Football: Former Arsenal, Villarreal star Robert Pires hails Europe's 'new faces'

La Liga ambassador Robert Pires. PHOTO: LA LIGA SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE - After a thrilling race to the top of the La Liga that has kept fans on their toes this season, Atletico Madrid are on the cusp of breaking the duopoly of Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona with a first title since 2014.

And it is a celebration that La Liga ambassador Robert Pires is hoping to see on Sunday as the former Arsenal, Villarreal and 1998 World Cup winning French midfielder hailed the "new faces" of football.

Pires, 47, told the Straits Times yesterday: "I am very happy about this season because it is very competitive and attractive (to watch).

"We need to wait till the last day of the season and normally it's Madrid or Barcelona fighting for the title. But this year, there is Atletico. This is important for football and for La Liga that we have more teams involved (in the title race)."

Real and Barcelona have shared the last six titles between them but with only one game left to play, Atletico, who have led the way at the top for 29 match days, will be crowned champions if they match Real's result against Villarreal on Sunday. Atletico travel to relegation-threatened Real Valladolid on the same day.

Pires added: "This season, Atletico deserve to be champions. They have been the most consistent and fighting hard for almost the whole season. Everyone wants to beat Atletico because they have been first and they have dealt with that well."

The Frenchman, who won two English Premier League titles with Arsenal, also welcomed the new challengers who have come to the fore in other top leagues in Europe.

In Italy, Inter Milan clinched the Serie A title after a decade of Juventus dominance and in Portugal, Sporting Lisbon have just won their first league title after a 19-year interlude. Over in France, underdogs Lille lead heavyweights Paris Saint-Germain - who have won seven of the last eight titles - by one point with one match left.

Said Pires: "It is very important to see the new faces in football lift the trophy. I like it. When we see the new teams like this, it's great for football.

"Even in Spain, of course Real and Barca are important for the LaLiga but football is for everyone. It is important as well that we talk about the other teams. LaLiga is for everyone and not just for two teams and that's why I am happy about this season."

Pires admitted that the anomalies in Europe could be down to the matches being played behind closed doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"The stadiums are empty and you don't feel the pressure. The motivation is not the same. Because, as players we need to feel the fans, their support and them shouting. I can imagine that this current situation is strange for the players," he said.

"But these teams, Lille and Atletico, they deserve to be champions because they play great football and they are doing very well to be there."

Shifting his attention to next Thursday's (May 27) Europa League final between Villarreal and Manchester United, Pires is confident of his former club's chances.

Pires, who amassed 103 appearances for the Yellow Submarines between 2006-2010 revealed his confidence in the underdogs comes from the man Villarreal have in their dugout, Unai Emery, who has won the competition thrice as manager of Sevilla.

He said: "I think they have a good chance to lift the trophy. They are very competitive especially in the Europa League. They beat Arsenal in the semi-final so I think they can beat United in the final as well.

Because the manager (Emery) is a special one in this competition. He is a good manager and I know him from his time with Arsenal. He has a team who is competitive and they have great players."

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