“NINO, NINO, NINO!” chanted Los Chicharreros in the Estadio Heliodoro Rodríguez López. When shouted aloud, the chant sounded like an onrushing ambulance through a traffic-jammed street, and for Getafe, who fell victim to the brilliance of Nino, they needed the assistance of EMT workers.
After a 0-0 draw at home to Real Valladolid last Saturday, a result most favored by new Valladolid entrenador and former Tenerife head man Javier Clemente, Tenerife stood seven points behind Málaga for the final place of safety in La Liga. The criticisms laid upon this team fell squarely on José Luis Oltra’s naïve tactics. In the same way that Tony Mowbray’s West Bromwich Albion team in last year’s Premier League was deemed too naïve as they were relegated to the Coca-Cola Championship, Oltra’s Tenerife incorporated an open style that needed clinical finishers in the front line to be successful because there would be several chances for their opponents to capitalize on the counter-attack.
Nino and Alejandro Alfaro scored forty-nine goals between them in the Segunda División last season, and Nino’s twenty-nine goals earned him the Pichichi trophy as the highest goal scorer in the second division. Seventeen goals for the pair in the top flight this season is not a bad return, but when their team has conceded the most goals in La Liga, seventeen is simply not enough.
No single match illustrates Tenerife’s frustration more than their 0-5 humbling by Barcelona at home at the dawn of the new year. Through the first thirty-five minutes, the islanders completely outplayed the Blaugrana in every facet of the game, but Alfaro failed to exploit three wonderful opportunities, two of them created by Nino.
Tenerife’s high defensive line initially surprised Barça and put them off their game, but this gamble would soon prove to be suicidal, as Bojan Krkic’s blistering pace left the Tenerife defense in shambles, and Lionel Messi finished Bojan’s cutback pass with aplomb.
Sucker punched in the gut, the prudent play would have been to drop deeper and work more on the counter-attack. Call him brave or declare him stubborn, Oltra kept to his strategy, and at fulltime, Tenerife conceded five goals, including an Ezequiel Luna own goal and a Messi hat-trick.
While José Luis Oltra has somewhat toned down his offensively aggressive tactics since that match, the flair associated with this team has not left them. Consequently, Tenerife still had not won away from home all season, an unwanted feat only shared by a few teams in all of the European leagues.
Tenerife righted this wrong on Tuesday evening when they went to Asturias and defeated Sporting Gijón 0-2 with that same end-to-end mentality instilled by Oltra. Unfortunately for Tenerife, their compatriots in the bottom three, Xerez and Real Valladolid, also won in the mid-week. Racing de Santander, one of the teams teetering just above the relegation zone, scored a 3-1 victory over Espanyol with the help of two deserved penalties, both of whom were scored by Mohammed Tchité, to further complicate the situation for Tenerife.
Málaga, however, heeded the bottom three’s protestations of slowing down their point accumulation. Two points in their last five contests left the Andalucians only three points above Tenerife and the drop zone.
Tenerife had to keep their focus on Getafe and away from the other matches affecting their standing. No one understood this more than Juan Francisco Martínez, otherwise known as Nino.
Nino has played every minute in every match for Tenerife this season, an astonishing accomplishment in this modern age, where squad rotation and injuries beset even the fittest of players. Standing at a relatively minuscule 5′ 7″, a center forward like Nino would not strike fear into the hearts of central defenders. Tossed around often due to his slight frame, Nino fought through these nicks and knocks to lead the line every single minute he plays on the pitch. With the season on the line, his hard work came to fruition with a hat-trick that will be remembered by Los Chicharreros for many years.
After Pedro León scored early for Getafe, Nino’s equalizer on the half-hour mark was the result, from all the different ways he can score, of a header! A seriously demented betting man would have gone away with bucketful of cash for predicting a Nino header, but Román Martínez’s perfectly weighted cross from deep in the right flank found a completely unmarked Nino in middle of the penalty area. David Belenguer and David Cortés stood frozen as Nino rose in the air between them. Of course, it would have to be unchallenged for Nino to score a header, but the box score will not indicate that he had enough room to build a house with all the space that the Getafe central defenders gave him.
