So the blink-and-you-miss-it summer break is over and football is back with an all-consuming vengeance. Despite the new season hardly having had time to clear its throat, it is already spewing headlines like a TV newsbar gone postal. And that is just in England.
If anything can induce a breakdown among the north London chatterers, it is Arsenal being on the wrong end of an 8-2 scoreline at Old Trafford, and Manchester United’s wasn’t even the best performance of the day. That was the preserve of Manchester City, who popped down to the capital and put five past Tottenham. Fortunately that rout didn’t produce a riot, though Arsène Wenger will hope that something will divert attention from the unravelling of his vision. Suddenly he appears to be only a vote of confidence away from clearing his desk.
If you thought football life was grim in north London, try Scotland. They started their season early so teams could get some games in their legs to perform better in Europe. Unfortunately, Scottish interest in football outside Scotland ended in the time it takes to deep-fry a Mars bar. All that remains of consequence are the four meetings between Rangers and Celtic that will decide who has sectarian bragging rights in Glasgow.
On the bright side, four ‘massive’ games to settle the title are better than two, which is the situation in Spain. Such is the dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid, La Liga is about as competitive as the SPL. It can be argued that it was forever thus, but in a world of Champions League riches and mega TV deals — the vast majority of domestic TV money in Spain goes to the Big Two — the chance of anyone else getting a look-in is minute. The great clunking fist of Spain’s Big Two certainly came down hard in the opening games of La Liga. Real Madrid crushed Real Zaragoza 6-0 away and Barcelona beat Villareal, who are a Champion’s League team, 5-0.
Early sparring from the Spanish Super Copa suggests this will be another vintage season between the giants of Catalunya and Castille. Barcelona are capable of playing a game that only the Brazils of 1970 and 1982 could produce. And when robust opposition attempts to disrupt their beauty, Barca’s players can ‘go to ground’ (footballers don’t fall over any more) with the same artistry they employ in their one-touch football.
Victim-in-chief of Barcelona’s majesty is Jose Mourinho, a serial winner charged with coaching the second-best team in Spain. Super Copa defeat encouraged him to have a playful tweak of the ear/malevolent gouge of the eye of a Barcelona coach. The Real Madrid manager, once the master manipulator, is starting to look a little like yesterday’s man when put alongside Pep Guardiola. Raising your hands to your opponent’s face is a no-no — particularly for a manager and after the final whistle. But that is how vital the rivalry has become. Get the better of the season’s two ‘Gran Clasicos’ and the Spanish title is there for the taking. All the other league games that Real and Barcelona have to play are as of little consequence as St Johnstone’s visit to Ibrox.
When supporters expect their team to win, are used to it winning, the style of that winning is what matters. The pressure of trying to win the right way has meant that Arsenal and Wenger have not just lost Cesc Fabregas, but their way. Mourinho, when confronted by Barcelona, appears to have lost his way too. It’s what happens when the pressure is simply too much.
And amid all the gushing about the wonders of Spanish football, just remember the dismal record of racism in the crowds, a vicious, nasty problem that neither the clubs nor Fifa show any real inclination to stamp out.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.