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Real is done, CR is done. Can't see Zidane staying, ergo, can't see Eden wanting to go there.

Also, CR, self-named "best in the history", is nowhere near Messi, neither is Ramos anything near any of the top defenders in the world.

Never actually liked Barca, but to see CR and Ramos losing like this makes me really happy.

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I guess Spanish football just isn't for me. Everyone on twitter praising how amazing a match that was. There's just so much diving, flailing, bitching, and moaning for me to enjoy it. It's so bad in t

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I don't think we should be worried about this barca team. They don't  feel like barca. Yes Messi is still amazing but he is not at that goat level anymore. The whole team just feel off.

Tbf that classico feel very weird. It is like both teams were just very tired. Everything was just so slow. 

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How Real Madrid’s failed Paul Pogba transfer has left Zinedine Zidane ‘on the brink’ before new season

There is likely to be more business in the transfer window given how unbalanced Real Madrid’s squad appears, but a mixed summer may already have pushed Zidane to the door

https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/transfers/real-madrid-paul-pogba-transfer-zinedine-zidane-manchester-united-la-liga-season-preview-a9054236.html

Real Madrid’s inability, or unwillingness, to make a serious effort to sign Paul Pogba this summer points to big differences between coach Zinedine Zidane and president Florentino Perez. And it spells serious trouble for the former galactico’s second spell on the Bernabeu bench.

On his return last March to clean up the mess overseen by failed successors Julen Lopetegui and Santi Solari, Zidane talked openly about a “second project” and how the current squad badly needed to be shaken up.

“We will change things, for sure,” Zidane repeated regularly over the following weeks. He soon made clear that signing star players he had long admired including Pogba, Eden Hazard and Kylian Mbappe was central to this new project.

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Ansu, 16, Barca's youngest debutant in 78 years

https://www.espn.co.uk/football/barcelona/story/3928669/ansu16barcas-youngest-debutant-in-78-years

Ansu Fati became the second-youngest player to feature for Barcelona in La Liga after being handed his debut in Sunday's 5-2 win over Real Betis.

With Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele all missing through injury, Ansu -- aged 16 years and 298 days-- was called up to the 18-man squad along with B team winger Carles Perez.

Ernesto Valverde named him as a substitute, with Perez starting in attack alongside Antoine Griezmann and Rafinha, before bringing him on in the second half when Barca were 5-1 up.

The Spanish champions went on to win the game with Griezmann scoring twice. Perez, Jordi Alba and Arturo Vidal were also on target.

"Ansu has a lot of qualities, he's quick and he uses the space well," Valverde said in a news conference after the game.

"I know he's really young. He's the youngest player I have ever given a debut to. But if we don't look at how old the other players in the squad are, we're not going to look at his age either. We look at what he can add and he's surprised us all."

After the game, Ansu, who flashed a shot narrowly wide during his cameo, remained on the pitch longer than his teammates as he took everything in.

"I was looking at my parents and my family [in the stands], all those people that have accompanied me to this point in my career," he explained to reporters.

"I stayed there on the pitch because I couldn't believe it. I wanted to enjoy that moment. The truth is that I was really nervous before, but I only have words of gratitude for everyone: the club, the manager, the supporters, who gave me a great reception."

Ansu -- who played for the U19s last season -- is younger than players like Messi and Bojan Krkic were when they made their top-flight debuts for the club, but is not the youngest player to ever turn out in the league for the Catalans.

Vicenc Martinez was 16 years and 278 days old when he made his first La Liga appearance for Barca in the 1941-42 season -- just 20 days younger than Ansu.

Image result for Vicente Martínez Alama

Following lengthy negotiations, Barcelona finally tied Ansu down to a new deal earlier this summer. The forward signed fresh terms to keep him at the club until 2022 with an option to extend the contract by an additional two years. A €100 million buyout clause was included in the contract.

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La Liga rising stars: Ferran Torres, Alexander Isak of Sweden, and… a Watford left-back

https://theathletic.com/1731987/2020/04/13/la-liga-rising-stars-torres-isak-salisu/

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The football might have stopped at the moment but the planning for the next transfer window continues. Clubs in Spain and elsewhere are looking to the future, with the more switched-on sporting directors, scouts and agents working overtime these weeks.

Here are six emerging talents from around La Liga’s clubs, whose performances through the first seven months of 2019-20 ensured they are likely to feature highly in many of those conversations…

Ferran Torres – Valencia & Spain

Valencia winger Ferran Torres was long marked for the top at his home city club’s Paterna youth academy, well before he marked his full La Liga debut aged just 17 with a clever assist against Athletic Bilbao in January 2018.

But 2019-20 has been the break-out campaign, with Torres emerging as one of Valencia’s team leaders during a rollercoaster season. Super pacy and direct, but with an eye for a pass and a liking for the big occasion, he was both eye-catching and effective as Los Che beat Barcelona and drew with Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in recent months. Had Euro 2020 gone ahead this summer, he would probably have made the final 23 for Spain.

Worryingly for Valencia fans, contract talks over extending the 20-year-old’s deal which ends in 2021 have been deadlocked for months now, leading suitors, including Manchester United and Juventus, to consider meeting his current €100 million release clause.

Alexander Isak – Real Sociedad & Sweden

A gangly but attractive centre-forward, Alexander Isak was much talked about when coming through at AIK Solna, but had seemed to lose his way when being shut out completely at Borussia Dortmund. La Real nabbing him for €6.5 million last summer now looks an absolute bargain.

After taking a few months to find his feet, a poacher’s effort against Barcelona in December began a run of 12 goals in 12 games. This included a double at the Bernabeu to knock Real Madrid out of the Copa del Rey, and fine goal and assist to win the Basque derby at home to Athletic Bilbao.

More mobile and more of a team player than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to whom he has often been lazily compared, Isak is not short of confidence. And at still just 20, he has lots of time to improve much further.

Mohammed Salisu – Real Valladolid & Ghana

Accra-born centre-back Mohammed Salisu had never played a competitive 11-a-side game before Real Valladolid took him from Ghana to Castilla in 2017, or so the legend goes.

The solid and composed defender is definitely a quick learner. Since making his senior debut on the opening day of the 2019-20 season, he has played in every La Liga game as part of a super-organised defence which has kept Valladolid clear of the drop zone.

Salisu, Valladolid

Salisu’s 6ft 3in and 82kg frame is fast across the ground and he is comfortable on the ball, while few defenders have the discipline to pick up just two yellow cards across two-thirds of a season.

Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have both registered an interest, after composed displays against both helped his team pick up unexpected points. He only turns 21 this Friday.

Pau Torres – Villarreal & Spain

Scoring after just 59 seconds was quite a way for Villarreal’s Pau Torres to mark his senior international debut for Spain last November. But a goal against Malta was secondary to the growing hopes that the tall and elegant centre-back could fill a problem position for La Roja for the next decade.

Born in the town of Villarreal in January 1997, the left-footed Torres joined his hometown club aged just six. After spending last season gaining experience in the Segunda Division at Malaga, the 6ft 3in defender has slotted in alongside veteran Raul Albiol at Primera level this year, albeit with some tricky moments as the team’s general form has fluctuated.

Villarreal moved quickly to sign him until 2024 last autumn, but that has not stopped interest from Barcelona and Arsenal in a ball-playing defender whose model growing up was his club’s long-serving and fine-passing midfielder Bruno Soriano.

Oscar Rodriguez – Leganes (on loan from Real Madrid) & Spain

There has not been much to smile about at Leganes this season, but the performances of 21-year-old Oscar Rodriguez have brought moments of respite. For instance, the 25-yard free kick curled into the top corner against Real Sociedad in February, with 93 mins and 54 seconds on the clock and the score at 1-1.

The confident kid who came through at Real Madrid is used to the spotlight, with his first ever La Liga goal clinching victory against Barcelona at Butarque last season. Only Lionel Messi has more than his three direct free kicks scored this season across the big five European leagues. Leganes coach Javier Aguirre has been focusing on increasing the player’s workrate and adding tactical intelligence to his game, but all the elements are there for a top-class attacking midfielder.

Rodriguez, Leganes

Competition for places at the Bernabeu means he will probably not go back there next season, so there could be a summer clamour for his signature, especially if Leganes are relegated.

Pervis Estupinan – Osasuna (on loan from Watford) & Ecuador

The splendidly named left-back Pervis Estupinan came on to many international radars when he gave Kieran Trippier a bit of a chasing at Atletico Madrid in December.

The 22-year-old Ecuadorian had, however, taken quite a roundabout route to get to the Wanda Metropolitano that evening, having already played 150 senior games across six clubs — not including his current owners Watford.

Athletic and technically impressive, Estupinan’s constant raids forward have befuddled many more markers than Trippier, and are a key part of Osasuna’s positive gameplan. There is end product too — curling crosses from his left foot have brought four assists, while his only goal was hit confidently with his ‘other’ right boot.

Despite quickly gaining cult hero status at El Sadar, where fans cheer him as ‘Pervis Presley’, Estupinan could well be on the move again whenever the next transfer window opens.

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Messi and who else? The Athletic’s La Liga Team of the Season

https://theathletic.com/1759352/2020/04/23/laliga-team-of-the-season-2019-20-messi-casemiro-courtois-berchiche/

Messi and who else? The Athletic's La Liga Team of the Season ...

Normally, the major concern when picking a team of the year for La Liga comes down to striking the right balance: how many players from Real Madrid, and how many from Barcelona? Or might some Atletico Madrid players force their way into the Clasico-centric XI?

This time, the task was difficult in a different way. The big three have experienced tricky transitional seasons and suffered plenty of lows to match the usual highs across 27 games.

Such a levelling-out affords the chance to spread the net wider around the clubs, and has also brought a redemptive feel to this XI. Getafe’s Uruguayan right-back might not have had a chance in other seasons — nor a former Cheltenham Town left-back. But their inclusion does not mean 2019-20 is better or worse than past La Liga campaigns. Just different…


Goalkeeper — Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid)

Courtois did not enjoy the early weeks of 2019-20, when his most dangerous early opponents were backers of former Real Madrid No 1 Keylor Navas. Whistling from the Bernabeu stands when Club Brugge went 2-0 up in September’s Champions League group game was the nadir, followed by unsubstantiated claims that he had suffered an on-pitch anxiety attack.

Since then, he has shown very impressive fortitude to come through and establish himself as La Liga’s most reliable goalkeeper. His claims have been helped by the first signs of fallibility from Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak and lapses in concentration from Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Standout moments from the former Chelsea man include three excellent saves with the score at 0-0 at Getafe in January (Madrid eventually won 3-0) and crucial one-on-one stops from Lionel Messi and Arthur Melo early in March’s clasico victory. He capped an outstanding display in the Spanish Super Cup final against Atletico Madrid with two decisive saves in the penalty shootout to win a bittersweet trophy against his former club. He even showed up in Valencia’s penalty box in December to cause havoc at a corner, leading to Karim Benzema’s late equaliser.

Twelve clean sheets and just 16 goals conceded in 24 games put Courtois on track to be just the second Madrid goalkeeper since 1992 to win the Zamora trophy, awarded to the goalkeeper who concedes the fewest goals in La Liga. Not a bad way to bounce back.

Right-back — Damian Suarez (Getafe)

There were double takes at Athletic Bilbao’s San Mames in early February, as Getafe right-back Damian Suarez played a series of one-twos with team-mates before cutting past two defenders on the edge of the penalty area and arrowing a low finish into the far corner.

The Maradona-esque strike was unexpected given 31-year-old Suarez’s previous career record included just six goals— but more than 100 yellow cards. It was not an isolated incident — just a few weeks before, he had pulled off a “sombrero” flick over an opponent during a derby at Leganes.

Such frills did not mean that Suarez and his team-mates were neglecting their primary jobs, with Getafe keeping clean sheets as they easily won both games. The extra flourishes just showed how their amazing rise under Jose Bordalas had provided an injection of confidence. When football hit pause last month, Getafe were fifth and about to face Inter Milan in the Europa League.

Suarez has not neglected his bread and butter through it all. And nobody in La Liga has bettered his tally of 11 yellow cards so far, either.

Centre-back — Felipe (Atletico Madrid)

There was more than a little concern at Atletico Madrid last summer when the apparent replacement for departing cult hero Diego Godin was a 30-year-old from Porto who few around La Liga had heard of.

But Felipe has outshone fellow new arrivals Kieran Trippier and Joao Felix to become a big favourite at the Wanda Metropolitano, especially due to his Godin-like willingness to put his boot (or head) where it hurts. Atletico may not have not been as watertight as recent seasons, but the quietly imposing Brazilian has done more than anyone to hold them together at the back.

Off the pitch, Felipe’s “bespectacled grad student” belies a cynical streak, which Diego Simeone’s fresh-faced team needs to thrive — as Liverpool discovered during their Champions League clash. He also unveiled an impressive spinning somersault goal celebration when heading the winner against Levante in January. He is now so established that Jose Maria Gimenez, the anointed heir to Godin’s throne, has been unable to get a look in at centre-back.

Centre-back — Diego Carlos (Sevilla)

Another Brazilian centre-back to arrive under the radar last summer was Diego Carlos, whose £13.2 million signing from Nantes now looks like another of Sevilla sporting director Monchi’s famous coups.

The no-frills defender settled quickly under coach Julen Lopetegui, whom he knew from a brief time together at Porto. The 27-year-old added steel and leadership to a backline that had a tendency to crumble, especially away from the Sanchez Pizjuan. “He’s stronger than vinegar,” said Nolito in a cryptic but somehow understandable description of his new team-mate’s sting.

Diego Carlos also also contributed crucial goals in victories against Leganes and Mallorca to help Lopetegui’s team to their current position of third. Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona are now said to be willing to offer Sevilla a quick profit on their investment whenever the next transfer window opens.

