Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thiago Alcántara, blessed problem

You did not need to be a genius to realize that Thiago Alcántara is the player of La Masia with more potential, at least in the short term. He had been amazing everyone since he joined the youth system of Barcelona and it was evident that the kid had all the talent to triumph in football if he kept everything else in the right direction. Aside the talent, Thiago seems to have an infinite ambition. Last year, he started the season with Barcelona Atlètic in Segunda División, but his football was too good for the cathegory and the club was "forced" to make him part of the first team during the season, automatically activating a clause to raise his buyout price in order to avoid surprises, since he already was in the agenda of half Europe. The same ambition that betrayed him when he said that he wanted to triumph in football, not necessarily in Barcelona. Words that forced him to apologize fast... but also the kind of words that made people doubt about his head, since he would not be the first player to lose track in the progression for thinking too high too soon.

At the end of last season, Pep Guardiola set the objectives for this summer and, once again, Cesc Fàbregas was in the list. Many people made a logical interpretation: Xavi is already 31 and will be 32 early next year and, last year, the injuries were hauting him. Despite he did not show signs of decline, it is evident that he will have to start to save efforts pretty soon. Andrés Iniesta is in the peak moment of his career and is Xavi's perfect partner. But then, there was a gap between the fantastic duo and Thiago Alcántara. No one had doubts about his talent, but it was normal to have doubts about the capacity of such a young player to drive the most exigent midfield of the World so soon. Thiago was good, very good, but too young to be compared with the 2 best midfienders of the last years. And this is why, the logical reasoning asked for Cesc, a player with La Masia DNA, experience and leadership skills. It would be perfect for Barcelona and for Thiago's development.

Before the U-21 Euro, Luis Milla, the Spanish NT's coach and someone who knows Johan Cruyff's psychological methods too well said about Thiago: "If Thiago wants to be like Xavi or Cesc, he needs to be humble". A kind of attack on his star, which suggested that Thiago still had a lot to learn, trying to cool all the hype about him. Thiago responded with a magnificent tournament driving Spain to the victory, showing great football. Later on, Thiago joined Barcelona's pre-season and, if there is a name that is shining above the rest is Thiago Alcántara's.

Cesc is not in Barcelona yet and, once more, Thiago is going very fast, jumping stages in his career. With the signing of Cesc to be decided, Thiago is making people have doubts about the necessity of the player of Arsenal, considering the huge amount of money Arsenal is asking for. The debate is in the streets, is Cesc necessary having Thiago in the pocket? When at the end of May, most of the barcelonisme was convinced about Cesc, now things are not that obvious and there is an important sector that defends to give the #4 to Thiago Alcántara... the guy is prepared for it.

There are 2 possible scenarios: If Cesc joins Barcelona, will it be a problem for Thiago? Barcelona would gather 4 fantastic players for 2 or 3 positions (Iniesta can still be a fake winger) and Pep Guardiola would have to drive the situation very well, since it is hard to keep 4 players of very high level happy, if they do not enjoy all the minutes they want. In that situation, it is likely that Thiago would be the one enjoying less minutes and the club already knows the hot mouth of the Spanish-Brazilian player.

The 2nd possible scenario is Cesc staying in London. Then the question that arises is: Is Thiago prepared for the big games? One thing is to shine in pre-season games and a different one is to do it in the important matches of the official season. Xavi and Iniesta had to work and fight a lot to be where they are. In that sense, as much as Thiago is impressive, he also needs to keep in mind that things are not always that easy and sometimes you need to clash against the floor to get up stronger. It is not stupid to think that Thiago still has a lot to learn and do to compare his career with Xavi's and Iniesta's ones... even with Cesc's.

