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May 8, 2006

Victory, defeat and salvation

So it's all over bar the shouting; automatic Champions League qualification, the third relegation spot, the three clubs to join the elite next season and exactly how Dmitri Piterman will finally leave the city of Vitoria - along the ground with his legs tied to a runaway horse or strung up Mussolini-style from a lamppost on the outskirts of the city.

Zidane played his final game at the Bernabéu and Luis Aragones has picked 27 chaps to attend a get-together, a collective from which the final 23 will be picked for Germany. So still quite a lot to talk about then.

Pride of place goes to Barcelona, of course. Last Wednesday they finally made the title a mathematical certainty, winning a tricky-looking encounter up at Celta Vigo - the club 'revelación' of the season with a UEFA place now assured after drawing at Real Sociedad this weekend.

Rather curiously, Valencia's surprising 2-1 defeat at Mallorca occurred as Barça were walking off the pitch in Vigo at half-time. Xavi, back in the squad but on the bench for the evening spent the first half with a radio clutched to his ear, and on hearing the result raced down the tunnel and began throwing water at his colleagues, thus simulating the champagne fountains to follow.

Rijkaard allegedly put a stop to the half-time celebrations by reminding the team that there was still a game to play, and in a display of steely discipline which has become their hallmark this season - whatever is written about the flair - they went out and won the game. Celta had probably been hoping for a more relaxed approach from their visitors, and have now had to put aside any hopes they were harbouring of pulling off a late sneak into the Champions League places.

For the anoraks out there, Barça's 17th league title came packaged with some interesting details. The first thing to note is that the club likes to win titles in magpie pairings.

Apart from the four-year Dream Team run, the club has now won two-title trots on four previous occasions, starting with their 1948-49 pair. So the omens are not so good for those who believe that another Dream Team sequence is on the cards.

Then again, with regard to the May 17th final against Arsenal, the omens are rather more ambiguous. The club took its only European Cup so far in 1992, a year in which they also won the league. But in 1994, Milan's thrashing of them in Athens coincided with their fourth and final league win of that famous sequence. They won a couple of consecutive leagues under Van Gaal in 1998 and 1999 of course, but then the rot set in.

It's rather difficult to see that happening again. They have a Dutch manager, but that's about the only similarity you'll find with the previous situation.

Talking to various folks this week about Barça, they all coincided on the same point, namely that Rijkaard has been the key. And he's done it all with a self-effacing modesty that José Mourinho would do well to emulate. Buy the videos José. Rijkaard is a good bloke extraordinaire, but is still respected by his players. It's all very well gathering together such a wonderful squad, but you have to know how to handle it.

The term has never been applied to the Catalan outfit, but they have four 'galácticos' - two of them with something of 'previous', and one of them, a goofy Brazilian, who came with a reputation as something of a waster.

Indeed, stories still persist of the monumental cock-up in Manchester which determined the fate of Europe's footballing horizon for the following years - when Ronaldinho's agent simply misunderstood the negative that Ferguson had apparently given him to talk on a Wednesday (he'd suggested the Friday), but the agent thought he was stalling on the deal. A week later Ronaldinho had signed for Barcelona but apparently never said that he hadn't wanted to play at Old Trafford. Such is destiny. The cock-up theory of history.

But the potential mix with Deco and Eto'o, two men who carried awkward reputations, was a potential tinder-box. The other galáctico, Messi, is apparently so laid-back he's horizontal, but it's a massive tribute to Rijkaard that he has managed so effortlessly to inculcate a happy togetherness in the squad, and to get Ronaldinho to consistently display his greatness.

The measure of Ronaldinho's own achievement has been that no-one in Spain has ever voiced a single negative about him. This is remarkable in a country where factionalism and enmity are so written into the culture. Madrid may despise Barcelona, but even the hardest anti-Culé, standing behind the south goal in the Bernabéu with his head shaved on the outside and his brain swimming with swastikas on the inside - will reluctantly admit that Ronaldinho is 'OK'.

This is almost unprecedented in La Liga history, and has something to do with the fact that the Spanish admire technical skill above all other virtues in football, except perhaps for the virtue of 'alegría' (joyfulness). This is football played with a swagger and a swerve, football which is based on the primacy of the aesthetic.

Real Madrid have had their great sides, but the Bernabéu first looks for 'entrega' (getting stuck in). Only then will they accept the style. At the Camp Nou, it works the other way around.

You have to have a Puyol and a Márquez at the concert, but they're basically accepted as the roadies. The band that gets up on stage has to perform with 'alegría' - something that Van Gaal, despite his brace of league titles, never understood. He thought that the Catalans were being 'negatiffo', when in fact they were being quite the opposite. What they demanded was spectacle. Success without it was empty, and devoid of meaning for them.

