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Barcelona seek to extend Liga dominance

Once again Barça and Real Madrid are certain to hog the points in the Spanish football league. For the Catalans, maintaining the motivation that has seen them win three Liga titles in a row will be the big challenge.

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While Leo Messi is still in the Barça line-up, the team have made some significant new signings.

With respect to the other 18 clubs in Spain’s top flight, the one and only major debating point at the moment seems to be: will Barcelona be good enough to again thwart the ambitions of Real Madrid?

Certainly that’s how many other pundits see the forthcoming season in Spain. The headline in the annual guide to La Liga published by the Spanish sports daily As was: “The first two and then all the rest.”

It sums up the current situation in the top flight of Spanish football.

Not since Villarreal had their ‘año milagro’ in 2007-08 and finished second behind Real, has anyone broken the hegemony of the two giants of Spanish football.

In fact, apart from when Villarreal upset the odds, Barcelona and Real Madrid have occupied the top two slots in La Liga for the last seven seasons.

The gap between Real and Barcelona and the other 18 clubs – the haves and have nots if you like – even seems to be widening thanks to their enormous spending power derived from their commercial clout and worldwide fan base.

“The last two leagues that have been contested have seen Madrid and Barcelona both get close to acquiring 100 points. Everything suggests that it will be the same situation again,” wrote As editor Alfredo Relaño recently.

“Whereas the chasers like Valencia, Sevilla, Villarreal and Atlético have to sell, or in the best case scenario can hang onto their players just to stay where they are, can invest in summer reinforcements if necessary.”

This season, L’equip blaugrana go in search of their fourth consecutive La Liga title since Pep Guardiola took over in the summer of 2008 and even though José Mourinho has changed the landscape of Spanish football since he took over at their eternal rivals just over 12 months ago, the favourites – by what margin is open to argument – still appear to be the Catalans.

“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 last week.

Four in a row would be an iconic achievement for Guardiola because the only other time Barça have put together such a streak was from 1991 to 1994, when what has known as the ‘Dream Team’ had the Dutch legend Johan Cruyff at the helm.

Guardiola’s Barcelona has already become known in some sections of the media as the ‘Dream Team II’ and in many respects he has surpassed the achievement of the man who guided the early part of his playing career by triumphing twice in the Champions League.

In the past few months since the curtain came down on the 2010-2011, Guardiola has adopted a philosophy of ‘If it isn’t broke it doesn’t need fixing’.

None of the players who formed what could probably be considered his first choice 11 have left.

Barça’s bolstered squad

Into the bargain, he has acquired highly useful backup players in the shape of former Arsenal striker Cesc Fàbregas and also the highly rated Chilean striker Alexis Sánchez.

This summer has seen the emergence of Thiago Alcântara, a product of Barça’s La Masia youth development centre, into a player of international quality.

With these three coming in, Guardiola has gone some way to addressing one of the few perceived weaknesses of the squad, a lack of depth should injuries or suspensions start to take effect.

The issue that hangs over Barcelona is whether or not this will be Guardiola’s last season in charge.

He only has a contract until the end of next June and has so far resisted all overtures from the Barcelona president Sandro Rosell to sign for longer.

Guardiola has said a number of times that he will only leave Barça if he gets tired of the job or the players get tired of him, and that doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment. But the debate over whether he will still be in charge this time next year could still prove to be a distraction as the season progresses.

Real Madrid have dived into the transfer market with gusto and Mourinho has acquired five players, although, like the new arrivals at Barça, they are going to have to fight hard to get into the starting lineup.

“Real Madrid has had an impeccable pre-season in terms of results. When it comes to playing, coming from my vantage point, they are as good, or even better, than last season,” said Guardiola, running the rule over Real last week.

Chasing the top two

Last season, Valencia and Villarreal were the best of the rest but the yawning gap between them and second-placed Real, 21 and 30 points respectively, shows how much ground they have to make up if they are to compete seriously for the top two places.

“Our objective is third place but hopefully we can do better. It should be a big battle between us, Villarreal, Sevilla, Atlético, Athletic and Málaga,” said Valencia coach Unai Emery recently, tacitly admitting that the 2002 and 2004 champions can no longer compete on equal terms with the ‘big boys’.

Valencia continue to have acute financial problems and so it’s a huge testament to the ability of Emery to keep putting out a motivated and entertaining side that can aim for the top four in La Liga.

With this summer’s arrival of Real Madrid’s former boy wonder Sergio Canales on loan and also Dani Parejo from Getafe, they should continue to be in contention for a Champions League place.

The same can be said of their near neighbours Villarreal, who continue to amaze on a small budget.

They have hung onto their top men, apart from Spanish international midfielder Santi Cazorla, for whom Málaga made an offer that Villarreal president Fernando Roig couldn’t refuse, and they can still boast of a host of talented and cultured players such as Carlos Marchena, Borja Valero, Marcos Senna and Nilmar.

Sevilla and Atlético Madrid, after both teams made the Champions League in the last three years, underperformed by their own standards and finished fifth and seventh last season and will want to do better this time around.

Agüero-less Atlético seeks to compete

However, nobody is quite sure what Atlético will bring to the party after the summer departure to England of two of their former stars: goalkeeper David de Gea and Argentine striker Sergio Agüero.

Sandwiched in between them in sixth place at the end of the last campaign was Athletic Bilbao who remain, along with Barça and Real, ever-present in the Spanish first division since its inauguration in 1928.

Athletic retain their idiosyncratic policy of only selecting players having roots in the Basque region but currently seemed to have mined an abundance of talent from the area that had escaped them for many years, not least of whom is the World Cup winner Javi Martinez.

The big unknown factor in the race for places in Europe next year is Málaga, whose only previous continental excursion came in the former UEFA Cup in 2002.

Málaga owner Abdullah Bin Nasser Al-Thani has spent €60 million this summer on nine reinforcements including Dutch striker and former Real Madrid star Ruud van Nistelrooy, French international midfielder Jérémy Toulalan and Spanish international defender Ignacio Monreal.

The wisdom of that spending spree will be examined on Sunday when they play host – player’s strike permitting – to Barça at their La Rosaleda stadium.

”We are very excited for the game against Barça. If we do things well we can earn the win,” said Málaga captain Apoño Galdeano.

At the other end of the table, the three promoted teams from Segunda usually find life difficult and this year it’s unlikely to be any different for Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano and Granada.





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Published: Aug 17 2011
Category: Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=3476
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