sábado, 3 de octubre de 2009

Solo pueden quedar dos

The Spanish football league is in its 79th edition this year. Of the previous 78, 50 have been won by Real Madrid (31) and Barcelona (19). Ever since they finished first and second in that first competition in 1928-29, they have been the teams to beat. However, for all their domination, never had both of them won their first four matches. This week, not only have they done that, but both have won their fifth, too. Each are on 15 points and 16 goals for, with two against for Real and three for Barca. They will meet on matchday twelve, on November 29, at the Nou Camp, and who knows whether they will get there tied on 100 per cent totals of 33 points?

My posts were always going to focus on Real and Barcelona, whatever the season, but this year they are making it very difficult to look beyond them. Sevilla have had a very good start, accumulating 12 points out of the first 15 (they lost to Valencia on day one), and they host Real next. That could be one of the defining matches of the early season, as they are clearly the third-best team in the country. It will be seen as proof of whether someone else stands a chance. Atletico Madrid, the fourth Champions League entrants, lie 18th with only three points, having been soundly beaten 5-2 by Barcelona and having started the European trail botching what on paper should be the easiest of the six group stage games, drawing 0-0 home to Apoel Nicosia and then losing at Porto. Valencia blow hot and cold, with 11 goals for and nine against, and Athletic Bilbao started with three victories, followed by two defeats. The logical prediction is that Barca and Real will pull further away from the pack each week.

Not many things could weaken this stranglehold: an early defeat to provoke some doubts, injuries on a big scale, or too many commitments. And even in those cases, both teams have squads big enough to cope, and the excuse of a tiring campaign, compressed even more because of the World Cup at its end, sounds reasonable enough for players to accept rotation. With the season barely a month old, both teams have only one outfield player who has played all the minutes of the season: Seydou Keita for Barca and Raul Albiol at Real. This doesn't mean that any old combination of players will win every time, though. This weekend, Real had to cut short Kaka's rest and Barca Zlatan Ibrahimovic's, bringing them on to get the goal count moving again, after unconvincing starts against Tenerife and Malaga respectively. Clearly, some players will be more decisive than others. Also, for the next couple of weeks, World Cup qualification might play a role, with players like Leo Messi, Ibrahimovic, Eric Abidal, Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe, Christoph Metzelder and Gonzalo Higuain not certain of their nations' presence at the tournament. The next round of qualifiers will bring a Real-Barca alliance in Argentina (though apparently not in France, because manager Raymond Domenech doesn't put much trust in Benzema), but Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic might have to eliminate one another from the World Cup altogether, unless Denmark collapse.

Petty feuds and big-ego jealousy might be the most dangerous threat to team harmony, though. Ronaldo, for example, might have opened a crack with his discontent at having been substituted at the end of matches that his team were winning comfortably. He wants to play every minute so that he can be the league's top scorer, ahead of Messi and Ibrahimovic. Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic have five league goals in five matches, Messi five in four as he missed the first game. Ronaldo left the field muttering and refusing to look at his manager. He seems to think that he can bag more than a few in those last minutes when a beaten opposition has stopped trying, and he can't do that if he's substituted. Ian Hawkey, in The Sunday Times, wrote last weekend more about Ronaldo's excellent start for Madrid.

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