Class is permanent, but form wins titles

There is generally more than a grain of truth about sporting clichés. One of the most commonly trotted out is the one about form being temporary but class being permanent, usually in discussion of a sporting giant who has suffered a run of poor results.

That is certainly true, but one could also argue that form – particularly at key moments in a season or a tournament – is what wins you championships.

We may be on the verge of seeing one of the most spectacular examples of this in Spain.

Three weeks ago, Barcelona were worrying more about all the records they were going to set in winning this season’s Primera Liga title than about actually winning the title itself, and with some justification. After a slow start which had seen them register a single point from their first two games, Pep Guardiola’s side had swept all before them, amassing 59 points (out of a possible 66) from their first 22 league games, and scoring 68 goals in the process.

Real Madrid were fully 12 points behind, a mere speck on the horizon. Despite lots of chest-thumping in Marca and the other pro-Real papers about the title race still being alive, hardly anyone took this particularly seriously. After all, Real were supposedly a team in crisis, having lost both manager Bernd Schuster (“resigned”, according to the club) and leading striker Ruud van Nistelrooy before Christmas, becoming embroiled in a presidential vote-rigging scandal, and generally acknowledged as playing largely dull (but winning) football, contrary to their traditions of free-flowing attacking.

However, that was then, and this is now.

Last night, Barca squandered leads of 2-0 and 3-2, succumbing to a 4-3 defeat at Atletico Madrid. This latest setback, coming on the back of a shock 2-1 loss at Camp Nou to bottom-of-the-table Espanyol and a 2-2 draw at Real Betis, means that the gap to Real – who have won ten in a row – is now just four points.

The previously unthinkable is now a very distinct possibility. With a potentially title-deciding encounter at the Bernabeu still to come – mark Sunday 3rd May in your diary – Real might just pip their bitter rivals to the title.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time football has seen such a dramatic turn of events. Newcastle United were playing Barcelona-esque attacking football and cruising to the 1995/96 Premier League title before Alex Ferguson’s mind games, Kevin Keegan’s questionable tactics and a dramatic collapse in form saw Man U overhaul a 12-point deficit down the stretch. Two seasons later, United themselves saw their 11-point advantage overturned by an Arsenal side which hit peak form at just the right time and, as Madrid have just done, won ten straight to propel them to the title.

It would be hard to argue against claims that Barcelona have played the most beautiful football or that they have been a classier side than Real Madrid over the course of the season as a whole. But that’s not how football works. Sometimes it is the team that just clings on before exploding into life down the home straight who comes out on top. It’s not a matter of who is more aesthetically pleasing, or even who has more class: it’s all about timing your surge to the finish line while everyone around you is tiring.

After all – more sporting clichés – a league campaign is a marathon, not a sprint; titles are won in May, not August; it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish; the league table doesn’t lie.

Right now, the Spanish Primera Liga table reveals one evident truth: they may still be out in front, but Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry et al can hear the thundering footsteps of an all-white machine from the capital approaching fast, and that’s not a comfortable place for anyone to be.

Form wins titles, and Barcelona need to regain theirs, fast.


About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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