Messi strikes and then there were two

The past few weeks in Spain have seen an important series of games which brought a welcome degree of clarity to the true nature of the power hierarchy in La Liga.
At the start of the sequence there were three teams dominating the scene, the eternal Big Two Real Madrid and Barcelona, and upstarts Villarreal, who were only two points of Barcelona and three behind leaders Real.

After the 11th round of games, Villarreal lost to Barcelona in the Nou Camp and then there were two. It has become  a recent Spanish custom akin to the old game of  letters to the Times announcing the first cuckoo sighting of spring, to watch for the first headline of the season bemoaning that the Spanish League has become like the Scottish one. And sure enough the day after Barcelona beat Villarreal there it was plastered over the back page of Marca “Ha vuelto de nuevo la Liga escocesa”  and “Welcome once more to the league of two” 

Put briefly the argument runs that the Spanish League has become as uncompetitive as  the Scottish one, and as in that one, there will only ever be two possible winners, the same two every season, the Big Two. In 2009- 2010 in Spain the gap between the second of the Big Two and the third team, over 38 games, was a massive 25 points with the 4th team a further 9 points behind.  In 2009- 2010 in Scotland the gap between the second of the Big Two and the third team, over 38 games, was an massive 18 points with the 4th team a further 9 points behind. So if anything the Scottish League was slightly more competitive.

To be compared with the Scottish League is a massive blow to Spanish pride, since for years they have boasted that their league, La Liga, is the finest in the world. Never mind that Villarreal who finished 7th in La Liga are far superior to both Rangers and Celtic, as they have proved several times in the last few seasons, and that Atletico Madrid in 9th place, won the Europa League and would be strong favourites to win the Scottish League, as would Valencia or Sevilla. There can be no doubt that the standard of the Spanish League is almost immeasurably better than the Scottish League, that the strength in depth is much superior. The sad reality has become that the Spanish League is no more competitive.

Barcelona gave Villarreal a football lesson. They proved themselves to be a class above the Yellow Submarine. But they had to be at their very best to do it. It was an enthralling game, of the best quality, certainly by far the best game of the season probably one of the finest of the last decade. Barcelona started at full pace and top quality and it took Villarreal 20 minutes to recover from the shock that they could not get into a rhythm and that they were being outclassed. Villa scored a well-deserved first goal in the 20th minute, evading a crude lunge from old Valencia colleague Marchena. However despite going behind Villarreal did not stop trying to take Barcelona on at their own game, fast possession football and gradually they came back into the game. Great skill from Nilmar rounded off  a good Villarreal move with an equaliser after 27 minutes and emboldened Villarreal had as much of the play as Barcelona for the rest of the half. The second half started with both sides still committed to playing fast positive attacking football. Barcelona were the team who scored, twice, through Messi at his very finest. Barcelona deserved to win. They gave as fine an exhibition of football over 90 minutes as many spectators have ever seen. But Villarreal proved true to themselves, proved they are a superb team and that on a different day with different luck might have got a rather undeserved draw, even against Barcelona at their best.

It is no disgrace to lose to a Barcelona team playing the best football in the world. By showing they could live on the same park, with that quality of football and still be in the game, Villarreal demonstrated that they are back to being one of the top teams in Europe, capable of playing football of excellent quality.

The following week Barcelona showed they were still on the ball, winning 8-0 away to Almeria, provoking more agitation about the uncompetitiveness of the league. Meanwhile Real Madrid had also taken 6 comfortable points from these two rounds meaning they would enter El Classico 1 point ahead, and never having lost under Mourinho. 

Barca 5 Real Madrid 0 And then there was one

Seldom was a game looked forward to as much on all sides as was the first confrontation at the Camp Nou between Guardiola’s champions and Mourinho’s new team. Seldom has so anticipated a contest turned out to be such a one sided game. Brilliant Barcelona swept Mourinho’s side away, the 5-0 score line an accurate reflection of their total superiority on the night. Messi won the battle with Cristiano Ronaldo to be seen as the best player in the world, getting a hat-trick. Xavi and Iniesta showed why the best player in the world and the second best, may be Barcelona midfielders rather than a Barcelona forward. Dani Alves showed himself to be the best attacking full back in the world.

So then there was One. So devastating was Barcelona’s superiority that they have to be seen as a class above all the rest including Real Madrid. That does not mean they will definitely win the league, or regain the Champions League, but it does mean that they are by a distance the best team in the world.

