A cameo and a Classico

Photo by Ana Belen Ramon www.flickr.com

Photo by Ana Belen Ramon
http://www.flickr.com

Domestic football returns in Europe this weekend following the break for international fixtures. In the last round of games we got to assess two of the continent’s greatest leagues, and four of the biggest clubs in the world with plenty at stake – it truly was a Super Sunday (or Super Sunday/Mega Monday combo for those of us watching in the Far East) as Liverpool took on Manchester United before Barcelona squared off against Real Madrid.

El Classico is not only the biggest game in Spain but also the biggest game in the world these days and, in my view, Liverpool v Manchester United is the biggest game in England such is the stature, history and rivalry of the two clubs. Having both games played on the same day offered an interesting opportunity to compare two very different football cultures.

It may be the biggest game in England but this was no title decider. Both clubs are focused on a top four finish and qualification for the Champions League. United’s victory was a huge one in this particular race and Liverpool, despite excellent form in 2015, may have left their charge a little too late.

Van Gaal and his expensive acquisitions have found themselves under pressure all season with their stuttering and inconsistent form. The Dutchman speaks often of ‘philosophy’ and his team has mostly employed the Socratic method: posing many questions but providing precious few answers.

Things change rather quicker in football than philosophy however and victory at Anfield would prove to be a second assured display in a row from United following their convincing win over Spurs a week earlier.

Liverpool started the match as slight favourites but quickly found out how little that matters when Mata calmly stroked in the opening goal. Van Gaal was jubilant on the touchline but Giggs’ reaction to being embraced by the manager – stonier of face than Michelangelo’s David – did not exactly dispel rumours of a rift between the two.

Liverpool tried to counter but looked unusually flat and threatened only rarely in the first half. Sturridge briefly got confused and thought he was Marco Van Basten, attempting a volley from an audacious angle. De Gea wasn’t troubled by it but some supporters high up in the stand behind him may well have been.

Manchester United were dominating the game with Mata and Herrera pulling the strings in midfield and Rooney looking lively in his preferred position up front. Liverpool needed some inspiration: enter Steven Gerrard as a half time substitute.

38 seconds later Gerrard exited, rightly sent off for a stamp on Herrera. Captain marvel hadn’t even lasted a marvellous minute. It was an atrocious loss of control from a player of such experience. His subsequent apologies were swift and well made but the incident will leave a longer lasting mark on the end of Gerrard’s Liverpool career than it did on Herrera.

The remaining Liverpool players appeared to still be in shock when Mata scored his second of the game with an acrobatically elegant volley. It looked like game over at that point but Liverpool deserve a lot of credit for forcing their way back into the match. Sturridge scored with twenty minutes remaining but the unequal numbers were a factor in an equaliser remaining beyond them.

Rooney had the chance to wrap up a more comfortable win for his side when Manchester United were awarded a late penalty after Can clumsily tangled with Blind in the box. It summed up a rather clumsy Liverpool performance overall. Rooney’s penalty was in the category marked tame and Mignolet was able to make a relatively straightforward save.

Liverpool quickly ran out of time to save themselves but there was still time for another expensive stamp as Skrtel left his foot in on De Gea. The referee took no action but Skrtel subsequently received a retrospective three match ban.

Manchester United left town with three precious points. I went to bed for about three hours sleep before the Classico kicked-off.

When it did, the two best forward lines in the world were lined up against each other: Neymar, Suarez, and Messi versus Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo. This potentially packed more of a punch than Mayweather versus Pacquiao next month. As the players lined up, it was Bale who looked by far the most apprehensive even though he was playing away from the Bernabeu where the Madrid fans have given him such an unnecessarily hard time of late.

Modric was back in the Real midfield to set-up an interesting Croatian confrontation with his fellow countryman Rakitic. I’m not yet fully convinced of Luis Enrique’s managerial abilities but he has at least been smart enough to restore Mascherano to a midfield position. The Argentinean had a superb game, snapping Real’s midfield out of their stride and using the ball intelligently in possession. The only black mark against him was some pitiful playacting on more than one occasion.

The opening exchanges were cagey, there was more dancing around the ring than direct engagement. Then Messi decided enough was enough and whipped in a free-kick that invited Mathieu to nod it in to the net, an invitation he duly accepted. The two best strike forces in the world come together and the first goal is scored by a centre half.

It didn’t take long for Real to respond though. Modric found Benzema inside the box and his brilliant back-heel bemused the Barca defence and allowed Ronaldo to find a sliver of space to score. Ronaldo is apparently refusing to talk to the press until the end of the season; his bizarre outburst at the Ballon d’Or awards suggests that we’re perhaps not missing much.

