Category Archives: La Liga

Villarreal: The Submarine Resurfaces

La Liga has historically been ruled by Real Madrid and Barcelona, with a variety of challengers to the two dominant poles. Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid, Valencia, Real Sociedad, Super Depor, Sevilla, Villarreal, Málaga… the challengers come and go while Spain’s big two remain.

Villarreal might have been the least likely in the series of challengers to the La Liga duopoly. Nicknamed el submarino amarillo for the yellow shirts the players wear on the pitch, the club hails from a small town in the province of Castellón, from which it derives its name: Villarreal, or Vila-real in the local Valencian dialect. Vila-real has a population of just around 51,000, but the supporters have no problem filling their club’s stadium, the 25,000 seat El Madrigal.

The yellow submarine has its history, but not much of it in the top flight. Founded in 1923, Villarreal only made their Primera division debut in 1998. The club’s fortunes began to improve with the appointment of Manuel Pellegrini as coach in the summer of 2004. In his first season in charge, the Chilean manager guided Villarreal to a third place finish in the league, earning a Champions League berth.

With Pellegrini at the helm, Villarreal became mainstays in Europe, reaching the Champions League semi finals in 2006, and earned their best ever La Liga finish in 2008, coming second to champions Real Madrid. Pellegrini left for the managerial seat at the Santiago Bernabéu in the summer of 2009, and a number of coaches attempted to fill his shoes over the next few seasons, but the club continued to finish in the top half of the table.

The submarine returned to the Champions League after the 2010/2011 campaign, finishing 4th in La Liga. Despite losing playmaker Santi Cazorla to big spenders Málaga that summer, Villarreal still appeared to have a strong team, with players like Giuseppe Rossi, Cani, Borja Valero, Cristián Zapata, and Bruno Soriano part of the squad. So when they were drawn into the Champions League ‘Group of Death’ that fall, along with Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and Napoli, they might not have been favorites to progress, but they were expected by many to contend.

Contend they did not, however. Villarreal failed to earn even a single point in the group, an auspicious start to what would be a nightmare season. The club fared little better in La Liga, losing star striker Giuseppe Rossi to an ACL injury in a 3-0 loss to Real Madrid that October. Villarreal slid down the table and eventually finished in 18th place, which caused the submarine to sink to the depths of the Liga Adelante, Spain’s second division.

Tragedy struck shortly after relegation became official. Villarreal chose Manolo Preciado as the man to raise up the sinking club, but the Santander-born manager suffered a fatal heart attack just a day later. He was rather hastily replaced by Julio Velázquez, but his death sent shockwaves through Spanish football, and it was tough for any manager to step in after the unfortunate event.

That summer also saw the departures of Valero, Nilmar, Diego López, Jonathan de Guzmán, and Jefferson Montero, among others. Rossi was still sidelined by further complications to his knee injury, and would later depart for Fiorentina in the January window.

It is the defining characteristic of a submarine, however, to plunge down deep and resurface once again, and Villarreal did just that. Although many important players had moved on, others like Cani, Bruno, Manuel Trigueros, and club icon Marcos Senna remained to fight for promotion back to the first division. At the club, there was an optimistic feeling that the drop to Segunda would be short-lived.

It wasn’t exactly clear waters from the outset though, and a rough start in the Liga Adelante saw Velázquez get the axe on January 15th, with the club floundering in 7th place. His replacement was Marcelino, who had incidentally coached his last game before the assignment with Sevilla in a loss to Villarreal. Squad reinforcements Jonathan Pereira, Jérémy Perbet, and Javier Aquino also arrived in the January transfer window. The new additions began to right the ship, and Villarreal finished the season in second place, earning automatic promotion. Marcos Senna, who gave his all for the yellow shirt over the past decade, departed for the newly formed New York Cosmos this summer after helping give one last gift to the fans who fill El Madrigal: a return to the highest level of competition in Spain.

Back in the top flight, club president Fernando Roig made funds available in the summer window to compensate for Senna’s exit and improve the squad. On loan players Pereira and Perbet were given permanent contracts, Sergio Asenjo was brought in at goalkeeper, and defensive reinforcements arrived in the forms of Gabriel Paulista and Bojan Jokić. The marquee signing of the window, however, was Mexican international Giovani dos Santos, who had also attracted interest from Valencia and the Los Angeles Galaxy.

