Pique, Why You Divin’?

On the 22nd of August 2011, Napoli were invited to the Camp Nou to take on Barcelona  in a friendly match in tribute to Joan Gamper, the founder of Football Club Barcelona. The Joan Gamper Cup is held annually in August before the start of La Liga. Four teams participate in the competition which features two semi-finals, a final and a third place playoff. This season, Barca faced Napoli in the final.

In the 10th minute, Napoli’s Cavani scored an exceptional overhead kick that was correctly disallowed for offside. Marek Hamšík was in an offside position when he headed the ball on to Cavani. You can check his magnificent shot in the video below.

What I would really like to talk about in this post is the reaction of Pique throughout the video. As we can clearly see, Pique waits until the ball goes in before holding his head in agony.  This can be clearly noticed at the 36 to 40 seconds mark. The first thing he does after getting up is checking his socks and adjusting them accordingly. Is this the first thing that you do after getting kicked in the head?

Moreover, it was an exhibition/friendly match. Why would he think about diving in this case? Not that the nature of the match matters. This type of behavior should be completely abolished from the game because it is ruining it for us. I know that football is a very competitive game and some players are ready to do anything to win, but at least keep the game clean.

We are seeing more and more diving in football because of all the pressure that players are put under; both from the fans and from the media. They are required to perform every week at a very high level and this puts so much stress on them. This doesn’t mean that they should resort to dirty tactics in order to win. The pressure and stress are part of the footballers job; if you are unable to handle it then maybe you are not made for this type of job. Maybe you are playing at a level higher than you can handle. All I know is that if you are a diver then you are a cheater, and cheaters should be punished.

I am not trying to offend anyone in this post, it’s just that I found this dive pretty funny and interesting. Here is another very funny dive by the Chilean, Bryan Carrasco. I don’t think he knows that there are cameras filming him, or maybe he does and he’s auditioning for an acting role.

Xabi Alonso, La Barba Roja

Xabi Alonso is a player who probably doesn’t come up in conversations as often as he should. This is no surprise given the quality of the team he plays for, Real Madrid. As a veteran of the sport, Alonso has had a wonderful career and has already garnered a number of trophies but there’s more to this man than his statistics imply.

Born into a footballing dynasty that few players can match, Xabi found himself immersed in a Football environment from a young age. His father is Spanish legend Periko Alonso; a decorated player who won two successive La Liga titles with Real Sociedad – the club that began molding Xabi into the player he is today – and a third with Barcelona. He was also a valued player in the Spanish national team. Thus the elder Alonso certainly provided an environment that facilitated his son’s emerging love of the game.

The seeds of his career were sown around his seventh birthday when his family moved to the Northern Spanish city of San Sebastian. Alonso and his peers would spend hours playing the game at Play de la Concha. It was there that Alonso would meet his long-time friend and later rival, current Arsenal midfielder Mikel Arteta. The boys, under the watch of Arteta’s father, were taken to Second division team CE Sabadell’s training ground to hone their skills.

Alonso took inspiration from his father’s playing style and emulated him by becoming a central midfielder. He seemed to get more satisfaction from playing an integral role in developing the play rather than going for goal. Early on, Alonso selected the defensive midfielder role as his preferred position. This decision surely helped develop his keen ability to deliver balls to advancing teammates, which is his defining attribute. Indeed today he is the prime example of a “Regista” or deep-lying playmaker.

A couple of years later, we find our emerging footballer playing alongside Arteta in the Antiguoko youth squad. Their thriving midfield partnership attracted the attention of top team scouts and led to the breakup of their nine-year friendship as Alonso moved to his father’s alma mater, Real Sociedad and Arteta went to Barcelona. Alonso progressed and his talent did not go unnoticed as he made his first team debut at the age of 18. A brief loan spell in the 2000-01 season at second division team Eibar gave Alonso an opportunity to improve his game and play a leading role in the team, due to regular playing time. This provided invaluable experience.