Left-back — Yuri Berchiche (Athletic Bilbao)

The most notable moment of Yuri Berchiche’s spell on the books at Tottenham as a teenager was a two-footed challenge on Arsenal starlet Henri Lansbury in April 2009, when the pair were on loan at Cheltenham Town and Scunthorpe respectively. It did not work out at Spurs, so Yuri then took the long route to regular top-flight football via Real Valladolid B, Real Union and Eibar. Eventually, he established himself at Real Sociedad before spending a season at Paris Saint-Germain. From there, he joined Athletic Bilbao in 2018.

Berchiche, now 30, has found his feet at San Mames, fitting neatly into one of La Liga’s strongest defences, while also bringing a constant attacking threat down the left. He has shone in this season’s Copa del Rey, scoring four goals in six games, including a dramatic late winner in the semi-final at Granada. That strike set up a final against his former team — and local rivals — Real Sociedad.

Central midfield — Jose Campana (Levante)

Another former London resident now excelling in Spain is Levante midfielder Jose Campana, who played six Premier League games for Crystal Palace in 2013-14. Campana also has Sevilla, Nuremberg, Sampdoria, Porto and second-tier Alcorcon on his CV, but finally settled after arriving at Levante in 2016.

Likened to Xavi Hernandez as a youth, Campana captained a Spain side including Kepa Arrizabalaga and Saul Niguez to victory in the European Under-19 Championship. At 26, he has settled into a deeper playmaking role in Paco Lopez’s entertainingly positive Levante team, where he shows his technical quality in controlling games through his passing, but also the hard edge of a player who has been forced to make it the hard way.

He clearly still likes the big occasion — he scored a fine goal and assisted another in November’s 3-1 win over Barcelona — but his consistency has shone through all season. Another shot at the big time will be coming around soon.

Central midfield — Casemiro (Real Madrid)

It says a lot about Real Madrid’s 2019-20 midfield that Casemiro — viewed by many as “just” a holder — has been by far the stand-out of their season. The Brazilian tops the numbers among all La Liga players for tackles attempted, successful tackles, loose balls won and passes intercepted, while coming a close second in total fouls.

This shows the amount of work Casemiro has had to get through, with more creative players around him nowhere near their best form. His three league goals have all been key to picking up points, while the Brazil captain’s dedication on and off the pitch has been copied by emerging team-mates Fede Valverde and Rodrygo Goes.

Maybe most impressive of all is Casemiro managing to miss only one game all year through suspension. As it proves, he has now clearly taken over from Sergio Busquets as the midfielder most skilled at avoiding yellow cards for the most blatant of tactical fouls.

Central midfield — Martin Odegaard (Real Sociedad)

There were some who thought that Odegaard’s story was already written. The Norwegian was hit by a blaze of publicity when he made his international debut aged 15, then became Real Madrid’s youngest ever player a year later on May 2015. Promising loan spells in Holland were largely ignored, however, and Odegaard faded out of sight.

News that he had joined Real Sociedad on loan last summer piqued some interest, before a dominant performance in September’s 2-0 victory over Atletico Madrid made everyone take notice. A dazzling run of form also included the best assist of La Liga in 2019-20 — a slide-rule pass which took out seven Alaves defenders, plus goalkeeper Fernando Pacheco, for team-mate Mikel Oyarzabal to score.

Still just 21, Odegaard’s technical ability and passing range might not come as a surprise, but the way he has led a young Sociedad team has been impressive. Hampered by some niggling injuries, his level dipped through the autumn, but he returned to form after the winter break to lead his side into the Champions League qualifying spot. Applauded on league and cup visits to the Bernabeu in recent months, Odegaard is once again looked upon as a future superstar for Real Madrid.

Right wing — Lionel Messi (Barcelona)

Barcelona dropped eight points in the five games before Lionel Messi returned from injury to make his first start of 2019-20. Ever since their No 10 got up and running, however, they have looked likely title winners, despite all the ongoing turmoil at the Nou Camp.

Maybe Messi has had more spectacular individual seasons, but the 32-year-old still tops La Liga for goals, assists, shots on target, successful dribbles, key passes and through balls. Even more impressively, he’s done all that while spending more time in midfield, filling the jobs previously held by Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and in the boardroom, leading negotiations to ensure non-playing staff are paid during the COVID-19 shutdown.

It seems strange that the influence of a five-time Ballon d’Or winner might be underestimated, but that is just what team-mates like Frenkie de Jong have argued. With Messi in this XI, they would stroll to the La Liga trophy. Pit this side against Messi plus 10 others, however, and the title race would likely go down to the wire.

Centre forward — Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)

Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic, Gareth Bale, Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo, James Rodriguez, Isco and Marco Asensio have 11 La Liga goals between them so far this season. Madrid fans and pundits should be thankful, then, that Karim Benzema has scored 14 times, as well as assisting six more, because otherwise Zinedine Zidane’s team would be mid-table at best.

Against Levante at the Bernabeu in October, Benzema gave a striker’s masterclass when scoring two and making the other to have his team 3-0 up by half-time. He then watched as his team-mates contrived to give up two sloppy goals and almost blow the game. Madrid have become more solid as the season has gone on, but chances have become even more precious. Recent winners include composed strikes in 1-0 wins over direct rivals Atletico Madrid and Sevilla.

The stats show he sits second behind Messi in goals scored, total shots and shots on target, and tops the list in total touches in the opposition box and shots against the woodwork (five). It is true that his contribution has dipped since he turned 32 late in December, but he is in desperate need of help from his supporting cast.

Left wing — Fabian Orellana (Eibar)

It is difficult to argue that any player has a bigger personal influence on their team than Messi at Barcelona, but Fabian Orellana at Eibar this season might run his fellow South American close.

The Chilean is another to have had his fair share of clubs — seven in three countries — but is having the most productive season of his life at 34. Seven goals and six assists mean he has been involved in almost half of Eibar’s 27 goals this season. More than the stats, however, Orellana’s contribution from a variety of positions across the attack and midfield has been impressive.

With Eibar currently sitting just two points outside the bottom three, they would be in deep relegation trouble without him. His 94th-minute winner against Villarreal in October was a rare headed goal, but showed a dedication to the team which has not always been evident over his wandering career.

His quirky personality and individualistic style of play have often brought clashes with coaches and team-mates, but he has found a home at Eibar under the avuncular Jose Luis Mendilibar. Orellana is out of contract in June, and there would be mourning at Ipurua if he has already played his last game for the Basque club.

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MSN versus BBC: Who is La Liga’s greatest front line?

https://theathletic.com/1788036/2020/05/04/msn-vs-bbc-who-is-la-ligas-greatest-front-line/

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“I can’t see how Barca intends to continue playing the same combination play, with Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez in the team,” wrote Johan Cruyff in the summer of 2014. “All three are individualists. By signing Suarez, the club hierarchy are showing a preference for individual genius over a team that plays great football.”

Cruyff’s thoughts on the arrival of Suarez from Liverpool that summer were partly motivated by personal animus with club president Sandro Rosell. But his views were shared by many around the Camp Nou who thought the new “MSN” front line would jeopardise the team’s success based on the midfield-centric model started by Cruyff himself, and then continued in particular under Pep Guardiola.

Most at the Camp Nou were happy enough by the end of the following season. The trio between them scored 122 goals (58 for Messi, 39 for Neymar and 25 for Suarez), while sharing out 66 assists (31 by Messi, 24 by Suarez and 11 by Neymar). The team coached by arch pragmatist Luis Enrique matched his former team-mate Guardiola’s achievement in winning a Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey treble in his first season in charge.

Suarez’s outgoing personality was key in blending the new front trio together, as Neymar’s first season alongside Messi in the team had not gone so well. Even before his Barca debut, Suarez was being invited to barbecues in Messi’s garden. They also bonded playing the board game Parchis on away trips. Neymar did not sit in for that, but did enjoy his team-mate’s infectious sense of humour.

“Neymar is a very happy person, he laughs at everything,” Suarez said in 2016. “I enjoy being with him, although he doesn’t like anyone to touch his hair. He laughs about the burgers we eat. He tells me I’m fat.”

It also helped that, from the start, both Suarez and Neymar were more than happy to accept that Messi was top dog, both in the team, and in the world.

“Friendship and humility is the secret of the MSN’s success,” Neymar said in 2015. “Messi and Suarez are two great friends I have in football. There is no ego among us. We just want to be happy and to play. I believe that the image of the (2015) Ballon D’Or podium should have been Messi, Luis Suarez and me. I would have loved to be there all together.”

Such harmony could not last, of course. After their stellar first season, the MSN never quite hit the same level, while Xavi’s departure and Andres Iniesta’s creaking body were also key problems. Still, they won nine trophies over three years, before Neymar’s itch for the spotlight led directly to his exit for Paris Saint-Germain in summer 2017.

All three still remember how good they were together, with Messi continuing to quite obviously nudge Barca’s board into doing everything possible to re-sign the Brazilian so they can all win another Champions League together before it is too late.


That on- and off-pitch chemistry contrasted markedly with the greatest rivals of the MSN — Real Madrid’s “BBC” of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. During their six seasons together at the Bernabeu, you could never really imagine Bale ruffling Ronaldo’s hair, or Benzema sharing a burger with either.

“I don’t need to go for supper with Benzema or invite Bale over to my house,” Ronaldo said in 2016. “Little kisses or little hugs off the field are worthless. The important thing is the team wins on the pitch.”

Benzema always seemed quite happy to use his clever movement and passing to get his higher-profile team-mate into positions to score. But unlike Neymar’s deference for Messi on arrival, Bale had no intention of remaining in Ronaldo’s shadow on joining from Tottenham in summer 2013. The image of Ronaldo throwing up his hands theatrically in frustration after Bale had “selfishly” gone for goal himself became a staple of Spanish media front pages, and a problem for all Madrid coaches during their time together.

“All forwards in front of goal try to score,” said manager Carlo Ancelotti in 2015 when Bale had apparently refused to tee up Ronaldo for a simple chance. “It is clear that altruism is important in this team. If anyone seems selfish, we will sort it out.”

The idea that they never passed to each other is obviously just wrong, however. In 157 games together, Ronaldo and Bale combined for 41 goals. A high point was Bale’s superb cross being expertly converted by Ronaldo for a late clasico winner at the Camp Nou in April 2016. Benzema also scored that evening in the only clasico the BBC front line started together, played just a few days after Cruyff had passed away.

The Dutchman’s doubts about how an attacking trident would unbalance a team’s midfield were also shared by many at the Bernabeu. Midfielders Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were burdened by extra work required of them in a top-heavy 4-3-3, while playmakers Isco and James Rodriguez often ended up out of the team completely.

“Sometimes the team does get split,” Isco admitted in 2014. “To defend we all must work together, and some work more than others. But we have three monsters up front who score in almost every game.”

That was not quite true, and inconsistencies domestically led to Madrid winning only just one league title during the BBC’s five years together. However, four Champions League trophies over that time was pretty phenomenal, and showed that on the very biggest days one of the superstars generally produced a moment of individual genius to magic all the tactical concerns away.


The MSN v BBC rivalry might be uppermost in the memory at this moment, but there have been plenty of other top La Liga front lines over the last 20 years.

An honourable mention should go to the Diego Costa and David Villa partnership at Atletico Madrid. They could never match the sheer number of goals scored by their counterparts at Barcelona or Madrid, but then Costa and Villa also had to do at least their fair share of work for the team, instead of having all their team-mates doing extra running for them.

So it is arguable that Costa and Villa’s achievements as Diego Simeone’s team overcame the odds to win the 2013-14 La Liga title rank right up there with anything the BBC or MSN achieved for their teams.

A watertight defence was obviously key for Simeone’s side, but in La Liga that season, they were also lethal up front. Costa got 19 goals in the first 17 La Liga games — rampaging around as Atletico racked up impressive scores, including two 5-0s and a 7-0 at home to Getafe. Meanwhile Villa, newly arrived from Barcelona, played an impressively unselfish supporting role, while also chipping in with key goals in important moments. Very different personalities and styles of player came together perfectly for Atletico’s cause.

“My relationship with Diego is pretty good, both on and off the pitch,” Villa said in 2014. “We try to do what’s best for the team, which we both agree is the most important aspect of our play. We understand each other really well, which has helped the team score goals and win matches. It’s a team effort at Atletico.”


Such harmony and shared effort has been a factor in the success or otherwise of many other La Liga strike partnerships over the 20th century so far. For example, Villa did not find it so easy to rub together on or off the pitch with Messi during his time at Barca, while other stars including Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexis Sanchez and most recently Antoine Griezmann have struggled to varying degrees to get on Messi’s wavelength. Barcelona won plenty through those years — often with their No 10 making stratospheric efforts — but there was less of a feeling of a partnership about their attacking efforts.

From the Argentine’s earlier years, his clicking with Henry and Eto’o in Guardiola’s first season in charge deserves a mention. Pep had initially had his own doubts about whether they could work together, and even tried to offload Eto’o on taking over the first team in summer 2008.

But a way was found to get them all to work together: Henry generally starting on the left, Eto’o working hard up front, Messi coming in from the right. At least until the Messi “false nine” experiment which pushed Eto’o to the side in the monumental 6-2 clasico win at the Bernabeu in May 2009. Over the treble-winning campaign they became the first trio to score 100 goals combined — Messi 38, Eto’o 36 and Henry 26 — in all competitions.

However, the trio to come closest to matching the MSN’s 2014-15 goal total is Ronaldo, Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain during 2011-12 at Real Madrid. Ronaldo hit 60 goals in all competitions that year, while Benzema got 32 and Higuain 26, for a total of 118 between them.