At this point, probably, Thiago is going faster than Pep Guardiola would have thought at the end of May and two possible scenarios seem to open long debates in Can Barça. Guardiola definitely has a problem and he will have to find a solution... but blessed problem!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

When the ball rolls, the Sheikh should be Manuel Pellegrini

In June 2010, the Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Abdullah Al Ahmed Al Thani came from Qatar to Málaga to buy the club of the city from Lorenzo Sanz for 36M euros. At that moment, not many people knew him and the arrival of the Sheikh Abdullah made the local fans swim between skepticism and illusion. The Qatari Sheikh did not have much time to start his first project, which was put in the hands of Jesualdo Ferreira, successful former Porto coach, who was unable to put the team in the right direction in a mix of incompetence and the lack of good players. The new rich Málaga was flirting with relegation positions and, in November, the Sheikh finally decided to give the step forward the club needed.

Fernando Sanz, ex-president and the Sheikh's assistant, recommended the signing of Manuel Pellegrini, who was unemployed since the moment he was fired from Real Madrid by Florentino Pérez. At the same time, the club made important investments in the Winter market, signing experienced players like Enzo Maresca, Martín Demichelis and Julio Baptista and young talent like Ignacio Camacho or Sergio Asenjo (on loan). The face of the team had a radical change and found the regularity they needed to save the season.

This summer the Sheikh Abdullah has decided that he wants to put Málaga in the top positions of La Liga and, in order to do it, he did not hesitate to invest whatever it takes to change the horizon of the club. At this point of the season, Málaga spent more money in signings than Real Madrid and Barcelona. Everything started with the arrival of Pichichi Ruud Van Nistelrooy for free. Well, not impressive, no one denies the quality of the Dutch striker, but it is not that he is in the peak of his career. The signing had the effect they probably expected though and 10,000 people went to the presentation of the player and the selling of ticket season started to work well. The 2nd one was Ignacio Monreal, Osasuna's full back for 6M, international player and one of the best in his position. The next to come were Jerémy Toulalan from Lyon for 10M, Joris Mathijsen from Hamburg for 1M, Diego Buonanotte from the relegated River and Sergio Sanchez from Sevilla. Every single presentation was a party in Málaga, with thousands of people in the stands of La Rosaleda to welcome their new idols. The state of euphoria was declared... and the Sheikh announced that the best was yet to come.

And they did not hesitate to pay the 6M buyout clause of Isco, the best prospect of Valencia's youth system, which was an earthquake in the Ché club. But Málaga had not stopped fishing in Valencia and they also brough Joaquín Sánchez, the veteran winger who seems to keep his old prestige... 15,000 were in his presentation. But if there is a player who definitely attracts the attention of everyone is Santi Cazorla, one of the best midfielders of La Liga, signed from the Champions League Villarreal for 20M euros, giving him a star contract of 3M euros per year.

For now, it's just a description of facts. But the season starts in a couple of weeks and I always had doubts about this kind of projects. For now it's a bubble of names. All of them sound good. Some of them are in the decline of their careers, like Van Nistelrooy or Joaquín, but overall the club seems to have the right names to do an important season. In that sense, the exigences are going to be high. But this is not always that easy, since it always takes time to adapt and learn the mechanism of a system and a idea. Lots of new faces and not much time, since everyone will ask for good results since the very first day in a team that is not used to fight for important goals. Europe is a must and, given the level of investment, the Champions League should be the objective in a near future... if not this season, the next. It would not be the first time that a huge project like this one fall, so it is important to keep the feet on the ground and be patient.

In my opinion, the key of the project is not the big names, but Manuel Pellegrini. The Engineer is a good coach with high prestige in Spain, a man who knows La Liga and the job, coherent and humble in his work. In Villarreal, Fernando Roig gave him time and stability and we all recall the semifinals of the Champions League of 2006, when the Yellow Sumbarine were a penalty away from the final of Paris. I am skeptical about the results in the short term. As I said, big names do not assure success. Yes, they are important, but it is also essential to set a solid ground to grow from. Manuel Pellegrini is the right man to do it, but we still do not know how the Sheikh and the fans will react if the results are not as good as they expect in the first games.

