A Unique Rivalry: Coming Soon To A Theatre Near You

Often times, it’s easy to tell who’s fighting for good and who’s fighting for evil. It doesn’t take a genius to realize Obi-Wan is a force for good, and that Vader is evil. Show me someone who thinks that Voldemort is the protagonist and Harry is the antagonist and I’ll show you a liar.

But this isn’t the case in sports. Every team has fans; how could one be viewed as evil if they have good-willed supporters? Instead of the good versus evil story, we love to obsess over the tales of the underdog versus the favorite.

Despite the odds, there is the curious case of the rivalry between Spanish giants Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. This rivalry has been around for over a century and is possibly the most historic rivalry in all of sports, but there’s this complex that Real Madrid are the evil conquerors trying to dethrone the Catalans.

Barcelona’s nature is cool, calm and collected, and it starts with the demeanor of their manager Pep Guardiola. He always says all the right things, and seldom takes a verbal jab at their opposition. Barcelona plays a peaceful style of football, and passes better than anyone on the planet. Holding over 70 percent of possession in a game isn’t unusual for them.

But threatening Barcelona is the crushing, money-laden force that is Real Madrid. Led by evil genius Jose Mourinho, Real Madrid plays a style that yields fast counter-attacks and risky passes through defenders and they certainly aren’t afraid to commit a hard foul if the situation permits. Mourinho has been known to criticize refs, other players, and even governing bodies like UEFA and RFEF.  Do I even need to mention the eye-gouging incident with Barcelona assistant Tito Vilanova?

Mourinho is a self-proclaimed “Special One”, and Pep never gives himself credit, and instead funnels it to the players. The teams’ leaders fit this complex, and the players are no different.

Barcelona is truly Spain’s team. Thirteen of Barcelona’s 21 First Team players are Spanish. Conversely, fifteen of Madrid’s 23 are from elsewhere. No team in the world puts more effort and money into their youth system than Barca. Madrid loves throwing lucrative contracts at the world’s best players.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the two best players on the planet, and each will go down in history as one the greatest ever, but their reputations are entirely different.

Messi looks more like he’s on his way to class than a game most of the time, while Ronaldo looks more like a GQ model than a footballer. Messi’s game relies on quick, elegant dribbling and precise shooting. Ronaldo loves flashy tricks, and uses his physical dominance to bury shots from long range.

On the opposite end of the field, the teams are even more different. Barcelona’s Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique are quiet, efficient defenders who seldom risk a foul to make a tackle. Madrid’s Pepe and Sergio Ramos are physically dominating and are certainly no strangers to the red card. This season Real Madrid has committed 99 more fouls than Barcelona by a mark of 427 to 328.

But all this shouldn’t matter. We are all witnesses to two of the best teams in La Liga history, and the chance that they may meet in the Champions League Final in Munich this summer just makes this story all the more fascinating.

Never mind the brawls, hard fouls and bitterness that seem to engulf every El Clasico match. Forget about Mourinho and Guardiola, or Messi and Ronaldo. These teams are going to be remembered for being two truly dominant forces in club football, and if there’s a theme that is good versus evil, so be it. I’ll be sitting with my popcorn, ready to enjoy the show.

A look into Europe’s Crystal Ball – Predicting the European Leagues winners

Congratulations to the 2012 Bundesliga champions, Borussia Dortmund. Though the Germans may have crowned their champions, most European leagues are still tightly contested. With most leagues winding down to their final weeks of action, I take a look at each title race and offer my speculation.

English Premier League: Two Team Race

Pos

Team

P

W

D

L

F

A

GD

Pts

1 Manchester United 35 26 5 4 86 32 54 83
2 Manchester City 35 25 5 5 87 27 60 80

Just when it looked like United had wrapped up the title, a loss against Wigan and a 4-4 thriller with Everton have left the door open for Mancini and the boys. Scoring twelve goals in their last three games, Manchester City have hit their stride in time for the all-decisive derby at the Etihad. We all remember the 6-1 drubbing at Old Trafford, but its obvious that this time around things will be different. Nevertheless, there are two additional games remaining on each team’s schedule and in the Premier League anything can happen.

