• Premier League: - Will David Moyes succeed at Man Utd. Is Manuel Pellegrini ready for the limelight?
  • La Liga: - Tito Vilanova is fighting for his life, is Tata Martino the right fit as his succesor?
  • Serie A: - Napoli have begun their assault on the scudetto. Will Rafa Benitez's Spanish project succeed in Italy?
  • European Football: - Can Pep Guardiola implant his identity on a club that are already European Champs?
  • World Football: - Brazil is waiting for next Summer. Can they finally defeat the ghosts of Brazil 1954?

World Football on The Ball is Flat: here ...

Spanish Football on The Ball is Flat: here ...

Italian Football on The Ball is Flat: here ...

English Football on The Ball is Flat: here ...

Are we at all surprised? Seriously. When the balls came through at the selection ceremony did you look around for Michel Platini and wish you were anywhere near the little Frenchman to smack him upside the head? This was always going to happen if you've watched either club throughout their modern existence. It was a dour game from any point of view, and no I don't subscribe to this process of football or anti-football anymore, they are all valid in the context of preparing for a match, so I won't rail against either coach for not attacking more or displaying more effectiveness on the ball or off of it. Jose Mourinho famously wants to keep the first leg of a Champions League tight and if it is an away match he wants to leave the opponent needing to win away to continue on. It is his minimal scoreline. 

Diego Simeone knows this, because as much as the Spanish press have concentrated on the miraculous job he's done to wrangle the habitually dysfunctional Atleti dressing-room by sheer force of will and personality to his purposes, he's a real tactician as well. This is no failure for Los Colchoneros eitherThe mattress-makers of Madrid are an away goal from going through to the Champions League final and considering their continued and mounting success in Europe over the last 5 years you can't count them out.

Atletico de Madrid are no wilting flower to come into Stamford Bridge and be intimidated by the atmosphere or the chanting, or the blistering English pace or hard-hitting defense. Quite frankly, Simeone is from a long-line of Argentine managers who popularized this very same style that Jose Mourinho has staked his claim to. He's a disciple of Carlos Bilardo who played in that infamous Intercontinental Cup against Manchester United in the 1968 where the South Americans were called "animals" by legendary coach Sir Alf Ramsey.

As much as this does nothing to hurt Chelsea of continuing on, it's a pretty good scoreline for Atletico Madrid as well. One away goal nicked in the first quarter of the first half, a preferred tactic of the Argentine, and their equally effective "double-decker bus" parked in the Shed End can see them go through as well.

Either way I predict next week's draw in West London will be a much more exciting match than this very dull heavy-weight fight between two equally matched contenders.
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I received a comment on our Facebook page recently from a self-confessed Madridista, in capital letters no less so we are mightily impressed by his or her passion for Los Merengues, but what was shocking to us as admins and members is how hyper-critical he or she was as to what amounts to be a really good Real Madrid side; a much better side than last year's.
First off, my biggest concern is the lack of a physical presence in our midfield. We don't have a destroyer or player who stretches the field vertically. I love Xabi. He's a class act. But he's no shield. He can't operate in the single pivot. He is immobile. Athletic mids will have a field day. I wanted Matić, but he went to Chelsea. I also was a fan of Luiz Gustavo. Pogba or Vidal would have been good, but their form has dropped considerably in recent times. Also, our wide players are incompetent. Ronaldo. He just scores goals. Does he press? No. Track his runner? No. Have an ounce of creativity? No. And people have the audacity to say he is "complete". I'd much rather have an Hazard or Reus. Those are prototypical wingers. Bale tries to have a better team ethic. But quite simply, he lacks creativity. His stats camouflage his real contribution. He doesn't aid Carvajal (he'll need to against Alaba and Ribéry). He is an athlete, a marketing ploy, but is he a RM player I would ideally have? Not really. Our center-backs are hot-headed. Despite their inspired form their season, Pepe and Ramos have been liabilities. They make aerial errors, marking lapses, and ill-fated decisions. Varane (talent wise) is our best shot. I have many more concerns to address, but I figured this was enough. Thoughts?
Where to start. I think there are some valid points, especially in defense: I think Ramos is playing out of position (which is strange, Pepe is not the player he was and Varane is carrying an injury that may effect his career (not my idea, something that I was told). Pace in general at the back is a glaring issue. Set-pieces are not as big of a problem as they have been in the past. Midfield: Alonso has been flat-out their best player over the last 5 years. He's been the best deep-lying play-maker in Europe over that time and their stats on the break make my point. He is and has never been a defensive midfielder. Plus, he's old. He never had any pace but at 32 he's done and they have no natural replacement. As for not having a destroyer, well people need to stop thinking about football in such narrow terms. There is no new Makelele. It's why most clubs have gone to a double-pivote and the good clubs are playing two deep-lying play-makers there, players who can tackle and turn the run of play quickly. I mean, Liverpool has been playing Gerrard in that sort of position all year. Football has adapted tactically over the last 5 years.

