I’ve looked down on Granada from on high and I’m sure it’s a lovely city. What sticks with me, though, is the journey to get there. It has been a long, winding path, but here we are, looking down on Granada. It feels like this is the end, as if we’ve reached a pinnacle, as if we’re standing in a tower and below us is everyone else, going about their business while sometimes glancing up and sighing at the riches on display above. There is also the whiff of something not quite right, as if the tower itself is built on softer ground than expected.
Or maybe it’s that I’m leaning against the ramparts of the Torre de la Vela at the Alhambra and Granada, its fabled cathedral peaking its asymmetrical towers and buttresses above the undulating cityscape, lies sleepy in the morning haze at the foot of the hill. I stand there in September 2015, two days after Granada CF hosted Villarreal in the third round of La Liga, a match the nazaries, nicknamed for the Alhambra’s Nasrid builders, lost 1-3, dropping them to 11th place. Barça was in the capital, beating Atleti at the Caledron and gaining the top spot while just 4 days later, Granada would visit the Santiago Bernabeu.
And now that Barcelona is returning to Andalucia, so to, they say, are the capitalenos. It’s just that this time maybe they’re carrying the famous maletines—briefcases full of money—in an attempt to incentivize a team that has nothing to play for but pride. Granada is 16th, only 3 points out of relegation, but thanks to Spain’s rules that use head-to-head as the first tiebreaker, they’re safe thanks to having drawn 18th ranked Sporting Gijon away and defeated them at home and because they beat 17th ranked Getafe in both of their encounters. So they’ve got nothing to play for except, as I said, pride. Er, well, and Isaac Cuenca, that former prodigy from La Masia whose Barça career was derailed through injury, has claimed that he would love to score the winning goal against his youth club, effectively handing the title to Real Madrid.
First, the money: Ivan Kelava, Granada’s Croatian goalie in his first year in La Liga, made statements that suggested Real Madrid might be giving Granada’s players a financial incentive to win against Barça, an act that is clearly against the rules. He then walked those statements back a day later, claiming he was mis-translated or taken out of context or, or, or, well something. But he didn’t ever say, as far as I can tell, that there were suitcases full of money being dropped off at Los Cármenes, Granada’s stadium. He merely said, possibly jokingly, that RM should offer them a financial incentive now that their season is complete. It’s all a storm in a teacup, though, because no matter whether or not there are maletines being shoved through mail slots throughout Granada, Barça will not cease to be the talented team they are. And Granada won’t cease to be the team of professionals who are, you know, paid to win matches. Which they are, because they’re professionals. Who are paid. Err, I guess it’s Spain, so maybe they’re not? But anyway.
The next thing is a bit more interesting given that it’s a former player smirking about how he wants to crush his ex. Only, as with Kelava, Isaac Cuenca never really said that. He gave a couple of interviews, said he’s super happy in Granada, and that he’s a professional who would love to score the winning goal against his former club because, well, he’s a professional who would love to score the winning goal against anyone. He’s coming off possibly his best ever game—2 goals and an assist away to Sevilla in a match that ensured his team of top flight status next year—and obviously he wants to score again and again and again. This isn’t controversial in the least, it’s just that it happens to be Barça in front of him and it happens to be an easy headline to write and it happens to be that a goal for Granada might ensure that a bitter rival wins the title.
That El Mundo article I linked above about Kelava’s waffling include a brief discussion about Pedro Mosquera, a Deportivo player who will face Real Madrid on Saturday, claiming he’d like to see the merengues leave the Riazor as champions. That is a lot more concerning than Cuenca wanting to do what he’s paid to do. Mosquera is, of course, a former Madrid player so his sentiments must be taken with some semblance of context, but they’re still troubling. Less troubling is his teammate’s assertion that they’ll do their utmost to ensure Barcelona get the trophy. That player is Oriel Riera, an ex Barcelona youth player whose allegiances don’t conflict at all with his current goal: winning the next match. What Mosquera says is, effectively, that he wants to do his job, but well, he’d love to have his cake and eat it too. David Barral, a Madrid youth product, and Isaac Cuenca joked that a suitcase full of fake money wasn’t even enough for snacks, but then intoned seriously that they would try their hardest to win, regardless of their opponent (and that no one from either club had contacted them). Cuenca went so far as to predict a 2-0 win for Granada while Barral said 1-1.
But do they really have a chance? They’re not 16th in the league because they’re really good, they’re 16th because of stats like this: they’ve lost all 9 matches they’ve played against the top 5 sides in La Liga. The combined score in those 9 matches is 20-3, including a 4-0 drubbing by Barcelona in early January. In the other 28 matches they’ve played, they’re 10W-9D-9L with 43GF and 46GA, which, while not scintillating (they’re still in 16th, after all), is not particularly worse than Valencia in 11th. And Valencia in 11th did a number on Barcelona just a few weeks ago and Granada in 16th just did a brilliant 1-4 victory at the Sanchez Pizjuan. Granada were just the 4th team to win there this season, a feat that neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid could muster. Cuenca, as mentioned, grabbed 2 goals and an assist, and Granada grabbed onto a lifeline and hauled themselves to safety.
It is a big, big ask of Granada to win against Barcelona, who should be motivated, fit, and ready for a team that, as Kevala admitted, hasn’t been training well because of the survival celebrations. Cuenca’s prediction aside, this is a team that faces an enormous uphill battle against a team that has allowed exactly 0 goals in the last 400 minutes of play while themselves notching 22. It’s hard to fault their focus and their work, but Barcelona’s players will have extra motivation going into Los Cármenes given that any slip whatsoever will mean the end of their title hopes. It’s hard to hinge everything on one match, but this is a final, a one-off winner-takes-all game that we simply cannot do anything other than win.
Standing at the Alhambra, looking out at Granada, that city of historical and cultural significance, there was just that subtle whiff of something not quite right. Maybe it was that both my daughter and nephew had just vomited from car sickness thanks to the winding road that led us here. You can never really get rid of that smell until bathtime. Or maybe it was that empires crumble and eventually the peasants are atop the castle walls, having conquered the unconquerable. The question isn’t whether the end is coming, the question is whether the end is today.
And I say no.
Granada 1 – Barcelona 3.