Pitchside Europe

Liga duopoly is now a monopoly

Radamel Falcao realises Lionel Messi is too goodSeldom has brilliance been shrouded with so much despondency.

Barcelona had beaten Atletico Madrid on Sunday in a game, which, for the first 30 minutes, was as good as it gets in football. The visitors took the lead through a delightful Falcao finish and for a brief moment people wondered if they had enough to topple the Catalans. Then reality kicked in. They didn’t.

Barcelona scored four, Messi got another brace. He’s scored a lot of goals in 2012, you may have heard about it.

Barça are sublime, but it’s becoming a boring league, a point Atletico’s vanquished coach Diego Simeone made after the game. Fearing a drop in interest, others tried to stoke up the embers.

“If there’s one team that never gives up, it’s Real Madrid,” said Carles Puyol, almost urging his club’s great rivals to come good.

Madrid president Florentino Perez echoed: “Real Madrid never give up”, while Sergio Ramos took a break from wishing fans ‘Happy Christmas’ in English to say: “There is no lack of the right attitude. Nor will we throw in the towel. It would be a mistake to do so.”

His goalkeeper Iker Casillas was more realistic: “La Liga is very difficult (for Madrid now). Today we’re a little wounded, tomorrow we’ll try to draw some energy and think about reducing this points difference.” Madrid are best concentrating on a 10th European Cup.

You can’t fault the Barcelona players. They go in pursuit of excellence which they regularly achieve. They aim to keep bettering themselves and until they win every game and concede no goals in a season, they will always have something to aim for, always have something to fuel their addiction to success.

And you certainly can’t fault their coach Tito Vilanova. He couldn’t have done better and any doubts about him have never had chance to surface. His style is less intense than Guardiola’s and the players enjoy working with him.

They were saddened and shocked to hear that he’s suffered a relapse of a tumour which was operated on last November. They want him back as soon as possible, but they know Vilanova has to take his time. He joked a few weeks ago that he’d rushed back after treatment last year.

With less than half the league matches played, Barcelona are 13 points clear of the only team who can realistically challenge them, the only team to take points off them this season, Real Madrid. Barça have won 15 and drawn one of their 16 La Liga games, the best ever start to a Spanish season. They’ve got 12 more points than this time last season. The league is all but over and if they carry on as they are they will smash every points record out of sight. History will remember them well and the fans who watch them will remember them even better, but is that a good thing?

I go to most Barcelona home games in the name of work. They play great football and maybe I’d view it differently if I were a Barça fan. Average crowds are up this season to more than 80,000. They get their Hollywood ending every week, but it’s so predictable seeing them win every game that you yearn for a challenger. This is victory fatigue. If you eat a prime cut of steak every night, wouldn’t you yearn for some beans on toast now and then?

Critics of the Primera Liga have sneered at the two team’s dominance, yet while they were wrong to infer that teams outside the big two were weak – Athletic Bilbao outplaying Manchester United home and away and Atletico Madrid destroying Chelsea dampened such theories – but it is worse than that now. There is a one team monopoly. Is that good for any sport?

A Madrid side which cost almost half a billion Euros are partly to blame. They dropped more points at the weekend, at home to an Espanyol side who’ve won two of their 16 games so far. Madrid have made their worse league start in four years, they have seven points fewer than at the same stage last season, eight from the year before.

That should add excitement and the fact they are in third place and not second does make the race for second more interesting, but Barça’s dominance turns as many people off as it does on. Simeone opined that: “Barcelona play in a different league to the rest of us.”

One problem is the unfair distribution of television revenues, which means the rich get richer and the rest give up on the title. The days of Valencia, Atletico or Deportivo winning the league are long gone.

The only way to challenge that is to lose hundreds of millions by adopting the Man City or Chelsea model and gain a wealthy benefactor like Malaga, but climbing into the ring with two of the biggest heavyweights in the world is daunting for even the richest Oligarch. If they’re going to do that, England is a better option, with bigger TV contracts and surging commercial revenues.

So it will be more of the same - and on the playing side the news actually gets even better for Barcelona.

Eric Abidal has had the all clear to return after his liver transplant, Messi has agreed to a new contract which will keep him at Camp Nou until he’s 31 at least. Xavi and Puyol too. These are all players who’ve come through a youth system envied around the world, who play the beautiful game in a beautiful way.

It’s hard to fault them, but even harder not to see their continued dominance as unhealthy for Spanish football.

Andy Mitten will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.

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