La Liga Champions League trio can prove the strength of Spanish football

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As Unai Emery wildly celebrated Villarreal’s surprising win over Juventus in the Champions League Round of 16, La Liga president Javier Tebas allowed himself a smile. The larger context was unavoidable.

“It’s a message to the Super League,” Tebas said. “It’s a message that football is not just about super-savings.”

It is also a response to the idea that the power of La Liga has collapsed, and that it is a competition in deep decline. It’s true that it’s not what it used to be anymore, but Villarreal’s win suddenly made the picture much healthier.

Their sensational 3-0 victory in Turin saw La Liga take on the Premier League by featuring three clubs in these Champions League quarter-finals.

For La Liga, it’s the seventh time this has happened in the past decade, albeit the first time since 2017-18. In those 10 years, that quarter-final comeback has only been equaled or bettered in three seasons, and all by the Premier League since 2018. England had four quarter-finalists in 2018-19, as well as three this season and the last.

Leagues must have had at least three Champions League quarter-finals

* four quarter-finalists

Spain 11 (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2022)

England 8 (2007, 2008*, 2009*, 2011, 2019*, 2021, 2022)

Italy 3 (2003, 2005, 2006)

These numbers are a sign of where the real power now lies, but they also flavor this week’s Champions League matches.

Of the three La Liga quarter-finals, two will face English clubs. Atletico Madrid travel to Manchester City for the first time on Tuesday, before Real Madrid travel to Chelsea on Wednesday. The returns make the Spanish capital a center of European football next week.

The results may determine whether this is also true in a deeper sense and whether La Liga’s influence has been dismissed a bit too quickly.

As is often the case with larger trend discussions, some of the evidence for an individual season is only circumstantial. It is not necessarily about the basic strength of a competition, but about the situation of the clubs.

It is obvious, after all, that Atletico and Real Madrid are not what they used to be. It didn’t matter at the time.

Atletico had improved their form, for example, but were also likely lucky enough to meet an ailing Manchester United in the previous round. Diego Simeone had a more drilled side than Ralph Rangnick, and it was said. It also helped propel them forward, adding momentum and confidence. Simeone’s players feel they can really disrupt City and cause them problems that others can’t. He could well represent a rare clash of styles and, oddly enough, Atletico’s ideal opponents.

Paris Saint-Germain ended up being the ideal opponent for Madrid. As superb as Carlo Ancelotti’s side – and in particular Luka Modric and Karim Benzema – were in those last 20 minutes of the second leg, it felt like it was much more about the French club than Madrid. The La Liga leaders still feel unconvincing and incomplete, as was made clear in their recent 4-0 league loss to Barcelona.

That in itself says something bigger about the Spanish league, while Madrid’s own opponents say something bigger about them.

Champions League quarter-finals

2022

Benfica v Liverpool

Man City v Atletico Madrid

Villarreal v Bayern Munich

Chelsea v Real Madrid

Chelsea, despite all their struggles this season, haven’t really missed out on Eden Hazard. He was the star that Madrid president Florentino Perez had been aiming for for a long time, but he has instead become a symbol of Madrid and La Liga’s decline – at least in terms of glamour.

This is one thing that is undeniable. The competition is currently lacking real top footballers in their prime, the type that had defined it for the past two decades.

Madrid themselves look a little more stale. The stars of this PSG meeting, Benzema and Modric, are 34 and 36 years old respectively. Hazard himself is 32, but no one expects him to have an effect against his former club on Wednesday. Any appearance would be a surprise. He still hasn’t played in a Clasico.

Part of that is due to basic bad luck, with injuries. It’s also an indication of Madrid’s lack of foresight. They can retain the determination and courage to knock Chelsea out, yes, but they also need an overhaul.

It may come. Top sources consider the Kylian Mbappe deal ‘done’. The Independent reported how Madrid’s hierarchy contacted Michael Edwards, Liverpool’s highly regarded sporting director who is resigning at the end of the season and is interested in a key recruitment role at the Bernabeu.

