la liga review

Nothing succeeds like excess

September 1, 2009
By Phil Ball
(Archive)

Hello there. Nice to be back from the deserts of Arabia, although mentally speaking the whole La Liga thing never really went away. You can attempt a de-tox from Spanish football, but I'm not really sure that it works.

GettyImages / LaurenceGriffithsPep Guardiola: Back in the Middle East

Then again, I could have been returning sluggishly to another season in which the image and status of Spanish football had taken another slide backwards, in thrall to the Premier League and even beginning to worry about the Italians. Not a hope of that, thanks largely to Barcelona's superhuman deeds last season and Florentino Pérez's one-man mission to re-focus the world's attention directly onto the Bernabéu and indirectly onto the league in which his latest set of toys are about to play.

As Oscar Wilde sort of said, it doesn't matter what they're saying about you, just as long as they're talking about you. He also quipped that nothing succeeds like excess, and there you have the Spanish summer, soaked in sun and spending.

You really didn't expect this comeback column to not mention Real Madrid? I got back from Qatar in early July, and within two weeks was in Madrid talking to the taxi drivers, the newspaper vendors, some people at the club (although they always tell you less) and the pigeons, who also had lots to say. The circus was in town, and it looks likely to remain for some time to come.

Apart from that, Real Madrid have spent the last month desperately attempting to reduce their over-stocked squad whilst Barça have been caught between attempting to ignore their rivals, carp at them occasionally from the sidelines, or make a few splashes themselves - swapping Eto'o for Ibrahimovic but failing to land either David Villa or Ribery, players that have both been very much in the orbit of Madrid too. Ribery continues to make noises (mostly grunts) from the direction of the east, but is unlikely to make it over to Madrid this season now, despite the arrival of Robben at Bayern and continued rumours over the eventual destination of poor Van der Vaart.

What else has happened? Well, Usain Bolt looks to have a decent left foot on him, if the saque de honor on Saturday night at the Bernabéu was anything to go by. Nobody had told him that you were just supposed to give it a granny tap a few metres forward, as per convention. Instead, he sent a shot flying through the air that just missed the post, rather like his new mate Ronaldo contrived to do various times throughout the 3-2 win against Deportivo. Bolt's faster than Ronaldo. Perhaps they should sign him too.

Barça were of course in Monaco on Friday night adding yet another trophy to their groaning shelves but taking rather longer over it than they might have wished, Shakhtar Donetsk proving to be rather more durable than Manchester United had been three months before. They play Sporting at home on the Monday night, given the weekend to rest off their fatigue from the effects of Monaco's dreadful pitch and the post-match celebrations.

Last season Barça got off to a flyer, losing away to Numancia in a defeat that incorrectly masked the season that was to subsequently enfold. If they stumble to Sporting in their bow this season, it should be taken with an equal pinch of salt. Rumbles over Puyol's stalling at a new contract notwithstanding, the squad looks smallish but awesome. They've also added Chygryskly from Shakhtar for good measure, obviously with an eye to keeping the defence secure when the African Cup of Nations takes away Touré and Keita.

Ibrahimovic must prove himself
GettyImages / JosepLagoIbrahimovic must prove himself

In Monaco, Ibrahimovic played awfully, but not too much should be read into that. It is rather curious, nevertheless, that Pep Guardiola should have got rid of Eto'o in the final analysis because there was no 'feeling', to use his diplomatic phrase. What he meant was that he didn't really like Eto'o, and that he thought he was a troublesome presence in the changing-room. Interesting then, that he swapped him for a chap whose reputation for histrionics and dodgy declarations is similarly well-developed. I'm not sure about the signing, and it's unclear as yet whether the Swede will fit into the system, so well-oiled but to some extent proscribed on Eto'o's unselfish and constant movement. David Villa might have suited them better, and Madrid's alternative swoop for Karim Benzema looks like being a smart move. He's looked the part in pre-season, he's young and he's hungry.

