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Monday, April 16, 2007
La Liga's middle-men a cut above

It's been a juicy week for La Liga's football followers, with sparks flying left, right and centre. Let's start in Europe.

In midweek, Valencia bowed out of the Champions League after an excellent game against Chelsea in the Mestalla, the London club's win being the first time in 40 years that a side from England's shores has won in Valencia.

Three English sides (Chelsea, Man Utd and Liverpool) then took their place in the semi-finals of the Champions League, sparking much comment from the European press, and from Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, who crowed loudly that this was proof that the English top flight was now the best in Europe.

Well, maybe so. He needs something to cheer about, after the national team's appalling performances and the farcical process of electing a manager who everyone knew wasn't up to it. But this takes nothing away from Man Utd's annihilation of Roma, Chelsea's brave and astute performance in Valencia and Liverpool's pummelling of a poor-looking PSV side, who had nevertheless knocked out Arsenal in the previous round.

But does this mean that the power base of European football has shifted from La Liga to England, with even Cristiano Ronaldo apparently immune to the temptations on offer at either Barcelona or Madrid - both of whom were counting their money last week in an attempt to see if they could afford to really stump up a bid? And with Eto'o and Villa allegedly on their way to the Premiership, maybe Scudamore had a point.

I suppose that in the year 2000, when Real Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona all made the semis, it was easy to come to the same conclusion about La Liga's dominance, or even Italy's in 2003 when they had three representatives at that stage too. But there seems to have been little comment on the equally significant fact that Spain has three sides in the UEFA semi finals. It leads to the inevitable question - what is the true litmus-test of a league's strength - its biggest sides or its middling sides?

The UEFA Cup seems to be picking up in both quality and spectacle, and whereas some years ago few people seemed to take much interest, things have changed. Television has jumped back onto its bandwagon, and teams now see it rather like the play-offs in the lower divisions. It's something to aim for, something to keep the season alive. It's almost as if there has been a grudging acceptance that the Champions League is for a select coterie of clubs, with the occasional disturbance from the margins - like Villarreal's amazing achievement last season.

Indeed, a more cynical view of this year's semi-finals might be to view them as the four richest clubs in the world, perhaps with the noble exception of Liverpool who began the season under 'normal' ownership. Berlusconi, Abramovich and the Glazers. Welcome to sporting democracy! Well ok - it's neither the players' nor the fans' fault that this is the case, and Real Madrid and Barcelona aren't exactly paupers on the world's stage. But when you take a look at the UEFA, things are rather more interesting, from a purely sporting point of view.

Osasuna and Espanyol are very bog-standard sides in Spanish terms, although Espanyol have had some success in Europe before. Sevilla won the UEFA last year, and are still challenging for La Liga's title, but in strictly statistical terms have not won the national title since 1946. Hardly a major force, although always a prominent and feared side.

Osasuna's 0-3 win at Bayer Leverkusen was much more significant than Liverpool's win at PSV, and almost matched Man Utd's win over Roma for surprise value. Espanyol had Benfica on the ropes in Barcleona in the first leg, only to give away a 3-0 lead (to 3-2) and endanger their chances of getting through in Portugal. The fact that they made it is remarkable, though they rode their luck at times.

Sevilla v Tottenham, however, was symbolic of the issue. Spurs were a shade unlucky in Seville, and played well in London too (in patches), but as sides of similar status (if one takes away Spurs' golden years) La Liga's representatives looked too canny for the English side. In the end Sevilla had more on offer, just as middle-ground Spain has more to offer than does the Premiership. The fact that Reading have done so well this season in England is also a testament to the Premiership - but it depends how you look at it. Reading haven't made the UEFA yet, and if they do, how will they fare?

