...que el Madrid y el Barça. Basado en una frase de Shakespeare, para que parezca culto y todo. Muchas gracias a todos los que me han dado enhorabuenas y parabienes, e incluso para el que no chane hereje, que baje hasta casi el final para ver una sorpresilla.
Spain Fanzone: Who can break La Liga's closed shop?
There are more teams in Spain, Horatio... than just Real Madrid and Barcelona. Plagued by his famous doubts, maybe prince Hamlet wouldn't have been able to choose between these two. And compatriot Michael Laudrup didn't make it easier, having played for both.
This site has covered both teams recently so I will wait another week or two before coming back to them. Besides, with the transfer window still open, any analysis could still be incomplete. Who knows, by September 1 maybe they will have finished skimming all the cream left in the rest of the teams in the world.
Obviously, the open window applies as well to the other teams in the Spanish Liga BBVA, although I'd still rather call it Primera División (that's its correct name, by the way, none of that 'Primera Liga' nonsense: 'primera' doesn't mean 'premier', it means 'first', so 'Primera Liga' sounds as ridiculous as 'First League' would in English).
There are a few players at Sevilla, Atlético de Madrid, Valencia and other teams which could still join other clubs, and it was reported that Milan, for example, were ready to wait until that very last day to prise Luis Fabiano away from Sevilla. Or so they said before they went for Real Madrid outcast Klaas-Jan Huntelaar instead. Losing players like David Villa, Sergio Agüero, Diego Forlán, Luis Fabiano or Marcos Senna would be an extra blow for clubs who already have it very difficult indeed to knock the Big Two off their perch. Do they have any possibility of winning the league? The short answer is no. The long answer is no, they don't.
Every year straws are grasped at saying that European sorties and international games might be a drain on the big teams' resources, thus giving others a chance. Look at how Barça answered that question last season: they were so tired because of the Champions League that they did the domestic double for good measure. As for Real Madrid, for all the hysterics that always surround them whenever they don't win with panache, they still managed a very comfortable second place and a record-breaking run of consecutive matches won. Whenever other teams have sneaked in to steal their league trophy away, it has had to coincide with big slumps from both teams simultaneously. Valencia won in 2004 with Real and Barça winning only 21 out of 38 league games (last season, 27 and 25 respectively). In 2002, the previous Valencia league title, Real won 19 league games and Barcelona 18, less than half of the league matches they played. Valencia's total of 77 and 75 points, respectively, wouldn't be good for even second place in most other years. What are the chances of a twin slump this season, when Barça are the best team in the world (and one surely destined for the history books), and Real Madrid have such a large collection of talent? Slim to none.
Besides, you still have to have one outstanding season yourself if you want to catch them, and right now, the biggest problem for the rest, after Barça and Real's own power, is the fact that the other leading candidates are very evenly matched and will take points off each other. In fact, some evidence points to the opposite fact: European football can be really bad for the health of these other aspiring teams. This year's Liga Adelante (formerly Segunda División) will start with no less than three teams who played Champions League football recently, then got relegated: Betis (2005), Real Sociedad and Celta (both 2003). Another one, Osasuna (2006), beat the drop dramatically last year after getting freak back-to-back victories over Real and Barça once the title race was done and dusted and the Big Two stopped trying. Those unexpected six points were vital.
Fortunately, with the Spanish league ranked second in the continent by Uefa, and after the latest tweak in the rules for European competitions, whoever finishes best of the rest will automatically qualify for the Champions League proper, a not inconsiderable prize. Sevilla, this year's third, are as pleased as Punch with not having to pre-qualify, whereas Atlético de Madrid, fourth, have a tricky tie against Panathinaikos to negotiate, which could ruin their season and make some of their leading players want away (although they'd be cup-tied). The scramble for that third place should be an absorbing affair in itself in 2009-2010. Who will take it this year? Too close to call, really.
On paper, Atlético look really good, with Agüero, Forlán, Simão Sabrosa and the lesser-sung Maxi Rodríguez, but they also did last year, and they managed to fumble it like only the club they call 'El Pupas' ('The Clumsy') can. Agüero is the one who catches the eye the most, but you need someone to stick them in the back of the net, and Forlán looks indispensable. This guy was European Golden Boot winner twice. And because he did it twice, I'll say it twice: this guy was European Golden Boot winner twice. More than 50 players get to be top scorer of their home league in Europe every year, but only one beats all the others. It's a huge achievement, putting him in the illustrious company of Cristiano Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Francesco Totti, Henrik Larsson and erm... Kevin Phillips. And he's done it with Villarreal and Atlético, not with any of the heavy hitters. He was dubbed 'Diego Forlorn' at Manchester United, but in football there are horses for courses, as Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp can testify, becoming legends in England after flopping in Italy.