Talking of David Villa, perhaps the oddest thing that happened all summer was that he stayed put at Valencia, with seemingly the whole cosmos after his signature. The indirect consequences of this have been enormous, but Valencia are not complaining. He did want to go, had announced as much, but circumstances just didn't work out the way they seemed to be going. The €40m price tag was hardly excessive, but it seemed that the little guy just didn't want to go to England anyway, once the options of Barça and Madrid were closed. He remains probably the world's best centre-forward, a highly intelligent and adaptable player whose presence should at least secure Valencia a European top-six finish by the end of the season, despite the continued off-the-pitch upheavals. David Silva is still there too, as is the splendid Juan Mata and the always possibly splendid Joaquín.

Is this season going to be anything other than a two-horse race, and even if it is, does it matter? Probably not. It's going to be entertaining watching Real Madrid suffer as they try to put the new project to immediate work, and equally interesting to see if Barça can sustain the levels of brilliance attained last season. It's not really a case of them failing if they don't win the triple again, but as more recent history will tend to bear witness, football systems do not last long in the post-modern age. Someone will find a way to play Barça, and others will try to follow suit.

Those of you who have watched Spanish football for some years now will be lightly amused by the recent revelations that Iniesta and Xavi are great players. Wayne Rooney said the former was the best in the world, which was a little bit rich, but these two guys have been around for some time now. That the pluck of Europe's journalists took so long to notice them was odd, to say the least. But now that they have, they will become part of the conspiracy to topple them, to find them out. Both of them are liable to injury too, and the sensation that too much depends on their functioning - Messi or no Messi - could tip the scales in Madrid's favour this year.

Nobody can annul Messi, of course. With him it's just a case of damage limitation, of attempting to marginalize his presence on the ball. But Barça might become victims of their recent successes, nevertheless. It remains to be seen, but when I asked the journalist galáctico, Santiago Segurola, what he thought of the two-horse race this season, this is what he had to say: "Madrid have signed so many fantastic players that the project can hardly fail. You suspect that they're going to win something. And more importantly, they will probably play badly for quite some time, but they will still have enough individual talent to win their games. Barcelona on the other hand, need to play well to win. It's a great virtue, but a potential weakness as well. If they play poorly, they lose."

Ronaldo scored in Real's La Liga opener
GettyImages / PierrePhilippeRonaldo scored in Real's opener

Well I wouldn't have quoted that, except that it more or less describes what happened against Deportivo this weekend. Going forward they looked very good, but there was still some alarming fragility at the back. Both Kaká and Ronaldo suffered from the "I'd better stand out" syndrome, and tried to do too much, but it was entertaining fare nevertheless.

The defence will improve considerably when Pepe has served out the last four games of his eternal suspension, and the return of Sergio Ramós will be good news too, despite his occasional wobbles. And anyway, the best player on the park was Lass Diarra, who only on Sunday asked folks not to call him the new Makelele, but he's too late. Despite all the noisier riches on show, it may well be he and Xabi Alonso who will set the tone and mark the rhythms of this new Real Madrid, this new concept of an Alpha team collected together in one fell swoop.

Does anyone else merit a mention, at least in the context of this first discussion? Atlético Madrid, like Valencia, have managed to hang on to their best players (Forlan, Agüero, Maxi, et al) but there is little reason to assume that their volatile form of last year will radically change. They also have the rigours of the Champions League to face, but you'd expect them to be in the running, at least until Christmas.

Sevilla? They've added Negredo from Real Madrid, but not much else. They still have some fine players, but the balance of the side looks insufficient for them to mount a really serious challenge. Villarreal? If Senna stays fit then the loss of their best-ever manager might not count for too much, especially if this Nilmar chap turns out to be any good. They still have a quality squad, but it's hard to see any other side outside of this cabal making anything of a splash.

The newly promoted teams, Xerez, Tenerife and Zaragoza are unlikely to surprise, although the latter are best equipped to stay up. Indeed, they were the only one of the three to win this weekend, beating fellow promotion friends Tenerife 1-0. Jermaine Pennant made his debut for the home team, just to give La Liga some English presence for the day.

Anyway, don't write in just yet to complain that I haven't mentioned your team. It's a long season, as they say. I'm still getting my bearings too. Nice to be back though. Sunday nights sin teclado just weren't the same.