Something special for Christmas

Phil Ball reviews the weekend in La Liga

It’s a cold and contemplative Sunday afternoon in Spain, with La Liga games still to be played before the night closes around us – particularly Barcelona v Deportivo, and although thoughts are dwelling on the clásico in a week’s time, everyone seems to be wetting themselves about Manchester City.  On my morning wander down the street for the papers, a barfly acquaintance stopped me to enquire about my view of Guardiola’s side, but I was unable to oblige with much intelligent comment because his dog wouldn’t stop barking at me.  Later, as I sipped my morning ‘Texan’ (Americano with a tiny drop of cold milk) in the local bar, two men were animatedly chatting about City (their goals against Tottenham had just appeared on the TV above them) and then on returning home, I clicked onto the BBC football site to witness Alan Shearer declaring that they could be one of the best teams of all time. Well – I’ll bow to Shearer’s playing record, but I’ve never been quite so convinced of his punditry, and by this time I would not have been surprised had my long-departed mother telepathically contacted me to inform me that Man City were the best she’d seen, from the world beyond.

Then, seemingly in chorus with my mum, I spy Phil McNulty, ‘Chief football writer’ at the BBC writing glowingly about City with the observation that ‘We are witnessing something very special’. Really? Well, apart from the headline’s unfortunate resemblance to a Radiohead song, City have had one hell of a run so far, but I’d hang onto my horses for a while.  If Pep can turn Man City into another Dream Team then ok, but there’s still a long way to go.  Man City, despite all their riches, have a mere two league titles to show for their efforts since 2008, when the Abu Dhabi Group took over. Something special?  It’s about bloody time.  And whilst we’re onto it Señor McNulty, don’t forget that the great Barcelona side that Guardiola managed were largely modelled from locally-grown clay. Now that was special, yes.


Meanwhile, from my kitchen table, the cover of ‘Marca’ screamed out its usual white-spectacled headline in the form of ‘Este mundo se le queda pequeño’ (This world is too small for Real Madrid). The gratuitous inclusion of a tin of baked beans in the picture below helps to cement the multi-cultural perspective of this weekend’s ramblings, because when you take a look at Europe’s major top-flight leagues (England, France, Italy, Germany and Spain, in no particular order) you’ll see that the only one that has a semblance of pre-Christmas balance is Italy, where Napoli lead Juve by a single point with Inter and Roma in hot pursuit.


In Germany, a last gasp penalty-save kept Bayern a massive 11 points clear of Schalke, PSG’s dismantling of sixth-placed Stade Rennais puts them nine points clear of Monaco – with a tasty goal-difference of 41 after 18 games, and in England, of course, Man City beat Tottenham to record their 16th consecutive win and maintain the gap of eleven over their neighbours United with an even tastier GD of 44.  Only Celtic let the monopoly-house down, losing their first league game to Hearts (4-0) after a 69-match run.  Watch out for a major slide in Celtic’s general form, as they fail to recover from the trauma of this defeat (I’m joking) but seriously folks, something is rotten in the state of Europe, and I’m not just talking about Sepp Blatter.

It’s not a question of casting aspersions at over-bankrolled clubs such as PSG and Man City, partly because you still have to make it work on the field (and Guardiola looks like being the first one at Man City to really do so) but also because Bayern are a model of supporter-owned democracy, as are Barcelona – with the added caveat that this model of ownership, superior though it might be, still sees these clubs leave the financial starting blocks with a considerable advantage over most of their rivals. Better distribution of TV cash is yet to translate into a better distribution of national trophies, it’s surely fair to say.  And whilst we may gawp with wonder at the development of super-clubs, and be convinced by legions of butt-kissing pundits that this is of general interest, I’m sure that most folks would just prefer a more even playing-field.  The only consolation is, I suppose, that Man City are currently good to watch, as are Bayern and Barcelona, although the jury’s still out on PSG, perhaps given the more general weakness of the French league.  It will be interesting to see them pit their wits against the ‘world champions’ Real Madrid in the next round of Champions League sparring. But the Champions League is beginning to resemble, more and more, a sort of dazzling digitally-mastered super-freak show, whilst the pond-life below skitters around in the analogue darkness.

