Euro rivals taking advantage of La Liga's decline

Kylian Mbappe.
Kylian Mbappe.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MADRID • "Sign him up Florentino," Real Madrid fans wrote on Twitter before coach Zinedine Zidane was asked if he sent a message to the club's president Florentino Perez last week.

Kylian Mbappe had just destroyed La Liga rivals Barcelona at the Nou Camp and 24 hours later, Erling Haaland did the same against Sevilla.

By the time Real Sociedad trailed 4-0 on Thursday to Manchester United, the feeling in Spain became clear: La Liga was in freefall. Real Madrid face Atalanta today, hoping to avoid a third year without Champions League glory after a hat-trick of titles.

If there is a need for perspective - that the speed of the fall is in part due to the heights previously reached - Spain's dominance in Europe has also been receding for some time. It perhaps began when Barca lost to Roma in 2018, continued with the departures of Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo, before becoming entrenched, as financial impotence prevented a revival.

Certainly for Barca and Real, hesitation in refreshing their squads has been punished to the full, the coronavirus pandemic curbing spending when they arguably needed to spend most.

Real's big-money youngsters like Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo have yet to blossom and Barca have watched a historic era grow old, leave or retire. Atletico Madrid are rebuilding after their own exodus while Valencia are in a mess.

For most of this century, it was a question of when, not if, a generational talent moves to Spain but there are no guarantees.

Mbappe has long been linked with Zidane but, as Lionel Messi has shown, the best players define themselves by Champions League victories and who could say confidently Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City will not own more of those over the coming years than Barca and Real?

Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho fronted La Liga's peak at the end of the last decade, but the most charismatic, modern coaches - Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino, Thomas Tuchel, Julian Nagelsmann - have plied their trade mostly outside of Spain.

They have driven the shift towards a more physical, vertical, high-pressing style, that seems to have left Spanish teams behind and even Koeman has admitted that Barca lack physicality.

Beneath it all lies a financial reality, that Spain's clubs are no longer among the most generous payers of transfer fees or wages.

Despite La Liga's attempts to internationalise, foreign investors have still flocked to England, lured by the most lucrative TV contracts and biggest global audiences.

Even if economic revival from the pandemic is swift and Mbappe and Haaland end up moving to Spain, it will take more than the pair for La Liga to regain its lofty position.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2021, with the headline 'Euro rivals taking advantage of La Liga's decline'. Subscribe