By Dermot Corrigan, writing from Madrid.
Group B began with Castilla, Euskadi, Cantabria y Asturias Las Islas Unidas all confident they were in with a chance of making the final four, although the bookies had Míchel’s centralistas and Unai Emery’s Basques as clear favourites to claim the two qualifying places on offer.
As the Bernabéu was unavailable due to repairs to its non-alcoholic beer taps, and a Keane concert at the Calderón, the footballing aristocrats of Castilla were forced to begin their campaign at home to Las Islas Unidas at the less majestic surroundings of Estadio Vallecas.
Concerns raised pre-game about the potential for a further incident football terrorism proved unfounded as the floodlights worked perfectly. Míchel’s men were also switched on early and Andrés Iniesta teed up Fernando Torres to open the scoring inside the opening ten minutes. Álvaro Negredo made it two before the break, tapping in after Juan Mata’s shot was parried by las islas keeper Raúl Lizoáin.
The visitors’ heads refused to drop and even at two down they kept passing the ball and gaps soon appeared in a somewhat shaky Castilla defence, where Carlos Cuéllar and Alejandro Arribas were regularly pulled out of position by the islanders’ clever movement. David Silva found space to hit the inside of the post with a 20 yarder, then Pedro Rodríguez raced away from Cuéllar and rounded Iker Casillas only for a linesman’s flag to incorrectly call him back.
Castilla weathered the storm however and began to put pressure on the visitors’ own also less than watertight back-line. The points were wrapped up when Negredo outmuscled Iván Ramis to bundle in the third. Borja Valero’s late deflected long ranger wrong-footed Lizoáin and lent a slightly unfair look to the scoreline.
Group B’s second game was an eagerly awaited local derby, with Cantabria y Asturias making the short trip along the coast to Bilbao’s Estadio San Mamés to take on Euskadi. The opening stages were most notable for some no-holds barred challenges from both sides, and a mixture of cheers and whistles from the stands for both the returning Javi Martínez and Fernando Llorente, who was getting a rare start at the ground.
The home fans were further confused on the half-hour, when Xabi Alonso’s superb 60 yard pass sent Iker Muniain scampering down the left and his perfect cross was headed in by Llorente for the opening goal. This put the Basques in control, and Alonso and Mikel Arteta began to dictate the game from the centre of midfield. Chances went a-begging for the home side, with a still rusty looking Llorente missing from ten yards, and Ander Herrera slicing wide after Mario had palmed out Arteta’s free-kick.
Euskadi then seemed likely to pay for this profligacy when the visitors’ Santi Cazorla and José Ángel combined superbly down the left wing (with Herrera having been drawn centrally by Adrián’s clever run) and David Villa was on hand to convert the full-back’s pin-point cross with just five minutes remaining. But the home side were not to be denied, and Martínez rose above Javi Venta to head home Alonso’s free-kick in the 93rd minute and claim the three points for his side.
Unai Emery’s team next flew to Mallorca to face Las Islas Unidas, whose coach Paco Jémez had a tactical surprise in store. The islanders lined out with a three-man defence, with Dani Benítez and Pedro as very offensively minded wing-backs, and Emery’s side struggled early as Beñat Etxeberria (in for the injured Arteta) and Alonso (not the nimblest at the best of times) were outnumbered in midfield. Jémez’s men took a deserved lead when Benítez tricked his way past Andoni Iraola before centering for Rubén Castro to poke his side in front with 35 minutes on the clock.
Emery rejigged his own formation at the break, withdrawing a shagged looking Beñat for Markel Susaeta and telling the substitute and Muniain to stay high up the pitch on each wing. This lead to a - very - open contest, with both sides making and missing a number of chances. The islanders had the clearest of these when Silva’s clever through ball found Castro, but Nacho Monreal somehow got back to hook the ball off the line. A reprieved Euskadi got their equaliser late on, when Susaeta and Iraola worked a one-two down the right and the full-back’s cross was headed home by Aritz Aduriz, who had replaced Llorente moments before.
