A year ago, 400 Alaves fans made the three-hour journey through the Pyrenees to Huesca for their opening game of the 2015/16 season. They were intent on having fun as they walked through the streets singing and smiling. Their followers were young and old, male and female.
“We never know what we’re going to get with our team so we have a good time whatever happens,” said Koldo, a long-standing supporter.
Their 3-2 victory at Huesca set Alaves off on a great season which would see them return to the Primera Liga for the first time in a decade.
Alaves, from the attractive Basque capital of Vitoria, have experienced more highs and lows than almost any other club this century. They reached the 2001 Uefa Cup final, where they played against Liverpool in Dortmund, in what would be one of the greatest European finals. Alaves lost 5-4 after extra time, but the spirit which took the tiny team to a major European final impressed neutrals.
Alaves were so small that the name of all their 9,000 season ticket holders were stitched into the shirts, which they wore for the final, a game they were losing 3-1 at half time.
“I was not alone in thinking the treble was won,” recalled Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard. “Alaves hadn’t showed anything to worry us.” Gerrard hadn’t counted on the indomitable spirit of players including Jordi Cruyff and AC Milan-bound Javi Moreno.
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The game was a high point. After moving between Spain’s top two tiers, in 2009 Alaves were relegated to the regional, semi-professional, third division level. They stayed there for four years, always finishing in a play-off position but unable to get out of the division until 2013. The club reorganised themselves, with then 39-year-old club president Alfonso de Troconiz taking charge four years ago.
The blue-and-white striped shirts of Alaves were second division champions last season, with veteran baldheaded former Athletic Bilbao striker Gaizka Toquero their star.
Average crowds were 11,841 in their 19,200-capacity Mendizorrotza home. Attendances will be much higher this season and they remain unbeaten after three matches, which sounds creditable enough, until you look at who their opponents were.
Alaves held Uefa Champions League finalists Atletico Madrid away in their opening game after defending superbly. In their second match, they were held 0-0 at home by Sporting Gijon, a result which looks better given Sporting have won their other two matches and sit third in the table. On Saturday, Alaves travelled to Camp Nou to face Barcelona. And won.
All this using a squad which cost little over €6 million (Dh24.8m) to assemble in a summer where Alaves signed 17 new players and shifted 14, including Jose Bordalas, the manager who had got them promoted.
He was replaced by 44-year-old Argentine Mauricio Pellegrino, the former Valencia and Liverpool defender.
The Basques went to the Spanish champions and stunned them. Needing to make squad rotations after the international break and ahead of seven games in 22 days, Barcelona left Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta on the bench. Mar-Andre Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto and Gerard Pique were also absent as Barca made seven changes from their previous league game, while still having the players to beat the Basques. But football doesn't do convention and it is a shame that only 84 Alaves fans were there to see their great victory.
Alaves took 1,500 supporters to their opening away game at the Vicente Calderon, but against Barca there was a fan-boycott because the seats offered were so high up on the stadium’s third tier and behind a perspex shield.
The victory was no fluke. Alaves took the lead after 38 minutes from Deyverson, the Brazilian striker who relegated Levante had to loan out for this season because they couldn’t afford his wages. He had been one of Levante’s better players last season, scoring nine league goals. Jeremy Mathieu equalised for Barca, before Ibai Gomez scored a 64th-minute winner. Gomez, 26, had seen his chances limited at San Mames last season.
The Alaves fans in Huesca a year ago dreamed of having a good time. They resented Athletic Bilbao for being the Basque club which claims all the headlines, yet Toquero came from Athletic, Gomez too. Athletic are not all bad. However, on Sunday, it was Alaves who made the headlines.
“We were lucky in some moments,” Pellegrino said, “but we deserved our moment.” They did, as Iniesta admitted afterwards.
Good times for Real Madrid
The cover of Monday’s Real Madrid-supporting newspaper, Marca, proclaimed “A Happy Madrid”.
Real Madrid are top of the Primera Liga with three wins from three.
Barcelona’s 2-1 home defeat to Alaves on Saturday added to Madrid’s joy, as has Atletico Madrid’s failure to win two of their three league games so far.
There were more reasons for putting a smiling Cristiano Ronaldo and his son on the cover, the pair pictured dressed as clowns at a barbecue held for Madrid players following their 5-2 victory over Osasuna.
It was a game that saw the Portuguese play for his club for the first time this season, appearing for 65 minutes. He scored with his first touch of the ball after six minutes.
Seeing him substituted was unusual for he usually demands to play every minute of every game.
He is usually indulged, too, but Ronaldo cannot be playing 90 minutes every three days for up to 60 times per season any more.
Is there a problem if he remains on the pitch when his side are leading 5-0 after 62 minutes, as they were on Saturday?
Ronaldo always admired how Ryan Giggs adapted his game at Manchester United. Now there are signs he is starting to adapt his own.
• Cristiano Ronaldo: Set for 'another special moment' when Real Madrid face boyhood club Sporting
Madrid did not play well but have now won 15 consecutive league games stretching back to the end of last season, a club record that they will surpass should they defeat Espanyol – as they usually do – on Sunday.
First, the European champions play their opening Uefa Champions League match of 2016/17, against Sporting of Lisbon, at the Bernabeu tonight as the club bid to be the first side since AC Milan in 1989 and 1990 to win the competition in consecutive years.
Luis Figo, a man who played for both clubs, said his former teammate and current Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane “has done better than anyone”.
Zidane has had a great year since taking over in January from Rafa Benitez and has won the confidence of the fans and the players, including Ronaldo.
Using youngsters who have come through Madrid’s youth system also helps, for it counters the assertion that Madrid only buy talent while Barcelona create it.
In Sporting, Zidane’s side will face a club with one of the best youth systems in Europe but who cannot hope to compete with Real Madrid.
Ronaldo came through that youth system there before his move to Manchester United in 2003, and then Madrid six years later, where he established himself as one of the best two, if not the best, player in the world.
The favourite to win the Ballon d’Or, he has looked just that in 2016, winning the Champions League and European Championship with the Portugal national team.
Ronaldo, 31, wants a new contract. He will want it to be the biggest in world football, a continuation of the contract race he has had with his great rival Lionel Messi. It will help his case immensely if he is playing like he deserves it.
Saturday was a good start, and a repeat showing against Sporting tonight will underline it farther.
Player of the week
Veteran Betis striker Ruben Castro scored twice as his side beat Valencia at the Mestalla for the first time in 30 years. Castro, 35, is in his seventh season at the club. He is the league’s leading scorer with four goals from three games. He will fancy his chances of adding to that in Friday’s Andalusian derby at home to winless Granada. Betis need to watch their discipline, though, for no team has picked up as many cards.
Game of the week
Atletico Madrid v Sporting Gijon is an unlikely seventh v third. The Asturians remain unbeaten after three matches; while Atletico got their first win of the season by beating Celta Vigo 4-0 away. All the goals came in the second half. Real Madrid are at Espanyol, who they usually beat, while Barca travel to promoted Leganes.
• Levante beat Zaragoza 4-2 in a first vs second game in the second division. Levante, Zaragoza, Elche and Valladolid, all clubs who have played in the Primera Liga recently, occupy the top four positions. Yet Mallorca and Getafe, two clubs familiar with Spain’s top level, are now at the bottom of the second tier without a win between them this season so far.
• Valencia, Spain’s fourth biggest club, have lost their opening three games. Two down at home to Betis, Pako Ayestaran’s side showed sufficient fight to get back to 2-2 before losing to a 92nd-minute winner. Valencia continue to wobble and Sunday’s game at Athletic Bilbao, who knocked them out of Europe last season, will be difficult.
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