Phil Ball selects his stand-out players from the 2014/2015 La Liga season. His 4-3-3 formation includes Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Sevilla’s fulcrum-like Grzegorz Krychowiak.
GOALKEEPER: Diego Alves (Valencia). There a quite a few candidates – Claudio Bravo, Sergio Asenjo, Sergio Rico – but Valencia’s Diego Alves (now seriously injured) gets my vote. Second to Bravo in the Zamora trophy, he didn’t have Barcelona’s defence to help him on his way.
RIGHT FULL-BACK: Mario Gaspar (Villarreal). Juanfran has been good again, as has Dani Carvajal, but Villarreal’s Mario Gaspar gets my vote. Fast, strong, consistent and tactically astute, he seems to have come of age this season, after making his debut at 17 for Atlético Madrid.
LEFT FULL-BACK: José Luis Gaya (Valencia). Marcelo was once again among Real Madrid’s finest this season, but the new player who has attracted the attention of European money-bags clubs is Valencia’s José Luis Gaya. Sensational this season, at a mere 20 years of age, a man with a bright future.
CENTRE-BACK: Nicolás Otamendi (Valencia). Hard as nails, consistent and technically well-equipped, the Argentine has been another of those players who turn up at Valencia and become household names overnight, despite their previous anonymity.
CENTRE-BACK: Javier Mascherano (Barcelona). It’s true that he doesn’t always play as a conventional centre-back, but when he does he looks the best in the world. He anticipates everything, cleans up others’ mistakes, distributes well and helps others to improve too. A fantastic player, so good that most of the time you don’t even notice him.
MIDFIELD: Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona). He was class last year with Sevilla, so we knew he was good – but he deserves to be in the top eleven because of the scale of his challenge this season, replacing a legend (Xavi), fitting into a changing system and helping to define it, and silencing the critics who held him partly responsible for the club’s relatively poor showing before Christmas.
MIDFIELD: James Rodriguez (Real Madrid). Valencia’s Dani Parejo almost made the list, but James deserves a place here. Like Rakitic, he was faced with the problem that the Bernabéu were fond of Angel Di María, but he’s quickly become a favourite. He’s proved himself far more than a spectacular goal-scorer, and has surprised people with his all-round game and astute tactical vision.
— RMCF EL SALVADOR (@SV_RealMadrid) May 29, 2015
MIDFIELD: Grzegorz Krychowiak (Sevilla). A very different player from the one he was brought in to replace (Rakitic), the Pole has been the rock on which Sevilla have founded their excellent season. At €4.5 million, talk about a bargain.
FORWARD: Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid). Real Sociedad fans knew what he was capable of, but nobody expected him to adapt quite so quickly to Atlético, and in effect take over. Third top scorer behind Messi and Ronaldo, he is the new hero of the Calderón, easing effortlessly into Diego Costa´s shoes. A canny player, Pep Guardiola is now on his trail.
FORWARD: Leo Messi (Barcelona). What can one say? The data is as mind-boggling as ever, but since Christmas he has simply been superhuman. The best player in history? I reckon so.
FORWARD: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid). It could be that Ronaldo’s often selfish style and his diminishing sense of emotional intelligence are beginning to affect the overall atmosphere at the Bernabéu, but 48 goals in the league and 61 overall (plus 22 assists) speak for themselves. In a goal-scoring sense, he has been sensational.
An eye-catching statistic to emerge from Barcelona’s convincing Copa del Rey victory over Athletic Bilbao was the identity of the player who had the most touches of the ball.
It was not, despite his sensational performance, Lionel Messi. Nor was it all-action midfielder Ivan Rakitic, or even ball-playing central defender Gerard Pique.
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Instead, the man with more touches than anyone else was in fact Dani Alves – and by quite a significant margin, with his final total of 107 well ahead of next-best Messi at 90. That was not a one-off: in another of Barca’s biggest games of the season, the Champions League semi-final first leg against Bayern Munich, Alves again came out on top, with 74 touches to Messi’s 73 (although he was beaten by Bayern’s Xabi Alonso, with 106).