In the 2002-03 season, Sociedad and Alonso finished second in La Liga behind Real Madrid, thus qualifying for the UEFA Champions League, a first for the club. This hallmark achievement led to recognition as “Best Spanish Player” by a sports magazine and his selection for his international debut. After this season it became clear that Alonso was beginning to outgrow the limited environment of Sociedad. Despite interest from Real Madrid, Alonso’s price tag proved too high for Los Blancos. During the transfer window, Alonso and Arteta’s paths crossed once more as Arteta joined Sociedad’s ranks. The opportunity to revive their partnership was short-lived since English club Liverpool snatched Alonso away. However, they would later meet again on Merseyside when Alonso played for Liverpool and Arteta plied his trade for local rivals Everton.

With Alonso’s football nous, the Merseyside club entered a new era of success. Under then-manager Rafa Benitez, the club sought to revolutionize and redefine the approach of the team. Alonso suffered the first major setback of his career with Liverpool after an unfortunate tackle on Frank Lampard led to a broken ankle. Alonso returned to the squad in the second leg of the 2004-05 Champions League quarter final against Italian Serie A veterans Juventus. Filling in for an injured Steven Gerrard, he played the full 90 minutes in less than perfect shape, as he was fresh off the injury table. Despite a shaken squad, Liverpool was able to grind out a 0-0 draw and pulled through on aggregate to the semi-finals. Despite a lackluster 5th place finish in the Premiere league for the Reds, glory was beckoning in Europe where the club reached the Champions League final. During the game many have dubbed “the miracle of Istanbul”, the Spaniard found himself staring down AC Milan’s keeper Dida after the Merseyside club won a penalty while they were trailing 3-2. The Brazilian shot-stopper blocked Alonso’s first attempt but was unable to keep out the second as the Spaniard rocketed a volley into the top of the net. With extra-time yielding no winner, the penalty shootout crowned Liverpool as the Champions League winners. An ecstatic Alonso declared “This is the best moment in my professional career.”

During an additional four seasons at Liverpool, Alonso cemented his reputation as a world-class footballer and played an integral part in his team’s FA Cup success in 2006. One thing about Alonso that can’t be disputed is his loyalty. He truly loved Liverpool, despite claims that the club was attempting to offload him in the 2008 summer transfer window and bring in Aston Villa midfielder Gareth Barry. The move never materialized but the drawn-out transfer saga soured relations with Benitez and Alonso decided it was time to leave. He would eventually say goodbye to Anfield a year later.

After a transfer to Real Madrid said to be worth around 30 million pounds, Alonso received his number 22 and began the 2009-2010 campaign. For the past two years, he has often been the first name on the team sheet and he is without a doubt an integral cog in the Madrid machine. In his first season at the Bernabeu, he again helped his team set a new points total record in the league, after doing so with Sociedad and Liverpool (however Real still finished second in La Liga). Now wearing the number 14 jersey under manager Jose Mourinho, Xabi continues to see plenty of playing time and the current season is shaping up to be yet another one of quality from the Spaniard.

At 30, Alonso still has plenty to offer at the top level. He gives more than just football ability; showing loyalty, consistency, and love of the game. As the first player in the EPL to have completed 1000 passes in a season, Alonso’s accuracy continues to impress and only time will tell what is still in store for, as the Spanish press and teammates call him, La Barba Roja.

Marcelo Bielsa’s man-marking system

This video shows Athletic Bilbao’s impressive defensive game plan against Barcelona in their league game. Led by their Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa, commonly known as Loco Bielsa, Athletic have been employing innovative tactics. Known for embracing youth, Bielsa’s first move was to dismiss three older players. He then brought in three youngsters to replace them: De Marcos (22 years old), Iturraspe (22 years old) and Jon Aurtenetxe (20 years old).

This video shows you exactly how his man-marking system works. Against strong sides he relies on good defensive performances which results in a more counterattacking approach, while against weaker sides he plays a tiki-taka possession style.

The game in the video ended in a 2-2 draw and both sides will meet again in the Copa Del Rey final on the 25th of May.

Interesting Fact of the Day: La Liga, the Two Horse Race

As we can see from the above table, Real Madrid are top of La Liga with a goal difference of +59 and Barcelona are second with a GD of +52. The team with the next highest goal difference is third-placed Valencia with a GD of +8.  Moreover, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are leading the goal scoring chart with 29 and 28 goals respectively. It is interesting to note that 12 La Liga clubs (highlighted in yellow) haven’t managed to score as much goals as either players.

