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SPORTS STORY

Viva España!

Ed Hawkins feels that Barca and Real could be the dominant forces in this season’s Champions League. Can anyone stop the incredible Spaniards?

Sports bettors can spend hours poring over form guides, trends and statistics, hoping that if they stare hard enough that the matrix will reveal itself. Why bother, though? Surely the number crunching can be eschewed in favour of one simple question: any Spaniards involved?

Spain’s recent dominance in world sport is astounding. Less you need reminding the roll call includes: the World Cup and European Championships, Rafa Nadal triumphed at the French Open and Wimbledon, Alberto Contador, saddle-sore but successful for a third Tour de France and Fernando Alonso is a contender for the F1 drivers’ championship.

Forget the Armada, we’re all Hispanophiles now, chortling with incredulity if anyone suggests the rain falls mainly in the plain (it’s the mountains, actually) and, no (duh!), they don’t all drink sangria. The love-in could continue to the extent that Spanish nombre de nenes could see a spike in the Home Counties: Josep anyone?

With Barcelona favourites for the Champions League playing a style of football that has us all scrabbling to buy dodgy timeshares on the Costa Brava and midas man Jose Mourinho grabbing the Galacticos at Real Madrid by the scruff of the neck, there can be no doubt where the weight of money has gone to win the comically sized cup.

Barcelona and Real lead the way in the betting. Pep Guardiola’s side are 7/2 generally, the sort of price which, come May 28 and the final at Wembley, Jonny-come-too-latelys will curse for not gobbling up. Real are 5/1 to add to their record tally of nine European Cups. Chelsea are next best at 13/2 followed by Manchester United at 15/2 and last year’s champions, Inter, priced at 14/1.

Jocularity aside, it is of course pertinent to do more than check the origin of passports for the protagonists. Have Barcelona and Real Madrid both improved their teams after failures last season?

In the case of Barcelona, it is impossible not to say yes. The signing of David Villa as a replacement for Thierry Henry, who has joined those football luminaries at New York Red Bulls, guarantees that. Villa’s five goals in the World Cup confirmed his class and with a supply line manned by the likes of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi his reputation as the bogeyman of European defences will only grow.

Villa’s transfer cannot be called a masterstroke because his prowess was well known but it does provide a cosseting for punters’ faith in Guardiola, who made a boo-boo when swapping Samuel Eto’o and a bucketload of cash for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Eto’o was part of the Inter team that overcame Barcelona in the semi-finals last year.

If there is a negative about Barcelona it is perhaps the irrational fear that their players will suffer from After the Lord Mayor’s Show syndrome. One can imagine it being hard to motivate oneself following World Cup glory, although opinions on the professionalism of Spanish footballers should not be smudged by the newsprint of staple British tabloid fare when discussing their own.

Real also look a far more robust challenger this season. The emotional soap opera of Raul, a storyline which often left everyone in Blighty confused, is over and Mourinho can concentrate on convincing his new charges that the world is against them before teaching them how to fill sand bags to hunker down for the forthcoming siege.

That is Mourinho and Management 1.01. Lesson two will be identifying weak areas and making them strong. Last term Real’s rectangle midfield of two holders and two attackers was too narrow while the front pairing of Raul and Karim Benzema misfired. The capture of winger Angel Di Maria solves one problem while Mourinho is certain to have something up his sleeve for the forward line.

Otherwise it is Mourinho himself that inspires. Real have not gone past the Round of 16 since 2004, a record which will surely be consigned to history with a man at the helm who, don’t forget, is part of a select band of bosses who have won the title with two different clubs (the others are Ernst Happel with Feyenoord in 1970 and Hamburg in 1983, and Ottmar Hitzfeld with Borussia Dortmund in 1997 and Bayern Munich in 2001).

Value elsewhere could come in the form of Chelsea. Manager Carlo Ancelotti has won the competition twice as a player and twice as a boss and following last season’s domestic prize, Chelsea could be forgiven for focusing on putting to sleep their Champions League hoodoo.

From disputed goals and last-gasp goals to penalty shootout heartache, there is no route left for Chelsea to stumble down. Granted, a creaking centre-half pairing of John Terry and Alex may see this as their last chance but with Michael Essien in midfield and a strikeforce of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka as potent as it gets, Chelsea will feel very much at home in a Wembley final.

Bayern Munich, following the German wunderkinds performance at the World Cup, could be worth a shot at 18/1. But bear in mind that last year’s finalists have history weighing heavily on their shoulders. No team in the Champions League era have ever finished runners-up and lifted the trophy the next year.

TOP BRIT

The quality of football will probably be better than ever but the sight of Harry Redknapp on a whirlwind tour of European city breaks may provide the best entertainment. Our ‘Arry takes his Tottenham side (providing they have qualified) into a brave new era in this season’s Champions League.

Visions of Redknapp turning up with a hanky on his head and shouting loudly and pointing as the language barrier proves insurmountable aside, Spurs actually look well-equipped for their European adventure. They have tremendous depth in their squad, a far more important quality than individual talent (which they also boast by the way in the shape of Modric, Defoe and Bale).

Tottenham are 6/1 with William Hill to be the most successful British team, a price that is tempting. Chelsea, understandably, are 13/8 favourites but otherwise there is little for Spurs to fear. Manchester United (15/8) had a weak squad last term and have not improved while Arsenal (7/2) desperately needed a centre-back and goalkeeper at time of writing. Rangers (16/1) will barely be able to afford the airfares.

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