Rather than engaging in idle conjecturing (sorry Ahmed — you know we love you!) about the winners of this season’s Champions League (a tournament which is about as predictable as Rafa Benitez’s team selection), it seemed to me time to bring Soccerlens to a new level.
This is, I believe, a Soccerlens first — an article centred on a different league than the wonder that is the Barclays Premiership.
A Real Madrid fan in my youth (writes the recently-turned 19 year-old), I have recently been wooed by the delightfully expressive attacking flair of the current Barcelona team, a starting eleven possessing such a plethora of talent and determination as to rival the brilliance that was the “Dream Team” of the early 1990s. For every Gheorghe Hagi, there is a Lionel Messi. For every Romário, there is a Samuel Eto’o (OK — they have very different styles, but Eto’o has the ability, and the recent goalscoring record, so as to be just as successful). For every Stoichkov, a Ronaldinho (and what a player the former was!) and for every Laudrup a Deco. And we have yet to mention Giovanni Dos Santos, who is perceived, along with Porto’s Anderson, as one of the brightest young players in the world. However, in spite of this, and contrary to the peremptory assertions of Guillem Balague, Sky Sports’ resident Spanish football expert — and a very good journalist — I do not believe that los cules are going to win La Liga at a canter (though they may well triumph as the season comes to a close). This is why.
Rijkaard’s selection problems
There is little doubt that Frank Rijkaard is unaware of his best starting eleven, or even of his best squad of fifteen. Last year no such problems existed, with Xavi and Messi injured for large parts of the season and Dos Santos hidden away in the ranks of the youth teams. Add to this equation Eidur Gudjohnsen, and it it easy to see that the Dutchman has a problem on his hands (albeit a better one than a total lack of talent). Barça have also added players at the back, and Rijkaard seems unsure as to whether to stick with the players who won the double last year or to incorporate seasoned veterans such as Lilian Thuram and Luca Zambrotta. Whilst such new arrivals will inevitably bring with them a wealth of experience, this additional competition has also contributed to an aura of instability surrounding the club, with players no longer as contented and settled as they once were.
Samuel Eto’o’s injury
Despite the aforementioned injuries suffered by Xavi and Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o was a virtual ever-present for Barcelona last year, and, being the only out-and-out goalscorer in the squad, his presence will be missed immeasurably over the next few months. Though there is certainly no lack of goalscoring potential in the squad (all of the midfielders are capable of chipping in some 5-15 goals a season), Eto’o offered Barça consistency and, because of his devastating pace, an attacking outlet that will be impossible to replace. On countless occasions last year did I see a swift Barcelona attack rounded off with a through ball played some distance ahead of Eto’o, with the Cameroonian able to make up the lost ground and convert. This type of play will no longer be an option for Barcelona, and will force the attacking quartet of Xavi, Ronaldinho, Deco and Messi to think of something new.
Improvement of the opposition
Not only do Barcelona have internal problems to deal with, but they are also confronted with a radically improved set of opposing teams.
Real Madrid have strengthened significantly over the summer, with Diarra looking to be one of the best signings of the transfer window and Ruud van Nistelrooy already banging in the goals. And, though most pundits tend to focus on the attacking attributes of the famous club, one should not forget that Fabio Cannavaro, one of the world’s greatest defenders, has been brought in to marshal a defence that is bountiful in terms of potential, but shaky when under pressure (Sergio Ramos needs some time to develop, and to figure out what his best position is. But he will be one of the best players in the world for many years to come. Mark my words). Equally, though I was actually a big fan of Luxemburgo — statistically Real Madrid’s most successful manager of the last decade — the importance of Fabio Capello to Real’s title credentials should not be underestimated. Capello commands discipline and hard work, and in just a matter of weeks has transformed the form of players such as Cassano and Guti. Let’s see what he can do with Ronaldo. Incidentally, I will never slate the great Brazilian, and I am hoping that he can prove some of his fickle doubters wrong.
In the Valencia squad now reside what is quite possibly the best set of players the club has ever had. Quality abounds in every position — four top-class defenders (Del Horno, Ayala, Marchena and Miguel), midfielders who would get into most squads around the world (Vicente — a perennial underachiever with unbelievable talent, JoaquÃn — once wanted by Chelsea, Edu — yet to score but I am sure that they will come!, David Albelda — kind of like the Valencian Xavi, and finally Raul Albiol, a young player about which Spanish football lovers will be hearing volumes in the coming months). The attack is no less frightening, with Morientes (a former Champions League Golden Boot winner who is very much at home in the Spanish League) and David Villa (anyone who watched the World Cup will be aware of his ability) providing a constant goal threat. A brief look at the substitutes and squad members betrays a strength-in-depth befitting of a team able to challenge for the league title.
An honourable mention must go to Sevilla (who have, arguably, the best production line of young players in Spain) and Atlético Madrid, who, between them, possess some of the most exciting players in the league (from the former: Daniel Alves, Jesús Navas and Kepa Blanco, and from the latter: Maniche, Maxi Rodriguez, Fernando Torres and Sergio Aguero), as well as two young and intelligent managers in Juande Ramos and Javier Aguirre.
So, who is going to win the league? I honestly don’t know. But it is by no means a foregone conclusion.