Champions League Countdown: In a different League

For most of the last decade, while living in Spain, John Carlin has felt that club football there was clearly and consistently better than the game he saw played in England. But not any more. This season he has detected a fundamental change - one that suggests English club football may be on the verge of a golden era
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The Independent Online

The word is that Cristiano Ronaldo is flirting with a move to the glamour, the bright lights, the superior footballing culture of Spain. Well, Cristiano, you might want to think again. If it's the tapas and the sun and the señoritas you are after, sure. Madrid and Barcelona are unbeatable for quality of life. But if it is quality of football you are after, you might want to consider staying on a bit longer in the place where they invented the game.

Next week we see the resumption of the Champions League, a competition dominated this season by English and Spanish clubs. It is a fair bet that the eventual winner will come from the Premiership four of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal, or from the Liga three of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Valencia. There is no doubt in anyone's mind, at any rate, that the top English and Spanish clubs are the strongest in the world right now and there is no doubt in my own mind that, of the two, the English are the best.

I have been living in Spain watching both leagues with equal interest for nearly nine years and never, until now, would I have imagined saying such a thing. I had convinced myself fully of the superiority of Spanish club football. When David Beckham did in the summer of 2003 what Cristiano Ronaldo may be thinking of doing in the summer of 2007, I was as sure as he seemed to be that he was going up in the world. And that is indeed what happened. Real Madrid may not have won anything in Beckham's first three full seasons in Spain, but then - save for an FA Cup - neither did Manchester United, who did a lot worse than Real in their Champions League campaigns. Besides, watching Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Roberto Carlos playing in the same team, never mind playing alongside them, was fun of a superior order.

The level of artistry on display in Spain during the greater part of the time I have been here outdoes what I have seen in England. Never mind the big names: the capacity of Spanish teams' relatively unknown players to keep possession, to ping the ball around at speed, to combine speed with penetration has been light years away from most of what I have seen in England.

The facts support my case. Between 1998 when I arrived in Spain and the end of the 2005-06 season, Spanish clubs have been a much more formidable force than the English in European competition. Not only have Spanish teams consistently progressed further, winning twice as many cups and reaching twice as many finals, it has been remarkable how well the smaller Spanish sides have done.

Deportivo la Coruña were a major force in Europe for four seasons. Alaves, now deep in the second division, made it to the Uefa Cup final against Liverpool in 2001. Villarreal were a missed penalty away from denying Arsenal a place in last season's Champions League final, which they then lost to Barcelona. Seville won last season's Uefa Cup.

Suddenly, this season, everything has changed. To watch successively a game in La Liga and a Premiership match on TV has been, these last six months, to emerge from greyness into light.

The Spanish clubs have lost that fast fluency that has characterised their football in recent years. Barcelona have been slow, disjointed and rarely great to watch, save for the occasional spurts of magic from Ronaldinho. Seville looked as if they might be building an impressively battling team but have sunk into mediocrity since the new year began. Valencia show glimmers of the solidity that has made them a formidable force in Europe, but they are erratic. As for Real Madrid, no one remembers a season in which they played uglier football, or in which they scored fewer goals.

After all that, tuning into an Arsenal-Chelsea or a Manchester United-Liverpool game is, as they say in Spain, holy water. In the last month I've talked to the editor of one of the biggest sports newspapers in Spain and to the sports editor of one of the biggest newspapers, period. I asked them whether they thought that this season the English league was stronger than the Spanish one and they looked at me as if I were mad. Mad, that is, for asking the question. For both these savants of the European game there was no room for debate. La Liga had taken a step back, the Premiership a big leap forward. Right now, they said, they enjoyed watching the English league far more.

The sense I have of what has happened is this: that after some years now of trying with mixed success to graft foreign players into English teams, this year the graft has taken. A fusion has been achieved between the high technical skills of the new African, European and Latin American players (most of whom are bought, precisely, for their ability on the ball) and the traditional virtues of the English game: a physical toughness, a never-say-die spirit, a run-till-you-drop fervour fuelled and fired by the most full-throated supporters in the world.

It's more than holy water. It's water into wine. The Premiership game feels, watching from here in Spain, as if it is has reached its point of mature fruition. There are good games and bad games. I'm judging on the best performances of the top teams, which have been outstanding this season, far more so than the best your Barcelonas and Real Madrids have had to offer. I am talking about Chelsea's two games against Barcelona in the Champions League, the first in particular having been an awesome display of controlled power football; about Arsenal's epic drubbings of Liverpool at Anfield; Liverpool beating Chelsea; and Manchester United in game after game this season.

Other than Barcelona at their best last season, it's the best stuff we've seen on a football pitch anywhere since that great Dutch Milan team of nearly 20 years ago. Barcelona, with Eto'o and Messi just back after long injuries, are the only team in Spain that might still have it in them to be the best of the lot in Europe this season. But even if they make it back to the top of their game, Arsenal and Chelsea and Manchester United could still beat them.

Arsenal are the team winning the most admirers in Spain for the purring fluidity of their game. And they are probably the team with the greatest potential in Europe right now, the ones best capable of taking association football - that is the beauty of Arsenal, how the players associate on the pitch with one another - to a higher plane.

One of the players with the greatest potential is Cristiano Ronaldo, who exemplifies the evolution of the Premiership game as well as anybody. In his first three seasons at Manchester United he had lots of tricks, but not enough good old English follow-through. This season it has all come together for him. He has harnessed his skills to the physical hurly-burly of English football and emerged as a complete player, blending artistry with work, talent with a sense of team.

For him to come to Spain would be a risk. Right now the world's football energy feels as if is concentrating in the Premiership. With all the money pouring into the English game, the tendency ought to continue. Meanwhile, La Liga has a feel about it of decadence and decay. If Cristiano Ronaldo moves south, he is likely on the way to pass a number of players, some of them as good as he is, heading north.

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