I often wonder why La Liga and its English counterpart have never staged a two-legged match between a select 11 from each division as a season-ending finale. It wouldn't definitively answer the question of which is the "better" league, but it would at least provide a new angle from which to debate the matter -- and it would be one hell of a game.
To make the thing a little less lopsided, both leagues in this hypothetical tie should be allowed only two players per club, with a free choice of manager. Based on this season alone, here's a Liga side more than capable of putting the Premier League to the sword in a good old-fashioned 4-3-3.
GK: Diego López, Villarreal
Villarreal's Spanish stopper is arguably the most underrated in the league and this season is one of the main reasons why the Yellow Submarine is still in the fight to stay up going into the final weekend. His virtuoso performance against Barcelona is one of the highlights of the season and two incredible saves at the death earned his side a valuable point. He also held Real Madrid at bay, equally satisfying no doubt as the capital club let him go in 2007 and signed ... Jerzy Dudek.
Left back: Jordi Alba, Valencia
The Valencia flier is Spain's answer to Gareth Bale. Equally comfortable at left back or left wing, Alba has combined beautifully with Jeremy Mathieu various times during the season, not least when Unai Emery unleashed the pair against an unsuspecting Pep Guardiola at Mestalla last September. Such was the effect that the Barcelona boss was forced to drag his own occasional suprise winger, Dani Alves, back to help out in defense as the visitor clawed its way to a 2-2 tie. Alba has probably made the left back slot at the European Championships his own.
Right back: Jesús Gámez, Málaga
Perhaps not the most recognizable right back in the Spanish top division, Gámez nonetheless gets the nod over the theatrical and often-out-of-position Dani Alves and the painfully average Álvaro Arbeloa. Gámez is a one-club man who ascended to the captaincy of Málaga during the summer. In 25 starting appearances for the Anchovies this season, Gámez has offered a solid and dependable option on the right of defense for Manuel Pellegrini. Chipping in with five assists and incurring a paltry three cautions, Gámez has provided the kind of stable leadership on and off the field a work in progress such as Málaga needed in a season earmarked for a notable breakthrough in La Liga. One win away from a Champions League place, Málaga has delivered much more than expected.
Center back: Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid
Earlier in the season, when the creaking Ricardo Carvalho was sidelined, José Mourinho switched Ramos to center half and opined that he was probably better in that position than in his usual right back slot. The Portuguese's forecast was proved beyond question as the former Sevilla man put in a series of commanding performances. Solid in the air, with innate positional sense, Ramos has justified his exalted title of second captain by leading on the field when Iker Casillas, for obvious constraints of movement, was unable to. Ramos also chipped in with a handful of goals, including a vital pre-Clásico winner against a dogged Getafe that likes nothing more than throwing a suburban spanner into the machinery of mighty Madrid. Ramos will be expected to do more of the same in Poland and Ukraine now that Carles Puyol has been ruled out with injury.
Center back: Javi Martínez, Athletic Bilbao
Like Ramos, Martínez was asked to adapt to central defense from his usual defensive midfielder role and has performed admirably there. A World Cup winner with the full Spain team in 2010, Martínez showed that he is no prima donna by happily slotting back into the under-21 setup to help lead it to European triumph a year later. A target for a host of top European clubs, Martínez also provides Vicente del Bosque with a viable choice to fill a Puyol-shaped hole when Spain gets its European title defense under way in Gdansk. He'll also be able to mop up after this midfield.
Left midfield: Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid
Denis Doyle/Getty ImagesHow would Cristiano Ronaldo mesh with Messi? Wonderfully, we think.
Any Liga team put out to showcase the abundant talent in its ranks would be expected to win, but to entertain while doing so. No player in the modern era polarizes opinion quite like Ronaldo. But whatever personal perceptions he might provoke, the Madeiran is quite simply a phenomenal player. His 45 league goals to date, his second plus-40 haul in consecutive seasons, is an incredible achievement and despite valuable contributions from Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín -- among other records Real has become the first side in Liga history with three players with 20 goals or more -- there is little doubt that the league title belongs in large part to Ronaldo.
Right midfield: Jesús Navas, Sevilla
Much as Fernando Torres' recent part-revival has reopened the debate over whether El Niño should be on the plane to Poland and Europe, Navas' so-so season can be directly attributed to an end-of-cycle malaise at Sevilla exacerbated by a double change of manager. Nevertheless, Navas stands joint-fourth in the Liga assists chart, level with Ronaldo and behind only Mesut Özil, Ángel di María and Leo Messi. Last weekend, Navas provided four in a single game against Rayo.
Central midfield: Óscar de Marcos, Athletic Bilbao
Not for nothing is De Marcos being courted by Manchester United. The 23-year-old scored in both legs of Bilbao's Europa League destruction of Sir Alex Ferguson's side and, after making his Lions debut three seasons ago, has become an integral part of Marcelo Bielsa's swashbuckling side. Adding to De Marcos' allure is the fact that he can play basically anywhere on the field and has more in the way of guts than most professional footballers. Earlier this season he saw out a match against Zaragoza with a tear in his scrotum that needed 25 stitches to fix.
Forward: Lionel Messi, Barcelona
Could Messi and Ronaldo play in the same side? We'll likely never find out but it would be practically impossible to stop them if they did. This season the three-time Ballon d'Or winner has smashed Gerd Müller's long-standing record of 67 goals in a European season and has passed the 50-mark in the league alone. Whether Messi will win a fourth consecutive best-player gong depends largely on what happens in Munich in two weeks' time, but the Argentinean maestro is without doubt the best forward on the planet at the moment. As a parting gift to Guardiola -- the little man did not attend the farewell news conference with his teammates for fear of breaking down in front of the world's media -- Messi knocked all four past Espanyol in the city derby at the weekend.
Forward: Radamel Falcao, Atletico Madrid
Dani Pozo/AFP/Getty ImagesBehind Messi and Ronaldo, Radamel Falcao may have been the best player in La Liga this season.
