Before this current season, Hércules CF had tasted top flight football only twice in the past twenty-five years: the 1985-86 season, when their neighbors to north, Valencia, also suffered relegation for the first time in its illustrious history; and the 1996-97 season, when the Alicante club spent one campaign in La Liga before subsequent relegation to the Segunda División.
Even though they finished twenty-first in that season where twenty-two teams competed in the first division for the final time, they foiled Barcelona’s chances of capturing the La Liga crown with two stirring come-from-behind victories against the Catalans. Barcelona fronted their attack with one of the greatest trios in Spanish football history: Ronaldo, Hristo Stoichkov, and Luís Figo, but they proved to be insufficient against the supposedly weaker team.
Specifically, at the Camp Nou, when Luis Enrique and Ronaldo gave Barça the 2-0 lead, the situation seemed bleak for Hércules and looked to be another routine win for the Blaugrana. Hércules stormed back with a couple of goals to even the score, and then Eduardo Rodríguez took a long ball and absolutely turned great French defender and current French national team coach Laurent Blanc inside out as Rodríguez slotted it home in between goalkeeper Vítor Baía’s legs. Click here to witness that nugget of brilliance.
If Hércules were to pull off yet another shocking result at the Camp Nou this season as they did fourteen years ago, they needed Barcelona to play lower than their astronomical standard as well as capitalize on the few chances that Barça would afford them. To the ownership and manager’s credit, they brought in quality players from the summer transfer market that could aid Hércules not only to avoid relegation but also to compete with vim and vigor against the top clubs in Spain. Six of their summer signings started against Barcelona, including three well-known players with European experience: Royston Drenthe from Real Madrid, Nelson Haedo Valdez from Borussia Dortmund, and Juventus legend David Trezeguet.
As is the case with many of the smaller clubs in Spain, Hércules had to find hidden jewels in the transfer market that were talented yet unwanted by their teams (Royston Drenthe, Abel Aguilar and Nelson Valdez), loan signings that were willing to join a club that had just risen to the Spanish Primera (Matías Fritzler and Royston Drenthe), and veteran players that felt they still had significant contributions to give to their prospective clubs (David Cortés and David Trezeguet).
As with any major upset, Hércules needed a few breaks to fall their way, and even before the match commenced, they saw on the team sheet that Pep Guardiola did not put out his optimal starting eleven. With the Argentina – Spain friendly taking place in Buenos Aires a mere four days prior to this match, ten of the Barça players had to travel back and forth from the Southern Hemisphere, and while these players will never use FIFA International dates as excuses, to dismiss the significance of such travels within a short period of time would be disingenuous. Five of the regular starting eleven did not begin on the pitch for Barcelona, the most important of these players being Xavi Hernández, the conductor of the Barcelona attack.
A lack of chemistry was ever apparent in all three lines of Barcelona’s starting lineup with the hodgepodge of players filling in for the normal starters. Bojan Krkic started in place of Pedro Rodríguez, and Bojan’s only impactful involvement in the match came when he unnecessarily attempted a cute back heel shot after David Villa and Maxwell combined on the left flank to create the space for Maxwell to deliver a spot-on squared cross to the six-yard box. Pedro came in for Bojan to start the second half and immediately created havoc down the left flank that Bojan could not muster in forty-five minutes.
Javier Mascherano made his first start for Barcelona after his €22 million move from Liverpool as the defensive midfielder in place of Sergio Busquets, and he looked out of place from the normal Barça flow. Mascherano will adjust accordingly to the Spanish game, and he will learn that some of the challenges he attempted on Saturday that were allowed in the Premier League will not be as tolerated in La Liga. Pep Guardiola substituted him at the beginning of the second half in favor of Xavi, and much like Pedro, Barcelona became more decisive in the Hércules half of the pitch and less ponderous with their abundance of possession.
Outlining Barça’s negatives, however, would take away from Hércules’ allegorical performance. Hércules manager Esteban Vigo knew that his team would likely own less than 30% of the possession, so converting on their few chances became vital if his team had any opportunity to achieve the supposed unthinkable. One of those moments arrived in the 26th minute when Mascherano cynically knocked Royston Drenthe down to prevent a potential scoring chance. The only reason referee Carlos Velasco Carballo did not give Mascherano a yellow card was that he booked Mascherano a few minutes earlier for another professional foul, and he likely felt a second yellow card so early in the match would be considered overbearing.
