty and point him in the Dutchman’s direction… this is exactly the sort of challenge he wants. There might be blood.
It’s a very, very cagey opening half. Costanzo, restored to the side, has to be alert in the early going to smother a ball crossed in from the left, then dives at the feet of Salva as he prepares to shoot at goal. Shearer then collects a pass from Tsigalko that he fires high and wide, while Salva is giving young Andrielos the right runaround, getting past the young centre-half and smashing a shot that Costanzo saves well once again. Ronaldo then finds Shearer in the box, but he shoots wide again from a good position, and just at that moment, a small crack appears in my confidence dyke. Cañizares is a good enough goalkeeper to keep us out single-handedly; if we can’t even trouble him, we’re going to have serious problems.
And as that thought begins to fester, Ronaldo steps up to banish it. He collects a square pass from Victory and tears towards goal, busting past Salva and Curro Torres before hammering a shot at the top corner that Cañizares manages to fingertip over the bar! Finally, a moment of quality, and it’s no surprise that it comes from the precocious Portuguese — but sadly, it’s the best we manage for almost the whole remainder of the half. An excellent team move involving my entire midfield and forward line ends with Cañizares sweeping up a loose ball and clattering it downfield and away from danger; another dangerous attack is snuffed out when Davids scythes through Moukoko and comes away cleanly with the ball; but minutes later, Tonton picks himself up, does a stepover, then clangs a low drive off the near post with Cañizares beaten.
The fourth official raises his board to indicate time added on at the end of the opening 45 as Jamie Victory prepares to deliver a final free-kick into the Valencia penalty box. He whips it in, Shearer heads down to Arteta, who shapes to strike — but Curro Torres takes him out! The referee’s whistle shrills… PENALTY! Right on the stroke of half-time! Penalty Coladeros!
Alan Shearer takes the ball. Of course he does. He takes five steps back. A single bead of sweat slithers down the brow of Santiago Cañizares. Shearer… little hop… run up… STRIKE!
GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOLLLLLLLL! GOOOOOOOOL SHEARER! GOOL COLADEROS!! Alan Shearer rattles his 6th goal of the season in off the crossbar, from the penalty spot, and with that, the referee calls for half time!
What a way to end the half. We’ve not been at our brilliant best, but I’d say we’re just about good enough to warrant our lead. Keeping it, however, is going to be a different story.
I introduce Recoba for Moukoko at half time in the hope that he can take all the energy he seems to have on the touchline and bring it to our overall performance in the second half — and El Chino is straight into the action, laying the ball off for David Batty to loop a high ball into the box that Tsigalko volleys goalwards, but Cañizares saves and holds brilliantly. Arteta then takes over a few minutes later, skipping away from leggy Davids in midfield and making his way to the edge of the box. He stops, looks up, and whips a cross into the far post, where Shearer is lurking! SHEARER’S HEADER! GOAL! ALAN SHEARER AGAIN! Wor Al’s seventh goal in five games makes it 2–0 to the Wet Bandits!!
Tsigalko then tries to get in on the action but sadly returns to a lamentable old habit by volleying a long-range shot into the Guadalquivir River for some poor ball boy to swim after — then, Valencia stamp a boot down into this game. Lizarazu and Rufete exchange passes down the left hand side, the French Basqueman rockets past Mike Duff and crosses into the box for Salva, tormentor of the Gods, to turn a low shot past Costanzo that reduces the score to 2–1.
We can’t say it hasn’t been coming — Salva has been a thorn in Andrielos’s side all afternoon so far. I fumble for my substitutions as the game continues, intending on switching the young man out for Teddy Lucic to do a job on the Valencia striker, but just after Cristiano sees an effort of his ping wide off the post, Recoba then pirouettes his way past Davids, who’s having absolutely none of it, and drags him to the floor by his shirt. After David Batty has intervened to protect his diminutive teammate, Jamie Victory places the ball down. He lines up the free kick, runs up, and strikes over the wall! Cañizares is stranded!!
