Pitchside Europe

Spain’s financial plight feeds Madrid-Barca duopoly


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Three minutes. That’s how long it took Barcelona to score against Levante – 82 minutes less than when the clubs last met in March. Then, Levante frustrated and the game was a contest. On Sunday, in 29 degree heat, Barça were four up after 26 minutes on the way to a 7-0 victory, with the goals shared between five players rather than Messi.

The 73,812 crowd loved it. Levante didn’t get a chance to frustrate, they barely got a chance to get out of their own half as Barcelona pressed deep and chased lost possession like they were on a mission to prove they can still be the best in the world after an inglorious end to last season.

Barcelona were almost perfect. Cesc Fabregas, the subject of two close season bids from Manchester United, was peerless. He started the game with €57 million (£48 million) signing Neymar on the bench. But will he start in the biggest matches, starting with Atletico Madrid away in the Spanish Super Cup tonight? The second leg will kick-off at that fan-friendly time of 11pm next Wednesday.

The imperious Xavi had completed more passes than the entire Levante team at half-time (55-53) - with the hosts six goals to the good.

And is a 7-0 victory good for any league? Is it symptomatic of a league in which the big two get stronger and the rest get weaker after selling their best players. Levante’s preparation was hit when they sold midfielder Vicente Iborra to Sevilla for €6 million (£5.1 million) two days before the game. He played 49 times last season, but in debt Levante can’t refuse €6 million offers for their players.

They’d seen club legend Sergio Ballesteros retire and not offered midfielder Juanlu a new contract. He’d been one of the players accused of “not trying” by team mate Jose Bakero (another departure) amidst a betting scandal at the club towards the end of last season. The accusations destroyed the atmosphere in a dressing room which had previously been so united that Levante reached Europe for the first time last season.

The clear out meant Levante signed 11 players, yet only one cost money – a modest €300,000 (£257,000). The Levante side which almost held Barça in April were shredded, but their charismatic (and new) boss Joaquin Caparros was in good spirits after the match, saying: “We’ve got the visit to the dentist out of the way. Next!”

New Barcelona coach Tata Martino was equally gregarious. While Pep Guardiola could be defensive and Tito Vilanova straight to the point, Tata talked and talked until he forgot the question that had been asked. He clearly likes talking football.

The Argentinian from Lionel Messi’s home city was interesting too, stating that he was prepared to change the team “even when you guys don’t want me to”. He’ll make the difficult decisions, yet he sees himself as a custodian of a team made by Guardiola, saying: “Why would I change anything?

“I love Barcelona’s style. What we have done, if anything, is recover things that Barcelona did but stopped doing.” Xavi later admitted that tactical work had taken a back seat when coach Vilanova was absent for cancer treatment last season.

Cules were further cheered after they romped to victory at Camp Nou. Madrid were a goal behind to Betis. That’s a Betis, who, like Levante and most other top-flight Spanish teams, sold their best players this summer; Benat to Athletic Bilbao for €8 million (£6.8 million), Jose Canas and Alejandro Pozuelo to Swansea City .

Thankfully, Betis have a genius in charge. Pepe Mel, an acclaimed published novelist who is now the league’s longest serving manager with three years at Betis. This is a man who updates his Twitter profile with the enthusiasm of a fan. When Betis played Manchester United in a secret behind closed doors game last month, he couldn’t help tweeting a picture of the teams and the result.

Mel signed 14 new players this summer. Just four cost a fee. Ridiculous as 14 new players seems, Beticos are used to wholesale changes year after year.

Yet it seemed too good to be true for Betis and Barcelona. Madrid wouldn’t lose at home on the first day of the season would they, giving Barcelona a three point advantage? The fans settled into the bars along Diagonal and watched. They pretended that they didn’t care for Madrid, but they nodded along in conversation when really they were watching Madrid on the screens behind. And as they did, their hopes grew. With five minutes to go, it was still 1-1. That’s when Isco, Madrid’s €30 million (£25.7 million) new signing from Malaga headed a Marcelo cross for the winner. Relief for Madrid and great debut for Isco.

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Two wins as expected for the big two then, but room for optimism at Betis.

“My players enjoyed the game,” smiled Mel. And that, to him, is rightly important.

By Andy Mitten - on Twitter @AndyMitten

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