The Spanish are coming. The conquistadors from La Liga demonstrate emphatically why they are the ones to watch, the ones to beat, the No 1 league in the world.
London could belong to Real Madrid or Barcelona next month while Dublin falls to the vibrancy of Villarreal.
However frustrating from a parochial English perspective, the purist should cherish the prolific Spanish, whose teams rattled in 14 goals in European competition last week. Joyfulness pervades Barcelona’s play, seen in the passing between Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, disciples of a glorious gospel. Shakhtar Donetsk were elegantly eviscerated.
Glamour suffuses the white shirts of Real Madrid, evinced in the style and heavyweight substance of Cristiano Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso, much-missed alumni of the Premier League.
Tottenham Hotspur, who lost Peter Crouch to two stupid yellows, would have needed 12 to contain Jose Mourinho’s side. Down in the Europa League, a Villarreal side inspired by Borja Valero skewered FC Twente.
In an age when La Liga can boast Messi and Ronaldo, the Premier League stages a show without a real box-office star. The PFA shortlist for Player of the Year reveals as much: Samir Nasri, Gareth Bale, Nemanja Vidic, Charlie Adam, Scott Parker, Carlos Tévez and Rafael van der Vaart are all worthy nominees but lacking the golden allure of a Ronaldo or Messi, Iniesta or David Villa.
This is not to decry English football. For technique and sheer star-chamber vivacity, Spain prevails. No question. For day in, day out soap opera, for debating societies screeching across the airwaves, even for quick-fingered duelling amongst the twittering classes, English football is wonderfully intoxicating, a hearty ale to Spanish cava.
In a highly-competitive division which will see one of the shortest spread of points from champion to Championship-bound, each fixture promises much. Blackpool host nervy Arsenal on Sunday and Bloomfield Road will be rocking. Monday sees Manchester City visit Anfield, where the will to win will be as tangible as the atmosphere.
Yet those who question the depth of Spanish football, who depict La Liga as the Boat Race of football, a chase between Barcelona and Real Madrid, overlook the progress of Villarreal in the Europa League. If the admiring glances are spread to all of Iberia, the march of Portuguese sides like Benfica, Sporting Braga and Porto towards Dublin needs noting.
Before John Bull chokes on his Sunday roast, it needs stressing that this could yet be a glorious year for the English.
If Premier League pride is likely to be rescued by anyone it will be by Manchester United, who want to party like it’s 1999 again. Just as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side sealed their Treble in Barcelona, so they could achieve it again in London. Respected foe like Chelsea and Manchester City, and probably Schalke, bar their way but United could be setting up their Spring camp at Wembley, right beneath the FA offices. That will certainly give their voluble fans, still seething over Wayne Rooney’s ban, something more to sing about.
Even the most ardent fan would query whether this is a truly great United team. Slightly derided as the “Unconvincibles”, Ferguson’s class of 2011 still possess that resilience that has defined his best sides.
United keep rolling along, taking adversity in their stride, a band of brothers focused on the grand prizes. They are the team without a star; with a respectful nod to Nani, some of their best displays have come at the back.
Vidic has been exceptional while Edwin van der Sar could play another year, although he intends to step down for family reasons.
Chelsea still believe but must find their old confidence and smooth drive to overcome United on Tuesday to reach the Champions League semi-finals. The Spanish question will dominate Chelsea thinking; can Carlo Ancelotti dare omit Fernando Torres, Roman Abramovich’s £50 million January buy, after the striker’s stuttering European displays? That decision could decide Chelsea’s fate – and Ancelotti’s.
While Old Trafford should be buoyant this week, White Hart Lane will be in shock. It would be a mission improbable for Tottenham to recover from 4-0 down against visitors prepared by a coach of Mourinho’s immense cunning.
Yet Spurs will have learned from their remarkable European adventure, certainly Crouch will remember to stay on his feet rather than dive in rashly.
Harry Redknapp will be a better coach for the experience, however chastening, at the Bernabéu. Tottenham’s appetite will have been whetted for another campaign in Europe, requiring them to fight hard to finish fourth over the next few weeks.
A few miles west along the North Circular Road lies Wembley, and the odds remain strong on a Spanish triumph on May 28. If Barcelona or Madrid, who meet in the semis, do conquer the home of English football, how should the hosts react?
The Premier League is a fabulous success, the envy of sports marketing men the globe over, but the talent drain to Spain has to be an enduring concern for the organisation’s chief executive Richard Scudamore.
The Premier League cannot match assorted aspects of Spain’s appeal, such as a more favourable climate and tax conditions. Depending on Abramovich’s mood this summer, the recruitment of Neymar could bring some technical wonderment to England – as well as a few tumbles while the Brazilian finds his feet in a land that deplores simulation.
At some point, Mourinho will want to return to England, although he is expected to stay another year in Madrid. Real’s pursuit of Marseille’s Taye Taiwo indicates Mourinho is already building for next season.
Some encouragement can be found by reflecting on midweek events through the prism of country rather than club. England will take heart from Rooney’s touch, work-rate and goal, although his prominence through the centre for United contrasted with his subdued influence out wide against Wales. Rio Ferdinand slotted back seamlessly for United.
The English certainly need to show their A-game because the Spanish are coming.