Barcelona and Real Madrid set to battle for supremacy again
Finally, there will be football in La Liga this weekend after the players’ union and the top two division’s clubs worked out some of their differences and the strike was called off.
Now, we can concentrate on what’s happening on the pitch rather than behind-the-scenes but once again it looks like being a two-horse race in Spain between current champions Barcelona and their eternal rivals Real Madrid.
Long gone are the days when the likes of Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Deportivo La Coruna, the only other teams apart from the two Spanish giants to triumph in the last 20 years, could contemplate upsetting the status quo.
The only time in the last seven years when anybody has eased themselves between Barca and Real was when Villarreal finished second in 2007-08.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi tricks his way past the Real Madrid defence during the Spanish Cup final. PHOTO GETTY
“Barcelona and Madrid, face to face again without any third contender,” was the headline of an editorial in the Spanish sports daily Marca just over a week ago, when the league was originally expected to get underway.
I think that says it all.
Nearly every other club, not least the six (Mallorca, Zaragoza, Racing Santander, Rayo Vallecano, Real Betis and Granada) that are in administration to protect them from their creditors which in some cases includes their own players, are worried about where their next euro is coming from.
At least, clubs in administration don’t have to be worried about points being deducted, unlike in England. There are so many of them that the LFP - the organisation of professional football clubs in Spain’s top two divisions - has tacitly acknowledged that such sanctions would make a mockery of the league.
By contrast, despite being mindful of the new UEFA edicts of financial prudency, both the Big Two have the finances to have been able to delve into the transfer market in the last couple of months.
Barca go in search of their fourth consecutive title since Pep Guardiola took over in the summer of 2008.
"The fourth season is different from the first, the motivations are different. It's a little calmer, but I still have the same enthusiasm and desire to play football well,” said Guardiola recently, despite continued speculation about whether he will still be in the same job this time next year as he only has a contract to the end of the season.
Four-in-a-row would be a truly meaningful achievement for Guardiola to put alongside all his other triumphs including two Champions League wins. The only other time Barca have put together such a streak was from 1991 to 1994, when they had the Dutch legend Johan Cruyff at the helm.
You might think otherwise if you were addicted to the soap opera surrounding Cesc Fabregas’ move from Arsenal, but this has been a quiet summer in the Camp Nou offices.
Not one of what would be considered Guardiola’s first-choice 11 has left while, in addition to Cesc, Barca has also acquired the highly rated Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez. The emergence of Thiago Alcantara, a product of Barca’s La Masia youth development centre, has also added to the depth of their squad.
There have been more comings and goings at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Jose Mourinho has brought in five new players, including the left-sided Portuguese international Coentrao from Benfica, and the Turkish internationals Nuri Sahin and Hamit Altintop.
“This is genuinely a team that could end the dictatorship of Barca,” added Marca and Guardiola has acknowledged on several occasions that Real should be an even more formidable opponent that last season.
Last week’s two Supercopa matches between the pair suggest that the newspaper and Guardiola could both be right and - forgetting Mourinho’s antics and the free-for-all at the end of the second leg - also proved that even if La Liga is only about two teams, it still shouldn’t be too boring.
The joker in the pack among those chasing Barca and Real in La Liga this season could be Malaga, whose best finish in the last 25 years was eighth and who were declared bankrupt themselves and in Spanish football’s fourth tier less than 20 years ago.
Qatari sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Al-Thani took over the club when they were at the very foot of the first division midway through the season and brought in former Real Madrid boss Manuel Pellegrini, who then guided them to mid-table respectability.
Using Manchester City as a blueprint for success, this summer Al-Thani has dug into his deep pockets and spent more than €60 million on nine classy reinforcements including former Real Madrid star Ruud van Nistelrooy, French international midfielder Jeremy Toulalan as well as Spanish internationals Santi Cazorla and Ignacio Monreal.
There might be a short period of adaption but it’s expected that the quality of players will mean that they could challenge the usual suspects Valencia, Villarreal, Sevilla and Atletico - who have all lost key players from last season in a bid to keep their books relatively straight - as well as a revived Athletic Bilbao for a Champions League place or a spot in next season’s Europa League.
At the other end of the table, just like in England and Italy, the promoted teams from Segunda often find life difficult. This year, it’s unlikely to be any different for Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano and Granada, with the latter back in the top flight for the first time in 35 years.
All three are also beset with financial problems and haven’t been able to bring in any meaningful reinforcements.
Another club who look as though they are set for a miserable season is Real Zaragoza.
Zaragoza also had to enter administration to stop them being declared bankrupt and have only been able to sure up their side with a scattering of players scavenged from reserve teams and returning loan players.
The respected former Mexico coach Javier Aguirre will have his hands full keeping the two-time European competition winners in the Spanish first division and the days when Zaragoza were almost on level terms with Barcelona and Real Madrid must now see like a hazy hallucination for their fans.