Are the Spanish greedy?

An interesting article, the thrust of which was that Spain’s poaching of the world’s top players has left more balanced leagues in the rest of Europe, recently caught my attention. As an Aston Villa fan, I’m not sure I agree that parity has reached the Premiership. If you look at the top 5 or 6 teams of the past few years, the same select group of names crops up time and time again: Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and a n others. Yes, one or two have climbed a few places thanks largely to their new deep pockets and others, including my beloved boys in claret and blue, have slipped back. However, I would agree that this season is looking as competitive as 2001-02 season. But that could change.

A not too dissimilar situation can be found in the Italian Serie A and and the French First Division where the typical powerhouse teams are being challenged by some sporting minnows. But we’ve not yet reached mid-season. Often the lesser teams can’t maintain their challenges for the entire season, as injuries and other factors take their toll. One could argue that zones or tiers have appeared in the leagues and it’s difficult for teams to progress to the next tier without significant financial investment.

Over in Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid have been busily acquiring the world’s best soccer talents and, so the article argues, doing the Spanish fans a disservice by rendering anything other than the classicos a walkover. The author (unfairly, in my opinion) compared the Spanish league to that of Scotland where two clubs, from the same city, Glasgow Rangers and Celtic, have dominated for years. It’s true that in recent years in La Liga the gap between the winner and the also rans has widened. Last year Barcelona won with 96 points, 34 points clear of 4th placed Villareal. While in 2006-07 season, Real Madrid won the title with a much narrower margin and 23% fewer points. But it’s winning that counts, not the margin of victory.

The article also points to the players short-listed for FIFA’s Player of the Year, the Ballon d’Or. In 2007, the list comprised 11 Premier League players, eight from La Liga, seven from Serie A, three from the Bundesliga and one from France. Since then, the world’s elite have migrated to Spain and this year’s short list included 13 players from the Spanish League, four from the Premiership, two from Serie A and the Bundesliga, and one each from Russia and Brazil. Could Spain’s dominance of recent World and European Cups not provide a simpler explanation?

Well, I have to confess that I’m not sure I agree with the author’s conclusions. Clubs with deep pockets, who regularly enjoy European football and have plenty of silverware in the cupboards, are going to attract the best players. Taking those players and moulding them into a winning side, is a whole other ball game. It is perhaps interesting to note that those teams who regularly place well in their respective leagues have “superstar” managers. Ones who have enjoyed significant periods in charge, such as Wenger and Ferguson, ones who have an abiding affinity with the club, like Guardiola, or ones who have enjoyed success wherever they have roamed such as Mourinho. Remember, football is a team sport and great teams, not teams of great players, win trophies. Though I do accept  they could be one and the same.

Handily poised

Having devoted yesterday’s post to a round up of the cycling, today I felt I should turn my attention to the football. I will, of course, firstly address the two clubs closest to my heart: namely, AVFC and OGCN. The former didn’t play at the week and as their would-be opponents were involved in a replay. Unsurprisingly, they’ll be playing Manchester City in the next round of the FA Cup. My beloved boys in claret and blue are the filling in a Midlands sandwich. They’re lying in 16th place with 30 points, the same as Birmingham who are above us thanks to a superior goal difference, and a game in hand. Below us, on two points less, are WBA. To put this in perspective, the league leaders, Manchester United, have twice as many points. OGCN lost 3-0 at home to PSG. They’ve played one game less than Villa and are on 27 points in 17th place, just above Monaco, who are in the relegation zone. The similarities are alarming but I don’t believe either will be relegated.

I will now turn my attention to the Champion’s League which tends to be a bit of a closed shop. There’s 4 English sides (Man U, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal), 3 Spanish teams (Real, Barca, Valencia), 3 Italian teams (Inter, AC Milan, Roma), 2 German teams (Bayern, Schalke), 2 French teams (OL, OM) plus 2 others (Copenhagen, Shaktar Donetsk).  Following the results of the first leg, there’s only one side which looks likely to be eliminated: FC Copenhagen who were beaten 2-0 at home by Chelsea.

If we look at the results from the remaining first legs, there are at first glance some surprising results: most notably Spurs winning 1-0 away at AC Milan and Manchester United drawing 0-0 away from home at OM. In other instances,  while the favoured team lost, they do have that all important away goal as in Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona, Lyon 1 – 1 Real Madrid which should provide the platform for a home, and overall, win in the next leg.

At this stage, it’s not easy to forecast who will win. There’s so many variables not just the opponents in the forthcoming rounds, domestic situations but,  more crucially, the availability of key players. However, I’m all for sticking my neck out and I’m going to predict that the last 8 teams will be Spurs, Schalke, Shaktar, Barca, Real, Chelsea, Man U, Bayern. I would have liked to include Arsenal in that list but cannot see them beating Barcelona at home. I hope, in this case, I’m proved wrong.

 Of course, it’s difficult to work up enough interest if your own team isn’t playing, nor shows any sign of qualifying to play Champions League in my remaining lifetime. I will however always be able to treasure the moment when Peter Withe’s knee struck the ball in Rotterdam and put in the back of the Bayern net enabling my beloved boys to bring home the trophy in 1982. I watched the game after barracading myself into the tv lounge of the hotel where I was staying in Taunton while auditing Somerset CC.