His second goal to give Tenerife the 2-1 lead showed his technical ability to control a ball in the air. Marc Bertrán headed a hopeful, looping ball into the penalty box, and nothing seemed to come of it; however, Nino kept himself onside while the Getafe defenders were heading forward, and Nino found himself all alone in the box. He had to take down the lofted header softly, and his first touch was nothing short of immaculate. It took a bounce, and he whacked it to the left far post, where Jordi Codina could only watch as it passed by him into the back of the net.
Getafe would score to even the game at 2-2 several minutes later, and it could have been a crushing blow to this club that continues to fight for its La Liga life. Nino would have none of that negative behavior, and in the 76th minute, exactly a minute after Javier Casquero headed the tying goal for Getafe, Nino completed his hat-trick to whisk Tenerife back into a lead they would not relinquish.
Alejandro Alfaro and Nino combined yet another time, with Alfaro perfecting a through ball that sliced through the Getafe defensive line. Nino still had work to do, as Jordi Codina rushed off his line to attempt to clear the ball away from Nino outside of his area. His third goal exhibited his calm composure, dribbling to his left to avoid a sliding, lunging Codina and slotting the ball into the unguarded goal.
Three goals. Three different goals. One outcome: three points for a thankful Tenerife.
Tenerife would find out later that Málaga and Real Valladolid would draw 0-0, and Xerez could only draw 2-2 at home against Racing de Santander, so the Nino hat-trick meant more than an isolated three points. Tenerife is now only one point behind Málaga for the magic 17th position, and 16th is not too far away with Real Zaragoza only two points ahead of El Tete with five games remaining.
In a place where two well-known British names, Gill Hornby and a certain Barcelona striker from the 1980s, were forced to stay in Tenerife a little longer due to the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud, they both could have enjoyed a beautiful afternoon at the Estadio Heliodoro Rodríguez López to witness two desperate teams in one of the premier matches of the second half of the season.
“Riki-raca, zumba-raca, sim-bomba; ra-ra-ra, Tenerife, Tenerife, y nadie mas!” the fans sung throughout the match and after their team came out victorious. The first part is merely a set of rhyming words, but the latter half translates as, “Tenerife, Tenerife, and no one else.” If Tenerife rises above the relegation zone and extends their stay in La Liga, Los Chicharrones may alter this chant in honor of Nino, “Nino, Nino, y nadie mas!”
Fueras de Juego
– Sevilla goalkeeper Andrés Palop might be better with his head than his hands, and his hands are quite superb. His best individual moment in his career occurred in the Round of 16 of the 2006-07 UEFA Cup when his last-gasp header sent the tie against Shakhtar Donetsk into extra time, which Sevilla would win 3-2. Sevilla would go on and lift the UEFA Cup trophy for the second consecutive year by defeating Espanyol on penalties in the final.
In the early Saturday kickoff, Sevilla led Sporting Gijón 2-0 when Sporting central defender Grégory Arnolin headed the ball on target from a corner. The header came so quickly from a short distance that Palop could not get his hands up in time to parry it away. Instead, he decided on the next best option: counter Grégory’s header with a header of his own. It was just as effective as if he used his hands to slap it away, and Sevilla would eventually add a third to win 3-0. In dire situations, Sevilla should use Andrés Palop as a center forward.
– If one would want to introduce people to the flair and skill of Spanish football, do not show them a tape of the drab 0-0 draw between Deportivo La Coruña and Almería from this Sunday afternoon. Two teams going nowhere, and the match fit their paths. When there were decent opportunities to score, both teams scorned them with such poor technique that it was literally laughable. The fans at El Riazor did not share the same mirth.
– The champagne for Barcelona’s La Liga title can be put back on ice for the time being, as their 0-0 draw at derby neighbors Espanyol, combined with Real Madrid’s 2-0 win over Valencia, means that Real has shaved Barça’s lead to a mere point. Pep Guardiola’s 4-4-2 did not work against Espanyol, and Inter Milan boss José Mourinho surely took some notes on how Espanyol flooded the midfield to prevent Xavi’s distribution across the final third of the pitch. The absence of Andrés Iniesta may loom large for the Blaugrana as they continue their drive for a domestic and European cup double for the second straight year.