Zaragoza stunned José Mourinho's side after another motivational masterclass from their Mexican manager
Javier Aguirre was sneaking round behind his players' backs – all his players' backs. The unsuspecting souls were being cheated on and by their own boss too, tricked by the man they thought was a father figure. While they were at work, sweating buckets for him, he was surreptitiously calling their wives, leaving suggestive messages on their phones and arranging a series of hidden rendezvous — a moment's giggling complicity grabbed away from the watchful gaze of the innocent victims. And as if that was not bad enough, the devious devil was taking some kind of perverse pleasure in videoing it all too. It was the ultimate in deception. Or the script from some cheesy sitcom.
Slowly suspicion grew, a sense that something was not quite right, the rumble of a gathering storm. Until one day Aguirre decided to came clean and lay bare his subterfuge. He gathered the team together the night before a game and put the video in the machine. There was fuzz and then the camera drew back and a player's wife came into focus, an earnest, pleading look on her face. And then another one. And another. And another. And another. José, there's something I have to tell you. Patxi, this is important. Carlos, listen to me. One by one they spoke to the camera and one by one a lump came to the players' throats and a tear to their eyes. I love you. Really, I do. But there is something we have to talk about. There is something you have to do for me …
… Go and win this bloody match!
It was classic Aguirre, another motivational masterclass from the Mexican with Basque parents, perfect English, and a flattop that would make Herman Munster proud. Javier El Vasco Aguirre is the charismatic, amusingly potty-mouthed manager who tells his players they're the Indians defending their territory from the white man and whips them into a fury before big games, lining them up and travelling down the line explaining who they're up against – and how it is their job to leave them a trembling wreck.
"You're going to make that bastard cry, I'm telling you," he tells them. "You're going to make him wish he'd never become a footballer." The manager who took Osasuna to a Copa del Rey final in 2004-05 and a barely believable Champions League place the following season, Aguirre loves to con his players. Mostly into thinking they're better than they really are.
In short, he is exactly the man that Real Zaragoza thought they needed. And it turns out they were right, too. As one Aragón-based newspaper puts it this morning, Aguirre could single-handedly win the battle of Thermopylae, the mere sight of him sending the Persians fleeing in terror. "He deserves a statute at the Romareda", another says. Now that might not be saying much – after all, if Michael Jackson deserves a statue at Craven Cottage, Aguirre certainly deserves one at the Romareda; hell, if Michael Jackson deserves a statue at Craven Cottage, Jermaine Pennant probably deserves one at the Romareda – but you could see their point. And the point is that as the Zaragoza fans queuing up to butter him up in a Madrid restaurant on Saturday night, put it: Aguirre is the puto amo.
Aguirre became Zaragoza's coach on 17 November. They were bottom, seven points from safety. They'd won one in 11 and picked up seven points. José Aurelio Gay, the coach who took over from Marcelino last season, was struggling. The turnaround in the second half of last season had been due largely to them bringing in seven players in the winter transfer window but by this summer four of them had departed again, including the Chilean striker Humberto Suazo, and this time buying themselves out of trouble was no longer an option. Gay did not convince and so Zaragoza did what Zaragoza do: they swapped managers. Aguirre became their seventh in three years.
That stat hints at other problems. A debt that this weekend went from €125m to €90m, but at the cost of selling the club's HQ and other land. A legal challenge from Getafe for signing Ikechukwu Uche without paying for him. A desperate search for a new owner. Internal battles and incompetence. The threat of the administrator. Twelve different nationalities and a handful of players that don't speak Spanish. Unpaid players. And Ander Herrera, the star youth-teamer who loves the fans and who the fans love back, sold to Athletic Bilbao to stay afloat. For the time being.
Even the new coach is already owed money. No wonder Aguirre called it "a merry dance".
And then there's the squad. "This Zaragoza has the least quality and the least goalscoring talent in recent memory," moaned El Periódico, "plus the worst president in the history of the club — a man leading us to ruin, a collector of denouncements and scandals." Privately, Aguirre agreed. He told friends he was surprised at how bad the team was. But he didn't tell the team. Privately, he fought for signings, only to be denied – Guirane N'Daw and Paulo da Silva came in, the striker he wanted didn't – but he didn't tell the players that either. Instead, he worked on getting Uche fit – his return has been fundamental. Instead, he told them they were great. "This group was moribund," says one insider. "Now they believe they can do the impossible."
This weekend, they did. This weekend, Zaragoza beat Real Madrid at the Bernabéu for only the fourth time in their history – a Real Madrid side who went into the game 44 points ahead of them.
Yes, it was an apparently depressed and distracted Real Madrid – the "presentation" of the Copa del Rey was the most miserable celebration of all time. Yes, it was a Madrid side that have now gone four home games without a win. Yes, Iker Casillas made a horrific error on the first, Ricardo Carvalho gave away a clumsy penalty for the second, and the third came from the kind of breakaway normally reserved for the last minute of cup finals. Yes, Ronaldo was kissing his missus up in his box, Xabi Alonso was absent, and Angel Di María only belatedly appeared. Sure, Aguirre admitted that his side had been fortunate. But, still, it was Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. Zaragoza had not won there for 11 years, they'd not scored there since David Villa's goal in 2005. Since then the aggregate score was 13-0. And this time they scored three.
