La Liga hits crucial turning point
La Liga has reached a crucial turning point with the last international break until March -- a gap that allows Spain's leading clubs to turn total focus on a series of games that will go a long way toward determining whether the season is a failure or a thing of joy and beauty to behold.
Momentum needs to be gathered; 99 percent of the Primera Division coaches don't need to worry about their players being hauled off on transcontinental journeys to do FIFA business or to earn their Federation extra cash. From now until spring the clubs dominate and the national teams are largely forgotten.
By the time the pre-European Championship friendlies recommence, summer will be almost as close as winter, we will have had one Clasico, the next will be on the horizon, and Barcelona will either have added the world crown to its glorious past 12 months or added to the gentle feeling that this has not been its best-prepared campaign under Pep Guardiola.
So let's draw breath and try to draw five conclusions from the already tumultuous 2010-11 season in Spain where -- whisper it -- there are the first indications that a power shift might be about to take place.
1. Jose Mourinho is hitting top form -- so Real Madrid is doing the same
The first time I ever got any "inside" info on Mourinho was when my friend Benni McCarthy was playing for Porto. Octavio Machado had just been sacked with the Portuguese super-club veering closer to relegation than any normal level of achievement. It was January 2002. The players felt battered; things were going wrong. There seemed to be no clear way out of the crisis. In came the Special One. Mourinho's first dressing-room speech, in essence, was this: "If you believe in me and you do exactly what I tell you to, then we will finish in the top two and qualify for the Champions League."
I know -- having had an informer sitting slap-bang in front of Mourinho -- that the players looked around and thought (or said) "Who is this crazy dude and who does he think he's kidding?" Players being players, however, they did exactly what he said, marched up the table, finished third and missed out on an unthinkable Champions League place by a whisker. It had been a remarkable exercise. And even though Mourinho's incredibly ambitious goal had been missed, the stellar nature of his achievement -- added to the fact that Porto won the title the next season just as he went on to predict -- has meant that one of his key assets has been blind loyalty from some of the most exalted and talented footballers on the planet. Until now.
Between this past April and August at Real Madrid, Mourinho took a sufficient number of missteps to go off course. Several players, notably the Spaniards, had issues with him. One player, Pepe, overfed on Mourinho's diet of red meat and anger, and so began to make himself a joke footballer -- the Terminator with boots.
But things have significantly changed, and Madrid look exceedingly dangerous as a result. Players have been allowed their voice, Mourinho now has the politics of consensus ruling his dressing room, calm has been restored, wounds have had balm applied to them. When a squad as powerful as this one concentrates on hustling, harassing and then playing explosively once it wins the ball back, the team is not only sublime to watch, it's genuinely threatening a clean sweep of trophies in the manner in which Guardiola's dream team managed in 2009. Will Real do so? Can Los Blancos bring to an end Barca's domination of the Spanish league? Can they win their first (but 10th overall) European Cup in May in Munich? Anyone who doubts that all this is extremely possible hasn't been paying attention properly. Madrid is back. So is Jose.
2. Perhaps Cesc Fabregas will be a thorn in the Special One's side?
So far it is as if Cesc Fabregas noted down and took personally every single short-sighted comment, from punter or analyst, saying that he wouldn't (or couldn't) find his own space in this scintillating FC Barcelona side.
If indeed he brooded at the slights and plotted revenge, then it is being spectacularly exacted. His first touch of the ball in a competitive match came at Camp Nou during the Supercup second leg when a thuggish tackle on him from Marcelo saw the Real Madrid defender sent off and the ex-Arsenal captain pick up his first club medal for six years. Nine days later Fabregas picked up his second, adding the detail of a sublime goal against Porto in Monte Carlo as Barca won their 12th trophy, the UEFA Super Cup, of the past 15 competitions they have entered.
Which is where the rub comes in. Perhaps disappointed Arsenal fans and ill-advised media pundits had at least half a point that this Barca side is exceptional. No less a judge than World Cup-winning Tottenham Hotspur legend Ossie Ardiles has absolutely no doubt of that. "This is the best club side, perhaps even the best team, in the history of football," he said.
Which, if you think of it, makes Fabregas' reintegration into his alma mater all the more impressive.
It didn't bring him a trophy or a medal, but the absolutely remarkable headed goal he scored in Spain's cathedral of football, the San Mames stadium in Bilbao, this past Sunday night, meant that he has now scored eight goals this season in all competitions -- averaging one less than every 120 minutes. Depending on your perspective, he is either the author of football's chaos theory (you know, tiny changes having devastating effects as when a butterfly flaps its wings and a continent away a hurricane ensues), or he's shoring up deficiencies. Take your pick.
Because while Fabregas has sometimes been chosen by his footballing hero, Guardiola, to play in advanced center midfield, something he intermittently shone at while at Highbury or the Emirates, he is also now playing center forward.
Well, he would be if life at Camp Nou were that simple. Fabregas plays what is known as the "false" center forward -- perhaps initiated by the great Hungarian Nandor Hidegkuti, enhanced by footballers like Pele, Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullit and particularly Michael Laudrup, but until now the dominant position of Lionel Messi in this current Barca embodiment.