This was even more impressive as then-Madrid coach Jose Mourinho rarely used all three together on the pitch. Ronaldo’s pre-eminence meant the Frenchman and (French-born) Argentine battled over one spot in the XI. That competition helped the team win the only La Liga title of Mourinho’s time in Spain. However the long wait for a “decima” Champions League victory continued when Bayern Munich won a penalty shootout at the Bernabeu in that season’s semi-finals.

Going further back, there are others to consider. Madrid won the 2002-03 La Liga title mainly due to the prolific tallies of Ronaldo Nazario and Raul Gonzalez (23 and 16 league goals). Raul heading down for Ronaldo to score against his old team Barcelona in a Bernabeu clasico during that title-winning campaign showed they could work together. But their relationship is still summed up by Ronaldo’s much remembered, although always denied, comments that Raul was a “spoilt child”.

Any attempt to pick a best front line is of course subjective, so there is a good chance that The Athletic’s readers will have their own favourites from the last 20 years. The Eto’o, Ronaldinho and Ludovic Giuly partnership was excellent for Barca during the 2005-06 season. Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero did not make total sense on paper, but were brilliant together at different ends of their careers at Atletico Madrid — with their double apiece in the 4-3 La Liga win over Barcelona in March 2009 a highlight.

Diego Tristan and Roy Makaay did phenomenal things together at Deportivo La Coruna in the early 2000s. Getafe’s 30-something trio of Jorge Molina, Jaime Mata and Angel Rodriguez have worked wonders over the last couple of seasons.

In the end, it comes down to personal taste as much as anything, and The Athletic readers might find themselves swayed by club allegiances or personal memories when making their choice. But that’s OK — even Cruyff appeared to be affected by his emotions when giving his views on this subject.

So who gets your vote?

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Anger, accusations, fear… and then a way back for Spanish football

https://theathletic.com/1782975/2020/05/01/spain-la-liga-tebas-coronavirus-real-madrid-barcelona/

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For many people in Spain, the coronavirus crisis has been closely linked with football right from the start. And now that Spanish society feels that the worst of the crisis has passed — or so it seems for now at least — the game’s authorities, clubs and players are coming together to do everything possible to finish the paused 2019-20 season.

Valencia’s Champions League last 16 first leg against Atalanta, played at Milan’s San Siro on February 19, was a harbinger of the seriousness of what was about to happen — even before that match was labelled a ‘biological bomb” by Giorgio Gori, mayor of Atalanta’s hometown Bergamo, when the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak in both Italy and Spain became clear.

The second leg on March 10 was played behind closed doors. Three thousand Atletico Madrid fans visited Liverpool the following day, even as all Spanish schools and some workplaces were being closed to meet social distancing requirements. A positive test for Real Madrid’s American basketball player Trey Thompkins the morning after that match at Anfield provoked the postponement of La Liga and rammed home the impact the virus was going to have throughout Spanish society.

Three days after that, on March 15, Valencia defender Ezequiel Garay became the first La Liga player to publicly confirm he had tested positive for the coronavirus, just as Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced a nationwide state of alarm, and all the country’s residents were told they could only leave their homes when strictly necessary.


Well before the games were forced to stop, the politicking within Spanish football had begun.

La Liga president Javier Tebas was keen to find a way to keep the content flowing for TV viewers (and TV companies) while his long-term rival Luis Rubiales at the RFEF (Real Federacion Espanola de Futbol — the Spanish FA), opportunistically or not, moved more quickly towards accepting the inevitable.

The differences became even starker in the first weeks after the shutdown. Tebas spoke strongly and often about potential losses of up to €1 billion if this season’s final 11 rounds of fixtures were never played, raising the spectre of many clubs going to the wall. He pointed out the football industry was worth 1.37 per cent of Spain’s entire GDP and responsible for more than 180,000 jobs, while also suggesting that all clubs make use of the Spanish government’s ERTE scheme to furlough workers and cut wage costs.

Rubiales instead boasted of the RFEF’s current financial strength, helped by the bonanza of moving the Supercopa to Saudi Arabia, and guaranteed all payments due to clubs at semi-professional and regional levels. He also offered to help find emergency financing for the worst-hit clubs in the top two divisions and criticised Tebas for not having thought of an insurance policy which would have covered the loss of TV revenues.

“Every time Rubiales opens his mouth it is to attack La Liga and the clubs, with untruths, based on ignorance, like having insurance for a pandemic, and cheap populism,” Tebas replied in mid-March. “We are used to that.”

The antagonism shifted up another notch when Tebas (below) organised for La Liga to send out COVID-19 testing kits to clubs for use on players who were by now all self-isolating at home, with Spain’s medical infrastructure creaking because it was among the countries with the highest number of positive cases and deaths worldwide.

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“Testing people who don’t need it seems irresponsible when there are patients with their lives on the line,” Rubiales said. “Someone with serious symptoms needs tests, not footballers who are self-isolating anyway. It is an illegal and anti-patriotic thing to do.”

David Aganzo, head of AFE, Spain’s players’ union, also became publicly involved in the differences of opinion. There followed frantic weeks of activity, with lots of (video) meetings between the various stakeholders, and just as much competitive and selective briefing of the local press. A nadir was La Liga and AFE threatening legal action following the leaking of audio files of their conversations with the RFEF to Spanish radio station Cadena Ser when debating whether it could be guaranteed that players would get 72 hours of rest between games during a speeded-up schedule when games did return.

On April 16 came another clash when the federation announced unilaterally that, should it not be possible to finish the season, the current standings would count towards qualification for next year’s UEFA competitions. La Liga immediately claimed it had the final say in such matters, while teams in line to lose out, such as fifth-placed Getafe and Valencia (who are seventh but just four points off the top four), said they would consider legal action.

“Decisions like that taken by the federation only serve to pitch some clubs against others at a moment when it is necessary for us all to be united, for the good of football,” said Atletico Madrid chief executive Miguel Angel Gil Marin. That Atletico currently sit sixth, also outside the Champions League positions, did not go unnoticed. Neither did Gil Marin being named La Liga’s ‘first vice-president’ under three months ago.

All this infighting and bickering, while Spain was a global leader in the death toll for coronavirus, was not really a good look. The country’s government had plenty to do, but sports minister Irene Lozano still found time to knock some heads together. An all-day face to face summit between Rubiales and Tebas — flouting the lockdown rules — took place on April 19 at Madrid’s city centre Palacio de Viana. Under the so-called ‘Pacto de Viana’, the sports ministry agreed to help get Spanish football back as quickly as possible.

In an apparent quid pro quo, or just fortunate coincidence, it was also confirmed that La Liga would give an extra €23 million to the RFEF to help football below the top two divisions, and an extra €25 million to a government fund to aid other sports in even bigger difficulties because of the current crisis.

Meanwhile Tebas was very publicly fronting frantic work by La Liga to come up with a detailed step by step ‘protocol’ for football to return, reportedly with help from his brother Pablo, a professor of medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in the USA, and a globally recognised expert in treating infectious viruses.

The health authorities, still battling the pandemic without enough tests available or protective equipment for healthcare staff, have pushed back on that. But Prime Minister Sanchez’s announcement this week of a phased easing of the ‘lockdown’ has speeded up preparations for a return.


While deaths from the virus in Spain were increasing every day, the idea of returning to play was not uppermost in the players’ minds.

“Are elite footballers somehow immune?” Real Madrid defender Dani Carvajal said on social media just before La Liga announced the suspension of its season. Most were happy that they and their families were out of harm’s way, while many were keeping busy doing fun stuff for their sponsors on Instagram or helping out their local communities.

Multiple sources close to squad members of La Liga and Segunda Division teams told The Athletic that players followed the various arguments and announcements from Tebas and Rubiales with interest through the following weeks, but were mostly concerned with what the government health authorities said. A source told The Athletic Real Madrid’s players were gaining most of their information from the media rather from official channels.

Again, the fractured state of Spanish football politics had a role, with the players’ union not strong enough to allow its members to speak with one united voice. When AFE president Aganzo organised a teleconference on April 22 so all 42 club captains from the top two divisions could discuss a return to play, neither Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos nor Barcelona’s Lionel Messi took part. AFE at first questioned whether La Liga has the authority to actually carry out testing on its members, but has now quietly put those concerns aside.

Some players have not liked feeling under pressure to get back to action, especially for financial reasons, but also from politicians keen to use the return of football as a ‘signal’ that society was returning to normal. And they were well aware of the negative optics of valuable tests and medical equipment being reserved for them if healthcare workers were having to go without.

“There is no doubt that we all want to return as soon as possible,” tweeted Kike Marquez of Segunda Division side Extremadura on April 24. “But what I don’t understand is how they are considering having tests and exhaustive controls for us (the players) when they are not available for health professionals who are risking their health. I feel ashamed even thinking about it.”

The Athletic knows of one Primera Division player whose wife has a serious health problem, and the family have self-isolated completely. He is worried that if he returns to play he will then not be able to see his wife at all, as passing her the virus could potentially be lethal. Another squad member of a leading La Liga side is a type one diabetic. Many also have elderly grandparents or other loved ones in especially at-risk groups.

Among the significant number of players to have spoken out against a quick return to playing is Valencia’s former Arsenal centre-back Gabriel Paulista. Following that calamitous visit to northern Italy, 35 per cent of Valencia’s first-team squad and backroom staff tested positive for coronavirus, including defenders Garay, Jose Gaya and Eliaquim Mangala. All have now made a full recovery, but the impact on everyone around the club has been understandably profound.

“We professional footballers are privileged people, but above all we are people with families, loved ones, and feelings,” Paulista wrote on Instagram this week. “We are always asked to give an example, and that should be — many children and youngsters look up to us. We can show an example that we value life and health above all. I’m sure to the great majority of footballers, money is not everything. I don’t want to rush because of financial pressures, given more fundamental questions, like being responsible for another family member, friend or fellow professional getting sick or dying.”

However, especially as Spain has begun to open up in recent days following the lockdown, the general opinion among the players has shifted, The Athletic has been told by multiple sources. Confirmation that from Saturday (May 2), more shops and businesses will be allowed to open and ‘normal’ people will be able to go out for a jog for the first time in six weeks has fed a realisation that footballers cannot stay away from work much longer.

Various sources close to players around La Liga told The Athletic most were in favour of returning to play, although they were wary of giving that opinion in public. They know their livelihoods were on the line, nobody wants to see clubs going bust, and the pay cuts agreed with their clubs are much less serious once each team’s 11 remaining games get played.

It was pointed out more than once in conversations that players were finding it difficult to keep up with the individualised training plans issued by their clubs, with public parks and shared areas in residential complexes having been completely closed during the lockdown. Not all players across Primera and Segunda live in houses as big as those seen in social media posts over recent weeks by stars at Real Madrid or Barcelona.

Some players also live alone. They are bored and want to get back to something that feels normal. Lots of them, such as Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez and Sergio Canales of Seville club Real Betis, had been involved in helping out their local communities, but most now want to get back to their real job.

“I want to play,” Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic (below) told newspaper Marca on Thursday. “It is obvious we want the best possible health guarantees, but we also know that they can never be 100 per cent. Staff in supermarkets also get changed in dressing rooms. They take risks and I want to also. We should be trying to give the fans something to enjoy.”

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There are still those with a very different opinion — Celta Vigo’s on-loan Barcelona midfielder Rafinha posted last week on Instagram that he was unwilling to return to play until a vaccine for the virus is found — but a majority of those consulted by The Athletic said footballers are prepared to return to play, assuming that all possible health controls are in place.

The typical player is embarrassed by having access to tests when so many others do not, but accepts that with their high level of privilege comes a certain responsibility.


While the various institutions were arguing in public about Spanish football’s response to the crisis, and some players were making their views known on social media, it was noticeable that the major clubs kept very quiet.

Barcelona had their own serious internal issues to deal with, with club captain Messi bailing out the directors and president Josep Maria Bartomeu fighting an insurrection among his own board. Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, who is not an ally of Tebas, stayed out of the fray, though surrogates in the local media were generally supportive of what La Liga is aiming to do.

A source at one top club told The Athletic that with the situation changing so much day to day, the clubs had been happy to sit tight and wait outside the media spotlight. Another said that “98 per cent” of Spanish clubs were now in line with what Tebas was proposing, as it was logical for La Liga to take the lead role given it organises the competition.

Staff at clubs across the top flight spoken to by The Athletic were all eager to stress that the health of their players and staff was paramount, while also accepting there are serious financial reasons for getting games going again as soon as possible. Another reason for the lack of communication was drastic cost cutting at one La Liga club, including the furloughing of their entire media department.

One experienced agent said many clubs are caught “between two seas” — they need the TV money to avoid going out of business, but also cannot afford to alienate players who had already been forced to take a pay cut nor be blamed for pressuring them into doing something they do not want to do. So club presidents and officials are more than happy to allow Tebas to do the heavy lifting on the return plans. If players ask their clubs for more information, or to clear up any doubts, they are told La Liga and the Spanish government are the ones making the decisions.

The highest profile disagreement came at Segunda Division leaders Cadiz. Their 26-year-old defender Fali spoke openly to AS on April 20 and maintained that, “If I’m forced to play without a vaccine, I will retire from football”.

“I understand Fali. He is a top kid. But we are going to try and return to competition with the maximum security possible,” responded club president Manuel Vizcaino.

Tebas has also made it clear that La Liga remains in charge of the competition, and that no club can refuse to fulfil their fixtures once the season restarts. “When we get the order to be able to play, and anybody refuses, they will be punished,” he said last Friday. “They will lose the three points at the very least. The rules will have to be followed.”


With large gatherings banned in Spain well into the medium-term future, all plans for getting football back quickly involve the games being played behind closed doors.

Tebas has said it is likely to be December at the earliest before matches take place in front of paying fans again, admitting this could cost ‘only’ around €300 million as it would keep the all-important TV income coming in.

Sports minister Lozano has also said full stadiums are unlikely until a vaccine is widely available for all supporters. Lozano has also spoken positively about how televised football would be a sign of normality returning in Spain, arguing that “watching games with the family will put us back on the path to normality”.