With such big moves, the yellow submarine certainly wasn’t a relegation candidate at the beginning of the season, but few could have predicted this fantastic start. Villarreal currently sit in fourth place in the league table, behind fellow unbeatens Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, and Real Madrid. What’s more, they have done it in entertaining fashion, scoring at least 2 goals in each Liga game, save a 0-0 draw with Celta Vigo. Gio dos Santos looks as if he’s finally found a place to shine with 3 goals and 2 assists in 6 games.

The match of the season so far was surely against Real Madrid at the Madrigal, which ended in a 2-2 stalemate but could have easily gone to the home side if not for some heroic saves by Madrid keeper Diego López, one of those sold off by Villarreal after the relegation a year ago. The yellow submarine delighted the crowd with fast, attacking play that cut open the Madrid defense time and again.

Given the current state of La Liga, Villarreal’s chances look as good as any team’s to grab that fourth and final Champions League place. It’s a long season, but Marcelino has them playing with style, and the have displayed a consistent attacking threat. After earning 14 of a possible 18 points so far, it doesn’t seem as if the submarine will be returning to the depths of Spanish football anytime soon.

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Málaga: One year later

A year ago today, Málaga CF drew 0-0 in Greece to Panathinaikos, advancing from the playoff to the Champions League group stage 2-0 on aggregate. What followed has often been described as a “roller coaster”, as Los Boquerones went on a wild ride that peaked with a dramatic quarter-final tie against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, which the German squad won in the dying minutes.

The ride slumped to an end from there, as the Andalusians won only 3 of their final 8 La Liga games. What followed was a summer clear out, with tactician Manuel Pellegrini off to Manchester, golden boy Isco jetting for Madrid, and a host of others moving on from La Rosaleda. Many important squad players from Málaga’s Champions League run, such as Joaquín, Júlio Baptista, Jérémy Toulalan, Javier Saviola, Martín Demichelis, Diego Lugano, Manuel Iturra and Lucas Piazón, have departed for pastures anew. Wading through the mess of loan deals – both in and out – the club has arranged over the past few years, 12 players from last year’s squad left Málaga this summer, per Transfermarkt. Former Real Madrid boss Bernd Schuster arrived to replace Pellegrini, having last coached in 2011 at Turkish club Beşiktaş.

What seemed such a promising project just 3 years ago, when Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani bought the Mediterranean coastal club, has slowly fizzled out. When he arrived in the summer of 2010, Al Thani promised investment in players, club infrastructure, and projects to strengthen the tourism industry of Málaga and surrounding areas. The Sheikh did spend money on players like Toulalan, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Santi Cazorla at the outset, but his reign has been plagued by financial irregularities recently, with the club failing to pay player wages and tax bills on time. The situation led to Málaga receiving a four year ban from European competition, which was later reduced to just one season.

The explanation for the abrupt halt in investment from Al Thani is not exactly clear. As a member of Qatari’s ruling family, it’s not as if he doesn’t have the funds to pay the bills, so it seems he chose to stop the flow of money for some reason. Al Thani reportedly has been unhappy with the way Spanish authorities have handled the process on some of his ongoing projects, such as plans to build a new stadium and training complex for Málaga CF and a marina expansion in nearby Marbella.

When questioned recently, the Sheikh insisted he is in it for the long haul and is looking to build a more stable organization that complies with Financial Fair Play. Whatever the reasons for austerity, a squad of many new faces has begun the La Liga campaign, with Schuster himself saying he expected zero points from the first three games. After two, his prediction looks pretty accurate. Málaga have fallen 1-0 to both Valencia and Barcelona and face a tough Sevilla side on Sunday. The new boss has been quite outspoken since arriving at La Roselada, claiming earlier this month that he had no problem with performance enhancing drug use in football “as long as it’s for recovery purposes”. Schuster should provide the Spanish media with some entertainment lost by José Mourinho’s departure from the league this year.

