Five big stories to watch in La Liga
BARCELONA -- One of the unwelcome responsibilities of any columnist is that both your readers and your editors expect you to be able to foresee the future. Now, in all honesty, if I truly possessed that power I'd be splitting my time between anti-terrorist work (foiling 'em every time, John McClane-style) and spending the vast fortune gained from knowing the winning numbers for every lottery draw.
Not that I'm complaining. Part of the beauty of reporting on La Liga, or any other top-level sport, is the shock value of the unexpected -- an unexpected win or loss, an unexpected goal or miss, an unexpected sacking, and so on.
But sometimes, if you do enough tracking and you learn how to lay your head to the ground at the right time in the right way, it's possible to estimate how many horses are headed your way. (It's what comes from growing up watching endless Westerns.)
So here, with an aggressive stare at those who will delight in quoting the absurdly incorrect predictions back at me in May, are your five big stories to watch in La Liga in 2011.
1. Jose Mourinho's special magic
For all his managerial skills -- his ability to deflect criticism of his players, to draw up astute tactical blueprints, to play mind games with opposing managers -- Mourinho epitomizes what the mighty Formula 1 driver Jackie Stewart famously said: "The more I practice, the luckier I get."
The Special One works, studies, and plots so hard that often he anticipates better than anyone else. But the Real Madrid manager seems blessed with being able to take advantage of fortuitous circumstances.
For example: Mourinho reached his first Champions League final in 2004 with Porto. Ludovic Giuly was running riot for Monaco, but pulled up with an abdominal injury and went off after 22 minutes. Seventeen minutes later, Carlos Alberto scored for Porto and it was, effectively, game over.
Alberto was an undisciplined, newly arrived Brazilian striker who played precisely 22 games for Porto, scoring only one other goal before Porto tired of his persistent breaches of club rules and kicked him out.
His single golden moment was when Mourinho needed it most.
Last season, when Barcelona looked unstoppable, we had the Icelandic volcanic ash eruptions. Another lucky strike for the Special One. Pep Guardiola's team had to make the 21-hour trip from Catalonia to Italy by bus because flights were grounded. Sluggish and patently disrupted at the San Siro, Barca was blown away in a hurricane of movement and long balls from Inter, which won 3-1 -- just the right margin to ease it into the final on an eventual 3-2 aggregate score.
Coincidentally, the airport in Barcelona opened just about two hours after Guardiola & Co. set off by bus. This only happens on Planet Mourinho.
As we head into the second half of the season, the motif for Mourinho will be revenge for the 5-0 humiliation to Real Madrid last month. Even as you read this, Mourinho will be plotting and calculating -- "How do I trip them up how do I bring them down?" -- before the next Clasico on April 17 at the mighty Santiago Bernabeu in the heart of Madrid.
But Mourinho might be facing more than one clash with his club's archenemy: Madrid and Barca, if they win all their qualifiers, are seeded to meet in the Spanish Cup final. They could also face off in the quarters, semis or indeed the Wembley final of the Champions League.
The more chances Mourinho has, the more he figures his "special" talents can be brought to bear.
Imagine it: the carnage, chaos, enmity and spectacle the second half of the season could bring. On Planet Mourinho, it can happen.
2. Jose Mourinho's dark magic
Relations have soured a bit between the Special One and Madrid's director general, Jorge Valdano, since he described Mourinho's football at Inter Milan as being like "s--- on a stick." So far, Mourinho has tolerated the Argentine, but that won't last much longer. In fact, as his news conference this weekend demonstrated, Mourinho is starting to hit out at anyone and everyone who stands in his way.
The Special One feels blocked, mocked and under-supported by Valdano. And like a woman scorned, hell hath no fury greater than Mourinho with a vendetta.
You have to think that either Mourinho or Valdano will leave the club after the summer. If they get that far.
First will come the power struggle. Mourinho wants to hammer referees who don't officiate the way he wants them to. He wants a top-class No. 9 striker. He wants the playing staff to obey his will, without exception and without meddling from Valdano.
So the flow chart will go something like this: sniping in the media, editors taking sides, presidential intervention and then, a winner and a loser.
Mourinho to win, either by knockout or on points, is the shrewd bet.
3. The torpedoing of the Yellow Submarine
At the start of the season, I tipped the brilliant, fluorescent Villarreal to finish in the top four after a couple of seasons of hibernating. As of the winter break, Villarreal is No. 3, so my prediction looks safe. But the vultures are hovering.
European clubs have been sniffing around Villarreal's top talent. One target could be keeper Diego Lopez. Until this season, he had a clause in his contract stipulating that if he signed with another club, half of the transfer money would go to Lopez's parent team, Real Madrid. But no longer. So if, say, Manchester United offered a healthy sum for his services, all the revenue would go to the Yellow Submarine coffers.
Santi Cazorla is another possible target. The brilliant little midfielder missed the World Cup through injury, but in the summer of 2008, he very nearly signed for Real Madrid. Now fit and playing outstandingly well, Cazorla has caught the attention of scouts for Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United.
Finally, there's the brilliant Giuseppe Rossi. In the form of his life -- nine goals in 15 league games -- and committed to the project that is Villarreal, he will probably be the subject of massive money bids by bigger, wealthier clubs.
Inevitably, Villarreal president Fernando Roig will have to sell one or two of his players, given his tiny budget and the small community from which the club operates. If he can sell high, buy low -- and bring in some impact players -- Villarreal will continue to succeed in 2011. Let's hope so.
4. To stay or not to stay? The Pep Guardiola question
Inter and Chelsea have sounded him out. Manchester United views him as a major contender to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson. Arsenal, a club whose philosophy he adores, looks a natural next base. But where will Barcelona's manager go? And when?
"I dreamed of playing in the Premier [League], but it never happened," Guardiola said in a news conference last week. "One day, I will work there as a coach."
My guess? Guardiola, who turns 40 in January, will renew his contract with Barca -- even if it's only for a short term. His team is still hungry, and he's not fully burned out yet by the high pressure at Camp Nou. Above all, if you were coaching Lionel Messi, wouldn't you want to ride those coattails for as long as damn well possible?
All together now: "Four more years! Four more years!"
5. Little big man or big little man? Sergio "Kun" Aguero
All pocket-sized; all outstanding.
But the time has come for Kun, Diego Maradona's de facto son-in-law, to stop being the little big man dominating the scene at Atletico Madrid and become the big little man by dominating the scene at one of the greats -- Manchester United, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Arsenal or Milan. Or -- buckle on the body armor -- how about Barca, and even Madrid?
He needs to learn from Liverpool's Fernando Torres and not stay too long at the Vicente Calderon out of blind loyalty, only to realize that a couple of great years have been wasted.
Want more Graham Hunter? Check out his work on all things Spanish football. Zidane -- the diplomat • Clasico madness is coming • The Other Fernando • Barca best of all time • Pep's labor of love • Giuseppe Rossi in fine form • Write off Ronaldo? • Nadal saves Mallorca • Valdez's Herculean effort • The Special One is no Harry Potter
Aguero is in his prime. Strong as a bull, just narrowly short of Messi's talents, he is ready to take the next step. His prodigious skills would also command a transfer fee high enough for Atletico to fund a serious rebuilding project.
Either we are watching Aguero's last year at Atletico -- or the world has gone mad.
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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