"The Tiger" has certainly bared his claws since a club-record 40 million-Euro arrival at Atlético last summer. If the top-scorer chart in La Liga is taken in the same context as the league itself, Falcao looks set to win the race among the non-Messi and Ronaldo participants. With 23 league goals, 10 in the Europa League -- the Colombian will be the competition's top marksman for a second season running if he scores against Athletic in Budapest -- and one in the cup, Falcao has a record of 33 in 46 for Atlético thus far this season. And let us not forget, he plays for Atlético. His strike against Valencia in the semifinals of the Europa League is a contender for goal of the competition.
Forward: Arouna Kone, Levante
Listening to anybody connected with Valencia's second club throughout the season, the mantra that "survival is our goal" began to ring hollow when Levante established itself in the top five. As early as Week 6 the Frogs leaped into the European zone and Levante has dropped out of that exalted company only twice since -- unfortunately for a fairy-tale end to an incredible season most recently last weekend. However, the Europa League is still a possibility for a club that could certainly do with the cash and Koné has earned his spurs in some style. After he spent three seasons at Sevilla with a single goal for his efforts and an underwhelming loan spell at Hannover, Levante took a punt on the Ivorian and he delivered, not least in condemning Real to one of its two league defeats of the season. A clause in his contract stipulated that on scoring 18 goals for Levante, Koné would have to return to Andalusia. It says it all about his newfound love for football that he took his foot off the gas with 17 strikes to his name.
Manager: José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix.
Bench: Javi Venta (Levante); Javi López (Espanyol); Adil Rami (Valencia); Nacho Monreal (Málaga); Diego (Atlético); Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona); Hernán Pérez (Villarreal); Beñat (Betis); Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad); Alvaro Vazquez (Espanyol).
PL 11: Tim Krul (Newcastle); Kyle Walker (Tottenham); Fabricio Coloccini (Newcastle); Vincent Kompany (Manchester City); Gareth Bale (Tottenham); Yaya Touré (Manchester City); Mikel Arteta (Arsenal); Juan Mata (Chelsea); Clint Dempsey (Fulham); Didier Drogba (Chelsea); Robin van Persie (Arsenal)
In the end, it wasn't so much a clasico as a basico; Jose Mourinho's tried and tested 4-2-3-1 bettered Pep Guardiola's rather bizarre midfield creation, one that had Thiago and Sergio Busquets playing at its base and Andres Iniesta and Xavi at its head. "It may be that I was mistaken," said the Barcelona coach after Saturday night's 2-1 defeat at Camp Nou practically assured that Real Madrid will be crowned La Liga champion this season, its first title since 2007-08.
Given the thoroughly satisfying result, it might have been expected that Mourinho would break his self-imposed media silence, but he once again sent out Aitor Karanka, who simply provided a mantra he has been repeating all season: "Cristiano is the best player in the world."
Certainly Ronaldo had the better of the evening in comparison to Lionel Messi, whose scowl has been growing darker over the past few days. After all, two games without the Argentinean's name on the score sheet has coincided with two losses for Barcelona in two of the most important games of its season. When Messi fails to spark, the rest of Barca's machinery grinds to a halt, although neither Chelsea nor Real made it easy for the little man, as the 32 fouls doled out between them over 180 minutes can attest.
"I congratulate Real for the victory and for the league title they have won," Guardiola said after Saturday's match. It could all be decided in the capital next weekend: If Real beats Sevilla and Barca fails to knock off Rayo Vallecano, the title will be heading back to the Bernabeu. In any case, at seven points clear with four games to go, the national press has already handed Real the trophy.
Marca, a pro-Madrid sports daily that is Spain's biggest-selling publication, dedicated most of its Sunday issue to the clasico -- hardly surprising, especially when it generally devotes the first 20 pages of every issue to the slightest morsel of Madrid-based interest. "Silent Mourinho conquers Camp Nou," was a surprisingly reserved headline by its usual standard, although a banner picture of Xavi at the top of its website under the quote "We know how to lose," is more its style.
Also rabidly pro-Madrid, and also rarely featuring anything non-Bernabeu on its pages, AS ran the same Xavi quote alongside a picture of Ronaldo's early headed chance under the headline "Real is absolutely right." What followed was a benediction of Mourinho's methods: "Mourinho conquers Camp Nou with a victory that's worth a title. The win undressed a Barcelona with passing but without goals. Cristiano got the better of Messi."
El Mundo Deportivo and Sport, broadly pro-Barcelona publications, limited themselves to the simple headline: "Goodbye to the league." Sport, the more partisan of the two, ran the same photograph of Xavi with a slightly different quote from its Madrid counterparts: "We can still have a great season."
El Mundo Deportivo also contained an aside about Gerard Pique's continued absence from the team and suggested he will speak out on his plight on Monday, adding to Guardiola's woes. The gossip magazines, of which there are thousands, will be sharpening their pencils in anticipation of another ticking-off from the Barca boss over the nocturnal activities of his errant defender.
Right-leaning daily El Mundo went with the remaining fixtures under the headline "Dates for the victory song," while also pointing out that if Real wins its last four games, it will break the 100-point mark. Also noted by the journal is that Sami Khedira's goal was Real's 108th of the season, thus smashing the record achieved by the legendary Quinta del Buitre under John Toshack in 1989-90.
El Periodico de Catalunya ran the story "New tactical blueprint, but with no punch," in relation to Guardiola's curious tinkering. It should be noted that the paper's star columnist is Johan Cruyff, who rarely passes up an opportunity to say that everything was better in his day. Also featured is that man Hernandez again, with the pull quote: "It's not a delicate moment, it's a hopeful one."
Left-leaning daily El Pais simply pasted a colossal headline on its sport pages: "Madrid ties up the league in Camp Nou."
I'll give the final word to El Mundo Deportivo, the only publication to have apparently been gifted a quote from the Special One himself: "The league is not yet over." On the morning after in Spain, only the Portuguese genius seems to be of that opinion.
