Following on from what was a monumental challenge for the title in Spain last year, Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of the most illustrious football clubs, must now prepare themselves for the new season, both wary they must search for another gear if they wish to win the chase this year.
The competition between the two has reached epic proportions, increased by the reality that a two horse race has developed in Spain more so now than ever. There is no doubt yt will be one of the two who constitute El Classico that will win the league, no other team in La Liga can compete financially with them and the gap between Barcelona, Madrid, and then the rest of the league, has widened once again.
Barcelona, the current champions, have the psychological edge over their enemy, having successfully defended their crown last year despite Real Madrid ending the campaign on 96 points. In a bid to strengthen they have purchased David Villa, as well as adding greater strength in depth down their left hand side with Adriano joining from Sevilla. However, the contract extension signed by the manager was their greatest triumph of all, a man the players very much love and respect.
Since Josep Guardiola started his reign in Catalonia, his transition from midfield anchor to man manager extraordinaire has also managed to incorporate a historical period of success for the club. Following their Champions League success in 2005/06, the squad were lacking a spark under Frank Rijkaard. Many players had lost their hunger for success, a knock-on effect that Roy Keane felt had manifested in his Man United team following their own treble success in ‘99.
When Guardiola was promoted from Barcelona B coach to the first team, the effect his arrival had on the team cannot be exaggerated; he managed to reinvigorate the changing room. Inspiring players was a talent he always possessed on the pitch, and the adjustment needed to recreate that effect from the sidelines came naturally. This aura, along with his tactical nous, transformed the squad’s fortunes instantaneously. The players greeted his methods with enthusiasm. He explained that in addition to their talents of creativity and possession football, they needed to work harder without the ball, to play at a higher tempo and exert more pressure on their opponents.
In a bid to wrestle the silverware from Barcelona’s firm grip, Real Madrid have hired the services of Jose Mourinho, a man whose desire for victory is only outweighed by his ability to deliver success. Having watched the silver haired assassin accomplish a treble success in Italy, Florentino Perez’s yearning for trophies has resulted in him diverting from his usual policy of appointing a coach he feels he can control, and instead hiring the opinionated and outspoken Portuguese (whose reputation as a winner, rather than an entertainer, precedes him) in hope of lifting silverware come May.
He has inherited a talented Madrid team from Manuel Pellegrini, with the arrivals of another talented winger (Di Maria), a ball winning centre midfielder (Sami Kheidra), and an experienced centre half (Ricardo Carvalho), as well as a couple of young talented youngsters in Pedro Leon and Sergio Canales, the future looks bright at the Bernabeu.
What exactly Mourinho’s plans are for this team are up for debate. Given the success his strictly drilled Inter Milan team achieved, it’s unlikely that he will play the archetypal Real Madrid brand of football. No doubt he will make Cristiano Ronaldo the fulcrum of the team, but whether he looks to keep him out wide or take an opportunity to play him centrally (given Kaka is out for four months) will become clearer soon enough. Last year with Inter Milan, the only two players given the opportunity to attack with real freedom were Sneijder and Milito, so it remains to be seen how adventurous he will be, and how he will incorporate Higuain, Ronaldo, Di Maria and Kaka into his preferred starting eleven.
Mourinho acknowledges the task in front of him. Barcelona are already a talented and balanced unit, who believe in the ethos of their club to play their own particular brand of football. To be capable of usurping Barca’s dominance, Mourinho must transform a slightly younger team than he is accustomed to into champions. Only success will embrace him to the Madrid fans and directors.
All of this makes for an exciting title race. Though it’s hard to imagine, breaking the 100 point marker may be what is required for either to win the Primera Division this year. And though such a marginalised two horse race is not as competitive as the Premier League, the excitement generated from these two giants engaging in battle should make this season one to remember.
Written By Darren Doherty