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A LOOK AT LA LIGA

How the tables have turned!

Kovacic had a torrid time of it against Messi. :: EFE
Kovacic had a torrid time of it against Messi. :: EFE
  • opinion

  • Ernesto Valverde's management has shattered the domination Real Madrid had over Barcelona last year

Nobody was disagreeing with Gerard Piqué when he declared: “In the nine years I've been here, it's the first time I feel inferior to Madrid.”

This was August when Real Madrid added the Spanish Super Cup to the enviable collection of trophies won in the year 2017. Barcelona were just a sparring partner over the two rounds of the clash of the Spanish heavyweights.

Spin forward four months and the domestic gap between the two is so immense, only Zinedine Zidane claims the title isn't already won.

Barcelona are fourteen points ahead of Real who sit fourth and nine points above their nearest challengers Atlético. So what's happened?

For me it all comes down to the management of Ernesto Valverde. His achievement could be right up there with those of Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique - maybe even greater.

It's also down to Zidane losing sight of what made him so refreshing when he first sat in the Bernabéu dug-out.

Valverde has managed against the odds. Neymar was sold, his replacement Ousmane Dembélé was crocked early on and Luis Suárez has taken three months to crank up his engines.

Some are coaches, some are managers and Valverde has proven to be both. He's coached his team to make the most of what they have and they boast the best defence in La Liga. He's managed to squeeze the best out of a severely limited squad by using his imagination. An example of this is replacing Andrés Iniesta in all but one of his starts, often replacing him with the least obvious player.

In contrast Zidane seems to have lost the edge that has won him so many trophies since he took over two years ago. His trademark has been selecting on current form and ability rather than reputation and past achievements. He ditched the likes of Danilo and James Rodríguez, preferring squad players like Dani Carvajal and Casemiro.

The Clásico wasn't his finest hour. In fact it was possibly his worst hour and a half since taking control. The question was who would take the one vacant midfield role? Nobody expected the answer to be Kovačić.

For the opening 45 minutes Zidane's plan worked as the Croatian rotated between babysitting duties on Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi. As the second half started, Zidane appeared to have instructed his players to slow the pace down a little. The momentum was lost, Barça scored and suddenly Kovačić looked like a player who hadn't started a Liga game since September.

It called for decisive management, a clarity of thought, snap decisions. “Get Isco on, get Bale on,” cried the pundits.

As Zidane considered, his team dithered, Carvajal was dismissed for handball and Barça went two up. He threw on a defender and the Bernabéu, for once, questioned his wisdom.

In conclusion, as we take a winter break, Valverde has made far more right decisions than wrong ones and Zidane has uncharacteristically made a few wrong ones.

I was a little concerned to switch on Spanish TV this week to see Zidane throwing himself off a Dubai skyscraper. Surely things aren't that bad?

As he flew through the air (attached to a harness) I'm sure he was seeking clarity of mind to regain his previous superhero powers.