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Just Give Them the Championship and Cancel the Season

Less than three minutes into their first game of the season, Lionel Messi scored for Barcelona. I realize that the season literally just started and that there are still 9 months to go, but why even bother playing it out? Just last week I was saying that the English Premier League is exciting because you can't predict much this early in the season. You have a decent idea of who will likely finish at the top, but you don't know exactly who will win or in what order the teams will finish. That isn't really the case in La Liga. Barcelona completely dominated last year. If by chance there was anyone out there that questioned if they would dominate again, they wasted very little time answering the question.

The goal, although seemingly simple, is rather brilliant. Iniesta provides a great pass after drawing the defense to the left. Once everyone shifts, he just provides a beautiful through pass to Messi. Then Messi takes over with his amazing speed. He runs faster with the ball than the defender can run without it. But it's not just the speed, but also the fact that the ball stays so close to his feet the entire time. A lot of players are fast but they will often run so fast and touch the ball too far in front of them so that the goalie or a defender can move in and take the ball away. Not Messi. He keeps the ball so close. Which allows him to finish here with the soft chip over the goalie. It's world class all the way. So soft and so smooth.

To add to the early dominance, the newly acquired David Villa also scored in his Barcelona debut. This team is ridiculous. Just crown them champions now and cancel the season or acknowledge that everyone else is already playing for second place.

Somewhat related, but not really, Carlos Tevez had a fantastic miss on Sunday. It's only somewhat related because two months ago in the World Cup it seemed like Tevez couldn't miss, well, until he and the rest of Argentina met Germany. But Messi, much to the surprise of most fans, didn't score a single goal in the World Cup. Now that La Liga is back up, Messi seems to already be back in stride and looks like he hasn't missed a beat. Not that Tevez is off in the Premier League by any means. I just love the announcer when Tevez misses. He's as surprised as everyone else.

Raul - The Lodestar

La Liga starts tomorrow. As always, there were numerous numerous off-season transfers and roster changes. As a Real Madrid fan, this has been par for the course the past few years. Each year there are numerous changes as the roster is a revolving door of players. Players come and go with increasing frequency. There has been little consistency with their roster for the past decade. This has never been more apparent than this season as the one consistent part of the roster, Raul Gonzalez, will not be on the roster for the first time since 1994.

This last decade for Real Madrid has been a new generation aptly called The Galacticos. The Superstars. The business model has been simple: buy all of the world's best players. In theory, all teams are trying to get the best players, or at least the best players for their team or their system. They are trying to find all the right pieces for their needs. Real literally just tries to buy the biggest names in soccer and assumes those are best players and thus the right pieces. If these are the best players in the world, and your roster is full of those players, then your team must be the best in the world. This galacticos generation started when Real bought Luis Figo from Barcelona back in 2000. It caused quite the stir and controversy. Barcelona fans were so upset about it they threw pig heads at Figo when he played his first game back in Barcelona as a Real Madrid player.

Figo was just the beginning though. The following season the great Zidane joined. He was soon followed by Ronaldo, Beckham, Michael Owen, Ruud Van Nistelroy and many others. Yet despite the world class talent possessed by all of these players, Madrid became and has since been a revolving door. No matter how great a player was or how much money Real paid to purchase the player, any player was pushed aside to make room for the next big signing. These great and fabled players were headlines one day and afterthoughts the next. Granted, a lot of the galacticos were aging and sort of past their prime, but even the young superstars and players in their prime had a hard time sticking around.

Notoriously and most recently, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, two dutch superstars in their prime were shown the door last season in order to make room for more stars - Kaka, C. Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema (who sat the bench most of the season). Fittingly for the karma gods and all non-Real fans, Robben and Sneijder led their new teams, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan respectively, to the Champions League final. Madrid has taken on an image and mentality. Forget developing players. Just let others develop them and then buy the best and hope they mix well. It has yet to be proven to be effective.

Amidst all the constant changes and chaos that has been Real Madrid for the past decade, there has been one constant: Raul Gonzalez Blanco. He's been the lodestar of the galacticos. The one familiar face that always remained on the roster. He started in the Real Madrid youth system in 1992 and made his first appearance with the Madrid C-team in 1994. By the end of that season he was on playing for the top team and he never looked back. It's a storied career. More goals than any other Real Madrid player in history. Three Champions League titles and numerous league titles.

His style of play is anything but flashy. He has never been the type of player with individual skills to be able to create many shots on his own. His Top 10 goals aren't exactly amazing. They are really good and quality, but when you compare them with Wayne Rooney, Thierry Henry, Denis Bergkamp or any of the other legendary forwards or players, they don't exactly match up. He's not so much of the skilled forward with the blistering shot.