None of the La Liga club staff consulted by The Athletic mentioned any problem with playing behind closed doors, and some have already moved to take advantage of the situation. For example, Real Madrid are planning to stage games at the 6,000-capacity Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium at their Valdebebas training ground, to allow for accelerating renovation work (below) at the Bernabeu.

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Sources close to top level players have also told The Athletic that while playing competitive games in empty stadiums will be a “strange” experience, it is not something they are that seriously worried about.

Someone more concerned about the impact of long-term football behind closed doors is Emilio Abejon, spokesperson for fans’ organisation Federacion de Accionistas y Socios del Futbol Espanol.

“Football is a social act, a cultural act, in which the fans play an integral part,” Abejon told The Athletic. “If you take that out of the game, then we do not see it as football. It is a televised training session, or a reality TV show with clubs and players within bubbles. The ‘solution’ cannot be to remove the fans from the equation.”

Abejon says members of his association would prefer the season to be ended now than be played out in front of empty stands. A significant break from all football would allow for a rethink of how football in Spain is organised at all levels, he argues, as the current lockdown has shown serious flaws in its entire model.

“If an industry through which so much money runs is incapable of being halted for a couple of months, then that industry is not sustainable,” says Abejon. “We have been saying this for a while, but the coronavirus crisis has now brought it to everyone’s attention. This is a moment to take a breath and look again at how our football is organised. TV money is important, for sure, and has contributed positive aspects. But it should not limit the normal and healthy life of our sport.”


Abejon’s views were not represented at Thursday’s meeting of a ‘working group’ including La Liga, the RFEF, AFE and the sports ministry, at which the only objective was getting professional football back up and running on Spanish and global TV screens as soon as possible.

La Liga’s protocol involves players being tested at their club’s training ground next week, as well as the coaches, medical staff, groundsmen and others deemed necessary to be there. These tests would be carried out by a private company hired by La Liga and administered by nasal probe through the individual’s car window. The vehicle involved will then be strictly only for use by that player or staff member for getting them to and from the training ground over the coming weeks.

Everyone attending the training ground must wear a face mask, and arrive in their training gear, leaving immediately after the session to shower at home. Only bottled water will be allowed on the premises, no other food or drink. Players and coaches are to do their work outside on the training pitches, with gyms and other indoor areas off limits, in the initial phases at least.

Work at the training grounds would be ramped up through four distinct stages over the coming weeks. Anybody who fails a test will be separated from their colleagues, and their particular ‘work-group’ sent into quarantine. All going well, games will start by June 12.

Most within Spanish football are now working together towards this plan, including previous antagonists Tebas and Rubiales. La Liga players consulted were generally in favour, although they were still not very clear on the details. For example, the exact nature of the testing they will have to undergo, and what might happen if/when a footballer or a staff member tested positive.

The biggest potential issue still to be resolved is the idea of ‘hothousing’ the players away from their families once they return to full contact training in the weeks before the games begin. Different sources told The Athletic that players’ reaction to this idea depends a lot on each set of personal circumstances.

The idea of moving from six weeks spent almost entirely within their own four walls, to another six spent in a hotel or training ground residence solely in the company of their team-mates, is going to be a difficult sell. An even bigger concern is travelling for away games — players are much less happy with the idea of using airports or staying overnight. Still, there is a willingness among players and clubs to at least start the process next week and see where it leads.

An agent who deals with players in both La Liga and the Premier League told The Athletic that players based in England have at least been able to spend an hour a day outside their home, going for runs in the local park on their own for example. In Spain, all involved in the football industry have been forced to stay inside, except for rare trips to the shops.

A concern among those talked to by The Athletic is the tremendous psychological impact of the coronavirus on everyone living in Spain.

To date there have been just over 25,000 reported deaths and almost 250,000 positive cases. Although daily numbers have been falling consistently for over a week now, 268 daily fatalities were still reported this past Wednesday, April 29. While that was the lowest single-day figure for over a month, is still a big reason for caution.

Should all now go ahead as hoped by La Liga, Real Sociedad are among the 42 Primera and Segunda Division clubs due back for testing early next week.

That means their forward Cristian ‘Portu’ Portugues will be returning to work just as his wife is due in hospital to give birth. It is all hugely concerning, but Portu has made his peace with a situation many others all over the world are facing too. And Sociedad are currently sitting fourth in the table, with a great chance to seal qualification for the Champions League over the final 11 games.


Everyone involved in Spanish football remains aware that they are not really in control of this situation.

The country’s coronavirus curve has started to take on a shape that allows for a certain loosening of restrictions. But everything depends on how things progress over the coming weeks, and the proposed early June restart date for games remains just an ideal, with the health authorities still in ultimate control of when play resumes.

“I can’t say that professional football will be able to return before summer,” health minister Salvador Illa said earlier this week. “That would be imprudent on my part. We must continue watching how things evolve. Nothing will be like before. Until there is a vaccine, we must learn to live with this virus which, I insist, is dangerous and must be respected. We must all row in the same direction.”

Rowing in the same direction is not something Spanish football has generally been very good at. But these are far from normal times, and the authorities are pushing aside concerns about excluding fans and getting special treatment with the aim of ‘saving’ the game in its current state.

Whether the motivation is to avoid many clubs going bankrupt, or just to get out of the house, most professionals involved are just keen to get back to work and finish the 2019-20 season.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Real’s squad depth gives them an edge over Barca in the title race

https://theathletic.com/1833321/2020/05/28/messi-real-madrid-barcelona-lionel-nacho-vasquiez-diaz/

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Having Nacho Fernandez, Lucas Vazquez and even Mariano Diaz to call on makes Real Madrid favourites to win La Liga this season if the 2019-20 title is decided on the pitch.

Utility defender Nacho has played just 393 minutes in the Primera Division so far this season, putting him 19th on the list of Madrid’s most-used players. Hard-working wideman Lucas sits 17th with 640 minutes, with coach Zinedine Zidane having generally preferred to use other options in his squad.

Twenty-fifth on the list is centre-forward Mariano Diaz, whose 22 minutes in La Liga so far included coming off the bench to score the clincher in the 2-0 win over Barcelona in the last game played at the Bernabeu pre-lockdown.

However, the very changed circumstances when La Liga returns for the last 11 gameweeks — most likely in mid-June — mean that Nacho, Lucas and quite possibly Mariano too will get a lot more time on the pitch and opportunity to make a vital contribution to the title race.

That is because Madrid’s strength in depth contrasts with title rivals Barcelona, who may have a two-point advantage in the current Primera Division standings but are returning to action with a squad of just 19 fit senior first-team players.

Barca’s thin resources are not due to any kind of injury crisis, although the loss of centre-back Samuel Umtiti to another muscle problem is a serious blow. Ousmane Dembele will not be available due to his serious hamstring problem but that absence is covered by February’s emergency signing Martin Braithwaite.

Barca coach Quique Setien has so few options to work with because four younger and lesser-used squad players were taken off the wage bill during the winter window due to the club’s perilous financial situation. None of Jean-Clair Todibo, Moussa Wague, Carles Alena and Carles Perez had made a huge contribution over the first half of the season but they were extra bodies, who might have come in very useful now.

La Liga president Javier Tebas is pushing ahead with his plan to bring Spain’s top two divisions back on Thursday, June 11, with Real Betis against Sevilla likely to be the first game played post lockdown. From the following weekend, there will be at least a couple of La Liga games every day, with teams playing every 72 or 96 hours. The aim is to run everything off as quickly as physically possible, and finish the 2019-20 season by the end of July.

This means that coaches who can rotate their squads and play quite different starting line-ups in each game will have a huge advantage. Madrid and Barca fans, as well as pundits, could argue the toss over which of them currently have the most impressive starting XI. But Zidane has much greater depth to call on, with experienced cover for every position. The new five substitutes rule, if used intelligently, should also give Los Blancos a big advantage late in games.

Even allowing for Luka Jovic’s broken foot during lockdown, Zidane has plenty of options across attack, midfield and defence once Madrid return at home to Eibar. The break has allowed injured attackers Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio to get back fully fit. Previously out-of-favour James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale, and expensive Brazilian teenagers Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo, are also in contention for starting places. Zidane regularly repeats at press conferences that he is “counting on everyone”, even in normal times. That should really be the case through this abnormal accelerated season-end.

Although the extended break has allowed Luis Suarez to get close to recovery from a knee operation undergone in January, Setien has far fewer alternatives to call on. The Barca coach will have to use all of his available senior pros in his team’s first game back — a potentially tricky trip to relegation-threatened Mallorca, where Madrid lost 1-0 in October. Given Umtiti’s injury and Clement Lenglet’s suspension, 20-year-old Barca B defender Ronald Araujo will partner Gerard Pique in the centre of the defence. Some Barca B kids will also be needed to fill the bench.

The sped-up schedule, which could see all teams play 11 games in around 50 days is also likely to punish older players, especially those who need to manage their minutes due to their injury record. Bale is an obvious one here, while Hazard and Asensio may be eased carefully back to competitive action. But generally, Barca have more to worry about in this, too. Seven of their 17 outfield squad members are now into their 30s (Suarez, Pique, Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Jordi Alba and Arturo Vidal). Most had been carrying various wear and tear issues through the season, including Messi, who played while hampered by a left thigh muscle injury in February.

Some new injuries seem inevitable for all teams over the coming weeks, as has already been seen in the Bundesliga. Madrid’s deeper squad has many more like-for-like replacements, while Barca are very reliant on their “gala XI” staying fit.

The tricky financial situation at the Nou Camp also means that a large proportion of Barca’s players have returned to training with big doubts over their long-term futures. With the club needing to bring in money through player sales, whenever the next transfer window opens, all of Rakitic, Vidal, Nelson Semedo, Arthur Melo and Junior Firpo have been the subject of local media headlines claiming their club is desperate to offload them, which may not have been great for morale.

Meanwhile, things have been relatively serene as Madrid returned to work over the last few weeks. The extra numbers meant they had to juggle things to fit the eight-man work groups mandated by La Liga’s protocols during the first week back, with Zidane himself helping make up the numbers in some of the exercises. Budgetary restraints caused by the coronavirus crisis may mean that Nacho and Lucas are nudged towards the Bernabeu exit ahead of 2020-21 but for the moment, both long-term club servants look incredibly useful to have around. Mariano has been injured, again, but has stepped up his comeback in recent days.

Setien has this week been working with two distinct groups: one of 11 players and of 12. Youngsters Araujo, Riqui Puig and Alex Collado have just 41 La Liga minutes between them collectively this season but are all now full-time with the seniors. Barca B captain Monchu has also been training with Messi and Co these weeks. The accelerated run of games will provide welcome opportunities for La Masia’s latest emerging talents to gain top-flight experience but with the added pressure of being thrust straight into a title race in such unusual circumstances.

Barca’s trump card may well be Messi, who, before the break, was head and shoulders above everyone in La Liga. The Argentine has also had a big personal role in Barca lifting 10 out of a possible 15 La Liga trophies awarded during his time in the blaugrana first team.

However, the very changed circumstances and relative depth of the two challenging squads means that Madrid’s lesser-sung Nacho, Lucas and Mariano could be just as important in deciding this particular title race.

 

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  • 3 weeks later...

Lopetegui: Drama with Spain, misery at Real but now rebirth at Sevilla

https://theathletic.com/1864515/2020/06/12/lopetegui-sevilla-real-madrid-spain-la-liga/

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Sevilla’s 2-0 victory at home to Real Betis on Thursday, June 11, the first La Liga game in 93 days, was a successful and low-key return for Spanish football after what has been a very difficult three months for so many.

The game was also another important landmark in Sevilla coach Julen Lopetegui’s personal “project restart”. Two years after he left the Spain national team for Real Madrid on the eve of the 2018 World Cup, he is rebuilding his reputation.

The manner of that move to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu and his subsequent failed 139-day spell as Madrid coach continues to colour the perception of the Basque — a stubborn and inscrutable character, even at the best of times.

There was widespread relief around Spanish football that Thursday’s first game back went off without any major incident. Lopetegui may or may not have been happy that the “derbi” against Betis was chosen as the first game back but the convincing victory allowed him to show the footballing world his progress.


Fair or otherwise, most people still associate Lopetegui’s name to his acrimonious exit on the eve of the World Cup in Russia. Having succeeded Vicente Del Bosque as Spain coach following Euro 2016, the former Spain youth international had guided them impressively through qualifying and many were tipping a side which still contained serial winners like Sergio Ramos, David Silva and Andres Iniesta for success in Russia.

That was until Real Madrid president Florentino Perez tempted him to replace Zinedine Zidane as Los Blancos coach. Spanish federation chief Luis Rubiales reacted to what he saw as a betrayal by immediately firing Lopetegui just two days before their tournament opener against Portugal.

lopetegui-perez-real-madrid

The drama turned out to be a disaster for all involved. Spain stumbled to an early exit under temporary coach Fernando Hierro and the manner of Lopetegui’s arrival at the Bernabeu meant he never had a chance of replicating the success of three-time Champions League winner Zidane, especially with the club’s record goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo leaving for Juventus.

Diego Costa and Diego Simeone ambushed an unprepared Real team in their first high-profile game, with Atletico Madrid inflicting a 4-2 European Super Cup defeat. A short run of positive results in La Liga did not last long. Lopetegui’s media appearances grew gradually terser. He steadfastly claimed that his team were playing quite well, despite the observations of many. His sensitivity to criticism contrasted hugely with predecessor Zidane’s total assurance in public and private. Big-name players quickly realised that their coach had little real power.

