Andy Mitten

Malaga implosion means Liga duopoly set to continue

Andy Mitten

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Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo should dominate La Liga once more

The Catalan press-pack sat enjoying the Gothenburg sun the morning after Barcelona's 0-0 pre-season draw against Manchester United last week.

Barca won 2-0 on penalties and their players looked embarrassed at the fanfare and fireworks which followed, with an awards ceremony to rival a World Cup final. Perhaps it was to be expected after the match trophy was delivered to the centre circle before kick-off by helicopter.

Nearby, the Barca players were confined to their hotel. Messi and co. wanted to leave and walk the streets and do as normal people do, but it was impossible without being mobbed. Hundreds of local fans waited outside night and day during their three day stay in Sweden's second city. On their final afternoon, new coach Tito Vilanova told his players out go outside, sign autographs and pose for phone photos — from behind the safety of security barriers, of course.

The players also managed a discreet night out in a Swedish nightclub, though all phones were confiscated from the beautiful females upon entry to prevent any embarrassing images hitting the web within minutes.

Millions might aspire to fame and some of the riches it brings, but those who have it hate the accompanying hindrances, if not the close attention of stunning Swedish models. No, not the three female Swedish handball players who ended up in Usain Bolt's room at 3am after the Olympic closing ceremony.

The Catalan journalists who spend their lives following Barca home and away were asked a simple question: Barca or Madrid for the title this season? None answered immediately, nor had they the night before the game when the same question was aired. Few are absolutely convinced that Barca will be champions like they were a year or two ago. Pushed to elicit an answer, most said 'Madrid.'

Barca are lauded for being the best current team in the world. They are in many ways. They have the best player — Messi. There are world-class performers in every position and the weakest one, that of left back, has been rectified by the purchase of the metronomic Jordi Alba from Valencia.

They hope for a central defender/defensive midfielder before the transfer window ends, but it's not an absolute priority.

But look at Barca's best starting XI: Valdes; Alves, Pique, Puyol, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Villa, Messi, Pedro. They could dominate and beat any team in the world, so why do the bookmakers make Real Madrid favourites ahead of the Primera Liga kicking off this weekend?

Champions Madrid are at home to Valencia on Saturday night and Barca entertain Real Sociedad on Sunday. There's no question that the league will again be between the big two. Third favourites Valencia are 66-1, Atletico Madrid are 80-1, Malaga 100-1 and Athletic Club 125-1. Beyond that, you're looking at odds of over 1000-1. It seems a lot longer than five years ago when Sevilla mounted a serious title challenge, while the prospects of Deportivo la Coruna and Valencia winning the league as they have both done this millennia seem absurd given the current vast disparity in wealth.

Barca and Madrid have produced numerous great sides which have won the league in runs of two or three titles. When they wane, the rival team takes over. If they are not ready to take over then a Valencia or Depor have been on hand to seize the advantage, but Barca and Madrid now boast squads so strong that they can comfortably cover for any serious injuries. They also buy the best players from all the other Spanish sides, those who don't move to England at least.

The duopoly is depressing, more so because Malaga, the team most likely to challenge it, are imploding during what should be their finest hour.

Malaga's ownership model was always likely to suffer from the whims of ego and human error. The reigns of rich benefactors in football tend to end in tears, but nobody expected Malaga's grand plans to unravel so quickly and just as they were coming to fruition.
Madrid are favourites because they have their best side since the team led by Zinedine Zidane which won the Champions League a decade ago. Their fans feel that this is right. Barca may have dominated recently, but Madrid are by far and away the most successful team, not just in Spanish football, but world football. For them, Madrid being first is the natural order and that order has been restored.

Madrid hated seeing Barca so dominant but it wasn't until they brought a former Barca employee in that they could do something abut it.

Jose Mourinho was set a challenge of taking control on the pitch and toppling Barca. He set himself another challenge of taking control off the pitch and winning the Bernabeu power battles. He succeeded in both.

He was good enough to beat Pep Guardiola to the league last season, now he faces the untried Tito Vilanova. He's sure to be tested by Mourinho, who will be looking to publicly exploit any weakness in his nemesis. We'll get a first glance of the dynamics between the two when they meet in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup at Camp Nou next Thursday.
Barca fans hope for the best with Vilanova, but while he has the best players in football at his disposal, he is new to top-level coaching. Barca hope that the insider who worked with Guardiola will merely maintain momentum.

Guardiola? He's going to New York with his family. He'll brush up on his already very good English and his agent will be sifting through the offers for him to start work next season, probably at Chelsea if Roberto Di Matteo fails to win the Premier League or retain the Champions League.

Di Matteo has a task only matched by that faced by Vilanova. The latter doesn't have the advantage of facing a relatively weak Madrid, a Madrid beginning or coming to the end of the 'cycles' with which Spanish football is obsessed. No, he'll face a Madrid coming to the peak of their power.

The battle between the big two will be as engrossing as ever, it's just a shame that there's no team that can or will come close to challenging them.

Vilanova has the most to prove and while people may point out his lack of big time success as a player, he could point out that other former Barca assistant coaches have who haven't been stars have gone onto have great careers in management. People like Jose Mourinho…

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