Basque Boys for Life – Part 5 | @NickRowe85

Welcome back for part 5! To quickly recap… After a stuttering start to the season, we’re 3rd in the league and in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup. Let’s rejoin the action as we welcome bottom of the table Valladolid.

This is our final game of the 1st half of the season. Kevin Keegan is Valladolid’s manager, and their goalkeeper, Cesar (who will go on to join Real Madrid) is the most recognisable name. It’s one-way traffic and another 3 points, with Loinaz getting his first goal in a while.

We’re halfway through the season and things are going well, but we suffer a blow as Tabuenka is out for 9 months with a broken pelvis. I seriously need to evaluate my coaching staff and methods with all these training injuries. This does emphasise my need for a new defender though.

There are a few European deals including Stian Neset to Deportivo, Par Zetterberg to Parma, and Juventus fork out £7.25m for Jorge Cadete. If you’re wondering if form earned him the move, he scored 4 goals in 21 games for Celta and averaged a rating of 6.8, so let that sink in.

At the beginning of the season, we took just 2 points from our next 3 opponents, and I’m sure we can better that this time, but after my Inter side from my previous save lost the 2nd leg of the Italian cup final 6-0 having won the 1st leg 5-0, I take nothing for granted.

Tenerife are 8th in the league and beat us 1-0 on the opening day. Urzaiz returns from suspension and Lakabeg replaces Tabuenka on the bench. Loinaz must have heard me talking about him as he hits a hat trick and gets man of the match. At the other end, the defence keep their 2nd consecutive clean sheet. Barcelona lose 3-2 to Compostela to keep things interesting, and Real Madrid sneak a 1-0 win over Merida, who we face next.

Merida are 15th, and last time we played them, we frustratingly couldn’t find a way through and drew 0-0. The firing-again Loinaz grabs an early goal, which is cancelled out by Gabrich 15 minutes later. Loinaz gets his 2nd right before half time but we’re lucky to lead, having held off relentless pressure from our opponents. The hour mark passes, and Etxebe makes it 3-1, which is how it stays.

The 3 points isn’t the only good news as Real Madrid and Barcelona both draw, meaning there is now just 2 points separating the 3 of us, and we all play each other in the space of 3 weeks soon, so it’s all to play for.

As expected, the next week consists mainly of rejecting offers for Rios, Guerrero and Etxeberria.

Despite needing a defender I let Francisco Ferreira leave, £875k is good business for a 30-year old.

On deadline day, I offer £7.5m for Deschamps, but he rejects and after trying to make offers for every centre-back available, Badajoz take pity and sell me Txutxi. He’s out injured for a month, but that’s better than the 8 months I’ll be without Tabuenka for.

Back to match action, and Santander have come Racing along the north coast. They’ll be pleased that Hugo Porfirio didn’t leave and he starts up front. Alkiza is injured early on and is replaced by Perez. We’re a goal down after 13 minutes as Bestchasnykh atones for missing his penalty against us earlier in the season. Loinaz continues his newly-found form by netting just before the hour, but it’s been a rare quiet day for Etxebe. It finishes all square just like last time. The board, who’s expectation is rising, think it’s a very poor result.

Alkiza is out for a couple of weeks, and just as he’s returned to form Loinaz is suspended for 2 matches, 1 of which is against Barcelona, crushing news. Speaking of Barca, they won the El Clasico 3-0, which means we’ll go 2nd if we beat Compostela.

So let’s see if we can. Ziganda comes in for Loinaz, and Perez for Alkiza. We get off to a terrible start and are behind after 16 minutes. Urzaiz equalises early in the 2nd half, but we can’t find another goal, and disappointingly remain 3rd. Another goalless day for Etxebe, maybe he’s feeling burnt-out.

It’s Valentine’s Day as we welcome table-topping Barcelona, but I doubt they’ll be feeling any love for us. They’ve signed Zidane after I rejected their offer for Guerrero, and they sold Nadal to Real Madrid. It surprises me how much business goes on between those 2 clubs on this game, it would never happen in reality. I gamble on Alkiza, who’s only 87% fit, so hopefully he lasts the match.

Guerrero gets us off to a dream start on 3 minutes, but this angers the Catalans as they reply with 4 goals before half time. I’m worried it’ll be a rout as we start the 2nd half, but Guerrero converts a penalty on the hour, and that’s the last action of the match. We’re only 2 places behind them in the league, but the gulf in quality is all too clear. Guerrero gets injured and is out for a week.

We dust ourselves off and travel to Gijon. New boy Txutxi is back from injury as is Urrutia, while Loinaz returns from suspension. Gijon are 17th in the table and last time we met, we won a 7-goal thriller thanks to a last minute Guerrero goal, but I don’t want to concede 3 again.