An awful run of form included five La Liga games without a win, culminating in a 5-1 hammering at Barcelona in the league. Lopetegui looked pale and shaken at the Nou Camp press conference after that game. He fooled nobody when claiming that his team had been “in control” for long periods and were unlucky with the result. It was an intolerable situation, and Florentino’s axe fell after a short spell of just 14 games, a total of six wins, two draws, six defeats.

That led to a new forensic analysis of Lopetegui’s previous blunders, which included calamitous first games as a goalkeeper at both Madrid and Barcelona, and fainting live on TV when working as a pundit during the 2006 World Cup. After an unconvincing managerial spell at Rayo Vallecano in 2003, he had worked his way up through the underage national teams to earn a shot at what should, in theory, be the top job in Spanish football. After throwing that away to take over at Madrid, he had not been able to stand the heat in the Bernabeu pressure cooker. Where he could go from there was not at all clear.


One person with a different idea of Lopetegui’s abilities was Sevilla sporting director Ramon “Monchi” Rodriguez, who made a personal bet by appointing him last summer.

“Julen is a coach who needs a success,” Monchi said as the new Sevilla coach was presented on a three-year contract in early June 2019 to local reporters who still needed convincing.

At first glance, Lopetegui seemed quite fortunate to have landed the manager’s job at Sevilla. They were regular challengers towards the top of La Liga and serial Europa League winners. However, since Unai Emery left in June 2016, they had run of six managers in less than three years, with an array of contrasting characters, from Jorge Sampaoli to Vincenzo Montella to Pablo Machin, struggling with the unique nature of the city and the club.

The cold, calculating approach of an introspective Basque did not seem to be an exact fit for the passion of the scorching Andalusian capital, either. Lopetegui had to piece together an entirely new team, with 43 players either coming or going last summer. Monchi was looking to rebuild his reputation, too, after struggling at Roma.

The 2019-20 season started very well. Sevilla won four of the first five games in all competitions and topped the La Liga table in September. There were some hiccups along the way — to be expected with so many new faces — but a functional team was quickly assembled.

Lopetegui focused on the basics, with his team more efficient than sparkling. Brazilian centre-back Diego Carlos and former Manchester City holding midfielder Fernando provided a platform for Argentina international Ever Banega to go to work constructing the play.

The resulting side was tough to break down and they conceded 18 goals in their first 19 La Liga games. But they were also not scoring too many — Dutch striker Luuk De Jong was good at holding up the ball but scored just three goals in his first 19 games of the season.

Through the ups and downs, Lopetegui was looking more relaxed than during his time at the pressure-cooker Bernabeu. He was not exactly laugh-a-minute when facing the press but he looked more comfortable. He also quickly built relationships with a motley bunch of players, from Argentine attacker Lucas Ocampos to local lad Jesus Navas, the former Manchester City right winger turned right-back. They aren’t galactico names, but neither do they have the oversized personalities that Lopetegui had trouble organising and motivating at Madrid.

The roughest spot came when a weakened Sevilla team exited the Copa del Rey to second-tier Mirandes in February. That began a winless run of five games and the more temperamental local fans and pundits started to get anxious. A 3-0 win at high-flying Getafe strengthened the impression that Lopetegui had instilled a tough mentality in the team, which was mirroring its boss’ ability to roll with the punches.

Their final game before the COVID-19 pandemic struck was a deserved 2-2 draw at Atletico, keeping Sevilla in third place through the lockdown, with a crucial two-point lead over Simeone’s side in the race for Champions League qualification.

“Lopetegui came as a coach with lots of international experience,” Sevilla president Jose Castro told The Athletic during the build-up to La Liga’s return. “When we signed him, we were convinced he was the ideal coach for us. He has brought new ideas and theories, but above all, he is a very serious and hard-working guy. He is very methodical and studies very well for each game. Without a doubt, the players take strength from that. We hope to see that again in the ‘derbi’, such intensity in our team.”


Even counting a Bernabeu return in January (Sevilla narrowly lost 2-1), Lopetegui’s most pressurised game for Sevilla so far had been his first derby at Betis’ Estadio Benito Villamarin in November.

After a tense 2-1 victory, in a game that could have gone either way, the final whistle brought a rare release of emotion. Lopetegui jumped from the bench with a roar and punched the air in a mix of suppressed fury and relief. It was a sign of how he has acclimatised to his passionate Andalusian surroundings and an indication of how much his long-term career depends on success in Seville.

The unusual and prolonged lead-up to this week’s return saw Lopetegui in relatively relaxed form. He showed off a greying lockdown beard and dealt openly and calmly with the extra media attention around the league’s first game in three months. “All the world is going to be watching,” he said, while also stressing that he and his players were just trying to approach it like any other game.

Thursday’s game was pretty much in keeping with Lopetegui’s time in charge so far. There was nothing like the usual drama of a fixture which had served up 21 goals in the last five games. Betis had the better ball-players but they were slowly squeezed by a very efficient, if not very brilliant, Sevilla performance.

Sevilla’s expertise at set-pieces was their route to the opening goal early in the second half. Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz gave a very debatable penalty, which the game’s outstanding player Ocampos converted. With Betis’ heads dropping, a second soon arrived. Ocampos flicked on another corner at the near post, and Fernando nodded in from six yards.

Sevilla closed the game out from there, with centre-backs Carlos and Jules Kounde superb. Betis had just one shot on target over the 90 minutes. Both teams using all five substitutes also killed the tempo of the game. Both coaches seemed to be planning for future fixtures well before the end. Given the circumstances, it was no surprise that the game lacked the colour and passion of a typical “gran derbi” in the Andalusian capital.

It was a grind but Lopetegui was full of praise for his players. “It is all very different, but we did a lot of work. The lads took advantage of that,” he told the virtual post-game news conference. “They worked hard, showed a good attitude and felt like a team.”

Those who know Lopetegui say that he knows how important it is for his reputation to succeed now at Sevilla. From start to finish, the experience as Madrid coach was traumatic for him and his family. He has still not opened up in public about its effects but he was hurt by what happened and how he was treated.

Stubborn as he is, he would admit that leaving the Spain national side was a mistake, but he feels he let people down. He knew he was taking on a challenge by accepting the Sevilla job. He has shown bravery to swiftly return to another pressurised position in Spain but knows this is the chance to rebuild his reputation.

The result leaves Sevilla well positioned in what is almost certain to be a tight four-way race for the final two Champions League spots over the next five weeks. Then comes Sevilla’s favourite competition in August, with a tricky tie against Roma awaiting in the Europa League last 16.

There are still some critics in the city — the team’s lack of flair is a problem for some and the reactive style has seen their best results and performances come on the road. Thursday’s complete dismantling of the local rivals will have gone some way to ending those grumbles.

Given the trajectories and psyches of Lopetegui and Sevilla, it is too early to make too many predictions. The usual raucous derby celebrations had to be kept to a minimum after the game, but that probably suited their serious coach, who was already thinking ahead to Monday’s trip to Levante and Friday’s home match against Barcelona.

“Victories always make things easier, but we have to recover now and keep working to prepare for our next game,” Lopetegui said late on Thursday night. “We will enjoy this with our families but tomorrow morning we’ll be back to work again.”

Spanish football needs to be careful as it comes back from the harrowing experience of the last three months, but it is putting its best foot forward in difficult circumstances. Lopetegui, too, is making sure to be cautious as he moves decisively forward from his own traumatic experiences.

 

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Will Ramos ever get to play at the Bernabeu again?

https://theathletic.com/1868833/2020/06/15/ramos-real-madrid-sergio-florentino-perez/

Sergio-Ramos-Real-Madrid-contract-scaled-e1592232182353-1024x684.jpg

Real Madrid were 1-0 up with half an hour played when Sergio Ramos intercepted a pass close to his own penalty area and burst forward on the ball, moving it on to Karim Benzema and then continuing his run deep into the Eibar half.

The defensive leader leaving his position to join the attack with his team just a goal ahead is not usually advisable but Ramos is always gonna Ramos and this time, it worked out well. His unexpected movement opened up space in the Eibar back four, Benzema’s pass played in Eden Hazard, and the former Chelsea forward drew out keeper Marko Dmitrovic before unselfishly squaring to give Ramos an easy finish.

Madrid were 2-0 up, through just their second shot on target. From there, they were in control of their first game back following the three-month break. Even after easing off in the second half, Zinedine Zidane’s side saw out a 3-1 victory which kept them just two points off Barcelona in the title race.

Ramos finished the game sat in the stands at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, where Madrid are finishing their season due to reconstruction work at the Santiago Bernabeu, having been withdrawn after feeling a problem with a thigh muscle. That was just a scare though, and he should be fit to face Valencia on Thursday back at the 6,000-seater stadium at the club’s training ground, usually used by the club’s reserve side, Castilla.

A bigger question looming over Madrid at the moment is whether Ramos ever plays again at the Bernabeu, with the 34-year-old entering the last 12 months of his current contract. The issue of his future has been talked about a lot, although with a lot of noise but very few nuts, as the Spanish say. No formal renewal offer has been made by the club, while there have not even been serious negotiations with Ramos’ agent, his brother Rene.

Asked about the situation on Spanish TV on Sunday evening, Madrid’s director of institutional relations Emilio Butragueno gave his usual assured response.

“In the first place, Sergio played a sensational game. He is a great leader, our captain, a legend, we are delighted with him, and it is an honour that he is our player,” the former Madrid striker responded. “We want him to be here many more years. He is one of the greats of Madrid’s history, no doubt.”

That was typical Butragueno, laying on the praise for Ramos but steering away from offering any actual details.

The situation is further complicated by last summer’s drama, when Ramos came close to leaving Madrid. President Florentino Perez went as far as telling a Spanish radio station that the club captain had asked to be released from his contract so he could make a lucrative move to China. There followed a few days of uncertainty before the player called an emotional press conference where he admitted to receiving the offer but said it was “lies” that he had asked to leave for free. He added he still expected to end his career at the Bernabeu and even claimed he would “play for Real Madrid for free”.

The two versions of the same story remained unchallenged but the issue continued to rumble on through autumn and winter. Ahead of last February’s Champions League last-16 first leg against Manchester City, Ramos was asked whether he would happily sign a one-year extension just to sort the situation for the moment.

“Nobody is in a hurry over this,” Ramos responded. “We will reach an understanding, independently of what the club wants. I have never asked for two or three or four years. I understand that after a certain age, they do one-year deals. People are trying to create a distancing from the club that does not exist. If the club wants me to stay, I will stay.”

Madrid lost the game 2-1 and Ramos was sent off for a late professional foul, again raising doubts over his long-term usefulness to the team. That was almost immediately followed by all football stopping due to the pandemic, with the financial fallout seriously affecting Madrid’s future planning for both contract offers and new signings.

Agent Rene was asked on the Onda Cero radio station last week whether his brother would play again at the Bernabeu, which is expected to be ready to host games again in the autumn. “Hombre, the gum will stretch as far as it can but I also have to say that time stands still for nobody,” said Rene Ramos, mixing his Spanish metaphors but not clearing up the situation. “For him, it would be the best of send-offs after so many years here.”

There is a feeling that Florentino might be quite enjoying seeing Ramos and his camp squirm a little in public. Supposed interest from other clubs, especially Manchester United, has previously been used as leverage before agreeing bumper new contracts with Madrid. That might be more difficult this time around, although there have been articles in the Spanish press in recent days claiming his friendship with former team-mate David Beckham, who is president of MLS side Inter Miami, could open opportunities in America.

Perez also has a history of moving on big names when their contribution on the pitch no longer matched their influence in the dressing room or local media, perhaps having learned from how Santiago Bernabeu shoved out Alfredo Di Stefano himself back in the 1960s. More recent club legends — such as Vicente del Bosque, Fernando Hierro, Raul, Iker Casillas and Cristiano Ronaldo — have been shown little sympathy when their usefulness was deemed to be over. Anybody seen to challenge the ultimate authority of the club president is especially in danger of being shown the door.

Ramos’ popularity with most of the local press, and the majority of Bernabeu fans, has held up remarkably well, even as his form on the pitch has fluctuated pretty wildly through the last couple of seasons. He was never the most positionally reliable but his defending has grown more and more reckless in recent seasons.

Deliberately picking up a yellow card in last season’s last-16 first leg Ajax in the Champions League to rule himself out of the second leg — which Ajax went on to win 4-1 — was a memorable blunder, but not the only one. Last season, he made high-profile errors in both La Liga clasicos. Zidane has, so far, remained very publicly supportive but must have noticed that Ramos’ forays forward in open play often cause more problems for his own team than the opposition.

The surge up the pitch against Eibar on Sunday afternoon did pay off — it brought Ramos’ 65th goal in 445 La Liga games for Madrid, a pretty phenomenal record for a defender (one goal every 597 minutes). His contribution to four Champions League wins in five seasons from 2014 to 2018 makes him immovable from the club’s history. Whether his future at Madrid is secured before the Bernabeu is ready to reopen remains to be seen.

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On 6/16/2020 at 3:19 AM, Vesper said:

Will Ramos ever get to play at the Bernabeu again?

https://theathletic.com/1868833/2020/06/15/ramos-real-madrid-sergio-florentino-perez/

Sergio-Ramos-Real-Madrid-contract-scaled-e1592232182353-1024x684.jpg

Real Madrid were 1-0 up with half an hour played when Sergio Ramos intercepted a pass close to his own penalty area and burst forward on the ball, moving it on to Karim Benzema and then continuing his run deep into the Eibar half.

The defensive leader leaving his position to join the attack with his team just a goal ahead is not usually advisable but Ramos is always gonna Ramos and this time, it worked out well. His unexpected movement opened up space in the Eibar back four, Benzema’s pass played in Eden Hazard, and the former Chelsea forward drew out keeper Marko Dmitrovic before unselfishly squaring to give Ramos an easy finish.

Madrid were 2-0 up, through just their second shot on target. From there, they were in control of their first game back following the three-month break. Even after easing off in the second half, Zinedine Zidane’s side saw out a 3-1 victory which kept them just two points off Barcelona in the title race.

