Posts Tagged ‘barcelona’
The best league in the world. The most popular league in the world.
Both are common phrases to hear, when describing the English Premier League. Of course, they’re almost always used by British journalists or ex-players covering the English game on TV.
The recent announcement of the FIFpro World XI for 2012 was heavily criticised by many of those same British-based experts, after it consisted entirely of footballers playing for clubs in the Spanish Primera Liga.
How could it be possible that the Premier League was not represented, they asked? There were no questions of why the team included no players from the German Bundesliga, or Italy’s Serie A. But then they aren’t considered as being the best league in the world.
The most controversial omission was Robin Van Persie, who was the best player in England during 2012. He was overlooked, legitimately, in favour of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Radamel Falcao. The first two require no justification, though even Falcao managed to outscore Van Persie over the calendar year – as well as making a significant contribution to Atletico Madrid’s Europa League and European Super Cup wins.
There’s no question that the English league is the most hyped in the world, and it may even be true that it’s the most popular. After all, the revenue generated from worldwide TV rights are unmatched by any other top flight football league.
Whether it is the best though, is an entirely different question.
La Liga is generally seen as the next best league – again, based usually on the judgement of English-based experts alone. So in explaining the reasons why the Premier League rules, it is merely a case of those very people detailing why it is better than La Liga.
The main arguments usually include one or more of the following:
- English football is more entertaining to watch;
- There are only two strong teams in Spain;
- Every game in England is competitive, regardless of the gulf in class between the two competing sides;
- There is a better atmosphere in the stadiums;
- Most of the world’s best players play in England
Some of the above statements are often used with such conviction that they cannot possibly be false, but there is plenty that can be said in support of Spain’s case for having the strongest football league in Europe.
In Barcelona and Real Madrid, La Liga contains arguably the two best club sides in the world. Neither are invincible, but there wouldn’t generally be too many people who would strongly disagree with that assessment.
The strength of those two teams in itself doesn’t reflect the general health of the league, but a look at the performances of Spain’s teams in Europe over the last decade certainly points to a depth in the quality of teams further down the league.
Results in European competition are one of the few ways in which the strength of a given league can be truly measured and compared. Doing so would only lead to a conclusion pointing very much towards Spain rather than the Premier League.
Since 2000, six Champions League finals have included a Spanish club, five of them won by the team from La Liga. The other was Valencia’s 2001 penalty shoot-out defeat to Bayern Munich. The most recent three occasions have seen Barcelona triumph over English opposition.
In the UEFA Cup/Europa league over that time, nine different Spanish teams have reached at least the semi final, and there have been two all-Spanish finals. Atletico Madrid and Sevilla have each won the competition twice since 2005, and Valencia lifted the trophy in 2004.
In contrast, only six different English representatives have made it to the last four, and not since Liverpool defeated Alaves in 2001 has the Premier League delivered a winner.
For a league considering itself so strong, the performance of English teams in the Europa League has been quite dreadful. Every club in the top nine places of La Liga in 2010/11 had experience of competing in a recent a European semi final, though it’d be almost unimaginable for the same to be true of the Premier League.
Based on present league placings, such a scenario would have to have seen the likes of Swansea, West Brom and Everton mixing it with the continent’s best, while even Man City have so far failed to make any kind of impression on European competition despite resources that perhaps only one or two clubs in the world can match.
Middlesbrough and Fulham did managed to achieve some continental success by reaching finals in 2005 and 2010 respectively, though neither had to face Spanish opposition until the final. Both were beaten – emphatically in Middlesbrough’s case.
The only other argument from those above that I will address is that of how competitive the matches within each league are deemed to be. Is it really true that Real Madrid and Barcelona have games where they only have to turn up to win, whereas Manchester United and Man City have to fight much harder for any points earned?
It may appear that English games are more competitive, but is that based more on the style of football? Does the fact that English teams adopt a more physical approach give an impression that smaller teams compete better against the top teams in England than in Spain?
If results were compared, it would be difficult to see any noticeable difference.
How often do any of the teams near the bottom of the table cause any problem to one of the title contenders, in either country?
