|Manuel Labor reports.....|
|First Division - Day Thirty Seven|
Racing Santander 0 - Deportivo de La Coruña 0
Tais, Txema, Arzeno (Neru 90'), Sietes; Colsa, Espina; Munitis, Vivar Dorado
(Bestchastnykh 58'), Manjarín; Salva. 4-2-3-1.
Team changes: Racing: Ceballos, Tais, Colsa for Lemmens, Mellberg, Shustikov / Deportivo: Songo'o, Jokanovic for Kouba, Djalminha.
Deportivo moved to within a point of their first ever league championship, and now only need to draw at home in their last match against Espanyol to clinch it. With one eye on Barcelona's match at Real Sociedad which was played at the same time, they knew that their rivals were heading towards the same result as they were, and in the last few minutes they contrived with Racing, who themselves needed one point to be safe, to maintain the scoreline. It was a calculated risk by Deportivo manager Irureta, and he probably didn't count on Zaragoza coming back from behind to win and draw level with Barcelona on points. If his team slip up next Friday night, he now has two possible threats, and both Barcelona and Zaragoza have better goal averages than them. By coincidence today's match was exactly six years to the day after the worst moment in the club's history, when Djukic missed a last minute penalty against Valencia to hand the championship on a plate to Barcelona. This time they should not fail against an Espanyol side who have nothing to play for in the league, and who will probably just want to make sure that they don't pick up any injuries, with the Spanish cup final only a week away. However, a local sports paper in Cataluña did report that they may have one additional incentive, the club apparently having agreed with FC Barcelona a bonus of 100 million Pesetas if they can do their city neighbours a favour and defeat Deportivo. Third party incentives are not necessarily illegal in Spain (provided you pay them to win that is), but morally they are seen as incorrect (cash paid in a suitcase etc.). Deportivo are probably looking to return the favour with Celta, Barça's rivals on Friday (a hot subject this one at the moment). If Deportivo do win the title, Irureta will be the first Spanish manager to do so since 1986, when Real Madrid won under Molowny. Going back to the match, Irureta was missing Djalminha, suspended for one game after his senseless sending off last week for taking off his shirt to celebrate a goal. In his place he decided to bring in an extra defensive midfielder, Jokanovic, rather than include a more attacking player such as Turu Flores or Pauleta. Songo'o returned in goal after his one match suspension. Racing's manager Gustavo Benítez also had one player out through suspension, erstwhile ever-present Mellberg, with Washington Tais coming in at right back. Ceballos was back in goal after serving his two month suspension for frightening referee Prados García, and Colsa came back as Racing returned to their 4-2-3-1 formation. The first half was almost without shots at goal, the only two real chances falling to Racing's Manjarín and Salva, both efforts bringing good saves out of Songo'o. The home crowd were more dependent on the match between Betis and Real Madrid, and the biggest cheers of the night were when Madrid scored their two goals. That meant that even losing Racing were sure of first division football next season, and the crowd joined the many Deportivo fans who had travelled to Santander in spontaneous dancing throughout the stadium. There then followed a series of substitutions, with Bestwishesforahappynewyear coming on for the home side and two strikers, Turu and Pauleta, entering for the visitors. Tempers got a little frayed, with Depor substitute Jaime clashing with a couple of Racing players, but things died down quickly. In the end everyone went home happy, but Deportivo fans celebrating at their 'Cuatro Caminos' square were maybe a little premature. Can you come back next week?
Real Sociedad 0 - Barcelona 0
Alberto; Fuentes, Gurrutxaga, Pikabea (Jauregui 20'), López Rekarte;
Khokhlov, Juan Gómez; Idiakez (De Paula 65'), Sa Pinto, De Pedro
(Aranburu 70'); Jankauskas. 4-2-3-1.
Team changes: Real: Rekarte, De Pedro for Aranzábal, Aranburu / Barcelona: Gabri, Reiziger, Dani, Figo for Abelardo, Puyol, Kluivert, Rivaldo.
Barcelona also managed a goal-less draw in their match at San Sebastian to keep them in with an outside shot at their third championship in a row. Their season has however turned pear-shape in three short weeks, with their humiliating elimination from the Champions League (against a superb Valencia) and the Spanish cup (at the hands of the disciplinary committee) coming at the same time as unexpected league defeats which has all but thrown away their chances. The pressure is finally getting to them, and after the crowd booed them off the field and called for the heads of management, club president José Luis Nuñez has finally said he will go at the next general meeting in July after 22 years in charge. He has said it before and is still here, but this time it looks as if he means it, and the decision will probably mean that manager Louis Van Gaal will be out as well. Nuñez is probably right to be hurt by fans criticisms: semi-finalists in both cups and second in the league this year, with seven league titles and three European victories (one European cup and two cup-winners cups) in his time in charge, Barcelona are also champions of Europe in handball and roller hockey this season, as well as Spanish champions and European finalists in basketball. However what sticks in the craw of supporters is firstly the gradual distancing between a team full of foreign players and the local traditions of the club, and probably more importantly the fact that Real Madrid have reached the Champions League final and they haven't (there would be less noise if the final was between say Chelsea and Bayern Munich). Nobody doubts that Van Gaal is one of the best managers in Europe, but his blind faith in his fellow countrymen over the local players, and his lecturing style in press conferences in a grating, rudimentary and heavily accented Spanish has alienated the manager from the fans. All of this means it is time for a change, and the various groups of supporters are now jockeying for position. Pity the players with all this going on, and Van Gaal had to put together a side to try and win this game and keep up the challenge on the title. His first problem was that Rivaldo cried off with a supposed injury after speculation that he was to be sold to Lazio, and Simao came in, with Figo switching to the left. Abelardo and Kluivert were rested, and with Puyol injured, the versatile Gabri came in to the defence. Real's manager Javier Clemente was also looking for a point or so to be sure of his team's position in the top flight next year, and he brought in López Rekarte for the injured Aranzábal in defence, with De Pedro returning in midfield for Aranburu. Barcelona started quickly, with Litmanen heading over in the first minute and Figo shooting just wide from a free kick. Real came back, with two efforts from Khokhlov, the second hitting the bar with Hesp at full stretch. Alberto was in great form in the home team goal, and he stopped two shots from Guardiola, one either side of half time, and then others from a Frank De Boer free kick , a Litmanen header and a shot from Dani. Figo got himself booked for protesting a possible penalty decision, and he will now miss the last match of the season against Celta, a blow as the Potuguese winger is the inspiration of the team at the moment. Kluivert came on for a disappointing Simao, and Ronald De Boer replaced the tired Figo, with De Paula entering for Idiakez. De Pedro brought a good two-fisted save from Hesp before he was replaced by Aranburu, and the Dutch keeper kept his cool and saved with his foot as De Paula broke free in front of goal a few minutes later. The game petered out to a draw, with Real's fans content having heard the Betis/Real Madrid result which meant their team had survived. Only just, as they are currently fourth from bottom with Oviedo winning, but an improvement on the middle of the season when they appeared doomed. Assuming Clemente stays, he will undoubtedly make changes for next season. Van Gaal meanwhile returns to an uncertain future, but with Manchester United amongst clubs interested in his services he should have no trouble finding a new job if he has to. First he has to hold things together for another five days, with on the one hand the chance of the league title still possible (Barcelona have favourable goal averages against Deportivo and Zaragoza), and on the other the possibility of finishing out of the Champions League next season (the last time they played in the UEFA the stands were empty). As Bobby Robson will affirm, the manager's job at Barcelona is not for the faint-hearted. A cardiac unit is standing by.