Meanwhile, the team that replaced Málaga as the Spanish entrant in the Champions League playoff, Real Sociedad, head into their game with Lyon today holding a 2-0 advantage, the same advantage that was enough to secure Los Boquerones passage to the group stage one year ago. Real Sociedad’s path to this position, however, sharply contrasts with Málaga’s quick spending ways. Instead of splashing the cash, the txuri-urdin built their success on the back of a tremendous youth academy, with players like Xabi Prieto, Iñigo Martínez, and Antoine Griezmann integral parts of the Basque club’s success. Funnily enough, both Málaga and La Real sold star midfielders, Isco and Asier Illarramendi, to Real Madrid this summer. Real Sociedad will hope another youth product, Rubén Pardo, can replace Illarra in the long term. The team looked impressive against Lyon last week, but still have a long way to go to match Málaga’s run of last year.

Málaga are certainly looking worse off one year removed from their historic victory over Panathinaikos, now banned from Europe and bottom of the La Liga table. The situation might yet improve though. Recent reports in Spain indicate some of the Sheikh’s plans might be coming together. Hopefully this entices him to fulfill his financial obligations to creditors this time around. Los Boquerones may also benefit from not having European competition to worry about this season. They can focus on slower growth to avoid UEFA’s ire and adhere to Financial Fair Play.

Málaga could well be on 0 points after three games, but after Valencia, Barcelona, and Sevilla, it will get easier. A stabilization of the club’s finances and a modest mid-table finish would be a successful year. It’s not exactly competing with Real Madrid and Barcelona, as Sheikh Al Thani claimed he wanted to do when he bought the team, but it would be an important step forward for the club’s future.

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Madrid Best XI with Bale

 

Below is my Real Madrid best XI with the addition of Gareth Bale:

football formations

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Ancelotti’s XI appears set to face Betis

We are fast approaching the start of a new La Liga campaign, and Real Madrid kick off the season on Sunday at home to Real Betis. It was a very successful preseason for Carlo Ancelotti’s men, managing six wins, one draw, and zero losses. Madrid also took down former boss José Mourinho and his new side Chelsea to win the Guinness International Champions Cup, whatever that’s worth. With so many quality players in the squad, Ancelotti will have a selection dilemma to sort all year long. Let’s take a look at who might line up in the XI against Betis.

We must take into account the plethora of international fixtures that occurred on Wednesday. Madrid had a total of 14 players called up for duty with their national teams, with Isco the only one not featuring on the pitch. Of the 13 others, about half went 90 minutes and everyone except Denis Cheryshev, who entered as a substitute but limped off 7 minutes later, played at least half the game. Long travel distances and the short rest means some players could be fatigued for Sunday, but Ancelotti is still likely to start a number of those who got significant minutes with their country yesterday.

football formations

This is the same lineup that MARCA reported on Monday as Ancelotti’s preferred XI. Based on preseason results and the games yesterday, I believe nothing has changed. In fact, events in yesterday’s games have reinforced Ancelotti’s thinking in areas where positions were up for grabs.

The main question mark here is Casemiro vs. Khedira, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Brazilian has the edge. Casemiro did not feature on Wednesday while Khedira played a full 90 minutes and had a blunder that led to Paraguay’s second goal. The German has also been on the fringe of Ancelotti’s plans all summer, and was reportedly offered by his agent to PSG this week. All signs point to Casemiro getting the nod.

Other players are more assured in their positions, but few are guaranteed. Here is the rundown for the rest of the lineup:

Attack: Karim Benzema had another goalless outing with France and was subbed off after 74 minutes, but is still above Álvaro Morata in the pecking order. Cristiano Ronaldo is in exceptional form and may be needed to pick up the goalscoring slack.

Midfield: Xabi Alonso has been training with the full squad but as of now Luka Modrić has won the position and should get the chance to start on Sunday. Ángel di María, who played most of the match for Argentina against Italy, appears to be slightly behind Mesut Özil and Isco, but this looks to be a fierce competition all season. Isco got his first call up with la selección but didn’t get off the bench against Ecuador. Özil played the entire game for Germany but is pretty much an unquestioned starter.