We must keep in mind that the rivals of Málaga have solid and long term projects, like the ones of Valencia, Villarreal or Athletic, or teams that are used to be in top positions, like Sevilla or Atlético. It is not going to be that easy. The Sheikh must be patient, the fans must remember where they come from. If they do it, I will start to believe in it. But if they get blind for the money they spent, the whole project may end up being a boomerang that slaps them in the face. The Sheikh did what he had to do, but now he must give a step backwards and let Pellegrini work, with time, without pressure... in that case, I will be a believer too. For now, I declare myself skeptical.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mourinho always wins titles in his 2nd year

"The top of my teams always came in the second season" (link in Spanish). It was August 2010, José Mourinho had just started his first pre-season with Real Madrid, after winning the UEFA Champions League with Inter against Bayern in the Santiago Bernabéu. At that time, the madridismo still felt relief after the defeat of Barcelona in the semifinals of the competition, when Inter denied the "obsession" of the barcelonisme, and the arrival of the prestigious Portuguese coach, so hated in Can Barça after the endless polemics during the last decade, was the one of a Messiah. Still Mourinho knew the size of the challenge he had in front of him and asked for patience. A well thought and rational message. After all, Real Madrid had been swallowing coaches and he knew that stability is necessary to build a serious project. As Mourinho said, the automatism and mechanism in a football team does not appear from one day to the next.

One year later, Real Madrid already won a title, the Copa del Rey, defeating Barcelona. In the overall analysis of the season, it is evident that the winner of the biggest rivalry of the World was Barcelona, after winning La Liga (including the historical 5-0 in a face to face) and the Champions League. In any case, this title was very sweet since it was against the main rival and it looked like a step forward in the good direction and many were ready to remember how Johan Cruyff saved his head in a Copa del Rey final in 1990 to win an European Cup and 4 Liga titles in a row. Real Madrid lost the war, but the feeling in the club of the capital of Spain is that they are closer and the best is yet to come. Mourinho promised them to have the winning team in the 2nd year.

And here we are. The second season is about to start. It is the time and the moment and Mourinho is a prisoner of his own words for the good and the bad. This time a Copa del Rey will not be enough, so La Liga and/or the Champions League is a necessity. If Mourinho is able to do it, he will be raised to the heavens. A man of word. But if not, everything will turn against him.

Last year, La Liga lived moments of tension that did not have any precedent. José Mourinho declared the war in every single level. As himself declared, the games start in the conference press and he did it. He knew how the state of tension made Barcelona face the semifinals against Inter from a passionate point of view instead of focusing in football. Mourinho's strategy was to create a total state of tension since the very first day. Every tool in his hand was a weapon of massive destruction. One day it was a lineup of Manuel Preciado (Sporting's coach); the next day, the fixtures set by LFP; then, the referees; or the theatrics of the rivals. The most radical sector of the pro-madridista media did not hesitate to act as megaphone or even directly in the attacks, as the day the conservative radio station COPE claimed that official Real Madrid sources were going to ask the RFEF (Spanish FA) to start more serious anti-doping controls and somehow the names of Valencia and, especially, Barcelona were suggested. Both clubs made official communications and asked for a fast and evident rectification, the radio station apologized since they could not show any evidence, but they still claimed that the news were real. Despite the name of Real Madrid was involved as accusing part in the news, the club did not make any public communication and the only reply was a heavy silence. The run of Clásicos at the end of the season only left more corpses on the field and even the consequences of these games in the personal relationships of the players who share locker room in the Spanish NT were feared.

We had a couple of months of peace, but everything is fresh in the memory of everyone. In a matter of two weeks, Barcelona and Real Madrid are going to clash in the Supercopa again. A minor trophy with a special interest. It is José Mourinho's first chance to finish with the domination of Barcelona. A minor battle that will never be determinant to decide the winner of the season, but Mourinho knows that the title would help him and his players to trust in the "2nd year" message. In Barcelona, it is also known that it will be good for them to create doubts in the still solid message of the Portuguese coach.

