The game at Old Trafford on Wednesday between Manchester United and Villarreal should be interesting from various perspectives. All week there seems to have been a collective paranoia floating around the Spanish scene that the English Premier League is taking over the Galactic Federation and that all Star Wars from now in will be heavily weighted in English favour.
When Segurola writes a piece so damning – basically of the back-scratching Spanish Federation, the LFP's fear of upsetting the cart and of the television companies' tiresome bickering, people tend to take notice. Segurola is a bit of an Anglophile, and is the only living Spaniard who can recite from memory the Leeds United line-up in the 1972 FA Cup final against Arsenal. Nevertheless, he was careful to underline the fact that he still thought there were bucketfuls of quality in La Liga, if only it could remember how to market itself. At times last season there seemed to be more English football on offer on Spanish telly than the national product itself.
Euro 2008 went someway to restoring the balance and the self-esteem, and Villarreal's game on Wednesday might help too. At home to Deportivo this weekend, the little side from the middle of nowhere decided to apply the law of rotation to the game, given their relatively meagre resources as a Champions League side. The American Josmer Altidore accompanied Cani up front after Llorente had gone off at half-time. Rossi didn't figure, Nihat is still injured, but Villarreal were still far too good for Depor, who started their campaign brightly a fortnight back with a home win against Real Madrid. Ibagaza, Senna and Cazorla in the middle of the park should give United something to think about, but they might prove to be short of firepower to worry the English champions' impressive-looking defence – although it looked far from solid at Anfield at the weekend.
Villarreal's defeat of Deportivo was a reminder of the Champions League 2002 campaign, when Deportivo won at both Old Trafford and Highbury, playing splendidly into the bargain. How times change. Those results back then were proof of La Liga's strength in depth, underlined the year before when tiny Alavés contributed to that wonderful UEFA Cup final against Liverpool. Sands have since begun to shift, proof of which is the fact that Spain's wonderful performances in the recent European Championships seem to no longer be the yardstick by which to measure a league's power or status. On the night last week when Spain beat Armenia 4-0 to register their 25th game on the trot without defeat, England's 4-1 win in Croatia (televised by a number of regional channels) seemed to be equally big news. Looks like the four Champions League representatives are going to have to work hard this season to restore some balance.
Real Madrid, drawn in the Group of Death with Juventus and Zenit, have their easiest game on paper on Wednesday night at home to the obscure BATE Barisov, but if their game this weekend against the equally unfashionable Numancia was anything to go by, they won't necessarily win at a stroll. Since Barisov are renowned for their fitness, there certainly won't be much strolling going on. Madrid were twice behind, and looked ill-at-ease at the back against a side concocted from loanees, trusted Second Division campaigners and not a great deal else. Sergio Ramos and Gabi Heinze were missing, but Metzelder again looked less than convincing, and Michel Salgado continues to look like a man who should have retired in the summer.
At least they managed four goals, one a cracker by their debutant Rafael Van der Vaart, and Guti bagged the club's 5,000 goal in professional competition since 1929 – about which he looked extremely pleased. That's because it puts him in famous company and means that in about twelve years his face will appear in a 'Marca' pull-out which goes over the previous thousand-men since 1950 (when Pahiño scored the 1,000th). Guti joins Gento, Juanito and Zamorano on this chancy podium of history-snatchers, one of the few accolades that Raúl has managed to miss out on. Who will get the 6,000th? Theo Walcott – tempted to Spanish shores by a new Chinese consortium, just as Cristiano Ronaldo retires from the game in a Manchester City shirt?
Real Madrid are no strangers to adversity, but if they mess up Wednesday's game then they can probably kiss goodbye to the famous 'tenth' and will probably do the same to several of their hierarchy too. Despite laughing all the way to the bank with the Robinho money, sporting director Pedja Mijatovic seemed to be suggesting at the weekend that nobody would be bought in the next transfer window. That may be so – but since none of the long list of glittering names quoted as reinforcements ever arrived for the start of this season, Mijatovic's words have been seen as no more than a gesture of self-protectionism, after a long period in the shadows.
Over in Barcelona, things are hardly in better shape. The Pep Guardiola reign has started in stuttering fashion, and the signs are that some of the old tensions are still around, despite the presence of the Catalan folk hero, brought in by Joan Laporta to calm the waters and save his own butt. The folks of Barcelona will grant Guardiola time and patience, such is his godly status amongst them, but the signs are that the new manager's strict regime and rather convoluted way of expressing his tactical preferences are not being immediately appreciated by his players.
Messi, Iniesta and Bojan all started on the bench (due, presumably, to their efforts in midweek for their respective national sides) and whilst Guardiola's faith in his squad players is to be applauded, Racing de Santander are no longer the sort of side you can afford to mess around with. They parked the bus in the goal area, but that was to be expected. Barça's domination of the play was only superseded by their inability to put the ball into the net, a factor made all the more significant by Henry's absence not simply from the squad but from the stadium. There's another one who will be joining the Man City revolution in January. And when they finally did score (penalty from Messi), Racing replied with a soft one from a free-kick and took a welcome point home to Cantabria. That makes it one point from six for Guardiola, and Barça's worst start to a league campaign since 1973. On Tuesday night they open their European campaign at home to Sporting Lisbon, who whilst no great shakes of late cannot be underestimated. Barça need some goals, and fast.
Atlético Madrid, who travel to PSV, lost rather tamely (2-1) at Valladolid, with the added bother that their starlet, Kun Agüero, arrived home late from Argentina and was kept on the bench (while he woke up from his jet-lag) by the unamused manager Javier Aguirre. Rather like his mate Messi, who was accused by Maradona of being 'greedy' last week (with the ball), Agüero came off the bench to score, but in this case it garnered not even a single point.
None of the four sides currently in the Champions League sits in the top four after this weekend, which may or not be significant. Espanyol, shorn of Albert Riera, sit atop the league with six from six (the only ones with maximum points), but that is most certainly not significant. They're more likely to be much further down by the end of it. Sevilla's 4-3 cracker at home to new boys Sporting Gijon was an amazing match, but it raises further questions as to the winner's credentials for the season to come. They face a short trip across town for the Betis derby next weekend, a fixture that can leave marks on the psychological template for the rest of the season.
Things don't quite seem to have got going in La Liga just yet. This week should mark out some territory, either restoring confidence or increasing the jitters.