Ramos finished the game sat in the stands at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, where Madrid are finishing their season due to reconstruction work at the Santiago Bernabeu, having been withdrawn after feeling a problem with a thigh muscle. That was just a scare though, and he should be fit to face Valencia on Thursday back at the 6,000-seater stadium at the club’s training ground, usually used by the club’s reserve side, Castilla.

A bigger question looming over Madrid at the moment is whether Ramos ever plays again at the Bernabeu, with the 34-year-old entering the last 12 months of his current contract. The issue of his future has been talked about a lot, although with a lot of noise but very few nuts, as the Spanish say. No formal renewal offer has been made by the club, while there have not even been serious negotiations with Ramos’ agent, his brother Rene.

Asked about the situation on Spanish TV on Sunday evening, Madrid’s director of institutional relations Emilio Butragueno gave his usual assured response.

“In the first place, Sergio played a sensational game. He is a great leader, our captain, a legend, we are delighted with him, and it is an honour that he is our player,” the former Madrid striker responded. “We want him to be here many more years. He is one of the greats of Madrid’s history, no doubt.”

That was typical Butragueno, laying on the praise for Ramos but steering away from offering any actual details.

The situation is further complicated by last summer’s drama, when Ramos came close to leaving Madrid. President Florentino Perez went as far as telling a Spanish radio station that the club captain had asked to be released from his contract so he could make a lucrative move to China. There followed a few days of uncertainty before the player called an emotional press conference where he admitted to receiving the offer but said it was “lies” that he had asked to leave for free. He added he still expected to end his career at the Bernabeu and even claimed he would “play for Real Madrid for free”.

The two versions of the same story remained unchallenged but the issue continued to rumble on through autumn and winter. Ahead of last February’s Champions League last-16 first leg against Manchester City, Ramos was asked whether he would happily sign a one-year extension just to sort the situation for the moment.

“Nobody is in a hurry over this,” Ramos responded. “We will reach an understanding, independently of what the club wants. I have never asked for two or three or four years. I understand that after a certain age, they do one-year deals. People are trying to create a distancing from the club that does not exist. If the club wants me to stay, I will stay.”

Madrid lost the game 2-1 and Ramos was sent off for a late professional foul, again raising doubts over his long-term usefulness to the team. That was almost immediately followed by all football stopping due to the pandemic, with the financial fallout seriously affecting Madrid’s future planning for both contract offers and new signings.

Agent Rene was asked on the Onda Cero radio station last week whether his brother would play again at the Bernabeu, which is expected to be ready to host games again in the autumn. “Hombre, the gum will stretch as far as it can but I also have to say that time stands still for nobody,” said Rene Ramos, mixing his Spanish metaphors but not clearing up the situation. “For him, it would be the best of send-offs after so many years here.”

There is a feeling that Florentino might be quite enjoying seeing Ramos and his camp squirm a little in public. Supposed interest from other clubs, especially Manchester United, has previously been used as leverage before agreeing bumper new contracts with Madrid. That might be more difficult this time around, although there have been articles in the Spanish press in recent days claiming his friendship with former team-mate David Beckham, who is president of MLS side Inter Miami, could open opportunities in America.

Perez also has a history of moving on big names when their contribution on the pitch no longer matched their influence in the dressing room or local media, perhaps having learned from how Santiago Bernabeu shoved out Alfredo Di Stefano himself back in the 1960s. More recent club legends — such as Vicente del Bosque, Fernando Hierro, Raul, Iker Casillas and Cristiano Ronaldo — have been shown little sympathy when their usefulness was deemed to be over. Anybody seen to challenge the ultimate authority of the club president is especially in danger of being shown the door.

Ramos’ popularity with most of the local press, and the majority of Bernabeu fans, has held up remarkably well, even as his form on the pitch has fluctuated pretty wildly through the last couple of seasons. He was never the most positionally reliable but his defending has grown more and more reckless in recent seasons.

Deliberately picking up a yellow card in last season’s last-16 first leg Ajax in the Champions League to rule himself out of the second leg — which Ajax went on to win 4-1 — was a memorable blunder, but not the only one. Last season, he made high-profile errors in both La Liga clasicos. Zidane has, so far, remained very publicly supportive but must have noticed that Ramos’ forays forward in open play often cause more problems for his own team than the opposition.

The surge up the pitch against Eibar on Sunday afternoon did pay off — it brought Ramos’ 65th goal in 445 La Liga games for Madrid, a pretty phenomenal record for a defender (one goal every 597 minutes). His contribution to four Champions League wins in five seasons from 2014 to 2018 makes him immovable from the club’s history. Whether his future at Madrid is secured before the Bernabeu is ready to reopen remains to be seen.

He now scored more LaLiga goals than Figo, Zidane, Xavi... Ronaldinho have just one more...

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Llorente, Atletico’s new star who named his dog Anfield after winning there

https://theathletic.com/1939079/2020/07/30/llorente-marcos-atletico-madrid-liverpool/

llorente-marcos-atletico-madrid-liverpool.jpg

Julio Llorente pauses, thinks about the question and lets out a little smile.

He’s not one to give away his nephew Marcos’ secrets but this one won’t upset the Atletico Madrid midfielder.

“It is true that he gave a dog as a gift to his mother and called it Anfield,” he says.

You cannot blame him.


It should be no surprise that Marcos Llorente wanted to mark his visit to Liverpool’s stadium in March, or to give his family something to help them remember the night.

His two goals, as Atletico knocked holders Liverpool out of the Champions League, made him an instant rojiblanco hero for life and also surprised anybody who had been at all following the 25-year-old’s career up to that point.

When coach Diego Simeone sent him on for Diego Costa with almost an hour gone, it was seen as a defensive move — a holding midfielder by trade coming on for a centre-forward — with the away team under pressure and the tie closely balanced at 1-1 on aggregate.

Llorente’s energy and athleticism further up the pitch could press and disrupt a Liverpool side who were dominating possession and territory. Although when Roberto Firmino made it 2-0 on the night, Atletico’s chances of progress to the quarter-finals seemed to have gone, especially without any proven goalscorers left on the pitch.

Then, almost immediately, Joao Felix picked up a miscued clearance by home goalkeeper Adrian and found Llorente in space just outside the Liverpool penalty area. He did not strike the ball especially cleanly, but he got it past a badly positioned Adrian for what was his first ever Champions League goal and just the fourth of his entire senior career.

A few minutes later, on the ball 30 yards from goal, Llorente turned away from Joe Gomez and Jordan Henderson and confidently fired a low shot into the corner of the net. There was still time for him to produce his first assist in senior football, sending fellow substitute Alvaro Morata clear to make it 4-2 on aggregate. The reigning European champions and runaway Premier League leaders had been eliminated and Atletico fans had a new, unexpected hero.

When the COVID-19 outbreak stopped all football soon after, that match — and Llorente’s contribution to it — was replayed and replayed through the lockdown by all connected with Atletico Madrid. Any rojiblanco fans or pundits mentioning his name now always had to prefix it with “hero of Anfield”, something which his uncle says he has accepted naturally.

“He is taking it all well. It shows that Atletico’s fans like him and appreciate him,” Julio says. “It is nice when journalists put a nickname on a player like this — well, once it is positive. And it reminds you of a game where something very important happened. Marcos is very happy with this, he gives it the importance it deserves, he knows the game will always be remembered.”


All the talk and celebration around Llorente’s Anfield achievement needs to be placed within the context of his family background.

Marcos’ two grandfathers won seven European Cups between them — Paco Gento got six as a key player in a Real Madrid team which also included Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, then Ramon Grosso took over the team’s No 9 jersey from Di Stefano and won the 1966 European Cup alongside Gento. Two of Marcos’ great uncles (Julio Gento and Antonio Gento) also played for the Bernabeu club before having decent careers at other clubs.

The next generation continued the tradition. Marcos’ dad, Paco Llorente won nine trophies, including three La Liga titles, with Real Madrid between 1987 and 1994. Uncle Julio also has two La Liga winners’ medals from his days at the Bernabeu, before moving to Tenerife and being part of the team which famously denied Real Madrid the title on the final day of both the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons.

The sporting heritage is not even just limited to football. Marcos’ mother, Gelu Moreno, played 14 times for Spain at basketball, while two uncles and two great uncles were also professionals in that sport.

So when Marcos entered Real Madrid’s La Fabrica academy at the age of 12, the expectation and pressure on him to succeed would have been quite something.

“I’ve been asked that many times too, whether it was harder for me with my surname,” says Julio, when asked if the family name was a help or a hindrance at youth level. “The same as my brothers, when we started out. Llorente-Gento… well Gento, has a weight. Marcos felt that weight at some moments, but it has been more of a help. It has given him strength to show that this surname is carried with pride and he must show that he is a Llorente, or a Gento, or a Grosso.”

The name did not help Marcos establish himself with Spain’s age-group teams until under-21 level, when he was a starter in the side beaten by Germany in the 2017 European Championship final.

“Marcos comes from a family background which lives and breathes football,” current Spain Under-19 coach Santi Denia tells The Athletic. “Sometimes that can help you but, if you do not have the characteristics and you do not make the sacrifices and efforts to train hard, to be humble, to follow the instructions of the coach, to keep improving, you will not reach the professional level. If he has had extra pressure for his background, he has handled it very well, he has been able to adapt to the demands at Madrid, and has reached the professional level where he is going perfectly.”

As a youngster, Llorente also changed position a lot — especially as a thin and wiry frame filled out during his later teenage years, thanks to a lot of physical work, says Denia, who won the La Liga title as an Atletico player in 1995-96.

“He went through an evolution — when he was a cadete (14 or 15 years old), he played more on the wing,” he says. “He was physically not as developed as he is now. Technically, he has always been very good. With the Spain Under-19s he took a step up and was the starting ‘mediocentro’. And went to have a spectacular time with the under-21s as a holding player. He was a very, very intelligent player, with spectacular physical qualities, who provided a lot of balance. When he was with us at the under-21s, he always did great work for the team.”

Llorente’s progress at club level seemed even smoother — he played every minute as a central midfielder as Real Madrid Under-19s got to the UEFA Youth League semi-finals in 2014 under Luis Ramis. Over the following two years, he established himself as a key member for their youth side, playing against grown men in Spain’s third tier, coinciding with Zinedine Zidane’s spell as their coach.

When Zidane took over the first team in January 2016, he did not however take Llorente up with him. Instead he was sent on loan the following summer to Alaves, where he was a regular for the newly promoted La Liga side, who easily stayed up while also making that season’s Copa del Rey final. On his return to the Bernabeu, he again struggled to get much playing time — just five starts in 2017-18, always in defensive midfield and always when the team was being rotated.

“The demands on a Real Madrid coach are very high,” Ramis tells The Athletic. “You need players of international quality to compete in La Liga and the Champions League. Zidane is not in a hurry when it comes to giving opportunities, but players need to keep taking advantage of the time they get and show they have the quality that the team needs. It is not easy to find a place in a squad full of such big players.”

Real Madrid’s next coach, Julen Lopetegui, gave Llorente just 11 minutes in La Liga during his short time in charge. An injury to Casemiro opened up a place in the team during Santi Solari’s even briefer term and he scored a fine long-range goal at the 2018 Club World Cup. But then an adductor injury took him out of the side. When Zidane returned to the Bernabeu bench the following March, the even younger Fede Valverde was chosen to add energy and athleticism to the midfield. By last summer, everyone knew that Llorente would need to look elsewhere for opportunities.

“You’d have to ask Zidane why that happened,” Julio says. “I have no idea. I don’t know, I don’t know. But, look, Marcos is a kid with a lot of confidence in what he can do. When he had to leave Real Madrid, I believe it was a motivation to keep getting better, not to allow his morale to drop. He accepted everything that came, and worked hard to turn the situation around. He is a specialist in that, overcoming adverse situations, when all is not in his favour.”

Not that many players move directly across the Spanish capital from Real to Atletico, and especially not at a time when the two clubs are directly competing for the biggest trophies. However, the Llorente family’s previous links to Atletico meant that Marcos’ move was more easily understood.

“He is a kid who wants to play and enjoy himself, and accepts things professionally,” Julio says. “It’s true he really wanted to reach Real Madrid’s first team. All his family had worn that jersey. But when the moment came when Zidane told him he would not get much playing time, and he needed to leave, Atletico Madrid was an option that he liked. We liked that idea too. His father and uncle also wore that jersey, so it was a bit strange (the move), but not so much.”


While Llorente’s football lineage has made him a figure of interest in Spain, he also stood out for another reason.

Not many professional athletes adopt the “paleo diet”, which is based on the idea of eating just what our ancestors did before organised farming began about 10,000 years ago. That means lots of protein from red meat, along with fish, seafood, chicken, nuts, seeds and some vegetables such as potatoes, yuca and sweet potatoes. Dairy products, cereals, sugars and legumes are excluded, while fruit is only allowed at breakfast. Llorente’s interest in healthy eating went as far as to be a co-investor, along with Athletic Bilbao’s Ibai Gomez, in a restaurant called Naked & Sated, not far from the Bernabeu to the north of Madrid’s city centre.

“It is what I believe in, what I believe is best for our bodies, and what I eat,” he said at the restaurant’s official opening last July. “More than a diet, it is a way of life,” said Gomez, who has followed his friend’s example in adopting the paleo diet.

Julio says that Marcos’ interest in looking after what he eats is another family trait. “His father took extraordinary care with his diet,” he says. “The uncles too, but his father to an extraordinary level. And from a very early age he instilled that into Marcos, these eating habits, practically from when he was born. His father is his best ally in this sense.”

