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Aug 25, 2011

The reign of Spain

The return of the prodigal son might have seemed a uniquely heart-warming tale but for the tedious saga that preceded it and the brutal welcome Marcelo afforded him. Yet Cesc Fabregas' homecoming at Barcelona, while restoring a Catalan to the Camp Nou, is part of a trend that extends beyond fulfilling a lifelong ambition.

Over the last couple of years, it has become commonplace for Premier League clubs' ambitions to be thwarted by Spain. Cristiano Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso went directly from Manchester and Merseyside to Madrid. Other Real deals, for Kaka, Karim Benzema, Mesut Ozil and Angel di Maria, have come at the expense of their Premier League pursuers. It is a similar story at Barcelona where Javier Mascherano, Alonso's old Anfield accomplice, David Villa, who has a high-profile fan in Sir Alex Ferguson, and Alexis Sanchez, who was a target for Manchester City and Chelsea, were Pep Guardiola's major additions before Fabregas.

Spain, it seems, has the greater pulling power, with the glamour, the weather and the technically-proficient attacking football. Barcelona have passed their way onto a pedestal in the global game and while, if the Champions League is the ultimate arbiter, Manchester United are officially Europe's second best team, Real give Barca a more competitive - and a more vitriolic - game. The transfer market adds to the gloss La Liga already possesses.

Yet the traffic between Spain and England is two-way, and the flow of money is not a simple case of Iberian extravagance. Between them, Juan Mata, Sergio Aguero and David de Gea have commanded fees in excess of £80 million. That they are three of the Premier League's flagship signings this summer is revealing.

It indicates that, while Aguero in particular has superstar billing, they still belong in the second tier of targets, just below the select group Real Madrid and Barcelona purchase. It also shows that, with the exception of cash-rich Malaga, the teams with distant hopes of disturbing La Liga's duopoly lack the financial clout of their English equivalents and are prone to having their players pinched. Including David Silva's switch to Manchester City last summer, Valencia and Atletico Madrid have traded with England with similar frequency, and with a similar benefit to their otherwise ailing bank balances. Until Malaga acquired Qatari owners, just two could afford the fees required to prise them from their previous owners. And that pair were scarcely short of able players, with Real showing an eagerness to stockpile them.

Like his new team-mate Aguero, Silva could figure on a shortlist for the title of the outstanding footballer in England. In style, however, the Spaniard is a Barcelona player in all but fact. Yet the reality is that, especially with Guardiola generally eschewing squad rotation, there is no need for him at the Camp Nou - he is not exactly short of diminutive maestros. The suspicion is that Aguero's preference was to cross Madrid rather to move to Manchester and that City was his second choice.

The Premier League benefits, but perhaps only temporarily, as Aguero or Silva could prove if they graduate to the ranks of the world's ten best players. As Fabregas has shown, some Spaniards yearn for home. With Mascherano gone and Carlos Tevez willing to leave, the Spanish-speaking Argentines' stay can be temporary, too. It is telling that Barcelona inserted two buy-back clauses into Oriol Romeu's contract with Chelsea. Should the anchorman prove precocious enough, he will emulate Fabregas and Gerard Pique in making a return to Catalonia. Do too well and Chelsea will lose him.

That would reinforce the sense that Spain's top two teams are superior. Yet England fares best in a contest of the third, fourth, fifth and sixth finest sides. One measure is that several leading Spanish players ply their trade in the Premier League; there are no leading Englishmen in Spain, something only partly explained by English insularity. De Gea may be the third or fourth best goalkeeper at Vicente del Bosque's disposall; Jose Enrique might occupy the same position in the pecking order for left-backs, yet went ignored in his homeland when Liverpool recruited him from Newcastle.

Yet, as Liverpool's first two games of the season show, there are benefits to be reaped from pursuing the players Real and Barcelona overlook or discard. One Bernabeu cast-off, Rafael van der Vaart, was one of the signings of last season; two more, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, were arguably the buys of the previous campaign. The latter cost Internazionale €15 million then, and United showed a willingness to pay more than twice as much for his services this year.

It may be an acknowledgement of inferiority and, with the exception of Sneijder's all-conquering debut season in Italy, probably isn't a recipe for world domination. Given Barca's brilliance, though, that may verge on the impossible, and there are worse policies to adopt than targeting the players deemed not quite good enough for the Spanish superpowers.

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