Chatting with Ray Hudson

Posted by jamesmartin

There was always something special about watching GolTV -- sort of like listening to an underground record or watching an art-house flick. You're in on the secret, which in this case was some of the most entertaining and enlightening commentary in football, the soundtrack to our La Liga lives as delivered by Phil Schoen and the mighty Ray Hudson. Well, damn the torpedoes, as Hudson might say, but the duo has jumped ship to the new BeIn Sport, which will be broadcasting Spanish, Italian and French football.

But it's La Liga where Hudson has been at his passionate best, weaving together phrases that never would have dawned on Noah Webster to paint pictures of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and the rest of them. We're watching these stars, but it's not until Hudson delivers his carefully calibrated -- if sometimes out-there -- descriptions that these world-beaters are fully realized in our imaginations.

So with the La Liga season about to kick off, I spoke with Hudson over the phone to get his take on what we can expect over the next nine months.

It's been a fairly quiet summer on the transfer market for Real Madrid and Barcelona. What's your take on the state of the rivalry?
Hudson: It's the same as always; it'll be the big two all the way down to the final game, no question, despite the lack of signings -- though Barcelona may pull off the Alex Song transfer from Arsenal -- that is gaining momentum. And Jordi Alba is a tremendous signing. You can imagine what that is going to look like, with Alba on the left and Dani Alves on the right.

Barcelona also has a new signing that's really an old signing in a lot of ways, David Villa -- a forward that Barcelona deeply missed last season. Teams in La Liga and Europe knew that if you shut down Messi, you shut down Barcelona. I'm not saying that was the case -- they still couldn't keep the greatest football player in the galaxy quiet. It was impossible. But I think with Villa coming back that focus is going to shift away from Messi just a little bit.

Look at Real Madrid. Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria -- those two players helped take a lot of defensive focus away from Cristiano Ronaldo, allowing him to flourish. So Barcelona will really value Villa coming back as an authentic forward. That's going to be a big “acquisition,” if you like.

You're a big fan of Di Maria.
Hudson: This Di Maria, man, he's the one for me. He is so undervalued amid the superstars of Real Madrid. But he played relatively few games last season and he was only two assists behind Mesut Ozil, who played pretty much the entire season. If Di Maria is fit, he can be a real difference-maker in the rivalry. He had 15 assists in 16 games [started] -- that is putting your finger marks all over a game.

I think he has to be able to secure a position in the starting lineup of Los Blancos. It goes back to great players being kept out by great players, and having to perform at such a high level consistently to get into the starting XI, or they know they lose their place if they don't produce the magic.

Look at Mesut Ozil, little Avatar Eyes, who has better vision than one of those fancy NASA telescopes. It's amazing the wealth of talent. But they are up against Barcelona, so they are going to have to be magisterial. Barcelona are a team of a lifetime and Real Madrid are intent on taking away the veil of invincibility.

Yet Barcelona, somehow, some way, continues to shock and surprise the world by moving on up against all the challenges.

How do you see the transition with Tito Vilanova?
Hudson: Vilanova has been such a fixture at the club -- he's nursed these players from nursery school, seen them grow up. You know, they are right under his wing. There will be no problem with the transition. He's seen it all before. He worked hand-in-hand with Pep Guardiola. He was the highest-paid assistant coach in the world. Barcelona really treated him like a first-team coach, which he really was, along with Guardiola.

However, the transition could become difficult if things get a little wobbly. That will be the real challenge for Vilanova. When everything is ticking over, there will be no problems in paradise for Barcelona. But when they hit a sticky patch, all the questions will come up. Are they a one-man team? Can they recover from the black eyes suffered in the league and Champions League? Will Villa come back to be his best? Can Xavi keep his legs right? It will be intriguing.

That won't happen at Real Madrid. It's a more settled situation for Madrid to defend their crown.

Jose Mourinho has sharpened them, enhanced them. They're comfortable now in following the boss's orders. No questions, no doubting. They were wonderful in last season's Champions League. The whole fan base is ready to have this incredible season. Do they have to worry about banana skins? Maybe. Ronaldo has had injury problems in the past, but really, by and large, he's like Messi -- he's made of Teflon and everything just bounces off him. As long as they can keep their star man healthy, they've got it all. They've got the best goal-keeper in the world in Iker Casillas, who leads them as the captain. Their strength at the back, led by Sergio Ramos, is tremendous. In midfield they've got the “Kaka problem” -- whatever it is -- that hasn't been solved. Will he be a disruption? But if there's a manager in the world who can handle all the problems and egos, it's Mourinho.
The fight below the top two should be fairly intense.

That battle is going to be massive when you look at the likes of Bilbao, Valencia and Sevilla.
Look at Atletico Madrid -- in [Radamel] Falcao it has one of the greatest strikers in all of world football. Are they going to be strong enough at the back? That's always a question. But Atletico really believe they can challenge Real Madrid and Barcelona for the title.

Even teams like Granada might surprise a lot of people. It just goes on and on.

You've got the two crème-de-la-crème teams. Below that you might just have crème de la milk, but it's still tastes pretty good when you look at the way Sociedad plays, Sevilla, Mallorca, Valenica. That challenge for the third spot is going to be great. If you take the top two away, La Liga is stronger than any other league in the world. It certainly challenges the Premier League and Bundesliga.

Speaking of that, Mourinho said this summer that any team, from any league, would -- hypothetically speaking -- finish behind both Real and Barca. Do you agree?

Hudson: He's absolutely right. I think if you drop those two teams into any league, they are the best. Like you said, it's a hypothetical question that can't really be considered because you drop those players in the conditions of the English league, or Italian league, they're going to have to deal with a whole set of different dynamics. But just in terms of pure talent, those two teams are the best two teams in the world.

You've got Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson, man. No one can compete with them over the course of a season. In a one-off game, as Chelsea proved with their sniper football, they can be beat, but over the course of the season I couldn't see anyone living with Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Who wins the league this year?
Hudson: Gonna be Real Madrid. I picked them last year. I think Barcelona will run them a lot closer this year. The Clasicos will be bigger than ever -- and that's a ridiculous statement in itself -- but I got a feeling that those two big Clasicos in La Liga could be the difference to the title. Two Armageddon's, and we'll be salivating for them. But I think Real Madrid ends up on top.

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