There was a time on Saturday night when Lionel Messi actually became frustrated with himself and his teammates. There was a time on Saturday night when Xavi Hernández could not find the killer pass through the hard-working, organized defense. There was a time on Saturday night when Gerard Piqué was absolutely skinned alive by an opposing forward, costing FC Barcelona only its twelfth conceded goal all season in La Liga.
When these previous statements are applicable against Barcelona, one would assume the club on the other side of the pitch that forced the Catalans to toil for a draw was one of the European powers. It certainly was not Real Madrid, nor Villarreal, nor Valencia. It was the humble club from an industrial town that plays it football at a stadium named for the old watermill that once stood on that piece of land.
Sporting de Gijón, led by the most interesting man in the world, Manolo Preciado.
Similar to Blackpool’s Ian Holloway, Preciado filters very little what comes out of his mouth, and in almost beautiful synchronicity, both managers spit in the face of accusations that they purposefully set out weakened teams in a “lose the battle, win the war” type of creed. In Holloway’s case, he made ten changes to his starting lineup against Aston Villa in November, in which that Villa match was the third of four matches Blackpool played in a short span of thirteen days.
Holloway threatened to resign from his post if the Premier League found the club guilty, and when the league handed down the guilty verdict, Holloway was true to his word, handing his resignation papers to Blackpool chairman Karl Oyston. Oyston duly rejected Holloway’s resignation, but despite all of the strange and bold statements that come out of Holloway’s mouth, he genuinely believes in all of them and stands by everything he says.
Manolo Preciado is no different, and when José Mourinho charged Preciado of fielding a weakened team against Barcelona in September because “they [Sporting] felt they could not win,” in Mourinho’s words, Preciado went on a priceless diatribe that hearkens to the Rafael Benítez “Fact” rant or Diego Maradona’s “suck” castigation:
“I do not like Mourinho and I am going to tell him that to his face. Who the hell is this guy? He claimed that we gave away the points at Camp Nou and has since repeated this. Even if he says this as a joke, it is very bad. But if he means it, I think he is despicable and a poor professional. I don’t like it at all. If Madrid don’t teach him respect, I will. We deserve the same respect he does. To say that Sporting, who have killed ourselves to get into the top flight, would give up on a match? Who the hell does he think he is?”
To say that the Sporting players backed their manager would be one of the understatements of the year. They had already defeated Sevilla, drawn with Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao and frustrated Barcelona in a 1-0 loss with that “weakened” team, but when Sporting hosted Real Madrid in November and faced Mourinho for the first time since Mourinho made his disparaging comments against Sporting and Preciado, El Molinón developed into a fiery cauldron and a white-hot crucible that has not been matched in Spain this season.
Unfortunately, Mourinho sat in a private box for that match because he was in the middle of a two-match touchline ban for his own firebrand statements about referees. He would have reveled in the hate raining down on him from the Sporting faithful as the clever and not-so-clever chants created an extra element of flavor and flair in an already combustible atmosphere. The Sporting players channeled the positive energy from the El Molinón crowd and hassled and harried Cristiano Ronaldo and co. for the whole of the match. Real expected the initial surge from Sporting, but the pressing and the closing down did not waver as the clock hit the 30th, 60th and even the 90th minute. Gonzalo Higuaín eventually scored the decider in the 82nd minute to give Real the 0-1 victory, but their win was overshadowed by the effort of the Sporting players and their tangible love for their manager Manolo Preciado.
All that heart and emotion spent against Real Madrid took a toll on los rojiblancos, as they would not win in their next seven league matches, and with each successive game without a victory, Preciado’s leash shortened bit by bit until he was within one loss short of a sacking as was widely reported. Sitting in the relegation zone and tied on points with the bottom of the table, Preciado’s players rallied behind their coach and reeled off three consecutive victories in January, including a 1-0 over Atlético Madrid and a 0-4 thrashing over Mallorca.
Heading into their home match against Barcelona on Saturday night, Sporting sat in a nominally safe 13th in the table, but with only one point separating them with those in the relegation zone, they were supposed to rely on other results of the round to keep them above the drop line because no one had taken a point off Barcelona away from the Camp Nou this season.
Sporting should have been comforted by the fact that under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s record coming of FIFA-sanctioned international matched was a relatively mediocre 5-6-1, and that one loss came at the hands of Hércules in September. Added to the player fatigue from the internationals was the impending UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg against Arsenal this upcoming Wednesday, so if there were a time when Barcelona would not be at their best, Sporting would get them at the perfect time.
Preciado and the El Molinón crowd did not have any qualms against Barcelona, but subconsciously, Preciado wanted to prove Mourinho wrong and show that Sporting believed they could beat Barcelona, even though he firmly denied Mourinho’s indictments about his team in their first meeting against the blaugrana earlier in the season.
The same intensity that Sporting showed against Real Madrid resurfaced against Barcelona in the first twenty minutes of the match, but whereas the impetus against Real arose from hatred and disgust, the vigor displayed against Barcelona came more from fear as the threat of relegation looms for the bottom eight La Liga clubs.