Marcos has also admitted to sometimes going to training under Atletico’s punishing fitness coach Oscar “El Profe” Ortega without first eating breakfast, as he believes working out while fasting has a positive effect. He’s also used social media to show off his adherence to the Crossfit “fitness philosophy”, which involves a lot of high-intensity gym work and weightlifting. During lockdown, his impressive home gym featured heavily, alongside dogs, in his Instagram pictures, while his partner Patricia Noarbe has her own personal fitness training business.

“It is clear that he has made a decision to look after himself,” Denia says. “But if you see him physically, he is a wonder. He has been looking after what he eats for his whole life. And furthermore he believes in it, which is the most important in all this. It is a sacrifice he makes, which shows that he is a guy who looks after himself, every little detail, how he rests, what he eats, everything he does.”


Llorente kept working hard, eating healthily and resting well following his €40 million move across the “derbi” divide in Madrid to join Atletico last summer. However, it initially seemed that Simeone shared counterpart Zidane’s doubts about his abilities at the very top level. He did not start a game until week 14 of the La Liga season, and did not get even a minute off the bench in their first five Champions League group matches.

Simeone was noticing something though, and an injury to Koke led to a surprise start for Llorente in the derby at the Bernabeu in February. He kept his place in the XI, playing mostly on the right wing, and a few weeks later scored his first Atletico goal in a 2-2 draw at Valencia.

Still though, there was no sign of what was to come at Anfield, which was the first time Simeone had really played him in a front two. That also might have just been a one-off due to the special circumstances of that game, particularly when all football then stopped for three months due to the COVID-19 break.

Maybe it should not be a surprise that Llorente’s fitness and energy levels did not suffer even during Spain’s strict lockdown. He was Atletico’s best player in their first game back, against Athletic Bilbao, starting up top in support of Costa in a 1-1 draw. Simeone rotated for their next match three days later, but he came off the bench in late June to score one goal and assist two in a 5-0 victory at Alaves.

“Marcos is feeling very good at the moment, very happy,” Julio says. “He had some doubts — he was not playing much — but now he feels the confidence of the coach, and for a player that always gives you a lot of strength, more security in yourself. It gives you wings, you have the feeling you can do anything.”

By now, Llorente was playing with never-before-seen confidence, pulling off audacious flicks and dribbles nobody could remember him even trying before. His team-mates had also started looking to find him in advanced positions, and he added another well-taken goal in the victory over Getafe in the penultimate round of La Liga. Even those who always fancied him to thrive at the top level did not expect it to be in this way.

“The coach is there to see what qualities a player has, and to get him to show them,” Denia says. “El Cholo (Simeone) is a specialist in this. And he is taking advantage of Marcos’ moment of form, of the physical gifts he has, freeing him from the more defensive position, and is getting results.”

That moment of form was such that Simeone was asked whether Llorente was “Atletico’s Lionel Messi” ahead of the team’s visit to Barcelona during the final weeks of the season.

“Marcos knows very well that he is no Messi,” he replied, with typical common sense. “But using his humility and his hard work he has been improving, and offering more options for the coach and the team with his physical strength and capacity to score. He is a kid who has been gifted nothing and is earning his place in the team, day by day, and game by game.”

Whether a coincidence or not, Atletico’s season took off just when Llorente found a place in their starting XI. The boost in confidence winning at Anfield gave them has also been crucial. Before the COVID-19 break, they were sixth in La Liga, with a side reconstructed last summer having their worst domestic season of the Argentine’s eight years in charge. Post-lockdown, they won seven and drew four of their 11 games. Even as the team was rotated from game to game through the heavy schedule, Llorente appeared in every match as Champions League qualification was easily secured.

Now the focus has turned to the quickfire final stages of this season’s tournament next month. Atletico face RB Leipzig in their quarter-final on August 13 and then maybe either Atalanta or Paris Saint-Germain in the last four, with a growing confidence among rojiblanco fans and pundits that this could finally be the year that their European Cup hoodoo is broken — maybe even against Real Madrid back in Lisbon, the city where their hearts were broken by their city rivals in 2014.

At the heart of that will be Llorente.

“Marcos has a capacity to wait for his moment,” his uncle Julio adds. “That patience is one of the important characteristics of his personality. He perseveres in his work and does not get down, no matter how many setbacks he suffers or obstacles are placed in his path. That is very important to highlight as he is a kid who, although many things have happened to him, he has faced them with optimism and with motivation, and the possibility to recover and return.”

All that, plus a knack for naming his family pets.

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Bissau to Barca: How Fati debuted at 16 with ‘perfect blend of Europe and Africa’

https://theathletic.com/1687797/2020/08/14/ansu-fati-barcelona-debut-aged-16-sevilla-real-madrid-release-clause/

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Rush hour in Bissau. The traffic has crawled to a standstill. There is a blaring of horns, but then, from the side of the road, comes a drumbeat. It starts quietly but quickly spreads as men, women and children stop what they are doing and take up the beat. Spoons, bottles, buckets, tins. If it makes a noise, it can make music. And everyone — everyone — can sing.

This, the taxi driver says with a laugh, is “gumbe”, the music beloved by the people of Guinea-Bissau. Within a matter of moments, frustration at congestion on the sandy, pot-holed streets has given way to a mood of celebration. Everyone is smiling. Singing along and smiling, seemingly without a care in the world.

At Bandim market, there are stalls selling fruit, charcoal, textiles, hardware, hand-made goods and plenty more. Except they are not doing much actual selling, because money is scarce.

This is Guinea-Bissau, which, by every metric provided by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, is one of the poorest countries on earth. The former Portuguese colony is still recovering, very slowly, from a civil war in the late 1990s and a military coup in 2003. Nearly 70 per cent of the 1.8 million population live below the poverty line. Twenty-five per cent suffer from chronic malnutrition.

A visit to Bissau, the capital city, is enough to reinforce certain European stereotypes about life in this part of west Africa. But still, many of the living conditions, in corrugated shacks and mud huts, bring a sense of shock. So does the sight of dozens of vultures joining stray dogs in picking through the rubbish that is strewn on the pavements and in the wasteland between one row of shacks and the next.

And yet… gumbesmiles, palpable happiness. “Everyone is poor, with so many limitations on their daily life, but we are happy,” says Nestor Bakouri, a teacher at L’Ecole Sao Paulo. “Everywhere you see smiles.”

You see football everywhere too. You don’t have to wander far in Bissau to see a patch of sand that has been converted into a pitch with makeshift goalposts. There is an abundance of kids wearing the colours of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Real Madrid and, especially, Barcelona (though shirts bearing the names of Michael Jordan and LeBron James also figure). Some huts, with huge television aerials on their roof, advertise upcoming matches in the Champions League, Premier League and La Liga.

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Outside a bar, two boys are playing table football. The wooden players have been hand-painted in the colours of Barcelona and Real Madrid. And the striking thing is that Lionel Messi, in the No 10 shirt, has dropped back into Barcelona’s midfield because alongside No 17 (Antoine Griezmann) and No 9 (Luis Suarez) in the forward line is No 31.

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“Ansu Fati!” one of the boys shouts, pointing at the figurine with the No 31 on its back. “Ansu Fati de Guinea-Bissau!”

The words are belted out with pride.

A boy from Bissau playing from Barcelona, gearing up for their Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich tonight. It seems extraordinary that any 17-year-old could have featured so regularly for Barcelona this season. In the case of Fati, born into extreme poverty here in Guinea-Bissau, it almost defies belief.


After a wild-goose chase across the city of Bissau, part of which involves hanging off the back of a bus in a manner the locals insist is perfectly normal and safe, The Athletic is escorted to an area called Missira, a couple of miles west of the centre. Again, there are corrugated shacks and mud huts, with skinny goats and chickens running around outside, but there are more telegraph wires overhead here. More people have shoes or trainers on their feet.

We arrive at a larger house. Unlike the majority, it is made of concrete, painted blue, with a colonial-style balustrade. There are bikes outside, laundry drying on the washing line, a few plastic chairs. On one of them, clutching a mobile phone, sits Bucar Fati, Ansu’s uncle. He is persuaded, eventually, to talk to us about his famous nephew.

“When Ansu was a child, he just played football,” Bucar says through an interpreter. “It was always football, only football. Every day, every moment, playing football. His parents had to take him by force to make him come and eat. He would be crying and crying until he was playing football again.

“Ansu has three brothers. His older brother, Braima, is a very good player. All the family said he could be a footballer. But Ansu was even better.”

Bucar recounts how he and Ansu’s father, Bori, used to make a living selling clothes in the market. Bori, though, had broader horizons. Along with another brother, Djibril, he was determined to move to Europe in search of a better life. He would pursue his own football ambitions there and, if that failed, find a steady job and a more secure way of living for his family.

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Bucar would hear from his brothers at regular intervals. For a time, things weren’t going so well. Then came talk of another new start, this time in Spain, where Bori went alone at first, hoping to find work. Things were better there and so, in time, Bori’s wife Lurdes and their children followed him across the border from Portugal. Then, out of the blue, came the news Braima and Ansu were developing into such good footballers that they were wanted by Barcelona and Real Madrid.

He isn’t able to shed much light on Ansu’s journey through the ranks at La Masia, the famed Barcelona academy. All he knows is that he was shocked and awe-struck when Bori got in touch last August to tell him Ansu was about to make his debut. Not for the B team or in an unofficial match, but in La Liga against Real Betis at the Nou Camp. Aged 16 years and 298 days, Ansu came on as a late substitute, becoming the youngest player to play for the club since Vicenc Martinez in 1941. In an enterprising 12-minute cameo, he looked full of confidence and almost scored.

“It was a big surprise to be told he was going to play,” Bucar says. “It wasn’t something we were waiting to happen for months. We never thought that. But we were all watching. When it happened, when Ansu played for Barcelona’s first team, I was so happy. I cried and cried and cried with happiness. It was so beautiful to see him playing for that team. To think that he could play in Barcelona’s first team at 16… nobody could ever have thought that. It was a miracle.”


Ansu Fati is one of those players who makes a powerful first impression. That was certainly the case for Jose Luis Perez Mena, a coach at Escuela de Futbol Peloteros, a football academy in Herrera, around 75 miles east of Seville.

“It was a shock,” Perez Mena says. “I have been working in football for about 50 years and I had never seen anyone quite like this at such a young age. He was different. He had this fusion of speed, technical skill, feints, dribbles, the ability to commit opponents.

“He didn’t have any football boots. To play football, he didn’t have anything. We bought sportswear and boots for him. But in terms of football ability, we just hadn’t seen anything like him.”

Perez Mena and his fellow coaches were all asking the same questions. Who was this kid? Where had he come from?

The answer was that Ansu’s father Bori had been drawn to the region after reading about Marinaleda, which is billed, in Dan Hancox’s book of the same name, as “the village against the world”. It is portrayed by its mayor, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, as a communist utopia, where the farms and processing plants are communally owned, income is shared, house prices are low and the unemployment figures are far below those not just elsewhere in Andalusia but through the rest of Spain.

That was the vision Bori found so seductive when he was living in Portugal. He went on his own at first, finding work building the new high-speed rail network. Eventually, his family followed. When the construction work dried up and other jobs, collecting glasses in a nightclub and picking olives, came to nothing, one of Ansu’s coaches went to the mayor to ask whether something could be done to help the Fati family.

This is when the story becomes blurred.

Some say Bori was at risk of being deported because he did not have the right papers to stay in Spain. One popular version of events is that Gordillo took him under his wing and employed him as his chauffeur, but the mayor has denied that. Others suggest Bori drove a rubbish-collection truck in Herrera. What is certain is that, for the first time since leaving Bissau, the family found stability in Herrera. At last, they could see a future for themselves in Europe.

Almost as quickly, though, they began to be offered a vision of a different kind of future. Praise for their sons’ football talents soon developed into something more serious. The academy in Herrera had close links to La Liga club Sevilla, who invited Braima and Ansu to train with them. At Sevilla, Ansu’s talent, in particular, commanded a sense of awe from the coaching staff, who, like Perez Mena, had never seen anything like such skills in a boy of nine years old. The staff at Sevilla, not least their revered director of football Monchi, thought they had unearthed a gem.

Perez Mena had other ideas, though. He felt Ansu’s talent was so extreme it merited the very best football education, so he made a call to a contact at Barcelona’s La Masia.


“There were the two brothers,” Albert Puig, Barcelona’s former academy director, tells The Athletic. “Braima was 12 and Ansu was nine. Sevilla had spotted them and brought them directly in their academy. Reports started arriving on my desk that the two of them were very talented footballers, so I went to watch them.

“At the time, I was equally impressed by both. Braima was a good footballer, more ‘de toque’ (a one-touch style). Ansu was alert and brave. He had started out playing street football in Africa. He was explosive and scintillating in one-on-one situations. There were a lot of Spanish clubs watching him, but Sevilla had him. I spoke with Jose Luis Perez Mena and with his father and with the mayor of the town, whom the father worked for. He seemed to be a van driver or a binman. I went three times to their village, explained everything to their father and convinced them that we could offer the best environment for his children. We all came to believe that Barcelona was the best place for the boys.”

At Sevilla, they took a very different view. They were furious. So were Real Madrid, who thought Ansu would join them. “Real Madrid offered more money,” Bori recently told Cope Radio. “They offered a house for the family, everything, but when I went to Valdebebas (Real Madrid’s training ground), they didn’t have a residence for their young players. Barcelona did, so when Albert Puig persuaded me that they had the better project, we chose Barca.”

It wasn’t plain sailing. “Sevilla did a strange thing,” says Puig, now coach of the Japanese club Albirex Niigata. “They didn’t allow him to play for another club under the Spanish federation for a year. But it actually worked out well. It meant that, while Braima was able to move to Barcelona and start by himself in La Masia, Ansu could have another year living at home with his parents and come up and visit every few months.”

Ansu moved to Barcelona at the age of 10. His mother soon joined him there, with his father visiting at regular intervals.

