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Leg 2Aggregate: 3 - 4
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Siesta's over

La Liga's back this weekend, a bit later than everyone else of course, but this is Spain. The early bird may indeed catch the worm, but as the Spanish say - 'Let him'.

Besides, in terms of Europe, the self-styled Liga de Las Estrellas (League of the Stars) couldn't possibly do something so undignified as to take first bow on the stage. Save the best until the last. Then again, the summer has seen quite a few of football's biggest names head towards England's fair (and lucrative) shores, but Spain's been working fairly hard to keep up appearances.

What does the season hold in store? Last season saw Barça retain the title with a huge 12-point advantage over Real Madrid, who despite finishing runners-up were only two points clear of Sevilla in fifth place. The last championship was hardly an issue, but with the Catalans also winning in Europe last May, there will be calls to halt the monopoly this time around.

It would be interesting to report that someone other than Real Madrid and Valencia look equipped to take up that challenge, but the truth is that nobody does. A dark horse may emerge, but at the moment all the signs point to a similar top three. Atlético Madrid are putting together a scary-looking side on paper, but that seems to happen every year. Nevertheless, if there is to be another contender, you would have to say that Atlético must be the one, just so long as they can manage to get over changing their kit for the first time in 90 years. Wot - no stripes?

There seems little reason to assume that Barcelona cannot begin where they finished off last season, and indeed, they have been looking awesome in pre-season. They stuffed neighbours Espanyol 4-0 on aggregate in the Spanish Supercup, hammered Bayern 4-0 in a friendly, and play UEFA winners Sevilla on Friday in the European Supercup in a game that will delay these two sides' league bow until the following week.

In terms of personnel, the loss of Larsson has been compensated by the shrewd signing of Chelsea's Gudjohnsen, a player whose mix of good technique and physical bravery should see him thrive in his new surroundings. Saviola's also back from his loan period at Sevilla, and although Barça have declared him transferable, he's not a bad player to have hanging around. Indeed, he scored against Bayern.

The Italian crisis has also landed Juve's Thuram and Zambrotta at the Camp Nou, players scarcely needed but welcome nevertheless. After all, they couldn't let Real Madrid sign everybody. The only negative note so far was Etoo's tetchy walkout after being substituted (for Gudjohnsen) at half-time in the second-leg against Espanyol, an action which earned him praise from Ronaldinho for being 'a winner'. Gudjohnsen's reaction was not reported.

Over in Madrid, the occupants of the Bernabéu have had a busy summer. Predrag Mijatovic, the new Director of Football, has been clocking up the air miles in his role as new president Calderon's workhorse, and new second-time-around manager Capello has done what everyone suspected he would, and further denuded the ranks of his disgraced ex-club by securing the signatures of the excellent Cannavaro and the equally useful Brazilian Emerson, quickly followed by the capture of Van Nistlerooy and the recent acquisition from Lyon, Diarra.

There is talk of Ronaldo going to AC Milan, but there is also talk of getting Kaká to figure in the deal and make his way west to Spain. If those two events were to take place, you would have to admit that Real have strengthened their card considerably.

As it stands, the defensive midfielders Emerson and Diarra are probably the two best players Madrid could have hoped to sign. Pablo Garcia and Thomas Gravesen suddenly look the limited stop-gaps that everyone knew they were, but were afraid to admit, for fear of upsetting previous dictator-president Florentino Pérez. And to underline the new steel at the heart of Capello's new model army, Cannavaro should prove to be the defensive lynch-pin they have been looking for since the departure of Fernando Hierro.

If Woodgate stays fit as well, with the excellent Sergio Ramós also primed to play centre-back this season, the defence (apart from the continued presence of the awful Roberto Carlos) suddenly looks fairly awesome. No wonder Ivan Helguera appears to have been sidelined by Capello. No room for sentiment in this brave new world.

Beckham too will be wondering just where he fits in, whether or not he finally manages to get the extension to his contract that his wife appears to be seeking, largely because she's come to terms with the garlic and has realised that the paparazzi are less likely to take shots of her over-skinny bum if she hides behind the walls of their charming little rural finca.