Manchester United remaining schedule:

(A) Manchester City, (H) Swansea, (A) Sunderland

Manchester City remaining schedule:

(H) Manchester United, (A) Newcastle, (H) QPR

At the beginning of the year I picked Manchester City to win the premier league. With three games remaining it becomes incredibly tough to stick with my gut. I do not think City will lose the derby, and I am leaning towards saying they will win it. Anyone who has been following this team all year will admit that most of City’s faults have occurred while traveling. They have only lost two games at home all year, but they have trouble scoring away from home. This is why I highlight the game against the Magpies, who have won their last six and haven’t lost a game at home since December. Swansea and Sunderland are both tricky games for Man. United, and while Swansea may be playing attractive football, the final day at the Stadium of Light could be a fatal one. What the game against Everton taught us is that teams who are not afraid of attacking United’s back four, can actually keep up! I love the football Swansea has been playing, but they are a possession based team and I don’t see them pushing as much as Everton did. Sunderland on the final day, in their home stadium, should be have nothing to lose and could press United into an upset. This is probably the toughest call in Europe, Mancini has looked destroyed on the sidelines and in the press conferences, but his team has been playing hard, this could come down to goal differential.

Prediction: I almost can’t believe I’m saying this, but I have to stick with my gut. One way or another, Man City will win the title.

Serie A: Two Team Race

Pos

Team

P

W

D

L

F

A

GD

Pts

1 Juventus 33 19 14 0 57 18 39 71
2 AC Milan 33 20 8 5 63 27 36 68

After Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Bologna, AC Milan have paved the path for Juventus to take home the Scudetto. Winners of their past six ties, Juventus absolutely dominated 6th place AS Roma, hammering in four goals while conceding none. This is a Juve team that have averaged three goals per game over their past six victories, hitting their stride at the perfect time. In a one month span, Juventus faced Fiorentina, Inter, Napoli, Palermo, and Lazio consecutively in the league, while also facing Milan in the Coppa Italia. What happened? Six up, six down; Juve won them all except for a draw in the Coppa Italia which advanced them to them to the final anyway. The problem is that this Juventus team has never had any trouble with high-class opponents, but rather its been the provincial sides which  have caused them trouble. Here is a look at the road ahead for both teams:

Juventus remaining schedule:

(A) Cesena, (A) Novara, (H) Lecce, (A) Cagliari*, (H) Atalanta

AC Milan remaining schedule:

(H) Genoa, (A) Siena, (H) Atalanta, (A) Inter**, (H) Novara

*Cagliari will likely be playing the at the Rocco Stadium in Trieste due to security reasons at the Sant’Elia

** Derby match

The schedule advantage goes to Juventus; Lecce, Novara, and Cesena represent the bottom three in the Serie A and should be a breeze for the Bianconeri. Nevertheless, I caution the game against Lecce because this is a team fighting for relegation that have won two of their last three while managing a draw against Lazio in Rome. I don’t think Juve will lose a game, but don’t be surprised if they have trouble finding the net in one of these games and only manage a draw, the game against Cagliari is another to look out for (1-1 in their previous encounter in Turin). Milan will be fired up and will face a completely demoralized Genoa team after the debacle on Sunday. The derby against Inter is obviously their toughest test, but ultimately I don’t think Milan will drop more points. Does this mean I think they win the Scudetto? No, and here’s why: The Serie A is decided on head to head results rather than goal differential, meaning that if the two teams finish level, Juve win the title.

Prediction: Juventus win the title. They may draw a game along the way, but ultimately this team will come out on top, they have worked to hard not to.

La Liga: What else did you expect?

Pos

Team

P

W

D

L

F

A

GD

Pts

1 Real Madrid 34 28 4 2 109 30 79 88
2 Barcelona 34 25 6 3 97 26 71 81

It almost feels too late to be speculating after the last Classico. In case you’ve been living in a hole for the last week, Madrid took home three points after a 2-1 victory over the Camp Nou, highlighted by a brilliant through-ball by Mesut Ozil, setting up Cristiano Ronaldo for the match winner. Nevertheless, we still do have four games remaining, giving Barcelona just a glimmer of hope.

Real Madrid remaining schedule:

(H) Sevilla, (A) Bilbao (A) Granada, (H) Mallorca

Barcelona remaining schedule:

(H) Malaga, (H) Espanyol, (A) Betis, (A) Bilbao

Assuming Barcelona win out, for them to win La Liga, Madrid would have to lose two games and draw one to (leaving them on level points with Barcelona having a 4-3 head to head advantage). Bilbao away is the first game that stands out, so just for kicks lets assume Madrid will lose that one (which they likely won’t). The next tough one is against Sevilla… Anyone remembers that 6-2 in December? I’m not buying it, thats where I draw the line, even for kicks.

Prediction: Even though it’s not much of a prediction at this point, Real Madrid will win La Liga, barring an implosion so massive that all Merengues fans would hop on the Getafe bandwagon.

