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Top 5: First XI costs in Premier League

Transfers 11 hours ago
Read
Apr 16, 2012

Too easy?

I was reading in an English magazine this week that all the records that are being broken by Messi, Ronaldo and their respective clubs reflect well on the Spanish league, in the sense that there is a filtering down of the quality - exemplified - in the magazine's view, by such events as Athletic Bilbao's recent humbling of Manchester United and the presence of five teams in the two European competitions' semi-finals.

On the other hand, according to the editorial, it was just 'too easy' for the top two clubs now, and this was creating an unhealthy situation which could only get worse, given the relative financial clout that these two clubs continue to enjoy.

This is a magazine for which I have to utmost respect (I was bothering to read it), but I still find this view of La Liga difficult to accept. That is because, as I have written before, it's largely an outsider's view, and it fails to understand the whole mentality of the scene here. As the woman in the bread shop remarked, as I nipped in for a couple of Sunday 'barras' (baguettes), Saturday night's game in the Bernabeu between Real Madrid and Sporting was 'un partidazo' (a great game) and that next Saturday there would be nobody on the streets during El Clasico because 'hasta mi perro quiere verlo' (even my dog wants to watch it). She then shrugged as she handed me my bread and newspapers with 'Y el partido de Barca tambien ha sido muy bueno!' (and the Barcelona game was very good too), just in case anyone should accuse her of bias.

There are various quick points to be made here. The first one is that she is about 35, and of course she knows me. But she wasn't making idle conversation. She was really expressing an opinion, and was seemingly unembarrassed by the fact that she was revealing her Saturday night to have been spent at home on the sofa, watching two football matches. This is normal fare for Spain, but don't forget that I'm reporting from the Basque Country, where people are not supposed to be interested in distant matters such as the Clasico. But of course they are, and there will indeed be nobody on the streets come next Saturday night. There will nobody in the streets on Tuesday and Wednesday nights either, when first Real Madrid and then Barcelona initiate their attempts to set up the mother of all Clasicos in Munich on May 19th. Do people talk like this in the breads shops of Europe in general? I think not.

Barcelona have an awful lot of points for a team in second place (81), and the goal-scoring feats of Leo Messi this season are proving to be simply stratospheric, but they have failed to win on eight occasions in the league this season, which is roughly a quarter of all their matches. They certainly don't think it's 'just too easy'.

Watching them play Levante on Saturday night was instructive, and it was only a rather iffy penalty which got them the points in the end. Levante were excellent - drilled and disciplined at the back with Sergio Ballesteros, a 36-year-old mountain range of a man, simply magnificent. For a while, as in Real Madrid's last two games, the result was difficult to predict.

On Wednesday night, in a bar in Almeria, I watched Atletico Madrid equalize and look as though they might go on to win their first 'derbi' in years. The final 4-1 scoreline in favour of Real Madrid does little justice to the reality of the match, and on Saturday Sporting de Gijon, bottom of the league that evening, opened the scoring at the Bernabeu and made a decent enough fight of it.

But I don't want to make excuses for La Liga. Is it too easy for the top two, or is it simply a case of two teams so determined to take their rivalry to new heights that they themselves play much harder, with a competitive edge and ferocity that belies their aristocratic status?

They would certainly say this, and it would take a bold pundit to contradict them. Of course they have collected together two of the most potent squads to ever walk the planet, and their riches will always guarantee them results and a fighting chance for all the trophies on offer, but in the end they are subject to human stresses and strains, and in that simple phrase resides the endless fascination of this league. In one of Messi's rare visits to the microphone this week, he himself commented that 'Todos los equipos se juegan algo. Todos los partidos son muy jodidos'. (Every team has something to play for. Every game is a real killer).

The possibility that Barcelona will defeat Real Madrid and cut the lead to one point next week is very real - as is the subsequent possibility of Jose Mourinho's team dropping further points. Is this of no interest?

Ask the television audience next week, and the advertisers who will be competing for prime time Saturday evening. Everyone wants to be a part of the Spanish top flight. There are things to improve and reform, and the duopoly could indeed be subjected to a more democratic regime in general, but the current status of these two sides is a product of their brilliance. This is not the first time in their histories that they have towered above the rest in terms of resources, and hardly the first time that they have held a monopoly on the destiny of the domestic trophies, but perhaps the quality of the squads that they have put together has rarely been surpassed.

And what of the records themselves? Karim Benzema's goal against Sporting was the 107th of the league season, equalling the famous total attained by John Toshack's side in 1989-1990. Of course, it hardly needs saying that the record is bound to be broken, with five games left to play. Real Madrid would be very happy to do that in the Camp Nou, and Barcelona equally happy to stop them, but the record will eventually cede to Mourinho's men.

Barcelona themselves are on 96, hardly a modesty total, and might conceivably surpass 107 too. Such a feat would endorse this season as a special one, in which all the records that have stood since the inception of the professional league here in 1928 were smashed.

Cristiano Ronaldo broke the 38-goal barrier last season, established by Bilbao's Telmo Zarra in 1951 and equalled by Hugo Sanchez in the aforementioned '89-90 season, a campaign during which, ironically, the Madrid press accused John Toshack of being a defensive manager. Jose Mourinho may well smile, but one simply hopes that for football and for logic's sake, he allows his players to express themselves in the Camp Nou, and finally try to gain a result through playing the way they know best. But because a point would probably seal the title, the temptation will be to 'do the Pepe' again, instead of handing the baton to his more creative players and making a real game of it.

Whatever happens, both Ronaldo and Messi will surpass last season's record-breaking tally of 41, and are indeed both neck-and-neck on that figure now. Messi has scored in ten consecutive games (equalling another Liga record) and the two against Levante on Saturday puts him on a total of 63 for the season, in all competitions. Gerd Muller was the previous holder of this title, back in 1973. Ronaldo is on 53 in total, and could also break the 60 barrier. It all begins to sound slightly surreal, as if the two players were extra-terrestrials.

As if to prove the English magazine's point, the four sides immediately below Barcelona all lost, except Malaga who could only draw 1-1 at home to ten-man Real Sociedad. Michel will take Sevilla back to his old stamping ground at Getafe on Monday night with the promise of moving into the Europa League places and eyeing those two other Champions League places, still temptingly in reach for all the teams as far down as Espanyol, in tenth place. As Messi remarked, and finally to contradict the magazine's thesis, there's never a dull moment.

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