Copa del Rey brings concern for Barcelona, more joy for Real Madrid
On the 12th night of Christmas, when you're wondering where you're going to put all those drummers, what with the maids and the lords, the swans and the pipers, the pear tree and things, when there are more needles on the floor than there are left on the tree and the batteries on that toy car have already conked out, kids in Spain are just starting to open their gifts. Forget Father Christmas; it's the three wise men, the Kings, who come bearing gifts here, with parades in every town and presents marking Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar's arrival in Bethlehem.
Back then, the story goes that they came carrying gold, frankincense and myrrh; this time they brought the Copa del Rey. Normally, you'd rather have a toy car or even socks due to the way the Cup has been going, certainly at this early stage. But this time everyone was actually excited. A suspiciously good draw -- the kind of draw you might hand-pick after a first round that everyone agreed was rubbish, with the criticism becoming unanimous and overwhelming -- brought some deliciously good games and brought the football back, too, after a 10-day break. And that, the punning headlines agreed, was a gift.
Now, if you think that the Kings conceit is being overdone here -- and let's face it, it is, but hey, that's Christmas for you -- that's because it was being overdone everywhere in Spain. It became unavoidable, especially by Thursday night when Athletic Club Bilbao hosted Barcelona at San Mames: the competition's top two clubs in a repeat of two of the past five finals.
"Kings Night," ran the headline in Marca; "Kings Night," said the headline in AS. "Kings Night," El Pais called it. "Kings Night," declared the cover of Sport; "Kings Night," went the cover of Mundo Deportivo, where they were copying each other again.
Two days earlier, they'd gone for a picture of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, back from their holidays and back in training. "The return of the Kings," cheered Sport. "The Kings arrive," shouted Mundo Deportivo. This is what everyone wanted: a proper game, fast, open and noisy as hell, in a packed stadium. Football was back with a bang. Afterward, the former Athletic player Ibai Gómez summed it up nicely.
"If you like football, you must have enjoyed that," he said. Marca used the three wise men's full titles to describe them as "kings... and magicians." This, the paper said, was "the cup in its purest form."
If only. The Copa del Rey is a competition that is falling apart, not revived until the final rounds: two-legged and tilted in favour of the big side. Uncertainty is sucked out of it -- as well as surprises and drama and a sense of real competition. Yes, football finds a way in spite of the people running it, and the cup can be special, which makes the apparent determination to destroy it even more sad. But this is a format that's failing. Many smaller teams abdicate before it begins. The first leg is often irrelevant and when it's not, the second is instead.
In the last round, Sevilla scored 14 goals, Real Madrid 13, Atletico 10 and Barcelona eight. But now it had been engineered and it was good. Villarreal (fourth in the league) at Real Sociedad (fifth), a 3-1 home win that included the goal from furthest out and the silliest too. Las Palmas, arguably the most attractive team around, played an Atletico team that looked very atletico in a 2-0 win. Two Deportivos, La Coruna and Alaves, produced an enjoyable encounter, with the Galicians coming back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 thanks to Joselu's 92nd-minute equaliser.
Then there was Valencia's continuing crisis, already 3-0 down 20 minutes into the visit of Celta de Vigo, their first game post-Cesare Prandelli. Even their very own Mr. Wolf couldn't sort this mess out as a 4-1 home defeat virtually ended it. For Osasuna, it ended too -- and for their manager in particular. Joaquin Caparrós was sacked after losing 3-0 at home to Eibar. It was only his eighth game in charge. And the only two second division teams left in the competition faced each other, although they could barely see each other through the fog: Cordoba and Alcorcon drew 0-0.
And of course, there came the Big Two. Barcelona in Bilbao and third-place Sevilla at leaders Real Madrid -- real games, real tests, a real return, a search for signs for the year ahead.
Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar had to cross the Atlantic over the winter break and were given a little longer away (much like Gerard Pique, who spent Christmas in Colombia), but that was no problem, the manager said. "I've been amazed at what good shape they're in," Luis Enrique insisted.
A couple of days later, things looked different when they were defeated 2-1: the first time a team other than Madrid had beaten Barcelona in a Cup game for six years thanks to a goal each by Inaki Williams, the fastest player in La Liga, and last season's "young" footballer of the year, Aritz Aduriz (he's 35).
"On a night like this when you unwillingly leave the kids at home to go out and play football, it's to play football," Gerard Pique said, "not to play roulette, which is what the referee turned it into."
