‘The Rifle’ gunning to stay up

Published : Jan 31, 2009 00:00 IST

Uruguayan striker Walter Pandiani, nicknamed ‘The Rifle’, faces his toughest test yet — steering lowly Osasuna off the bottom of the Spanish Primera Liga and to an unlikely escape from relegation, writes Phil Barnett.

Everybody loves Walter Pandiani. Fans, journalists and team-mates hold great affection for the Uruguayan striker known as ‘The Rifle’ for a variety of reasons ranging from his goals and aggression to his zany off-field persona.

Behind the growling image and stocky physique lies a thoroughly likeable, honest professional with an excellent track record in a career which has seen him travel the length and breadth of Spanish football, incorporating a spell at Birmingham along the way.

And now Pandiani faces his toughest test yet — steering lowly Osasuna off the bottom of the Spanish Primera Liga and to an unlikely escape from relegation.

The Pamplona side was rock bottom and seemingly destined for the drop ahead of the winter break, having recorded only one win all season and fired coach Jose Angel Ziganda in October 2008. But the arrival of Spanish former national team boss Jose Antonio Camacho has finally started to bear fruit as Los Rojillos thrashed Getafe 5-2 just before Christmas to kickstart a run of form which has shown signs of a serious fight. The Navarran outfit showed great steel to begin 2009 with a 1-1 draw at high-flying Sevilla with Pandiani netting a last-gasp equaliser. The team came close to beating Barcelona the following week, coming from behind to lead at home before the table-topping Catalans scored twice late on to win 3-2.

It would be no disgrace for the plucky northerners to succumb to what many believe to be the inevitable, but Pandiani and his team-mates are determined to make a fist of their survival bid.

The 32-year-old, famous for driving an articulated lorry rather than a ubiquitous sports car, is just happy to be in the thick of the action after a disappointing first year with Osasuna following his 2007 move from Espanyol.

“Last year I had many physical problems that prevented me from playing to my full potential,” he said. “This summer I began training a week earlier, and I did not stop trying to start scoring goals for this club. I never considered leaving.”

Such determination is reflected in his performances on the pitch, not least when he slid in to poke Osasuna’s late equaliser in Seville.

“We were encouraged by the final result, and that was a very important tie for all aspects of the club,” he said after the draw in Andalucia. “The fortunes of the team have been reversed. Now we must make sure we remain in good condition, and I proved that I am still good in front of goal. Sometimes you can get lots of the ball, and not get an opportunity to score, but sometimes you are fortunate and I was happy with my goal against Sevilla.”

The last thing Osasuna wanted after two games unbeaten was to face the top two teams in the country. Pandiani also scored in that unfortunate defeat by Barca the following week at El Reyno de Navarro but was off target in the 3-1 loss at Real Madrid during which Camacho’s side also put up a fight, taking an early lead.

With the side fighting to escape the drop, forthcoming clashes with less auspicious rivals Mallorca, Deportivo and Numancia could see ‘El Rifle’ help fire his side towards an unlikely escape.

© PA Sport, 2009, All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, re-written, re-distributed or commercially exploited. Sportstar is not responsible for any inaccuracy in the material.

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