The season about to start is going to be definitive for Mourinho. He is the prisoner of his own words and this time the absurd polemics will not make sense unless they are backed with important titles. I find hard to believe that the Bernabéu could actually tolerate another year of total war, if Mourinho is not able to take them to Cibeles to celebrate important titles.

Mourinho does not seem to hide behind noise. He has all the players he wanted (Agüero or Neymar fit in Florentino's style, but they are not essential in his project, as he has declared), the most expensive team in history. He has the total control of the club, being able to erase Jorge Valdano from the structure, becoming the only owner of the whole scenario. What is normal in England, it is a rarity in Spain and, especially, in Florentino Pérez's Real Madrid. If someone with the power and ego of the president of Real Madrid has been able to give the club to José Mourinho, the only possible interpretation is that the Portguese coach is the only bet. Florentino Pérez has put his own future in the hands of the coach.

"End of cycle" is the motto. Real Madrid have a super-team this year. If last year they were amazing, the depth of the current squad is unseen. It is hard to believe that Mourinho will change his style. Another year of tension is to come, but this time the noise must be useful or Mourinho will be the first victim of it. Now there is no disadvantage in terms of preparation and the noise will not hide any reality. Mourinho knows it. Everyone knows it. It is now or never for him... and for Florentino Pérez.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Atlético Madrid's historical meltdown

When I was kid (and I'm not that old!), you did not hear about the 2 giants. There was a third that always counted: Atlético Madrid. Back in the 80s, the colchoneros were a power in Spain. In fact, they were the main threat for the glorious era of Real Madrid during the 60s and 70s and FC Barcelona was struggling to win a title. We are talking about the times of Luis Aragonés, Joaquín Peiró, José A. Ufarte, Adelardo, José Eulogio Garáte, Jones, Jabo Irureta, Rubén Ayala and the endless list of Atlético legends of this era. We are talking about the 4 Ligas (1966, 1970, 1973, 1977), the 4 Copas (1966, 1970, 1973, 1977). the Cup Winners' Cup (1962), the Intercontinental Cup (1974) or the European Cup final lost against Bayern (1974). The president Vicente Calderón had built the Estadio del Manzanares (later renamed with the president's name) and took the club to the highest rates of success. Atlético de Madrid was a power in Spain and had prestige in Europe. It was the golden era.

But in the 80s, an already old Vicente Calderón resigned and the club started an era of instability with several provisional presidents. The team got affected by this situation and only the return of the old president Calderón and the Copa of 1985 were the only satisfaction for the fans of the club, before the legendary president died two years later. The socios of Atlético Madrid gave Jesús Gil the presidency of the club in the elections of 1987 in, what it was the biggest historical error of this club. A poison that started to kill them slowly.

Jesús Gil was a businessman, always related with the real estate sector, who had made his fortune under the wings of the dictatorship of Franco. In fact, back in 1969, Jesús Gil was found guilty of homicide for the death of 56 people in one of the constructions he built, but the government gave him the pardon, which allowed him to escape from jail. At that time, Gil had all the money he wanted, but he knew that football could give him power, political influence and fame. Atlético Madrid was the victim of his greed, although they did not know it yet.

Using this fame, he made campaign and won the elections to be the mayor of Marbella (Málaga), a touristic town which offered a high standard of living for visitors and some famous people of Spain and other countries. It was easy to see big mansions and very expensive cars in its streets. It was the first step into politics for Jesús Gil, who wanted to use the influence of this area as a trampoline to more important political objectives. He wanted to be the Spanish Silvio Berlusconi and, definitely, he was as populist and pathetic as the Italian Prime Minister, swimming in the miseries of democracy in order to feed his political and, obviously, personal interests, breaking any line between them and the responsibility of administrating the money of the taxpayers.

