x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Being tired beats being hurt or fired

While Barca regain focus in the UAE capital, back home there is a flurry of negative headlines which have dominated the Spanish football media after the weekend's games.

Barcelona's tired players are preparing in Abu Dhabi ahead of tomorrow's match against CONCACAF champions Atlante. They have the satisfaction of knowing their victory over Espanyol on Saturday equalled the club record of 15 consecutive undefeated league matches set under Terry Venables at the start of the 1984/85 season. While they regain focus in the UAE capital, back home there is a flurry of negative headlines which have dominated the Spanish football media after the weekend's games. Barca's players are largely immune from criticism - though Xavi is persona non grata in the eyes of Espanyol fans after winning an undeserved penalty at Camp Nou.

Barca chase an unprecedented sixth trophy of the season to end 2009 on the highest high, but an unseasonal gloom has descended elsewhere in Spain. Real Madrid's Pepe completed his annus horribilis with a cruciate ligament injury which will keep him out for six months. The Portuguese defender's career was just getting back on track following a ban for 10 games after his outburst against Getafe in March. But a clash with David Villa in Saturday's game at Valencia will see him out until the end of the season and possibly for the World Cup finals. "I'm destroyed," he lamented. "Destroyed."

Real's former striker Hugo Sanchez will not be feeling on top of the world either, after his president at Almeria refused to back him following a run of poor results. Almeria fans, who should be more appreciative of the job he has done as coach, called for the Mexican to be sacked during Sunday's 1-1 draw against Deportivo La Coruna. The pressure started weeks ago when Almeria lost home and away to second division Hercules in the Spanish Cup.

The club president Alfonso Garcia Gabarron said on Friday that he could not give assurances that Sanchez would stay in charge. Despite the speculation, Sanchez put on a brave face: "We have to have confidence and patience because the team is playing good football and the goals and victories will come soon if we carry on in this vein. I would be worried if the team was playing badly but that's not how it is. What we need is support and encouragement. I have full confidence in my team because the players are working and playing well and I am convinced we will manage to stay in the first division."

Almeria are 16th, two places above a Zaragoza side who have endured such dreadful form that they dismissed their coach Mercelino. Zaragoza's only win in their last nine league matches came against Almeria, but on Sunday they slipped to another defeat, this time at home to Athletic Bilbao. The Basques' teenage striker Iker Munian came off the bench to inspire his side to a 2-1 win, but the game was played out in a climate of hostility, with home fans unfurling a banner stating: "These fans don't deserve such humiliation". The president Eduardo Bandres agreed and dismissed Marcelino, saying, "Results are indisputable because they are not a matter of opinion and definitively condition decisions. The statistics are extremely bad."

Second team coach Jose Aurelio Gay has taken charge, burdened with the task of stopping the promoted Aragonese side - the eighth best supported in Spain - from being immediately relegated. He may also decide to start the club's best paid player Jermaine Pennant more, since Marcelino did not appear to know how to use Pennant. Gay will have a baptism of fire when Zaragoza travel to Real Madrid at the weekend for the final round of games before Spain's Christmas break.

And even without the stricken Pepe, Real's 100 per cent home record of seven wins in a row looks impenetrable. amitten@thenational.ae