La Liga - Mitten: Jimenez leads Zaragoza revival

Wed, 11 Apr 10:16:00 2012

The huge silhouette on the 18-storey Miguel Servet hospital appropriately dominates Real Zaragoza's La Romareda stadium.

Manolo Jimenez - 0

For much of this season, Real Zaragoza have been the sick man of the Primera Liga and with just two wins from 16 league games by the turn of the year were adrift at the bottom with fans in uproar protesting against their president Agapito Iglesias.

He runs the club like his fiefdom and is being investigated for alleged financial wrongdoing including pocketing transfer fees. No club in Spain has seen so many players come and go as Zaragoza — there have been 39 this season alone.

Zaragoza were — are - in chaos. Players were not getting paid on time and telling their agents to move them as soon as they could — not that they were doing much to interest suitors. Expectations were much higher for the only team from Spain's fifth biggest city - fourth judged by economic power.

Zaragoza hail from a metropolitan area of almost 800,000 and could easily average 30,000 if they weren't losing every week. Even when they were, 23,000 would still turn up. Those fans not boycotting matches would spend the 32nd minute of every half Zaragoza played booing and whistling for the president to resign (the club were formed in 1932).

Iglesias has said that he will sell the club, who are in administration and over 100 million euros in debt. Those debts aren't just to authorities, but to other clubs they knocked back for payment for players purchased. Zaragoza are loathed, but there are no eager purchasers in a country reeling from an economic crisis.

The Aragonese appointed yet another new coach on New Year's Eve: former Sevilla player turned coach Manolo Jimenez, who arrived from a stint in charge of AEK Athens. The Andalusian is as hard as he looks and noted for his motivation techniques, but could he bring a sick patient back to life when so many factors were going against him on and off the field?

No. Zaragoza picked up just two points from four January games. Their football was dire and direct, with just 14 goals in 20 league games. Everyone expected the yo-yo club, who had already suffered two relegations in the past decade, to make it a third.

Then, on February 12, Zaragoza went to a Champions League-chasing Espanyol side who were unbeaten in seven. If any team was to allow Zaragoza a sliver of hope then it had to be inconsistent Espanyol. Zaragoza won 2-0 with a 90th minute second, but they lost their next two and Jimenez was so fuming after a 5-1 defeat at Malaga he walked out of the post-match press conference.

The revival he hoped he'd witnessed at Espanyol had evaporated. Then Zaragoza grabbed two goals in the last five minutes to come from behind to defeat Villarreal at the start of March. A pattern was being set. Zaragoza picked up 13 points from 18 and moved off the bottom.

Every one of those games was decided in the final minutes - an 86th minute equaliser against Osasuna, a 90th minute penalty winner against Atletico Madrid. Ten days ago they went to relegation rivals Sporting Gijon, inspired by a video Jimenez had compiled from footage of Zaragoza fans. Images of them cheering and crying, of 11,000 of them descending on Levante at the end of last season where they needed a win to stay up.

They did win 2-1 at Levante and they won 2-1 at Sporting last week … with another last minute winner.

Zaragoza's players may not have been paid properly, but they started to think that they were either very lucky or invincible. Who can blame them after they came from behind to beat Valencia away with nine men?

Jimenez is the main reason. He's changed their training, their psychology and mentality too. There are far better teams in Spain, but nobody quite as motivated as Zaragoza at present. He drew inspiration from the club's great past, with players from the great 60s side which won two domestic cups and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup meeting the current crop.

Zaragoza's alumni hold the club close to their hearts. When I spoke to Gus Poyet last year, he named three of his former Zaragoza team mates in a best XI of players he's played with alongside Gullit, Zola, Di Matteo and Desailly. And Arsenal fans don't need reminding that Poyet played for Zaragoza when they won the 1995 Cup Winners' Cup final against their side in Paris.

The fans have responded too. They still want the president out, but they filled the stadium for Saturday's visit of Barcelona. It's not just a hated president they have to put up with. If Rochdale's Spotland plays the best music pre-match over their PA, then Zaragoza's plays the worst — unless you like back-to-back Bon Jovi.

The municipally-owned stadium is similarly stuck in the 80s. Last modernised for Espana '82, concrete flagpoles by the main entrance still commemorate the names of the teams who played there: Northern Ireland, Honduras and Yugoslavia.

The stadium isn't grand, but it was loud for the visit of Barca. Very loud. The 'Colectivo 1932' ultras made a racket, swelled by the ultras at the north end. The team responded. They hit the post and then won a 23rd minute penalty. It was taken by Carlos Aranda, who came through the ranks of Real Madrid. Victor Valdes saved. The hearts of Zaragocistas sank but then Aranda put them ahead after 30 minutes.

The revolution was for Real. The man in the stands with 'Pennant' on the back of his shirt (Jermaine Pennant was one of many ridiculously expensive transfers overseen by the president) jumped for joy. Down by the bench, Jimenez was so animated on the sidelines it looked like he was riding the footplate on a steam train, yanking at an invisible chord which makes a 'choo choo' sound.

Lionel Messi copied his imaginary actions, as he scrubbed his face vigorously in frustration. Without a sponge or water. It was wonderful theatre, but the fans didn't relent with their protests. On the 32nd minute, they booed and whistled the president - who has long been advised to stay clear of home matches for his own safety. They then suggested that he was the son of a lady who worked the streets. And not as a cleaner. A flag was unfurled which simply sell "Agipto SELL."

Barca equalised after 36 minutes, a goal from Puyol who hails from the mountains north of Zaragoza. Messi made it 2-1 three minutes later, with the type of run and strike no Zaragoza player could ever match. Messi was sublime, Alexis too. Zaragoza collapsed. They were down to ten men after 44 minutes and then Jimenez was sent to the stands two minutes into the second half when he decided the best place for him was not on the bench, but the pitch.

The crowd howled injustice at every decision which went against their club. Howled like the wind which permanently courses through the city. They howled louder when Barca refused to put the ball out of play when a Zaragoza man went down injured — that's after Zaragoza had lost possession and not put the ball out of play when they had it. Howled at Puyol when he rightly accosted Aranda for his diving. Howled "Fuera!" (Out!) whenever any Barca fans were identified in the home section and then ejected to anti-Barca and Catalan songs.

This was as hostile an atmosphere as Barca had experienced all season and the Catalans could not add to the 2-1 scoreline, despite playing 10 men. The fans raged when Messi decided to take a free kick from where he, not the referee, wanted, though they were stunned into open-jawed silence when Messi skipped past five players.

Barca only made the game safe in the 85th minute when Messi smashed a penalty into the roof of the net. It was his 60th of the season. Sixty! By the time they made it 4-1 with a Pedro goal in the 91st minute the home fans were chanting "Chelsea! Chelsea!" And as the ref blew the final whistle, the entire Romareda was singing and waving their scarves chanting "Ole!"

Guardiola may have complained about the pitch, about tiredness after playing a Champions League game against Milan, but Zaragoza and their fans had shown their fight. And they have it in spades.

They're still four points from safety with seven games to play, but they have the right man in charge to turn it around. That's the coach Jimenez, not the president.


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