Complacency and injuries account for Spain's élite

The Champions' League is free of La Liga sides. Patrick McCurdy explains why
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The Independent Football

When the names go into the hat for the Champions' League quarter-final draw next Friday, representatives from one country will be conspicuous by their absence. For the first time in a decade there will not be a single club from Spain among the eight sides left.

When the names go into the hat for the Champions' League quarter-final draw next Friday, representatives from one country will be conspicuous by their absence. For the first time in a decade there will not be a single club from Spain among the eight sides left.

Spaniards have become accustomed to seeing their sides dominate Europe. Real Madridwon the trophy three times between 1998 and 2002, Valencia reached consecutive finals in 2000 and 2001 and three of the four semi-finalists in 2000 came from Spain. Even in a relatively poor year like last season, Deportivo La Coruña made it into the last four before losing out to the eventual winners Porto.

This time round teams from England, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, France and possibly Portugal (if reigning champions Porto make it past Internazionale in their delayed quarter-final) will be disputing continental supremacy.

It is tempting to look for one theory as to why Spanish teams have failed this time. It is certainly true that increased competition for the best players, the growing need for big clubs to access extra revenue and the rise of a new generation of coaches with wide-ranging European experience have all contributed to making the Champions' League more difficult to win. It is also true that tactically Spanish sides have tended to underestimate the importance of having a disciplined, well-organised defence and have over-rated the importance of enjoying long periods of often unproductive possession.

They show an undisguised disdain of teams that play on the break, viewing it almost as an underhand tactic used to overcome more skilful opponents. And, as Barcelona showed, they also struggle to deal with the incisive rapier-style attacks at which Chelsea, and many of the Italian teams, have become so expert. But it is still too early to write off La Liga as a force in European football.

In reality there are some very specific explanations for the premature exit of each of the four Spanish representatives from this season's competition.

At first glance the biggest surprise came with Real Madrid's exit at the hands of Juventus. After all Real held a 1-0 lead after the first leg, Juventus were without Pavel Nedved, and all the attack-minded Spaniards had to do was to score an away goal to stop the Italians from progressing.

But ever since they won the competition in 2003 thanks to a majestic volley from Zinedine Zidane against Bayer Leverkusen, the nine-times champions have been on the wane.

Club president Florentino Perez's galactico recruitment policy has been a marketing man's dream but a manager's nightmare and there have been five occupants of the Bernabeu hot seat since their triumph two years ago. A succession of coaches have tried to weld the president's hand-picked recruits into an effective unit and the task has defeated them all.

Real are also paying the price for Perez's policy of recruiting only established names instead of younger, hungrier talents. Real's 30-somethings, Zidane, Luis Figo and Roberto Carlos as well as the slightly younger David Beckham and Raul, have lost their spark.

Worse, the galacticos appear to have settled into the comfort zone: the star system has consigned players like Guti, Santiago Solari and Michael Owen to the bench even though all have out-performed higher-profile rivals.

Real may see themselves as aristocrats, but they are in serious danger of losing out to the nouveau riche Chelsea, the youthful talent of Lyon and the meritocratic Italian sides, Juventus and Milan. The ancien regime badly needs new blood and the Spaniards will only be able to think of a 10th European title if they off-load some of their fading luminaries.

Barcelona can afford to feel less pessimistic having only just lost out to Chelsea. Still a young team, they have been plagued by serious injuries to key players, and with youthful talent like Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto'o, Xavi and Deco, Frank Rijkaard's side remain one of Europe's most exciting teams.

Spain's other two representatives, Valencia and Deportivo La Coruña, both made embarrassing early exits in the group stages, but neither elimination was altogether unexpected.

Valencia were still suffering the after-effects of Rafael Benitez's departure to Liverpool and the ill-advised decision to ask Claudio Ranieri back. More serious was the absence through injury of the club's two most influential players of their double-winning season, Roberto Ayala and the winger Vicente.

Deportivo, have consistently punched above their weight in Europe, but they do not have the resources to compete long-term. They were unable to make a single new recruit ahead of the season and paid the price for an ageing and injury-prone squad by becoming the only side in the history of the group stages to go out without scoring a goal. Their very presence in the tournament over the last five seasons is an unprecedented success, though.

Spain may have had a bad year, but such is the wealth of talent in La Liga and the importance of European competition that it will not be too long before they re-ignite their bid for continental supremacy.