Although he had a point, although Athletic ended the game with nine men, and although Barcelona had been denied a penalty (perhaps two) and Athletic should have had Aduriz sent off, it was not just about that -- even though it so often seems to be only about that. There was more to it, and what there was may concern the continuation of a theme. Barcelona are still favourites to go through -- 2-1 away is a good result -- but the first game of the new year wasn't a new beginning.
Neymar impressed, but Messi lacked clarity, and Suarez's impact was minor -- not for the first time. The pressure, applied high and quickly, unsettled them, forcing Marc-Andre ter Stegen to go long. Both goals came from the giving the ball away. All over the pitch, they appeared a step slow. And while Enrique talks of rotation, the moments he chooses to do so sometimes surprise, and the depth that the summer signings supposedly provided is still not evident. Suárez, Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano have all played 73 percent of the minutes, Messi 70 percent. When the ball dropped to Paco Alcacer at the end, he did not score.
Nor is it just Barcelona; it never is. As Xavi once put it, they and Madrid are two sides of the scales. They can't both be up at the same time; their success and their happiness is weighed against each other. So too their fears, their phobias. What happens 600 kilometres away matters as much as what happens right here. They depend on each other, something that was revealed again when Pique insisted, as he complained about the referee in Bilbao: "We'd already seen Madrid vs. Sevilla." He saw, then, how Madrid impressed. And that worries too.
Yes, Madrid were favoured, but this was a test, another one. Every time you think that Madrid might not be that good, despite the stats, another test is put before them, and they pass it. Another game, another win: that's 39 matches now without a defeat. And if they were favoured against Sevilla, they impressed too. No Gareth Bale, no Karim Benzema, no Ronaldo, no Lucas Vazquez even, and yet they produced arguably their best 45 minutes this season -- this year, in fact: They were intense, in control and did lots of pressing. "They were superior to us," said Jorge Sampaoli.
The numbers broker little argument, but it is about sensations, too. Simply put, there's a feeling that maybe Madrid are the better team now and for the first time in some time. Madrid remain unbeaten this season, top of the table and virtually through in the cup. This was Sevilla, one of Spain's outstanding teams, and they were beaten 3-0. That mattered all the more because of what happened last time and the obsession with avoiding that same trap. This was Madrid's very own "yeah, but." Unbeaten in 39. Yeah, but... it's not always been as good as those figures might suggest. Yeah, but... 2015.
The last time Madrid came into a new year as recently crowned world champions and the last time they were on a run like this, it all went wrong. At the start of 2015, they had won 22 in a row, picking up 39 of 45 points in the league and were four clear of Barcelona. They were playing better then than they have this season. But they came back and lost to Valencia in the first game after the break. Defeats at San Mames and the Calderon followed: They let in four goals down by the Manzanares. And that plays on their mind. A lot. "We haven't talked about it, but it's present," Zidane admitted.
So the first game mattered not just because it mattered, not just because it was Sevilla, not even because everyone was keen for the football to begin again, but because they were desperate for 2017 not to go the way that 2015 went. That was a warning that things could still go wrong.
On Wednesday night they didn't go wrong; right now, it feels like nothing can go wrong for Madrid. Sure, there are difficult matches ahead, and defeat will come. But not yet, not now; not at the start of the year as it did back then. On Wednesday, even the one last lingering doubt was resolved. At the end of the World Club Cup, Madrid's last game of 2016, James Rodriguez admitted that he couldn't guarantee he would continue at the Bernabeu. At the end of the Copa del Rey win over Sevilla, Madrid's first game of 2017, he set the record straight. "I'm staying. I'm staying."
He had scored twice. Two days earlier, Madrid had released footage of him embracing Zidane on the training ground. If that maybe felt a little staged, the goals weren't. In Tokyo, Zidane had said he "understood" James; now he said he was happy with him. He gives the impression of being happy with everyone and everything, and it feels like everything flows from there. Zidane gives the impression of understanding, too, better than most realised -- sharper, cleverer, more alert than he likes people to see.
Like the three wise men, Zidane has always said that he has a "star." An entire firmament, more like. His time as a coach came too soon, it seemed, but he has won more titles than he has lost games. Fifty-four matches later, he has been beaten just twice and is a world and European champion. Fifty-four games and one year, almost to the day. The most important day of the year. As one newspaper inevitably put it this week, they didn't know it then, but as it turned out Zidane was the perfect gift for kings.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.