I read a couple of articles in the past fortnight by Britain-based journalists in which they were suggesting that La Liga’s time was up. The Premier was clearly more competitive, judging by the Champions league, in which Manchester United (for example) would have little difficulty in eliminating Sevilla, a sort of second-class citizen Spanish side. Liverpool and Manchester City have since moved into the quarter-finals where they must unfortunately (for the English league) meet each other, but the Spanish presence is of course greater, with three sides through. It doesn’t seem to smack of decline from where I’m sitting, and if I thought the opposite were true, I’d be among the first of the Spain-based scribes to come out and say so.
Comparisons are usually odious, of course, but it seems to me that in the post-coherence age of football that we currently inhabit, the idea that the strength of a national league should be based on the top three or four sides is simply weird. If Man City do succeed (for example) in winning the Champions League this season – not an improbable outcome – then the views of the common European press will probably go down that line – that Pep has revolutionised Man City and with it the Premier League.
You can agree with the former assertion, but the latter is more debatable. Surely, the measure of a league’s strength is in its less obvious characters, the teams that few British-based journalists had ever even heard of before this season (e.g. Girona) and sides that can easily take Sevilla apart (Leganés) because this is, indeed, still a decent league. Liga Fever isn’t too worried about the state of the Premier League, because the denizens at the top and the bottom ends of most of Europe’s major leagues are more or less of a oneness. PSG, with their bloated resources in an otherwise fairly timid league, are perhaps the exception that proves the rule, but it’s the middling sides that you need to look at, if you wish to draw any conclusions.
I’m not sure how Leganés would fare on a wet Tuesday night at Stoke (see below), but I’m pretty sure what would happen to Stoke on a wet Tuesday night in Leganés.
The side from the Madrid margins, in their second season in the top flight, beat Sevilla 2-1 on Sunday afternoon and basically demonstrated to Jose Mourinho how to take on such a side – not by aiming high balls at Fellaini (Mourinho is hypnotised by his haircut, as we all are) and leaving Pogba and Mata on the bench (thereby leaving the field clear for Banega and Nzonzi) but by keeping the ball on the floor and playing a fast, intense high-pressure game orchestrated by the excellent Javi Eraso and Amrabat – the latter loaned from Watford but a consistently subtle and dangerous player.
Too subtle for the middling ranges of the Premier, you have to ask yourself? Then again, you might argue that Mourinho and his insufferable caution are not representative of some of the more exciting stuff that the EPL has to offer, but nevertheless, they sit in second position with a decent haul of points – conclusive proof that what works in the EPL might not work in Leganés.
Or in Girona, for example. They may have conceded six in the Bernabayou on Sunday night (four courtesy of CR7) but they replied with three and almost scored a fourth in added time. And none of their goals were scored by Man City loanees – before you write in. I’d love to see them take on Burnley, the English ‘revelation’ this season. It would tell you much more about the respective leagues than would a Barcelona v Man City Champions League final, much as I’d love to see that game take place in Kiev in May. A counter-argument, of course, would be to compare the relative health of the English 2nd-tier Championship, with its excellent attendances and relative unpredictability with the rather more frayed-at-the-edges Spanish Segunda ‘A’. You could put it down to money, I suppose, and the neglect of the 3rd and 4th tiers in English football is therefore scandalous, but the real strength of English football is probably best exemplified by the Championship.
Anyway, were Sevilla tired after their game in Manchester in midweek? I don’t think so. They hardly broke sweat there. But in the howling Butarque on Sunday afternoon, where a prawn sandwich has yet to be consumed, they were played off the pitch. Elsewhere, Atlético Madrid more or less surrendered their title chase of Barcelona by succumbing 2-1 away to Villarreal, a side who are maddeningly inconsistent this season but who prove the point about La Liga. When Leicester won the EPL title recently, the British press were enamoured of their campaign but never once suggested that it was a symbol of a richly competitive league. Instead, their scribes just scratched their heads, described it as a miracle and hoped beyond hope that it wouldn’t happen again – since it was the sort of miracle that might ultimately disturb the way that things are supposed to be. That is also true of Spain and the big two/three, but a side like Villarreal, with a smaller fan base than Leicester and far less income from the TV have managed to maintain themselves as a force in La Liga for almost 20 years now. They were first promoted in 1998 and ten years later finished runners-up to Real Madrid, two seasons after they reached the Champions League semis. When Bournemouth (or Leicester) manage that, we can perhaps begin to compare the EPL with La Liga. And in case I haven’t rested my case, look at the half-decent scrap that is still on for the Europa league places in Spain. Villarreal and Sevilla start out as favourites, but the fact that Girona and Betis will make them sweat is surely a healthy sign – as were tiny Eibar’s possibilities until they blew them with their defeat at Levante on Friday night.
So with Barcelona more or less guaranteed the title, the main interest up top resides in just how long it will take before it is mathematically theirs, and if they can remain undefeated in the process. Of course, the conspiracy theorists are now rubbing their hands in glee at the prospects of Barcelona holding off until the week before May 6th, when they could win the title away at Deportivo. That’s perfectly plausible, given that Atlético may drop further points in a fortnight in the Madrid derby. It’s the stuff of Madridista nightmares – having to form the infamous ‘pasillo’ the following weekend to applaud the champs onto the field, in a baying arena of Catalans. The current Spanish government won’t be too keen on it either, in the present political atmosphere, but for morbo lovers far and wide, it would be meat and drink. Or even to win the title on clásico day? Which would be juicier? Answers on a postcard please.
I had the misfortune to attend Real Sociedad v Getafe on Saturday. Getafe were terribly cynical, playing an anti-football which belied the two excellent goals they scored, but Real Sociedad were incapable of responding, a faithful reflection of their likeable but bland coach, Eusebio Sacristán, who was been sacked as I wrote this piece. In fact I got a whatsapp Sunday night from Ed Alvarez in Madrid informing me of this.
Loren, the faceless Director of Football, whose anonymity and hang-dog expression have plagued the club since 2008, has also fallen on his sword, after the normally placid crowd in Anoeta called for his head on Saturday evening. President Jokin Aperribay decided to offer it, Salome-like on a plate, rather than risk any further controversy, and I’ll be applying for the job on Monday morning. Meanwhile, the wise and steady Imanol Alguacil from Real Sociedad B will take over until the end of the season, and I for one hope that he stays. Eusebio, meanwhile, should have done enough to guarantee that he gets work next season, and in his defence, his vision of football and his persistence in imposing a sort of half-decent tiki-taka at the club brought with it some good moments. He has also worked the youth system well (think Odriozola, Oyarzabal and the new gem, Igor Zubeldia), as opposed to David Moyes who probably never even knew it existed. But he lacked a Plan B, and his decent tactical awareness remained an abstract concept, as opposed to a concrete plan that you apply to the players under your command. Horses for courses? Eusebio is a courses-for-horses man. If the plan doesn’t work, you just keep repeating it, in the vague hope that it might. In the end it proved his downfall. Zidane is often accused of the same foible, but he’s got a rather deeper squad to call upon.
It’s break time now, with the international games giving the league a rest that will be appreciated by some players more than others. Spain play Germany and Argentina in two games that will certainly be worth watching. Hasta la vista.