Paris Saint-Germain striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic apologises for his foul-mouthed rant after the 3-2 defeat at Bordeaux.
It wasn’t a day for faint hearts. The motorway that snakes west from the French border across the roof of Spain can look stunning when the sun’s out, with the green pastures, the craggy mountains and the snapshot views of the sparkling sea to your right hand-side. But when the weather turns, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re heading towards Mordor.
About five minutes from the Eibar exit on Saturday afternoon, where the motorway reaches one of its highest points, the hard rain was pelting down on the crooked highway. Impenetrable clouds swirled around hidden peaks, lightning flashed and dragons flew. Down below, Barcelona FC were making their first-ever visit to Eibar’s tiny stadium, Ipurua, but the players were by then tucked up snugly in their dressing-room, probably thinking about their next two games, against the other two richest sides in the world – Manchester City and Real Madrid. I was thinking about whether my quivering umbrella would keep me dry as I struggled past the abandoned factories, car showrooms and tousled supermarkets that line the road up to the stadium. There is no parking space, no infrastructure in place. You need to know the tricks, and the only places to park are on the outskirts of town. But it’s a unique scene. Eibar vs Barcelona has never happened before, and may never happen again.
Poor Eibar. The seams of the dreams are beginning to unravel. Seven consecutive defeats since the Christmas break, and Barcelona were the visitors, with 16 wins from the last 17 games. It was a case of thank-you-fate, then grin and bear it. Next week Eibar travel to Granada, and there they will have to stop the haemorrhage. And just to rub it in, Luis Enrique had already announced that the three musketeers, the holy trinity, or the triple whammy – whatever Leo Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez are now called – were in the starting line-up. Eibar could have been forgiven for thinking that their visitors would be resting some of the big guns, but no. Barcelona now have a department store, M&S, to contrast and compare with Madrid’s BBC. Better than S&M, of course, but let’s dig no further . The ‘S’ element, Luis Súarez, cost Barcelona Dh 408 million (£75m) in summer, whilst Eibar were splashing out on their record signing (ironically from Barcelona) Dani Nieto, who cost more like £75,000. Or was it £75 pounds? I forget. Whatever, Nieto is warming the bench today, and has only managed six appearances since his transfer.
It’s the sort of game and context that aristocrats such as Barça should theoretically find difficult. Two big games coming up, and they’re obliged to trek to Mordor in the cold and the rain to play a team of alleged whack-it-up and kick-‘em-hard merchants, but the myth that Eibar’s little ground is somehow intimidating is not backed up by the data. They’ve only won three games at home up to Saturday, and lost seven. They’ve also lost seven away, but have actually garnered more points on their travels. None of the big sides had so far succumbed to this alleged Mordor factor. Would Barcelona be the first?
Eibar run out in Barcelona’s colours, causing the hunched-up scribes in the tiny press area a brief cerebral out-take, whilst the visitors appear in a fetching orange, which nicely matches the hoardings behind. In 1943, three years after Eibar FC’s birth, the regional federation gifted them a full Barcelona kit (which was all they had at the time) and the colours have stayed the same ever since. Down below, Neymar blows out his cheeks and rubs his hands as if standing over a brazier of roasting chestnuts. He seems perplexed by the surroundings, and shuffles over to the left touchline, inches from the spectators.
Something has changed since I last visited for the home game against Real Madrid. As Barcelona attempt to stem the tide of Eibar’s lively opening spurt, the spectators refrain from howling when Piqué goes in hard, and simply encourage their boys. Apart from the fact that the region is much less hostile to the Catalans than it is to any representatives from Madrid, the run of defeats seems to have subdued the public somewhat – robbed the bullish edge from their perspective. But if the M&S was not entirely expected, the visitors’ midfield looks unusual, with Sergi Roberto playing as the central pivote, flanked on either side by Ivan Rakitic and Rafinha. Sergio Busquets is out and Martin Montoya and Adriano are replacing the usual guys. Some players are being saved for the clásico, some for Wednesday night.
Roberto, still a fleeting figure in Barcelona’s line-ups (11 appearances in total this season), looks lively, and most of the early play goes through him. Rafinha, on the other hand, wants too much time on the ball, and takes too long to make decisions. Eibar’s five-man midfield crowd him out and hassle him. Rakitic looks elegant but uninterested. Indeed, nothing much of note takes place until the 21st minute, when Messi suddenly bursts into life, tracking back into his own half and beginning a slalom from a similar position to his famous 2007 re-enactment versus Getafe of Maradona’s goal against England.
