Sunday, 3 May 2009

El Clasico

It seems that every other week, particularly as we approach the end of the season, there is a “showdown” between two of the Premiership’s Big Four. Endlessly hyped by Sky, if it’s not a GRAND SLAM SUNDAY, then it’s yet another so-called European showpiece tie being played out to a boring stalemate by two of our ubiquitous top clubs. The fact that English clubs have provided three of the four Champions’ League semi-finalists in each of the last two years is not a source of joy to me. I also disagree that this is evidence that the Premier League is the best league in the world – it is evidence that our top four clubs are the best in the world, but where are the rest?

This season, the team attempting to stop the Premiership’s dominance of Europe is Barcelona. The fact that Sky have the rights to Spanish football means that a football fan can watch this amazing team every week, and yet they make a lot less fuss about this than they do over whichever Premiership match they happen to have.

This weekend saw the showdown between Barcelona and Real Madrid – the traditional rivals that make Manchester United and Liverpool look like childhood sweethearts. Going into the game, Barcelona were four points clear at the top of the league and knew that a draw in Madrid would probably secure the title.

I was a little worried that, with so much at stake, it might be an edgy game, but Gonzalo Higuain scored after fourteen minutes for Real, before Thierry Henry responded for Barcelona just a couple of minutes later. Interesting that Henry left our league to go and play in Spain.

Before twenty minutes were on the clock, Henry won a free kick near the penalty area on the left and Carles Puyol headed in Xavi’s cross to score his first of the season. After such a flurry of goals, I wondered how the game could possibly continue at such a pace, but it seemed that, having been stung by conceding an early goal, Barca just kept getting better.

For the next fifteen minutes, Real keeper Iker Casillas was playing like a psychic, improbably getting himself behind every Barcelona shot from any angle. Their front three of Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry and the great Lionel Messi were attacking like the Harlem Globetrotters. Their reputation is well earned – between the three of them, they have scored more goals this season than any other club in Europe. On Sky, Gerry Hamilton was reduced to endearing sighs and cries as he watched the action.

It couldn’t last of course, and Leo Messi scored after thirty minutes. After that, it became slightly embarrassing as Barcelona, with their Velcro touch, lightning runs and telepathic understanding, passed the ball around as if they were playing a youth team.

At the start of the second half, Real shook off their inferiority complex, presumably having been shown a copy of the table at half time, reminding themselves that they are second in the league, not in the fourth division. An attacking free kick was headed in by Sergio Ramos after a penalty area tussle.

Unfortunately, as in the first half, this just seemed to anger the beast and, barely a minute after Hamilton had cried “Game On!” Henry scored another. Messi then scored his second; a goal which left the Real defence watching in awe – his 36th goal of the season and the second time during the game that I had spontaneously risen to my feet and applauded.

By now, Real were utterly defeated and looked like they just wanted to start their summer holidays now. In the last ten minutes, one more sweeping move carried the ball from one end of the pitch to another before it was tapped in by, of all people, central defender Gerard Pique. Why did Manchester United let him go?

Next time you are bemoaning the state of the Premiership and the fact that our league has become boring, give the Spanish League a try. I can’t promise you eight goals every week, but I will assure you that you’ll see some great football and genuine talent.

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