Castilla’s visit to Gijón to face Cantabria y Asturias was complicated on the day of the game when Juan Mata, who began his career at nearby Real Oviedo, withdrew with a mysterious stomach complaint just hours before kick off. His replacement Mario Suárez was not really like for like, and the visitors took advantage of their opponents’ early tactical confusion, Adrián outpacing Suárez and crossing for another ex-Oviedo man Michu - who had timed his late arrival perfectly - to smash to the net from 15 yards. Torres should really have equalised before half-time, but he miscued horribly after rounding Mario, and fell to the ground in despair.
Míchel recognised his mistake and hooked Suárez at the break, sending on the more attacking minded Koke, and Castilla immediately looked to have a better shape about them. Just after the hour mark, Iniesta twisted past both Javier Paredes and Álvaro González to break into the box and square for a relieved looking Torres to equalise from two yards. C y A almost retook the lead on 74 minutes, but Casillas saved superbly from Villa, after El Guaje had been picked out in space by Cazorla. Castilla swept straight up the other end, with Iniesta again the creator as Torres - looking full of confidence now - met his cross with a cracking half-volley which gave Mario no chance and las centristas all three points.
The first two rounds’ results took some of the drama out of the final day’s games, as did the decision to schedule Cantabria y Asturias v Las Islas Unidas for 11PM on a Monday evening, supposedly in order to promote the game to emerging TV markets in the Far East which are now more important than ever before. The hosts had nothing to play for, but the extra freedom seemed to help and they were soon two ahead - Villa rifling in the opener after Michu had flicked on a Míchel corner, and Cazorla claiming the second with a trademark 20 yard free kick.
Paco Jémez’s visitors still knew they had an outside chance to progress, if Euskadi lost in Madrid, so they had to throw caution to the wind after the break. Their caused was helped when home pivote Javi Fuego saw red for yet another tactical foul in midfield. A newly freed Silva sent an inch-perfect through ball to Pedro who ran on to pull one back. In the last minute Castro took advantage of a Paredes howler to equalise, but time ran out before a famous comeback could be completed.
In theory that meant there was little to play for in the final Group B game, but Euskadi against Castilla in Madrid was never likely to be a damp squib of a game. Rows over the correct anthem to be played, flags to be flown and which smoked meats to serve for the pre-match meal further heated the atmosphere between the respective associations pre-game, while Susaeta (again) mis-spoke at the pre-game press conference when asked how he felt about representing his people. The two coaches held a joint press conference pre-game to ask people to relax, and thankfully the game at the Calderón passed off without any serious incident.
Alonso, who looked disappointed to be whistled throughout, caught out his club colleague Casillas with an audacious 60 yard chip to open the scoring midway through the first half. Mata - now fully recovered from his stomach bug - equalised just after the hour mark, dancing past Iraola and firing past Gorka Iraizoz from a narrow angle. Both sides had chances to win it late on – Llorente outjumping Cuellar but his header hitting the bar, and Negredo firing into the side netting when well placed - but on balance a draw did not disappoint anyone too much, as both sides progressed to the semi-finals.
These should take place during La Liga’s winter break, with the relevant officials having confirmed to A Football Report that clubs in other leagues would be compelled to release their players for the games and broadcast partners finding a space in their busy schedules. The semis will see Group A runners-up Andalucía travelling north to face Castilla and current bookies’ favourites Catalunya hosting betting outsiders Euskadi, and all the thrills and spills will be reported back here then.
Group B results:
Castilla 4-0 Islas Unidas
Euskadi 2-1 Cantabria y Asturias
Islas Unidas 1-1 Euskadi
Cantabria y Asturias 1-2 Castilla
Cantabria y Asturias 2-2 Islas Unidas
Castilla 1-1 Euskadi
Group B final standings:
Islas Unidas 2
Cantabria y Asturias 1
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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