When Andre Villas-Boas was sacked as Chelsea manager in March, he immediately splashed some of Roman's rubles on a family holiday and announced he would decide his next move in the summer. With the thaw now underway in Britain, will the Premier League warm again to the youngest coach in the game to have won a European title? It's difficult to see Liverpool, Tottenham or even Manchester City (should Roberto Mancini continue to try to talk himself out of a job) taking a punt on the Portuguese.
Villas-Boas' tenure at Chelsea was conditioned by the "culture" at the club, which is encapsulated by the English core of John Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard. All three Chelsea stalwarts are close in age to Villas-Boas and did not take kindly to being ordered about by the former Porto coach.
These are not the types of players Villas-Boas worked with at Academica and Porto.
But their influence at the club is such that it is impossible to conceive they had nothing to do with Roman Abramovich's decision. It has been said that Roberto di Matteo was unpopular as Villas-Boas' assistant, but now with Lampard back in the team and Terry and Cole appeased, "Robbie," as the players call him, can do no wrong.
Should Villas-Boas have been expected to do more with Chelsea? Perhaps, in view of the wide-open nature of this year's Premier League and an across-the-board drop in standard among the traditional frontrunners. But Chelsea has an aging squad, a locker room with barely enough space for its larger egos, a hands-on owner and a striker who has scored a goal for each 6.25 million-pound installment of the $50 million fee paid to Liverpool nearly a year and a half ago.
In reality, Villas-Boas never stood a chance.
So what now for the man dubbed mini-Mourinho, who as a teenager would stop Bobby Robson in the apartment block they both lived in and demand explanations of the then-Porto manager for his team selection; Robson gave Villas-Boas his first job and arranged for him to obtain his coaching badges.
A return to Portugal is unlikely, the Premier League equally so, but La Liga could have a few vacancies this summer. Unai Emery and Valencia seem to have run the course of their relationship, with the fickle stands of Mestalla often awash with the white handkerchief used by Spanish crowds to show their discontent. Malaga sneaked into third last weekend, a point ahead of Valencia, pending the results of a midweek round of fixtures. Failure to qualify for the Champions League, a financial lifeboat for a club always just keeping its head above water, would probably be enough for Emery to be thrown overboard. Then there is the fans' berating of the team's playing style and a visibly jaded squad that is said to be tiring of the minutiae of Emery's famously obsessive match preparations. It would be harsh on the professorial Emery, who has consistently kept Valencia in the Champions League despite having to sell his best players every summer and shop for cut-price replacements.
Sevilla is in a similar situation. The UEFA Cup-winning and Champions League-challenging glory days on the South Coast are long since gone, and Mechel -- a coach who sits at the front of the Liga jobless managers classroom, desperately thrusting his arm into the air whenever a coach gets the bullet (or in the case of Juan Carlos Garrido at Villarreal, before he had even been sacked) -- has a contract until the end of the season. Its renewal is largely dependent on European qualification. Sevilla is currently five points off the Europa League and eight adrift of the Champions League.
Then there is the great question of Jose Mourinho, Villas-Boas' mentor (not that Mourinho likes to talk about his former protégé), and whether he will jump ship in the summer. The likelihood is that if he wins the league and/or the Champions League, he will leave Real Madrid, his job more or less complete. If he fails to win either he could still depart, such is his relationship with the Spanish press, Barcelona and just about everybody who does not wear a white shirt, with Chelsea among his potential suitors.
With a large and influential Portuguese contingent at Real, a conciliatory captain in Iker Casillas and a president who confines his thoughts to the boardroom, Villas-Boas could be a perfect fit. What conspired against him at Chelsea would be reversed in his favor. After his experience in England, it may be in Spain that he does the same with his reputation.
The latest strain of never-ending advertising propaganda on both Spanish and English sports channels has them claiming that their own leagues are the best in the world. It is a long-running argument and one that is likely to take on a new dimension if the Manchester clubs succeed in transforming the English table into one existing for two clubs to feast on the rest, as has been the case in Spain for much of the past decade. Although it is impossible to satisfactorily settle the question, there are a number of pointers that suggest the balance of power is swinging toward La Liga.
The Premier League is currently the top-ranked league on the UEFA coefficient list, which tallies the total number of wins and ties achieved by clubs participating in the Champions League and Europa League over the previous five seasons, with bonus points awarded for the number of teams qualifying for both competitions and the stage that they reach.
The Premier League edged La Liga in both 2007-08 and 2008-09, with the two leagues tied the following season. 2010-11 was another very narrow victory for the English top flight, but this season, with only Chelsea still flying the flag compared to five teams from Spain, La Liga is a country mile ahead. UEFA's ranking for the two now stands at 83.410 for the Premier League and 80.329 for La Liga. Another European season like this one in 2012-13 will turn the table in Spain's favor.
Table for four, sir?
Since the inception of the Champions League in 1992, Spain has had 12 different clubs participating in Europe's elite club competition compared to nine from the Premier League. Of the English participants, Blackburn Rovers (one appearance) last featured in 1995-96, Leeds United (one) in 2000-01. Spurs (last season) and Manchester City (this season) also made one appearance. While there is no doubt at all that City will add to that tally, there is an ominous prospect of Spurs failing to do so on current form, much to the benefit of Arsenal and Chelsea. Between them, the erstwhile "big four" of the Premier League -- Liverpool has, for now, ceded its place to City -- have racked up 49 Champions League appearances.
In the same period, La Liga has supplied Barcelona and Real on a combined 32 occasions, with multiple appearances from Valencia (eight), Deportivo (five), Atlético (three), Villarreal (three), Sevilla (two) and random contributions from Mallorca, Real Sociedad, Celta, Betis and Athletic.
This season, Valencia is by no means guaranteed to qualify -- any side from third down to Athletic Bilbao in 11th place still has an outside shot. That includes such heavyweights as Osasuna, Levante, Espanyol and Getafe, plus newly rich Malaga, which has snuck into fourth, level on points with Valencia.
Compare with the Premier League, where the Manchesters will be joined by two of Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Newcastle.