Lionel Messi hier face à Eibar … pic.twitter.com/sEQaKCEZvA
— FOOTBALL Vine ⚽️ (@FOOT_Vine_) March 15, 2015
This run (he beats four men) doesn’t end in a goal, but rather in an impossible nutmeg of poor Raul Navas, done at supersonic speed and with such split-second timing that the Eibar defender simply gawps hopelessly at the air in front of him. Messi has zapped past, an occupant of some other space-time continuum. The Spanish journalist to my left shakes his head. “Messi es la hostia” he shrugs (Messi is the cat’s whiskers). Actually, there is no Spanish-speaking football journalist alive who has not pronounced this phrase at some point since 2004, when Messi made his debut. Still, it was nice to be there, to see him do this slalom in the flesh. My dad took me to Nottingham when I was elevent to see George Best similarly confuse a herd of Forest defenders – and not since then have I seen anything quite like Messi’s little run on Saturday.
Neymar and Suarez are missing in action, but ten minutes later Messi is at it again, and his goal-bound shot is involuntarily handled by Borja Ekiza, Eibar’s defender. The ref points to the spot and Messi does the business efficiently. Eibar’s brand-new electronic screen flashes up the score above the huddle of celebrating players, its sharp light piercing the gathering gloom. The misty mountains darken above the stands, and Eibar know there’s no way back. They haven’t actually been playing badly, but they lack imagination in the final ball, and although their counter-attacks are swift and promising, they run aground on the rocks of Pique’s positioning and Marc Bartra’s speed, plus the obvious fact that any time Eibar’s Saul Berjón (for example) gets away, there is no team-mate to support him. It’s there that Eibar’s technical shortcomings are most exposed.
Messi scores a header from a corner in the second half (allegedly the first time he has done this) – the Eibar defenders all fooled into worrying about Piqué and Bartra – and the game is up, despite a late rally and a shot onto the bar from the lively sub, Fred Piovacarri. Xavi comes on for his 750th appearance, and is applauded sportingly by the Eibar fans, who then boo Neymar for his body-language protest as he is substituted eight minutes later. Get a grip, they seem to be saying. Try playing here for tuppence a week.
Elsewhere, Real Madrid will defeat Levante 2-0 on Sunday to keep up their motivation for the clásico, but it is also a result relevant to Eibar, who are now casting nervous glances below. Granada succumb 3-1 to Rayo Vallecano after going in at half-time in the lead, and Almería draw at home to Villarreal, leaving the third-from-bottom relegation spot on 22 points, five fewer than Eibar’s current total.
In the press conference, Luis Enrique, sporting a natty tie for the cameras but wearing running shoes beneath the desk, praises Eibar for “making Barcelona work” and hopes they will stay up. That’s what they all say, but something in his expression suggests he means it. As his players turn their thoughts to the clásico and its mega-buck madness, Eibar has been a different day out for his squad, a grimly exotic location where things are not quite the same – a place where they might remember their roots, of how they started out with nothing. That’s good for La Liga. That’s good for football.
In the cash-rich world of modern football, there is plenty of room for ridicule; Sport360 has it for you in abundance every Monday. This week, Wayne Rooney is caught red handed, or should that be red nosed, getting knocked out by Stoke’s Phil Bardsley.
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Firstly, do we take Rooney at face value here, that this was a pretend scrap? Admittedly the presence of marble flooring and a kitchen sink are indicators that the ‘Thriller in the Rooney Villa’ was not a World Boxing Organisation sanctioned bout, but that doesn’t mean something deeply nefarious wasn’t taking place either. Was Rooney a ring leader of a Fight Club, a murky underground society where international captains let off steam by grappling with Stoke City squad members? How long before we see leaked footage of Gianluigi Buffon clutching Glenn Whelan in a choke hold or Neymar attempting a roundhouse kick on Ryan Shawcross? Sobering stuff.
Even if we dismiss that water-tight theory, an even bigger question raises its hair-transplanted head – what on earth is Phil Bardsley doing in Wayne Rooney’s kitchen? We’re all assuming they must be pals, but what if they’re not, have the Manchester Metropolitan Police stopped to ask this question? For all we know big Bardsley, renowned for getting an upper hand in matches through physical intimidation, may have taken things up a few gears by invading the Rooney residence. While I’m not totally dismissive of the dark arts of Stoke City on the pitch, interrupting an opponent’s cornflakes to give him a thump in the chops is taking ‘off the ball challenge’ into worryingly unchartered territory.