Wigan’s win against Man United last spring comes immediately to mind, but there are few other examples to offer from recent seasons. Barcelona were near unbeatable in the 2010/11 season but still lost 2-0 at home to Hercules, who were relegated and won only one other away game during the remainder of the season. Evidence that hugely surprising results do occur in Spain, too.
It was said of QPR’s win over Chelsea earlier this month that the result was further proof of something which simply wouldn’t happen in Spain. But Chelsea haven’t been consistent this season to keep up with the top two and are a long way off the league leaders.
Even in the two weeks since then, Real Madrid have been held to a goalless draw by bottom of the table Osasuna. Meanwhile, amongst the points dropped by Madrid last season on their way to the title were draws against Villarreal and Racing Santander – both of whom went on to be relegated.
In Barcelona, the likes of Messi, Iniesta et al. have helped the club to a record-breaking first half of the season. A first league defeat did finally occur yesterday, and it was to 12th placed Real Sociedad – a team who made Real Madrid work extremely hard to hold on for a 4-3 win during the previous round of fixtures.
There’s a lot for football fans to admire about the Premier League, but to boast that it is the best in Europe, or to dismiss so much that the Spanish league has to offer only goes to highlight an English bias that, beyond one’s personal preference, appears to be very hard to justify.
Continuing the three-part mini-series of my top eleven matches watching Liverpool in the Champions League. Click here for part 1.
4. Liverpool 2-1 Juventus
Having progressed to the quarter-final stage of the 2004/5 Champions League, Liverpool were given the toughest possible route to the final.
A potential semi-final would involve taking on the runaway league leaders of either the Premier League or the German Bundesliga.
However, Liverpool first had to get past Serie A leaders Juventus, who had conceded just two goals on their way to the quarter-final, and knocked out Real Madrid in the last 16.
Fabio Capello was well aware of what Liverpool were capable of on a European night at Anfield, having twice seen his Roma team exit European competitions at the ground.
But even he would have been stunned by Liverpool’s start to the match, in which a 2-0 lead was established in the opening 25 minutes, firstly thanks to a close range strike by Sami Hyypia and then to Luis Garcia’s dipping 25-yard volley.
It was an important advantage to hold at such an early stage of the tie, though Juventus were powerful opponents with enough time to get back into the tie, and made for a nervy finale once Fabio Cannavaro had bundled in a consolation goal midway through the second half.
Liverpool deservedly held on for victory, and against all odds managed to keep a clean sheet in the second leg to set up an all English semi-final with Chelsea
5. Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea
Beaten twice by Chelsea in the league, and also in the League Cup Final at Cardiff, Liverpool were given little chance in a two-legged semi-final against Jose Mourinho’s expensively assembled Chelsea side who had already secured the Premier League title.
Neither manager took any risks in a first leg which ended goalless, so it was all set up for a tense evening at Anfield.
The stadium was packed out an hour before kick off for arguably Liverpool’s biggest home match in a generation, and the atmosphere reflected the occasion.
Decibel levels were raised higher still when Milan Baros was brought down in the area by Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech, but Luis Garcia played on and grabbed what ultimately proved to be the controversial winning goal.
From that moment, it was an exercise of attack versus defence, and for all of Chelsea’s superstars, they simply couldn’t find a way through – until injury time, that was.
Five minutes into a tortuous six minutes of added time Eidur Gudjohnsen was gifted a golden chance to equalise in front of a crowded Kop goal, which would have put the visitors into the final on the away goals rule. Fortunately for the majority inside the ground, Gudjohnsen scuffed his wide, and the 97th minute finally gave a cue for the start of the home celebrations.
6. Milan 3-3 Liverpool
So much has been written about the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ that it’s almost impossible to come up with something new.
Every aspect of the incredible journey, of Taksim Square’s ‘red sea’, or the fans festival outside the stadium has been documented a thousand times already.
I was in Istanbul only for the day, leaving in the early hours of Wednesday 25th May, 2005, and ultimately returning on a flight at around 8.30am the following day. Fans awaiting flights after being bussed directly from the stadium to the airport spent the night camped outside the compact Sabiha Gocken airport – situated on the Asian half of Istanbul.
The match itself is pretty well-known, too. Milan dominated the first half, and with their side 3-0 up at the break, Milan’s supporters celebrated what seemed like the inevitable success which would be coming their way.