Valencia depend a lot on keeping David Villa. If they lose him, even for big money, they won't be able to replace him. It's curious what has happened to him: everyone agreed that it's the perfect time for him to leave: 27 years old, a European Champion with Spain, consistenly a 20-a-season guy for years, quick, daring, trustworthy and not afraid of a scrap. However, all the clubs above Valencia have taken a pass, probably thinking that he was too good not to be wanted by Barcelona or by a Real Madrid side who said they wanted to buy Spanish galácticos too (and they indeed took a Valencia player, centre-back Raúl Albiol). If he finally stays, he will be a perfect fit at Valencia, who really need him, and he will be in the right place not to lose his berth for Spain in a World Cup year.
Sevilla's star is their 'director deportivo', Ramón Rodríguez 'Monchi', whose eye for a bargain-who-turns-into-a-star is becoming famous even beyond Spain. President José María Del Nido might suffer often from foot-in-mouth disease, but he is a tough negotiator, and while he knows he will have to sell some players unwillingly, he won't let them go for peanuts. If they can keep Luis Fabiano and Frederic Kanouté, another top-four finish is on the cards. These have a good support system in players like Diego Capel, Jesús Navas and Adriano Correia, but goals are always the important thing.
Athletic de Bilbao's European season almost ended at the first hurdle, losing at home to Young Boys of Bern at home 1-0 before winning 2-1 away and qualifying on away goals. Spanish clubs are notoriously disdainful of first-round opponents (and the Spanish press even more so), and they still haven't mastered the art of the comparatively early start to the season. It was worth being rattled, though, if that comes with the discovery of a brilliant 16-year-old, Iker Muniain, scorer in Switzerland and breaker of precocity records. Having qualified for Europe on the strength of losing the Copa del Rey final to the all-conquering Barcelona, it's unlikely that they will go very far, worried as they always are with preserving their proud record of never having been relegated from the Spanish top flight while always playing only local talent. This becomes harder and harder to sustain every year, but they always manage.
Finally, Villarreal manage to keep the miracle alive, making the expression 'punch above their weight' an understatement: a city of only 50,000 people will always find it very hard to have a team in the Primera División, let alone Champions League quarter-finals (2009) and semis (2006). "But they had money", you will say. But not that much, the other teams had it too, and that never guaranteed anything. They were never too good not to go down in spite of all that money. Now, the architect of the miracle, Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini, has left for Real Madrid, but the Yellow Submarine still has some torpedoes left, as Juventus found to their cost this pre-season (4-1 away), with Senna in the engine room and Giuseppe Rossi and Brazilian newcomer Nilmar banging them in.
I'll finish for today with an anecdote referred to Villarreal's next rival in the Europa League, Dutch side NAC Breda. In the 17th century, the Low Countries belonged to the King of Spain, and they fought what is now known as the Eighty Years' War for their political, commercial and religious independence, which they eventually won. One of the most famous feats of that war was the siege of the town of Breda by the Spanish in 1625, which surrendered after nine months of being attacked and starved. The fact was celebrated with one of the most famous war paintings of all time, 'The surrender of Breda', by Diego Velázquez, in which the keys to the city are being handed to the victorious Spanish commander, which was an Italian, Ambrogio Spinola. In 2000, novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte, the best-selling writer in Spanish and author of a saga of historical novels set around this time called 'The Adventures of Captain Alatriste', tried to track down the key and give it back to the citizens of Breda. It's not known whether it was the real key or not, but it was a nice try anyway. I'll be very surprised now if I don't see headlines to the tune of 'The surrender of NAC Breda' in the Spanish press when the matches are played. Now, as then, the Bredans will be regarded as the underdogs, and this time a Spanish Inquisition will be expected.
And another thing...
The mood has been suddenly darkened with the death from a heart attack of Espanyol de Barcelona's captain Daniel Jarque while talking to his partner on the phone from the team's summer camp in Italy. Parallels have been drawn with another recent sudden death of a Spanish footballer, that of Sevilla defender Antonio Puerta, also in the month of August, in 2007. Both played for the same Spain under-21 side, and against each other in the 2007 Uefa Cup final. They both left partners into advanced pregnancy, and footage of Jarque leading Espanyol's tribute to Puerta, bouquet of flowers in hand, two years ago, has been shown on TV today. R.I.P.