What more can be said? The numbers speak for themselves, Real Madrid and Barcelona are far ahead of the competition.

Real Madrid on Fire this Season

When José Mourinho was appointed manager of Real Madrid in June 2010, he stated that his teams are always better in his second season. It appears he was right, because his Real Madrid is currently the runaway leader of La Liga, and on course to break 3 major historical records.

Real are averaging a staggering 3.4 goals a game, and look almost certain to break the current La Liga record of 107 goals in one season, held by the 1989/90 Toshack managed Los Blancos side. That team had a 2,8 goal average, and finished with a +69 goal difference. It was the famous “Quinta del Buitre“, led by legendary striker Emilio Butragueño. Their dominance of the Spanish League was obvious, with 5 La Liga titles in a row as well as 2 UEFA Cups. But the current Madrid side has 13 more goals than the 89/90 side had at the same time in the season, and a much better goal average. Should Madrid continue to score 3.4 goals a game, they will end the season with a whopping 129 goals, 22 more than Toshack’s side.

Another record on the line is the number of points in a season, currently held by the 2009/10 Barcelona team, which finished the season with 99 points(31W 6D 1L). Madrid has so far played 25 games (22W 1D 2L), winning 89% of their games. Should they maintain this winning form, they will end the season with 101 points, or to put it another way: Real Madrid can allow themselves to lose two games and still beat Barcelona’s points record.

Of course, to get the most points in a season, a team must also have the most wins, and that is the third record Madrid are set to break due to their great run of form this season. This record is currently shared by Real Madrid and Barcelona, again from 2009/2010, with 31. With 22 wins already and 13 games remaining, Madrid must win at least 10 of them to achieve 32 wins or more. But considering that Madrid has so far only dropped points in a total of 3 games , this also looks like a record which is bound to be broken.

While there is no doubt that Real Madrid’s current squad is very good, it shouldn’t take the credit away from José Mourinho, who himself has just broken a historical record in La Liga. Last week he became the fastest coach ever to win 50 games, needing just 62 games to do so. By doing this, he has beaten all the great coaches in La Liga, including Pep Guardiola (67 games needed), Real Madrid legend Miguel Muñoz (70 games), Capello and Cruyff (both at 80 games), while Vicente del Bosque, who won 2 Champions Leagues with Real, had to wait till his 92nd game in charge. Mourinho has taken a very good Madrid squad and turned them into a world class team. A team many are calling “the best counter-attacking team in the world today”.

Finally, Cristiano Ronaldo has done the impossible and actually improved his goal scoring form from last season, when he scored a record 40 league goals (some claim he scored 41, due to one goal being given to Pepe because of a small deflection). Let’s say he scored 41 goals, that gives him a goals to games ratio of 1,07. However, this season he already has 30 goals in only 25 games, which equals 1.2 goals a game. If he maintains his form, he will end the league with an incredible 46 goals! The fact that Messi is breathing down his neck will most certainly motivate him more.

When looking at the numbers, one would almost instantly conclude that no team in La Liga history is better than Real Madrid. But the one team they are set to knock off the top, Barcelona, is still a thorn in Mourinho’s side. Real Madrid have yet to find the right formula against Barcelona, and should they succeed in beating all these records and winning the league, the achievement will still be bittersweet if Madrid can’t beat Barcelona at the Camp Nou in April. Or even better, in a potential Champions League final between the two Spanish giants.

Rafael Benitez: Football’s Forgotten Man

Honours:

La Liga (2): 2001-02, 2003-04

UEFA Cup (1): 2003-04

UEFA Champions League (1): 2004-05

UEFA Champions League Runner Up (1): 2006-07

FA Cup (1): 2005-06

FA Community Shield (1): 2006

UEFA Super Cup (1): 2005

Supercoppa Italia (1): 2010

FIFA Club World Cup (1): 2010

Individual awards:

Don Balón Award (1): 2001-02

UEFA Manager of the Year(2): 2003-04, 2004-05

FA Premier League Manager of the Month (5)

All of these achievements in the span of only ten years. Surely this is the track record of a world class manager? Strangely enough, many would disagree. The track record is that of someone who in the past couple of years has become criminally underrated: Rafael Benitez.

