Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico top La Liga
This article’s title may seem a cliché but despite the fact that the teams are listed in the order they appear on the La Liga table, the three clubs mentioned could not possibly be on more different planes of existence in 2023.
Barcelona has been found out
After years of Papa complaining that Lionel Messi and his Pep Guardiola cohort at Barca were getting preferential treatment from the referees in all domestic Spanish Football competitions, throughout the duration of their allegedly magical, record-setting collaboration, we find out that, yes, actually, they were cheating. And yes, this does require a reevaluation of just what was accomplished by whom during the period 2003—2023…you know…should the courts and La Liga administrators find sufficient cover to actually complete and then act upon the findings of their investigations.
But what we need to note is that Barca’s cheating was consistent, strategic, and successful. Here is a reminder of how the 3-rule/3 corollary scheme worked:
Rule one: you stop your opponent cold immediately upon the loss of possession. You do this by pretending to press all over the field but actually by immediately fouling the person who has forced Barca’s loss of possession or the person who will receive the pass from that original interceptor—ideally both (see the entire Barca team for lessons on this, or simply Sergio Busquets who made a career on it, or for a more current expression watch Gavi play).
Rule two: if perchance a foul is called, you complain, en masse, the moment the whistle blows and do so while both holding on to the ball and surrounding the referee so he cannot restart the match until your team has repositioned itself on the field, utterly ensuring any value the opponent could have derived from the change of possession is negated (see Jordi Alba, Luis Suarez, Charles Puyol, and the names mentioned above and below on this).
There are add-ons to this of course. The crescendo of complaints if a dangerous foul or penalty is called against you. The consistent encroachment beyond the line that demarcates where the wall is supposed to stand on any dangerous foul kick. The crowding of the penalty spot and harassment of the opponent’s taker if a penalty is called. The surreptitious handling of the ball throughout the pitch to ensure your team’s continued possession (see Gerard Pique vids for lessons on this). And so on.
Rule three: you ensure that if the overwhelming majority of the calls do not go your way you make a big deal of it by claiming on the pitch and during the game, on the sidelines, during the half-time break, and at the post-match press conference, that you were robbed by the officials. On the other hand, if your ruse works you don’t compliment the refs, thus giving the impression that things went just as they should have, given your team’s superiority.
The three corollaries are:
First, you ensure the Messi rule is strictly followed—anyone sneezing near the diminutive Argentine gets a yellow card.
Second, you make sure that “Barca’s side of the story” is broadcasted wide and far via your public relations machine—to include fake, one-sided social media posts, slanted coverage by any empathetic news media, globally, paid-for coverage funded by your Qatari owners, and ideally local and/or international broadcast coverage of the matches by your owners’ networks to ensure that even the match announcers and commentators and the roundtable commentators during the pre-match, post-match and match breaks are all singing off the same hymnal.
Third, when the time comes for individual or team awards you make sure to take a page from either the infamous Maradona v Pele FIFA voting on the best player ever, or the Sepp Blatter surprise award schemes. The former alludes to when you stuff the ballot box any way you can to ensure Messi wins more Ballon d’Or, FIFA Best Player in the World, FIFA World Cup Golden Boot, and top domestic and European scorer awards than any current or past competitor for the awards; and of course, the latter alludes by extension to anything that can be done to ensure communal big trophy wins such as Qatar’s (World Cup 22 host) Barcelona (multiples) and Argentina (Copa America 2021, World Cup 2022, Messi coronation 2022).
Isn’t it a shame that the best player of our current generation of stars—Lionel Messi—should be caught up in this? Isn’t it a shame that the brilliant individual and team play of the likes of Andres Iniesta, Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Dani Alves, and Xavi Hernandez should be sullied by all of this? And isn’t it shameful that as talented a coach as Pep Guardiola should have presided over such a mess? Let’s clean this up. Let’s focus the retrospective lenses where they belong and rectify the record books by stripping away the non-earned awards—as Italy did with Juventus.
The current success at Barca is the same mix of outrageous talent supplemented by cheating. It is a shame that such a constellation of new-young and established stars is not trusted by their club handlers to achieve sportsmanlike success.