Ligue 1: Three Team Race

Pos

Team

P

W

D

L

F

A

GD

Pts

1 Montpellier 33 21 6 6 60 31 29 69
2 Paris Saint-Germain 33 19 10 4 63 35 28 67
3 Lille 33 17 11 5 62 36 26 62

Montpellier are the Cinderella story of the year in France. This is a team that finished in 12th place last year and was playing in second division just three years ago. Lead by Olivier Giroud (bound to bag himself a big contract this summer), they have rifled their way up the ranks while big-spenders PSG continue to look up in disbelief. Many of you may be wondering at this point why a Lille team seven points from the top is still in conversation. A look at their remaining schedule will tell you why.

Montpellier remaining schedule:

(A) Toulouse, (H) Evian, (A) Rennes, (H) Lille, (A) Auxerre

Paris Saint-Germain remaining schedule:

(A) Lille, (H) St. Etienne, (A) Valenciennes, (H) Rennes, (A) Lorient

Lille remaining schedule:

(H) PSG, (A) Nice, (H) Caen, (A) Montpellier, (H) Nancy

This race is tighter than meets the eye. To arrive to my final prediction, I will need to speculate on each week’s results. There is a glaring trend when it comes to Toulouse, the combination of a 3-0 win over Lyon at home and a 2-1 loss away at Evian tell the story, this team is good in front of their own fans. I don’t think Montpellier will lose, but they will draw. They will beat Evian, but another draw will come away to a Rennes team that have hit their stride and have Ajaccio up next. The match against Lille will be a title decider, I say Montpellier takes it, Lille will be hungry, but HSC has had to great of a year to let it all fizzle that late. Auxerre will be an easy three points. PSG looked great last weekend against Sochaux and something tells me they will ‘upset’ Lille at home. St. Etienne could spell trouble, but I think they will run through them and Valenciennes the week after. The home game at Rennes will ultimately come down to Rennes’ form during the next few weeks, but I’ll say this one ends in a draw. Lorient is no match for PSG. Sorry to the Lille fans, I am a big fan of Edin Hazard, but PSG have huge expectations to live up to and how can you pick against Cinderella. On the other hand, Lille will cruise by Nice, Caen, and likely Nancy on the final day.

Prediction: So assuming the soccer Gods honor my farfetched speculation, Montpellier will finish with 80 points, PSG will also finish with 80 points, and Lille will fall behind at 71. Ligue 1 is decided by goal differential, meaning that if all goes as predicted, this will be the tightest race in Europe. Right now Montpellier is ahead by a single goal. Despite Giroud’s spectacular year, I think PSG has more firepower and will probably finish ahead thanks to a final day trouncing of Lorient. I always love rooting for the smaller clubs, but Paris Saint-Germain takes the Ligue 1 title.

Liga Sagres: Two Team Race

Pos

Team

P

W

D

L

F

A

GD

Pts

1 Porto 27 20 6 1 60 17 43 66
2 Benfica 27 19 5 3 60 24 36 62

Benfica has been determined to stick close to Porto after lass seasons massacre, but the Dragões have only lost one match all year. The 3-2 Porto O Classico victory on March 2nd will likely prove the decisive factor this race, but with three games remaining, including a matchup of 3rd place Sporting Lisbon at the Estadio Dragao, the race is still open.

Porto remaining schedule:

(A) Maritimo, (H) Sporting Lisbon, (A) Rio Ave

Benfica remaining schedule:

(A) Rio Ave, (H) Uniao Leiria, (A) Vitoria Setubal

Assuming Benfica win out, which seems very possible considering the form of Rio and Setubal. Leiria could prove to be a tricky one, but in front of a ruckus Estadio da Luz, the Águias should have no trouble. Again, just for kicks, lets assume Porto drops 3 points against Lisbon. They would need to drop another 3 points (or draw two) to let Benfica win the title, as Liga Sagres is decided head-to-head. I don’t see it happening, Porto will cruise by Rio Ave and while Maritimo could cause a slip up, I still think Porto will crush their next three.

Prediction: Porto will win the Liga Sagres

Player Profile: Iker Muniain

Athletic Bilbao have improved immensely game by game under the new leadership of former Argentina and Chile boss Marcelo Bielsa. One of the key players for the Basque side is Iker Muniain, a 19 year old who can play on both wings, up front or as an attacking midfielder. He has great ball control, dribbling ability, pace and creativity which have resulted in him being dubbed the “Spanish Messi”. He is also nicknamed Bart Simpson for his similarity in appearance to the cartoon character and has a drawing of Bart on his shin pads.

