“I’ll be watching it of course, at home, because I like football,” Carlo Ancelotti said. “My teams will be the teams where my players play: Brazil, Spain, France, Uruguay, Croatia, Germany, lots of teams. I’ll follow the World Cup as a fan, and may the best team win it. Unfortunately, Italy can’t.” There was a smile, a goodbye and with that he was gone. They all were. Just before midnight on a Thursday in early November and the Real Madrid coach was the last man to leave. La Liga was finished, everyone out of here for 50 days. Mentally, some had gone already.
This weekend is the first round of the Copa del Rey, but none of the Super Cup teams will be in it – no Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia or Betis – and not many of the World Cup players will be either. If they have got this far injury-free, and not all of them have, few will take one last risk against a team they’ve never heard of; in fact, while no one admits it, the calendar was drawn up this way for this reason, to gain a little room, however tiny. Spain’s squad has just been announced and some footballers have already flown, this final midweek round of games is a watershed no one wanted – even if for some teams stopping is the best thing they could do right now.
For others, it is the worst. For many players, meanwhile, getting here unscathed is all that matters. “We would rather not stop now; everything’s coming off, even when we don’t mean it to,” said Real Mallorca manager Javier Aguirre on Wednesday, and no wonder: one of only three teams to have won their last two games, along with Barcelona and Girona, Mallorca had just racked up a third win in four, and against Atlético Madrid. Vedat Muriqi, a kind of Kosovar Andy Carroll, “a big bastard with a big heart” in his manager’s words, “an ugly beast who plays really well”, had just scored for the fifth game running, leaving the side that survived on the final day last season up in 11th, eight points from relegation.
On the other side, Diego Simeone just wanted it to end. Atlético have not won in five – a draw with Leverkusen, defeat at Cádiz, defeat in Porto, a 1-1 against 10-man Espanyol and now this. Since their European elimination, it has taken them 71 shots to score four, two Álvaro Morata misses in Mallorca a portrait of something for which captain Koke insisted “there is no explanation”. Which was understandable, if not entirely true. Jan Oblak has talked about a team “psychologically not right”, the doubts around their identity have resurfaced and all is not well internally. The CEO, Miguel Ángel Gil Marín, says that part of it is the World Cup itself, an “atypical season affecting the squad” – even if Simeone then disagreed.
That of course is the case for many teams, even if only at some subconscious level. Sevilla’s Papu Gómez admitted that in the final weeks, the World Cup would be on players’ minds, some reluctant to put their foot in. In the Madrid media meanwhile, a new illness has been discovered, one that doesn’t only affect them even if, like the Fifa virus, it’s inevitably presented that way: worldcupitis. Defeated 3-2 at Rayo on Monday, where the last chance fell to Fede Valverde and ended up in someone’s front room, they had drawn the previous game with Girona 1-1, and on Thursday night defeated second-bottom Cádiz 2-1, relieved to see a clear chance for the visitors slip away in the last minute.
That said, they needn’t have reached that point. Toni Kroos – who is not going to Qatar but playing better than ever – scored an outrageous volley to put them 2-0 up and Luka Modric should have made it three but somehow missed a sitter from six yards. “It’s a good job Croatia have already picked their squad,” Ancelotti joked. They have been without Karim Benzema and at the end of this game, Vinícius tweeted: “Another game without an injury, thank God.” That was directed at the treatment from opponents – he is the most fouled player in La Liga – but the significance, the relief, comes from what’s next.
Ask Villarreal’s Gio Lo Celso, a footballer Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni says could play at any club in the world but won’t now play for his country. The good news is that Vinícius, like the rest, will not have to get through another club game without injury now. After an opening 14 weeks which have occasionally felt a little like they weren’t real, like they were in the way of the World Cup – preparation for some, a risk for others – La Liga stops now. Which does at least give everyone a chance to work out where they are and what they need, the last matchday delivering a league table that will last six weeks.
It’s not always good reading. Just one place and one point off the relegation zone, Celta’s second manager, Carlos Carvalhal, started by leaving Iago Aspas on the bench and making the most fun place in Spanish football anything but, though at least he got a 0-0 draw at normally rampant Rayo. “This can’t be; we can’t have four coaches in 14 weeks, bloody hell,” said Pere Milla after Elche were beaten again. Bottom of the table, they have not won a match – already the fifth longest winless start ever. And Villarreal could yet be heading for a third manager, although a 1-0 win over Espanyol might have saved Quique Setién – less than two weeks after taking over. “I’ve never watched a game so nervous,” said his former assistant, and friend, Eder Sarabia.
They were grateful to Espanyol, the team that bring to mind a line from Alfredo Di Stéfano: “I don’t ask the goalkeeper to stop the shots that are going in; it’s enough for me that they don’t put in the shots that are going wide.” Both Benjamin Lecomte and Álvaro Fernández have done that – this time it was the former who accidentally finished off an Alberto Moreno cross.
For Sevilla, it is even worse: down to nine men, the Pizjuan stood to applaud at the end, appreciating that they had even managed to make a game of it against a side who played superbly, but they were beaten again. Those fans have not seen them win at home all season, and Sevilla slipped back into the relegation zone.
Life looks looks better for Valladolid, Almería and Girona, the promoted teams lined up in 12th, 13th and 14th; Osasuna and Rayo, seventh and eighth; and just look at Athletic and Real Sociedad in the Champions League places. Then, above all, there’s Barcelona, who came back from a man down and a goal down to defeat Osasuna, Raphinha lobbing in a lovely late header from an even lovelier Frenkie de Jong pass.
It was perfect for Gerard Piqué, who lived the dream once more. How many times have you fantasised about finally sticking it to the man on your last ever day at work? Well Piqué did. Although he claims he didn’t tell the referee to eff off (literally, “I shit on your prostitute mother”), despite that being what the official reported – which is a pity because they would be very famous last words – he did approach Jesús Gil Manzano at half-time, finger poking, following him down the tunnel and telling him that over the years he had been the ref that “most fucked us over by far”. Sent off, unable to play his last game, Piqué did though spark a reaction and leave Barcelona top, the players dancing round the dressing room.
Whatever happens next they will be there for a while. Primera won’t be back until 31 December. So now what? “Watch a lot of football,” says Real Sociedad’s Imanol Alguacil. Another first division coach says he’ll be tuning into Real Oviedo’s games in the second division, although he might have been slightly playing to his audience. One thing is true: clubs are in unknown territory and managers didn’t know what impact the World Cup would have until now and or how it will play out from here on.
One coach says they have consulted with basketball and handball clubs, more accustomed to long breaks midseason, but admits the sports are too different for the conclusions and lessons to be beyond tentative. A fitness coach says one of the essential lessons from the pandemic is that you can’t really plan, because you don’t know what’s coming; instead you have to be “chameleonic”.
The players’ union guarantees a 10-day break, which non-World Cup players will get after the weekend’s cup games, sessions restarting around 24 November, and World Cup players will have later, depending on when they arrive. Most clubs are preparing mini-preseasons, then there are friendlies: Betis play Manchester United and Villarreal play Arsenal. Many clubs are travelling abroad, others admit they haven’t organised theirs yet, and the league is promoting tours. The teams that travel won’t look much like those that played this week, even the smaller clubs having at least a couple of players Qatar-bound.
“Right now, no one can complain,” said Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli. “This should have been fixed long ago. Because it’s a huge business everything else is pushed to one side, and the consequences are paid by other people below them. Stopping the competition now to go and play there, is done. Everyone accepted it. Fifa decided it would be played in a place it shouldn’t be played in and on dates it shouldn’t be played on, and all for the ‘silver’.”