After the demise of his Liverpool career and his doomed stint at Inter, the achievements of the Spaniard seem to be almost forgotten by many.

Rafa took over the managerial role at Valencia in 2001 after a successful spell gaining promotion into the Spanish Primera with Club Deportivo Tenerife. Valencia had suffered two back-to-back heartbreaking defeats in the Champions League final in the two previous seasons and a considerable number of that team’s big stars (Mendieta, Deschamps, Milla and Zahovic) had recently been sold by the time Benitez arrived. In his debut season in top flight football, Benitez won the Spanish Primera. Valencia’s watertight defence, led and characterised by the unfaltering Roberto Ayala, was the main reason behind their success, conceding only 27 goals in the league. In terms of attacking play, it’s noticeable that no member of the Valencia team that season featured in the top six of the Pichichi trophy race which goes to show the collective strength of this Valencia team.

Rafael Benitez would outdo his debut season at Valencia a year later by winning the double in the 2003-04 season. Frontrunners Real Madrid collapsed in the final stages of the season and Valencia ruthlessly beat them to the league title. They also achieved European success by winning the UEFA Cup. A tight defence again was the biggest reason for Los Che’s achievements that season under Benitez. They conceded only 27 goals in the league and 5 goals in 13 European games en route to the their UEFA Cup triumph. Outstanding seasons from wingers Rufete and Vicente coupled with the clinical strike rate of striker Mista proved to be a winning combination for Valencia as Mista finished the season third in the Pichichi race while Vicente came to be regarded as the most in-form player in Spain that season. Indeed, despite only being 22 years old at the time he quickly became a permanent fixture in the Spanish national side. Rafa still remains the last manager to win La Liga with a club other than Real Madrid or Barcelona.

Benitez was hot property thanks to his success over the past three seasons at the Mestalla. Disagreements with the Valencia chairman and a feeling of unappreciation at the club led to him leaving the Mestalla and taking the reins at Anfield.  Liverpool were a club desperately trying to revive the glorious heights of their past and Benitez, at some points during his time there, propelled them back into the big time. In his first season at Liverpool he managed to win the Champions League, the most prestigious club tournament in the world, with a squad that was largely still the making of previous managers – out of all the players who played in that final, only Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia had been Benitez signings. That night In Istanbul went down as one of the most unforgettable matches in football history. It is no understatement to say that Benitez greatly overachieved with the squad he had at his desposal at this time with the likes of Djimi Traore, Steve Finnan, John Arne Riise, Jerzy Dudek and Vladimir Smicer playing against a Milan side busrting with superstars.

In the 2005-2006 season, another trophy came Liverpool’s way in the form of the FA Cup and by the start of the next season, Benitez had greatly strengthened his side through the acquisitions of Daniel Agger, Pepe Reina, Fabio Aurelio and Dirk Kuyt. Again, Rafa achieved the unexpected when he took Liverpool to another Champions League final. However, AC Milan had learned the lessons of their previous meeting and Liverpool lost 2-1. The Reds again strengthened in the summer adding the likes of Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano, Lucas Leiva amd Alvaro Arbeloa to their ranks. Torres in particular became a fan favorite with 23 league goals in his debut season. In the 2008-09 season, Benitez finished with Liverpool’s highest ever English Premier League point tally (86 points) and chased Manchester United all the way to the final matchday to decide the league title. United proved to be the winners in the end although Liverpool did record a memorable 1-4 away victory at Old Trafford against their rivals. The following season proved to be a bitterly disappointing one for Liverpool, with the sale of Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa to Real Madrid and with key players Torres and Gerrard both missing large chunks of the season through injury. Also, Alberto Aquilani, the player brought in to fill the void left by Alonso’s departure, was a completely different type of player and, as a result, the team could not re-adjust to his strengths. Aquilani had also spent most of the year on the treatment table at Roma before joining Liverpool and Benitez was accused of being too cautious in introducing the player into action. Liverpool finished 7th at the end of that season and Benitez was dimssed from his role in June 2010. The Spaniard’s conflictual relationship with Liverpool owners Gillette and Hicks, along with his failure to finish the season in the Champions Leagues spots and the team’s dismal run in the league that year all led to his departure from Anfield.