The Spain under-21 international made his debut for Athletic Bilbao against Young Boys Bern in a Europa League qualifying match, in which he became the youngest player ever to represent the Basque side at 16 years, 7 months and 11 days. In the return game against Young Boys, he scored and broke another record as he became the clubs youngest ever scorer. The 2009-2010 season was the breakthrough season for the youngster, in which he played 26 games, got 4 goals La Liga and signed his first professional contract with the side. That season Muniain flourished after coming through the youth ranks in Bilbao; he demonstrated the first flash of his extreme potential on 4th October 2009 in a 2-2 draw at Real Valladolid when he became the youngest goal scorer in the history of La Liga; at that time he was only 16 years and 289 days old. The 2010-2011 season saw him rubber stamp his place within the Los Leones side as he starred as a left winger under Joaquin Caparros and got 35 games and 5 goals in his first season as an undisputed starter.

In addition to being dubbed the “Spanish Messi”, he has also drawn comparisons to Rooney for his work rate and enthusiasm to track back and win the ball. This mentality has put him in good stead with Bielsa and the 19 year old has been exemplary as Bilbao attack and defend as an organized unit: pressing the opposition fiercely after losing possession and attacking at pace when they win the ball back. Not blessed with the most imposing physique – he stands 5’6” tall – Muniain is deceptively stocky, possesses a blistering turn of pace and exceptional technical ability. His tiny size is a blessing to him as it allows him to be incredibly hard to mark due to his low centre of gravity. He is light and can accelerate as well as change direction at speeds which are unreachable for defenders. His running style is very intense and he takes a lot of tiny steps when sprinting. Running at high speeds obviously requires him to have a good ball control and that is something which he has developed to near perfection over the years.

On 8 February 2011, at the age of only 18, Muniain made his debut with the Under-21 in a match against Denmark, replacing Adrian Lopez. Subsequently, he was selected by manager Luis Villa to the squad that appeared in the 2011 Under-21 European Championship, appearing in all the games as the national team won its third title in the category and qualified to the 2012 Olympics.

It takes rare talent to break into a Spain side that is reining European and world champion but, at just 19 years of age, Muniain’s massive development at Bilbao has not gone unnoticed and he received his first cap for Vicente Del Bosque’s side in February when Spain faced Venezuela on 24 February 2012. Five days later, he came on for Cesc Fabregas in the 74th minute of the 5–0 win in Malaga.

The current season has been good so far for Muniain. He has got 2 goals and 3 assists from 29 matches in La Liga and has also been impressive on the European stage in the Europa League for Bilbao where he has helped them to reach the Finals with 5 goals and 2 assists. Though he has scored only two goals in La Liga this season for a club that is pushing for Champions League qualification and have a Copa del Rey final against Barcelona to look forward to, Muniain has also collected three assists and enjoys his role as the key component in the attack which has been flawless this year, lead by none other than his Spanish compatriot Fernando Llorente.

Under scrupulous and obsessive Argentinean coach Marcelo Bielsa. his evolution has continued swiftly. This season he has played on the left and in the centre of the pitch, providing much-needed speed and creativity to his team. He is arguably Bilbao’s most vigorous attacking midfielder. Muniain’s best attribute is his discipline on the pitch; he has rarely lost his temper and remains calm and composed under pressure, which is a great quality for a player who is so young. Having said that, he is only 19 years of age and has a long way to go and a lot to improve on. However, if he remains focused on his play and stays disciplined then he certainly looks sure to become one of the best players of his generation.

Linked with plenty of top European clubs in the past 12 months, Muniain could thrive on the stage provided to him at Old Trafford. After impressive performances against Manchester United in both home and away legs in the Europa League, he has ensured that he is one of the most sought after player in Europe. Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool are just a few of the clubs reportedly monitoring him and he will have plenty of clubs lining up for him should he decide to leave the Basque club.

Though he has already played as a left winger, supporting striker, center forward and an attacking midfielder for Bilbao, Muniain is far from fully developed. He is undoubtedly a player of huge potential and it may be best for him to stay at Bilbao for at least two more seasons and continue developing there before making a move to a bigger club.

Three reasons why Guardiola should take his sabbatical at Old Trafford

Well respected football writer, Oliver Holt, believes that Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola has stuck faithfully to a philosophy of playing beautiful football at Barcelona. Pep stands for something more than triumph or failure, and because of this, is wanted by every football club in the world.

I disagree, and in my opinion, Guardiola still has a lot to learn to be a legitimately world-class leader. So let’s examine the reasons why Pep should spend his sabbatical season, if he does take one, under the strong stewardship of the sublime Sir Fergie.

Reason one: the three year cycle

Jonathan Wills, in his blog, quotes the great Hungarian coach, Bela Guttmann, as once saying: “The third year is fatal. If a manager stays at a club more than that, his players tend to become bored and complacent and opponents start to work out counter-strategies. There are occasional exceptions, especially in weaker leagues, but at the highest level it seems to hold true that great teams last a maximum of three years.”

