They call it the FIFA Virus. Not a pleasant term, but there you go.
It’s damaging, there’s a huge debate about whether a cure exists, and you can catch this bug three, even four times per season.
It’s what Spain calls the affliction which troubles the country’s biggest clubs when they finally get their star players back from international duty and then face a tricky tie (usually away).
It’s also, partly, the reason FIFA introduced the idea of playing internationals on Fridays and Tuesdays.
Thus the biggest clubs around Europe get their players back a little sooner and, eventually, the ‘virus’ might become a little less debilitating.
I raise it because this is the week when wheat and chaff could be forcibly separated.
Real Madrid travel to Sevilla and Barcelona play in Madrid, always a hostile city for them, and it’s against Getafe.
Whichever side posts a big away performance could significantly influence what’s likely to be a two-way battle for the title. And Barca’s ability to do so has been undermined by a thigh injury to Andrés Iniesta, picked up in Georgia with Spain, will means he misses three matches, while Jordi Alba has returned to base with tonsillitis, too.
Getafe’s coach is extraordinary
You might not know a hell of a lot about the little club from the working class suburb of the Spanish capital but I think Getafe’s coach is pretty extraordinary.
Luis Garcia took Real Madrid’s scalp a couple of weeks ago and last season he and Getafe inflicted a 1-0 defeat on Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. While he was at Levante, Garcia produced a 0-0 draw and a 2-0 win against José Mourinho’s Real Madrid.
Over the last couple of seasons Garcia’s teams have defeated Athletic Madrid (twice), drawn with and beaten Valencia (3-1), put five goals past Sevilla. He’s not only a good organiser who openly admires the idea of making it hard for stylish teams to play and who believes strongly in the high tempo pressing game but he comes from the Mourinho/Benitez school of – win first; ask questions about finesse later.
How the FIFA Virus works…
So it’s particularly in tests like this that the FIFA virus can play a part.
Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Atletico Madrid send South American players like Marcelo, Higuain, Messi, Mascherano, Dani Alves, Diego Alves, Alexis, Jonas and Falcao away to their national teams, and they come back knackered.
Usually it’s an overnight flight back to arrive around Wednesday breakfast, three or four hours sleep if they are lucky then a meal, then training.
After that the working routine between Thursday morning and matchday is the same as normal but the players’ sleep patterns are not.
Those who suffer worst of all from jet lag can spend up to two weeks trying to get their sleep routines back to normal – it adds to dopiness, sluggishness and slower decision making in high-tempo match situations.
Where Getafe have an advantage
Now take the opposition, Getafe for instance. Garcia really lost no more than a handful of players, none of whom had to fly transatlantic.
Barrada, Sarabia, Álvaro, Lacen – they’re important guys but also in the minority in that Garcia had the rest of his squad to work with.
Think about it. Two full weeks, minus a couple of days off to recharge batteries, where defensive tactics and attacking strategies can be worked on over and over again.
Niggling injuries heal, new players get a chance to bed in, the coach preaches his gospel.
Nearly two working weeks with one single, clear-cut focus – it breeds a hungry, fit, aggressive opponent for the jaded, jet lagged big guys.
Last season’s 1-0 defeat at Getafe came shortly after the November international break when Spain’s international players lost to England then flew to Costa Rica and back for a meaningless friendly.
There’s currently a five-point gap between the co-favourites for La Liga, in Barca’s favour. However, the need for them to cope with the hostile test ahead of them on Saturday is apparently exacerbated by Real Madrid’s fixture.
The trip to play Sevilla has often been a classic in recent seasons, not only a place that Los Blancos might drop points but a clash which could provide the most brilliant football imagineable.
But Sevilla have no Freddie Kanouté, no Luis Fabiano, no Adriano, Renato, Alves, Poulsen, Keita or Juande Ramos. The golden era has rusted and on their last two visits Real Madrid have plundered six points and 12 (yes TWELVE) goals, of which Ronaldo has scored seven.
The Andalucians have done some strengthening, notably Diego Lopez in goal and this might well prove to be a firmer examination of Mourinho’s champions. However, prima facie, Barca face the tougher match, the FIFA Virus may be about to bite and, even this early, it could be a big weekend.
Who’s up for it?
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based, British soccer writer whose passionate insight into La Liga can regularly be heard on TV and radio. He will be providing regular columns for the Paddy Power Blog on Spanish football this season. Follow him on twitter here.