At the same time, the Spanish sports law changed, forcing all the clubs with losses to become corporations. Atlético Madrid became a company in 1992, with Jesús Gil as owner. Later on, in 2004, the Supreme Court of Spain proved there was missapropriation of shares in the process to become a corporation, but the prescription of the offence was declared. At that time, it was public that Jesús Gil was always walking on a thin line.

In the sports aspect, the first years of Jesús Gil were marked by the important signings of players like Paolo Futre or Bernd Schuster, which allowed Atlético to have a short term impulse, winning 2 Copas in the early 90s (1991, 1992). At the same time, Jesús Gil was not just the owner, but a president who did not hesitate to use intervention in every single aspect. It was well-known that he forced lineups, despite his attraction to sign prestigious coaches like César Luis Menotti, Ron Atkinson, Javier Clemente, Luis Aragonés or Pacho Maturana. These interventions had as a consequence to have 3 or more coaches every season, putting the club in a state of permanent crisis and instability.

Atlético Madrid's and Jesús Gil's moment was the glorious Doblete in 1996, when the club won Liga and Copa under the direction of Radomir Antic and the talent of players like Caminero, Kiko, Penev or Pantic on the pitch, in a season of unexpected calm. It could have been a turning point and some people even thought that the president had learned the lesson... but it was just an illusion.

Justice started to haunt the activities of Jesús Gil. In 1999, the Audiencia Nacional (a court specialized in terrorism and corruption) put the club under administration. Jesús Gil was accused of embezzlement (nearly 5 million euros where moved from the City Hall of Marbella to Atlético Madrid using simulation via sponsorship and contracts with unknown African "players") and missapropriation (nearly 60 million euros disappeared from the accounting of the club), later on he was also accused of a new case of embezzlement (26 million euros disappeared from the treasury of Marbella from 1991 to 1995). The institutional chaos, with the club under the administration of justice, had a direct consequence in the team, who got relegated to Segunda División in the 1999-2000 season, where Atlético wasted 2 years of their history.

Viewing these events with some perspective of time, I believe there is a direct effect in these episodes of corruption and the meltdown of the 3rd club of Spain in terms of support. During the late 90s and the early 2000s, football enjoyed the bubble of the money of the TV rights. While Real Madrid and Barcelona had an exponential growth that allowed them to be what they are nowadays, Atlético Madrid were struggling with multiple cases of corruption and the relegation to Segunda División. In these years, Atlético Madrid missed the high-speed train of their direct rivals, looking how the money did not visit the Manzanares river.

Atlético Madrid's main asset is the support of their loyal and passionate fans, but this is not enough to go back to where they were before the explosion of the club at the end of the 20th century. Atlético Madrid still won the Europa League last year and they even played a Copa final a couple of years ago, but there is a permanent feeling of nostalgia, a sense of a rich that turned poor. Atlético always had the tradition of the pupas (cursed), but the nickname became a heavy reality that is an infection to the point that, even in the centenary anthem of the club, appears in the lyrics as a reason of pride, while I believe it is a virus that keeps the club in an eternal state of sickness, as if it was part of their DNA. Jesús Gil died in the year 2004, but this is his legacy (and his son Miguel Ángel and his good friend Enrique Cerezo are still in charge).

Nowadays, we read in the news how Kun Agüero, the icon player, wants to leave the club looking for titles and glory. Just as Fernando Torres did some years ago. Just as Diego Forlán wanted to do last summer (without success). I only see a club in ruins and constant crisis. If you had told me something like this when I was a kid, I would have never believed you.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why Xavi should be the #1

Yesterday, UEFA announced the 3 nominees for their Best Player in Europe Award: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Xavi Hernández, and the winner will be crowned in the UEFA Gala at the end of August, as always, in Montecarlo. Some months ago, UEFA said that "the new accolade will recognise the best player, irrespective of his nationality, playing for a football club within the territory of a UEFA member association during the previous season. For the inaugural award, players will be judged by their performances during the 2010-2011 campaing in all the competitions, both domestic and international, and at club and national team levels". The jury is formed by 53 journalists, members of the European Sports Media (EMS). Basically, this award is an answer to the FIFA World Player after they merged with France Football's Ballon D'Or and, somehow, wants to fill the space left by the award of the French magazine.