Jonathan states that Guttmann’s solution was to keep moving, collecting bigger and bigger signing-on bonuses, never hanging around long enough for entropy to set in – a sort of Mourinho of his day. Another solution of course, is for the manager to stay put and for the players to change, which is the sustainably superior strategy Sir Alex Ferguson has endlessly employed extremely successfully, time and time again, in his 25 years at Manchester United.

Guardiola is a lovingly loyal man and not someone who would want to continually change clubs every three years. Pep has chosen to move on from Barca, but it is clear he is not motivated by signing-on bonuses – he is simply keen to learn and develop as a manager, and is looking to do this over the course of next season.

One skill then that he must acquire: to recognise when there is a need to re-build and find the ruthless streak, strength and staying power to do it. This will enable him to emulate Ferguson’s loyalty, leadership and long-term success – and who better to learn these skills from than the great man himself.

Reason two: always have a back-up plan

Fergie’s teams, as well as playing attacking, attractive football, would take a win playing badly over playing pretty football and losing; Fergie is never afraid to change his tactics if he needs to in order to win; and he always has a plan B. These are traits that, arguably, as David Pleat points out in his blog, Barca lack under Guardiola.

A directness and sense of urgency is what was lacking from Barca’s recent performances against Madrid and Chelsea, and it was evident in all these big games that they did not benefit from stubbornly sticking to playing to Guardiola’s ideal of beautiful football – just look how Torres rubbed it in!

Fergie can show Pep that he can play his beautiful brand of brilliant football, but that to be a top manager he needs to compromise at times on his principles.

During United famous 2-1 Champions League win over Munich in 1999, Ferguson threw the kitchen sink at Bayern – United abandoned their passing style for long balls into the box – and it worked. Pep in contrast, with his team needing a goal to go through to the final against Chelsea, in Camp Nou, decided to continue his passing football. As a consequence of trying to pass it into the net until the end, Barca failed to do so and crashed out.

David Pleat, summaries perfectly: “Having the ball for 70% of the game is a futile statistic if you lose sight of your purpose in the last 40 yards.”

Fergie will be able to teach Guardiola that some situations call for only one football principle – winning by any means, way or style of play.

Reason three: mutual benefits

If the ‘noisy neighbours’ win the title then Ferguson will not walk away from the game – and if even United do retain their status as the superior side in English football, there’s still this season’s failings in Europe to address. This is why Guardiola coming to United, not as manager, but as Sir Alex’s assistant, to be groomed to be his replacement for the 2013/14 season, makes supreme sense.

It would give Fergie another experienced coach to bounce ideas off, particularly when it comes to Europe – an area United have not looked as assured in since Carlos Queiroz left.

Further, if United do end the season trophy-less, they will need to attract big names on and off the pitch in order to keep the likes of Rooney, who threatened to leave in the summer.

And for Guardiola, a cultured man who likes to study and learn, it would provide a great platform to get to know the club, team and Premier League. Remember that before becoming Barcelona’s manager, Pep coached their B team for a year, learning about many of the players he has now brought through to the first team, and he was also a player at Barca and knew the set up, the history and ethos of the club.

Sir Alex realises that at the age of 70, he needs to plan for United’s future, and what better way than replacing himself with someone who could potentially become the best coach on the planet, as well as allowing himself one final swan song.

Conclusion: the ultimate manager?

With the added  ingredients of being able to win at any cost, the ability to re-build a team and the experience of spending a year getting to know the United set-up, Pep would surely not only become the ultimate manager, but ensure United remain the ultimate team for another 25 years. What do you think?

Pellegrini manages to defy off-field restraints

It is an almost irrevocable fact that off-field issues at a football club will affect the performance of the team. Blackburn Rovers have been on a rapid decline since the Venky’s circus came to Lancashire, but the perfect example of this is Leeds United. In 2002/3, after a fifth-placed finish the season before, the club sold Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Keane during the summer as the full extent of the financial crisis became apparent. The club still retained players such as Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Ian Harte and Alan Smith amongst other internationals, but proficiency dropped alarmingly as the club slipped towards the economic abyss.

This is nothing more than common sense, in fact. If your employer was noted to be struggling financially, with a mix of facts, rumours and spurious nonsense spouted across multimedia channels regarding your continued employment, would you be able to operate at maximum? Or would, inevitably, morale, drive and motivation ebb away as you became more worried about the self than the collective? Football may be a team game, but that is a cliché less relevant in times of financial hardship. Players will be forced to think of their own well-being, and cannot be criticised for doing so.

All of which makes the achievements of Malaga CF all the more impressive, in an almost constant state of limbo since 2010. When Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani strode into town, he made the sort of promises so typical within modern football. There was to be a new stadium, a new academy, a new manager, new players and, most importantly, a new mindset. Malaga were no longer to be just another football team, and would become trendsetters for a new breed of club able to take on Europe’s elite.

