Sunday, June 17, 2007
Madrid, Cabrón, Saluda al...Whoops.
Just like last week, Barca held the lead of the Primera in this hands for an extended period of time today and only a two-goal reverse could deny them the title. Just like last week, Madrid got the two goals they needed and are thus the champions of Spain for 2006-7. As painful as it is to watch the arch-enemy celebrate (and it's doubly painful when the Madrid players waltz past the Nazi-inspired decorations of their Ultras), Spain saw a terrific title race and the last day lived up to billing. The last two weeks were great advertisement for the Primera as opposed to, say, the Champions League this year.
So why did Madrid win the title? The easy explanation is cojones. They repeatedly fell behind in games, but they had tremendous self-belief and their rallies became self-fulfilling prophecies. By the same token, Barca, as defending champions and prohibitive favorites going into the season, had everything to lose and when the pressure was on late in the season, they grabbed their necks. Blown leads became self-fulfilling prophecies.
The explanation that does not rely on pop psychology is that Madrid have a terrific coach who understands tactics, whereas Barca lost their tactical brain when Henk Ten Cate took the Ajax job. Thus, Madrid got better as games went along and Barca got worse. Compounding the coaching disparity is the fact that Madrid had a better bench. The prospect of a fourth trophy-less year compelled Madrid to sign Gago, Higuain, and Reyes (in a swap for the aimless Baptista) for bench depth in addition to van Nistlerooy, Emerson, Diarra, and Cannavaro for the starting XI. In Real's rallies, they always had the ability to bring on impressive young players with fresh legs to overwhelm their opponents. Today's match was a perfect example, as Mallorca ran out of gas and had absolutely no prayer at defending Higuain and Reyes when they came on in the second half and produced a pair of quality goals that stained Ray Hudson's pants. The match today convinced me that I was a little harsh on Madrid last week when I wrote their title off to the efforts of the aging Beckham and van Nistlerooy. They have a number of very useful young players in the side, although the question is whether players like Reyes and Higuain can be excellent in roles other than as super subs. Reyes certainly didn't respond well to the idea of being the man when he was in North London.
In contrast to Real's efforts to improve the side, Barca did relatively little in the past close season to get better. Thuram and Zambrotta were good signings, although the former was useful only as a replacement for Rafa Marquez, who collapsed this season. There were no additions to the midfield and the only addition to the strikeforce was Eidur Gudjohnsen, who was a pale replacement for Henrik Larsson. Thus, Barca didn't have many good options for subs as games progressed, other than Rijkaard's menagerie of average outside defenders, average defensive midfielders, and the underwhelming trio of Gudjohnsen, Saviola, and Giuly. Joan Laporta was complacent last offseason, as one would probably expect following an epic season, but in retrospect, he should have realized that he who's not busy bein' born is a'busy dyin'.
The silver lining from watching the hated enemy celebrate a title is that it will motivate Barca to improve the squad in a major way and it will (hopefully) motivate players like Ronaldinho to train harder. The squad dissension at the Nou Camp this year was the worst-kept secret since Michael Jackson's love for the youth; having a common enemy (along with a solid house-cleaning) ought to be a solution to the problem. Additionally, Barca winning the league the past couple of years over a stumbly-wumbly Madrid had a hint of emptiness. The rebirth of the rivalry as the pre-eminent one in football ought to be a good thing.