Some who have come from far afield, such as Andres Iniesta and Messi, have talked of their initial struggles to adapt to life at La Masia. “Yes, it can be demanding for a little European boy when you take them away from a comfortable family environment,” Puig says. “Iniesta came from a small town and it wasn’t easy to remove from that tight-knit environment. But Ansu is a child of Africa. He was used to seeing his dad only in the summer when his father was working away. The mentality was completely different. He had no adaptation problems in La Masia.”

Puig praises Ansu’s parents for instilling a strong sense of discipline in the boy. “Many Spanish and European parents are extremely protective and they don’t see any weaknesses in their children,” he says. “If Braima or Ansu had a problem in school or something related to discipline, as all kids do at different times, their father always called them straight away to put them right. I remember two occasions when he went further and caught the train to speak to them. If you are a parent, you know the answer (to your children) cannot always be ‘Yes’. If a parent who is far away from La Masia says, ‘My child is perfect and the school is at fault’, you have problems. The humility of the parents was key to the childrens’ upbringing.”

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On the pitch, Ansu was flourishing, frequently being pushed into the higher age-group teams. He had the mix of skill, speed and, crucially, imagination that marked him out as a serious long-term prospect for Barcelona. He was receptive to coaching, willing and able to learn about the game at every stage of his development, but he retained the cutting edge and sense of devilment that had first caught the eye in Herrera a few years earlier. Beyond that, he was becoming a natural, clinical goalscorer, cutting onto his right foot and fitting the Barcelona template for that left-wing role in a 4-3-3.

“In Europe, we have a problem in academies,” Puig says. “The development stage is good but in early years, we have come to penalise mistakes too much. Players at the youngest age need to be dribbling, going one against one, playing with freedom. If there are mistakes, that is OK, no problem, we just need to try again and do it better next time. In the end, we want players who can commit opponents. We need this part of their game to develop with freedom. In the past, you would have kids playing hours and hours on the streets, but this is not possible in Europe anymore. Ansu, by contrast, was able to do that as a kid growing up in Guinea-Bissau.”

In 2015, still only 12 years old, he won the best player award at the MTU Cup — an indoor tournament contested by many of the best youth teams in Europe — and helped Barcelona win the Mediterranean International Cup, where they beat Real Madrid 4-2 in the final. He formed a close friendship and devastating on-pitch partnership with Japanese forward Takefusa Kubo, the pair scoring a combined 129 goals in their first year together.

The Kubo-Fati partnership was brought to an abrupt an end in late 2015, however. After FIFA found Barcelona guilty of breaching of regulations in the signing of youth players, the duo were among 11 prospects temporarily released from La Masia as the club sought to comply with the sanctions.

Kubo returned to Japan in 2015 and did not return to Spain until four years later, when he joined Real Madrid, who sent him on loan to Real Mallorca last season. He has made a similar move to Villarreal for the 2020-21 season. Ansu, though, was soon reintegrated. Even after suffering a fractured tibia and fibula during a youth game against city rivals Espanyol, he was back to action within six months — and looking better than ever. His determination to overcome that injury was one of many things that persuaded staff higher up the club hierarchy that this kid had the right stuff.

At the start of the 2018-19 season, he made his UEFA Youth League debut as a substitute against PSV Eindhoven before coming on against Tottenham Hotspur in the same competition a fortnight later — not bad going for a boy who was still only 15. A couple of months later, having turned 16, he scored a stunning goal in the reverse fixture against PSV, breaking from inside his own half of the pitch, beating two challenges and letting fly from 25 yards. He also scored two poacher’s efforts in the semi-final against a Chelsea team featuring Tariq Lamptey, Marc Guehi, George McEachran and Billy Gilmour, who are all at least two years older than him.

By this stage, he had ceased to be Barcelona’s best-kept secret. All those stellar performances in youth tournaments attracted renewed attention from Real Madrid as well as interest from Barcelona’s rivals across Europe, not least in the Premier League. There was a window of opportunity at the end of the 2018-19 season, when his contract was up for renewal, and Manchester United made serious moves to sign him as they looked to recruit more top-class talent at youth level. Having seen Dutch midfield prospect Xavi Simons depart to Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona were understandably anxious at the prospect of losing another young talent.

Discussions between his father and Barcelona became tense at one stage. Bori ended up drafting in Messi’s brother and agent Rodrigo to assist with the negotiations. Eventually, a new deal was agreed, complete with a €100 million buy-out clause. That was quite a deterrent, but of course, the interest from Real Madrid, Manchester United and others will persist.

“Always there have been clubs interested in Ansu,” Perez Mena says. “When he was here as a young boy, there was Sevilla, (their local rivals) Real Betis, Villarreal, Malaga, Almeria, all of those, as well as Barcelona and Real Madrid. I am a friend of his father and I know that, more recently, the English clubs have come on the scene also. He had an offer from Germany and an offer from Italy before he broke out at Barcelona. But he’s very happy at Barcelona.”


As Bucar Fati says, his nephew’s breakthrough came out of the blue — out of the blaugrana, perhaps.

In the summer of 2019, Ansu was preparing to continue his education under Victor Valdes in the club’s Juvenil A team, which operates at under-19 level. Then came the opportunity to spend pre-season with Barcelona’s B team, where he hoped to gain experience by playing against the likes of Castellon, Cornella and Sabadell in the Segunda Division B, the third tier of Spanish football. His long-term prospects looked brighter than those of his brother Braima, who was about to spend the season on loan to CD Calahorra, another third tier side, but the first team still seemed a long, long way off.

Everything changed in the August, when an injured Lionel Messi was joined on the sidelines by Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele after Barcelona fell to a 1-0 defeat away to Athletic Bilbao in their opening La Liga fixture. The following week, short of options in attack, coach Ernesto Valverde called Ansu up to train with the first team in advance of the game against Betis. To the youngster’s amazement, he was included in the match-day squad, hence Bori’s excited call to his brother back home in Bissau.

On 78 minutes, with Barcelona 5-1 up, Ansu was sent on. Within seconds of his introduction, he was chasing back to win possession, taking on opponents, wriggling away from two challenges in a crowded Betis penalty area before trying to tee up Arturo Vidal. Moments later, Ansu took on Alfonso Pedraza and struck a low shot just beyond the far post.

“Madre mia!” screamed Simon Hanley in the commentary box.

Graham Hunter, sitting alongside Hanley, could not help laughing at the teenager’s audacity. “He’s got talent, but he’s obviously lacking confidence,” Hunter said, his tone dripping with sarcasm. “For heaven’s sake!”

The following day, Ansu posted two pictures on Instagram: one of him struggling to suppress a smile as he waited to come on, the other of him looking euphoric as he walked through the corridors to the dressing room after the game. “Yesterday I will remember all my life,” he said. “The dream of any boy at La Masia: debut at the Camp Nou. Sharing (a dressing room) with the best players in the world was an unforgettable experience. I only have words of thanks to them for their excellent reception.

“Nothing of this would have been possible without my family, without their daily and unconditional support. Thanks also to La Masia, the best soccer school in the world. To my colleagues and coaches who have taught me values that will always accompany me. I promise to continue with humility, work and feet on the ground.”

Six days later, with Barcelona 1-0 down at Osasuna, he was summoned as a half-time substitute. Within six minutes, he rose highest to meet a Carles Perez cross with a perfect header, becoming Barcelona’s youngest ever goalscorer. Next, his first start, at home to Valencia, and he scored inside two minutes with an emphatic right-foot shot from Frenkie de Jong’s pass.

It was fairytale stuff, incredible. At that age, even Messi was playing most of his football in the B team.

The hype among the media figures that cover Barcelona was, inevitably, enormous. El Mundo Deportivo went with the headline “Ha nacido una estrella” (A star is born). Even the Madrid-based media expressed grudging admiration for what they were witnessing. “What this boy is doing is something we have to take very seriously,” said the report in AS, calling to mind the type of language that was used during the Cold War to describe disconcerting advancements from the other side of the conflict. When asked whether the hype was perhaps a little excessive, former Valencia and Spain goalkeeper Santiago Canizares offered a one-word reply: No.

There have been further highlights — scoring twice in a 2-1 win over Levante, and becoming the youngest ever Champions League goalscorer (aged 17 years and 40 days) when he got the winner away to Inter Milan within 90 seconds of coming on — but it has not always been easy this season, with competition for places so intense and with both Valverde and successor Quique Setien under serious pressure to get results.

He has featured more intermittently since Setien took over in January. Perhaps a little too eager to make an impression, he was sent off for a high challenge on Fernando Calero within five minutes of coming on as a substitute in the derby against Espanyol last month. “He came to talk to me afterwards,” the coach said. “He felt very bad about what happened. He was very humble.”

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That word humility features in almost every story you hear about Ansu Fati.

It cannot be easy for a 17-year-old to keep his feet on the ground when, having come from such modest beginnings, he finds himself thrust into the spotlight, playing for Barcelona and competing with Antoine Griezmann and others for a place alongside Messi. He has been taken under Messi’s wing — not just in terms of a mentor-apprentice relationship in the dressing room but with the captain’s brother Rodrigo assisting dad Bori in managing the youngster’s off-pitch affairs. Another fresh contract was agreed in December, with his wages soaring to a reported €20,000 a week and his buy-out clause increased to an initial €170 million.

There has to be a recognition that, for all the promise he has shown in his first season, Ansu is still a long way from the finished article. He was kept on the bench throughout last Saturday’s Champions League game at the Nou Camp, when Barcelona beat Napoli 3-1 to secure their quarter-finals place, and he is likely to be among the substitutes once more for that last-eight meeting with Bayern Munich in Lisbon tonight.

His lack of involvement against Napoli caused a sense of bewilderment among the Catalan sporting press, given that he and midfielder Riqui Puig, 20, had been omitted from the B team’s promotion play-off against Sabadell (which they lost) at the end of last month. “Both Riqui and Ansu are ready to play,” Setien said, looking forward to the quarter-final. “And if they do play, I am sure they will be guaranteed to play well.”

The talent is obvious, but these are early days. “The first thing to say is that Ansu is still very young,” Albert Puig says. “Let’s see where he is when he is 24 or 25.

“But I see Ansu as a perfect blend of Europe and Africa. He has the freedom, bravery, imagination and personality of an African, but he also has the touch and the tactical skill that he has learned at La Masia. This is a very strong fusion.”


In what has been described as the third era of globalisation, nationality has become a fluid concept. Born in Africa but raised in Europe, Ansu Fati could have represented three different nations. At one stage, his father declared that Ansu dreamed of playing for Portugal, but he has since taken Spanish citizenship. In October last year, he made his debut for Spain Under-21s. Guinea-Bissau, 118th in the FIFA rankings, never seemed a serious option.

Back in Bissau, his uncle Bucar smiles. “Of course, it would be great to see him play for Guinea-Bissau,” he says. “But Ansu has his own choice. He should do whatever is best for him. We cannot say anything. We only support him. One day, he might win the World Cup.”

Bucar is keen to point out his family does not have a monopoly on Bissau-Guinean football talent. “There have been a lot of very good players here,” he says. “If you see the local teams here, you will see many talented boys playing the same way. But they don’t have the possibilities to move to Europe. There is no opportunity, no one who can help them.”

It is a familiar story in Africa. There are huge academies in Dakar and Abidjan, the capitals of Guinea-Bissau’s neighbours Senegal and Ivory Coast, but elsewhere on the continent there is top-class talent unable to develop or be nurtured due to lack of exposure to the best facilities or coaching, or to the type of scouting network that might otherwise provide a pathway to Europe. Sadio Mane, from a remote corner of Senegal, might never have made it to Europe, never mind as far as winning the Champions League and Premier League with Liverpool, had he not run away from home to chase his dream.

Oseias Manga, who works for a radio station in Bissau, suggests Ansu’s success in Barcelona has gone a small way towards putting his native country on the map. “If you say ‘Guinea-Bissau’ to people in Europe, I expect most would people would think you meant the Republic of Guinea or Equatorial Guinea,” he says. “Ansu Fati is the only famous person from Guinea-Bissau. No one else.

“It’s something really important for a poor country like this. To have a football player like that… wow. Before now, all the kids always referenced Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Now they reference Ansu Fati, because he’s from Guinea-Bissau like them. He’s a great player and it’s so important. Really, it’s amazing.

“The first day we saw him playing for Barcelona, there was a big party. Everyone was screaming, ‘Ansu Fati, Ansu Fati, Ansu Fati!’ It was wonderful. The day he comes back to Guinea-Bissau with his family, the people will go crazy.”

That day will come. If there is a temptation to wonder whether Ansu and his immediate family have forgotten their roots, Bucar is quick to state otherwise. He gets out his phone and shows the messages and photographs he has received from his nephew over the previous days — pictures from the Barcelona dressing room, pictures with Messi, pictures that are too personal to share with his 3.7 million Instagram followers.

Bucar stands up and wanders around to the rear of the house. He returns with his son, Bacar, who is wearing a Barcelona shirt with — of course — the No 31 and his celebrated cousin’s name on the back. There is something else they want to point out. On closer inspection, it also bears Ansu’s signature. “That shirt is mine,” Bucar says, laughing. “But I couldn’t wear it to the market. If I did, everyone would want it.”

He and his family have not yet been able to travel to Barcelona to watch his nephew play at the Nou Camp. Sitting here in Bissau, it feels like another world and, in many ways, it is. “But one day we will,” Bucar says. “That is the big dream of the family: for us all to go to Spain to see him.

“From the first day we saw him on TV, playing for Barcelona, no one can sleep. For a boy from Guinea-Bissau to play football for Barcelona, it’s causing everyone to cry. Everyone is crying with happiness.”

Crying and singing and dancing with happiness. In Guinea-Bissau, a world away from Barcelona, it is a way of life.

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