It must be said, for the sake of fairness, that signs were promising on the Costa del Sol. Al-Thani made good on his claims of meaningful investment, and the club signed Salmon Rondon, Eliseu and Martin Demichelis, amongst others. Most importantly, Manuel Pellegrini was recruited as Head Coach, experience vastly required during such upheaval. After a 17thplace finish in 2009/10, Pellegrini led the team to eleventh in La Liga. The owner, sensing the potential for quick improvement, invested further still in player recruitment, bringing in Ruud van Nistelrooy, Isco, Jeremy Toulalan and Santi Cazorla to the new ‘project’.

Half way through last season Malaga were tenth, but a late surge saw them finish in fourth place, the club’s highest ever league finish and hence their first ever qualification for the Champions League. It was only the second time La Rosaleda would host European football, and the owner’s principal goal had been achieved in just two seasons. These were truly Halcyon days.

As so often seems to occur, the wheels soon came off. Whether Al-Thani lost interest, passion or disposable income (the latter would seem hugely unlikely), Malaga has become a very modern tale: rags to riches to rags.

It started last summer, when individuals filed complaints that they were owed wages from the club. In the close season, a host of first team players departed, including Cazorla, Van Nistelrooy, Rondon, Joris Mathijsen and Enzo Maresca. The club recouped £30million in transfer fees but spent just £600,000 on a season-long loan for Roque Santa Cruz, and Javier Saviola was brought in on a free transfer.

These were not the dealings of a club on the up, and it became clear that the owner no longer wished to fund his illusions of footballing grandeur. Then, on December 21st, UEFA dropped its bombshell. Malaga were banned from European competition for one season and fined £244,000 due to the debts still owed by the club for transfers involving Cazorla, Rondon and Toulalan. The full extent of such debts are not known, but it is clear that Malaga have been operating on borrowed time for months rather than weeks. There have been recent reports of negotiations with Albanian company Taci Oil Group International, but this has so far been denied by all parties.

And yet, amongst such a sh*tstorm of football economics, Pellegrini remains stoically at the helm, steering his side admirably on the field. Despite all the summer departures, Malaga currently sit fifth in the La Liga table. No club in the league has a tighter defence, and they drew at the Camp Nou in the first leg of their Copa Del Rey quarter final.

In the club’s debut Champions League season, results have been even more impressive given the instability. In reaching the first knockout stage (where they will face FC Porto), Los Boquerones have played eight games, and remain undefeated. In taking four points off every team in the group stage (including Zenit St Petersburg and AC Milan) Malaga have established themselves as the surprise package of this season’s competition.

Given the downturn in resources and insecurity surrounding the club, Pellgerini’s performance cannot be overstated. He has utilised a fluid front four of Saviola, Joaquin, Francisco Portillo and Isco, who has been La Liga’s unheralded star this season. Left back Eliseu is invited to venture forward, but the defensive solidity provided by Demichelis at the back and Toulalan in midfield has been incredibly effective. Whether such success in adversity can continue remains to be seen.

In many ways, Al-Thani was destined to fail. He was attempting to initiate a foreign plan into Andalusian culture. He was presumably hoping to make money in Spanish football (impossible against the might of Barcelona and Real Madrid) and attempting to profit in Spain, one of Europe’s financial doldrums. And he is guilty of a severe case of biting off more than he could ever hope to chew.

Until now, Manuel Pellegrini has fought against a tide that has swept many aside, and performed admirably amidst the madness. One suspects, however, that the muscle of financial restraint will prove to much to bear. If Malaga’s appeal is rejected in March, league position becomes irrelevant, and motivation amongst players will wither away. If the club cannot prove that they are paying back creditors by the end of that same month, their European ban will extend for a further season. Pelligrini may again be forced to sell to battle debts that will surely become insurmountable.

If and when that happens, the coach can walk out of La Rosaleda with his head held high, the one person that deserves to do so, reputation enhanced rather than crumbled like the dreams of long-suffering supporters.

When Salva met Celta

A couple of weeks ago Celta de Vigo, who are currently battling relegation from Spain’s Primera Division, fired manager Paco Herrera and replaced him with former Atletico Madrid stalwart Abel Resino. As with most managers, Resino wanted to bring his own coaching staff with him. Normally, this is no big deal; but in this case, his choice of Salva Ballesta for his assistant manager caused a lot of problems.

Salva Ballesta is one of the more controversial figures in Spanish football. His playing career saw him play for several Spanish clubs; most notably two spells at Atletico Madrid, and included a short loan spell at Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League which was in the middle of a pretty unsuccessful few seasons at Valencia.

