Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to find a way to endure the gap between high school hockey and the baseball season. The NCAA Tournament is some consolation, but not much of one for us jilted Hoya alumni, and I’ve never liked basketball all that much to begin with. Instead, I let my attention wander overseas, where a pretty nice race is shaping up in Spain.
The European soccer leagues are now in their respective stretch runs, and on Sunday I was treated to an exemplary installment in European soccer’s biggest rivalry. The goals flew left and right, and while the referee imposed himself a bit more than one might like, Barcelona came out with a crucial 4-3 come-from-behind road victory over Real Madrid. The win rescued Barcelona’s chances at the La Liga title, and gives them reason for optimism heading into their other two trophy competitions—a Copa del Rey clash with Madrid in a few weeks, and in the quarterfinal stage of the European Champions League. The match-up had been hyped as a changing of the guard, with aging Barça perhaps finally relinquishing the crown Spain’s most expensive team. It wasn’t to be.
The man who grabbed the headlines was, of course, Lionel Messi, whose hat trick answered any questions about his recovery from injury, and quieted the tiresome efforts of the Madrid backers to suggest that Cristiano Ronaldo might have surpassed him. Messi breaks records nearly every time he scores these days (and he’s still just 26!), and his performance in his prime is a once-in-a-generation joy to watch. But just as dominant in Sunday’s win was Andrés Iniesta, the sublime midfielder with a flair for the dramatic. Iniesta’s goal in the seventh minute set the tone for the rest of the night, and his effort to wriggle through a pair of Madrid defenders earned the decisive penalty kick late in the game. At Barcelona he will forever be in Messi’s shadow, but the man who scored the game-winner in the 2010 World Cup final and was named the Player of the Tournament in the 2012 European Championships would be a legitimate superstar anywhere else, yet the quiet man from La Mancha is content to humbly play the wingman to Messi.
While Barça isn’t guaranteed of anything yet, they look much better heading down the stretch this season than they did a year ago, and the reasons lie in the wrinkles introduced by new coach Tata Martino. They’ve done a much better job of rotating their squad this season, keeping the top players fresh, and while they still rely on their bread-and-butter passing game and the peerless all-Spanish midfield of Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, and Sergio Busquets, they’re a bit more willing to play with pace on the counterattack now. Oddly unimportant in all of this is Neymar, the 22-year-old Brazilian record offseason signing, but he has some excellent flashes, and will slowly find his way into the system. Their demise, as has been the case of late, could be on defense, where Martino joins his predecessors in wishfully thinking that Javier Mascherano can hold down the back line against the best in the world. (I like Mascherano, but a central defender he is not, especially on a team whose fullbacks are often found bombing down the wings.) Goalkeeper Victor Valdes’s season-ending injury midweek could also dent Barça’s title hopes.
Real Madrid has also evolved tactically since last season, with new boss Carlo Ancelotti adopting a much more direct approach than José Mourinho’s dull counterattacking game. Against inferior opponents, it does look better, but the natural tradeoff here is a thinner midfield, where Xabi Alonso alone cannot quite cut it against an attack of Barcelona’s caliber. The front line of Ronald, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale piles up a lot of goals, but it isn’t clearly better than Barcelona’s somewhat deeper front line; like his fellow expensive transfer Neymar, Bale has been hit-or-miss in his first season in Spain, and Benzema, despite scoring twice against Barcelona, probably should have had himself another goal or two. Real’s saving grace may be the less-hyped midfield duo of Luka Modric and Angel di Maria, both of whom are having stellar years.
The thing is, neither of these teams is leading La Liga right now: that honor instead goes to Atlético de Madrid, the Spanish soccer equivalent of the New York Mets, the team that just sort of hovers there in the shadow of a giant crosstown rival. Atleti doesn’t have the firepower of the two perennial contenders—they’ve scored 14 fewer goals than Real, and 21 fewer than Barça—but they make up for it with rugged defense. Time will tell if they can hold up for another eight fixtures, plus a Champions League quarterfinal showdown with Barça. Those two also play on the regular season’s final day, so the race could be in for a thrilling conclusion. If Atlético can pull it off, it would be the first championship by someone other than Real or Barça in ten years.
Real has a somewhat easier road both in Spain and in the Champions League, where they drew injury-riddled Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. The favorite to win the thing, Bayern Munich, also has a pretty easy path forward, having drawn reeling Manchester United. (David Moyes, given the unenviable task of succeeding the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson as manager, is allegedly facing open revolt in the dressing room, while opposing fans unfurl banners applauding his coaching skills. Once again, American sports fans have nothing European football fans.) The last quarterfinal, between Chelsea and Paris-St. Germain, is perhaps the most intriguing. PSG is very talented but has yet to win anything of any magnitude (the French league doesn’t count), while José Mourinho will look to rediscover his specialness and help English football save some face. I’ll admit it, I’m rooting for him: there is no more delightful mixture of arrogance, style, and coaching brilliance anywhere in the world.
Spain’s La Liga doesn’t draw the American audience that England gets, and that was true even before NBC snapped up the Premier League; the language barrier probably plays a role there, as does the league’s very real issues with competitive imbalance. But while Spain doesn’t have England’s depth of decent teams, it does have the best stable of top-end teams of any European league. The Brits and Italians have not fared particularly well in Europe over the past two years, while France and Germany are both dominated by one lonely powerhouse. Spain, meanwhile, has three serious contenders every year between Barcelona, Real Madrid, and one rising interloper, whether that be Atlético, Málaga last year, or Valencia in the not-so-distant past. In the Champions League, it is Europe’s best.
All is not well here, though, with debt burdening many of the lower-tier teams. Spanish soccer gives a taste of the best of the sport, but also more than its share of the worst, with its giant financial inequities and the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. Superficially, it’s easy to like international club fútbol: there are good teams in so many countries, and those teams draw from everywhere. Yet for all the apparent cosmopolitanism, this global sport is more ruthlessly capitalist than any major American sports league. While I actually prefer a bit of imbalance to some of the more rigid salary-capped leagues–sports need dynasties and villains– and one wonders just how strong the foundations really are in European soccer. The good news: we have a World Cup in less than three months!