Azzurri await on the road to Russia


The Spanish Week in Review

Sean O'Conor, Ponferrada, Spain

* Spain were drawn into Group G for World Cup 2018 qualifying alongside Italy, Albania, Israel, Italy, Lichtenstein and Madedonia.

The group winners automatically travel to Russia while the eight best second-place teams go into playoffs.

The two matches against the Azzurri will of course be key to deciding first place assuming neither of the big two slip up against the others. Israel at a pinch might be a banana skin away, although Wales had no trouble dispatching them recently.

Wales incidentally are currently ranked tenth by FIFA following their purple patch, two places above Spain. Romania are also in the top ten, which meant Italy, 17th and France, 24th, ended up in Pot No.2 for the draw, leaving the possibility of two giants ending up together.

As it happens, both Euro 2012 finalists will battle it out for automatic passage to the finals. The Netherlands and France makes Group A look similarly top-heavy.

As with the 2014 finals, FIFA has made a mess of the draw, sticking religiously to their ranking classification in the face of footballing reality. Group B which has Portugal, Hungary and Switzerland, looks lighter as does Group D, featuring Wales, Austria and Serbia and Group E of Romania, Denmark and Poland.

Oh well, Italy v Spain it is on the 6th of October next year and the return clash on the the 2nd of September 2017 are the ones to pencil into the diary now.

SPAIN v Lichtenstein         05/09/16
Italy v SPAIN                     06/10/16
Albania v SPAIN                09/10/16
SPAIN v Macedonia           12/11/16
SPAIN v Israel                    24/03/17
Macedonia v SPAIN           11/06/17
SPAIN v Italy                     02/09/17
Lichtenstein v SPAIN         05/09/17
SPAIN v Albania               06/10/17
Israel v SPAIN                   09/10/17

Given La Roja's embarrassingly bad defence of their crown at World Cup 2014, they will be keen to put on a better show in 2018. With a new team emerging and the lion's share of the 2010 winners out to pasture, it will be interesting to see if Spain can stay in the leading group of soccer nations.

Before any thoughts turn to Russia however, there is Euro 2016 to reach first. Spain play Slovakia in Oviedo on the fifth of September this year in their next qualifier as they seek to retain the European Championship.

* Barcelona beat LA Galaxy 2:1 then lost 3:1 to Manchester United on their American tour.

There is little to read into these pre-season get-togethers, especially as Barça were lacking their South American stars with the exception of Luis Suarez, who sat out the Copa America.

Suarez and Sergi Roberto netted against LA, while Rafinha grabbed a last-minute goal against United in the 49ers stadium in Santa Clara.

United's Iberian trio David De Gea, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata all played while the Galaxy fielded Madrid-born Ignacio Maganto, 23, in midfield.

Real Madrid meanwhile dispatched Manchester City 4-1 in Melbourne and then Inter 3-0 in Guangzhou with plaudits all around. James Rodriguez's 30-yard free kick was a nice way to cap his first year in a white shirt. The Colombian arrived as the golden boot winner at the World Cup and despite too many cooks threatening to spoil the broth at the Bernabeu, has had a pretty blameless first season.

*Spain's U-19 European Champions got more coverage than they had bargained for as the curse of Twitter struck again.

Real Betis

Real Betis' Dani Ceballos, a hotly-tipped central midfielder who was linked with Chelsea last December, made front page news in Spain this week as someone dredged up some overly Castillian tweets he made as a 15 year-old such as this one:

"I was ashamed at the tremendous booing of the national anthem," he tweeted. "I hope a bomb falls on the stands and kills all those Catalan and Basque dogs."

Oh I say.

Another read, "Die now all you filthy Catalans." Ah, Spanish regional unity as strong as ever eh.

It seems rather churlish to berate anyone for the idiocies of youth and Ceballos is still a teenager with a long way to go. Let us hope he learns a lesson or two as he matures, but equally that his tweets of the past do not haunt him forever.

Ceballos is certainly a name to remember. Teammate Cristiano Piccini said of the teenager, "He has all the chances of being a great footballer. My advice is that he should stay (at Betis). There will come a time for him to go to a Barça or a Real"

Another youngster Julio Rey, saw his newly-signed contract with Deportivo La Coruna swiftly cancelled once a tweet of his from October 2012 came to light: "F*CK DEPOR, F*CK RIAZOR", he wrote, quite succinctly.

Is not this social media supervision getting a bit out of hand?. Surely all of us, especially adolescents, should be forgiven for our outbursts of yesteryear. People make mistakes but they learn from them as well. It is only the fact electronic social media now exists that off the cuff remarks have become an issue.

* Spain's fragile national identity took another beating this week as the Antiviolence Commission announced its judgements on the booing of the national anthem at the Copa del Rey final between Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona.

What a sorry sight to set before the newly crowned King Felipe VI.

The Spanish Football Federation as the overall authority that night got whacked the most with €123,000 - €90,000 for security lapses, €18,000 for a lack of prevention of the booing and €15,000 for not appointing someone to head the response to it.

Separatist pressure group Catalunya Accio were fined €100,000 for being the main instigators of the protest, handing out whistles to fans. Their president Santiago Espot was stung with a €90,000 punishment. Eleven other Catalan separatist groups who signed up to the organised booing were also slapped with a €70,000 sanction.

FCB themselves were fined €60,000 for security lapses and €6,000 for the actual jeering. Athletic Bilbao got off lightly by comparison with €18,000 demanded for the Basque booing.

It was an unseemly sight to hear so many thousands of Spaniards boo their nation's anthem but nor unexpected in the light of recent political history, not least the Catalan independence referendum last November, which the government refused to recognise.