Although Benitez failed to win a league title during his spell with Liverpool, his record there is excellent. Benitez left England with an impressive win percentage during his first 200 games in charge which will be illustrated in the table below. Also, it is interesting to compare Rafael Benitez’ points per match average at Liverpool to Harry Redknapp’s at Tottenham Hotspur. Redknapp achieved 1.73 points per match on average while Benitez gained 1.87 points.

Name Win % during first 200 games in charge in England
Rafael Benitez 56.80%
Arsene Wenger 55.00%
Sir Alex Ferguson 43.50%
Win % during first 200 games in charge at Liverpool
Rafael Benitez 56.80%
Bob Paisley 56.50%
Bill Shankly 53.00%
Gerard Houllier 50.50%

Benitez then moved to Italy and took on the role of manager at Inter Milan, a side that had achieved a historic treble under Jose Mourinho the previous season. Benitez’ spell at Inter was short-lived but he still managed to win two trophies whilst there before being sacked in late December 2010. Mourinho himself claimed that he had pushed the Inter squad to its limits and that any manager would’ve had an impossible task motivating a side that had achieved so much. Inter have had three managers since Benitez and all (with the exception of Leonardo) have fared just as poorly.

One thing that goes by unnoticed about Benitez is the performances he gets out of players. There are more than a handful of top quality players who can be said to have played by far the best football of their career under the Spaniard. The most notable examples are Steven Gerrard, Fernando Tores, Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Vicente Rodriguez, Roberto Ayala, Ruben Baraja, Carlos Marchena, Francisco Rufete, Mista, Pablo Aimar and Luis Garcia. No other mananger has been able to get such strong performances out of them. Indeed, Benitez leaving their club led to many of these players experiencing a loss of form. Gerrard, Torres and Vicente in particular have come nowhere near replicating the same form they showed under Benitez. Despite the (arguably fair) criticism he received for some of his purchases in the transfer market during his time at Liverpool, he did bring in and nurture a number of players who became key players at Anfield – Daniel Agger, Lucas Leiva, Dirk Kuty, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Alvaro Arbeloa, Javier Mascherano and Fabio Aurelio.

Just two of the players who have failed to get back to the level they were playing at under Benitez.

Since his departure from Inter, Rafa has been linked to numerous positions at big clubs (Chelsea being the most recent) but he remains unemployed. The feats he achieved at Valencia and Liverpool now play second fiddle in most minds to his poorer spells in his last season at Anfield and at Inter Milan. It’ll be intriguing to see Rafa’s next choice as he tries to rebuild his reputation. One thing is for sure though, the club that takes on Rafael Benitez will have employed a manager who has a history of over-achieving and whose track record shows a man who knows his football, despite what many may say.

A Tribute to Juanito

Real Madrid is known for the quality of its players, the magical moments that the great white legends have brought to their audiences. The list of names is endless and filled with true artisans of the craft. Di Stefano and his 5 European trophies, Zinedine Zidane and the legendary volley that gave the 9th European title to the Merengues, Butrageño’s breath taking dribbles in the box, Hugo Sanchez and the 38 first touch goals in a single season. Real Madrid has cultivated a long tradition of exquisite players that gave the Club its fame with feats of skill, endurance and will. Yet among the galaxy of stars that fills the club’s history, there is one star that has left an impression so great in the hearts of the Madridistas that it is still remembered in every match, the one player that left an impression so profound that every 7th minute the Santiago Bernabeu stadium still roars with his name, Juan Gómez González “Juanito”.

Juanito was a peculiar man, full of life and always living in emotional extremes. His teammates remember him as an intense and impulsive character capable of arguing with them to the point of fighting and coming up the next moment with an apology and a hug from the heart. The man lived and played with the passion of young love, and it was this passion and fighting spirit that tied him forever to Real Madrid, but his beginnings as a football player started on the opposite side of the street.