Defense: Marcelo has been a key player for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazil team this summer and got a decent run against Switzerland, while Fábio Coentrão limped off at the end of Portugal’s match with Netherlands and reportedly wants out of Madrid. All of this means the Brazilian will start at left back. Raphaël Varane still hasn’t recovered fully from his knee injury while Pepe has had a solid summer, so he and Sergio Ramos should be just fine as the central pairing. Dani Carvajal starts over Álvaro Arbeloa because the latter played 90 minutes in Ecuador while the former is well-rested and had an excellent preseason.

Goalkeeper: As well as Diego López has played, it just seems impossible that Ancelotti would keep captain Iker Casillas on the bench after last season’s debacle. Casillas has also played well this summer, and will make his long-awaited return between the goalposts at the Bernabéu.

Madridistas are very optimistic heading into the season, and will surely hope there is no repeat of last year’s slow start. With a strong lineup ready to go, Ancelotti and crew should be able to kick things off with a win and all three points against Real Betis.

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La Liga Team of the Season

The La Liga season is officially over, which means it is time to select the team of the season. Barcelona completed a splendid campaign with a 4-1 victory over Málaga, finishing with 100 points to tie the record set just last year by Real Madrid. The top two teams reaching 100 points in consecutive campaigns is a troubling sign for the overall parity of the league, but there is still considerable talent to be found amongst the “also-rans”.

While there are many different contenders worthy of a place in the XI, the spaces are finite and hard decisions had to be made. On the merit of 100 points, many of Barça’s squad could have been chosen for this team, but in the spirit of fairness, I’ve tried to recognize players from several clubs that had strong campaigns.

La Liga Team of the Season 2012/2013 (4-3-3): Thibaut Courtois; Carlos Martínez, Sergio Ramos, Iñigo Martínez, Jordi Alba; Andrés Iniesta, Éver Banega, Isco; Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Radamel Falcao

Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois

At just 21 years of age, the Belgian keeper on loan from Chelsea became the youngest ever to win the Zamora Trophy, awarded to the goalkeeper with the lowest ratio of goals to games over at least 28 games. Courtois started all but one game this season for Atlético Madrid and was the only keeper in the league with a goals to games coefficient of less than 1. To top off his stellar Liga campaign, he was instrumental in Los Colchoneros Copa del Rey final win, producing several unbelievable saves to deny Real Madrid.

Defenders: Carlos Martínez, Sergio Ramos, Iñigo Martínez, Jordi Alba

Carlos and Iñigo Martínez were rocks for a Real Sociedad side that conceded the fourth fewest goals all year and still managed some very attractive football, scoring the most goals of any team not named Barcelona or Real Madrid. Sergio Ramos had his highs and lows over the course of the season, including missing several games for insulting a referee, but was Real Madrid’s best defender in the middle and paired effectively with both Pepe and the emerging Raphaël Varane. The addition of the attack-minded Jordi Alba to Barcelona’s back four was cited by many as the reason for the team’s weakness in defense, but more of the blame should really be placed on the lack of an adequate central partner for Gerard Piqué. Barcelona still conceded fewer goals than every team except Atlético Madrid, while Alba recorded 2 goals, 5 assists, and was second in the league in interceptions per game. His attacking presence on the left side greatly contributed to the team’s league-leading 115 goals.

Midfielders: Andrés Iniesta, Éver Banega, Isco

This is where it gets very difficult. With the chosen formation, only three midfielders can fit out of many able candidates. Andrés Iniesta is a bit of a no-brainer, as he led the league with 16 assists and was pretty consistently brilliant. The other two slots could be filled by a number of players who had strong seasons, such as Beñat, Koke, Illarramendi, or Piti. Banega and Isco were chosen partially to give a nod to Valencia and Malaga, who had very good campaigns. Their play throughout the year certainly merit inclusion, as these two pulled the strings of the sides that finished fifth and sixth in the league table. Isco was the revelation of the first half of the season and is well on his way to superstardom, while Banega was third in the league in successful dribbles per game. There is no defensive midfielder in the selection, but given the attacking mindset of Spanish football, I believe that can be overlooked.

