Friday, 22 February 2013

Had La Liga been determined by December?

Lionel Messi's solitary goal against Real Valladolid in La Liga was his 91st of 2012 and also his last, as Barcelona ended the calendar year with a 1-3 victory; a result which, most likely, meant much more than a trademark Barça win.

Due to a number of factors, the Catalan club - unless an incredibly unlikely turn of events occur - may as well unofficially crown themselves La Liga champions; even José Mourinho of all people has conceded the title to the club which ignites a rival spark in his genius nature.

Francesc 'Tito' Vilanova knows Mourinho rather well; as the usual war-like clashes took place at a Clàsico - which was the 2011 Supercopa de España 2nd leg -Real Madrid's manager criminally poked Vilanova (who was then Pep Guardiola's understudy) in the eye. Smirking, he was clawed back into the manic cluster of staff by his colleagues.

Up to now, Barcelona and Los Blancos have met on three separate occasions with Vilanova as manager. The two teams are virtually equal in terms of results; although a 3-2 victory and a 2-1 defeat for Guardiola's successor led to Mourinho lifting the 2012 Supercopa de España. When the two sides met in La Liga at the Nou Camp in October, the hard-fought outcome was a 2-2 draw. Barça originally had to come from behind and eventually lost the lead.

Despite El Blaugrana's early frailties against their fierce, political rivals under Vilanova, they are 16 points clear of Real after round 17 of La Liga; something many would never have foreseen.
Guardiola's final season in charge of his club culminated in the loyal Catalan eventually losing the title to a record-breaking Madrid, whose brilliance was rewarded with a monstrous 100 points, a total never before reached by a club in the Liga.

Therefore, it is particularly surprising that there is such a gulf between the two clubs. Then again, Barcelona have already broken countless records of their own before the short festive break - which gave them a chance to recharge and for Vilanova to rest after a tumour was successfully removed from his saliva gland.

The intimidating 16 points are a momentous gap to close for any team, even if they do have the calibre and quality of Real Madrid's players. On the plus side, the points chasm does in fact mean they are only in 3rd place and not, if it was in the Premier League for example, half way down the table.

However, Los Blancos are third. Not second and competing; but third and languishing. For Real Madrid, that borders on disaster. On Christmas Eve, Mundo Deportivo (a rather Barça-friendly Spanish tabloid sports newspaper), described the high-profile dropping of Iker Casillas against Malaga (Mourinho's side lost 3-2) and Madrid's general situation as an 'apocalipsis'. A hyperbole? Possibly not.

Cristiano Ronaldo, often labelled as arrogant when compared to Messi, sent the media and internet into overdrive in September by claiming that he was “sad” after scoring 2 goals against Granada. Casillas recently used the same phrase at a press conference to sum up the atmosphere around the club he captains, and Mourinho's future is currently being debated not only by fans and the national media in Spain, but around the world.

As you may know, Real's city neighbours, Atlético Madrid, are sandwiched in between Barça and Los Blancos. Diego Simeone, the Atlético manager, has so far inspired his side into second place with, of course, the integral aid of the celebrated Columbian, Falcao.

Radamel Falcao Garcia Zárate , named after the Brazilian himself, has gradually become regarded as one of the world's greatest strikers. Ever since El Tigre made his professional début in Colombia aged thirteen (yes, thirteen) against Deportivo Pereira in August 1999, his explicit prominence and ruthless ability has always been exhibited to those watching. He has won plaudits from many, as even Pep Guardiola described him as the best “penalty-box” striker in the world. FourFourTwo ranked Falcao as number 4 in their 2012 Top 100 Players in the world list, behind only Andrés Iniesta, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

El Tigre has powered his way into the record books and onto the front page of the European media ever since he joined Porto in 2009 for €3.93million from Argentinian side River Plate (according to rumours, the Colombian almost joined Aston Villa in 2009; however, Emile Heskey was supposedly signed instead). He later swapped Portugal for Spain, joining Atlético in 2011 for around 40million, and has won the Uefa Europa League with both clubs, performing in an outstanding manner on both occasions.

The significance of this rise to fame from the Colombian highlights the quality of La Liga: firstly, Falcao possesses a more impressive conversion percentage than both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, as well as a better goal per minute ratio (at the time of writing) . Recently, against Deportivo de La Coruna, he became one of an elite few to score 5 goals in a single Liga match; a feat that, interestingly, Messi has not yet achieved.

Along with the rest of the powerfully equipped Atlético squad, Falcao is proving that it is possible to break the boundaries of what is so often taken for granted in Spanish football, and unsettling the typical top two. Simeone's side are a welcomed breath of mightily fresh air.

Although, there are two thorns in the side of El Atléti. Unsurprisingly, they are Barça and their neighbours, Real. Falcao has not managed to inspire his team mates as far as stealing a point from either club, as both attempts ended in defeat – for no bunch of mortals can really challenge the royalty of Spanish football, can they?

Putting things into perspective, a truly magnificent Barcelona dismantled their challengers 4-1 at the Nou Camp on the 16th December; 'schoolboys' was the clichéd phrase used to describe the visitors' eventual appearance. Just weeks beforehand, the Santiago Bernabéu witnessed a Madrid derby in which Real won, 2-0.

Therefore, it is clear that individually, La Liga is playing host to some intriguing tales; how long before Real Madrid either fix their issues or dramatically suffer for it? How long can Atlético continue to prove their startlingly impressive worth? And just how long will it be before anybody can exploit Barcelona?

As Lionel Messi rounded off an incredible goalscoring year, he may well have briefly thought about the eventual Liga BBVA title that already seems assured for his club; as the rest of the onlooking world most certainly did. Nevertheless, despite the omniscient tiki-taka that inspires Spain, many look on, concerned that such an incredible league can supposedly be won before its fans even said 'Feliz Navidad' to one another. 

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