As for wingers, that's such an outdated term in terms of tactics that it doesn't mean anything. Jesus Navas is a winger. He's probably one of the few real ones left. Reus and Hazard are not. They're these interchangeable attacking mids used to flitting around a 4-2-3-1 behind a lone striker that everyone has and Real Madrid has two of the best in Cristiano and Bale; saddens me to say that but it's true. It's like arguing that Barcelona need a classic lump-it-up striker. They don't need it and Real Madrid don't need to sell their best players for a few lesser ones who can track back a little. What they need is an out-and-out finisher who can hold up play while their athletic midfielders bomb forward; Karim Benzema is talented but he's no Radamel Falcao at his best or even Diego Costa who would slot in perfectly as a lone striker at the Bernabeu. They're problem honestly is that they are built for a Jose Mourinho 4-2-3-1, and while Carlo feels more comfortable with his pyramid 4-3-2-1, they don't have the players to play it correctly.

There is a disconnect there whether we admit it or not. More soon about what I think they need to do for next season.
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It was always going to be difficult to replace the most succesful manager in the history of Manchester
United, but to be anointed as the golden successor David Moyes must have known that he would not be given the same level of patience that his predecessor was given. Ferguson finished in the top of the table only once in his first four years after assuming the role, but rattled off a resume in his 26 years at the club that is second to no one, with close to 40 titles in that span. It must have been what replacing Sir Matt Busby must have been like in 1969. Wilf McGuinness only lasted a little over a year on the job. It was so daunting that even Busby himself couldn't do it either lasting only 6 months in a caretaker role. For more than a decade afterwards, Manchester United would struggle to make the transition to life beyond a legend, winning 3 FA Cups and sharing one of two Charity Shields in the following 17 years. They even suffered the ignominy of relegation in that term before winning the second division title in 1975.
 
Moyes's record at United this year isn't as bad as many are making it out to be. He may be 17 points
behind first place Liverpool and 13 points behind local rivals Manchester City, but he still has a chance
to finish in the Europa League qualifying slots. We can hail him for his role in this year's Champions
League competition. His problem isn't even getting results against those clubs that Manchester United are supposed to beat. In 13 games against teams at the top of the table Moyes has exactly one win and that was at home against Arsenal in November. They've been shut out at home by Chelsea, Liverpool, Everton and Manchester City. It's no wonder the fans have turned against him and there's a vocal minority group that's put much of the blame against Sir Alex Ferguson for anointing him as his successor, which has led to a few interesting events. The notoriously media-shy Paul Scholes has come out in support of the manager, as have other club legends like Gary Neville and even Ryan Giggs who has (if you believe the media) suffered loss of minutes under Moyes.

Now, I don't have any insight into what's going to happen at United but I can set up a few scenarios that I think are likely. The most likely solution is that United keep Moyes for another year and give him money to spend in the Summer. It's a conservative option and considering how the Glazers work it's their preferred method of operation. Then again, if they get bumped out of the Champions League (embarrassed even) by Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich, they don't look to make 4th so it's likely they won't be in the Champions League next year, and their sponsors start calling to renegotiate deals, I think there is a possibility growing everyday that Moyes might not be long for his job. If he is sacked it is likely that they will hire from within, handing the job to a Phil Neville or Ryan Giggs until the end of the year and let them audition for a longer term.