Real Madrid’s excessive trumpet-blowing after their 1-0 win over Gremio in the final in Abu Dhabi at the weekend was yet more evidence of their creeping sense of neurosis. The nagging feeling at the Bernabéu is that this side, whose trophy count in 2017 is now five (the best in their history) is actually on the decline and is not as great or as lasting as might have appeared to be the case last summer, with their fine repetition of the Champions League trophy and their deserved league title. Their tsunami of titles under Zidane, and the Frenchman’s undoubted ability to mastermind finals (7 wins from 7) cannot hide the fact that they may find themselves out-punched in this season’s super-freak tournament, coupled with the fact that if they were to lose at home to Barcelona next week then all the (minor) trophies on the planet would not save the Zidane-Benzema back-slapping show from a major meltdown, however many goals Ronaldo manages to finish the season on, and however many more consecutive games Gareth Bale can manage before he pulls another muscle and retires to the quiet of his home to study, once again, his ‘Spanish for Beginners’ book.   Madrid looked good against Gremio (I watched some of the game) but were the Brazilian team on the pitch?  I swear I didn’t see them. Trophies are good for morale, but as a practice-match for next week’s big one, Barcelona didn’t gain much more practice from their sparring partner Deportivo, who failed to prevent them strolling to a 4-0 win.  Barça looked very good, mind you.  Watch their third goal particularly – which is magnificent, in terms of build-up and the way that the ball is worked from a traffic-jam into space before Suarez gleefully taps it home.

Nevertheless, all is not lost. The main argument of last week’s column was that in Spain, at least, there is an even playing-field below the Champions League places, a fact which suggests that the overall competitiveness of La Liga remains high.  This weekend, for example, tiny Girona (aka Man City reserves) moved into seventh place with their 1-0 win over Getafe, and were actually at a historically-high sixth for a few hours before Villarreal won 0-1 at Celta.  Eibar are one below in eighth spot after their recent run, and sit highest of the four Basque clubs, after the two sides that surround them geographically (Athletic and Real Sociedad) drew 0-0 in the derby in the New San Mamés. Eibar’s 2-1 defeat of flagging Valencia is yet more proof of the fact that La Liga can still deliver.  It seems even more bizarre (and comforting) when you consider that the game was watched by a massive crowd of 5,000, who nevertheless seemed to make far more noise than the 80,000 who attend the Camp Nou every fortnight.

Atlético remain unbeaten after their rather tepid 1-0 victory at home to Alavés, but they continue to make a valiant contribution to this season’s attempt to stop Barça running away with the title.  Well, next Saturday will have a big say with regard to that issue, at the rather odd kick-off time of 13.00, presumably to catch the Asian market while it’s still awake. Even odder is the fact that the last fixture round before the Christmas break begins on Tuesday with Levante v Leganés and then continues on a day-to-day basis until Saturday night’s curtain-fall of the Galician derby between Deportivo and Celta.  Beyond that, La Liga puts its feet up until January 6th.  Whatever – at the time of writing, my esteemed colleague Ed Alvarez has got a massive score of ‘1’ on the quiniela, so thank goodness for Barcelona.  I’ll write a piece next Sunday to conclude the ‘winter league’ and then you can all go and wrap your Xmas presents in peace and harmony, if Christmas is your cultural thing. If it ain’t, then just enjoy the long post-clásico glow, whatever the outcome.

7 thoughts on “Something special for Christmas”

      1. Thanks Giovani. Tryin’ me best! I think Zidane is too stubborn. It might be his undoing, his Achilles Heel. Also, the BBC thing can never really be the same again, and is in terminal decline for both physical and mental reasons. The balance of the side will go, once Modric starts to lose it. I think there are some interesting players coming through, but not enough to start a new ‘era’. But I might be wrong.


  1. Great article as usual. I’ve been reading you since your ESPN days. I think you’re wrong about Real Madrid. For the foreseeable future, they will always be THE big fish. At times they will be trampled but in the end they will always be the standard.


    1. Hi Meme
      Thanks for the feedback. Re RM, I agree with you. I’m just saying that this particular version of RM (the BBC-led one) is about to change, and I think it’s necessary. Sure – they have the money to put things right.


  2. Phil……Oh finally Phil of the old and expansive. Lovely, enjoyed every bit of it! Phil, you could still be more candid about Punditry without fearing for the delicate sensibilities….gosh that was so circuitous….you get the point!

    Phil, if I remember well, you were just ‘complimentary’ about Pep when the whole world was gushing about him…..but I absolutely agree with you we have to wait until Citeh does a treble before anointing them as ‘special’. And Madrid is like a fantastic race car but realizing that some of it parts are worn out! The jury is still out on Zidane if he can still really build a team with a clear footballing philosophy.

    I know I make too many demands of you…..but in addition to Busi, you must do a piece on Illusionista…..would really like your perspective. To provide context, I started watching Iniesta and Xavi keenly only after you wrote about them back in 2008 on soccernet….so there!


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