La Liga: The end is nigh – Barcelona close-in on title as strike looms

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The Atletico-Barcelona game might not take place due to the La Liga strike.

It’s funny what a difference a year makes. This time last season, Atlético Madrid travelled to the Camp Nou daring to dream that they could puncture the Barça-Real Madrid duopoly for the first time since Valencia won the title in 2004, subsequently fulfilling that dream courtesy of Diego Godin’s famous headed goal. They then lost out to their neighbours in the final of the Champions League, but it was a memorable season, their greatest since the league and cup double year of 1996. One year on and things are hardly tragic, but it is nevertheless an interesting counterpoint that next weekend Barcelona visit the Calderón with a chance to win the league title, and Atlético will need to resist in order to assure themselves of automatic entry into next season’s Champions League. 

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By the time this game takes place (IF it takes place – more on that later), Barcelona could well be contemplating a visit to Berlin for the Champions League final, possibly against Real Madrid. Who knows? It’s going to be an interesting week, if the various squabbling parties manage to head off the threatened strike for next weekend – a week made all the more interesting by Valencia, whose 2-2 draw in the Bernabéu would seem to have handed the title to Barcelona (barring an unlikely collapse) and increased their own chances of overtaking Atlético for that coveted 3rd place. If Atlético blow it against Barcelona, they end the season away to Granada, a team that will still be fighting for its top-flight life. Valencia are still in with a chance of avoiding the dreaded preliminary rounds in the late summer (which curtail your vacations and brings forward your pre-season training – something all players hate) and anyway, Sevilla are only one point behind Valencia, in fifth place. They haven’t given up the ghost yet either.

Talking of counterpoint, Barcelona’s season has really been played out between matches against Real Sociedad. In the first week of January, fresh from their Christmas break, the Catalans travelled up to San Sebastián and lost 1-0 in a game that seemed to signal the beginning of the end. Real Madrid also lost that weekend to Valencia at the Mestalla, but it seemed like a logical blip after their magnificent pre-Christmas run. Trouble was, Madrid had lost that game two hours before Barcelona took to the pitch at Anoeta, inviting the Catalans to begin to claw back a season that seemed to be running away from them. The subsequent defeat, with Lionel Messi and Neymar initially on the bench, opened up a brief but calamitous period for the club during which FIFA’s sanction over signing players was confirmed, director Andoni Zubizarreta was relieved of his duties after implying that it wasn’t his fault (but rather that of the club president), coach Luis Enrique’s poor relationship with Messi was laid bare and club icon Carles Puyol walked out in sympathy with Zubizarreta. The Madrid press, wallowing in schadenfreude, shrugged off the Mestalla defeat and looked forward to a straightforward season for its favourite sons. 

It didn’t quite work out like that. Since ‘Anoeta-Gate’, Barcelona have only lost once, at home to Málaga, and drawn at Sevilla. The rest reads 28 wins in all competitions, including the 2-0 win at home to nemesis Real Sociedad on Saturday. Well – ‘nemesis’ only refers to Barcelona’s record at Anoeta, where they have still not won since Sociedad returned to the top flight five years ago. Those four defeats and one draw are the worst figures at any stadium in La Liga for the Catalans in the last five seasons, but at the Camp Nou things are rather different, with Saturday’s win being the 17th in succession. The last time Real Sociedad won there was in 1991, with two goals from John Aldridge, after which a timid 1-1 draw in 1995 was the only speck of light for the Basques. Hence the feeling, last Friday night on the cusp of the weekend, that Barcelona would probably win and Real Madrid would likely suffer against an in-form Valencia. Thus it proved, although Barcelona didn’t have it all their own way in the match, and failed to find a way past the excellent Gerónimo Rulli in the first half, eventually winning the game with a lucky goal from Neymar and a beauty from Pedro – a ‘Chilena’ bicycle-kick straight out the of the coaching manual.  There have not been many better ones.