Drenthe floated the free kick into a scrum of players in the box, and after Víctor Valdés saved Abraham Paz’s shot from Abel Aguliar’s flick-on header, Nelson Valdez took advantage of the rebound and completely mis-hit his effort into the ground. Fortunately, for Valdez and his team, the bounce from his shot tantalizingly rose over Valdés and bundled into goal for the 0-1 lead.
Barcelona came out of the dressing room with a roar with Pedro and Xavi coming in to the team to start the second half, and Hércules goalkeeper Juan Calatayud stood up to the arduous task of keeping the ball out of his net. He received the assurance of a two-goal cushion in the 59th minute when Nelson Valdez scored his second goal to fortify their tenuous and slender one-goal advantage.
Tiago Gomes played a nice one-two with David Cortés to provide space down the right flank, and Gomes looked up to see the situation near the right edge of the penalty area and laid a perfect cutback for Valdez just inside the box. He took the shot on first-time and curled it past a desperate and a sprawled Víctor Valdés. Two opportunities for Hércules in sixty minutes, and they worked each chance into a goal.
Hércules naturally sat back after Valdez’s second goal, and while Barcelona peppered Calatayud with shot after shot, only a few of those shots truly threatened his goal, and he can give thanks to his defensive four that contained and bottled up Lionel Messi and David Villa as much as any team could possibly do against two of the best forwards in the world of football.
A 0-2 final, and the fiesta in Alicante ran through the Spanish evening and into the early hours of Sunday morning.
Esteban Vigo, while amazed at their achievement, spoke like a football manager after the win:
“This is a day this club will remember. We did very well understanding Barcelona’s style of play, and we made things very difficult for them… It’s a historic day, but it’s just three points. Right now I’m delighted, and this will stay in my résumé as a coach, but let’s remember that we’ve won nothing yet and on Monday, it’ll all be gone.”
Can other teams use Hércules’ tactics to compete against Barcelona? Maybe.
Has Barcelona been figured out? Every team knows what they will do, but hardly anyone has stopped them in three years.
Is this match an ominous sign for Barcelona? Hardly. Remember when Numancia defeated Barcelona 1-0 in 2008 in Pep Guardiola’s first match in La Liga as Barcelona’s manager? Six trophies later, that loss actually might have spurred on Barcelona to take nothing for granted.
Will the gap between Real Madrid and Barcelona and the rest of La Liga shift closer than the current chasm? The first two rounds of any season can be quite deceiving if extrapolated to the rest of the campaign.
The most important question following Saturday’s stupefaction is if Hércules can take this momentum into the rest of their La Liga campaign and avoid relegation. Even though they defeated Barcelona twice in the 1996-97 season, they went down to Liga Adelante at the end of the season. With the caliber of talent brought in for this season, along with those who fought last season for Hércules to earn promotion, this team from the southern part of the Valencian Community will not have to worry about the relegation dogfight, much like Málaga in 2008-09 when they rose from the Segunda División to finish in eighth place.
Enough of the questions and thinking. For the residents of Alicante, the last two nights partying and celebrating at the Playa de San Juan shows that eleven people with a ball can do wonders not only for themselves but also for the city in which they play.
Fueras de Juego
– Usually, an indirect free kick inside the penalty area happens rarely, but in the first two rounds of La Liga, there have been three such situations, including one this past weekend between Valencia and Racing de Santander when David Albelda unintentionally kicked the ball to his goalkeeper César Sánchez, and César picked it up. On all three occasions, the team with the indirect free kick did not score.
– Málaga had six ocasiones de gol (scoring chances) in the first half against Real Zaragoza and scored on five of them, and the last of those chances should have been converted when Quincy Owusu-Abeyie took the shot rather than passing to Edinho who had the goal at his mercy. Zaragoza goalkeeper and La Liga veteran Leo Franco was culpable for a couple of those goals, and if this were ice hockey, he would have been pulled before the half was over. To Zaragoza’s credit, they did score three to make the score look somewhat respectable, but the defense, the worst among the teams that avoided relegation last season, continues to be a chronic problem.
– Eduardo Iturralde González can conservatively be called the most demonstrative referee in La Liga, and he further proved this assertion yesterday when he was in charge of the Villarreal – Espanyol match. Iturralde González issued twelve yellow cards and a red card, and at least three of the yellow cards were due to dissent. While these players might have said the magic words to receive the admonishments, Iturralde González is partly to blame for his penchant to inflame incidents that need not have extra gasoline.