Euro Bites: The Reign Again of Spain

It’s advantage Iberia after the first leg of the European quarter-finals and a shock bad week for Germany’s all stars, in Kate Partridge’s latest Euro Bites.

After all the elation of last summer – the triumph over Brazil in Brazil, squashing Argentina to win a fourth World Cup, and some dreadful Dad dancing at the Brandenburg Gate – it’s been a bad week for German football.

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First, charismatic coach Juergen Klopp announces his summer adieu from Dortmund. Then Bayern are humbled at Porto in the Champions League. And then in-form Wolfsburg come completely unstuck against Napoli in the Europa.

Why? Ein Blip – or something more? Klopp quit BVB after seven years, just as he had at Mainz. But this was no seven-year itch: he had won two Bundesliga titles, a first club double, and reached a Champions League final.

Yet sales of stars such as Mario Goetze and Robert Lewandowski to Bayern meant he was losing an ongoing losing battle. Klopp is no flop. So he’s off.

Ironically, the absence of top players added to star-studded Bayern’s slump at the Estadio do Dragao. With influential trio Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger all out – after often being in to help Bayern go 10 points clear at home – Pep Guardiola’s favourites faltered.

As for Wolfsburg, they were undone by a more experienced hand – that of Rafael Benitez, who’s orchestrated more triumphs across Europe with unfancied sides than Napoleon and his unwashed conscripts.

So German football is hardly in crisis. There is also another leg of the quarter-finals to go, and Klopp will have more suitors than Miss World. Yet what this week has done is to boost interest in Europe’s two potential winners in a way that is missing in the domestic top flights of Germany, Italy, and even England.

But not in Spain, where it’s situation normal in La Liga between title-chasers Barca and Real, and a three-way dash for the European spots, while Spanish influence has re-established itself across the continent.

Admittedly, the biggest hype produced the lowest score. Atletico versus Real, a powerhouse Madrid derby and reprise of last year’s final. Atletico – unbeaten in six against their illustrious neighbours – against a rare full-strength Real. The Mattress-Makers v the Galacticos. Ronaldo coiffed and poised, ready to break the record goal tally. Bring it on!

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Sort of. The hero of this Spanish affair was a Slovenian keeper. Jan Oblak (whose name translates as “the cloud”) impressively denied Gareth Bale early on, and that set the tone. At the other end, a bloody Mario Mandzukic waged war with Sergio Ramos, while dodging Dani Carvajal’s apparent right hook. Less a football match and more a pub car park, but gritty stuff.

Yet goalless it finished. Bristol City’s 6-0 thrashing of Bradford to win promotion to the Championship frequently caught my eye. Though neither that result at Valley Parade nor the one at the Vicente Calderon changes the obvious fact that there will be at least one Spanish semi-finalist.

In Turin, Juventus edged the mean defence of Monaco. Arturo Vidal’s controversial second-half penalty gave Serie A’s runaway leaders the advantage for the second leg. Veteran Andrea Pirlo returned from injury to help restore the Old Lady’s pride, after Saturday’s shock 1-0 league defeat at rock-bottom Parma. Advantage Italy.

And there was more French woe in the capital, as Paris St-Germain endured a first European defeat at the Parc des Princes in 34 matches. Missing banned skipper Zlatan Ibrahimovic, PSG also lost this season’s unbeaten home record, as Luis Suarez scored twice in a 3-1 victory for Barcelona.

To add insult to injury, he nutmegged sub David Luiz twice in the process – a situation that might challenge your loyalties but never your sense of humour. Nuts!

And to make it even worse, PSG also lost top spot in Ligue 1 as Lyon beat Bastia, 2-0. Fantastic for the neutral in an often dry division, but a headache for Laurent Blanc and PSG. So it wasn’t just the Germans who were feeling it this week.

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In contrast, Barca are now unbeaten in 11 overall and have a treble in their crosshairs. Suarez has bagged 13 in 15 and his scorching triumvirate with Neymar and Lionel Messi has propelled the Blaugrana to top spot in Spain, and bookies’ favourites in Europe.

There was also joy in the other side of Iberia. Bayern’s shock 3-1 defeat at Porto was due to three defensive mistakes, the hosts’ high-intensity pressing game, and Ricardo Quaresma’s quick-fire brace.

Porto boss Julen Lopetegui’s tactics against old pal Guardiola were spot-on. The five-time champions now have plenty to do in Munich if they are to reach the semi-finals for the fourth year in a row.

In contrast – and as I keep writing – when Jose Mourinho says beware Portuguese teams, take heed. Porto are now on course to reach their first semi-final since winning the whole thing in 2004 under that man in the big dark coat.

But nobody was getting the better of Benitez, especially not on his 55th birthday, muchas gracias. The Spaniard celebrated by steering Napoli to a shock 4-1 thrashing of hosts Wolfsburg in the first leg of their Europa League showdown.

Prior to that match, Dieter Hecking’s men were the pre-tournament favourites and second only to Bayern in the Bundesliga. They now stand on the brink of elimination (and, dare I say it, domestication, as the Wolves can now concentrate on the league).

With this season’s Europa victors qualifying for the Champions League, Napoli may need to lift the trophy to qualify for the top tournament next term. They are currently fourth in Serie A, and seven points away. But, in Benitez, they have a former winner with Chelsea and Valencia, and – as every Liverpool fan will fondly recall – a European surprise specialist.

Standing in the way could be holders Sevilla, who fought back to beat Andre Villas-Boas’ Zenit St. Petersburg, 2-1, while there were draws elsewhere. But the bookies are backing Benitez, as the footballing barometer swings back to Iberian nous over German efficiency. And how often do you see a poor bookmaker?

The Champions League final will be at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, capital of the World Cup winners. But the chances are it will be another all-Spanish affair.

At least we’ll be spared that dancing.

Read more from Kate Partridge here!

Follow @KatePartridge33

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