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Spain's Pain In Europe
Goal.com's KS Leong looks at the underachievement of Spanish clubs in the UEFA Cup and Champions League this season...
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galleria zoom It hasn’t been a good season at all for Spanish clubs in Europe this term. For the first time in a decade, there is only one team each remaining in the continent’s two cup competitions as the business end rolls around: mighty Barcelona in the Champions League and modest Getafe in the UEFA Cup.

Only in the 2004/05 campaign have La Liga sides performed worse. That was when Villarreal became their only representative by the quarter final stage of the UEFA Cup, only to be knocked out there and then, leaving the country’s press and fans with no one to root for come the semi finals. Getafe have done brilliantly to emulate that feat, but it remains to be seen if they can stay in the competition.

But the lack of representation from Europe’s number one league - as determined by UEFA coefficients - raises an interesting question. Are Spanish clubs slowly losing their vice-like grip on Europe? And if so, a second query comes to mind: is the lack of tactical awareness the main cause for their poor showing this term?

Talent Show

It’s certainly not down to a shortage of talent. Even Valencia, eliminated in the group phase of the Champions League, have the big guns to perform at the biggest stage: David Villa, David Silva, Joaquín, and Fernando Morientes, to name but a few. Granted they were, and in some respects, still are going through a massive crisis but surely, one would think there’s enough quality in their squad to at least earn them a spot in the UEFA Cup.

The likes of Sevilla, Atlético Madrid and Villarreal also have their fair share of match-winning showmen in their ranks and let’s not even start with the star power available at Real Madrid. But all of them were unceremoniously dumped out of their respective competitions much earlier than expected.

In some ironic way, Getafe, the team with the smallest squad, with the fewest high profile players and a coach with the least experience, have progressed further than five of their big-spending counterparts from la Primera.

Treading Water

It just seems that over the last few seasons, Spanish teams are falling behind on the pitch, as if they’ve remained stagnant while the beautiful game continues evolving and all those around them have improved in leaps and bounds to catch up.

Sure, they did get three clubs into the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup last year, but for the second season in a row, there will only be one team from La Liga in the quarter finals of the Champions League, while the English Premiership will have improved last season's tally of three by sending through all four delegates.

Some of the English sides - Liverpool being the prime example - do not have the all-star squads that can drift through games. They rely to some extent on hard graft and regimented tactics, and that's what sees them through at the extent of clubs that are arguably better on paper.

Then there's Spain. As a whole, the country has seldom been that big on tactics, whether at club or international level. They prefer instead to rely on sheer skill and technical ability, which they have in abundance, to win matches for them. And it could very well be that the media and the fans are the ones who are actually holding their teams back from success by adamantly demanding attractive, attacking football all the time, over a more tactical, defensive strategy when necessity dictates.

That approach may have worked wonders in the early half of the decade when the Spanish clubs thoroughly dominated the continent, but the theory that you need only score more than your opponents – a favourite adage of a certain Florentino Pérez, Real Madrid’s ex-president – might not seem so straight forward anymore.

A Question Of Style

A one-dimensional playing style makes it very easy and predictable for opponents to counteract, and you could say that was precisely what happened to Real Madrid, Sevilla, Atlético Madrid and Villarreal in their respective elimination from Europe.

Atleti were knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Bolton in the round of 32. The English side, who generally have players far less prestigious than the rojiblancos' first XI, knew that the Spaniards would throw everything and the kitchen sink at them, so they wisely hunkered down and defended diligently over both legs. In the end, they got a predictable but tactically deserved 1-0 aggregate win to advance, while Los Colchoneros left empty handed despite chalking up a dozen shots on target.

Real Madrid fell victim to pretty much the same type of counter-attacking strategy employed by Roma. The nine-time European kings decided to go for the kill in the first leg away from home - a brave but ultimately foolish game plan that cost them the tie as the Italians stunned them with goals on the break while the men in white were busy foraging upfront. (Perhaps Bernd Schuster should have adopted a more well-balanced, cautious approach, knowing full well that the team’s attack was blunted due to their two razor-sharp forwards – Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robinho – struggling with injuries.)

Sevilla, meanwhile, have often been criticized for their over-enthusiastic attacking football, recklessly driving forward when it seems better to defend. They are likened to a one-way locomotive that’s always headed in the same forward direction. Most times, they can easily steamroll and crush anyone that dares stand infront of them, but sometimes, if someone just puts a small rock on the track then the entire train will be derailed.

But last week against Fenerbahçe, in another twist of irony, the Andalucians opted instead to “over-defend”, sitting back to protect a 3-1 half time lead and inviting the Turkish visitors to pour forward in search of a goal that would send the game into extra-time and subsequently penalties, where Manolo Jiménez’s side would eventually falter.

It just goes to show that tactically, the Spanish just can’t seem to get it quite right.

On The Home Front

Make no mistakes, these teams know how to play with guile and win a tactical battle - but only in their own domestic league, it seems. Villarreal demonstrated this to perfection at the weekend, when they defended with discipline and counterattacked with speed to down Barcelona 1-2 at the Camp Nou.

But the Yellow Submarine couldn’t quite call on that tactical aptitude to see off Zenit St. Petersburg in their UEFA Cup clash.

Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, in typical fashion, the Spanish outfit went gung-ho in the return leg at home, lashing 20 shots towards the visiting goal just to score twice, but still ended up on the wrong side of the tie. The Russians, coached by the very tactically astute Dick Advocaat, only needed to score once to progress to the last 16 on the away goal rule. They got the goal they were looking for and they only needed two shots on target.

Due partly to UEFA’s club rankings, Spanish teams are always perceived as favourites when they step onto the European turf. And whenever that happens, it just seems as though tactics and strategy go straight out the window and they have to automatically assume the role of entertainers and win the game through style and panache.

That is the kind of mentality the country will have to change if they want their clubs to start succeeding and dominating again, and if they want the national side to avoid a similar fate at Euro ’08.

The English and Italians clubs are fast catching up in the coefficient points tally and if their sides do well for the rest of this season, they could dethrone Spain from the number one ranking by the 2009/10 campaign. The Spanish armada had better be prepared for a full scale assault.

KS Leong
 

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Well... What does this have to do with Valencia? :D
 

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well valencia play in the spanish league do they not? and we were poor in europe? everyone here seemed unhappy with our effort in europe this year and i just wanted to discuss the possibility that the spanish teams in general have declined
 

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well valencia play in the spanish league do they not? and we were poor in europe? everyone here seemed unhappy with our effort in europe this year and i just wanted to discuss the possibility that the spanish teams in general have declined
Valencia played at the Champions League, why don't we have threads about Fenerbahce, Chelsea or other teams?

This is belonging to the Spanish Football forum and not to the Valencia-forum, if you want to discuss this is this forum, you have the Europe or Liga-thread where you can discuss this kind of issues...
 
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