To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.
A month of six fixtures, potentially seven if we make it to the Semi-Final of the Spanish Cup, February features the return of the Champions League, in which we will be taking on Chelsea. Of the league ties, an away day at Athletic Bilbao, who are in fifth place, looks like being the hardest, however we don’t have to play any of Spain’s really big shots again until March, and the aim by that stage is to build on our commanding lead in the division.
We’re away to Lugo in the cup. The second division side, based in Galicia, are newly promoted after being relegated in 2022, and while they take to the field in Atletico Madrid colours that’s where the similarity ends. They aren’t that good, and even with something of a scratch eleven giving Abraham and Grimaldo an early playing opportunity, fielding Puig and transfer-listed Umtiti, we have far too much for them, running out 3-1 winners. The goal against, a marvellous strike from Xabier Dominguez, riles me a little because at Napoli we could shut up shop with ease whereas Barca continually pay the price for their attacking football. I guess that’s the difference. At the San Paolo our default mentality was positive, which made us a bit more conservative and defensively responsible, whereas Barca are like ‘fuck all that’ and just go for it. All the same, a double from Ousmane Dembele and Florentino Luis’s screamer see us safely through. Tammy Abraham misses a penalty in an overall showing that’s less than emphatic. The semi pitches us against Athletic Bilbao. In the other half of the draw, Levante will take on Real Madrid. It doesn’t take a soothsayer to see where this is heading.
On our travels again at the weekend, we’re at Girona, who showcase former Middlesbrough striker Cristhian Stuani. He’s annoying in the sense that he’s done well everywhere apart from at the Riverside, which maybe says more about us than him, though I couldn’t possibly comment further than that. Stuani’s been deadly in the cup but is yet to hit the back of the net during any of his league appearances, and that proud record continues here. My experiment of fielding Antoine Griezmann on the right (not that brave – he’s a natural here) pays off in style, as a player who struggled for goals up front scores a superb hat-trick, giving Antonio Luna at left-back the sort of game that will produce nightmares. Florentino Luis finds the net again. Of the rest, I’m really impressed with Bennacer, who puts in a powerful performance from central midfield, and Kane’s intelligent hold-up and selfless play in attack really helps us out. Alfredo Ortuno gets a late consolation to finish a 4-1 rout. It’s their solitary shot of the match.
Valencia and Atletico Madrid both lose (to Espanyol and Levante respectively) to increase the gap. Real put two past Sevilla to become our main challengers. They’re a full ten points begin, though their match in hand makes it more like seven.
Athletic Bilbao await in the Spanish Cup Semi-Final, to be played at Real’s Santiago Bernabeu. A healthy crowd of more than 81,000 turn up for this one, welcomed by a storm of hail, which makes playing conditions difficult. I’m anticipating a difficult contest here. The Lions showcase some players I’ve heard of, from difficult to beat keeper Unai Simon, captain and star forward Raul Garcia, and Inaki Williams, a tricky winger who operates on the right. Sure enough, the match is an even affair. Defensively we’re tight where it counts, keeping out the attacking forays by Nicolas Serrano, whilst at the other end Tammy Abraham fires an early effort against the post before finally putting us in front when he converts Dembele’s fine assist. A great moment for a striker who hasn’t scored in his ten appearances before this one. There is a cost to our win. Dembele stubs his toe and will miss the Leganes match. Coutinho’s injury, a pulled calf muscle that he incurs in the first half, pretty much ends his February. Fortunately for us, Pedri – who’s been unavailable for a couple of weeks courtesy of a virus – is available again.
With a sense of inevitability, we will face Real Madrid in the Final. The venue has been pre-selected, but the good news for us is that it will take place at the Camp Nou. For the record, our thirty-one Cup wins make us the competition’s most successful participant, but against Real in the showpiece we pretty much share out the victories. It’ll take place in the middle of April.
At the weekend it’s first against last with the visit of Leganes. They’ve just sacked their manager, Albert Celades, and we are fairly sure that we will get to take on a side that’s in both real trouble and a sense of disarray. With nearly a week after this until our next fixture there’s the possibility that this will allow us to inflict some pain, and that’s just what we do in a 7-0 home win. 88,890 supporters are delighted with an Antoine Griezmann hat-trick, a brace from Harrington Kane and further goals by Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets as we rack up the shots. Leganes have a couple of opportunities to reply, but Juan Munoz has struggled in front of goal for good reasons and makes a mess of his two chances. Puig and Umtiti play for us here. Pedri comes on for the last thirty minutes to improve his match fitness, and the game produces the sort of dream result that I could only hope for.