GOOOOOOOOOOOOLAZOOOOOOO!! It’s a wonder strike from Jamie Victory! WHAT a free kick! It’s 3–1!
Just afterwards, I finally manage to make my subs; Lucic replaces Andrielos as planned, and I also withdraw the frustrated figure of Maxim Tsigalko and throw Cherno Samba on in his stead. Ronaldo chips the ball forward, Shearer heads it down, Recoba waffles a shot at goal!! Cañizares saves spectacularly!! What a save Cañizares! It’s a corner, though, which Recoba passes short to his enforcer, David Batty. Batty clips the ball to the far post, Lucic heads down to Tobros, who sets it up for SHEARER! ON A HAT-TRICK!! Ooooohhh, what a block by Marchena, and Pellegrino clears! It’s about time they did something, to be honest.
Costanzo fists a ball away as Valencia break into our third, but it’s only as far as Alieu, who passes inside to Rufete, who shoots!! Costanzo parries it wide!! Great save Costanzo, but the danger isn’t over: Rufete takes the corner, Davids flicks the ball past Batty… EDGAR DAVIDS SHOOTS! GOAL VALENCIA! GOD DAMN IT! It’s 3–2, with just over five minutes to go! This is going to be a tense finish, isn’t it.
We kick off again, with Valencia snapping at our ankles and sensing a point is in the offing. Recoba carries the ball over the halfway line and finds Victory wide on the left, who crosses first time — Shearer is above Marchena! SHEARER’S HEADER! SAVED BY CAÑIZARES!! Miraculous stuff from the Valencia keeper! He clears the ball long downfield, where Salva lays the ball off for Rufete to strike — but it’s over the bar! Ronaldo is credited with tracking his man — my god, he’s learning — and with the game into the 90th minute, it seems like that’s that.
Costanzo takes the goal kick long, and it’s controlled well by Cherno Samba. I’m wildly gesturing to our golden boy, trying to tell him to keep the ball — and he does. He sets off towards the Valencia penalty box, rounding substitute Pablo Aimar on the way. 91 minutes. He’s advancing on the Valencia goal, tracked by Marchena; I implore him to play an easy pass, but just as he’s learned from bitter experience, he ignores me, and continues his run, leaving Marchena in the dirt — and he’s through! SHOOT, CHERNO! SHOOT LAD!
Samba gets into the box, bears down on Cañizares, and hits a vicious shot at the top corner!
HNNNGGGOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL SAMBAAAAAA! What a finish to this game! Cherno Samba’s sixth career goal makes it 4–2, and what a result for the Wet Bandits!
I’m over the moon in the aftermath of this one, and give all the players firm slaps on the cheeks as they leave the dressing room to head home. I let them decide which cheeks they prefer. Some of them head straight off on international duty, and while I always wince when my players are outside my care because I can’t bear the thought of them being hurt when they’re outside the range of our physio picnic benches, it’s good news for most of them: Mikel Arteta gets capped by Spain U21 in a 3–0 win over Georgia, Maxim Tsigalko scores for Belarus U21 in a 2–1 defeat, while Mike Duff usurps them both to get man of the match for Northern Ireland — playing at centre half! They must be short at the back.
Unfortunately my fears are then realised as Duff returns to Seville with a broken toe — my physios, without any real medical equipment to use, simply strap him to one of the benches and tell me they’ll let him go in three weeks, when they expect he’ll be able to walk again. It’s times like this that most managers would wish they’d properly strengthened at right-back over the summer instead of spending most of their transfer budget on signing on fees for ageing megastars and plunging the club back into debt, but not me. No siree bob. I’m sure Teddy Lucic will do juuuuuust fine.