While Fabregas has excelled, however, there are questions arising over some players around him: his two World Cup-winning colleagues, Pedro and David Villa, and Messi. Pedro has a solitary league goal to his credit and, far from his 19 goals-in-21 games scoring streak of a year ago, he looks short of confidence and touch. Villa is -- falsely I think -- the talk of the town in Spain over whether he is having a row with Messi because of who gets to play the central striker. None of the headline writers seem to find time to mention the fact that Fabregas has easily outstripped the Spanish national team's all-time leading goal scorer (Villa), and if the great man is miffed it might well be with this midfielder who has arrived and suddenly staked a surprise claim for the central striking role.
But unless I miss my guess, we are seeing Guardiola attempt to re-jigger his side to (A) surprise opponents, and (B) work out whether Fabregas is a luxury substitute or an automatic pick. The adjustments will take time and I don't honestly believe that we are yet seeing Fabregas at his most fluent. When Guardiola finds a settled formula and Fabregas hits his peak then, perhaps, Madrid will have an even stronger opponent for the Spanish title and the European Cup. Buckle your seat belts and enjoy the ride.
3. Praise for the architect
One of the things that is rarely commented on, I believe, is that the great Sevilla side that won bucket loads of trophies in a blistering, blitzkrieg spell under Juande Ramos (laying waste to Europe and Spain) had been nursed to greatness by Joaquin Caparros for a long time before Ramos took over. For all the successful coach's excellence, there had been spectacularly good nursery work done by the 56-year-old Andaluz before Sevilla's enjoyable eruption. Timing is everything in football, just as it is in comedy. What I wonder is whether Marcelo Bielsa is now enjoying the same fortune that once made Ramos a rich and successful man. Caparros moved from Sevilla to Athletic Bilbao. He groomed that side, made it competitive, let it taste European football, took it to the cup final in 2009 and, generally, laid the ground for a fertile era. He, along with the football director, made the brilliant decision to repatriate Ander Herrera, a gem of a footballer who meets the strict Athletic criterion of being Basque-born. Bielsa is a difficult man, make no mistake. No friend to the media, obtuse, obsessed, eccentric, idiosyncratic -- but not without ability. When he became manager of Bilbao in 2011, he inherited a squad that includes rare talents such as Fernando Llorente, Ander, Iker Muniain and Susaeta. One barnstorming game against the Spanish and European champions (the 2-2 draw this past weekend) doesn't make Bielsa's men great. But there is momentum, class, self-belief and an improved playing style emerging now that Bielsa has started to pick a more settled starting XI. All I hope is that if this arresting Athletic side become successful there is, at least, a thought spared for the eternal architect who never gets to cut the ribbon on the new building -- Joaquin Caparros.
For more Graham Hunter, check out his columns on all things La Liga and Spanish soccer.
• History beckons for Barca
• No time for nostalgia
• Messi's rise to greatness
• Torres should play for Spain
• Real Madrid's title quest
• Madrid's Pepe problem
• Di Maria is odd man out?
• Jokers wild for Spain's national team
• Yellow Submarine on verge of sinking
• Ronaldo's rant, Atletico's despair
• Barca beats Madrid again
• Spain's three kings
• Ibra's book of nonsense
• Spain's balance of power
• Rossi's injury huge blow
• La Liga's ultimate late bloomer
• Messi chasing Barca record
• Laporta's fall from grace
• Barca's off-the-pitch battle
• Real Madrid's game plan
4. There's a bad moon on the rise
The Clasicos. I think we've learned that this season's clashes between Barcelona and Madrid will have at least as much impact on the destination of the league in Spain as last season. If they are drawn together in Europe, then ditto that. Right now the temperature has been lowered. Mourinho is slinging less mud, Guardiola won't play ball with the Madrid media, and there has been a four-month ban on face-to-face interviews at Barcelona, imposed by Guardiola while he readies his team for the first Clasico on Dec. 11 and the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan immediately after. So far, so good. If you enjoyed Round 1 last season, you'll love Round 2. But what about Spain? I think we've learned that there was copious ill feeling in Vicente del Bosque's camp immediately postseason, and the mini-tour of North and Central America did little to heal the hard feelings from the Barca-Real clashes. But once Iker Casillas and Xavi had their peace summit by phone, all was well. The evidence is in the results. However, if there happens to be a run of Clasicos this season, in league, cup and Champions League from late April onward, and that causes bad feelings to spill into Spain's defense of its European crown in Poland and Ukraine, the beneficiaries will be Germany and Netherlands, two strong and implacable rivals for the title. Warning over.
5. Good football -- on a budget
In times of financial hardship -- and sometimes it feels like Europe and the euro are about to implode -- I give you the "It's A Wonderful Life" story that is taking place in the city of Valencia. Thus far this season, Levante -- little, plucky, almost-out-of-business Levante -- has met its creditors' terms by paying back 6 million euros. Staff salaries are being paid and, at the moment, it's a healthy if parsimonious club. About a mile up the road, Valencia, the proud, world-faring big brother, was 550 million euros in debt just over two years ago. Right now, it has cut that to 370 million euros, which remains a hefty figure but is an achievement of gargantuan proportions, given that most of it has been achieved by selling off the crown jewels. However manager Unai Emery somehow manages to make Valencia sparkly and regal on state occasions, he keeps his squad in or around the top four in Spain, and he may yet mount a thrilling comeback in Champions League Group A to qualify Valencia for the lucrative knockout stages once again. Two clubs, one city, united by the evidence that you can construct a good footballing squad on a short budget and mind the pennies, nickels and dimes. Hats off to both of them. We should all take note.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.
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