Short-Term Fix: If they fire Moyes and they are desperate enough to regain a place quickly, the
conservative choice would be to hire a coach from this sort of list: Carlo Ancelotti, Fabio Capello, Jupp
Heynkes, Marcelo Lippi, Louis van Gaal, Cesare Prandelli or Guus Hiddink. Ten years ago or so when
Ferguson had contemplated retirement it might have made sense to hire a personal friend like Lippi but
he's of an age (as is Capello) where the rigors of club management are beyond him. The same goes for
Heynkes and Hiddink essentially, but Heynkes is an interesting option. He righted the ship at Bayern
after van Gaal left and he's well respected by his players so he'd solve the fractured dressing room.
Prandelli plays an attractive brand of football that is atypically Italian and would slot in well with the
ethos at United, but I wonder if the language barrier would be an issue. It's become less necessary to
speak English in front of players and the media are more accepting of coaches with limited communication skills but we aren't talking about Mauricio Pochettino at Sunderland or Pepe Mel at West Brom. This is a multinational corporation like Manchester United. Which leaves the mercurial Louis van Gaal. At his best he can galvanize a club like Ajax and win the Champions League or win the treble in Germany with Bayern. At his worst he can drive a club, its supporters and players against him like what happened at the end of both his Bayern and FC Barcelona stints. That said, I think he has the right sort of presence to take over at Manchester United, but as is usual he won't stay long so there's a long-term trade-off.

Long-Term Solution: the lack of stability with any of the above-named managers leads me to believe that it would be better to consider a long-term plan similar to what Liverpool have done with Brendan Rogers. If there is anything to be learned from replacing Sir Matt Busby in 1969 it's that you can't go home again. You need to adapt the Manchester United aesthetic, keep what is right about the club - it's traditions and beliefs - but make a break with the past. You can never replicate what Ferguson did so don't even try. It's why I believe this list filled with innovative managers is where they should go if they do replace Moyes: Jeurgen Klopp, Vincenzo Montella, Antonio Conte, Diego Simeone, Slaven Bilic, Didier Deschamps, Luciano Spalletti, Joachim Low, and Marcelo Bielsa.

I know it's an open field. Anyone of these coaches would be a marvelous fit, but if you want to have an immediate impact there are only two dominant candidates: Simeone or Klopp. Which philosophy do you want? Starve the opponent into submission, or run them into the same. If it were me, I'd pick Klopp.
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Community of Madrid
Marca.com: "By a Miracle": agonizing qualifier by Madrid against an unyielding Dortmund: dreadful performance by Ancelotti's club that only functioned better after Isco and Casemiro came on. An error by Pepe and another by Illarra, the origin of both German goals. The worst Madrid without Cristiano: he watched from the bench like a caged lion. Casillas's decisive interventions in key moments sustained the club. Casemiro: steel and personality stayed the German avalanche in the second half and lent security to the midfield. Atletico Madrid: The Cauldron of Europe: Atletico and Barca will play their match without pity in a packed Calderon. The entire continent is awaiting this collision between the intensity of Atleti and Barca's possession. Response: Real Madrid have real problems at the back (lack of depth and pace) that exposes them against teams like Dortmund. Their midfield is in even worse shape. Alonso is not the same player he was under Mourinho and Illarramendi just hasn't had the playing time. That said, other than Bayern I don't think anyone else has that pace. Barca on the other hand? Not really ready for Diego Simeone's Atleti. It's a coaching matter
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Tune into a Spanish language broadcast here in the States and you’ll usually here announcers, usually Argentines, spouting out names of players from Argentina playing in Spain and you’ll hear some really interesting nicknames for some very familiar players. To give a little color, I decided to research some of these. I tried my best, some are really difficult, since I am neither Argentinean nor an expert on the game there, so disculpe, my apologies if I’ve made any mistakes. By the way, if you notice, for many reasons, there are some clubs that do not participate because they have no Argentines in their ranks.