We should not forget the other side of the coin that night, a goal from Lionel Messi to rank among his finest:

* "On our first date, Rafa explained to me what a 4-4-2 was", explained the Real Madrid manager's wife Montserrat Seara to a newspaper, rolling out the familiar story of a football-mad manager who eats, sleeps and talks football. "I don't know if he'll ever retire, " she added. "He finds it hard to stay away from the game."

* Louis Van Gaal hinted Sergio Ramos could still be a Red Devil before the first of September. "Transfers are a process," he told journalists. "Mr Ramos could be in that process," he added intriguingly. "You never know."

By the end of the week it seemed clear the Real defender was going nowhere as Florentino Perez was reported to be with him in China renegotiating his contract. An unnamed United source spoke of feeling betrayed by Ramos' public flirtation which appeared only to have been done to force Perez's hand.

No Ramos the Red Devil presumably means David De Gea is going nowhere either.

* Atletico Madrid have re-signed full-back Filipe Luis from Chelsea for €16 million on a three-year deal.

* Barcelona have appointed former midfielder Roberto Fernandez, 53, as their new technical director.

* Pep Guardiola has always been a proud Catalan, pointedly jetting back from Munich last year to vote in the Catalan independence referendum.

This week he added his name to the electoral list of Catalan Prime Minister Arturo Mas, who has been pushing for full independence, for September's regional elections. In theory Guardiola could be elected to parliament, but he has insisted he will not leave his post at Bayern.

This latest move angered Spanish interior minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz, who blasted Guardiola as "fairly sad and pitiful" and claimed he played for Spain (Guardiola has 47 caps for La Roja and captained them to Olympic gold) "definitely not for patriotic reasons but instead for financial ones."

The minister said Guardiola was the sort of person "whose God is money."

*Jose Mourinho called Iker Casillas' salary at Porto "incredible" and proof that the market was inflated. It should be noted that Casillas and 'The Special One' did not see eye to eye at the Bernabeu and the comment should be seen in that light.

* Cristiano Ronaldo is always showing frustration on the pitch, grimaces which get repeated and analysed on TV and in print afterwards.

His new manager Rafael Benitez is not concerned however. "He is a competitive guy and that is the key," he told reporters. "This is a positive thing not a defect." Laying on the love Benitez, "Clearly he is the best player in the world."

Benitez has been working hard on defensive practices in Real's training camp in Australia. He has also been juggling strikers to fill his preferred number nine role, with Ronaldo and Karim Benzema alternating.

* Mario Suarez has left Atletico Madrid for Fiorentina but with mixed feelings. "I will always be an Atletico man," the 28 year-old midfielder said at his farewell press conference. "Goodbye and Forza Atleti, I hope to come back some day."

Moving in the opposite direction is Montenegran centre-back Stefan Savic, 24.

* Transfermarkt, the famous footballer database, now rates James Rodriguez at €80 million, a 130% jump in value after his successful first season at Real Madrid.

* Malaga have taken centre-back Raul Albentosa on a year's loan from Derby County.

* Cordoba defender Jose Angel Crespo was having a medical with Aston Villa in England at the start of this week.

* Real Sociedad have signed striker Jonathas from Pescara on a five-year deal for €7.2 million. The 6'3" Brazilian netted 14 goals in 34 games on loan at Elche last season.

* Barcelona were charging $100 for entry to view their training session in Los Angeles this week.

* Juventus and Manchester City are still said to be angling for Real Madrid attacker Isco and Juve are said to be keen on La Roja colleague David Silva. Could there be a three-way deal here...?

Fernando Llorente is interesting Manchester United as well as Real Madrid it was claimed this week. The tall Spanish striker is considered surplus to requirements at Juventus.

* Villareal have admitted they want to sign Roberto Soldado from Tottenham but may have trouble meeting Spurs' €17 million price tag. The Yellow Submarine also face competition domestically from Real Sociedad and Sevilla as well as from Borussia Dortmund.

* Roma's sporting director was in Barcelona this week trying to sign Brazilian left-back Adriano Correia.

* Valencia could take former Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes back to Spain from Manchester United, where he is said to have fallen out with Louis Van Gaal.

* Real Madrid are snooping around Real Zaragoza midifielder Jesus Vallejo, skipper of Spain's U-19 European champions.

* Manchester United will offer Barcelona €26 million for Pedro, according to UK press reports and are prepared to exchange David De Gea & €40 million for Sergio Ramos and Keylor Navas.

* Atletico Madrid are still said to be eager to sign PSG midfielder Thiago Motta before the transfer deadline.


Barcelona 2:1 LA Galaxy
Barcelona 1:3 Manchester United
Real Madrid 4:1 Manchester City
Real Madrid 3:0 Inter
Numancia 0:2 Atletico Madrid
Oviedo 0:2 Atletico Madrid
Valencia 1:0 PSV
Werder Bremen 3:1 Sevilla
Stade Reims 1:2 Sevilla
Gimnastic 1:1 Villareal
Wolfsburg 1:2 Villareal
Lyon 0:2 Villareal
Real Betis 1:1 Athletic Bilbao
Galatasaray 2:1 Celta Vigo
Deportivo Cali 3:2 Malaga
Koln 0:2 Espanyol
Kasimpasa 1:2 Espanyol
Albacete 5:0 Rayo Vallecano
Logrones 0:1 Eibar
Real Union 1:3 Eibar
Levante 1:0 Teruel
Zwole 1:3 Levante
Port Vale 2:2 Getafe
MK Dons 1:3 Getafe
Ponferradina 0:1 Deportivo La Coruna
Lugo 1:0 Deportivo La Coruna
La Hoya Lorca 1:1 Granada
Vitoria Setubal 1:0 Real Betis
Villaviciosa 1:9 Sporting Gijon
Tenerife 1:1 Sporting Gijon

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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