No reason for the Barcelona winning machine to stop – Primera Liga half-time talk
Primera Liga correspondent Andy Mitten takes the temperatures of Spain’s most prominent club’s at the season’s half-way mark:
Barcelona head into 2016 having won five trophies in a spectacular 2015. The one they did not win, Spain’s Super Cup, was the least important.
“This Barca is a reference and these players are unique”, said Luis Enrique after being crowned world champions after Sunday’s 3-0 triumph against South American champions River Plate.
The manager is right.
He could have been gushing and enjoyed the moment a little more, but Enrique has to keep his winning machine winning.
Mindful of Real Madrid’s implosion a year ago after they too were crowned world champions, Enrique’s task is to keep his side hungry for more trophies and keep them performing at their current spectacular levels.
Enrique can do this. He was as driven a player as he is a manager. He handles the media with less emotion than Pep Guardiola, who allowed himself to be dragged into arguments with Jose Mourinho.
The managerial fuse is a short one at Camp Nou and Enrique knows there will be demands for change as soon as levels drop, but he has reason to be more optimistic about the future. Luis Suarez and Neymar have the perfect strike partnership with Lionel Messi and are now realistic contenders for Ballon d’Or awards.
With their transfer ban up, Barca can field 2015 signings Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal from January. They also have money to strengthen in the January transfer window.
They came through a tough run of fixtures at the start of the season by winning almost all of them and they survived and prospered when Messi was injured.
If anything, knowing they could play without him gave them even more confidence. They have every reason to be optimistic going into 2016.
Valencia did not buy well in the close season and that is one reason why they suffered a stuttering start to 2015/16. Nuno Espirito Santo had done well to get them back into the Uefa Champions League at the first time of asking, but his perceived arrogance with players, fans and the media went against him at a very political club. Such are the demands of the fans, managing Valencia is one of football’s toughest jobs. Fans see the Mestalla decorated with giant images of relatively recent teams who were good enough to win Spanish titles and reach European Cup finals. They think those standards should be the norm, yet they have been left behind financially by Barcelona, Real Madrid and now they even trail Atletico Madrid.
Gary Neville was a surprise appointment as manager, but he was welcomed with enthusiasm – in part because he was not Nuno, because he does not have Jorge Mendes as an agent, but also because of the positives said about him.
One of the first things he did was change his office into a meeting room and supply every player with iPads to learn from training drills.
He inherited a dispirited, injury hit, team whose defence needs strengthening. Though only in the job for an initial six months, he will look to bring youth players through and he will have money to spend.
Valencia face a tough run of matches. They travel 50 kilometres to face a very strong Villarreal side on December 31, then host Real Madrid on January 3. After two draws in his opening two league games, Neville is hoping for a first win.
He is learning Spanish with the same intensity with which he leads his life. He will need it to survive and flourish in Valencia.
Real Madrid hit Rayo Vallecano for 10 on Sunday, the first time they have reached double figures in a league game since 1960.
It was also the first time Gareth Bale has scored four goals in a game – Bale’s six assists in the match put him top of the assists league.
Madrid have scored more than any other Primera Liga team and their 42 goals are almost twice that of Atletico’s 22.
Yet Atletico are above them.
Do not let the headlines deflect from the reality.
Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 12 league goals putting him just behind Pichichi leader Neymar and one behind Luis Suarez.
He is on the same number of goals as Real Sociedad’s Imanol Agirretxe and Deportivo La Coruna’s Lucas Perez, but seven of Ronaldo’s 12 came in two games.
He scored in only one of Madrid’s opening seven league games and was symptomatic of a stalling side which were hammered 4-0 at home to Barcelona who started without Messi.
Coach Rafa Benitez is under serious pressure, club president Florentino Perez, too.
Madrid have suffered a long injury list and numerous off-field distractions.
They were thrown out of the Copa del Rey for fielding an ineligible player while striker Karim Benzema was arrested for blackmail. It is to their credit that they are only two points behind Barca, though the Catalan side have played one game less.
Madrid triumphed in their Champions League group, with 16 points from 18 and will meet Roma in the last 16. They are wounded, they are not playing as well as fans would hope and Perez called a press conference to give Benitez a vote of confidence. 2015 was a bad year at the Bernabeu, but they are closer to the top than Barcelona were at the start of the year ...
Half-time reports from Europe’s other top leagues:
Unbeaten in their nine previous matches, Atletico Madrid travelled by train to Malaga for their final game before Christmas. A continuation of their wining run would have put them three points clear at the top of the league.
But this is Atletico we are talking about, the club who always do things the hard way.
Their captain Gabi was told that he had to man a polling station as part of Spain’s general elections, but a replacement was found and he was allowed to travel later to join his teammates.
He was then sent off and Atletico were beaten 1-0 by a Malaga side who looked doomed a month ago when they sat bottom with stories of more financial problems circulating.
They have drawn two and won since to climb from 20th to 13th, showing how tight it is at the bottom of the league.
At the top, Atletico remain joint leaders with Barca, though they have played a game more than the Catalan club.
Atletico were also impressive in Europe, winning their group and setting up a last-16 match with PSV Eindhoven.
Their coach Diego Simeone remains coveted by other clubs, but he does not speak English and is happy where he is loved at the Calderon.
When he talks of the club as “us” and “we”, he means it. Another title win to go with their 2014 triumph remains improbable, for while Antoine Griezmann is exceptional, they do not have the strikers of Real Madrid and Barcelona to win the biggest games, but Atletico will push and remain a thorn in the sides of their richer rivals.
Before he was dismissed by a Real Sociedad who expected more for their buck than was realistically possible and the budgets of rival clubs dictated, David Moyes offered some forthright views on Spain’s reduced winter break.
“Players do need a break,” he told this writer.
“I like football in the festive period, so maybe that break should be in January for a week or two. It would allow South American players a week back home.
“It’s not good for a player used to breaks to come and play four games in 10 days and in my own experience they get injured.
“So I’m surprised that Spain has changed the winter break this year and reduced it.
“They’ve got it wrong and the Spanish team could suffer in Euro 2016 if their players don’t rest as they’re used to.”
La Real have trundled on in much the same way as under Moyes. The club have an admirable philosophy of promoting local youngsters, but what happens if they’re not good enough? Or what if the local heroes stay for too long and live off reputations.
Moyes maintains he enjoyed his experience in Spain. He was criticised for not learning Spanish quickly enough and for living in a hotel, but that would not have mattered had his side won more games. They did not.
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Updated: December 22, 2015 04:00 AM