Aside the 3 nominees, UEFA announced the top-10 and there is a fact to highlight: aside Xavi and Messi, FC Barcelona have 2 other players in the top-10, Gerard Piqué and Andrés Iniesta, who was 4th in the votes. So, according to these results, 3 of the 4 best players in Europe play in Pep Guardiola's and the Spanish NT teams. These results do not differ much from the last FIFA World Player Award, which suggests some consensus about the domination of the mentioned teams in their respective tournaments.

Out of the pure facts, I must admit that I am not a big fan of these individual awards. In fact, I believe they are unfair and somehow silly, since I believe football is a collective game, a team game, where the synergies are more important than the pure sum of individuals. Of course, individual talent is important, but it only excels when the collective functioning works as a perfect machine, where the connections, the associations, the flow of a system allows the players to express their natural talent inside the rules and discipline of a system.

Is Xavi better than Messi and Ronaldo? First of all, I believe it is not possible to compare. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo probably represent the image of football, they are the best commercial of the game, outstanding players who make the difference when and where it matters. Both are a joy to watch, each one in their own style. No one is going to discover their talent at this point and, of course, if they win any personal award, I would have nothing to say about it. Xavi is not in charge of the electric chair as the other two, his style is more subtle, or just different, impossible to compare.

So why Xavi? Despite I know that these awards are a recognition for the contribution of a particular player in a particular season, I also believe that it is necessary to take some distance and analyze the overall moment. It is evident that Xavi can not compete with the other 2 in terms of goals, highlights or these particular moments that, at the end, are the aspects which make this game be different and attractive. On the other hand, before the goals and the highlights, there is a team, in FC Barcelona, Real Madrid or any other team you can think about. A team that, with their collective performance allows the executioners to excel in what they do.

Looking at the last years, the most successful club has been FC Barcelona. A success based on a certain and maybe unique style of football, which has attracted the attention of the World. At the same time, the Spanish NT won the Euro 2008 and the World Cup 2010, with a different system, but the same idea of football. Basically, we are talking about the most successful teams of their era, in the club and international level respectively. All these teams have something in common: Xavi Hernández.

History will say that, in this era of football, there was a dominant style and, in my opinion, the icon of the style is Xavi. The Catalan player is the engine, the brain and the soul of the teams he plays in. Xavi and his way to view football define the idea of his teams: Barcelona and the Spanish NT. Without Xavi, it would be impossible to understand the success of the dominant teams of this era. Pep Guardiola is not Luis Aragonés and none of them is Vicente Del Bosque and vice versa. The system changes, the mechanisms are different, but the philosophy is the same and the whole idea is built around Xavi.

As extraordinary as they are, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo do not define a style, they do not change the teams they are in. They are the best in what they do. They make the difference and they would do it anywhere they would go, but none of them have the influence to change the style. Put it this way, Barcelona and Spain would not be what they are without Xavi. They might be as good as they are nowadays, they might win everything too, but they would be different. Xavi is the key of the idea, everything flows around him, the teams where he plays in build their overall mechanisms and automatic movements around the game of Xavi. If intelligent and patient ball possession is successful, it is because there is a player called Xavi, who reads the game as no one else does nowadays, always choosing the best option, giving the ball backwards instead of losing it or risking an impossible pass, accelerating the pace of the game with a killing assist that breaks 2 defensive lines, but always with an idea in mind: "if the ball is yours, the rival does not have it", which is an idea that breaks the supposed defense and attack border to become an overall idea of football. If the ball is yours, you can score the goals you need... and if the ball is yours, the rival does not have the ball they need to score a goal against you.