Forwards: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Radamel Falcao

Unlike the other positions, there is really no argument here. These forwards finished 1, 2, 3 in the Pichichi standings for most goals in the season, while their clubs finished 1, 2, 3 in the table. Messi, Cristiano, and Falcao are not only the three best scorers in La Liga, they are in all likelihood the three best footballers in the world. Other strikers like Negredo and Soldado had superb years, but unfortunately play in the same country as these world class players. With Falcao off to Monaco this summer, a spot will open up, but don’t expect Cristiano or Messi to be left off this team for as long as they are both healthy and play in Spain.

Coach of the Year: Diego Simeone

With all due respect to Manuel Pellegrini and Pepe Mel, ‘El Cholo’ Simeone is the most deserving of this award. The transformation that Atlético Madrid have undergone since Simeone took charge in December 2011 has been nothing short of remarkable. The Argentine manager has won three trophies in a season and a half of work and has Atléti back in the Champions League for the upcoming campaign.

Think I got something wrong? A deserving player didn’t get enough credit? Leave your comments below.

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After disappointing losses, Real Madrid and Barcelona must retool for next season

For the second straight year, Real Madrid and Barcelona arrived in the Champions League semi finals with illusions of an all Spanish Clásico final, only to find themselves disappointed. Real Madrid almost completed the unlikeliest of comebacks in the final minutes against Borussia Dortmund as the legendary Estadio Santiago Bernabéu was raging. Los Blancos will rue their early missed chances, coming up just short against a Dortmund side that was ultimately the better team for most of the two legged tie. Barcelona, on the other hand, were without a fully fit Lionel Messi and were absolutely steamrolled by Bayern Munich, who are the likely favorites to lift the big-eared trophy at Wembley on May 25th.

Dortmund’s meteoric rise and Bayern’s emphatic victory are clear signs that the balance of power in Europe’s premier competition has shifted away from La Liga and towards the Bundesliga. Having led the pack in infrastructure, attendance, and low ticket prices for quite some time, the German first division can now genuinely claim to house the two best squads in world football. Bayern Munich look to only get stronger going forward, with Pep Guardiola replacing current coach Jupp Heynckes at season’s end. It also was revealed just before the semi finals began that Bayern activated the 37 million euro release clause in the contract of Dortmund star and full German international Mario Götze. It was a crucial blow for Bayern, scoring an incredible young talent and weakening their biggest domestic rivals in the process. Dortmund were able to overcome the ill timing of the news and even held off Madrid without Götze for most of the second leg. They might find it harder to maintain their success beyond this season, with Götze already heading for the exit and Europe’s wealthiest clubs hoping to swoop in and sign their other top players. Marco Reus, Robert Lewandowski, Ilkay Gündogan, and Mats Hummels are rumored targets for Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Barcelona, respectively.

Whether the fates of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund head in different directions is a story for the future. At present, they will battle it out in the first all German final in European Cup history. But while the German clubs’ futures will have to wait to be discussed, the semi final exits of Madrid and Barcelona mean that questions surrounding them will be raised now. For Barcelona, they were utterly outclassed without Lionel Messi, doing nothing to disprove the notion that they are a one man team. Real Madrid were exposed for lacking of a system that can dictate the game against strong opponents, and have been consistently frustrated trying to break down organized and compact defenses.

So what does the future hold for the Spanish giants? If José Mourinho’s post-match comments on Tuesday were any indicator, Madrid’s future will likely be without the Special One at the helm. Potential replacements who’ve been mentioned by the Spanish media include Heynckes and PSG boss Carlo Ancelotti. Less likely candidates are Dortmund’s own Jürgen Klopp and Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas. Of course, there is still the possibility that Mourinho will sit down with club president Florentino Pérez and decide to remain at the Bernabéu. Whoever is in charge next year, it is of utmost importance that Madrid establish a strong sense of identity and unity, along with a coherent style of play.