Unfortunately for him, rather than being known for on-field achievements, Ballesta was more known for his political views, and his willingness to express them. Ballesta comes from a military background; in fact, Ballesta is a qualified fighter pilot himself. Whereas Ballesta would describe himself as being nothing more than very patriotic (he used to have the Spanish flag stitched on his boots); others have described him as a fascist.

While not openly fascist like some other footballers (Paolo Di Canio springs to mind), Ballesta has made some comments that seem to justify being given that label. He has publicly expressed admiration for people such as Hans Rudel, the highly decorated Nazi pilot who was part of the machinery that helped Josef Mengele remain undetected in South America after WW2. He has also expressed admiration for Joaquin Garcia-Morato, a leading Francoist aviator in the Spanish Civil War and has said he would like to meet Antonio Tejero, who led an attempted coup d’état in 1981 in a bid to overthrow Spain’s fledgling democracy.

Spain is a country with regions that have distinct identities, cultures and, in many cases, languages. It is a country where many of those regions are autonomous and several wonder whether or not they should remain part of Spain or try to seek independence. Those questions are most publicly asked in Catalonia and the Basque Country. When asked for his opinion on Basque or Catalan separatism during a TV debate last year, Ballesta said “If there is any Basque or Catalan who doesn’t feel Spanish, they are f**ked, because they were born in Spain”.

In February 2007, Barcelona defender Oleguer, a man who supports Catalonian independence and someone with his own set of political opinions and a willingness to express them, wrote an article (with a title that roughly translates to ‘In Good Faith’ for the Catalan magazine Setmanari de Comunicacio Directa (and it was also printed in the Basque newspaper Berria). In his article, Oleguer openly questioned the impartiality of the Spanish judicial system when it came to separatists, and questioned whether or not the current political system meant that Spain was truly a democracy.

The fallout to this article was intense. As an example of, what he perceived to be, the hypocrisy of the Spanish judicial system Oleguer used a convicted ETA terrorist as an example. It was only supposed to be an example, but people interpreted it as a tacit support of terrorism. Oleguer received death threats and lost sponsorship deals as a result and was booed in most of the grounds he played in around Spain. Then Salva Ballesta weighed in. His Levante side were playing at the Nou Camp and before the match he was asked for his opinion on Oleguer. Ballesta showed his usual tact by stating that he had ‘more respect for a dog’s shit’ than for Oleguer.

In 2009, in what proved to be Ballesta’s final season before retirement, Ballesta was playing for Albacete, when they made the trip to Vigo to play Celta. Vigo is in Galicia (which is in North West Spain), a region of Spain with its own language and, while not as prominent as the Catalan and Basque movements, a strong separatist movement of their own. This means that someone like Ballesta who has a history of denouncing separatists would receive a pretty hostile reception, especially from the Celterras, the Celta ultras who are vocal supporters of Galician nationalism. That’s exactly what happened. Ballesta was a substitute and was sent out to warm up. Whilst warming up some sections of the crowd started making chants such as “Salva Ballesta, shot in the head” and “ETA kill him”.

So when it emerged that Abel Resino was bringing Ballesta, an old Atletico Madrid teammate, as his assistant, many Celta fans quickly took to the internet denouncing the appointment. When terms such as ‘fascist’ and ‘Nazi’ are being used about someone you’ve just agreed to hire, it’s enough to make any employer think twice. That’s what Celta President Carlos Mourino evidently did, as the club suddenly withdrew their offer of employment to Ballesta.

This happened so late in the recruitment process that Ballesta had quit his job as a youth coach with Malaga and was about halfway through the drive to Vigo from Malaga when he got told that he no longer had a job to go to.
Ballesta expressed his disappointment in Mourino’s decision to rescind the job offer. He said “These days it’s a shame to confuse politics with sport. I’ve never spoken about politics; I’ve always said that I feel Spanish”, which on the face of it, seems a bit rich coming from a guy who regularly mixed politics with sport during his playing career.

Mourino denied that politics or fan pressure played any part in the decision to rescind the job offer, saying: “We do our research and inquiries, as always, without exception, and decided that he could not come to Celta. We analyse the problems he had in other teams as a player… We analyse everything and decided that this person could not be hired by Celta.

“Pressure from social network reaction? I don’t know what Salva says and I will not argue here with him. Indeed, for me the issue with Salva does not exist. I am the President of the club who had to make the decision to bring him here as a Coach or not.

