La Liga back big in 2018


Marcelino Garcia Toral was driving home for Christmas when his car collided with a wild boar. Sergi Roberto said it was an honour that a Catalan chocolatier crafted him having a crap. Mathieu Flamini went on trial at the Coliseum. Leganes built an ice rink at Butarque so their fans could enjoy the cold weather. And maybe Karim Benzema had a go, who knows, as somehow he returned from his holidays injured.

Only one of those stories is made up and it was published on Dec. 28, Spain’s April Fools’ Day, when every paper slips something made up onto its pages. (You can insert your own joke here.) So no, Leganes didn’t build an ice rink, just as David Villa isn’t on the verge of joining Real Madrid, Dani García’s dog isn’t signing for Eibar and Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t giving his Ballon d’Or back having decided that he really doesn’t deserve it and Messi should have it instead (although the usual suspects are being as tiresomely petty and unfunny on Dec. 28 as the other 364 days).

But, yes, the rest of it is all true. Sergi Roberto became the latest chocolate caganer, that Catalan tradition. Karim Benzema did return injured. “I trust him,” said Zinedine Zidane, insisting that the problem had happened in the clasico and not while he was away, but others didn’t buy it. And the former Arsenal midfielder is at Getafe, trying to prove himself. On his way home, the Valencia manager really did crash into a boar, which sounded funny at first but wasn’t funny at all when you saw the pictures of his car careering off the road.

The good news is that Marcelino and his family are fine. He didn’t take charge of Valencia’s first game back (the Copa del Rey game vs. las Palmas on Tuesday night) but he will be there this weekend as La Liga restarts after the Christmas break.

Some of his peers won’t be. Sevilla sacked Eduardo Berizzo just days after he had returned from surgery for cancer and days before Christmas. Las Palmas have a replacement for Francisco “Paquito” Ortiz, the interim manager who was there a little longer than planned. Paco Jemez eventually said that he wanted the job but not yet — he was determined to have the holidays with his family first — so he turned up in Gran Canaria after Christmas, immediately announcing. “The days when only coaches fall are over. Players have to know they’re in danger too.” Two have been booted out already and more will follow.

And so it begins.

Mostly, people actually do manage to ignore football for a few days, although some here get their fix from England, lamenting the lack of Boxing Day fixtures in Spain. But things have happened and there are things to know to get back up to date as the league kicks off again this weekend, even if the really big changes may well be still to come and even if there was a restart of sorts with the Copa del Rey, which saw Barcelona drawing in Vigo, Madrid winning at Numancia and Valencia drawing with Las Palmas, among other results.

There’s no Philippe Coutinho yet, although Sport did declare him “very, very, very close.” (Or was it very, very, very, very close? It was easy to lose count.) But Ousmane Dembele is back — remember him? Kepa Arrizabalaga is on his way to Madrid from Athletic Bilbao and Diego Costa made his return to Atletico, 1,320 days later.

He scored too, less than five minutes after coming on against Lleida in the Cup, sticking his foot in where there the studs were and getting trodden on for his troubles. “He’d put his foot in the blades of a fan,” smiled Vitolo afterward. A goal, an injury and a bit of set-to with the opposition: it was Diego distilled and Atlético’s supporters loved it. They finally found a replacement for Costa … and his name was Costa.

Not everyone is making changes. Questioned about what he would ask the Three Kings to bring, Eibar’s entertainingly straight-talking, potty-mouthed manager José Luis Mendilibar replied: “I’d ask them to leave us as we are … and as for my renovation, don’t you start breaking my balls over that.” Others, though, are changing and in the midst of the buying and the selling, a market that is already close to a winter record just with Costa and Kepa, and the complaints about players lacking loyalty, spare a thought for those called into the manager’s office and told to leave. There are a lot of them, forced to move again, starting another year in another city if they can find anything at all.

Sadly, the Carlos Bacca-Cedric Bakambu partnership, immortalised in a Christmas singalong, is no more: the latter has gone to China. Luciano Vietto, much to Simeone’s sadness given that the lack of success felt like a personal failure, has left Atletico for Valencia on loan, who knew they needed more strength in depth. They have applied a “crapping yourself clause,” mind you. John Guidetti is heading to Alaves and Ruben Castro is back at Betis, where he will be reunited with old friends — none more so than Joaquin Sanchez.

Everyone’s favourite cheeky scamp, the club captain and idol who announced that he would love to be president one day, signed a new contract and announced the deal by pretending to play tennis, a nod to one of his more famous jokes. “Betis is the nearest thing to life itself,” said Joaquin. “Here I learned to love, to enjoy, to cry.”

Someone should tell that to Atletico Madrid president Enrique Cerezo, who insisted “football should lose its feeling,” when maybe what it should lose is him.

Speaking of feeling, there was something somewhat jarring about Sevilla sacking Berizzo just before Christmas, with his team sixth and still in the Champions League and with him having just returned from an operation for prostate cancer. There’s no room for sentiment, some will say, and there is a legitimate argument to say that Sevilla really haven’t been that good this season and a change might do them some good, but still … it was certainly striking.

Berizzo was replaced by Vincenzo Montella, who admitted that he was “surprised” they chose him. “We have to have passion and spirit,” said Montella. “If we try to play football, that will be later on.”

Montella will be accompanied among his staff by Enzo Maresca, the former Sevilla midfielder, who will help bridge the gaps often encountered by managers treading new territory and a new country for the first time. The club want to avoid the fate that very recently befell the past two Italian managers in la Liga, Gianni De Biasi and Cesare Prandelli, who really didn’t last long. “He’s an Italian coach who breaks the normal Italian mould,” insisted Sevilla’s sporting director. Montella will also be accompanied by N’Zonzi, dropped by Berizzo, frozen out and on his way out but now reinstated in the middle of midfield.

When Montella was in charge of Fiorentina, one of his players was Joaquin. “A few months ago, I was speaking to him a fair bit but I haven’t spoken to him since I joined Sevilla … I see that we’re rivals now,” he smiled. Joaquín giggled: “Well, I hope he enjoys the city.”

Montella will see Joaquin soon enough. On Saturday night, in fact, at the Sanchez Pizjuan in the Seville derby. “This year there will be a derby,” Joaquín announced. He meant a real one, competitive this time, a proper match out on the pitch instead of just in the stands. He also described it as “one of the nicest in Spain, with one of the best atmosphere” — a game that his former coach, once a friend and now a rival, said he could already feel was “different,” taken with “humour.” This was, Montella said, a time for “heart and passion … but for the head too.”

It’s quite the start for the Italian manager and quite a start for Spain in 2018. La Liga is back and it could barely have hoped for a better place for it to begin again.

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