The Big Two
Real Madrid CF: Angel di Maria: El Angelito and Di Magia are both referring to his name: Angelito means little Angel and Di Magia replaces parts of his last name with the Spanish word for magic. El Flaco (Skinny), El Pibito (little man) and Fideo (noodle) all refer to his slight stature.

FC Barcelona: Lionel Messi: La pulga atomica or the atomic flea. Interesting how Sebastien Giovinco at Juve has a similar title and plays similarly. Javier Mascherano: Masche, a shortening of his last name, El Jefecito, or the little chief.
 
The Rest of La Liga
Almeria: Sebastián Dubarbier: Sebas and Dubas are both related to his name. El Frances is due to his French name and/or ancestry

Atletico Madrid: Emiliano Insua: Pochito, which refers to the fact that despite the fact that he was born in Argentina and raised early on by Boca Juniors, Liverpool FC in England trained him so he has that stigma of being more English than Argentine, therefore Pocho or Pochito, Jose Sosa: El Principito, or the Little Prince.

Celta Vigo: Gustavo Cabral: El Sargentito, which means the little seargant, or El Negro, which refers to his dark skin color. Agusto Matias Fernandez: El Negro, which also refers to his dark skin color.

Espanyol: Diego Colotto. El Coly, a shortening of his last name or El Cordobes, because he comes from Cordoba, Argentina.

Granada: Diego Bunoanotte: El Enano, or the midget referring to his being close to 5 feet tall.

Malaga: Pablo Perez: El Fantastico, or the Fantastic One, or PP8 referring to his initials and his shirt number. Fernando Tissone: Tisso DJ, referring to is passion for music and his willingness to spin tunes in the dressing room and also a shortening of his last name. Willy Caballero: Willy, an obvious one, Marcos Angeleri, El cáscara or Cascarita (eggshell) because as a kid his uncle named him that because of his rowdy and combative nature, picking fights, Mambrú after an Argentine children's song that refers to the Duke of Marlborouogh dying in war, Comandante refers to Subcomandante Marcos the Zapatista rebel leader, el Locomía for his resemblance to a Spanish pop group singer and I mean I could go on. The guy has a nickname for every day of the week. Ezequiel Relscaldani: Rescaldowsky, I guess because of his Polish background?

Osasuna: Emeliano Armenteros: Armen, which is a shortening of his last name, Pelado or baldy, or Travesaño which means crossbar referring to his defensive prowess.

Rayo Vallecano: Leonel Galeano: cebolla or onion, a guy who makes the opponents cry and Joaquin Larrivey, El Bati Gol or Larry Gol, both refer to his striking resemblance to Gabriel 'Batigol' Batistuta.

Real Betis: Guillermo Sara, Saramago, which is a portmanteau of his last name Sara and mago which means magician, Guille, which is a shortening of his first name and parapenales, which means penalty-stopper.

Sevilla: Nicolas Pareja: El Peludo, the hairy One or El Flaco, skinny. Federico Fazio, el Gigante or the Giant, which refers to his stature

Valencia: Federico Cartabia: Fede, which is a shorting of his first name, or La Joya, which means the Jewel. Pablo Piatti: Pablito, which is a shortening of his name and means little Pablo, or El Duende which means the Elf and refers to his slight stature.

Villareal: Mateo Musaccio: el joven-veterano, the young-veteran, which refers to his poise in defense.

Despite beating Celta de Vigo handily at home 3-0, seeing off their former player Luis Enrique in his return to the club that made him famous and gave him his first shot at management, the club is reeling from an injury to first team keeper Victor Valdes in the 22nd minute. He denied a free-kick, landed wrong and was stretchered off. It was determined later that he had suffered an anterior cruciate ligament and would miss not only the rest of the season but likely will not be fit for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Coach Tata Martino would be interviewed later and shared his thoughts: "We won't sign a goalkeeper. We will finish the season with this group. I am not one to believe in bad luck, but at this stage of the season I thought everything that was to happen had already occurred. I was wrong. It's a big blow but this team has rolled with punches for some time now and we will pull through this."

