It was a quirk of the fixture draws that led to my latest trip from Belfast to Madrid. As an Atletico fan I wanted to go and see my team present their Supercopa trophy to the fans at the Calderon against Rayo Vallecano, but my brother, a Man City fanatic, wanted me to go with him to see his beloved Sky Blues. Then City were drawn to play against Real at the Santiago Bernabeu in the Champions League just two days after the Atleti v Rayo game. The choice was simple: kill two birds with the one stone!
Madrid in September is a joyous place to be. For those who don’t know the city the summer months are infamous for the stifling heat but in September the weather is perfect and it was a lovely balmy evening for the Rayo game last Sunday. It felt good to be walking that familiar walk from Piramides station to the Calderon surrounded by Madrid’s finest football family.
In the stadium the Atletico “Balonmano” team presented their latest silverware before the football team came on to the pitch to a rapturous applause to present their recently won Supercup to the faithful, and there was a great attendance to witness it considering the ridiculous 21:30 kick off time. Rayo’s fantastic “Buccaneers” supporters provided some noise to help the atmosphere but it was Atletico’s “Frente” who were celebrating the most after the home team went 1-nil up in the first half.
The game should have been over shortly into the second half as quick fire goals from Koke, Arda and El Tigre put the hosts 4-nil up. El Frente were jubilant and taunted the away fans with “Bukaneros,hijos de puta!” but it was the away fans making the most noise in the final minutes as Rayo staged a noble fight back to get the score to 4-3. Thankfully the equaliser didn’t come and Atleti walked away with the three points. A great game in a great stadium played in front of great fans.
Two days later and we were at it again, on our way to the Bernanbeu, surely the finest stadium in world football. As expected there were thousands of “ingleses” milling around Madrid all day sipping cooling beers and quaffing tapas on the numerous terraces in the city centre, but by early evening most had made their up the Castellana. There was a definite mood of optimism; surely Tevez and Silva would want to impress on the grandest stage of all. Wrong! Both were pretty ineffectual as City got of to a woeful start, unable to retain the ball for most of the first half. Big Joe Hart was in good form and kept City in the match with some classy saves.
The second half was ticking along in much the same way and I had a feeling that Real might be caught by a sucker punch. My hunch was right as the ever imperious Yaya Toure broke free and squared the ball for Dzeko to put the Citizens 1-nil up. The Madridistas screamed for more effort and were rewarded when Marcelo equalised soon after. Minutes later Kolarov put City back in front from a free-kick and we really started to believe! The Madridistas hurled abuse at “sad” Ronny for not passing to a well placed Ozil and all looked black for the whites, but the introduction of Modric and Benzema proved to be a master stroke by Jose.
Real upped the tempo, chasing and harrying until they recovered every ball. The Madridistas sensed blood and lifted the noise levels by several decibels. Benzema netted superbly to equalise for the second time before Ronny delivered the coup de grace in the last minute. Gutted! Those self same fickle fans who just minutes earlier had been lambasting Cristiano now chanted his name! Whilst Real deserved the win they very nearly lost and it is fairly obvious that all is not well in the Real camp.
All the talk in the bars afterwards was about whether the EPL or La Liga is the best in the world. On this showing and having watched a lot of Messi’s Barca over the last few years, I believe La Liga is still ahead, but the actions of the LFP are jeopardising that lead and they could and should learn from the EPL. The LFP only care about Real and Barca, they actively promote a two horse race, while the English want competitive depth. The LFP only care about TV money while the English want full, noisy stadiums. The LFP want to take the contact out of football while the English want physical, free flowing football. We can debate all day about the relative pros and cons of Spanish and English football but one thing is clear: the European Champions League is still the greatest show on earth.