Top two in big two
AUG 18 — The new season begins today in the best two football leagues in the world: the English Premier League and the Spanish Primera Division.
In both competitions, I believe there are only two realistic championship contenders, and they are the same teams that fought out last season’s title races: Manchester City and Manchester United in England; Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain.
The big change in England is United’s capture of Robin van Persie, which could create a potent strike force if he can strike an understanding with Wayne Rooney. Personally, however, I’m not too sure.
Of course, van Persie had a great season last year — an exceptional season, in fact — but the harsh truth is that it was the only really good campaign of his entire career. The previous seven had been little more than above average, with a series of injuries and a questionable temperament preventing the Dutchman from attaining consistency.
Disagree? Here are the stats: 30 league goals last season; 66 in the previous seven (less than 10 per season).
If van Persie can stay fit and consistently produce his best form over the next nine months, there’s every chance he’ll end up as the EPL’s leading scorer again. But past experience suggests that 2011/2 was the exception, rather than the rule. One fantastic season does not make a world-class player and I’m not convinced he’ll do it again. Time will tell.
However, perhaps United’s most important summer signing will prove to be not van Persie, but the less lauded Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund. Sir Alex Ferguson’s team badly lacked a creative presence in midfield last season, and the Japanese international could be the man to fill that need.
A couple of miles across the city, Manchester City have only made one signing — Jack Rodwell from Everton — but that’s not a problem because they don’t particularly need to strengthen. City are already strong all over the pitch, with plenty of options in defence, midfield and attack, and it’s tough to see any real areas of weakness.
The main question mark hanging over Roberto Mancini’s men is the temperamental nature of his strikers: Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli are two of the most behaviourally unpredictable players in world football, and Edin Dzeko can be a loose cannon as well. At least Sergio Aguero seems mentally well-balanced.
But forget the questionable sanity levels: City’s strikers possess the quality and physicality to score enough goals to retain the title — especially backed up by the superhuman Yaya Toure and the mercurial David Silva from midfield.
Other challengers? I don’t think there will be any. Despite last season’s heroics I believe Roberto Di Matteo will soon run into problems at Chelsea (more on that in a future article); Arsenal are nowhere near consistent enough and Tottenham don’t have the strength in depth. It’s the men from Manchester all the way.
Here in Spain, it’s hardly revolutionary to suggest that Barcelona and Real Madrid are the only two teams with a realistic chance of winning La Liga: the fact that second-placed Barça finished no less than 30 points ahead of third-placed Valencia last season is ample demonstration of the big two’s superiority over the rest of the league.
Trying to predict the winner out of Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona and Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid is a much tougher task but I am going to plump for Barça — and not just for reasons of hometown bias.
Although Pep Guardiola’s departure leaves a big hole, his former assistant Vilanova is the right man to carry on his outstanding work. Having already spent so long with the players in the dressing room and on the training pitch, Vilanova knows exactly what has made the team such a formidable force — although the man-management skills required in the head coach role will be an entirely new challenge.
Theoretically, Barça should be slightly stronger this season thanks to the purchase of left back Jordi Alba, one of the biggest stars of Euro 2012, and the long-awaited return from injury of David Villa, who made his first appearance in nine months as a late substitute in last week’s friendly win against Dinamo Bucharest.
Barça’s main problem last season was an over-reliance on Lionel Messi — their second top-league goalscorer, Alexis Sanchez, only managed nine goals — so Villa should be able to carry some of that burden and provide another match-winning option.
As for Real Madrid, it’s difficult to see how they can get any better than last season. Their final tallies of 32 victories, 100 points and 121 goals were all Spanish league records, and they had three 20-plus goalscorers in Karim Benzema, Gonzalo Higuain and the phenomenal Cristiano Ronaldo.
Can they possibly maintain such outrageously high standards for another season? With The Evil Genius in charge, anything is possible, and the apparently imminent arrival of Luka Modric should give them more subtlety in attack.
But with Barça set to get slightly better and Real facing almost mission impossible to reach last season’s levels of performance, I’m tipping the Catalan club to return to the ascendancy.
Mentioning The Evil Genius, by the way, I laughed heartily at his request this week to change his self-anointed nickname from “The Special One” to “The Only One” in recognition of his unprecedented success in winning major championships in England, Italy and Spain... followed by a claim in the same interview that he is now “less self-centred, less egocentric.”
It seems the man is also a comedy genius as well as a tactical genius!
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.