Only when Wolves, Bolton, Sunderland and Villa are within a shout of the Champions League with fewer than 10 games to go in a season can the Premier League point to La Liga's supposed lack of competitiveness with a straight face.
Shut the door on your way out
Since Florentino Pérez swept up two of the Premier League's top performers in Cristiano Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso in 2009, the traffic of players between the two leagues has been very much one way. La Liga has lost young stars (David Silva, Kun Aguero, Juan Mata and David de Gea) with Cesc Fabregas and not much else coming back the other way.
Reports abound that Chelsea is after Gonzalo Higuain, Angel di Maria, Falcao -- even Ronaldo -- while Athletic Bilbao faces a summer of poaching attempts and Valencia may have to hide Roberto Soldado for safe keeping after the Euros. The number of Premier League stars currently interested in La Liga? Gareth Bale, maybe.
A good reason for this exodus is, of course, that Spain is up to its eyeballs in debt, with dozens of clubs going into administration, some disappearing entirely and the total debt to the taxman standing at about 750 million euros.
During 2011-12, English clubs went over 192 million pounds in the red through transfers. La Liga went into debt to the tune of 52 million euros, almost all of it spent by Malaga, which didn't have much to sell to balance the books. Real and Barca played their parts, of course, but 12 La Liga clubs broke even or better compared to just six in England. Of last season's top four in both leagues, only Arsenal and Villarreal posted a profit.
Why does this matter? Because UEFA chief Michel Platini's much-vaunted Financial Fair Play rules are soon to come into effect, preventing clubs from spending beyond their revenue-generating capacity -- effectively prohibiting the use of money generated outside soccer on player transfers.
Of course, there is a loophole that Real, with its new luxury resort development in Ras al-Khaimah, and City, with its Etihad airline deal and plans for a 1 billion pound development around its stadium, are exploiting already: The rules don't apply if clubs spend money from outside sources on infrastructure. UEFA also states that "activities clearly using the brand of the club as part of their operations" will count as relevant revenue stream toward breaking even. All very well for the big boys, but the smaller clubs are going to feel the pinch. In this respect, La Liga is already well ahead of the Premier League.
La Liga's fifth-best team
It's worth mentioning again: In Europe at the moment, England has one team, Spain five. There is every possibility of a Spanish Champions League-Europa League double, something only achieved once before, by Barcelona and Sevilla in 2006.
The English media scoffed at Athletic's status as Spain's fifth-best team before Marcelo Bielsa's side annihilated Manchester United, by its own criteria the best team in the Premier League, over two legs. Athletic is now just Spain's 11th-best team, and Portugal's fifth-best side, Sporting, beat Manchester City. Chelsea is in the driver's seat against Benfica, but will then probably play Barcelona. Ask the sports betting sites how that one is expected to turn out.
Who's up and who's down in La Liga this season? Here are some thoughts:
Athletic: After four years under the steady hand of Joaquin Caparros, it was quite a surprise that Europa League entrants Athletic decided to replace the departed Sevillan with a man affectionately known as "El Loco" in his native Argentina. Pep Guardiola describes Marcelo Bielsa as his idol, and it is easy to see why the coach of Barcelona would be impressed with Bielsa's stylings. Athletic, always a solid side, was introduced to the notion of midfield by Bielsa and taught how to pass its way around teams rather than bypassing half of its own while seeking the head of Fernando Llorente or Gaizka Toquero for a knockdown. This season, Athletic has delighted its fans and many more in Spain with its slick passing and attack-minded play, and it is no coincidence that the last Spain squad contained four San Mames players, with several more in the under-21s. Athletic is an incredibly young side that will improve with age. Problem is that the likes of Real Madrid have begun to finger their checkbooks, some with even greater urgency after Athletic destroyed Manchester United over two legs in the Europa League, eventually winning 5-3 on aggregate, a score that flattered Sir Alex Ferguson's side. Champions League qualification should keep Athletic's ranks intact for the time being -- good news for fans, neutrals and the national setup.
Atletico: Not counting Barcelona -- and most clubs do not -- Atletico was unbeaten under Diego Simeone until its two minutes of defensive madness against Mallorca, a staggering achievement when the mess Gregorio Manzano left behind is taken into account. Atletico's target for the season was, is and always shall be Champions League qualification, in the absence of other realistic goals, but anybody who believed it was possible at the end of December would have been called delusional, with Atletico 10 points off the pace. Now, Simeone's side is four points off Malaga in fourth, completed a 6-1 rout of Besiktas in the Europa League and faces Zaragoza, Getafe and Levante before its biannual beating at the hands of Real. Such is the newfound optimism in the south of the capital that there are even cautious whispers that Simeone could be the man to lift "the curse."
Osasuna: Much like the five-famous-Belgians name game, few outside Pamplona could fill in half an Osasuna team sheet. Neither does the name register outside Spanish borders quite the same way other modest Liga clubs can -- perhaps because Osasuna is simply the Basque term for good health. Nonetheless, if things continue as they are for 12 more games, Osasuna's continental profile will receive a boost. Currently in fifth, Jose Luis Mendilibar's side has bucked trend this season by picking up points on the road. Standard Osasuna procedure is to remain in the division courtesy of its results in the Reyno de Navarra, an often-frozen ground in an industrial estate with an extremely partisan crowd. It has still managed only one win in its travels, but eight ties represent the difference between fifth and 14th in a compact table. Osasuna narrowly missed the chance to go fourth overnight Saturday, somehow conspiring to let the wretched Zaragoza nick a rare point at La Romareda.