He's right, it is a huge problem for the blaugrana in the short-term, backup keeper Jose Manuel Pinto is serviceable in short stretches, but is he consistent enough to handle the fatigue of three competitions and the pressure of the Champions League this late in the tournament? Are they prepared to go with one of their Barca-B keepers as backup? I don't think so. In the long-term however I believe Barcelona were well down the road to replacing the mercurial Valdes with 21 year old Borussia Monchengladbach keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Valdes had elected not to renew his contract while Sandro Rosell was President but had wavered since Neymar-gate occurred and the 32 year old from Hospitalet had already sent feelers to the Premier League and Ligue 1.

What is worse though is that Valdes was on form and was in serious contention to take the first team keeper slot away from Iker Casillas who had been relegated to second keeper. Now Vicente del Bosque will likely select Casillas as the starter and use Napoli's Pepe Reina as his back-up, bringing David de Gea as the third keeper to give him some World Cup exposure. Either way this is a huge blow for Spain entering this momentous competition.

Two years ago he was the standout player on a Malaga side that had reached as far as it had ever gone in its short-lived history. Sure, there had been a club in Malaga since the 1940's but this was a club that had risen from its ashes in 1992 playing in the third division. They rose and were successful for a time but in the 2007-2008 season they were seconds away from relegation and the Miracle and the Rosaleda happened. The oil money came in after that like the tides and as the tides are wont to do they receded. In its wake we were introduced to a player like Isco.

Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez, or Isco for short in that curious way that Spaniards have of shortening names, was born in Malaga, but cut his teeth in the Valencia CF youth system, and as a right of passage for practically all products of that academy, he was sold after really, only 4 appearances for Los Che. Fast forward two years and here was one of the bright lights of La Rojita, the Spanish U-21's, who had become a key element in Manuel Pellegrini's Malaga side after the sale of Santi Cazorla to Arsenal, and he was being sold to Real Madrid. At first he balked at the move, I don't think he thought himself ready, but even with the pursuit of Gareth Bale most pundits in Spain thought the more effective player had already been bought.

Since then it has been an up and down year for Isco. He's played in 23 games for the club but most of them as a sub. His minutes have gone down progressively and he's seen his place on the pecking order for minutes in midfield drop. It's his game really. He's a tall, languid midfielder who's best position is sitting in space, linking midfield and attack, but who really doesn't fit in Ancelotti's system anymore. Can he adapt to a deeper position as Modric has done in that Pirlo/Seedorf mold? Possibly, but why would you want to. He is what he is and changing him to a Messi-esque false-9, a creative winger, or a deep-lying playmaker ignores what strengths he has.

Now Manchesters United and City are calling and Real Madrid can easily get more than the 30 million euros they spent for the player in the Summer. Isco says he'll do whatever the club decides but it's clear that he's surplus in Carlo Ancelotti's 4-3-3 and better suited anywhere else.
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Real Madrid entered Sunday’s clasico with a four point lead on their rivals FC Barcelona and a feeling that, while an end of an era isn’t yet on the cards, that certainly there had been a sea change between the two. While it had always been Real Madrid that were weak in the back coming into these matches and vulnerable to the quick darting runs of Messi and company, it was Barcelona that had still not adjusted to the declining skills of Carles Puyol and Dani Alves, and the players they bought left them susceptible to attacks on the wing (Jordi Alba) and set-pieces (Javier Mascherano). With the waves upon waves of attacking talent that los blancos can throw at you on the counter  and the aggressive athleticism that they muster in midfield I didn’t think on paper that the blaugrana had much of a chance going into the Bernabeu and snatching three points, but snatching is right. The scoreline ended with Real Madrid CF 3-4 FC Barcelona but there was much more going on.

