It was a rare weekend for Aritz Aduriz. He didn’t score. His Athletic Bilbao side went down 2-1 at a resurgent Espanyol, missing a chance to leapfrog Sevilla in the La Liga table and occupy a European qualifying place. Athletic are still in this season’s Europa League.
The 35-year-old striker has scored 31 goals in 48 games this season, more than twice that of any other Spanish player in all competitions. In La Liga, he is the joint leading Spaniard with Eibar's Borja Baston, though Aduriz plays for a side who are the third highest scorers in the league.
Aduriz has improved with age. There have been sustained calls for him to be brought back into the Spain squad, six years after his only appearance for the national team, a 15-minute cameo against Lithuania.
Those calls were eventually heeded by Vicente del Bosque, the Spain coach who had said that the public wouldn’t pick his team. That is true, but even he couldn’t continue to ignore Aduriz’s excellent form which started at the beginning of the season when he scored four times against Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup. Del Bosque eventually named the former Aurrera, Burgos, Valladolid, Mallorca and Valencia striker in the squad for friendlies against Italy (Thursday) and Romania (Sunday) this week.
Born in San Sebastian, Aduriz was missed by Real Sociedad even though he played youth football with Antiguoko, a feeder club who often practised on San Sebastian’s famous La Concha beach. Xabi Alonso and Mikel Arteta also played with Antiguoko.
Aduriz’s parents were not football fans, but winter sports enthusiasts who would drive him to the Spanish Pyrenees to ski. Age nine, Aduriz finished second in his age group in Spain’s cross-country skiing championships.
He preferred surfing in the summer on the Basque Country’s many excellent beaches in the Bay of Biscay, yet he was very good at football and he was offered a place within Athletic’s Lezema youth system, the first of four spells at the Basque giants where he has played more games than at any of his other clubs. He rejoined Athletic from Valencia for a bargain £2 million (Dh10.5m) fee in 2012.
"He's got better over the years," agrees The National columnist Diego Forlan. "His control has improved with experience, his technique too. I played against him many times in Spain and he always gave the defenders a hard time. He's not a big guy but he's strong and will fight for every ball. He's very precise with his shots and scores some beautiful goals; you don't see Aduriz miss many chances."
Aduriz was delighted with his call up. “It’s not very usual for someone to get a call-up at my age, that’s why I feel so privileged and happy to be here,” he said. “Age is just a number. What is important is desire, and I have that.”
Spain’s team is full of world-class talents, but who will play up front as they aim to win a third consecutive European Championship is still unclear. Age, injuries and mediocre form has seen a path clear for Aduriz. Diego Costa is inconsistent and has seldom played well for Spain. He has been left out of the squad for the two upcoming friendlies. Alvaro Morata may be enjoying a decent season with Juventus and is desired by Real Madrid fans for a return, but he has managed only eight league goals in Serie A. Celta Vigo’s Nolito started the season very well, but his form has dipped. Paco Alcacer has scored 11 league goals but he is not even the first choice for struggling Valencia.
“I’ll try to give everything I can and do the same thing I do at Athletic,” Aduriz said. “Whether or not I go to the Euros depends on the manager.”
Whether he goes also depends on whether he can repeat the same form for Spain which he has shown for his club. He will be in good company: the only two strikers who have played for Spain older than Aduriz are the legendary Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas.
Spointing Gijon geed up by outstanding win over Atletico Madrid
Following his side's first game of the season away at Deportivo La Coruna, then Real Sociedad coach David Moyes drove through the night across northern Spain to watch promoted Sporting Gijon's first game of the season against Real Madrid. Moyes was keen to improve his knowledge of Spanish teams and put the hours in on the road. He stayed in a one-star hotel and at times questioned whether he had made the right decision to drive 650 kilometres with his assistant Billy McKinlay. He didn't regret it.
“The atmosphere in Sporting’s ground was incredible,” said Moyes of El Molinon, one of Spain’s great old venues. “It will be worth five or six points to them this season. It reminded us of Goodison. They were intimidating to a very good referee, they were intense. Their stadium plays a massive part.”
Sporting's atmosphere had helped them hold Real Madrid to a goalless draw. Barcelona coach Luis Enrique knew all about El Molinon. A local boy, he stood on the terraces as a kid, wearing a scarf his mother knitted for him. He stood near the noisy ultras and was once pictured close to them in the local newspapers. Enrique ripped the page out so his parents didn't see it. Fortunately, they didn't like football.
While their support seldom relented in the 28,000 capacity red cauldron, Sporting weren't able to make El Molinon a fortress. Going into last weekend's game against Atletico Madrid, they had picked up fewer points at home than any other La Liga team, with only three wins and seven defeats. That was clear relegation form and Sporting were joint bottom of La Liga, without a win in eight.
Against Atletico, they were going down to Diego Simeone’s default tactics: get a 1-0 lead and keep it. Atletico have, by a long way, the best defence in Spain. They had only conceded 12 league goals in 29 games before their trip to Asturias and four of those were against Barca, the only team to score more than one against them.
They didn’t deserve to be in front against Sporting, who pressed and pressured, but Atleti slowly asphyxiated their opponents. Atletico, a side who had played 120 minutes against PSV Eindhoven in the Uefa Champions League in midweek, struggled to hold on.
In the 79th minute, Arnaldo Sanabria gave Sporting the equaliser after his marker, the excellent Uruguayan central defender Jose Maria Gimenez, had pulled up with a hamstring problem to leave him clear. In the 89th minute, Carlos Castro got a winner as Sporting joined Barca as the only team to beat Atletico away from the Calderon. The Molinon erupted.
Sporting’s next game is at bottom club Levante, a match both teams need to win. Sporting travel boosted by the win and a good omen: their previous victory was away at Valencia.
Player of the week
Karim Benzema was Real Madrid’s best player as Zinedine Zidane’s side beat Sevilla 4-0 at home. The Frenchman opened the scoring; he combined superbly with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale who also scored. Bale became the highest scoring British player in La Liga. Sevilla still haven’t won away in the league.
Game of the week
There is a two-week break now for international football, with domestic attention shifting to Spain’s games and the lower leagues. Cordoba v Alaves is the pick of the matches in the second tier, with fourth v second. Alaves, the 2001 Uefa Cup finalists, were top but have picked up only three points from their last five games. Cordoba are hoping for an immediate return to La Liga.
Giuseppe Rossi scored in consecutive weeks for the first time in La Liga since his prolific days at Villarreal. His superb effort drew Levante level with out-of-form Deportivo La Coruna, before the Galicians got a late winner. It was cruel on Levante, who remain bottom.
It was a wretched weekend for Valencian football, with Valencia losing at home again, 2-0 to two outstanding Celta Vigo goals in the last 10 minutes. It was their third straight league defeat and they have slipped to 14th, just six points off the relegation zone. It ended a week when they went out of Europe on away goals to Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League. Though there have been some notable wins in the Copa del Rey, Gary Neville has won only three of his 18 league games and many fans have finally turned on him, with the front cover of the Valencian sport paper Super Deporte carrying a "Gary Go Now" headline. Neville is no quitter, but he knows that results have not been good enough and that the chances of him remaining beyond his five-month contract are receding.
Barcelona were held by Villarreal away. "One point, one less game," said Luis Enrique of his side who enjoy a nine-point advantage with only eight games left to play. Their next match? Real Madrid at home on April 2.
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