Villarreal: It's all too easy to forget -- unless you happen to live in Vila-real -- that Villarreal was in the Champions League this season. True, even Villarreal would probably prefer to forget a campaign that reaped six losses and two goals, but the Yellow Submarine's nosedive has gone much deeper than that. A small club from a smaller town -- the population of Vila-real is twice the capacity of El Madrigal -- its achievements in reaching the Champions League regularly and narrowly missing out on the final in 2006 make the club's flirtation with Segunda even more remarkable. Languishing in 17th, there are mitigating circumstances for Villarreal's plight: Any side losing its main forward, in this case Giuseppe Rossi, for most of the season is going to struggle. Nilmar, his erstwhile partner, has gone into a good old-fashioned Brazilian sulk and is nowhere near his best in terms of form or application. The club's heartbeat, Santi Cazorla, was sold to Malaga to balance the books, and World Cup-winning left back Joan Capdevila left for Benfica, where he curiously disappeared from view. Add to this some truly woeful summer transfer business -- take a bow, Jonathan de Guzman -- and it was always going to be a tall order to keep the side in the upper reaches of the table. New coach Jose Molina lasted just 11 games, and Miguel Angel Lotina has been handed the task of keeping Villarreal in the division.
Zaragoza: It's been a long time since Zaragoza had the financial clout or the allure to pick up players like David Villa, Pablo Aimar and the Milito brothers. King's Cup winners in 2001 and 2004, Zaragoza is headed for the Segunda trap door, and this time, unlike its brief foray in 2008-09, it seems unlikely it will be back in a hurry. In debt to the tune of around 130 million euros -- the largest single debt in Spanish soccer -- Zaragoza made few friends by bypassing a transfer embargo through a third-party investment fund based on the tax haven of Jersey to acquire keeper Roberto from Benfica. No amount of chicanery, financial or otherwise, is going to save Zaragoza now, and it will have plenty of time in the Liga wilderness to reflect on whether paying Jermaine Pennant somewhere around 80,000 euros a week was good business.
Betis: League leader for a few weeks at the beginning of the season, Betis went on a subsequent run of 10 games without a win. Now 16th with a few weeks of the season remaining, Betis and its roller-coaster season took a new twist in 2012, with points accrued in some unlikely places, notably San Mames; Real Madrid recently rattled like it hasn't been rattled in some time in Seville. It's all a far cry from the heady days of Champions League action, but Betis is happy just to be back in the big time after suffering, as so many coastal clubs in Spain do, from a national pastime for men in suits: large-scale fraud. Having nearly gone under in real terms, a return to Segunda would probably not be too much of a blow to the Betis faithful, but it would be a shame after a season that promised much more. Much like Villarreal, Betis will probably survive purely because Sporting, Zaragoza and Racing are in such rancid form.
Of all those interested parties watching Spain cruise past Venezuela 5-0 on Wednesday night, Fernando Torres likely had the least to cheer about. The misfiring Chelsea striker (four goals this season!) was omitted from a Spain squad for the first time since 2006, though when Vicente del Bosque announced his team for the friendly, he cited "technical" issues rather than anything to do with El Nino's fitness. To add insult to Torres' lack of current injury, his cellphone didn't ring when Alvaro Negredo withdrew from the squad on Monday with a thigh injury as Del Bosque opted not to replace the unlucky striker from Sevilla.
While stressing that the players called up this week would by no means form the definitive squad for the European Championships, Del Bosque did concede that it was very much the 'basis' of what he would be taking with him to Poland and Ukraine as Spain seeks to become the first nation in history to complete a Euro-World-Euro treble. Is there room for Torres, the hero of Vienna, to stake a late claim for a seat on the plane?
Much will depend on the situation regarding David Villa, the country's all-time leading scorer, who fractured a shin bone at the Club World Cup and is unlikely to play much of a role at Barcelona before the end of the season. The Asturian striker had two screws removed from his leg earlier this week and said the prognosis is hopeful: "When I got injured I said it was my goal to make Euro 2012 and help Barcelona at the end of the season," said Villa. "I'm getting more optimistic about it every day as it's going well."
Villa's availability would certainly signal the end of Torres' chances, even if Spain's other 'kid' is a little rusty when the tournament kicks off in early June. Del Bosque is unafraid of playing with a fluid forward line, with no fixed striker such as Fernando Llorente or Soldado and using the likes of Cesc Fàbregas, David Silva and Andrés Iniesta as roving get-forward midfielders -- very much in the style of the current Barça. It is a ploy Del Bosque used at Real Madrid to good effect, and with the national team, he certainly has the players to adopt such a system. The elevation of Iker Muniain, Athletic Bilbao's young trickster-in-chief, for the Venezuela match is a further pointer toward Del Bosque's intentions for the finals. Muniain is comfortable in a roaming forward position, making darting runs and slipping markers, the art of what Spain calls a 'false 9.'
With that in mind, how many actual 9s will Del Bosque require? Villa spends most of his time at club level shunted out to the left of a forward three but would certainly be in the middle in a 4-3-3 for his country. Fernando Llorente usurped Torres as Spain's back-up striker some time ago and will be on the plane, barring injury in the interim. That would leave one more place for a striker, based on the latest squad, which contained 12 midfielders and three forwards before Negredo's injury withdrawal.
Enter Soldado, making his first appearance since 2007. A second half substitute against admittedly limited opposition, it took him four minutes to score his first international goal, an additional four minutes to add his second -- when Venezuela still had 11 men on the field -- before he won (and missed) a penalty, finally securing his hat-trick with ten minutes to play. Three goals in 35 minutes; to compare, Torres hasn't scored a single goal since last October -- exactly 1,338 minutes of game time.
It's a dream to return to the national team like this," Soldado said pitch-side after the game. "But you also have to take into account the circumstances in the second half, which was even harder for them after the sending off. I don't think this is my ticket to the Euros. It was an opportunity but there are still three months of competition left and [the remainder of the league] will go a long way to deciding whether I go to the Euros or not."
"Soldado finished off what his teammates created for him and he did so very well," said Del Bosque. "It would be unjust to make useless comparisons with other players just now. We'll have a look at what Soldado did tonight with objectivity. We have two months to assess our players and those in good condition will be in the squad."
The majority of the squad publicly back Torres to make a dazzling return to form -- and to national team contention -- in those two months, and the former Atlético and Liverpool striker has lent his hair to superstition: after a brief trip to Spain, El Nino returned to England sporting the blond locks that accompanied his now-ancient scoring prowess.