Numbers only tell part of the story, of course, but Alves’ contribution can also be measured in a far more direct manner because in both games he produced an outstanding attacking burst to provide an assist to his close friend Messi – something he has done more than any other player since the two of them first teamed up in 2008.
No other right back in world football, surely, could exert such an influence over a game, especially considering the depth of talent playing alongside him.
But Alves is no ordinary right-back, with his phenomenal levels of energy – which show no sign of diminishing despite recently celebrating his 32nd birthday – allowing him to effectively play as a right winger whilst also carrying out defensive work when required.
This season, Alves has become even more important to Barca due to a modification in their playing style, which has seen the emphasis taken away from their old reliance upon monopolising possession in midfield, largely achieved through Xavi and Andres Iniesta’s metronomic passing.
Instead, Barca now focus on getting the ball as quickly and as often as possible to their two most dangerous creative players, wingers Messi and Neymar. That approach puts an enormous burden on the two full-backs, Alves and equally hyperactive Jordi Alba, who are expected to provide continual attacking support to their more illustrious team-mates, ensuring they don’t become isolated and keeping the opposing defence ‘honest’, creating more space inside.
Alba has done it well, but Alves has been simply brilliant, overturning the notion that he is in decline. Now, his below-par performances last season, when he was regularly chastised for delivering a string of pointless crosses, look like the consequence of playing in a team lacking any better ideas rather than a personal failing.
Taking Alves’ importance into account, then, how bizarre it is that Barca appear to be happy to let him walk away for nothing when his contract expires later this month. It becomes outright incompetence when you consider the additional fact that they can’t even sign anyone to replace him due to an ongoing transfer ban from FIFA.
Barca are allowing one of the world’s best right-backs, a player who perfectly suits their system and who combines brilliantly with Messi, to leave without being replaced. It is truly extraordinary.
Sure, his wage demands are higher than a right-back in his thirties would normally expect to command. But Alves is no normal player – he is absolutely fundamental to Barca, and letting him leave would be a huge mistake.
Rafa Benitez’s controversial impending arrival at Real Madrid has been effectively confirmed by a loose-tongued comment from one of the club’s leading officials.
The former Liverpool and Valencia coach has been hotly tipped to replace Carlo Ancelotti, whose sacking last week prompted a wave of protest against club president Florentino Perez from fans and players, and Benitez has already confirmed his departure from current club Napoli.
But Los Blancos have not yet formally confirmed the arrival of Benitez, who also made sure he avoided disclosing his next destination during his farewell press conference in Italy.
Rafa Benitez takes Napoli from second to fifth while spending £110m in two years and lands the Real Madrid job. Nice work if you can get it.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) May 31, 2015
However, Madrid vice-president Eduardo Fernandez de Blas – one of Perez’s chief allies in the Bernabeu’s corridors of power – all but announced Benitez’s appointment during an anniversary visit to an official club fan club this weekend.
“I’ll tell you something, just one thing,” he started his speech to supporters. “Carlo Ancelotti is a phenomenon. We’re eternally grateful to him.
“For me, up to a few days ago he was the best coach in the world, as was Jose Mourinho a couple of years ago. And as of next week it will be Rafa Benítez.”
Benitez, who started his coaching career working in the youth sections at Madrid in the mid-1980s, is expected to travel to Spain on Monday to tie up the final details on his contract, with his presentation at the Bernabeu tentatively scheduled for Wednesday.
However, the likelihood that he will receive a less than warm welcome from many of the club’s supporters was again underlined during vice-president De Blas’s speech, which was interrupted by hecklers criticising the sacking of popular ex-boss Ancelotti.
“Ancelotti was an exceptional coach, a gentleman and a person I am very fond of, and that is something shared by most Madrid fans,” conceded De Blas, prompting more complaints from his club’s gathering of spectators, who also expressed their displeasure with Gareth Bale’s performances last season.
Undeterred, De Blas finished his speech on a positive note by insisting: “I’m looking forward to 30 July when we will see the best 30 players in the world at the disposition of the best coach in the world.”