Besides, it was about more than just this win – a win that Aguirre, who consciously prioritises certain games over others and who was focussing greater attention on Osasuna next week, didn't even expect. It is about the other six wins and two draws he has picked up since taking over, the five wins in the last nine, and the fact that Zaragoza are the league's seventh best side in the second half of the season. They have won 23 points in 15 games and victory against Madrid saw them climb out of the relegation zone. They are now up to 15th and two points clear of Getafe.
Aguirre jokes that he doesn't really like football, his thing is baseball, literature and cinema. He insists that your average player only has the ball for two minutes a game so the most important thing is to work on the other 88. And when asked about his formation, he jokes: "I like 4-4-2, but that is often 4-3-3, 5-3-2, 4-5-1, or 4-1-4-1. This formation business ends up like a telephone number. It all depends on which girl you're trying to call." His approach has been simple: he has shifted Zaragoza deeper, denied space behind the back four – logical enough with Jiri Jarosik there – and made his side compact and aggressive. Zaragoza have earned more yellow cards and committed more fouls than anyone else in La Liga.
The real key has not been tactical so much as temperamental. It's about motivation, the creation of a warrior spirit in his own image. Aguirre has been described in Zaragoza as "a macho but with intelligence and conviction, vehement and direct, using language players understand. Honest and fair with his players, he has created real bonds." He has isolated players from the mess surrounding the club and infused them with optimism. For those who witnessed him at Osasuna, it is familiar: "If they had to, they'd throw themselves out of a fourth-floor window for him." He tailors his discourse for the group and for individuals, Saturday proving a case in point: Aguirre spent the week before talking to Ángel Lafita, telling him he was better than Madrid's defenders. Injured for much of the season, Lafita got the first and the third. "At last I can see the sun," he said afterwards.
He was not the only one. "This result allows us to wake up on Monday morning out of the relegation zone," Aguirre said. "It means we can escape the drama and quieten the white noise that surrounds us – from fans, the media, the entourage, everywhere. If we had been in the bottom three on Monday that would have been overwhelming."
Victory gave them 39 points and saw them climb to 12th. Safety, seemingly impossible before, appears a certainty. A place in the First Division, the chance to avoid a third relegation in 10 years, was a solitary win away with four games remaining.
Only it might not be. Real Madrid v Zaragoza was the first game of week 34. Nineteenth had beaten second. But then the second game saw Real Sociedad beat Barcelona, 12th (13th by kick-off) defeating first. Never before had a side beaten someone 50 points ahead of them. Then Osasuna, 18th at the start of the weekend, beat third-placed Valencia. There were wins too for Racing Santander and Málaga. What looked like a bonus, a giant leap, appeared a necessity – a small step. Forty-two points may not guarantee survival after all. On Monday morning, eight teams can still go down. And although they should now survive, that includes Zaragoza.
Aguirre had predicted as much. As he sat beamingon Saturday and Zaragoza's fans celebrated outside, he was offering up a word of warning. Salvation was offered up on a plate. "But," he said, "from your plate to your mouth, the soup sometimes slips."
• Barcelona were virtually league champions and on course for another record. They were 1-0 up against Real Sociedad. Eleven points clear with a superior and unassailable head-to-head goal difference, with 12 games to go, it was all over.
Trouble is, they thought so too. They were also about to rack up their 32nd successive match without defeat – equalling the previous best set in 1979-80. But then Real Sociedad rebelled. Ifrán got an equaliser and then Xabi Prieto took one of the worst penalties ever – although it's hard to tell for sure as Spanish TV messed about with another dumb camera angle – but somehow still scored, Pinto waving a limp wrist at it as it trundled past him. Barcelona's title was gone – for now – and their record was gone for ever. The team that holds it alone? Real Sociedad. Now, that's respect for your traditions and identity.
• Bish! Bash! Bosh! The Beast! Bang and Málaga are safe! Well, not safe, not yet, but looking that way. A 3-1 win over Hércules leaves the club that few neutrals will be sorry to see go down likely to go down and leaves Málaga, who have now won three on the trot, looking set for survival. Julio Baptista has now scored five in three games. Brilliant.
• Speaking of brilliant: Sergio Aguero.
• Some 0-0s are inevitable. Sporting Gijón travelled to Levante, where banners welcomed their coach Manolo Preciado – a former Levante manager – "back home". This was a clash between the league's best two managers this season. And between two teams who knew a draw would see them safe. They could have pushed for a European place but decided against it; survival was the priority for both teams. "When two teams need a draw, you tend to get a draw," said Luis García. "Let others go to Europe," added Preciado, "I'm happy hanging round in Spain."
• Not for the first time over the last few days, people are getting rather excited with just how tight it is at the bottom. Almería are down, 12 points from safety with 12 to play for. Hércules (on 33) might go with them. And at the moment it's Getafe who join them in the relegation zone after a 2-1 defeat at Villarreal – the first time they have been in the bottom three all season. Getafe have 37 points. Then it's Depor (38), Osasuna (38), Zaragoza (39), Malaga (39), Racing (40), and Real Sociedad (41). Racing won. Mister Ali, though, didn't show up. That'll be those nasty air traffic controllers again. Honest.
Results: Real Madrid 2–3 Zaragoza, Real Sociedad 2–1 Barcelona, Deportivo 0–1 Atlético, Almería 0–1 Sevilla, Levante 0–0 Sporting, Málaga 3–1 Hércules, Racing 2 – 0 Mallorca, Villarreal 2 – 1 Getafe, Osasuna 1 – 0 Valencia, Tonight: Espanyol-Athletic.