However, there is growing support for the inclusion of Soldado after Wednesday.
"Whenever he plays he seems to score," said Alvaro Arbeloa. "He took his chances to perfection."
Santi Cazorla, playing in front of his own fans, described Soldado as a "God-send" but opined that "whoever goes to the Euros, the matter of scoring goals will be covered."
Sometimes, switching your coach in the middle of the season is quickly proven to be a disaster. The managerial merry-go-round of La Liga -- nine dismissals or departures since the first day of the season -- has already witnessed a triple appointment, Inaki Tejada's brief tenure as caretaker at Sporting taken into account. Having spent eight years as assistant, Tejada replaced Manolo Preciado after the then-longest serving coach in the division was fired following a 5-1 loss to Real Sociedad. Two games and a 4-0 stuffing at the hands of Valencia later, a relieved Tejada returned to relative obscurity on the coaching staff, making way for the combustible Javier Clemente.
Clemente's first game in charge was against Atletico Madrid last weekend. An unremarkable 1-1 tie was a vast improvement on Sporting's recent results and a footnote to Liga statisticians; Sebastian Eguren's strike was the first goal conceded by Atletico in the league in 2012. Just before the winter break, the same side had shipped three over two games against third-division Albacete, which was sufficient for the board to dispense with Gregorio Manzano.
Atletico is traditionally a basket case of an institution, formerly run as the personal fiefdom -- and bank account -- of the corrupt former mayor of Marbella, Jesus Gil, and fans of the club still spend as much time protesting his offspring who remain on the board as they do cheering the team. In managerial terms, Atletico is one of La Liga's least patient employers. Since 2000, it has had 14 coaches, but the last of these, Diego Simeone, looks like he might be at the Calderon to stay.
Simeone is probably best known globally for a spat with David Beckham at the 1998 World Cup, when the Argentine apparently held forth on the virtues of Beckham's wife and went down theatrically when the expected retaliatory kick was aimed. In the red and white of Madrid, he is lauded as a key player in the club's last domestic success, a league/cup double in 1996. Now, Simeone is transforming a side that looked set for yet another season of nearly-but-not-quite. Unbeaten in seven league games, Simeone also guided Atletico through a Europa League round of 32 tie against Lazio -- the only bright spot of Manzano's reign was the side's continued good form in the competition -- while resting his star players in the second leg, a luxury unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
El efecto Cholo has been nothing short of miraculous. Simeone has shorn up one of La Liga's most comedic defenses, inspired Radamel Falcao to score again and created something resembling a functioning midfield -- built on loanee Diego, who will be missed while sidelined, and Arda Turan. The number of times Atletico has functioned in all thirds of the pitch since Simeone's playing days can be counted comfortably on one hand.
This weekend is the greatest test yet of how far Simeone's dynamism and granite stare have brought Atletico. Barcelona visits the Calderon on Sunday evening, with the future of its coach, Pep Guardiola, the subject of fierce debate nationwide. Barcelona's away form is directly responsible for the 10-point gap between it and Real Madrid, and one more slip up on the road will likely hand the title to Jose Mourinho's side. In the last meeting between the two, Barcelona won 5-0 at Camp Nou in a contest expected to be close after Atletico had won two matches on the bounce, scoring eight and conceding none. Simeone will expect the distance to be less marked on this occasion.
Neither does Guardiola have an especially dominant record against Atletico. In his first year in charge, he left the Calderon on the wrong end of a 4-3 scoreline; in 2009-10, Atletico inflicted the only defeat of the Barca boss' second title-winning season.
It may be too soon to expect Simeone -- whose managerial career has been eclectic, to say the least -- to outfox his opposite number Sunday, but all eyes will be on the Calderon for a match that is often more of a clasico than its more famed counterpart. In the red corner, a coach whose star is on the rise; in the scarlet and blue, one whose short-term future is more in question than ever before.
"It's ten points now. It's very difficult to make up 10 points, especially when it's Real Madrid," said Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes after his side's unexpected 3-2 loss to Osasuna on Saturday, nearly a whole day before Real Madrid and Levante took the field to confirm the new double-figured gap at the top of La Liga. Unexpected because even though Osasuna is a tough nut to crack at the Reyno de Navarra, Barcelona had already played Jose Luis Mendilibar's team three times this term, winning on each occasion with an aggregate score of 14-1. Yet the result was not entirely out of character for Barcelona this season away from home: It has lost twice and tied six times on the road so far in 2011-12, the same number of points dropped over the whole of last season, and all of them outside Camp Nou, where it is unbeaten since 2010.
The whispering started earlier this season, but it was ever-present as an undercurrent to Barcelona's summer dealings, which saw only the arrival of Cesc Fabregas to freshen up the first-team squad: Were Barcelona's all-conquering players simply getting a bit bored of it all? And will the policy of bringing youth players through be sufficient to keep pace with Real in the short term, and others with bottomless pockets (such as Malaga) in the long run?
Pep Guardiola was forced to field the first question after just a few games: "The day when they stop running, when they no longer have the hunger, I'll sit here and tell you. When we play badly, I'll come here and say so," the coach told a news conference after his team had put eight past Osasuna following successive 2-2 ties against Milan and Real Sociedad.
And the Barca boss toed a similar party line after the King's Cup victory over Valencia when he admonished the gentlemen of the assembled press: "We're very, very pleased to be in another final, the third in four years, and that says it all. If you ever have the temptation to doubt some of the players, whether they're tired or have eased up, before writing it or saying it, count to five and remember this game."
The trouble for Barca is that its rivals view any match against the Catalans as a cup final. "I will always remember scoring twice against Barcelona," said Dejan Lekic after Saturday's game. While there is little doubt that a group of highly paid professionals is unlikely to find motivation for lesser Liga matches hard to come by, Guardiola's squad is one of the smallest of any club in the European leagues. His 22-man first-team pool at the moment includes Jose Manuel Pinto, the reserve goalkeeper; long-term absentees Ibrahim Afellay and David Villa; and three canteranos: Isaac Cuenca; Jonathan dos Santos, who was promoted to the first team 12 days ago; and Andreu Fontas, who is out for months with a cruciate ligament injury.
