News and notes from around La Liga:
There, that wasn't that hard now was it? This week the Spanish Football Federation at last announced that the final of the Copa del Rey will be at the Vicente Calderón on May 25. And once they had announced it, guess what everyone did? Yes, they got on with their lives. Especially the fans who could actually go and book trains, planes and hotels. There are problems with the venue and the date -- the Calderón only holds 55,000 and by May 25 international teams are supposed to have preference, meaning that yet again the RFEF is unique in bending the rules to the detriment of its own selección -- but now that the decision has been taken, there is relief more than recrimination. Once something is set, it becomes easier to accept. Once the decision is made, it all seems so simple. It's on May 25, at the Calderón, end of story. Suddenly that decision they agonized over doesn't seem some agonizing. Which begs the question: why did it take so long?
Who is the top scoring Spaniard this season? Is it Roberto Soldado? Álvaro Negredo? Or Fernando Llorente? Fernando Torres? (OK, OK, let's not be silly). Raúl? David Villa? How about recent debutant Iker Muniaín? No, no and no. It is in fact, Miguel Pérez Cuesta at Rayo Vallecano with 13 league goals in 24 appearances. Better known, in so much as he is known at all, as Michu. Time for a Michu for Spain campaign?
In every game there's a ref controversy. Anywhere between 22 and 28 players take part, yet it so often seems like the only one that plays is the only one who is not a player at all. The obsession with referees in Spain borders the absurd. Every single game, every single set of highlights, every single report, every single news conference, you'd think that the only thing that matters is the referee. Every borderline decision is watched over and over, slowed down, sped up, treated to psuedo-technology, analyzed, counter-analyzed and "debated." Former referees are brought in to give their view -- and half the time they don't even agree with each other. Nothing to debate? Never mind, let's debate it anyway. And for "debate," read "shout a lot." All of which is not to say that referees cannot prove decisive: they can, and often. But it often feels like they have been elevated to the status of only determinant; the sole explanation. Your team has always lost because of the ref. And not because you didn't create enough chances, because your goalkeeper dropped one, because the striker smashed it over the bar, or because the other team was better. No. It was the ref's fault. Never mind the goals, or still less the play, the contentious decisions are given the most coverage. An exercise for next weekend: count the number of a. replays of the goals and b. replays of the questionable decisions (which may prove quite correct anyway). Don't be surprised if the you're totting up more in column b than a.
Even more ref controversy. That's the backdrop, the context, the pot in which the whole bitter stew is brought to the boil. This is the latest episode. On Saturday night Barcelona's Gerard Piqué was sent off against Sporting Gijón. The decision was questionable but it was also understandable: although Migeuel de las Cuevas didn't have the ball fully under control, he was ahead of Piqué and one on one against Barca goalkeeper Victor Valdés. Afterward Piqué said: "at times, it feels like referee's take it as a personal [battle]. I had argued with him before about a penalty and it is as if they take down your number plate and store it up." He then said the word that blew up in his face -- and everyone else's. "At times," Piqué continued, "it is as if it's half-premeditated." Premeditated? Ouch! Now it has really kicked off. Sánchez Arminio, the head of the referees' committee, silent over other players' and managers' behaviors (yes, in different contexts, and via different mediums as well as with different words), demanded a ban for the defender. A ban that was never handed out to Jose Mourinho, for example.
As usual the media's interpretation, and that of fans, is -- to use Piqué's words -- premeditated. Barça good, Madrid bad; Madrid good, Barça bad. Now everyone is talking of Barcelona talking about referees, which they claimed not to do, and talking about conspiracies -- which they haven't actually done. Even Piqué didn't: the "premeditation" in question was not because of the shirt he wears but because of something more personal in his words, because of his previous actions in the game (and in that sense, he is at least partly culpable). Others, though, have done. As usual, many are the men committing the very same "crimes" for which they accuse their rival. Meanwhile, the Barcelona spokesman Toni Freixa came out and complained about the different treatment meted out to teams in Spain, insisting that Barcelona's conduct, including that of Piqué, has always been "impeccable." And now all hell and hypocrisy has let loose.
Real Madrid is 110 this week. Everyone, everywhere is putting together their perfect XI from the club's history. Inevitably with online votes, the modern era is given greater weight than it probably deserves. Here, though, are some names that surely cannot be ignored: Iker Casillas, Fernando Hierro, Roberto Carlos, Raúl, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Emilio Butragueño, Pirri, Amancio, Francisco Gento ...
Sometimes you don't have to say anything at all to be eloquent. Sometimes a look says it all -- or your tone of voice does. Talking to Athletic Bilbao players last week, there is a sparkle in their eye the moment you mention Manchester United. They are heading off on a trip to Old Trafford -- one that they are calling, without the slightest risk of hyperbole or exaggeration, a "dream." Manchester United! This is huge, genuinely unique. When Athletic got through, a superb season got even better. They are all going. Fans slept outside San Mamés in tents and plummeting temperatures, queuing overnight for tickets to the game. Athletic will have 8000 fans in Manchester -- at a conservative estimate. It looks set to be the highest ever away contingent at Old Trafford. They're excited in Bilbao; they should be excited in Manchester too -- where they will a host a special, unique club. A pretty good team, too. If Athletic do not suffer from stage fright, or allow the occasion to be bigger than the match, they can cause United problems.
If two heads are better than one, three are better yet. Or are they? Racing Santander's managerial triumvirate -- presented as the perfect model of coaching harmony -- broke down this week when Juanjo González left. He couldn't work with Pablo Pinillos and Fede Castaños any more. And they certainly couldn't work with him. Racing remains in the relegation zone.