Real Betis keep their heads to leave Real Madrid assessing early-season damage
Sid Lowe in Madrid on 21 September 2017
Manchester United couldn’t do it, Manchester City couldn’t do it and Bayern Munich couldn’t do it. Juventus couldn’t do it either. Nor could Borussia Dortmund, Napoli or Sporting Lisbon. The other Sporting, from Gijón, couldn’t do it. They came from Mexico, Japan, Poland and Cyprus and failed too. Barcelona tried four times but they couldn’t do it. Sevilla and Atlético had five goes each. Nope, no good. Along came Valencia, Deportivo and Celta, Osasuna, Espanyol and Villarreal, but they couldn’t do it and nor could Las Palmas, Eibar, Athletic, Cultural, Granada, Málaga, Alavés or Leganés. Real Betis, on the other hand, could. In fact, on Wednesday night they only went and did something even better.
Thirty-five different teams from eight different countries had tried over 73 games and six competitions stretching back almost 18 months and none of them had stopped Real Madrid scoring, but Betis were almost there. There was still time for it to slip away, especially against the team with a thing for agonising late goals and they were nervous but they were near. It was 11.47pm and the scoreboard at the Santiago Bernabéu, like scoreboards everywhere, had stopped on 90 minutes – information denied when it’s most needed. Alongside, it read: Madrid 0-0 Betis. The board went up: five minutes, one last bugle call, a record awaiting, fans screaming at them to pour forward.
Victory over Real Sociedad on Sunday extended Madrid’s run of scoring in consecutive games, equalling the record set by Santos in the sixties. Three days later, with Cristiano Ronaldo returning from a five-match ban, they were set to break it. On Tuesday Marca’s front cover ran a picture of Pelé with the headline “O’Rei Madrid”: Madrid the King. Thing is, if you’re going to come for the King you’d better not miss, and Madrid had: Ronaldo had thumped over, Bale had hit the post with a wonderful flicked volley, and Betis goalkeeper Antonio Adán had flown. Twenty-seven shots Madrid had taken. But, Zidane said afterwards, “the ball didn’t want to go in”.
Actually, it did. “We had 26, 27 chances,” Zidane said, while Betis’s manager Quique Setién admitted: “They put the ball into our box 20, 25 times.” There were superb saves too and Setién added: “To win here you know you’ll suffer and you know your goalkeeper has to be spectacular: winning here without suffering is a utopia.” But while goalkeeper Adán needed to be spectacular – and on a couple of occasions he really was – while chances were wasted, the siege rarely looked as incisive as expected and, like Madrid’s draw against Levante, it wasn’t as if there were countless chances. Nor were Betis barricaded in – and proof of that came with what happened next.
Adán had just made another save, a comfortable one from Borja Mayoral, and the clock was ticking. But he didn’t boot the ball as far as possible and nor did anyone take it to the corner and keep it there. Instead, they played. Before the game, as they gathered in a circle, Betis captain Joaquín Sánchez had appealed for “personality”. “We’re going to defend with the ball,” he said, “and then we’re going to enjoy having it, eh.” As for the manager Setién, he urged them: “Don’t stress; be calm, especially with the ball. Have faith in what you do. Let’s have it, choose well.” His assistant, Eder Sarabia, paced. “We have to reach the end alive; that’s the key. We’ll have chances for sure.” And so it proved. With 92.11 on the clock, something to cling on to, Adán rolled the ball out and it began.
Javi García carried it forward. It went left, towards the touchline, inside again, across the middle and over to the other side, back to the middle, and round it went. When it came to Cristian Tello, he dashed toward and spread it to Antonio Barragán. There, on the right edge of the area, Betis outnumbered Madrid. Barragán clipped a lovely ball over to Antonio Sanabria, moving into space near the far post and he headed down into the net, before racing towards the corner flag and skidding to his knees. High, high above him, fans in green and white went wild. All around the rest of the stadium, Madrid’s supporters turned for the exit; 93.20, the clock said, and Betis were in the lead.