“We made a number of inquiries and decided not to bring him. If someone wants to make Celta political, Celta will not go into that. You know that we do not do politics and we never will”

It seems strange that Mourino agreed to offer Ballesta a job in the first place, as it is patently clear that Salva Ballesta was not a good fit for Celta. Employing a guy who once shouted “Viva Espana, bastards!” at a group of fans when playing at Osasuna (a Basque team), to be the coach of a club from a region with a strong national identity of its own and with the majority of its fanbase coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum, was never going to work, so it was a horrible misjudgement on his part for things to get as far as they did.

I’m a believer in free speech. Salva Ballesta is free to think and say whatever he wants, even when he’s making moronic statements with fascist undertones. However, this experience may teach him that it works both ways. If he’s free to say whatever he likes, other people are equally free to not like what he says and he shouldn’t be surprised when he’s not welcome in a place where the people have completely opposite views to him, and as a result of his statements, he has to realise he may have limited the number of football clubs that would be willing to employ him and have even further limited the number of clubs with fans willing to accept someone with his views.

Sergio Busquets – “Enforcing” Barca’s Success

Sergio Busquets’ promotion to the Barca first team must be one of the fastest career ascents in Barca history. In 2005, the youngster joined Barca’s Juvenil A team, and became part of Barca’s world renouned La Masia youth system. Who would have known that by 2008 the big man from Sabadell, Catalunya would be playing his first 90 minutes of football under Pep Guardiola, a man who was not only his coach at Barca B but also a firm believer in Sergio’s ability. It is clear that Busquets is valued at the Camp Nou (His buy out clause amounts to €150 million) , there’s no doubt about it. However, at times I feel as if his contribution to a game is overlooked slightly. People rant and rave about Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and don’t get me wrong, they warrant and earn their praise, but I feel that these plaers abilities to shine have been greatly enhanced through the “dirty work” that Busquets does. He adds balance to the team, dropping to defend and breaking up play before releasing the ball back to the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc and Thiago to do what they do best. Without Busquets, Barca’s creative instigators would be a lot less able.

Busquets is a gifted footballer with clear technical ability. He’s got it all, he can attack, defend, pass, dribble, break up play, everything. For me he’s the complete midfielder – box to box for a full 90 minutes without losing concentration or hunger. It doesn’t matter whether Barca are 3-0 up or 3-0 down, Busquets puts the work in and his hunger or determination has never been in question. He plays the famous pivote role in the Barca squad. The pivote sits between defence and midfield breaking up play and is usually the source of the next attacking move. Guardiola himself played the pivote role that Busquets does now and, in precentage terms, Busquets is the player that resembles his former coach the most. Growing up on the mean streets of Badia del Ballés, Busquets learned a thing or two about standing up for himself. These days however, it’s not himself that he has to stand up for, it’s his midfield comrades Xavi, Iniesta etc. If “Busi” feels that there is a threat to his little compatriots, he’s not shy to bring his own element of nastiness to the game. Not to smear his otherwise clean and fair image but lets put it this way, he doesn’t put up with any sort of intimidation of his team. This element of his game has brought him the nickname -”The Enforcer”.

<> at Camp Nou on August 23, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain.

Busquets simply adds steel to a Barca midfield that would otherwise be week and vulnerable to the physicality of the modern game. Aside from his 6 foot 2 inch stature, Busquets’ tackling ability is outstanding. His ability to read the game makes it easy for him to break up play, intercept a pass or make a last ditch tackle that may often spare Barca’s blushes. Sergio Busquets is an incredibly intelligent footballer with a real mind for the game. The impact Busquets has on where the pressing takes place, which has become emblematic of Guardiuola’s era, shows his value to the Barca team. It’s a progressive move – The defenders push up, Busquets moves the midfield up and so, Barca’s frontmen push high up the pitch, hounding the opposition for possession of the ball. Guardiola’s system meant that when the fullbacks attacked up the flanks, Busquets dropped back alongside Piqué and Puyol to defend against the counter. When this happens, Barca convert into a 3-4-3 formation, with Busquets acting as a centre half and the two fullbacks acting as wingers. This is Busquets. He allows others to shine while he himself, is content in the doing the unseen stuff, the tactical moves, the so called “dirty work”.

At the age of twenty four, Sergio Busquets’ success at the professional level has been nothing short of outstanding. Already, he’s won three league titles, two Copa del Reys, two Champions League medals, a World Cup medal and a European Cup medal, to name just a few. He was also included in the UEFA team of the tournament for his performances in Euro 2012. It’s not as if Busquets came along at the right moment, steeling in on these awards and victories, He’s been part of the success, part of a golden generation of gifted Spanish footballers. He’s been key in all of the triumph and domination, for both Barca and Spain. And at the fruitful age of twenty four, let’s hope he continues to grow and prosper. Sergio Busquets – “Enforcing” Barca’s success.