Sunday, May 10, 2009

La Liga 2008-2009....One Match From The Title For Barça

Unless Villareal can take advantage of tired legs following the Champions League semi-final last week, Barcelona should be declared Spanish league champions tonight. It will be a fitting finish to what has been an extraordinary season for the club in Pep Guardiola's first year in charge. Everyone talks of this Barça as being a team that will be remembered amongst the best the club has ever had, although you need at least two or three successful seasons to be able to stake such a claim. Real Madrid kept the race open longer than anyone expected, although with a style of play that nobody regards as memorable. Juande Ramos can claim that he did what he was paid to do, and will not have done too badly at all out of his few months at the helm. The gap in class between the top two was evident well before last weeks meeting, and the distance in points would have been much greater were it not for Madrid's ability to gain points even when playing badly. The first game at the Nou Camp saw Madrid turn up with the sort of mentality normally more associated with a Getafe or any small town battling survivor, and their attempts to kick Messi off the park smacked of resentful desperation.

Madrid were easily beaten by Valencia last night, and it seems clear that the players regarded last week's hammering at the hands of Barcelona as the end of their title aspirations. If Barça win the title tonight then we may see the first candidates declared as early as tomorrow for the elections to be president of Real; it was seen as bad form to declare whilst the race for the title was still mathematically open. Given that such events usually involve huge turnover in the playing and technical staff it never does much for morale to know too early who will get the boot. A revived Valencia are keen to keep Atletico Madrid and Villareal at bay as they fight to guarantee a place in next year's Champion's League. Their revival coincided with the club finding the funds to pay the players, as Valencia's attempt to do their own "pelotazo" has gone badly wrong with the economic crisis making the idea of building housing where there used to be a stadium look less interesting. The same problem almost certainly means that star players like David Villa will be put on sale come the end of the season.

Meanwhile only the top half of the Liga can be regarded as being absolutely safe from relegation, no team has yet definitively lost their place in the top flight and remember that the name of Numancia is always associated with determined resistance. Despite not being completely safe, Athletic Bilbao decided yesterday to put out a second string team against Betis so that they could rest their players ahead of the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona. They won the game! The team that has really transformed their survival chances recently has been Barça's city rivals, Espanyol. They were seen as almost certain relegation fodder a few weeks ago, but a good run has seen them leap up to 14th place. It seems most likely that those who go down will come from the current bottom five of Osasuna, Getafe, Sporting, Recreativo and Numancia, but a couple of good results for some of these could still put those above them in trouble.

Just take a look at the current table for the Liga. The gap between first place and fourth is more or less the same as that between fourth and last! This may be an exceptional season, even Madrid have more points than the leader usually has at this stage, but the gap tells us something about what is happening in the game. The trend in Spain and elsewhere is for ever fewer teams to be involved in the contest for the title. In Spain this year the second tier of what we might call "big" clubs (like Sevilla and Valencia) hasn't even been in the race. I was always against the idea of a European Super League because I saw it just as a conceit of the richest clubs seeking to obtain an even bigger share of the riches in the game, but now I'm starting to think it might be a good idea and possibly the only way to revitalise the domestic competitions a bit. I know those who follow Madrid or Barça will not see things this way, but many neutrals are going to stop seeing the point of a competition which is always decided between two or three teams and where most of the rest are simply focused on guaranteeing their survival so that relegation doesn't put them out of business.

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