Most intriguing of all about this incident is that Rooney ended his goal drought just six days after – scoring two goals against Sunderland. Coincidence? This fact certainly poses a conundrum for the under pressure Louis van Gaal. Given this knowledge, there must surely now be a temptation to knock Rooney unconscious two days before every match to unlock a goal avalanche. Along with ‘do I play 4-4-2?’, ‘do I rotate my squad?,’ the now ‘do I repeatedly knock out my captain?’ quandary is added to a list of tricky questions Van Gaal has to ask himself each week.
Concussed or unconcussed, Rooney and the entire Manchester United side were sensational in a 3-0 victory against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday – the positives were plentiful; Chris Smalling had periodically resembled a semi-professional footballer, the team had gelled together more intensely than Marouane Chamakh’s scalp and most impressively of all – David de Gea’s run of 63 Man of the Match awards in a row had finally been broken. To top it all, Van Gaal’s biggest vision had paid off – the gamble to convert Rooney from dogged defensive midfielder into a top quality striker had inexplicably worked, solving the club’s striking crisis in one fell swoop. Inspired.
Last Week, Off The Bar focused its attentions on a pitch invasion but it was a pitch evacuation of sorts that took most of the headlines on Saturday, with huge chunks of the Sunderland crowd leaving the ‘Stadium of Bleak Ever-Reducing Light’ at half-time. They had just watched their side make a complete porridge of the first 45 minutes against a resurgent Aston Villa, conceding goals so soft they made melted marshmallows look like they were made from impenetrable steel.
It’s entirely apt that Sunderland are nicknamed the Black Cats. It’s oft said that it’s bad luck to see a black cat cross your path – by that token, the city of Sunderland must have been exposed to biblical herds of black cats running amok – such is the club’s spectacular commitment to miserable mediocrity. This was summed up by Seb Larsson’s failure to start the second half until several minutes after it had started. Sure, he was receiving treatment but at the cost of leaving his beleaguered side one man down – never has a player so perfectly embodied the phrase ‘adding insult to injury’. Will Sunderland owner Ellis Short finally sack Gus Poyet? It depends whether he is a stadium half full or a stadium half empty kind of a guy.
— zizi (@Steez_Zee) March 14, 2015
Goal of the weekend was won outright by QPR’s Matt Phillips, who essentially completed football by scoring a 40-yard stunner. A thing of beauty amid a truly grim team performance – this goal was the equivalent of finding the Mona Lisa pinned up above a set of clogged-up pub urinals.
The earth-to-air missile was a consolation goal in QPR’s 3-1 loss away to Crystal Palace. The military reference is fully justified here. The shot was hit with such ferocious power and ruthless accuracy that we can only draw one conclusion – Matt Phillips is part of a multi-million dollar weapons testing programme (yet another flagrant disregard for Financial Fair Play by QPR). His right foot has clearly been modified to have rocket propelled nylon-net seeking capabilities and I for one cannot wait to see where the Pentagon programme takes Philips next. A logical next step is a jet-pack to provide Phillips with a greater aerial presence at set-pieces.
This strike from QPR’s Matt Phillips was undoubtedly the goal of the weekend but is it the goal of the season? https://t.co/4O3ABaOxVq
— Marathonbet (@marathonbet) March 15, 2015
The Arsenal-West Ham match saw the substitution of the week take place, with the supposedly injured referee Chris Foy making way for super-sub Anthony Taylor. We say ‘supposedly’ because the footage we’ve seen doesn’t show Foy sporting any kind of notable limp. Which begs the question – was this the very first tactical substitution of a referee in football history? Now that would be something special. Sadly there is no footage of Foy leaving pitch-side but Off The Bar certainly likes to think Foy ripped off his shirt and slung it to the ground, before rejecting a handshake with the linesman, thwacking several water bottles, launching an unsightly gesture at the crowd and marching down the tunnel in an almighty huff.
One thing we definitely did see was the complete farce of Foy handing over endless technological gear to Taylor – from headsets to goal line buzzers, watches to sprays and more. Imagine Robocop playing strip poker and you’ll get a sense of things. No wonder so many referees don’t want to carry out further technology improvements in the game…they literally can’t carry it out, it’s too bloody heavy.