Liverpool had other ideas though, and Rafa Benitez’s combination of players who had underachieved over the last couple of seasons along with some influential signings managed to claw their way back into the game and three second half goals for Liverpool turned the match on its head.
The one stand-out moment from a personal viewpoint was the second part of Jerzy Dudek’s double save from Shevchenko in the second period of extra time. Watching from high in the top tier, almost perfectly in line with the goal-line, the moment when Shevchenko’s outstretched leg shaped to volley the ball past Dudek from only a couple of yards out was a moment when time itself seemed to freeze, only restarting once the ball had rebounded off Dudek’s arms and was heading towards the sky.
If there was any one moment in the match when the cup looked destined not to be going back to Italy, that was it.
Dudek was again the hero in the ensuing penalty shoot-out, his final save again being from Shevchenko – and Liverpool had indeed won it five times.
7. Barcelona 1-2 Liverpool
When considering Pep Guardiola’s achievements with Barcelona over the last four years, it’s easy to forget that the team Frank Rijkaard had put together.
La Liga and Champions League winners in 2006, Barcelona looked every bit like a side capable of being the first to successfully defend the trophy in the Champions League era.
With a side consisting of an attacking line-up of Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Messi and Deco, Barcelona were the benchmark for every other club in Europe, and massive favourites against Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool team who were still struggling to compete with Chelsea and Man United for the domestic title.
Deco put Barcelona ahead on the night, and the Catalans looked good value for their lead until Craig Bellamy levelled the score at the end of the first half.
Liverpool grew in confidence and were rewarded when John Arne Riise added a second goal to end Barcelona’s long unbeaten home run in the Champions League, and also extend Liverpool’s impressive record in the Camp Nou to four games without defeat.
Qualification was not a straightforward affair, however, and Barcelona’s win in the second leg at Anfield meant that Liverpool only made it into the last eight on away goals.
8. Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea
A surprisingly comfortable quarter-final win over PSV Eindhoven set up a second semi-final against Chelsea in the space of three years.
As in 2005, Liverpool had the advantage of the second leg being at Anfield. But unlike 2005, they failed to earn a draw at Stamford Bridge, and would have to win – potentially by two goals if Chelsea were able to net an away goal.
Daniel Agger provided the breakthrough for Liverpool, who were unable to make any further impression on the scoreline, despite dominating the match.
Dirk Kuyt hit the crossbar with a strike from long-range, and Chelsea, who posed almost no threat throughout the match, would have been happy not to be eliminated long before the game went to penalties.
Liverpool had won a Champions League and an FA Cup on penalties during the two previous seasons, and Chelsea were added to the list of Liverpool’s penalty shoot-out victims without even getting an opportunity to take their final two kicks.
Leading 3-1 after three spot kicks each, Dirk Kuyt’s accurate strike into the corner of Petr Cech’s goal sparked more wild celebrations on the Kop – and a visit to Athens for a Rafa Benitez’s second Champions League final in only his third season at Liverpool.
FC Barcelona’s draw to Villarreal on Saturday has left the reigning Champions seven points adrift of Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid.
The Catalan club may be favourites for the Spanish Cup after last week’s aggregate win over Real Madrid, and will resume their bid to become the first club to successfully retain the Champions League later this month.
But in La Liga, it is difficult to see how they will be able to overturn the deficit that exists between themselves and their rivals from the capital, though it hasn’t stopped the official FC Barcelona website from pointing out how it may be possible.
In a desperate attempt to dispel the doom and gloom following the weekend’s results, an article entitled “Reasons to believe” has appeared on the site, citing five reasons why a fourth consecutive league title is still possible which are as follows:
- The team is able to overcome all kinds of setback
- Home form
- Improvement on the road
- Recovery of resources
- History speaks for itself
Unfortunately it is easy to counter most of the above with a much stronger reason describing why it is Madrid fans who should be the ones believing that a title is not far away.
Barcelona’s home form is indeed impressive, but Real Madrid have been untouchable at the Bernabeu against every team they’ve faced besides Barca and there’s no indication that they’ll lose points in their remaining nine home fixtures.
On the road Real Madrid have dropped points in just two games, winning eight and that highlights why there is such a gap at the top. Barcelona have won only half as many, and drawn five. The article notes that it is still possible for Barcelona to match the record of 13 away wins in the league, but only if Barca win every one of their remaining nine away fixtures, something which seems highly unlikely based on results so far.