Referee: let’s get this over with quickly. I’m not a fan of the claims by either side that every time either of these clubs wins their rival immediately brings of referee bias or league intervention. There were many contested calls on both sides: a clear penalty on Pepe tripping Neymar in the area was missed by Undiano as was a Pique handball on a Modric set-piece, not to mention a Pepe head-butt to Cesc after Messi scores Barca goal that deserved a red card and an expulsion. This isn't even considering the calls he gave on either side.

Match Report:
Real Madrid 0-1 Barcelona: Andres Iniesta’s goal was superb to the right corner. It was obvious that they had Diego Lopez scouted well and that looked a weakness for him all night. It also exposed a lack of communication in the Madrid defense: Carvajal and Pepe looked lost between them and let Andres slip in but it was the lackadaisical positioning of Marcelo who kept Iniesta onside in the first place. It wouldn't be the only time.

Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona: Karim Benzema's majestic header with Javier Mascherano marking him. Angel di Maria, man of the match for Madrid, whipped in a high cross and Benzema was just taller and stronger than Mascherano. Granted, Pique usually plays these more classic center-forwards, but with Cristiano in the mix he had to divide his attentions. This is the fundamental flaw in Barcelona's system. I know they tried to maintain a bleeding edge tactical set-up since Pep Guardiola experimented with three at the back and using a combination of Busquets and Mascherano to shore up that other center-back but enough already. They can't ignore the absence of Carles Puyol any longer.

Real Madrid 2-1 Barcelona: the second goal came with Benzema again exploiting the spaces that Barca continually left ahead of Valdez. The keeper has taken a lot of criticism over the years, but with Alves  bombing forward and Alba wandering centrally, it was chaos for Masch and Pique even with Busquets drifting back. Benzema was so dominant in the first half he could have easily have had 5 goals in a rout for the hosts, but sooner or later the frustration would settle and as usual Real Madrid's players would get frustrated and careless.

Real Madrid 2-2 Barcelona: I know it's hard to praise Lionel Messi these days for fear of either gushing to much and sounding the biased observer or inciting that vocal minority of trolls that will forever downgrade his achievements, but this close quarter goal in front of Lopez after passes from Cesc and Neymar is why I like him so much as a player. He stays on his feet, uses three-dimensional space like no one else and his finishing is without peer.

Real Madrid 3-2 Barcelona: With this goal I thought the match was over. It starts with Marcelo passing to Cristiano with Mascherano guarding him. He turns him around easily and blows right past him. Alves then slots in but he has no defensive position at all and looks to be avoiding contact when Cristiano trips (or is tripped, hard to see intent) but what is clear is that the initial contact occurs outside the area. A penalty is awarded and Cristiano scores just outside Valdez's outstretched hand.

Real Madrid 3-3 Barcelona: Considering how controversial the previous goal was I wrote in my notes that Undiano might be more inclined to award a goal to Barcelona to make up for his mistake on the previous penalty by gifting one to the visitors. It didn't take long. Neymar is brought down by Sergio Ramos in the area, red card and penalty taken and scored by Messi to Diego's left again. Did Ramos deserve either call? Not really, he might have pulled a little shirt at the end, but Neymar who has a reputation of going easily to ground was already diving in. What's more egregious I think is that I'm not so sure that Neymar was onside in the first place.

Real Madrid 3-4 Barcelona: Iniesta sandwiched between two defenders tries to split them and is pushed to the ground by Carvajal. Do they call it a penalty in England, or practically anywhere else in the world? Italian referees would wave it off and gesticulate wildly to continue play, but it's a clear penalty in Spain and indicative of what the real problem in this match is: bad refereeing. I know, every league wants to stake claim that there refs are worse than yours are. They're not. Not only are Spanish refs poorly positioned, they have hair-triggers imposing themselves as primary protagonists in matches (especially in less media-centric matches), rarely letting play continue and because in Spain everything is about politics and ethnicity, the fact that Undiano Mallenco is from Pamplona means something tangible in how he approaches the game. As an outsider that sounds silly, but because he's from the North the Madrid media say, it's hard for him to be impartial. Whether or not you think it's real or more nonsense spread by the Spanish press, in the end I know that is a question that is debated in every match. Everyone in Spanish football is referred to by their region and it effects how they are treated. So, "of course Mallenco had a bias. He's from Navarre don't you know."

