This weekend Sevilla and Valencia, the teams who want to be the alternative to the big two for the title (and to be the ones who take the other two Champions League positions) were looking to confirm their challenges. And they both failed. Sevilla, having beaten Real Madrid 2-1, went down 1-0 to Deportivo de La Coruña, while Valencia, playing without David Villa, drew 0-0 at home to Barcelona.
Deportivo merit more than a mention in dispatches this week, as they are the revelation of the first few matchdays. To those who remember that Dépor have qualified for the Champions League five consecutive times this decade, and that they won the Spanish league in 2000, plus a couple of Spanish cups, the tag or 'revelation' might seem too much for being fourth after seven matches.
However, I'd like to single them out because they could be the blueprint for many other clubs of their aspirations and size (or even bigger), throughout the continent. Suffice to recall who knocked them out of the Champions League quarter-finals in 2001: Leeds United.
Promoted in 1991 after 18 years out of the top flight (including one season in the equivalent of the fourth division), they are one of those clubs who can never be sure whether the next season they're going to finish playing in Europe or in a scrap against relegation. This includes everyone except the most established names in any country: whether you are Newcastle, Torino, Nantes, Wolfsburg or Zaragoza, nothing is guaranteed, and you're never too good to go down.
Under the stewardship of president Augusto César Lendoiro (above), the longest-serving in the division, with 21 years at the helm, they have been able to be only the ninth club to win the league in Spain and to come back down from that high without dropping through the divisions like a stone. He never considered that his club has a divine right to stay forever at the top, and plans ahead very carefully. Whenever there is money, it is judiciously spent, and when there isn't, players are bought according to the budget. Sometimes you find gems like Rivaldo, Bebeto and Mauro Silva, and sometimes the new signings don't work, but Lendoiro never loses the plot.
He says that he's always ready for whatever place they get in the league, except for relegation, a pit from whence you can never know when you're going to climb back up. So, if he needs to change to a safety-first manager to inch ahead point by point to save the season, he gets one. Also, he doesn't take any nonsense from want-away players: if you want to go, it has to be for big money, or otherwise, you wrote your name at the end of this piece of paper, son, and you're staying. If he has to take players and other clubs to court, he will do it. There is currently once such incident involving striker Angel Lafita, whose transfer to Zaragoza Lendoiro is disputing.
Anyway, this year has been the leanest for many seasons, with no star signings at all, and Deportivo were widely tipped for the lower reaches of the table. They started with an unfortunate 3-2 defeat at the hands of Real Madrid, but since then, results have been great. Kudos to them, if only for staying within their means.
All in all, it was a great day for Real Madrid, who won 4-2 at home to Valladolid, one of those teams who rarely, if ever, get a result away to the big clubs. It's yet another victory-while-conceding-more-than-once for Real, the third one this season already, which must be some kind of record. Meanwhile, Raúl also keeps breaking records for appearances and goalscoring. He got two this time to celebrate becoming the man with the most competitive games played for Real: 711 and counting.
At the same time, Rafael van der Vaart saw his patience rewarded with his first start of the season - his patience and the fact that he was almost the last man standing in the attacking midfielders department, with Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben gone, Cristiano Ronaldo and Guti injured, and Kaká rotated out after playing for Brazil.
Speaking about Ronaldo's injuries, a man called Pepe el Brujo (the Wizard) is quoted in Portuguese newspaper Correio da Manhá as saying that in four months' time, maximum, the Real Madrid star will go back to Portugal, unable to play football any more from his injuries, due to a curse he has put on the player. He says he has worked his black magic on behalf of a former lover of Ronaldo who wants revenge on him for dumping her. Hell hath no fury...
And another thing...
By some weird cosmic coincidence, Real Madrid and Barcelona have been drawn to play their next Copa del Rey ties against two Segunda B (Third) División clubs from the two towns where I have lived longest in Spain: Real play a few miles to the south, in the commuter town of Alcorcón, who have never been in the top two divisions, and Barcelona visit León, in the north-west, to play the club with the most wonderful name in the country (Cultural y Deportiva Leonesa). Their ground is less than a five-minute walk from my family's house. By even more coincidence, I will be there on October 28, and I hope to be able to see the game... if I can find a ticket. La Cultural have played only once in the Primera División (1955-56) and it's very hard indeed to receive such an august visit. The European Champions no less!