Juanito was signed at 14 years of age by Real Madrid’s city rivals Atletico de Madrid, and made his debut with the first team in 1973, at just 17 years of age. The legend says that Juanito forged his papers to be able to play with the U18 squad in a friendly game vs SL Benfica where he scored two goals; however, an unfortunate incident changed his future as a football star. In an accidental play with Henrique, Benfica’s goal keeper, Juanito fractured his tibia and fibula, an injury that would make him miss the rest of the season in a long recovery process that kept him away from the pitch for almost a year.

After a long recovery, Juanito was fit and ready to play again but Atletico’s Coach Juan Carlos Lorenzo decided that there was no space left for him in the team. In August of 1973, Juanito was loaned to second division side Burgos CF. After a rocky first season Juanito turned into the sole star and led the humble team into the first Spanish division. In his first season in the top league, Juanito earned the best player award, attracting the attention of the most important clubs in Spain.

He signed for Real Madrid in 1977 for 27 million pesetas; Juanito later stated that playing for Real Madrid was his childhood dream and that “signing for Real Madrid is like touching the sky”. Which would explain why he rejected Football Club Barcelona’s 50 million pesetas offer in favor of the White club.

 

Squad of 1978-1979. Juanito is the second from the left in the bottom row.

In his time at the club, he played alongside other Madrid legends like Santillana, Uli Stielike, Vicente Del Bosque and José Antonio Camacho. Juanito played as a right winger; fast, agile and elegant, with the ball abilities that turned him into one of the best players of his time. He was also a fan favorite not only for his displays of skill but for his determination and love for the club.  But it was this same intense and impulsive character that made him unpredictable and often a reckless person.

Juanito was such a strong character that he could split the Madridistas into his supporters and the defectors, yet no one dared to deny his greatness. In 1978 he was suspended for 2 years of European competition by UEFA for attacking referee Adolf Prokov, Juanito later apologized and stated profusely that his intention were never to hurt or assault him.

In his stay at Real Madrid, Juanito won 2 UEFA cups, 4 Spanish League titles, 2 domestic cups (copa del Rey) and a second place in the Champions league.  But perhaps what Juanito and the rest of his team will forever remember is the spirit of the “Magical European nights”, the spirit of conquest that took over the team and the whole stadium to help them comeback from seemingly certain defeats. During Juanito’s tenure at Real Madrid, the team managed to come back from losing the first leg in the final rounds an astonishing total of 15 times. Whenever it was time for a comeback he was one of those who would scream most, pressure the referees, disturb the rivals, and encourage his teammates.

It was this fighting spirit that helped them comeback from a 5-1 loss vs Borussia Monchengladbach with a 4-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu, and in the next round of the same tournament they managed to fight back from a 3-1 loss vs Inter Milan. It was in this match where Juanito said his Immortal Line: “Noventa minuti en el Bernabéu son molto longo” (90 minutes are the Bernabéu is a very long time).

Sadly, the intense character that ignited the team’s spirit and the public, also brought the end of his career at Real Madrid. In 1987, during a Bayern Munich vs Real Madrid match, Lothar Matthäus, Bayern’s midfielder, committed a brutal foul on Chendo. Juanito reacted in what he later claimed to be the worst mistake in his career, he stomped Matthäus while the German was on the ground. Juanito was expelled and faced a 5 year ban from European competition. Real Madrid decided that Juanito’s career at the club had come to an end.

Juan Gomez Gonzalez was a charismatic leader, a strong willed man filled with life and love; he was capable of igniting the audience in every match and evoked the most intense feelings of Madridismo. But as any romantic hero, as any iconic man, he lived fast and died young.

April 2 1992, Juan Gomez “Juanito” was on his way back to the city of Merida after attending a Real Madrid vs. Torino champions league match. It was 2 o’clock in the morning on the 161,625 kilometer of the N-5 highway in the town of Toledo. Juanito was being accompanied by Merida’s fitness trainer, the latter didn’t notice the logs that had been dropped by a truck so he ran into them. Juanito was the only victim. Today, 20 years later, Real Madrid fans still remember the legendary number 7,  and they manifest their respects by screaming his name every 7th minute of every game, in the stadium that saw him shine and become one of the most recognized Los Blancos legend. ILLA ILLA ILLA, JUANITO MARAVILLA!!!!

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.