Before half-time there was still time for Ronaldo to get booked for diving (I wish he would give that up, even just for lent), for Bale to have a ‘goal’ ruled out for offside and then miss a glorious chance from just six yards out. Ancelotti will have headed down the tunnel the happier of the two bosses.

Ten minutes into the second half though, Enrique was enlivened and leaping with delight as Suarez scored a goal of pure composure to put Barca back ahead. If anybody needed reminding, this game was no Messi versus Ronaldo. It was probably the best collection of football talent you are likely to see on a pitch anywhere in the world this year (consider the fact that Xavi was on the bench).

Real Madrid had the world club cup winner’s crest on their jerseys but there’s no doubt that this is the game that determines the world’s best. In the last Classico back in October, Real looked very much the best in the world with an utterly convincing 3-1 win.

Barcelona looked disjointed and uncertain in that game. This time round they were full of confidence and conviction. It was a bit like the Barcelona of a couple of seasons ago under Guardiola but with ‘quicker ball’ as they would say in rugby. The midfield three used to be the basis of Barcelona’s game, now it’s the front three.

And with that front three it’s hardly surprising. Tactics don’t have to be very complicated when you have the option to give the ball to Neymar, Suarez, and Messi, all of whom are very willing to constantly show for it.

At the final whistle Barcelona had three points to show for their efforts and a four point lead at the top of the league.

Two great games, four great teams, six great goals. If the four teams played in a mini league the two Spanish sides would finish at the top. They are the best two teams in the world with Bayern Munich not far behind. Liverpool and Manchester United are striving to close the gap but given that the former didn’t make it out of the Champions League group stage and the latter weren’t even in Europe this season, they still have a long way to go.

The English sides return this weekend to their battle to qualify for the Champions League. They know that if they get there they’ll find the world’s best waiting. Gerrard won’t be there, he’ll be in L.A. But like the rest of the world, he’ll be watching.

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Leo leads in La Liga

Leo Messi. Photo by: L.F.Salas www.flickr.com

Leo Messi. Photo by: L.F.Salas
http://www.flickr.com

Last night, Leo Messi became the all-time leading scorer in La Liga after his hat-trick in Barcelona’s 5-1 victory over Sevilla. He has now scored a quite extraordinary 253 league goals and breaks former Athletic Bilbao striker Telmo Zarra’s record of 251 goals which has stood since 1955. Given that Messi is only 27, and unlikely to leave Barcelona, what might his tally stand at by the time he hangs up his boots?

When he does, it will be the end of one of the most incredible careers ever. I’ve said before that I currently put Messi second on the all-time greats list to Maradona. Even if Argentina had beaten Germany in the World Cup final, I wouldn’t have promoted Messi to top spot as he’d become a lethargic and peripheral figure in the tournament from about the quarter finals stage. His sparkling form earlier in the tournament was a joy to behold but came mostly against rather limited opponents.

Messi’s league goals break down as follows: 206 with his wand of a left foot, 38 with his rather underused right foot, eight with his head, and apparently one with his hand (there’s no end to the Maradona resemblance).

I witnessed one of those goals at the Nou Camp in February 2010. Barcelona beat Malaga 2-1 and Messi scored a late winner, tapping in with his right foot from a low cut back from Dani Alves. The move that created the goal was exquisite and highlighted much of what made that Barca side stand out: the patience in possession even when chasing a winner, the willingness to receive the ball in tight spaces, and then play a defence-splitting pass at exactly the right moment. Messi’s finish was the simplest touch of the whole move.

He’s scored many that were anything but simple of course including the one against Getafe as a 19 year old which was uncannily similar to Maradona’s famous second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. The poise and balance in each case is balletic. Messi has always succeeded in making the sublime seem ridiculously simple.

The most impressive thing about Messi is that he’s never lost that boyish enthusiasm for having the ball at his feet and scoring goals. He’s the kid who would always be knocking on your door, ball in hand, asking if you were coming out for a game.

Inevitably he was labelled the ‘new Maradona’ when he burst onto the scene. As a small, left footed and prodigiously talented Argentinean, that was hardly surprising. But for all the similarities they are quite different players and it stems I think from their very different personalities. Maradona is brash and individualistic while Messi is far less extrovert and appears much happier to blend into the team.

For a country to produce one of them would consider itself blessed, but to produce both? Well, that looks like the hand of God at work.

Which is the best league in the world?

Photo by: Will Morley www.flickr.com

Photo by: Will Morley
http://www.flickr.com

I raise this question today since David Moyes proclaimed the Spanish La Liga as the best league in the world at his first press conference as manager of Real Sociedad. His reasons were simple: “La Liga has the finest players and great coaches and I want to test myself against the best.” So, is Moyes right? Is the Spanish league the best in the world?