A season without a Champions League or La Liga trophy represents a failure for Real Madrid, and failures generally lead to new Galácticos wearing the all white kit the following season. It’s been widely reported that PFA Player of the Year Gareth Bale is the primary target for Pérez, but Tottenham will not let go their star go without receiving a hefty sum in return. What is certain is that this year Madrid needed another reliable scorer to take the load off of Cristiano Ronaldo, and that was lacking in some key games. Bale has 24 goals in all competitions this season for Spurs, including several big game winners. Gonzalo Higuaín’s performance on Tuesday did not bode well for his future in white, and Madrid have been linked with a whole host of top forwards along with Bale. Among those linked is Robert Lewandowski, who obviously showed Madrid first hand the damage he can do around the goal, but is also reported to be a top target for Sir Alex Ferguson. Other names mentioned are Sergio Agüero, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suárez and, less likely, Radamel Falcao. Of that group, Agüero could be the most plausible acquisition; he has had a much tougher season this year than last, struggling with injuries, and City already have a number of forwards and are looking for more. Agüero began his European career with neighbors Atlético Madrid and reportedly desires a move back to the Spanish capital. If City bring in another big name forward this summer, they may be content to let Agüero leave.

While the forwards will probably garner all the Galáctico headlines, perhaps most important for Madrid to resolve is the situation with Xabi Alonso. The former Real Sociedad and Liverpool man has not indicated that will renew his contract when it expires in the summer of 2014. If Mourinho leaves as expected, Alonso may even wish to follow him to his next destination. The club must now decide whether to get something back for him this summer or watch him leave for free the next. Alonso had two uncharacteristically terrible performances against Dortmund, as Jürgen Klopp’s tactics effectively stifled the Basque passing maestro. Dortmund’s own Ilkay Gündogan, mentioned above as a potential target for Los Blancos, outplayed Alonso in a similar position in the center of the park. If Alonso goes, possibly along with Mourinho or for a Liverpool return, Gündogan could find himself on Pérez’s radar soon. PSG’s Marco Verratti and Sevilla’s Geoffrey Kondogbia are two other players linked to Madrid. If Ancelotti takes over this summer, Verratti might be easily convinced to join him in trading the French capital for the Spanish one.

Another name being touted as an Alonso replacement is Sociedad youngster Asier Illarramendi. A swap of Alonso for Illarramendi would be very intriguing, especially with La Real in position to secure Champions League football for the upcoming season. Madrid would get a promising young talent in exchange for the man who has been their engine in midfield for the past four seasons, while Alonso would return to the club where he made his professional debut. There would hopefully be the added pleasure of Alonso orchestrating La Real’s first Champions League campaign since the 2003-2004 season.

It is also possible, especially if Madrid spend big on forwards, that Pérez will determine that the players needed to replace Alonso are already with the club. Luka Modric was signed just last summer for 33 million pounds, and current Dortmund loanee Nuri Sahin is still on Madrid’s books. Then there are promising Castilla players Casemiro and José Rodríguez waiting to step up in the future. If there is no room in the first team when they feel they are ready, they will be looking for new clubs in due time.

One position where an upgrade is unquestionably needed is right fullback. Michael Essien performed admirably in that role a few times this season, but he is a natural midfielder and only on loan for the season from Chelsea. If Mourinho goes, Essien will almost certainly not be back. Álvaro Arbeloa is a good player, but lacks skills going forward, and Los Blancos have no quality replacement when he goes down injured. Madrid would do well to exercise the buyback option on former canterano Dani Carvajal, who has gotten the high-level playing time he needed at Bayer Leverkusen this season. Current Castilla defender Nacho is also an option at fullback, but prefers to play in the center of defense.

Madrid must get rid of some deadweight (Kaká, Ricardo Carvalho) and possibly a few others rumored out (Higuaín, Fabio Coentrão, Pepe), resolve the Xabi Alonso situation, and bring in a world class finisher, and they should be right back where they have been the past three years, with a very good chance to advance to their first final since they lifted the cup in 2002. Canteranos must be promoted or solid depth bought on defense, especially at right back. If the injury bug bites the back line again, squad players must be able to fill in. In order to have a shot at taking down Bayern Munich or a fully fit Barcelona, or solidly outplaying a Dortmund, Manchester United, or Juventus as they believe they should, Madrid must develop a better sense of identity and style of play. They must embrace the high pressing game, using their speed and physicality to out-hustle the opposing team. At every competition exit in the Mourinho era, and the several La Liga games that ending up costing them titles, Los Blancos have looked disjointed, lacking ideas, and been unable to finish when needed. In order to lift La Décima, Madrid must be able to impose their will on any opponent.