The Good: What all this does is obscure the fact that this was one of the truly entertaining clasicos in recent memory. After years of Real Madrid parking the bus on Barca, Ancelotti attacked them in their own style but favored the fact that their talent is as good or better on paper than Barcelona. If Benzema had buried any more of those chances that he had in that dominant performance he had in the first half we wouldn't even be talking about referee bias in La Liga. He and Angel di Maria were key for Real Madrid. For Barcelona the Man of the Match was Lionel Messi who was front and center for the blaugrana. This was the first time I'd personally seen him play in more of a classic Argentine #10 role and it suits them if they want to fit Neymar into the squad.

The Bad: both defenses. When we see a defensive mishap we look at the closest defender and we assess blame. Javier Mascherano playing out of position and allowing Benzema space and uncontested shots in front of Valdez leads to two goals. Carvajal and Pepe comically caught in no-man's land while Barca's wingers ran past them and they're useless. Sergio Ramos puts another defender down and he's a red-card magnet. Well, in a team game it's not always about one person. Mistakes happen when players are stretched beyond their responsibilities and covering for weaknesses in their team-mates. Marcelo and Dani Alvez will never be disciplined defenders. You may say that's not their responsibility, that they bomb forward as Brazilian fullbacks are taught to, but there is a delicate balance in defense and in La Liga if you can't stay organized at the back you'll get burned.

The Ugly: the after-glow press conferences. I'm sorry, but I'm tired of the complaining in practically every presser in these clasicos. Someone should brief these players in media relations whether with traditional or with social networks. There is no grand conspiracy to hand the league to Barcelona or Madrid. Get over yourselves. When matches mean so much in Spain key suspensions for criticizing the league or the refs can hand a league to any of the leaders. Any loss of points is magnified in a league so stratified.
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Some people sometimes ask me why I comment on a league so far away and in a language, and of a culture, so foreign to our own and I’ll tell them that if I don’t, well then who again will, because I will tell you, the people who are forming the opinions of the Spanish League and of Spain in general, in English, are idiots.

It’s why I spend so much time at here trying to bridge the language barrier, writing about customs and of the curiosities we find that distinguish La Liga from the English Premier League or Serie A. I do my best. I try to see their point, the criticisms of Spanish futbol are varied and most of them have merit. The Spanish league has a problem with referees. There is a tendency to simulate. There is also less tackling as they say. There is also more football being played. When the ball is retrieved it is used and not lumped towards the opponents goal. The ball is played at the feet more often than not. A tackle is used to stop an attack, retrieve the ball, start a counter-attack, not to draw the crowd’s attention to a player’s endeavor and away from his appalling lack of skill. Oh, and let’s not talk about simulation.

I’ve seen the videos of phantom penalties being given at the Kop End, the North Bank or at the Stretford End. It’s rampant in England as well, and not just because a wave of immigrants came in to teach the insular Brits how to cheat at foosball, but because that’s what players do to win one for their team, especially when you have overweight refs (and none are more round around the tummy as the English) trying to adjudicate the beer league down by the local pub let alone in a fast paced professional league like the EPL.

No, actually I’d like to comment on the big problems that Spanish football is often accused of: on the scale of corruption, racism, fascism, you know, the big ones. We’ve all seen the monkey-chants coming from the curvas, and we’ve seen the swastikas brandished amongst the ultras in Spain, but it would be unwise to brand it a latin disease endemic to “southern European cultures.”