Beck's own bum may well be occupying the bench more than it has been used to doing on previous occasions, but this is largely the Brit-fuelled view of the situation. Capello is in fact an admirer of Beckham, and unlike Steve McLaren, would prefer to use quality where he sees it.

Beckham, unlike the rest of his England colleagues, can actually control and pass a ball with reasonable accuracy and understands a tactical approach to the game which post-dates the Jurassic Period - and so should find that the supporters of Real Madrid - a demanding and knowledgeable lot it has to be said - will continue to appreciate his excellent passing skills, indefatigable work-rate and will to win.

And talking of tactics, it seems improbable, despite the noises made by some of Madrid's lap-dog press, that Ronaldo and Van Nistlerooy can really complement one another. If Madrid truly want to wipe the slate clean and rid themselves of the Brazilian's whingeing and tubby presence, then they could do worse than get a few euros for his long-overdue departure.

Valencia have made two useful signings in Morientes and Del Horno, two players who didn't quite shine as expected in England but who remain classy acts. They have now qualified for the Champions League proper - and the combination of Villa and Morientes up front looks like being an interesting one.

The main surprise of the summer was Aimar's transfer to Zaragoza, a move unpopular with the Mestalla faithful, but one which begins to make sense when you look at the games lost to injury, the annoying inconsistency, and the disappointing truth that the waif-like midfielder just couldn't cut it physically for much of the time. Maybe they're going to feed him on beef breakfasts up in Zaragoza. When he's good, Aimar's awesome - but it seems that Valencia just lost patience in the end.

The excellent Roberto Ayala is in dispute with the club at the present time, which bodes ill for the future, and midfielder Baraja has just been ruled out for ten weeks with injury, but the overall feeling is that the club can still mount a challenge.

Last season's surprise package Osasuna have sadly failed to make the Champions League proper, failing this week to beat Hamburg at home. The UEFA Cup is some compensation, but with Soldado on loan from Real Madrid they have beefed up their forward line and should do well again, provided they do not feel too keenly the loss of their jovial and effective Mexican manager, Javier Aguirre, who has gone to try his luck (the Lord help him) at Atlético Madrid.

Talking of managers, a feature of the new season is the fact that of the twenty clubs primed to compete from this weekend, nine of them have new managers - an unprecedented round of musical chairs that has taken place over the summer.

Either there was a lot of discontent around, or itchy feet. Regardless, it means that the first few weeks may see certain un-fancied clubs doing better than expected, with the boost of a new manager factor propelling them forward. The question then is whether they can keep it going.

Of the teams under new management, the aforementioned Aguirre may have an effect on Atlético Madrid that no previous manager has brought about.

In this he will be aided and abetted by the continued presence of Fernando Torres, fresh from a good World Cup, the left-back Pernia from Getafe who also made it to Germany, along with Mista from Valencia and the 'new Maradona' (yawn), a young Argentine pup by the name of Agüero, of whom much has already been said, in awe-struck tones. In fact, he's been described as the 'new Messi', which is a bit rich. Messi hasn't shaved yet, and he's already old.

Of the three promoted clubs (Nastic, Recreativo and Levante), it is probably the former who have made the most interesting additions to their squad, picking up the useful striker Portillo from Real Madrid and Makukula from Sevilla. Recreativo, although they came up as champions, look less well-equipped to face the music, and may well struggle.

Other sides who may join them could be Santander, from whose pristine promenades no less than nineteen players have departed, the same number to have left the increasingly turbulent scene at Deportivo, once a side with perennial title credentials. Their ex-manager, Jabo Irureta, has left his cabbage patch allotment and the calm of retirement to take on the challenge of Betis, serial under-achievers last season.

Whatever happens, most neutrals will be hoping that Barcelona can continue to entertain to the level that they've managed for the last two years, despite Ronaldinho's strangely off-colour World Cup.

They'll also be hoping that a couple of teams might make it more of a contest than it turned out to be last season.


  • 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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