Raul was more of the forward that is constantly in the right position at the right time. Always knowing exactly where the pass was going to be or the exact place to be to receive a cross so that he could put it in. He definitely relied on other players to help him score goals. I don't say that to take away from any of his efforts or make it seem like he didn't work hard for his goals. Much to the contrary I think he was the hardest working man on the field and the ideal team player (except for maybe Guti). Raul understood that soccer isn't about individuals. It's about 11 people coming together to make beautiful music. When it comes to winning games, you need 11 players in concert with one another. In a club that has become completely self absorbed and entirely about personal image and being a galactico, Raul was the lone man that always stood out. Not because he was flashy or trying to steal the spotlight, but because it was evident that he was always playing for the name on the front of his jersey.

That was clearly evident this past year when Raul lost his starting position and would occassionaly come in off the bench. He would get subbed in for the last 10 minutes of the game and run around like an 18 year old making his first appearance and trying to impress the coach. You wanted him to score more than anything. Not because he needed yet another goal to pad the resume. But much like you root for the young player trying to get his break, you also cheer for the veteran who still plays his heart out and acts like this is his last game ever.

I think that is the biggest concern about the loss of Raul this season. He was maybe the last emotional connection to the players. Of course there will always be a soccer fanatic, team dedicaton connection where you will cheer for them no matter what. But the team is increasingly filled with superstars from all over the globe that come and go and don't seem to care about Real unless they receive a check each week. With Raul you could point to him and say, "There. There is our Madrileno." There is our noble representative. The player who has never been redcarded in his entire career that would sacrifice his life for our club. The player with five children - all from the same wife - that kisses his wedding ring after every goal he scores. The player that despite all of the poor and outrageous signings, still makes you proud to be a Real Madrid fan.

Granted, the fans will always be proud. And as long as the current ownership is in place the galacticos and all of the good, bad and outrageous signings will continue. Real Madrid isn't going anywhere, even if Raul is gone. Which is how Raul would like it. He just wanted to be a part of the great machine and contribute to it moving forward. Which he did, and it will. Let's just hope these galacticos know where to go without their Lodestar as the guide.

March Madness in September

We had a little vacation, but a new season has started and we are back in the blogging saddle. Two weeks into the Premier League and it looks like the trend is to score six goals. Gone are the days when you would win 1-0 or 2-0. 2010 is all about 6-0. But the best part about the start of the Premier League is that it is just like the first rounds of the March Madness tournament. Anything can and does happen.

Chelsea came right out of the gate like a #1 seed and thumped West Brom 6-0. That result wasn't too surprising. Chelsea is the defending champion and West Brom was promoted to the Premier League this season. But then Chelsea matched the impressive debut and beat Wigan 6-0 yesterday. Again, Wigan isn't exactly the toughest foe, but six goals is always impressive. Especially when it comes in back to back weeks. Two weeks in and they have a +12 goal differential. That's good or something.

Blackpool is the low-seeded team full of white boys that comes out in the first round and pulls off a huge victory by raining threes. Blackpool was recently promoted from the League Championship. Not much was/is expected of them this season. But then they opened up against Wigan and won 4-0. An impressive debut in the Premier League. Granted, again it was Wigan so it wasn't like David slaying Goliath. But it made Blackpool look like a legitimate team. That was until they met Arsenal on Saturday. Any excitement or confidence Blackpool may have gained about their team this season was quickly squashed as Arsenal came out and put them in their place by thumping them 6-0. Blackpool turned out to be the Cinderella team that isn't really a Cinderella team because before they can even think about winning it all a Kansas or North Carolina thumps them by 35 in the second round. The Arsenal game wasn't even that close. Arsenal dominated from the kickoff.

Newcastle is the intriguing 8 or 9 seed. No idea what to make of them. A storied history. They fell on bad times and were relegated two years ago. Last year they finished at the top of the League Championship division and they were promoted back to the Premier League. They struggled against Manchester United and looked like they might not be ready for the Premier League, but then they came out in the second week and crushed Aston Villa. Final score: 6-0 of course. Losing to Man United is understandable. But 6-0 against Aston Villa? That's impressive and makes them all the more intriguing. A classic 8/9 seed. You feel good about them against some teams, but would struggle picking them against a 1 or 2 seed, like Man United.

Anyways, what does this all tell us and what do we know after two weeks? Just like the start of the March Madness tournament, we know nothing. Chelsea is good and Wigan blows. They are likely the top and the bottom of the league, but everything in the middle is still a crapshoot. Which is great. Anything can and does happen at the start of the season.

In the end Chelsea, Man United and Arsenal (the #1 seeds) will likely finish in the top 4. Tottenham, Man City and Liverpool (#2 seeds) will then follow in some random order. It may end differently, but that's how it will probably be in May. Like the end of the March Madness tourney. It's fun to predict the underdogs and Cinderellas, but in the end, it always the #1 and #2 seeds. Somewhat predictable and expected. Not that it's a bad thing since the end of the season and race to the finish is always exciting. But there is plenty of joy to be had in the journey. We may know how it will end, but it will likely be chaotic and unpredictable getting there. Arguably the best time of the season. March Madness in September.
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