We win both halves 2-0. Etxebe, who’d gone 3 matches without scoring gets a brace, and there’s a strike from Loinaz and an own goal. A solid away win and clean sheet and there’s more good news as Real Madrid draw again, meaning we’re just a point behind them and play them next.

We were unlucky last time we faced Real Madrid, having a goal chalked off and holding our own for most of the match, which we lost 1-0. They were missing several Spanish internationals that day, but we’re not as fortunate this time.

We come flying out of the traps with relentless early pressure, which eventually tells as Rafa Alkorta heads in a captain’s goal to get us off the mark. This sends our fans crazy and there’s barely time to draw breath as Loinaz strikes 2 minutes later to double our lead.

We’re absolutely flying and it’s not long before goal 3 arrives on half an hour from the main man Etxebe. At half time I tell the boys not to let up, and although we continue threatening, we fail to score again but concede a Suker strike with 20 minutes left. But by now the damage is done and we record a fantastic win and leapfrog Real into 2nd place.

Now to the next chapter of our European campaign, and Schalke provide the opposition. Arregui is back from a long-term spinal injury, but the best news is that Loinaz and Perez are no longer cup-tied, so I name an unchanged side from the win over Real Madrid.

Schalke’s manager is unknown, and they have a small squad, just about scraping 16 players together for the match. That said, they do have some useful players like Jens Lehmann, Thomas Linke, Bernd Schneider and Marc Wilmots. They beat Ajax in the previous round so they’re no mugs.

We’re clearly feeling the effects of the victory over Real Madrid in a quiet first half. My half time team talk seems to do the trick though and it takes just 4 minutes of the 2nd half for us to take the lead through guess who. Many a commentator has said that you’re at your most vulnerable right after scoring, and we prove that theory by conceding an equaliser just 3 minutes later. It ends 1-1 and with that away goal, this result is much better for them than us.

Back to La Liga, and the 1st of 3 consecutive away games as we travel to Deportivo, who have quietly climbed to 4th in the league since we knocked them out the UEFA Cup in November. Larrazabal is suspended, so the normal shuffle of Billabona to the left and Lakabeg in on the right takes place, and new boy Txutxi is on the bench.

We start well and lead after 4 minutes through Alkiza, but only hold on for 15 minutes as Guivarc’h strikes to level proceedings. Things then take a turn for the worse as Rios sees red, and 4 minutes later Larrainzar gives away a penalty, which Guilherme converts to give his side a 2-1 half time lead.

Deportivo’s man advantage is showing, and Urzaiz is having another stinker, so I switch him for Txutxi, who I use as a defensive midfielder, which works to a certain extent but the pressure continues and Depor get a 3rd goal 11 minutes into the 2nd half. We manage to go the rest of the match without conceding again, but it’s the Etxeberria in goal who I’m thankful to this time, as it could have been 6 or 7 without him. I’m expecting to see that Real Madrid won to send us back to 3rd, but amazingly we stay 2nd after they drew at home with Zaragoza, who are up next for us.

The board are delighted with the league position, but there are more injuries as Oscar Alkorta (hip) is ruled out for a couple of months, and Etxeberria (the goalie) suffers a gashed head in training and is out for a couple of weeks, which is gutting because he’s been ever-present up until now.

Zaragoza sit 16th, and we beat them 4-1 at home, and they’ll be buoyed by their draw at Real Madrid, so we must be on our guard. The only change from the last match is Valencia in goal for Etxeberria. It’s a nervy start and half an hour passes before we finally find the net as skipper Alkorta give us the lead. Urzaiz is injured not long before the interval and is replaced by Perez.

Loinaz increases our cushion to 2 goals after 7 minutes of the 2nd half, which settles the nerves. Vales then strikes to set up a tense final quarter of an hour, but we hold on to consolidate 2nd spot. Urzaiz’s injury is worse than first feared as he’s out for a few weeks with strained knee ligaments. This’ll give Perez a chance to prove himself with a run in the team.

So here’s confirmation of the table with 10 games left, and we’re a point ahead of Real Madrid, but while still mathematically possible, any title hopes we have look long gone with Barcelona 12 points clear and showing no signs of letting up.

I knew Etxebe was doing well but not this well. He’s 6 ahead of Deportivo’s Guilherme, which is remarkable for someone of just 20 years old. Loinaz isn’t far behind with 20 goals, which makes the £650k I paid for him seem like a snip. It’s worth mentioning that Guerrero is joint 10th with 14 goals, but is not shown on this page.

It turns out Loinaz is as generous as he is ruthless, topping the assists chart with 17. It’s also great to see Guerrero and Etxebe on there. Where would we be without those 3?

So that wraps up part 5. Join me for part 6 next week as the end of the season edges closer…

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