Madrid’s form is nothing new. They achieved 96 points in 2009/10 – a club record – and 92 points last year. If they were to match their tally of two years ago, Barcelona would need to win 17 of their 18 remaining games in order to come out on top.
The fourth reason to believe relates to the fact that several of Barcelona’s key players have been missing through injury. That’s unfortunate but is a situation unlikely to fully change until late-April or May, given that David Villa is recovering from a broken leg.
Villa, the team’s second highest goalscorer this season, may return in time to play a part to the conclusion to the Champions League, but there’s plenty of work for Barca to do in the league if they wish to stand a chance of retaining La Liga – work which they must do before Villa returns.
Real Madrid have had fewer problems with injuries to key players, but have a squad which would cope much better should they suffer any significant losses following an investment in players to the tune of more than €400m since the summer of 2009.
Even though the situation may look grim for Barcelona, the title race isn’t over yet. But despite the optimistic outlook which is coming from the club, more realistic fans might already be accepting that this year’s trophy looks incredibly likely to head back to Madrid.
In the days when I was lucky enough to enjoy Sky Sports at home, I used to follow Spanish league football a lot more than the Premiership, and one game still stands out.
It was not an obvious classic between two giants or a famous upset, but a seemingly routine fixture for the title favourites against the team placed bottom of the table.
Barcelona versus Albacete. May 1st, 2005, and the day Lionel Messi scored his first goal for Barcelona.
The hype had been building on the continent for some time about a special player who was about to break through into the Catalan club’s first team, but excitement hadn’t reached England except to those who had a keen interest in Spanish football
At Real Madrid, David Beckham was in his second season and Michael Owen his first, and last.
Ronaldinho meanwhile was lighting up the Camp Nou and would later that year claim a second successive FIFA World Player of the Year award, but they were the only reasons for most casual English football fans to pay attention to events in the Spanish league.
But back to Messi, who was hailed as the ‘next’ Maradona.
We’d heard that before about many players, most notably in the case of Ariel Ortega who, despite obvious talent, never reached his potential and failed to live up to the huge expectations on him after moving to Europe.
In Messi’s case, he really was set to be the next Maradona, with the Argentine legend himself backing up the claims, and he made his first big mark in the fixture with Albacete.
With five games to go in the title race, Barcelona had a three-point lead over Real Madrid with a game in hand. However, the lead had been 11 points less than a month earlier and the pressure was being applied by their Madrid rivals.
A 17-year-old Messi had appeared in seven of Barcelona’s games during 2004/5, making his debut in the city derby with Espanyol aged 17 years and 114 days. Most of those appearances had been as a late substitute and his only start had been in a meaningless December Champions League game in Ukraine.
Against Albacete in round 34 of the season’s calendar, it would be another brief cameo for Messi, though a highly memorable one.
Into the 88th minute of the game, a solitary Samuel Eto’o goal had given Barcelona a narrow lead as Messi prepared to make his entrance.
The atmosphere which greeted him was one of that welcoming a legend onto the field of play rather than a youngster who had less than three hours of senior level experience, but the anticipation of great things was evident.
Not even two minutes had gone by before Messi got on the end of a Ronaldinho pass and produced a delightful chip over the Albacete keeper, Raul Valbuena. The ball dropped into the top corner of the net but was wrongly ruled out for offside.
35 seconds later, he sent a dangerous low cross into the box for another Barcelona youngster, Andres Iniesta, but his attempted shot was blocked.
If nothing else, Messi’s presence had lifted the whole stadium and the noise reached another level when on 90 minutes and 15 seconds, Messi lobbed the on-rushing Valbuena, and this time his goal stood.
It all happened within three minutes of his entrance into the game, and ensured the points were sealed. The title followed two weeks later – Barcelona’s first for six years.
After being crowned World Player of the Year, Ronaldinho joked that he couldn’t be the best player in the world as he wasn’t even the best player at his club.
The debate has moved on since then, and only Pele and Maradona are considered valid players to which Messi can be compared.
Incredibly still aged just 24, there’s plenty of time for Messi to end even that debate.