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Seeking the perfect leader for a two-horse race

No team can get close to Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Spanish league - but that’s not good enough for this year’s runner-up.


Lionel Messi led Barcelona to the league title. Photo: prettyfriendship

The Spanish league season that has just ended may have been a thriller, with Barcelona only securing the title on the last day of the season, but in a couple of ways it has been an entirely predictable affair. Once again, only two teams were ever serious contenders; and once again, Real Madrid seems intent on replacing its coach.

Manuel Pellegrini, the former Villarreal manager drafted in to mould a team from an expensive but disparate collection of summer signings at Real Madrid, is a man whose days are numbered; so much so that the Chilean can count them on one hand. There is little in the way of reassurance emanating from the Bernabéu boardroom that Pellegrini will be invited to see out the second year of his contract, with Inter Milan’s José Mourinho strongly rumoured to be his replacement.

Florentino Pérez’s second galáctico project at Real has the ingredients to succeed, but the club president lacks a chef able to bring the concoction to boil. Pérez’s track record in this department is woeful: no manager hired by the property magnate in his two terms at the helm has won a single pot. The most successful manager under him was Vicente de Bosque, who won two Champions League and two Liga titles for the club. Del Bosque, though, was not hired by Pérez and was ultimately dispatched, after delivering his second league trophy. Since then, bar a Spanish Supercup under Carlos Queiroz, Pérez’s appointments have all left empty-handed. Gallingly for Pérez, his successor Ramón Calderón managed to add two titles to Real’s tally in the interim years.

Pellegrini may have failed to win a trophy in his first season at Real, but his apparent shortcomings should be put into perspective. Firstly, the blame for Real’s elimination from the Champions League at the last-16 stage for the sixth year running was placed squarely on the manager’s shoulders. Pellegrini, though, did not have the players he wanted, having asked on his arrival that Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder be retained. Seen as hand-me-downs from the Calderón era, Pérez was eager to put his own stamp on the team and he sold both Dutchmen before splashing out on Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema, for a combined fee of over €200 million. The irony could hardly be lost on Pellegrini as Robben and Sneijder take to the field for the Champions League final with Inter and Bayern respectively, both having played key roles in the successful campaigns of their new clubs.

Neither did the Chilean fail to carry out his Liga brief. With a hastily cobbled together assortment of superstars, a league points total of 96 is a near-miraculous achievement. In any other European league, Real would have won at a canter; Inter took the scudetto with 82; Bayern regained the Bundesliga with 70; and Chelsea won the Premier League with 86.

Real also faced a rival with a significant advantage: few teams in history have blossomed with such synchronicity as Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. On many occasions during the season, Barça’s first 11 contained seven or eight players from its La Masia youth academy – players who had spent their formative years training and playing together. In spite of the volume of Pérez’s pockets, no amount of money can buy the on-field understanding born of years of familiarity. Neither can lucre provide the kind of team spirit fostered at Barça.

The big two canter home

The chasm between second and third place in La Liga and other European leagues is telling. Valencia finished 25 points behind Real, and there is little to suggest that next season will be any different. Barcelona has signed Valencia goal-machine David Villa, weakening the nearest rival to the top two considerably. The distribution of television revenue hugely favours Barcelona and Real, prompting La Liga’s also-rans to propose a more egalitarian model, based on the English Premier League.

Next season Barcelona might be stronger still, with Arsenal captain Cesc Fàbregas agitating for a return to the club he left as a teenager. Real, in turn, are likely to follow suit and two or three transfers in key positions –a striker, a creative midfielder and defensive cover– are sure to arrive for eye-watering fees. The only interest at the top of La Liga next season will be whether or not Real and Barcelona swap positions.

If Mourinho does, as anticipated, arrive in Madrid, the chances of that happening look quite reasonable.  After all, Mourinho’s Inter is the only team in any competition this season to score three times against Barcelona.

Had Pellegrini’s Real done likewise when the top two Spanish teams met in the Bernabéu, he would be a title-winning manager. But that, at Real at least, is still no guarantee of a job.

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Published: May 21 2010
Category: Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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