There is also a segment of commentators who discount Spanish football and Real Madrid’s accomplishments specifically because they were Franco’s team. Do they know anything about Spanish history? Do they know that Franco himself was Galician and hated football? Do they know that it was actually Santiago Bernabeu, the legendary Real Madrid chairman who aligned himself to the regime, that glommed the whites onto the Castilian fascist agenda ignoring the fact that the club’s DNA is as much Republican as it is Falangist, as much Catalan as it is Spanish? Yes, two of its founders the brothers Juan and Carlos Padros were born in Barcelona, Oh, and that the previous regime at Real Madrid had been either killed or exiled leaving the door wide open for Bernabeu to step in? No, they don’t know. It’s easier to cast the clubs in black and white, white versus blaugrana, good versus evil terms, when history is far from it; there are no good guys in history.

Oh, and as if England has any great shakes to say about fascism, considering that the English disease of hooliganism spread around the disaffected youth that mingled around English grounds, spouting out National Front slogans and infecting the supporter’s firms with their right-wing, beyond Thatcherist agenda long before their influence migrated to Italy, Spain or France. In fact, is there a country in Europe that isn't dealing with the problems of immigration in this day and age? I guess talking about Belgium’s recent nativist tendencies, or the rise of anti-immigrant groups in the Netherlands or even Germany of all places, would be counter-indicative to their argument.

The fact is that Spain, above and beyond all else dredged up from their past, is a vibrant, often complex country still dealing with the decades of being left behind the post-war European/American gravy train. It is a fractured country; a collection of cultures and languages, a stew of ethnicities, at times very Iberian (Catholic and conservative) and yet very European (modern and liberal) at the same time. It is no better nor worse than any of their neighbors, especially in their football.
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Legendary Spanish coach Luis Aragones passed away last night. It´s a sad day for anyone at all interested in Spanish football. You can wikipedia his accomplishments. He was one of the most accomplished strikers of his era. He was minutes away from a European Cup against Bayern Munich as a player in 1974. He coached Valencia, Atlético Madrid, Real Betis, Barcelona, Espanyol, Sevilla, Real Oviedo, Mallorca and Fenerbahçe, but that was just a preview to his greatest achievement.

El Sabio de Fortaleza, or the wise-man of Fortaleza in Madrid where he was born, was the one of the most important figures not only in Spain, but in world football over the last decade. It´s true. Before Euro 2008, Spain was a habitual under-achiever. Some of the greatest talents in world-football played for Spain: from Alfredo di Stefano or Amancio to Juanito, Santillana or Quini. Camacho, Goikoetxea, Butragueno or Michel to Hierro, Raul or Luis Enrique. Until Aragones took over the Spanish national team they were the first squad to be picked against the greats in world football, habitual losers, until 2008.

He was the first to establish a cohesive brand of football that brought Basques, Catalans and Castilians together under one umbrella of tiki-taka. He inherited players from all ethnicities: Castilian Casillas and his friend Xavi Hernandez from Catalunya, to a Manchego like Andres Iniesta or a Basque like Xabi Alonso, Aragones was the first Spanish coach to draw his player´s similarities as members of the Spanish national team while still acknowledging them as members of their own communities.

He coached all over Spain, was a respected member of the Spanish coaching fraternity, and was a prickly if admired tactician by the national media. He had his battles with journalists, was accused of insensitive (even racist remarks) regarding Thierry Henry amongst others, but none of these stuck permanently.

He put Spain on the map permanently as a world power. His legacy, the players that he trained and mentored like Sergio Ramos, David Villa, and Cesc Fabregas, won another European Cup in 2012 and sealed their place amongst the World Cup powers in South Africa 2010 under his successor Vicente del Bosque.

It was Aragones though who deserves all the credit. He brought the often differing styles of Spanish football under one blanket that many would disparagingly call ¨tiki-taka¨, but he would show that his players were the key. It was their heart and their spirit regardless of ethnicity or language or culture that was key to winning trophies. Spain is notorious for its splintered culture, supporters of Basque, Catalan or Castilian clubs wanting nothing to do with each other, but it was Luis Aragones who coached in practically every autonomous community who brought all of them together and at least for one Summer in 2008 brought unexpected glory to a country that desperately needed it. His legacy afterwards, of another Euro and a World Cup for the players he coached , is unprecedented.
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