Sporting employed a high defensive line and a suffocating on and off-ball pressure that defines Barça’s defense, and this strategy forced Barcelona into some uncharacteristic turnovers and lack of composure on the ball. After Sporting foiled another Barça offensive move, the subsequent counter-attack ended with Gijón taking the shock 1-0 lead.
Diego Castro sent a ball down the left wing for David Barral, and Barral did the rest. Gerard Piqué is one of the most complete defenders in the world, but he is not blessed with blistering pace, so when he went against Barral in a one-on-one battle down the left wing, Piqué was always going to finish second best. Barral cut in from the left wing, leaving Piqué in his wake, and when Gabriel Milito tried to help out Piqué in the box, Barral ran laterally past Milito with Milito stumbling to the floor in the process, and Barral struck a shot to the right far post that Víctor Valdés had no chance of saving.
1-0 to Sporting, but what were they going to do for the final seventy-four minutes plus stoppage time?
While they stood by their high pressure for a few minutes after the goal, they predictably began to sit back more and more in their own half of the pitch as the game wore on because they could not keep up the high intensity for the whole of the match.
When Sporting converted into a 4-6-0 formation later in the match, they plugged every hole and covered every hint of open space in which Barcelona wanted to exploit. Preciado was almost serenely calm (feisty for normal folk), and the faint possibility of three points slowly became more and more of a reality.
Then the local boy done good, David Villa, broke his people’s hearts with a deft twenty-yard chip over goalkeeper Iván Cuéllar with ten minutes remaining, and Barcelona somehow came out of El Molinón with a point.
Ever since Pep Guardiola took over FC Barcelona in the summer of 2008, every team has tried to find the magic formula or blueprint to contain and ultimately defeat Barça on a somewhat consistent basis. Has Sporting Gijón, of all clubs, provided the plan for others to follow when they encounter Barcelona?
High pressure and the early goal for the opposition has been the common theme when Barcelona has struggled, and Sporting completed these two tasks. Unless the team has players that can fight with this intensity for the entire match, eventually they will have to sit back and withstand the inevitable Barcelona onslaught. Without the early goal, Sporting would likely have tired at a much higher rate, and Barcelona would have found their goal sooner or later, but with the thought that they could actually defeat Barcelona dancing in their heads, they transcended their own physical and mental limits for the cause.
While Sporting did not finish the way they wanted, Preciado had nothing but effusive praise for his whole team, and the individual players reciprocated that love back to their trainer.
Sporting Gijón fell three spots to 16th despite the point earned and perilously stand one point above Osasuna for the final relegation place. As the Asturian club claws their way toward safety in La Liga for another year, the luscious mustache from across the border in Cantabria soldiers on, running his team in his way, regardless of others from the outside have to say about he and his team. La Liga would sorely miss his graveled, stern voice and his larger-than-life character if Sporting were to go down, and if Mourinho stays with Real Madrid for the foreseeable future, who else will keep him in check?
Fueras de Juego
– If Quique Sánchez Flores has not been sacked, he should just resign if he wants to keep his sanity. Valencia came up with another late-goal winner to rise to third in the table, and Atlético Madrid’s schizophrenia has morphed into a chronic depression that has little chance of curing at this point. Diego Forlán missed a penalty that would have given Atlético a 2-1 lead, and he falls further into the doghouse with both the Atlético fans and the coaching staff. It might be time to blow up this team and start over, and Quique will not want part of any of that.
– Sevilla found another way to blow a match, and all of the blame for Manuel Arana’s first-time forty-yard loop with the outside of his right boot game-winner should fall on Andrés Palop, who went on an absent-minded walkabout outside of his area and left the goal wide open. The goal nearly left Arana in tears, and back to the future new boss Marcelino García Toral shrewdly decided to run in ecstasy on the grass after he nearly broke his butt celebrating Racing’s second goal on the slippery technical area. Sevilla now is fourteen points behind Villarreal for the final Champions League spot, and Gregorio Manzano looks like he is on the hot seat and the next manager to go after Quique Sánchez Flores with the bookmakers.
– Villarreal’s inexplicable poor play for a second week as they fell to a deserved Deportivo La Coruña team that needed three points with relegation a real possibility for the Galicians. The Depor ball kids must have watched Osasuna defeat Real Madrid a couple of weeks ago because with a few minutes remaining on the clock and Villarreal in a dangerous attacking position on Daniel Aranzubia’s goal, the Depor ball kid threw a second ball on the pitch, and referee Rafael Ramírez Domínguez had no choice but to stop play. On the drop ball, Depor kicked into the Villarreal half, and all of the attacking momentum disappeared. Anything for a win apparently.
– Real Madrid had one of its best performances of the season, even with Iker Casillas receiving his marching orders from referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz in the second minute. Emmanuel Adebayor gelled with Cristiano Ronaldo and the other Real attackers and fit in seamlessly in José Mourinho’s team. Karim Benzema might have to be comfortable sitting on the bench for the rest of the season save for some substitute appearances. Pepe deserved man of the match honors because he made a multitude of stellar defensive plays, and he had to pick up the slack of Ricardo Carvalho, who had a rare off day in the center of defense. Seven points down to five, and La Liga seems realistic for Real. For now.