The six-second show
Early goals do funny things to a game of football. The opening stages should, if we're going to do things properly, be cautious and tentative. Two teams trying to get their own game going, trying to get the measure of their opponents, trying not to throw it all away before it's even got going. After all, everybody's going to be here for a couple of hours, so it's best not to start too quickly. That'll only make for a weird afternoon.
Six seconds*, though. That's not early. That's rude. And that's how long it took Bayer Leverkusen -- thanks to three quick passes, two risible missed tackles and a tidy finish from Karim Bellarabi -- to unpick Borussia Dortmund's defence and take the lead on Saturday. In doing so, they set at least one record and probably more. Six seconds is definitely the fastest goal in the history of the Bundesliga. Six seconds is also probably the shortest-lived managerial promise in recent memory, as Jurgen Klopp's vow that Dortmund would improve defensively first overran, then scrambled to recover, before finally falling flat on its arse.
*Some are calling it nine seconds. That there is a 50 percent disagreement on the timing of this goal merely serves as an illustration of how quickly it was scored.
There are mitigating circumstances, of course. Up front, Robert Lewandowski has gone for good; at the back, Neven Subotic, Roman Weidenfeller and Mats Hummels were all missing. But in essence, Dortmund are a step above every other team in Germany, but are themselves a step behind Bayern Munich. Perhaps not over ninety minutes at full-strength, but certainly over 36 games. Last season saw another record set, as Bayern had the whole thing wrapped after 27 games. If Germany is to get something more exciting at the top of the league this season, then Dortmund need not to be conceding after six seconds. They need not to be losing their opening fixture at home. They need, in short, to have not done exactly what they just did. Six seconds might just turn out to be the shortest title race in history.
A footnote: Bayer's first goal came after six seconds; their second came after 94 minutes and thirteen seconds. We're humbly suggesting that this might well be another record: two goals separated by 94 goalless minutes and seven goalless seconds. Think of the poor Dortmund fans. Imagine watching an entire 0-0 draw, only to lose 2-0 at the end.
An evening of madness in Spain
The main attraction in Spain this weekend was supposed to be Atlético Madrid hosting Real Madrid for the second leg of the Super Cup. Failing that, Barcelona are always a good bet to steal the show. But although both of the matches involving La Liga’s big three lived up to their billing, and one did provide us with a feline pitch invasion, they were collectively blown away by a madcap Saturday which featured no headliners but rather a lot of carnage.
Take, for instance, Malaga’s 1-0 win against Athletic Club to start off the season. A routine victory it was not — in the 95th minute we saw an unlikely collision of two of the sport’s rarest tropes: the goalkeeper goal and the disallowed last minute equaliser. Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz, responsible for the penalty which had given Malaga the lead, went up for a last-ditch free kick, rose over the defence and powered a header into the back of the net. His astonished teammates went wild. Until, that is, the referee ruled it out for reasons that remain unclear. There were also two red cards issued for fighting in the final five minutes of the match, both to the uncharacteristically grumpy winners.
If that had been the maddest game of the evening we’d all have been happy, but it turns out that the Malaga game was merely a demented preamble to the main event: Sevilla vs. Valencia. A ludicrously open game by anyone’s standards was also dotted by a series of improbable events. The Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán was witness to the following:
1. A shot (from the visitors’ Pablo Piatti) that managed to beat the goalkeeper, hit both posts and yet fail to go in.
2. A goalkeeper injury when Sevilla’s Beto limped off in the first half.
3. A cartwheel block by André Gomes, which may have been the first time such a move has ever been attempted in the history of professional football. If the name wasn’t descriptive enough, imagine a defender doing a handstand while blocking a shot (or watch the video). Don’t try imagining why this might happen. There’s no good reason to do this, ever. And yet here we are.
4. Valencia debutant Rodrigo de Paul coming in as a 66th minute substitute and then being sent off for a 67th minute elbow to the face of Sevilla goalscorer Aleix Vidal.
5. The team down to ten men scoring a last minute equaliser to make it 1-1. This one, mercifully, was not ruled out for no reason.
Sevilla-Valencia marked the high water mark of the madness, but it wasn’t the end of it. There was still Almeria’s match against Espanyol to deal with, and that one also gave us one crazy moment. The hosts, 1-0 up after Espanyol right back Anaitz Arbilla picked up two yellow cards in 15 first-half minutes, wasted a slew of chances to secure the three points following the opening goal. The pressure was all on Francisco Casilla’s goal, and it looked as though Almeria would probably get a second goal and end up as Day 1 table-toppers.
And then the lights went out.
Estadio Mediterraneo’s floodlights were blazing merrily away through the gloom until suddenly they weren’t, with whole banks turning off simultaneously (in one of the offending banks, a lone bulb cheerfully shone on, unaware of the horrors that had befallen its comrades). This meant a break while the grounds crew tried to fix the issue — a long break — and that meant a great deal of added time.
Twelve minutes were announced. Then Almeria’s Edgar went down hard right after the 90 minute mark, adding even more time to the clock. This is how a desperate Espanyol found themselves still searching for the equaliser in the 103rd minute. Which, given the absurdity that had been the season’s opening day, one suspects everyone was expecting to actually happen.
Naturally, it did, with Sergio Garcia squirting rather pathetically past Rubén to ensure that La Liga’s evening of madness had the most fitting end possible. Well done all around.
United's woes continue as club opens chequebook
A 1-1 draw away from home is better than a 2-1 loss at home; that much is clear. Clear, too, is the fact that Manchester United, though they were rubbish, were rubbish in precisely the way that might be expected; that is, they looked exactly like an unbalanced and injury-hit squad attempting to adapt to both a new way of playing on the pitch and a new way of being managed in general. Which is what they are.
Those are the silver linings. Now for the clouds, and there are many. The stench of death hangs heavy around Old Trafford. The miserable performance at Sunderland and the previous weekend have thoroughly dispelled the pre-season optimism, and even the fixture list has changed in character. Before the season started, six games against the three newly-promoted teams plus three sides that finished no higher than 12th last season was seen as a chance for some early, tone-setting early victories; now, it seems a different kind of blessing. Every disappointing performance against somebody rubbish is a hammering averted at the hands of somebody good.
The causes of United's malaise are myriad, encompass almost every aspect of the club, and in some cases date back years; the solution comes in the form of two gambles. The first is Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman has stated all through his career that he needs two or three months to bring a club around to his way of playing, and presumably said the same thing to the United hierarchy when they gave him the job. Pleas for time always sound better before the dubious results rather than afterwards.
The second, and perhaps the more risky, is the chequebook: Angel di Maria, so reports insist, is imminent; others, so reports suggest, are likely to follow. Complaints about the Di Maria fee are peculiar: it's stupid-big, yes, but we are entering an era of stupid-big money for elite players, and Di Maria certainly counts as one of those. The Glazer family direct the club's cash in one of two directions, either towards players for United or their own pockets, and for anybody that isn't a Glazer there aren't many reasons to prefer the latter.
So too are concerns about where he might fit, since on current form the only United player that he doesn't deserve to displace in United's stuttering 3-5-2 is David de Gea; the Argentine is probably a bit short to be a goalkeeper anyway. But his significance goes above and beyond the big fee, the tactical questions, and the still extant need for a midfielder who can play cleverly, in order to save the club from playing Cleverley. There has never been a great United team that didn't have at least one player who wasn't some shade of lightning, and if Van Gaal is ever going to manage a great United team, that needs to be addressed. United used to be terrifying even when they weren't perfectly balanced. That's what Di Maria is for.