Maybe these awards will never recognize the individual achievement of this player, but I believe history will put this Barcelona and this Spanish NT in their right place and Xavi will always be recalled as the architect of their idea of football. I do not believe in personal awards, but I believe in recognition where its due. This is why I believe Xavi should be the #1.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Keeping an eye on Athletic

Every Summer football fans satisfy the lack of real football with the signings, rumors or friendly games, waiting for the beginning of the official season. In La Liga, aside the usual suspects Real Madrid and Barcelona, Abdullah Ben Nasser Al Thani's Málaga has been the club that has been catching the attention of the fans with important signings which are supposed to take the Andalusian club to a new level. In my case, the main attraction is located in the North, in La Catedral Sán Mamés, Athletic's home.

Early this month, the Athletic Club's socios (members) were called to vote their new president and they chose Josu Urrutia, who was able to collect more than 22,000 votes, a 54% of the total. Josu Urrutia's task was not easy, since García Macua has been a good president when it comes to pure sport results, but the offer of renewal in every level of the club and the Marcelo Bielsa factor made the difference.

Even though it would be too simplistic to focus in just one aspect, the main topic of the campaign was the coach. The Athletic fans had to choose between the already known and successful Joaquín Caparrós and the exciting offer of Marcelo Bielsa, who refused to listen offers from big clubs like Inter Milan to join Urrutia in his adventure. In my opinion, there is only one way to interpret the results: ambition.

Despite achievements like the European participations or the Copa del Rey final, the connection between Caparrós and the stands of San Mamés was not in its best moment. Some questionable tactical decisions found a negative reaction in San Mamés, where the fans are more exigent in recent times. The Athletic fans may be the most intelligent supporters in La Liga and they do not forget that Caparrós has done an excellent job, taking the team from the relegation zone, where they used to be when he joined the team in 2007, to the European spots. But, at the same time, they had reasonable doubts about his capacity to take Athletic to a new level.

And this is the key, in my opinion. The fans believe that Marcelo Bielsa may be the man that takes them to a new level. At the same time, it is important to recall that Bielsa's recent experience is not in club football (actually the last club he managed was Espanyol in 1998, leaving them after a few weeks to join the Argentinian NT). But his reputation was high after the good results of Chile during his term and, maybe, for being one of the mentors of the fashion coach, Josep Guardiola. Marcelo Bielsa represents the ambition of a historical club that wants to live historical moments again.

How realisitic is this? Personally, on paper, this is the best Athletic I can remember in the last 2 decades. Athletic has produced (or signed from other Basque clubs) a good generation of players and there is at least one of them in every line. The icon is Fernando Llorente, who was already linked with several giants of the European football, a striker who keeps growing and is the main reference of the team nowadays. But, for me, the most influential and important player of the squad is Javi Martínez, a player that gathers every single aspect of a player that may set an era: tactical intelligence, talent and power.

Probably, this is not new for anyone, since both were World Champions with Spain in the last World Cup. But it is important to name other players, like Iraola, a full back in the top of his career; San José, a central back that is supposed to be one of the best in his position in not a far future; Ander Herrera, recently signed from Zaragoza, a super-talented midfielder that will be the perfect partner for Javi Martinez and David Lopez; or the rising star, the dinamic and skilled Iker Muniain.

With these tools, I personally believe that Bielsa has in his hands a team that should be able to fight to enter in the Champions League spots. Checking the squads that are supposed to be their rivals, I do not see a much higher level (if they are actually superior) in Valencia or Villarreal and, they have absolutely nothing to envy to Atlético Madrid, Sevilla or Málaga, to name some potential rivals. Now there is something that must change: faith. These players and these fans must be exigent and aim big goals. With this team, it is not enough to give the 100% at home and to show a poor image in away games. With this team, success is not just a dream, but a realistic demand. I think this is what the fans said with their votes. Athletic is my personal bet this year and I will keep an eye on them. The remaining factor to know is if these players are convinced of their fantastic potential. Faith.