Javier Mascherano is facing Liga suspension after getting himself sent off after the final whistle Saturday, and Sergio Busquets is still nursing a gash in his leg picked up against Real Sociedad, but he will be on the plane for Tuesday's match against Bayer Leverkusen even if not fully fit. More canteranos, Oier Olazabal and Marc Bartra, have been drafted in to make up the numbers.
Barcelona will be a lot happier than it might have thought to see its one African Cup of Nations-eligible player, Seydou Keita, back at Camp Nou this week after Mali's third-place finish in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
At least in European competitions, Barca can count on the real Leo Messi reporting for duty. The Argentine -- unlike Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Fabregas, who did their best to warm the freezing benches at the Reyno de Navarra -- is never rested, and apparently is none too happy at being so much as substituted. Fair enough when you are the best player in the world, but Messi's numbers away from home this season in the league are not prolific. Of his 23 goals, four have been scored outside Camp Nou, and three of those were in a single afternoon at Malaga. In the Champions League, he has six in three matches.
"We still have the Champions League, and we are Barcelona," said Gerard Pique, who has good cause to rue his taunt of last week when he predicted "a long and difficult" second half of the season for Real.
He and Valdes were not alone in practically ceding the Liga title to Los Merengues, either. "The reality is that there is an important distance between us and Real," Guardiola said. "But we have to continue to the end of the season. The youngsters that come through to the first team know they have always been under pressure. They have always had demands placed on them sufficiently to arrive at this level and take it on naturally."
Bayer's coach, Robin Dutt, said it would be a "miracle" if his side could eliminate Barca over two legs. Should that happen, it won't be quite as cataclysmic for the world of soccer as it would have been 12 months ago, as only recently are Barca's rivals beginning to sense its weakness outside Catalonia.
These are testing times for Jose Mourinho. A seven-point lead in La Liga, a stuttering main adversary whose away form seems set to hand the title to Real Madrid for the first time since 2008, and a comfortable Champions League last-16 tie against CSKA should all combine to put a smile on the face of the Portuguese coach. But Mourinho has barely smiled since he arrived in Madrid with a mandate from Real president Florentino Perez to knock his second Galacticos project into shape while knocking Barcelona from the summit of domestic and European competition.
Last season, the source of Mourinho's malcontent was a single figure, Jorge Valdano, whom Perez eventually disposed of to smooth his coach's ruffled feathers. With full power over all aspects of the club's affairs bestowed on him, Mourinho might have expected an easier ride this year. Poking Tito Vilanova in the eye during the Supercup melee was not a grand start to the season on the diplomacy front, but Mourinho has recently been made painfully aware that he is not the only strutting peacock in his own park. Senior players have revolted against his tactics, leading to a morose Mourinho picking a side for the match against Athletic Bilbao that could have been selected by a Marca fans' survey -- even crowd favorite Esteban Granero was invited to dust off his boots. Around the same time, a training ground bust-up with Sergio Ramos provided a revealing insight into how Mourinho's players view the coach. On being blamed by his boss for not picking up Carles Puyol and tracking Gerard Pique for Barcelona's first goal at the Bernabeu, Ramos noted icily, "Sometimes during a match you have to make positional changes. You don't know because you were never a player."
To make matters worse, the incident was apparently leaked by Iker Casillas, who had already incurred Mourinho's wrath by offering an olive branch to Barcelona. Pictures of the two club captains presenting Mourinho with a birthday cake the same week were instructive; Ramos' face, in particular, spoke volumes.
So inevitably, the rumor abounds that Mourinho will pick up his ball and stalk from the Bernabeu this summer, regardless of whether he wins the league, the Champions League, or both. He has made no secret of his desire to return to the Premier League, but a triumphant second spell at Stamford Bridge is extremely unlikely while Roman Abramovich controls the purse strings. The city of Barcelona would riot in the streets if Sandro Rosell even thought about it, Sir Alex Ferguson said recently he has another three years left in him at least, and Mourinho has already made it quite clear he will not coach the likes of Malaga. So with his prickly persona and an astronomical pay packet -- some 13.5 million euros at Real -- who would want him?
The most obvious destination for the world's most controversial coach would be the world's richest and brashest club. City's paymasters, the Abu Dhabi United Group, proved in their dealings with Mark Hughes, and to an extent with Carlos Tevez, that they have little time for niceties in their quest for instant gratification. Roberto Mancini may win the Premier League this season, but if Mourinho becomes available, there is little doubt that City would be willing to match his demands. Mancini's handling of the Tevez affair and his testy relationship with some of his players aside, the Italian's admission during the week that he had not taken the Everton match entirely seriously will not have been met with indifference by Sheikh Mansour.
Talk in Madrid this week has been of a potential swap deal between Arsenal and Real Madrid, with both clubs apparently doubting their leaders. It would certainly be an interesting experiment, perhaps worthy of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Arsene Wenger -- who has the air of a man who cuts coupons out of newspapers before going to the supermarket -- given an unlimited budget, and Mourinho, who has never been exactly shy with his chairmen's cash, given the keys to the Shenley training ground and told to do what he can with the kids.
There are few more worn jibes in armchair football-watching circles than: "Anybody could coach that lot and win." However, with the amount of money in the game making the playing field anything but level, it no longer has an entirely hollow ring to it. What would embellish Mourinho's reputation as one of the finest coaches the game has ever seen would be restoring a fallen giant to former glories. Tottenham is not exactly destitute, being one of the biggest spenders in the short history of the Premier League, and may be in the market for another manager this summer if Harry Redknapp, as expected, takes the England job. Newcastle has not enjoyed a great deal of success over the last half-century or so, a brief dalliance with silverware under Kevin Keegan aside. It is doubtful that Mike Ashley could meet his salary, but Mourinho would not dismiss the idea out of hand; a long-time assistant to and admirer of Bobby Robson, Mourinho was offered the assistant's job under the former Porto and Barcelona coach, with a view to taking over when the great man retired. He declined at that time. Mourinho lasts only a few seasons at each club, so building a legacy like Ferguson or Wenger is unlikely to happen. Taking his mentor's legacy and adding a bit of spit and polish might be a happy compromise.