Even someone as simplistic in his footballing thinking as Perez knows that it’s better to buy stars cheaper than having to buy them at huge prices from English clubs. This shift in stance is admittedly influenced by how Madrid have fallen behind public clubs in terms of finances, a fact which has been a huge motivation behind the Super League.

The transformation of Madrid’s trading partners and arch-rivals, however, shows how quickly that can change.

Just a few months ago, Barcelona were a sign of a wider decline in La Liga. Now, as with the competition as a whole, it’s as if a slump has indeed provided an opportunity for refreshment. The Spanish Champions League prospects would likely be very different had Barca appointed Xavi a little earlier and they stayed in the competition.

The Catalan great now looks like the managerial visionary many expected, but he’s been aided by Barca’s wealth of young talent who are ready to be molded. It’s just remarkable that they can field two teenagers in their midfield, in Pedri and Gavi, and they can look like one of the most dominant teams in Europe.

“It’s the personality they play with,” enthused former Espanyol and Manchester City player Pablo Zabaleta. The Independent. “Look at Pédri. He is incredible.

And that’s still without another teenager really shooting ahead of them, in precocious Ansu Fati. The trio represent the future of Barcelona and Spanish football.

Spain continues to produce top young talent like Pedri

(AP)

They also represent something else. This is the continued strength of Spanish talent production. Nothing has changed there. It remains one of the most fertile football countries in the world, where so many circumstances to produce players are perfect.

“The league doesn’t even need to play a role here, because that’s how Spanish clubs are,” says Tebas. “It’s having important academies, important facilities for young players. One of Villarreal’s goalscorers, Pau Torres, was a local boy born there, who had been at the club since he was five years old. – formed by Villarreal. It’s a trademark. It’s a way of being for Spanish football.

There is certainly no doubt about the country’s youth coaching, although there has been growing doubt about the coaching culture within the league.

Many top managers felt that La Liga had become ‘stale’ in terms of football. Luis Enrique has been one of the most vocal about it, and that’s why he’s not just trying to change the national team through intense football.

Xavi meanwhile showed that it doesn’t take much to update if the right principles are in place, which is precisely the case with youth coaching. Likewise, Villarreal’s progression is a coaching victory. It’s the only way for the financially weaker clubs to compete. It breeds adaptability and innovation.

It is possible for this to happen in the competition as a whole, but at a level beyond training.

La Liga may still be the second strongest league in the world, but it has nothing to do with the Premier League’s international revenue. The Covid crisis has meanwhile forced clubs to drastically reassess budgets, at a time when the authorities have imposed much stricter financial controls. That’s what led to Leo Messi’s departure. This has led to a much more modest-looking competition.

It can also leave a stronger base from which clubs can grow more confidently.

Many players on the business side of the game are praising La Liga’s innovation as they seek to do different things to raise their international profile. It’s the only way to compete with the Premier League right now. Collaborative relationships are forged with other competitions. La Liga’s most prestigious fixtures meanwhile are designed as Super Bowl-style events with their own branding. It’s easier with El Clasico, but they do the same with occasions like the Sevilla derby.

The goal is to create this buzz that generates interest and long-term investment.

That’s smart, but questions remain. The most important revolves around the wisdom of HVAC tuning. Tebas insists the company will never have any control but, in the words of one European executive, giving a share of the competition to a private equity firm is “a recipe for disaster”.

More immediately, it’s fair to wonder whether La Liga’s long-term health would be better served by a short-term hit to some broadcast revenue. Putting competition on terrestrial stations in major markets – as happened with Serie A and Channel 4 in the 90s – is surely a way to easily get a lot more interest.

Viewership figures show that people are still as hungry for free live football as ever. If it’s clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid, it’s a treat. If it’s Osasuna or Rayo Vallecano, it’s a chance for a lot more people to try something different. You are suddenly reaching far more people than the cult audience that has already subscribed to paywall offers.

Because, for now, most eyes are on the Premier League.

It creates wealth, it creates present superiority. The impression was that the English competition was pulling too far ahead.

These Champions League quarter-finals will test all the truth and perhaps offer another message.

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