The fact that Barcelona and Real Madrid have looked more human in the last few years in La Liga is surely due to the competitiveness that abounds there - witness Santander's win on Saturday night and Barcelona's struggle to beat lowly Mallorca the next evening. The gap between the top three/four in Spain and the rest is a big one, but it is surely not as immense as the chasm that separates Man Utd and Chelsea from the rest. Scudamore should think twice before opening his mouth again on this issue. Middle England still looks pretty poor to me. Middle Spain looks in good health.

There are other matters in Spain, however, that could do with a medical check-up. One of them is the eternal conspiracy theory about referees.

Last weekend, Valencia decided to only field two of the players who had played at Chelsea, resting the squad for the second leg. The game was at Athletic Bilbao - this season's poorest home side. Bilbao won the game, much to the chagrin of the other sides who are involved in the relegation struggle (another increasingly annoying consequence of the overbearing importance of the Champions League) in what looked at first to be a game that Valencia were almost throwing, as if they were more confident of knocking out Chelsea and continuing in Europe than they were of still challenging Barcelona for the Spanish title.

But this ignores the fact that the referee, Mejuto Gonzalez, seemed to favour the struggling home side, awarding them a largesse of free-kicks and ignoring two clear penalty appeals for fouls on Valencia's winger David Silva. Even this would have passed unnoticed had the referee not been recorded by the TV cameras in the tunnel before the game, chatting to Bilbao's Joseba Exteberría.

'So you lost last week eh?' opens Mejuto, conversationally.

'Yeah - again!' says Exteberría.

'You've got a tricky run-in eh? ' says Mejuto (as if he's studied it). Etxeberría nods. 'Don't worry' says Mejuto soothingly. 'You'll stay up'.

Now imagine if Mourinho had heard this. Quique Sánchez Flores of course hadn't, until well after the match, but even before he had the insults were flying - the Valencia manager accusing the referee of blatantly favouring Bilbao, of deliberately messing up Valencia's title challenge and of never doing Valencia any favours (although the statistics don't confirm this).

Mejuto is an Asturian, and therefore the usual conspiracies about regional favouritism do not apply here in any significant sense, but of course, the whole issue has blown up in Angel María Villar's face - President of the FEF (Spanish Football Federation) for the past 19 years and born and bred in Bilbao. He even played for them, and for Spain (22 times), but has never been exactly a trusted figure. His own unfortunate confession to journalists only last week that he also thought that Bilbao would stay up has only made matters worse.

Not that the rest of Spain is clamouring for Athletic's relegation. Far from it. They have never been out of the top flight, a remarkable record that is worth the preserving. But as Head of the Referees Commission too, Villar should really be more discreet, and should surely have stepped in to tick off Mejuto for his own indiscretion - innocent though it probably was. In a country where everyone is assumed corrupt until proved otherwise, largely because people see this as a perfectly normal state of affairs, football is the only area where a whiff of skulduggery will bring out the moral majority.

The inevitable domino effect has been incurred. On Saturday night, Madrid's Director of Football, Predrag Mijatovic, used the classic phrase 'Estan pasando cosas raras' (Strange things are happening), a sentence always wheeled out when the speaker wishes to imply conspiracy, without saying anything that could otherwise end him up in court. Turienzo Alavarés had just awarded Racing de Santander two penalties and sent off two Real Madrid players, condemning them to a 2-1 defeat in fortress Santander and robbing them of a deserved victory - for a change.

They actually played quite well, and the first penalty was certainly a mistake. The second, where Cannavaro bear hugged the mighty Zigic, looked more like the real thing, but Madrid were incandescent with rage, finally finding an excuse to justify their inability to catch Barcelona and hiding the fact that Capello once again played it too conservatively, failing to really go for the throat and get the second goal that would have killed the game off. But hey, Zapatero's the Prime Minister, and he's a Barça fan. Matter closed, obviously.

It's not all over yet, but with Sevilla losing at Valencia, Barcelona just seem to stay up there, despite all the rumours of back-biting and an alleged player diaspora this coming summer. That doesn't reflect too well on La Liga, I have to admit.

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