There aren’t actually that many competitors for this title. I don’t think it’s too controversial to restrict this search to Europe. There’s a lot of great football played outside Europe (in terms of current growth and future potential, the MLS in America is hugely exciting) but it remains the case that the best players, the best coaches, and the biggest teams are overwhelmingly concentrated in a select few European leagues.

After careful consideration I took the decision to rule out the Scottish Premiership.

The big four leagues in Europe are the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, and La Liga in Spain (the French might make a case for being included over the Italians but I think Serie A remains stronger than Ligue 1 overall). As I’ve written before, I love Italian football even with all its present travails but there’s no doubt that the Serie A is not at the level of the other three right now. It could be thought of as the Andy Murray of the big four.

Let’s look at some evidence in order to give the impression of employing a scientific approach to ranking the three remaining contenders before arriving at the necessarily subjective conclusion.

I’ll start with the best players. The long list for FIFA’s Ballon d’Or was announced recently, comprising 23 players: Bale (La Liga), Benzema (La Liga), Costa (Premier League), Courtois (Premier League), Di Maria (Premier League), Goetze (Bundesliga), Hazard (Premier League), Ibrahimovic (Ligue 1), Iniesta (La Liga), Kroos (La Liga), Lahm (Bundesliga), Mascherano (La Liga), Messi (La Liga), Mueller (Bundesliga), Neuer (Bundesliga), Neymar (La Liga), Pogba (Serie A), Ramos (La Liga), Robben (Bundesliga), Rodriguez (La Liga), Ronaldo (La Liga), Schweinsteiger (Bundesliga), and Toure (Premier League).

Moyes would appear to be right about the best players then. 10 players on the list are based in Spain, six in Germany, five in England, and one each in Italy and France. Overall, the Spanish league does have more of the best players in the world and in Messi and Ronaldo it has the top two.

Photo by: Jan Solo www.flickr.com

Photo by: Jan Solo
http://www.flickr.com

It also has Suarez who is not included on the Ballon d’Or list. Some people are upset by that but the list is about players who have performed best over the year; Suarez has spent rather a lot of the year not playing at all on account of his disgraceful conduct. I have little sympathy regarding his absence.

How about coaches? There are ten contenders for Fifa’s coach of the year award: Ancelotti (La Liga), Conte (currently coach of the Italian national team), Guardiola (Bundesliga), Klinsmann (coach of the U.S. national team), Loew (coach of the German national team), Mourinho (Premier League), Pellegrini (Premier League), Sabella (coached Argentina at the World Cup), Simeone (La Liga), and Van Gaal (Premier League).

The Premier League comes out on top here with three, La Liga has two, and the Bundesliga one. It probably is true that most of the best coaches want to manage in England. I expect Guardiola to move to an English club at some point in the future.

Finally, let’s consider supporters since they are the lifeblood of the leagues. Earlier this year, the Sporting Intelligence website published average attendance figures for the leagues based on the 2012-2013 season (http://www.sportingintelligence.com/finance-biz/business-intelligence/global-attendances/). The Bundesliga’s average attendance was 41,914 (total attendance for the season was 12,825,684), while the Premier League’s average was 35,931 (but with a higher total attendance of 13,653,780), and La Liga’s average was 29,330 (with a total attendance of 11,145,277).

I’ve been to games in all three leagues and I would award victory to the Bundesliga in the supporters’ category. The combination of low ticket prices, superb atmosphere in the stadiums, and excellent German beer and sausage makes the Bundesliga a clear winner here.

Photo by: lackystrike www.flickr.com

Photo by: lackystrike
http://www.flickr.com

So where does that leave us? It seems that Spain is the place to be as a player, its England if you are a coach, and Germany if you are supporter.

The Spanish league is technically and tactically sophisticated, has the best players in the world and the two biggest clubs in Barcelona and Real Madrid (El Classico is the game in world football these days). Last season’s remarkable title triumph by Atletico Madrid aside however, the big two tend to overshadow the rest of the league in a way that’s not altogether healthy.

The Premier League is arguably the most competitive, has many world class players and many of the world’s best coaches. Ticket prices are generally too expensive though and the football can be of rather uneven quality.

The Bundesliga takes care of its supporters and offers an excellent quality of football but the increasing dominance of Bayern Munich is making it a bit less competitive than would be ideal. In the next few years, even Bayern may struggle to prevent more players following Kroos out of the Bundesliga.

Is Moyes right then? Has he just landed in the world’s best league? Has he just left it? Should he have opted for Germany?

It’s a tough call and a close one but for me, right now, I would still award the overall title of best league in the world to the Premier League. It’s the most exciting, the fan experience is not as great as in Germany but the atmosphere is still good, there are more than enough great players (including the likes of Aguero, Fabregas and Sterling who didn’t make the Ballon d’Or list) and some of the finest coaches.

England it is then by a whisker from Spain, followed by Germany. Do you agree?