And if Spanish football was akin to horseracing, the official handicapper would adjudge Villarreal to be a good few pounds superior to Real Madrid. Against the same opponents, in the same kind of scintillating form, Villarreal did much better than Real Madrid, and they did it by playing football the Barcelona way, while Real Madrid just lost their way. It would wryly amuse many more people than Manuel Pellegrini if  a Villarreal restored to but not tightly bound by Pellegrini principles, were to prove as good as, or better than Mourinho’s Real Madrid. The 9th of January 2011 in the Bernabeu when Villarreal will be the first team to attack Real Madrid there playing good football should be an interesting evening. 

There was a slight worry after the Barcelona Villarreal game that there would be an adverse reaction from Villarreal to the shock of discovering how much better than them Barcelona were. Honest players like Santi Cazorla seemed in a state of some shock after the game, talking about how brilliantly superior Barcelona had been. Their following game was at home to 4th placed Valencia and presented a real test of whether they could recover their confidence and stake their claim to being the best of the rest.

Garrido A great Manager, a quick learner, a born winner

For the Valencia game, Garrido made his third major error of the season, or more accurately repeated the error he had made for the Barcelona game, in preferring Cani to Senna. Now Garrido is an excellent young manager, just learning his trade so it is natural that he will make some errors along the way. The important thing is that he appears to learn from them, the sign of a great manager. His first error was to play only one forward for the opening game of the season, dropping Nilmar. His second was to underestimate both European Club competition and  the best team in Croatia by playing 6 reserves against Dinamo Zagreb. He certainly learned the right lessons from both these mistakes. The third mistake is not a simple ‘Senna versus Cani in midfield’ choice  (although Senna would win that for most Villarreal supporters). It is more a choice between Senna in defensive midfield and Borja Valero up front, against Borja Valero in defensive midfield with Cani up front. Now Borja Valero can play in defensive midfield competently but upfront he is magnificent rather than just competent. Sure Xavi could play defensive midfield but Guardiola would not waste him there. Cani is a canny player, thoughtful, determined and confident, not without skill. But he is not anywhere near Xavi Inesta level whereas Borja Valero and Cazorla are in the same league. Put crudely, canny Cani cannae pass the same way the other 4 can. So against Barcelona, against anyone, Senna  back plus Borja Valero forward beats Borja Valero back with Cani forward, every time.

Fortunately Garrido’s error was more than outweighed by the massive errors made by Unai Emery who elected to come to shut up shop with 5 defenders and only one forward

The first few minutes Villarreal did look shell shocked, like Barcelona had eroded their confidence. But the lack of forward pressure from Valencia allowed them to refind their rhythm and their fluency. Even Valencia scoring in 20 minutes from about their only attack of the game did not deflect Villarreal from proving to themselves, again, that they are a very good team. Nor did Valencia trying to kick them off the park. 7 Valencia players were booked, one of them twice, in a dour dismal dirty display. 3 minutes after Senna replaced a disappointing Borja Valero, Villarreal equalised. 8 minutes later Valencia were down to 10 men, with 10 minutes left. Garrido kept urging his men forward, forward but to no avail. Maybe Unai Emery felt that the point obtained justified his defensiveness and aggression, but the local Valencia papers did not agree, slating him for denying his team any chance of victory. In a biting comment the main Valencia Community newspaper said no visitor from outside the community could have guessed Valencia were the bigger club with the bigger tradition and the bigger budget and that Villarreal were from a town 1/20th the size of the city of Valencia. Fernando Roig must have smiled wryly at the comment that it was Villarreal who had seemed the bigger more established club.

Since then Villarreal have gone to Zaragoza and won 3-0 then last night defeated bigger budgeted Sevilla 1-0 in El Madrigal with another piece of sublime Nilmar finishing.

So after 14 weeks  Barcelona lead Real Madrid by 2 points with Villarreal 5 points behind in 3rd place. But the Yellow Submarine are 6 points clear of Valencia and 10 points clear of both Atletico Madrid and Sevilla. The smart bookies already reckon they are a good bet to stay on to clinch a Champions League place for 2011-2012.

And their 3-0 home win over Dinamo Zagreb last week clinched their qualification for the Europa League knockout stage.

Garrido signed a new contract until 2014 last week. He is absolutely the right man to be in charge of Villarreal. The man is a winner, who understands the Villarreal way. He has the ability to progress it from where Pellegrini took it. He is the guarantee Villarreal will continue to play attacking attractive and successful football.

Given how good Barcelona are, the best of the rest is no bad accolade