Spain: Real turn to Europe while Barcelona seek renaissance

Beckham the lone signing as financial constraints stop champions strengthening defence while Catalans are ready to resume duopoly

One legacy of the unpleasantly inward-looking days of the Franco dictatorship which lingers on in Spain is a tendency to use the conveniently vague term, "European standards" as a benchmark for judging whether something is up to scratch.

In football last season, it is widely agreed, those standards slipped. But Spain's unusually lacklustre European campaign only partly explains why, for Real Madrid, the glamourous prospect of a 10th Champions' League victory is already eclipsing their interest in repeating their 2002 top spot in La Liga.

The arrival of David Beckham, raising Madrid's international profile to ridiculously high levels probably has something to do with it. But even if Beckham had stayed in Manchester, after the Spanish, and in particular Real, were sidelined by the Italians in last year's Champions' League, the pressure had already been turned up another notch.

To be defeated by Juventus in the semi-finals is no crime in most teams' books, but in Spain it is regarded as a smirch on Real's European record and for many fans both Beckham and new coach Carlos Queiroz will be judged purely and simply on how far the team goes against their European rivals.

So far Beckham has taken to the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Madrid like a duck to water. Team-mate Ivan Helguera has already praised the Englishman for his rapid assimilation into the Real game-plan, saying "you can tell that he's been used to playing tactically since he was a youngster".

"I never expected so much harmony so quickly," enthused Queiroz on the long plane journey home from Asia. "David is a fast thinker and he has a vision of the game that few others can attain." But Real's constant need to see itself at the head of the Euro-pack means that even as Beckham searches for a new home on one of the plusher housing estates west of the capital, Real are feeling the pace in areas outside Beckham's midfield domain.

Queiroz's demands for a new defender have, so far, been poleaxed by economics: five Real players, amongst them Fernando Morientes and Steve McManaman are up for sale, but in a near-stagnant market, their price tags are unhelpfully high. Nor is the entire team so keen to concentrate on the twin objectives of La Liga and the Champions' League. Zidane, for one, has already argued that he would like see the Copa del Rey - Spain's FA Cup equivalent - return to the club's dressing rooms "because it's a title I haven't won yet".

Top of the list of those keen to take advantage of any self-doubt in Real's ambitions are Barcelona. Having just scraped a place in the Uefa Cup at the last minute last season - had they failed it would have been the first time Barcelona had not made it into any European competition - the Catalans are desperate to resume their traditional duopoly with Real.

For all Barca's new president, Joan Laporta, is determined to revolutionise the club's finances, his choice of 41-year-old trainer Frank Rijkaard to spearhead their projected comeback is completely in keeping with Barcelona's long-standing fascination with the elegance and open-ended strategies of Dutch football. Purely in terms of trainers, let alone players, this relationship stretches back through Louis Van Gaal and Johan Cruyff to Renus Michaels in the 1970s.

Symbolic of this return to old values is new signing Ronaldinho. But there have been important changes behind the scenes as well: Frank De Boer has been replaced by the Mexican Rafael Marquez, and a new goalkeeper, the Turk Rustü Recber, has been brought in, all designed to avoid the embarrassing 2002 débâcle of finishing 22 points behind Real again.

Fewer changes have taken place in Spain's three other most prestigious teams, Valencia, Real Sociedad and Deportivo La Coruña. Giant-killers Real Sociedad in particular have retained their two key players, Javier De Pedro and Darko Kovacevic, from last year's campaign where only last-minute nerves prevented a team on the verge of relegation in 2001 from out-stripping Real Madrid for the title.

The minor question of when La Liga will actually begin has yet to be resolved: Sociedad belong to the 10 richest clubs which have already reached a juicy agreement over cable television rights, but the so-called G-30 club - the remaining top division sides and all 22 in the second division - are threatening to suspend their opening games on 30 August unless they get their slice of the cake.

A crisis summit meeting next Friday should decide the issue one way or another, but it is another uncomfortable reminder of why the transfer market has been so quiet. Even the Real Madrid accounts are £10.5m out of kilter at the moment - hence their doubts on purchasing a defender - and Athletic Bilbao players have just accepted a 15 per cent pay cut.

Not all sales have gone smoothly either. Accusations of foul play in Deportivo's sale of leading striker Roy Makaay to Bayern Munich continue to rumble on, even as the Galicians faced their first obstacle en route to the Champions' League, Rosenberg last Wednesday night.

What long-term salvation there is for Spanish clubs' financial woes may come from highly unexpected sources, such as second division Leganes' new owner Daniel Grinbank. A 49-year-old Argentinian rock promoter, Grinbank has plunged into the jungle of Spain's second division with enthusiasm and dynamic new plans for the Madrid club.

In a matter of days, he has already imported no fewer than eight Argentinians, three of them former first division players and a new trainer, José Nestor Pekerman, whose prestige is based on three World titles with his country's Under-20 side. Quiet revolutions in Spain's football basement there may be, but several floors higher up, everything continues to hinge around Real and their international obsessions - already announcing their next pre-season tour will be in Africa and India.

Their objectives until then, based on easing the Spanish inferiority complex vis-à-vis things European, can, it seems, be taken for granted.

THREE TO WATCH IN LA LIGA

DIEGO TRISTAN (DEPORTIVO LA CORUÑA)

Following Roy Makaay's departure to Bayern, the Seville-born forward should have a few more chances to strut his stuff in the Deportivo squad, despite trainer Javier Irureta's embarrassment of forward riches. Tristan has a reputation for party-going, but his goal-scoring ability has kept the international an integral part of the Galicians' European line-up.

SAMUEL ETO'O (REAL MALLORCA)

Masterminded Mallorca's stinging 5-0 defeat of Real Madrid en route to victory in last year's Copa del Rey - and the Cameroon player's apprenticeship with the Real junior clubs made that particular feat all the more painful for the capital's No 1 side. Almost as famous in Mallorca for missing out entirely on the post-Copa celebrations to play in the Africa Cup as he is for his ability on the pitch.

XABI ALONSO (REAL SOCIEDAD)

Real Sociedad's David Beckham. A playmaker in a class of his own who was one of the key reasons why Sociedad went from one end of the league in 2001 to the other in 2002. A 22-year-old Basque brought up in the side's apprentice squads, whose father Perico Alonso played in Barcelona, and the envy of the bigger clubs, particularly Barca. Currently, though, they are too strapped for cash to buy him out.

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