Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Spanish get going again

Spanish football had a summer nightmare as La Roja meekly surrendered their world crown in Brazil, crashing out in the first round with only a dead rubber win over Australia to point to. But lest we forget, La Liga clubs made a clean sweep of UEFA trophies last season, as Real Madrid won the Champions League & Super Cup and Sevilla the Europa League.

While the national team finally returned to winning ways with a 5-1 victory over Macedonia in their first Euro 2016 qualifier, the Primera has also resumed proceedings with the annual Barça-Real ding-dong back into full swing.

Barcelona have resumed normal service, topping the Primera after six outings with five wins and a draw. Real Madrid have started more slowly, surprisingly losing their opening two games of the season, away at Real Sociedad and at home to Atletico Madrid.

Their city rivals are of course the reigning champions and Champions League runners-up, and it is very much to be hoped they can maintain that success to make the race for the Spanish title at least a little more interesting than a tussle between the usual two suspects.

Valencia is the most likely candidate to make it a four-horse race and the club coached by Portuguese Nuno Espirito Santo have made an encouraging start and find themselves second to Barça so far, just ahead of Atletico and Europa League winners Sevilla.

The rest of the Spanish top flight once more looks depressingly weedy however, with the likes of Almeria, Eibar and Getafe unlikely to set many pulses racing.

Barça v Real may be an overblown, vulgar carnival at least twice a season, but the pulling power of the star-heavy lineups remains undeniable. 

Their first clash, at the Bernabeu on the 25th of October, has been on people's lips since the start of the campaign, particularly as it will feature the long-awaited debut of Luis Suarez for the blaugrana.

If the domestic league turns out to be as predictable as ever, then at least in Europe the big two Spanish clubs face a battle. There is also Atletico and Athletic Bilbao making up Spain's Champions League quartet.

After last season's all-Madrid final, Barcelona will be eager to make their mark again in the competition they dominated so impressively three seasons ago under Pep Guardiola.

After edging past Cyprus’ Apoel unconvincingly 1-0, their first real test comes tonight away to Paris Saint-Germain, with their old boy Zlatan Ibrahimovic eager to prove a point. Ajax are the other team in their group.

Real began more convincingly thumping Basel 5-1 and look to have an easier ride to the knock-out stages with Liverpool and Bulgaria’s Ludogorets Razgrad to come.

Atletico lost their opening clash 3-2 away to Olympiakos, and must now up their game to finish second in a group containing Juventus and Malmo.

Athletic, who qualified after defeating Napoli in the play-off round, have a reasonable group on paper of Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and Bate Borisov but have also started slowly, drawing 0-0 at home to Shakhtar.

In the Europa League, Real Sociedad surprisingly crashed out 3-1 to Russia’s Krasnodar in the play-off round, leaving Villareal and holders Sevilla flying the Spanish flag.

Villareal won a crucial point away to Group A rivals Borussia Moenchengladbach and should make it through against Apollon Limassol and Zurich, while Sevilla began with aplomb, beating Feyenoord 2-0 in Group G, with Rijeka and Standard Liege to come.

La Roja look like they have finally left the stage of global greatness after two European Championships and one World Cup across five magical years, but with a Euro 2016 qualifying group featuring the modest talents of Belarus, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Slovakia and Ukraine, Vicente Del Bosque has the luxury of time to rebuild and rethink.

In European club competition however, the expectation and pressure for Spanish gold is as great as ever.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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