Turning to Barcelona, it is evident that change is also needed. Messi was not fit against Bayern, but even with La Pulga at full force, the Blaugrana would have been hard pressed to match Bayern’s intensity and physicality. The team clearly needs another attacking player to take the load off of Messi, preferably one comfortable out on the wing. Alexis Sánchez looks good against lesser La Liga sides, but has failed to prove he belongs with Barcelona in important matches. David Villa has not been the same since breaking his leg at the Club World Cup in 2011 and could sorely use a change of scenery. Potential summer acquisitions for the Catalans include Brazilian rising star Neymar, along with the likes of Agüero, Suárez, and Cavani. All would be interesting options and could add a new dimension to Barça’s already potent attack.

Fantasizing of Neymar playing alongside Messi is certainly fun, but where Barcelona need help most is at the back. With club icon Carles Puyol struggling for regular fitness, and two very attack-minded fullbacks in Dani Alves and Jordi Alba, the Barça back line was consistently exposed by top quality opposition this year. Gerard Pique seems to have regressed, and appears not capable of being the vocal leader in a central defensive partnership, like Puyol was for Barça and Sergio Ramos now is for Spain. Marc Bartra has shown promise, but was not ready for the biggest stage. After buying players at every position but center back the last several years, Barça must ink a player like Mats Hummels or Vincent Kompany. Puyol may play again for Barcelona, but his days as a regular are clearly numbered, and a long-term replacement must be found.

After yesterday’s loss to Bayern, Tito Vilanova insisted that Barcelona do not need a lot of changes, but he may find himself on the outs after failing to live up to Pep Guardiola’s lofty standards in his first season in charge at the Camp Nou. If the club does decide to retain Vilanova, he must do a better job of rotating his squad. The Blaugrana came into the tie with Bayern Munich in bad shape physically. Messi and Sergio Busquets were too injured to make an impact, while Xavi and Andres Iniesta looked clearly worn out and not at their masterful best. Alex Song was bought to spell Busquets, but spent far too much time on the bench all year. Cesc Fàbregas, also linked with a return to Arsenal in recent weeks, has not had sustained success as a forward, and should have been used along with Thiago in a better rotation with Xavi and Iniesta. The core players in this Barcelona side have all played a tremendous amount of games over the past 5 years and are obviously burned out.

Another thing Barcelona may consider is adopting a more defensive formation. They have scored plenty of goals this year but have also conceded way too many. With a fit Messi they might have scored against Bayern, but overcoming a 7 goal difference is a tall order even for the diminutive Argentine. If Barça come across their old leader Guardiola’s new team in next years Champions, they will need a different game plan, and that could maybe include two defensive midfielders. If they cannot part with the 4-3-3, and don’t bring in top class wide forward, Jordi Alba could be brought up the left wing, with another fullback like Adriano or perhaps Eric Abidal sitting behind him and helping the central pairing on breaks. Even Neymar and Hummels might not be enough against Bayern or Madrid if the fullbacks are consistently in a position to be exposed.

In the end, talk of Barcelona’s demise is exaggerated, and with a few good signings, better squad rotation, and most importantly, a fit Lionel Messi, they should be one of the favorites to win the Champions League again next year. Some players must be let go, like Alexis, Villa, and maybe even Cesc, and the proper reinforcements brought in. The jury is still out on whether Tito Vilanova is the right man to lead the team. He didn’t get a very fair shake this year with his health issues so it would be a bit of a shame to see him let go. The business of football is often not fair, though, and Barcelona have also been linked with outgoing Bayern boss Heynckes.

Both Real Madrid and Barcelona are still very good teams, and do not need complete overhauls as much as slight tweaks to return to the summit of European football. Bayern Munich are certainly not going away and should only continue to improve. Borussia Dortmund may be raided yet again this summer, but have a strong system in place to remain perpetually competitive. The English clubs will all be looking to come back stronger, and Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus have laid the groundwork to be competitive in the Champions League for years to come. No one is rolling over and letting the Spanish giants have their way, so they must make smart decisions in order to return stronger next season.

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