Barça's rebirth has combined style with a smile. What it has also done is to affirm the superiority of squad-building over treasure-collection. Marca's headline on Thursday morning was an unusual admission (for them) of the enormous gap that now exists between Barça's infrastructure and planning and the chaos that exists at Real Madrid, the luxury liner awash on the waves with neither rudder nor captain.

On Barça's luxury yacht, bobbing more calmly in the sheltered harbour, president Laporta himself has been portrayed as a bit of a chancer - a guy who got lucky and who has alienated a lot of people on the way - but nobody seems to be complaining now. He got it right when it came to personnel, and Txiki Beguiristain has consistently made the right choices when it has come to deciding on the mix. The galactic flair is there, but they all work their socks off. Nobody in the Barça squad has ever earned the headlines that Ronaldo has. Nobody like Roberto Carlos has ever rocked the boat.

In the last three seasons, Madrid have spent 184 million euros on signings, and won nothing. Barça have spent 111 million, and won two league titles. Their hope for the future rests on Messi's shoulders, a player who cost them nothing and who came up through the ranks, whereas Madrid spent 25 million on Robinho as the player to light the path to their new future. Robinho's OK, but if I had to place bets on the relative future success of these two players, I know which one I'd choose. He'd be from Argentina.

Where will Thierry Henry go? There are those who say that if he goes to Barça, it will be the beginning of the end for this squad. Why? Because it smacks of treasure-collecting, of the policy of Florentino Pérez. It will unbalance the squad, say the pessimists, and upset Eto'o.

Indeed, there was speculation as to why this season's likely 'Pichichi' was looking so miserable on Saturday night when the rest of the squad were celebrating the title on home turf after beating neighbours Espanyol. Perhaps he knows something we don't? His muted behaviour certainly contrasted with his exultant celebrations the previous year, in which he managed to insult the entire autonomous Community of Madrid.

Down at the other end of the table, Cádiz joined Málaga in the relegation two-step, which is rather a shame. Two thousand of their supporters made it up to Getafe, numbers which are rarely seen in the away end in Spain. They've taken a difficult season with good humour, and look good enough to make a fight of getting back at the first attempt.

Unlike Cádiz, lots of teams celebrated 'salvation' (as they call it here) on this penultimate Sunday. Betis and Mallorca played each other (2-1), but Alaves' defeat at Zaragoza meant that the Andaluz and Balearic sides were both safe anyway.

Whilst many suspected that Betis would stay up, many had had their doubts about Mallorca, a side who have nevertheless improved remarkably since Gregorio Manzano took over.

Athletic Bilbao also certified their salvation, grabbing three points at Deportivo (easy pickings this year) and avoiding their first-ever trip to St Peter's gates to argue their case.

Now the third relegation spot is between Espanyol and Alavés, with the Basque club the more likely to suffer the drop. Racing Santander, another hot tip for the drop, have avoided it again, beating Osasuna rather surprisingly, especially given the stakes for the Navarran side.

Now they have to beat Valencia at home next week and hope that Sevilla will find their final two games - at home to Real Madrid and then Barcelona, rather too much to cope with.

Osasuna's defeat has also put the cat among the pigeons in a different way. After Sevilla's game against Barça was rained off a fortnight ago, FIFA refused to allow La Liga to postpone its final day until the 20th.

It did, however, permit Sevilla and Barça to re-play on that date. La Liga protested, and at the time of writing were insisting that they would defy the FIFA edict, which seemed typically bullish and daft of them. But now it seems more sensible, since Osasuna may now depend on the Sevilla result to know their destiny next season.

Sevilla and Barça was scheduled to be played on the 20th without international players (already departed in the squads for the World Cup) but to do that now would be to 'adulterate' the league. Stand by for a messy week ahead.

Finally, lots of players waved goodbye to their home fans.

The 41 year-old Carboni will retire next week after nine seasons at Valencia, Gica Craioveanu will finally call it a day when Getafe travel up to Vigo next week, Tristan scored on his last home game for Deportivo, and Nihat played for the last time at Anoeta.

Pride of place goes to Zidane, however, who bid an emotional farewell to the Bernabéu after scoring in the 3-3 draw with Villarreal.

Significantly, he waited at the end for Riquelme to come off, and swapped shirts with him - a symbolic and appreciative gesture that some may even interpret as an implicit nod to his soon-to-be ex-employers to replace him with precisely that player.

Or maybe it was just Zidane acting out the old adage that 'it takes one to know one'.


  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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