In a weird sort of way, for all that Madrid sought the goal and a 0-0 draw would have been huge enough for Betis, it had been coming too. They’d had opportunities early, Dani Carvajal clearing one off the line, and even as the game tilted Madrid’s way they protected themselves with possession where they could, and three or four times they had come away cleanly, only to take the wrong decision, misplace a pass, or crash into one-man wall Casemiro. Sometimes, those mistakes put them in trouble and, hearts racing, you could sense fans pleading with them to just put their bloody foot through it. On the touchline, though, the message was different.
“You have to be intelligent to have the ball, keep it, make them run, have some calm in moments of tension. In the last 20 minutes you watch them and you can think: ‘How did you miss?’ You see passes that are relatively easy they don’t make. But after all the effort, the running, you can’t ask them to have the same precision as in the fifth minute,” said Setién. What he could ask them to do was keep trying.
Betis made changes and saw Víctor Camarasa, their best player until then, forced off just before half-time. Reading the line-up on the Metro, seeing no Sergio Leon, Joaquín or Andrés Guardado, frankly the temptation was to turn back. But they had only gone and done it. Real Betis had become the first team in 74 games to stop Madrid scoring, the record shared, not taken, from Pelé’s Santos, and then they’d scored themselves. They had won at the Bernabéu – the first time anyone other than Barcelona or Atlético had beaten Madrid there in six-and-a-half years and the first time Betis had left with a victory for 19. For Setién, it was a third consecutive game against Madrid without defeat. “Is it going to be a long night?” he was asked. “As long as I like,” he smiled.
“It’s only three points but it’s three prestigious points,” said Setién. Three points that will reinforce their identity, too, one that is still being forged. And few coaches have an identity quite so clear cut as his. “In these days when everyone thinks you have to run, fight, work, compete, I ask my players to think,” he added.
For Zidane, there was a lot to think about. This was Madrid’s third home game in the league and they have not won any. With a little more luck they could, and probably should, have won all three; the shot count for the three is up near 80; that scoring run surely shows they have no goalscoring crisis. But Madrid do lack a little fluidity and the chances are not always as clear as the stats suggest. The truth is, they don’t look quite right.
“At home we’re finding it harder to generate football,” Isco admitted. This night was occasionally chaotic and clarity was rare: at one point they had briefly had 12 men on the pitch because Luka Modric didn’t realise he was the one coming off – and not everyone was happy he was – while Lucas Vázquez twice had to ask Zidane where he was supposed to be. As the ball went forward, it was too often just put into the box. Casemiro said it was “hard to understand” but also suggested they had needed to have a bit more “head”. They also need more points – and fast.
It may only be momentary but the damage done is significant. Two draws, against Valencia and Levante, and a defeat against Betis, is their worst start at home in 20 years. Only twice before – in 1969-70 and 1995-96 – have they not won in the opening three games. Worse, it leaves them, in the words of one front cover, “SEVEN POINTS!” behind Barcelona already. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, but it’s like that and that’s the way it is. “That’s football: you have to accept it,” Zidane said. “Maybe last year we won some games we didn’t deserve to: now it’s the other way around.” He also reminded everyone there’s a word he likes even if everyone else doesn’t, one that sums him up: tranquillity.
“Should you be worried?” he was asked. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied.
• Vitolo returned to the Sánchez Pizjuán for the first time since he left Sevilla for Atlético, via Las Palmas. Back in the summer, his buy-out clause was paid, releasing him from Sevilla the day after they had announced he was renewing his contract. When Diego Simeone learned he was missing out on his player, he was furious. So was the president of Las Palmas, Miguel Ángel Ramírez. They had both been counting on him and they weren’t about to admit defeat easily, especially not when they learned Vitolo hadn’t actually signed the extension yet. So one night and dozens of phone calls later, Vitolo was on a private plane, his clause paid, and he was off home to Gran Canaria, where he will stay for six months before joining Atlético, while Sevilla stewed, a crisis opening up in their boardroom.