Real Madrid is an entity onto itself
For as long as memory serves, Real Madrid have played a game few other teams dare attempt. The method is to buy superstars at every position and place them on the pitch to figure things out on their own without interference from a style, tactic, overriding strategy, or all-encompassing, game-day coaching contribution. You then supplement this approach by retaining an owner who will always find the funds to buy the stars, getting a coach who basically manages the players’ minutes and egos to ensure they are in optimum mental and physical playing form come key game days; and you mollify your fans by winning more domestic and European trophies than any other club you compete against. Easy.
For purists this either drives you crazy or takes you to heaven, probably both. You can just imagine what Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo, Beckham, Casillas, and Carlos, or Modric, Kroos, Casemiro, Ramos, Ozil, and CR7 might have accomplished in their eras if only they played a system. Then again, you say, why a system when they won everything without one? It is only in those few games when the stars are not aligning that you go nuts because you know a little cohesion and discipline might have gotten them the win against that relegation-bound opponent they drew with.
Today, you have the classic if aging Madrid with its constellation of old stars at the helm, and myriad new guns nearly ready to take over, all managed by the consummate minutes-and-ego coach on the planet, Carlo Ancelotti. And they are again, second in La Liga, going to the Copa del Rey final, and about to play an era-defining match against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in a UEFA Champions League semifinals. That latter match—against what should be Madrid’s kryptonite, another constellation of stars (Erling Haaland, Kevin de Bruyne, Ruben Dias, Jack Grealish, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden) but ones under the iron fist of the true-proven-successful Pep system—will be a classic almost regardless of how it ends.
If Ancelotti wins the Copa (as seems likely) and the UCL semis (which seems difficult but if they do win, they would be the favorites against either Milan finalist) and can remain second to Barcelona in La Liga, the Madridistas will go home happy, right?
Atleti shows its two faces
Atletico Madrid has always been the team that keeps Barca and Real honest. If the two Spanish Football Giants falter, Atleti will eat their lunch. With Diego Simeone at the helm, they have an entrenched style—the toughest playing team in Spain. Ok, they also have Jose Gimenez, Antoine Griezmann, Memphis Depay, Axel Witsel, and Yannick Carrasco, to name a few recent World Cup national team starters.
What has made this year special for Atleti is the fact that Simeone has not been at his best for the past couple of seasons, that the team began their 2022-2023 campaign in disarray and low on the La Liga table, and yet, that since the World Cup ended they have been another team altogether. They have regained their rightful place in the La Liga standings and are again making life miserable for any opponent.
Since January Atletico Madrid have been unbeaten in 13 matches and have won ten of those. This, while having a large number of players on their squad as mainstays of teams who played in Qatar when many of their domestic adversaries had long-term vacations. Griezmann, the unsung hero of France’s run to the 2022 World Cup final, has eleven goals and nine assists, now playing for Simeone in the full-pitch-roaming style he did for Didier Deschamps. Watch him playing in Atleti’s 0-1 loss to Barca last weekend and you will notice him intercepting the ball on the far-left flank of his defense in one play and setting up a teammate with a pass from Madrid’s right offensive flank on the very next play.
Truth be told, Atleti were often the better side in their weekend showdown with the Catalans, and were unlucky to concede, in the dying moments of the first half, what ended up being the match’s only score. Also, to bookend our bit above, on Barcelona, in a match with 31 called fouls and 12 yellow cards, ask how many yellows went to the hosts. Ok, guess. Yup, a 2-1 favorable ratio—Barca was called for four yellows, and Atleti, who was also called for more fouls overall, was ticketed for eight yellows. Plus ca change, non?
With eight games to go and Barcelona eleven points ahead of Real Madrid and sixteen ahead of Atletico, the La Liga race seems already won. But for Simeone and company, it is the manner of the race, earning their Champions League slot next year, and showcasing their ability to overcome their slow start to eventually stay true to their Spanish Football role, that has made this an important season and perhaps allow their coach another run at the helm with more administrative support and a few less communal doubts.
Photo: Shutterstock Photo ID: 2157785293, FC Barcelona President Joan Laporta, by Christian Bertrand.