As we also noted in this column last week, the Champions League tends to have an emotional knock-on effect, and clearly, Barcelona’s week was a happier one than that of Real Madrid. The rather strange late show at the Camp Nou that spoiled Pep Guardiola’s return to his old stomping ground and which has almost certainly guaranteed Barcelona’s ticket to Berlin was in contrast to Real Madrid’s 2-1 defeat at Juventus – unexpected by some, but not by this column. Nevertheless, it hardly represents a tragedy for Madrid, and if they can pick themselves up from the Valencia result, there is no reason why we might not be anticipating the first-ever ‘Clásico’ Champions League final – an event that has never taken place since the inception of the former European Cup back in 1955-56. Given the quality of both sides over the decades, it seems stranger than ever that this should be the case, but this season it looks a distinct possibility. Bayern Munich will point optimistically to their brutal reversal of that quarter-final defeat at Oporto, but a 3-0 deficit this time looks rather tricky, especially considering the Germans’ general loss of form. 

Real Madrid themselves are now focusing their lenses more exclusively on Berlin, knowing that the domestic league is probably Catalunya-bound. They also played rather well against Valencia, and can take some heart from their performance, picking themselves up commendably after suffering an accident-prone first half in which Valencia played very well and scored twice, Toni Kroos limped off injured (but may play on Wednesday night) and Cristiano Ronaldo had a penalty saved by Diego Alves, right on the psychological stroke of half-time. In fact, had it not been for the excellent Alves, Madrid might still be dreaming. Now they know that if Barcelona win either of their two final matches, the league returns to the Camp Nou. If the Catalans fail to defeat Atlético Madrid, then they have an improving Deportivo at home on the final day. The only hope for Madrid there is that Deportivo will still be fighting to stave off relegation – but as hopes go, it’s a faint one.

However, all this may have to be shelved for some future date if the strike called by the Spanish Federation (RFEF) backed up by the players’ union (AFE) actually takes place.  If it does, then the final two games of the league will not be played, and since the strike has been called as ‘indefinite’, no dates have been set as alternatives. The Copa del Rey final between Barcelona and Athletic (May 30) also stands to be affected, in the worst-case scenario. So, the end is nigh, but not quite in the way the country had been expecting.

It’s difficult to explain the reasons behind this latest blow-up, but it is basically a power-struggle between the Federation, run with little transparency or thought for some years now by Angel Villar, and the LFP (The National Professional Football League) run by the bullish Javier Tebas, who basically fancies Villar’s job. Well, he basically fancies anything, as long as it includes a further step up the rung of a ladder. The Federation is angry over what it sees as government interference in its affairs, and also the government ignoring them over its proposals for a more equitable share out of the television rights – which although it looks like a reasonable complaint has become mixed up with the sudden omission of the players’ cut, resulting in the players’ union backing the strike this week. The backing has not been unanimous, and at the beginning of this week there are meetings planned to try to sort the mess out, but it certainly looks as though next weekend’s games may be affected. The extraordinary stand-off between Tebas and Villar is such that it seems difficult to imagine any easy back-downs this week.  Tebas has taken the side of the government, but you get the feeling that he’s doing it more for his own ambitions than for any real concern for the league’s future health. Meanwhile, as ever, the real losers are the spectators, baffled by the issues and unsympathetic towards any of the warring factions.  The vague hope that they might have had – that the players would refuse to strike – has also been vanquished, although the feeling persists that the players’ union felt obliged to show solidarity with Villar and was persuaded into taking its stance.  Several club presidents have disagreed with their own players’ decisions, and Tebas himself has upped the ante by declaring the potential strike illegal.

My own feeling is that it won’t happen, because there is too much at stake, financially speaking. The fall-out from an indefinite strike will benefit no-one, least of all the beleaguered Angel Villar, who in challenging the organs of the state will very probably lose a position he has occupied since 1988. Back in his playing days for Athletic, Villar famously elbowed Johan Cruyff and was banned for four games.  This time, although some of his complaints are valid ones, the ban will probably be permanent. He has made too many enemies over the years, and this absurd situation is much more about that than it is about the distribution of television money or the transparency of La Liga’s tax affairs. The end is nigh – but probably for Villar.

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