Sevilla are a rare club that have normalised departures, but not this one. The president José Castro announced legal action against Vitolo, Las Palmas and Atlético. And the fans were waiting for him on Wednesday, in a game Sevilla won with a late and fortunate goal from Jesús Navas. Someone wrote “traitor” on the side of the bus and there were chants calling Vitolo a “rat” and wishing him death. Every touch was met with whistles and boos. “Every time he had the ball, they fouled him,” said the Las Palmas manager Manuel Márquez. “It’s hard for a human being not to be affected by an entire stadium having a go at him, but some people grow in the face of adversity. I think he’s sad because of the chances missed and because we lost, not for any other reason.” It was, said AS, a “sad day”. And he’ll have to do it all over again later in the season when he comes back with Atlético.
• Barcelona beat Eibar 6-1, but here’s the weird thing: Eibar had more shots than the home team did, José Luis Mendilibar’s resigned smile saying it all. Barcelona deserved to win, sure, but not by five goals. Eibar were often impressive, creating chances that suggest there’s still a vulnerability about Barça despite their perfect start. Denis Suárez scored one and Paulinho – useless, worthless, rubbish Paulinho whose signing was a disgrace – got another, the same two men who had scored in Getafe at the weekend. Oh, and Leo Messi got four. That’s 12 so far this season, nine in the league. We’re only five weeks in.
• Simone Zaza scored three times in eight minutes for Valencia, happily heading home with the match ball three days after he had been left out against Levante. That day he sat out of the substitutes’ pre-game kickabout and at the end of the match, coach Marcelino had forced him back out to thank the fans. Amidst reports they had fallen out, Zaza returned and got an impressive hat-trick as Valencia beat Málaga – who really weren’t that bad in the first half – 5-0 at Mestalla. “A lot of what’s been said is a lie,” he insisted afterwards.
• “New manager, guaranteed victory,” they say, but then they say a lot of things. Alavés went into the post-Zubeldía era with another defeat. This time against Deportivo, who desperately needed the win.
• All quiet on the Twitter front. And that’s a good thing for Málaga. But for how long will it last? Twitter parody account holder and Málaga owner Sheik Al-Thani has already called his manager out publicly this season and, frankly, poor old Míchel always looked like a sacking in waiting. But so far, despite another defeat, there has been silence. Which is a welcome miracle in itself. Whether it is lasting is another matter. “I’m not scared of anything,” Míchel said. “Would I understand it if I was sacked? That’s not a question for me. The issue for me is to keep working and raise the morale of the players: they’re human beings and they suffer.”
• “This was [Antoine] Griezmann’s best game since the season started,” Simeone said after Atlético won at San Mamés. The Frenchman provided two superb assists (and had two goals ruled out) in a 2-1 win over Athletic, while Jan Oblak saved a penalty from Aritz Aduriz. That’s his sixth from 10 faced with Atlético. In games, that is – even if everyone only remembers Milan and that penalty shoot-out where he hardly moved. “People talk about one game; penalties are a lottery,” the goalkeeper said, not entirely accurately. As for Griezmann, Simeone was raving: “He’s different, he makes us fly.”
• It’s on! A Stadium Called Wanda will host the Champions League final in 2019.
• And, look out, here come Fuenlabrada: into the Copa del Rey with the big boys for the first time in their history.
Results: Valencia 5–0 Málaga, Barcelona 6–1 Eibar, Leganés 0–0 Girona, Athletic 1–2 Atlético, Deportivo 1–0 Alavés, Real Madrid 0–1 Betis, Sevilla 1–0 Las Palmas. Thursday night: Villarreal-Espanyol, Celta-Getafe, Levante-Real Sociedad.