By Dermot Corrigan, imagining in Madrid
When the Iberian Championships was first mooted (last month, here on A Football Report), there was some skepticism in Spain as to the concept’s viability, given the tightness of the club schedule, rivalries between different footballing authorities with competing jurisdictions, the logistical challenges involved, fraught political atmosphere etc. But due to the diligence and far-sightedness of those involved in the project, and the generosity of a certain gulf-oil-money fuelled TV broadcaster looking to break into vital European markets, the first round of games is now taking place during this week’s international break.
As is customary in Iberia, the draw was organised to give the better supported teams the best possible chance of progressing, with the top four ranked sides - Castilla, Catalunya, Euskadi and Valéncia - securing home advantage for two of their three group games. Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque did the honours at the neutral territory of the Andorran FA HQ, with the coaches and captains of all eight teams showing up for the event, along with a healthy smattering of regional political dignitaries and cultural figures. There was a surprisingly positive mood of friendship and fraternity among all involved, especially with the first tranches of TV money being delivered up front.
Then the football started. Group A began with Galicia travelling to heavily favoured Catalunya’s picturesque Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys. The visitors were not just there to enjoy the view however, and began brightly. Their coach Fran was urging his men to attack in numbers whenever they had possession, and striker Iago Aspas troubled Víctor Valdés with a snapshot on 14 minutes.
As the game progressed, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas got a grip of things in midfield and Pep Guardiola’s team took control. Although the men in red and yellow did, as expected, struggle to turn possession into goals, the deadlock was broken just before the break, when an overlapping Jordi Alba crossed to the back post where Raúl Tamudo rose above Antonio Barragán to nod in. The Catalans took an even firmer hold on possession and territory in the second half, and Cristian Tello rammed in a second from close range before Joan Verdú completed the scoring in injury time with a 20 yard curler.
The opening day’s second Group A game, which saw Andalucía visit Valéncia’s Camp de Mestalla, was a much closer affair, and quite the ding dong battle. A feisty opening saw former clubmates Carlos Marchena and David Albelda both booked for crunching tackles on the other, while Andalucía skipper Sergio Ramos also saw yellow for coming through the back of international colleague Roberto Soldado. A worked-up Soldado put the Levante side ahead just after half-time, with a neat first-time finish after Juanfran Torres had outpaced Nacho to reach the byeline and pull the ball back.
This pushed visiting coach Joaquín Caparrós to allow his team to attack a bit more, and Joaquín, Jesús Navas and especially Isco began to trouble the home defence, with Sergio Ballesteros’ aging limbs particularly suffering. The equaliser came late on, when Isco (back at the ground where he made his La Liga debut) nutmegged Raúl Albiol and crossed for the late arriving Javi García to power a header in from near the penalty spot. As the exchanges became more and more fractious, Ballesteros and Apoño squared up inside the centre circle after one tackle by the latter. As referee Muñiz Fernández blew early for full-time, neither coach was complaining about the hard earned point.
Ballesteros was also prominent early when his side then travelled to Balaídos to take on Galicia in their second game. The uncompromising Levante giant fouled Jonathan Pereira in Os Pinos’ first attack and Roberto Trashorras rocketed in a 30 yard free kick to open the scoring. Visiting coach Juan Ignacio Martínez knows how to organise a team though and, bit by bit, Xavi Torres and Bruno Soriano got on top of the physically smaller Fran Rico and Diego Castro in midfield. There was no surprise when Nino snaffled a deserved equaliser before half time, when a wayward Pablo Hernández cross-shot fell into his path at the back-post.
The Drac Alats kept control into the second half and captain Soldado put his sidein front by outpacing youngster Hugo Mallo and slotting the ball past Diego López in the Galician goal. Aspas had a late chance for 2-2, but his header flew too high and Valéncia looked to have one foot in the semi-finals, after claiming four points from their first two games.
Andalucía against Catalunya, played at Sevilla’s Estadio Cartuja, was a much tighter affair, with Caparrós’ organisational skills coming to the fore. Guardiola’s side had lots of possession in midfield, but the Ramos-marshalled Andalucían backline was mostly comfortable throughout the first half. Xavi Hernández was seeing plenty of the ball, but Tamúdo was giving him a different option to that provided up front at club level by Lionel Messi.
Early in the second half, with both Catalan full-backs having overcommitted in attack, Jesús Navas hared away down the right wing and curled the ball around the badly positioned Andreú Fontás (on after Carlés Puyol had tried and failed to run off a shattered knee-cap suffered in the warm-up), to give Isco the opportunity to calmly fire past Valdés. Guardiola withdrew a frustrated looking Fábregas, and his replacement Álvaro Vázquez came closest to nicking an equaliser, but the young forward skewed badly wide from near the penalty spot and the Andalucíans held on for a famous win.
The loss meant Catalunya needed to win their last group game - at home to Valéncia - to progress. The build-up to the game was dominated in both regions by a row over which team would get to wear the traditional red and yellow striped shirts which both claimed as their own. In the end neither did, but the Camp Nou was once again decked out in the colours before kick-off. This time the mosaic showed not the politically neutral Senyera, but the independista Estelada, with its blue triangle and five pointed star.
On the pitch, Fábregas pounced on a bouncing ball near the penalty spot to open the scoring on just eight minutes, and reacted by punching the air more in frustration than celebration. His side were always in control from then on. JIM’s men showed bravery in taking the game to their opponents, but a lack of quality in centre midfield saw them squander possession too often, especially with Xavi around. Tello hared onto his club-mate’s through-ball to round Andrés Palop and score the second on the hour mark, while Gerard Piqué strolled out from the back and exchanged passes with Verdú before calmly rifling in the third in injury time.
As (of course) all the games were being played at separate hours to maximise the potential TV revenue, Andalucía then knew that a win at home to Galicia in the final Group A game would secure top spot in the group. But nerves seemed to affect the team, and the initially raucous packed house at the Estadio Benito Villamarín were silenced on 35 minutes when referee Mateu Lahoz whistled after Pereira went down rather easily under a Ramos challenge in the box. The defender, not used to being on the wrong end of such close decisions, was booked for his lengthy protests, but Diego Castro kept his cool to convert the penalty and give the Celtic-themed visitors a deserved lead.
The second half was all one way traffic, with Navas, Isco and Joaquín all denied by Diego López, and José Callejón enthusiastically taking the ball around the Galician goalkeeper before firing wide of an open goal. Relief for the home fans finally arrived with just five minutes to play, Apoño floating in his side’s 21st corner of the evening and Ramos rising to power a head to the net, drawing cheers from even the Betis fans inside the stadium as their team progressed – along with Catalunya – to the semi-finals.
Group A results:
Catalunya 3-0 Galicia
Valencia 1-1 Andalucía
Galicia 1-2 Valencia
Andalucía 1-0 Catalunya
Catalunya 3-0 Valencia
Andalucía 1-1 Galicia
Group A final standings:
Miss the introduction to the Iberian Championship? Read about it here.
This series is written by Dermot Corrigan, who is an expert on Spanish football and has written for the likes of ESPN, When Saturday Comes, and Fox Soccer. You should follow him on Twitter at @dermotmcorrigan. Comments below please.
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