If there is one piece of unfinished business on Mourinho's CV, it is his brief encounter with Benfica. Promoted from assistant to first-team coach, Mourinho lasted just nine games before his contract demands saw him ushered from the Estadio da Luz. Benfica has won only two Portuguese league titles and a Portuguese cup in almost two decades, and a Porto-style renaissance would be an interesting challenge for any coach, but Mourinho is far from being "any coach" in his own mind, and will probably not return to his native country until he takes charge of the national team.
Huge budget? Check. A handful of players with plenty of attitude? Check. Hasn't won the Champions League for a decade so? Check. An institutional structure and a status as the national club, with expectations to match? Check. A glut of celebrity fans, including the pope? Check. Out of the frying pan into the fire, perhaps, but stranger things have happened. And the irony of Mourinho usurping Jupp Heynckes again, as he did at Benfica, would not be lost.
The King's Cup is proving to be more than a mere sideshow to La Liga this season, a fate that often befalls a competition that has traditionally been taken less than seriously by Spain's larger clubs. For many years, it was Real Madrid's club policy to get knocked out as quickly as possible, and even lesser Liga luminaries would habitually field weakened teams. However, with the possibility of getting into the Champions League made all but impossible by the hegemony of the top three, the Europa League is the summit of most clubs' ambition, and merely reaching the final of the cup -- assuming that Real, Barcelona or Valencia are on the other side of the halfway line, or Levante holds firm in fourth -- provides an easier route than a grueling league season. At least that was the crafty plan of Espanyol president Ramon Condal until his team faced Mirandes yesterday.
Miranda de Ebro, Jan. 24, 2011: The small city of 40,000 was sent into raptures when third-division side Mirandes defeated Espanyol 2-1 to reach the semifinals for the first time in its history, a feat matched only once this generation among third-division teams, by Unio Esportiva Figueres in 2002. The stadium erupted at the final whistle, the capacity crowd at the Estadio Anduva pouring onto the field in delight and carrying the hometown players on their shoulders in the manner of the great matadors of yesteryear. All the action was captured for television by a single camera, which appeared to have been mounted on the seat of some unfortunate fan.
It had seemed impossible that Mirandes would overcome Espanyol. The tiny club -- with a budget of 1 million euros and only one player, Cesar Caneda, who had ever set foot in the Primera Division -- had dispatched top-flight opposition in the previous two rounds, ambushing Villarreal and outplaying Racing Santander, but Mauricio Pochettino's Espanyol is a harder nut to crack, as it proved when holding Barcelona to a draw earlier in the month.
Mirandes had taken a two-goal lead in Cornella and then thrown it away with defensive lapses in the final five minutes to allow Espanyol to bang in three. When Rui Fonte extended Espanyol's aggregate lead to 4-2 on the stroke of halftime, it seemed that finally Mirandes' miraculous cup run must come to an end. Mirandes' coach, Carlos Pouso, switched to a more attacking formation for the second period and his players emerged from the locker room with renewed determination. Pablo Infante, the competition's top scorer, gave the home side hope on 57 minutes before Caneda, after sustained pressure from Mirandes, guided an Infante free kick past the near post of Francisco Casilla.
"If the hairs on your neck aren't standing up, you obviously don't like football," cried the television commentator as pandemonium ensued. "It's something to tell the grandkids," said Pouso, who had words of comfort for Jose Mourinho. "He is sad at the moment and he is working miracles. But that is what life is like sometimes, that the poor are sometimes happier than the rich. Without the support of the players, the board and the fans I would be nothing. I am happy because I am in the right place at the right time. We have a date with history."
Madrid, Jan. 23, 2011: "I do not provoke cliques. I know nothing about the leaks. I feel very supported by the board, we're currently in the midst of a very good spell." said Mourinho in his news conference ahead of the second-leg clash against Barcelona, which was overshadowed by reports of a dressing-room rift between the Portuguese players and those who represent La Roja. Spanish newspaper reports stated that Mourinho had had a training-ground bust-up with firebrand defender Sergio Ramos, whom the Real coach blamed for allowing Carles Puyol to equalize during the first leg at the Bernabeu. Ramos said that he had switched to mark Gerard Pique at the time, and apparently delivered a scathing retort to his boss: "Sometimes during games you have to make positional changes; you were never a player so you don't know."
Pouso could not have been more accurate with his observations on the Real coach. Despite a five-point lead in La Liga over their archrival, and two goals without reply required to win the King's Cup tie against Barcelona tonight, Mourinho has the right to feel aggrieved that his players (apparently) and the Bernabeu support (evidently) seem to be turning against their man. Jeers rang out around the stadium when the Ultras Sur sang their "Jose Mourinho" song in Real's 4-1 win against Athletic, in which Mourinho fielded an attacking side and even threw in local favorite Esteban Granero to mollify the baying hordes. Mourinho's problem is that his support believes he should field attacking sides against Barcelona, rather than falling back on the negative -- if successful -- tactics he employed while at the helm of Inter. Italian clubs are predisposed to defensive cohesion. Real was not, and time was required to instill it. Now that it has been, the feeling around the Bernabeu is that he should use that foundation as a base for more elaborate play.
Tonight, at Camp Nou, Mourinho has already warned the world that public enemy Pepe will play if passed fit, suggesting the Madrid manager plans to employ a game plan similar to the one that eventually failed last week.
Perhaps he should take a leaf out of Pouso's book and have a go instead. It's the cup, after all, and as Mirandes has consistently proved, anything is possible. All Mourinho risks by not taking one is the continued erosion of what goodwill remains to him.