Fortunately the remainder of the international break takes out half of Duff’s recovery time, which is a relief — although I’m serious, I really do think Teddy Lucic will be a fine replacement. His first assignment as a flying right wing-back will be in our fourth and final home fixture in this little run against Deportivo La Coruña. It’s only since I’ve moved to Spain that I’ve learned the word “Deportivo” just means “sports” or “sporting”, as in Sporting Lisbon — so actually, the team we’re playing today are called Sporting La Coruña in English. You learn something new every day when you move to a new country and you don’t know anything about it.
They’re another team that might not pop straight into your mind when you try to remember all the teams in La Liga, but nevertheless, they’ve got some real stars mingling about in their squad, namely José Molina in nets, Joan Capdevila, Christian Bassedas, Roberto Acuña, Djalminha and Roy Makaay. For me, Clive, Diego Tristán is the brightest of them all, despite being displaced entirely in the team this season by summer signing Martín Palermo. It’s a ridiculous decision by Sporting manager Irureta — just play them both, you maniac — but his insistence on operating with a lone striker has made the prolific Spaniard surplus to requirements… or rather he would be, if Palermo hadn’t strained his ankle ligaments a month ago and has been out ever since. Unfortunately for us, that has meant a return to the side for Tristán, and he’s channeled his annoyance at the brass into five goals in three appearances. He’s such an all-round powerhouse that I might have to get both my war gods to man-mark him if he starts.
My slight disappointment with Tsigalko and hearty-eyes for Batistuta means that the Argentine returns to the lineup to partner Wor Al, with Ronaldo back in AMC and Recoba restored to making dangerous, untracked runs from midfield. I’m a big fan of Mikel Arteta so he’s going nowhere, and neither are four of my back five; only the aforementioned Duff/Lucic switcharoo disrupts my otherwise settled defence. I’m also keeping David Batty in the team because someone needs to look after Álvaro, and it’s sure as hell not going to be Bergtoft. I like the Swede in general, but no-one sets the tone like Batty, and nobody gets past the Enforcer.
It’s an eventful opening 20 minutes. First of all, Álvaro Recoba skins Sergio through the middle of midfield and lays the ball on a plate for Alan Shearer to thunder home the opening goal after just nine minutes — Wor Al’s unstoppable form continues. However, five minutes later Niko Tobros is booked for shoving Víctor to the ground, and another five minutes after that he wipes out Diego Tristán on the edge of the box, receives his second yellow card, and just like that, we’re a goal up and a man down with just 18 minutes on the clock.
It’s a bit of a disaster, but keeps up our remarkable red-cards-per-game ratio since arriving in La Liga, so you know, every cloud. I’m basically forced to withdraw Ronaldo and replace him with Iván Amaya — and I’m happy to report that my defence tighten up well enough that we only allow Deportivo a single effort on target throughout the remainder of the first half, which Costanzo saves superbly from Jorge Andrade. While I’m a little worried about David Batty, who’s been rounded twice by the ageing legs of Mauro Silva, plus the constant lingering threat of Tristán, we actually look pretty good even with a man down — and should definitely have a pen on the stroke of half time as Manuel Pablo clearly fouls Shearer in the box, but the ref isn’t having any of it. Twas ever thus.
Unfortunately, our ten-man resistance only lasts until the 55th minute. We just can’t contain Diego Tristán, despite having both my centre halves man-marking him, and he wriggles away from both Amaya and Andrielos to smash a low drive past a stranded Costanzo to tie the game up at 1–1. Unfortunately, thereafter, José Molina plants his staff on the Deportivo goal line and declares that we shall not pass — and nothing that Batistuta, Shearer, Amaya or Bergtoft is going to change that. We finish the game the far stronger side, and in fact, Molina is unlucky to lose out to Shearer for the man of the match award. Can’t grumble, though — a point with ten men is never to be sniffed at.
So, all in all, not a bad start to the season. Barcelona are clearly the team to beat, but as long as we don’t fall too far behind, I’m going to give us a chance. Also, would you look at the state of Valladolid? Why won’t they just sod off.
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