We’re back at Athletic Bilbao, taking on a side that is sitting pretty in fourth place and taking advantage of a downturn in form by Valencia to ease themselves into a Champions League spot. For all their gifts, we’re a side of match winners and we go on to show it when Milan Skriniar loops his header over Simon from Griezmann’s corner to put us ahead. That’s the only goal of a game that descends into fouling from the visitors. This pays off for them when Dembele comes on for the last half-hour and takes on a crunching challenge by Berenguer. This leaves the winger with a thigh strain and an absence of three weeks. Thanks, Athletic Club. Without the Little God for the foreseeable future, our options on the wings are thinning quickly.
A poll amongst Manchester United fans shows that 70% are in favour if signing Frenkie de Jong. In all honesty, if they want to cough up a big figure for the Dutch midfielder then I will listen to it. I don’t think he has been especially impressive for us, suggesting to me that his future may be back in defensive midfield rather than playing centrally. Elsewhere, the news flashes through that we have signed Ramos! No, don’t worry; Real’s thuggish legend is retiring at the end of the season, and instead we have agreed a £5.5 million deal for San Lorenzo’s 17 year old winger, Ariel Ramos. A consistent and quick performer, the right-sided flanker is absolutely one for the future, but it could be a good one.
Espanyol hold Real Madrid 3-3 in what could turn out to be a crucial result. We are now eleven points clear in La Liga. Chelsea are next for us, the first leg to be played at home in what is tipped to be a cagey, low scoring affair. Key new signings for Frank Lampard’s Premier League set-up, sitting in second place, are left-back Theo Hernandez, Gianluca Mancini in central defence, and strikers Divock Origi and Luis Suarez (not that one), with Franck Kessie offering steel in midfield. A reminder here that we are expected to reach the final. Chelsea are difficult opposition, but then who isn’t by this stage? Elsewhere, there have been wins for Napoli, Bayern and Porto (the latter downing Liverpool 2-0), but all the ties are wide open. I’m genuinely nervous about who we will face if we prevail against the Blues.
As it turns out, the home tie produces a relatively straightforward 3-0 victory. I have to be careful about any triumphalism. Barca are notoriously gash on the road in their continental adventures, so a big win at home is a guarantee of nothing, yet this display encourages me that we may yet meet the board’s requirements for the competition. Harrington Kane separates the teams with the sort of excellent, first half goal that reminds me why we pay him so well. It’s the kind of athletic strike that not many people would even consider attempting, but it completely defies Livakovic and that’s what matters. After the break, Kessie is dismissed for a second yellow and that allows us to grab two more – Pau Torres from a corner kick, and later Kane’s second from the penalty spot. Harrington is an easy match ball winner, yet Griezmann also excels from his new berth on the right wing, and defensively we are rock solid. It’s not often that I can say this.
The month ends with a visit to culinary capital Real San Sebastian. Lodged in mid-table despite promising much more, they’ve sacked Julen Lopetegui and replaced him with Erik ten Hag by the time we arrive. Their new broom, much like Lopetegui, was an international manager previously, finishing his stint in less controversial circumstances when Holland’s 1-0 defeat to Jamaica at the World Cup prompted his resignation. I think we all would, right? Still, he’s a good one and he proves it here when he organises a stiff rearguard defence to hold us to 1-1. In truth it’s a lazy performance from the Barca boys, who suggest that they expect to turn up and be gifted the points, and are punished as a consequence. Martin Zubimendi fires them in front early, a position that remains in place until the second half, when Oyarzabal is red carded for an offence that most people would consider to be worth a yellow only. It’s the fillip we need, as Antoine Griezmann goes on to produce a late equaliser. On the downside, Pedri and Moriba stand out here as especially terrible, both players suggesting that much to learn they still have. Definitely a case of two points dropped within the overall context of regaining the league title.
Still, it doesn’t make so much difference. Our rivals are just as capable of choking, which leaves our commanding lead in La Liga pretty much intact. We’ll be up against Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou in March, a critical game that we can afford to draw rather than win, though clearly better than a sharing of the points would be ideal. There’s the return leg against Chelsea to come, along with three further league games.