Manolo Jiménez made a massive round trip for Easter, then watched his side claim a draw against Real Madrid
Manolo Jiménez was bearing a terrible load ... he was also carrying over a tonne on his back. Holy Week in Spain and the Real Zaragoza manager was preparing for the visit of Real Madrid, the side that threatened to sink his team deeper into the abyss, while keeping a date that he has kept every year for 23 years, 850km and a world away. Ever since 1980 Jiménez has returned home for Easter to the town of Arahal, just outside Seville. Even coaching in Greece did not stop him. Only twice has he failed to take part and both times because he was injured. After all an injured costalero is not much good to anyone – least of all the Virgin.
The costaleros literally stand in the middle of Easter processions in Spain: they are the faithful who bring elaborate religious floats on to the streets, brotherhoods of men slow marching in penitence and celebration, parading the Virgin or Jesus. Jiménez is one of them, a member of the Arahal Brotherhood of Jesus of Nazareth, and every year they silently bring Our Lady of the Sorrows out in Arahal. Now that may not sound a big deal but the typical float weighs anything from a tonne to two, while the really big ones can reach four tonnes, and there are no motors and no wheels. That would defeat the purpose. Instead they are carried by 35 to 40 men, hidden from view underneath the float, each bearing anything up to 40 kilos.
And so at midnight on Thursday night there he was, the manager of a First Division football team, white headscarf, religious motif on his heart, straining, heaving and not complaining, having caught two high-speed trains and a taxi from Zaragoza before turning round and heading back to Zaragoza, two more trains and two more taxis, just in time for another round of football matches, just in time to take another training session, not at mid-day as always but at 8pm on Good Friday, with Jiménez noting: "We're training at the same time as the match kicks off."
If anyone thought that a little too convenient, few were complaining – not just because less than 48 hours later Jiménez was his normal sweary, excitable self, parading the touchline shouting at his players, imploring them to put their backs and their bollocks into it, but because, if for once the football was not his thing, he was not alone.
There was something about this round of games that felt flat. In Easter week, when much of the country, religious or not, disappears, the football often feels a bit in the way but this week that sensation was even more profound. With games spread across the now familiar 10 different time slots – but not this time Good Friday – and two of them still to come tonight, any sense of a coherent jornada is fast disappearing from Spanish football. Meanwhile the fact that it was coming off the back of international week, Spain's crunch game in Paris and running into the Champions League quarter-finals heightened the sense of it being little more than a minor irritant.
This was especially so because the teams that set the agenda, Real Madrid and Barcelona, hardly seemed bothered. Open the papers, put on the news and you are more likely to hear about Galatasaray and PSG than Osasuna or Rayo. Even Leo Messi's astonishing record – he has now scored in 19 consecutive league games, an entire vuelta or half of the season, at least a goal against every single team in Spain – felt routine, although that is pretty much his defining feature now: he has made the extraordinary ordinary.
After all the title race is over and they have Europe to worry about. And if anyone was in doubt that both sides consider the league a foregone conclusion, those doubts were blown away this weekend. Without Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets but with Messi, Barcelona drew 2-2 at Celta on Saturday afternoon. Theoretically that gave Madrid the chance to cut the gap if they wanted to but it proved a big if. "Madrid's heads were in the Champions," noted the cover of AS, virtually defining their season.
Yet for others this weekend did matter. Celta's draw with Barcelona, secured with a late header from Borja Oubina, was bad news for Zaragoza, who came into the game knowing this might be the weekend in which they were dragged back into the relegation zone for the first time since their miraculous final-day escape last season. On the face of it, at least, Madrid's priorities were good news.
After five minutes Zaragoza were 1-0 up, the former Barcelona B and Sheffield Wednesday forward Rodri getting the goal. Cristiano Ronaldo equalised before half-time but Zaragoza deserved more. Aggressive and bold, they went for the visitors. They racked up as many shots on target as their opponents, had a penalty ruled out after Michael Essien fouled Helder Postiga, and watched as Diego López made two superb saves. "He stopped balls that were going in," Mourinho said, in the week when Iker Casillas was at last declared fit again, "and, if he plays like this, it is very hard for him to not be in the team." "We were ambitious and we went for it," Jiménez said. "I am proud of my team and a point feels good. But if I think about the penalty …"
If he thinks about the other teams, too. When the results came in, that feeling of limbo was enhanced. The top four all drew, Madrid at Zaragoza, Barcelona at Celta, Real Sociedad at Espanyol and Atlético with Valencia; 14 teams remain exactly where they were; and no one has moved more than one place up or down or by more than a solitary point. Looking for a headline for this round of games, a title? How about The Weekend When Nothing of Consequence Happened? Not yet, anyway.
Even at the bottom, where there may be consequences, any conclusions must wait. This was a weekend in which everything got tightened up … and set up. Osasuna pulled clear(ish) as they always expected to, Celta and Zaragoza both got a point and Deportivo won away for the first time this season, beating Mallorca 3-2. They are recovering under Fernando Vázquez and now have two wins in a row. "We've given ourselves the chance: we're in the fight at last," Vázquez said. Deportivo, who seemed to be adrift, now have 23 points, Mallorca and Celta have 24, Zaragoza 27 and Granada, who play on Monday night, have 28. Even Valladolid in 13th on 35 are claiming not to be safe yet: "We're every bit as screwed as Celta and Depor," their coach, Miroslav Djukic, said, not entirely accurately.
As for Jiménez, the weight on his shoulders grows. Zaragoza could take heart from a draw with Madrid and the fear was that they would be dragged into the relegation zone was averted. Better still, they have edged a week closer to the end of the season, thanks to Mallorca's failure to beat Deportivo.
But an opportunity escaped them: victory would have put them five points clear. Instead it is three and next weekend they travel to Deportivo. And it is not as if they have the momentum now. Last season Zaragoza had an appalling first half of the season but won a barely believable 10 of their last 13 games to survive; this season they won five of their opening 11 games only to collapse. A draw might have been fine but for the news coming in from Italy, where Palermo won for the first time in 2013, meaning that Manolo Jiménez's team are now officially the worst team in Europe this year. And that is some cross to bear.
Results: Rayo 1-3 Málaga; Celta 2-2 Barcelona; Zaragoza 1-1 Madrid; Levante 1-0 Sevilla; Valladolid 1-0 Osasuna; Mallorca 2-3 Deportivo; Espanyol 2-2 Real Sociedad; Atlético 1-1 Valencia. Monday night: Athletic Bilbao v Granada, Real Betis v Getafe