Year of transfers ends with Barca still on top
MADRID - Agence France-Presse
Barcelona’s Gerard Pique celebrates after scoring a goal against Celtic during their Champions League match at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona Dec 11.In a year in which Barcelona started and finished on top of La Liga, 2013 was otherwise filled with change in Spain as the arrivals and departures of star players and coaches dominated the headlines.
Barca began the year with an almost unassailable lead in the title race and despite the unfortunate absence of coach Tito Vilanova for a large part of the second-half of the season, as he continued cancer treatment in New York, the Catalans wrapped up their 22nd league title with a club record 100 points.
However, there was to be disappointment once more in the Champions League semi-finals for Barcelona as they suffered an embarrassing 7-0 aggregate defeat to eventual champions Bayern Munich.
Real Madrid were also eliminated at the semi-final stage for the third consecutive year as they too lost to German opposition in Borussia Dortmund.
Another season of failure in Madrid’s quest for a 10th European title ensured Jose Mourinho’s rollercoaster ride as coach in the Spanish capital would come to an end.
Yet, there was to be one final embarrassment for Mourinho as Atletico Madrid ended their 14-year winless streak against their city rivals by winning the Copa del Rey 2-1 in Real’s own Santiago Bernabeu stadium.
A third trophy in little over 18 months under the tutelage of Diego Simeone was the highlight of another stellar year for Atletico as they announced themselves as serious candidates on all fronts.
Atletico cruised into the last 16 of the Champions League as group winners on their return to the competition for the first time in four years and only goals scored separates them from Barca the top of La Liga this season.
The form of Simeone’s men is even more impressive given the sale of Radamel Falcao to Monaco in June for 60 million euros ($82 million, 50 million).
The Colombian wasn’t the only big name to leave La Liga as Real Madrid sold Gonzalo Higuain to Napoli and, somewhat controversially, let Mesut Özil join Arsenal on the final day of the transfer window.
However, as ever, the giants of Madrid and Barcelona were more active in bringing in star names.
Perez’s project of Spanish youth stars
Madrid moved first to replace Mourinho with two-time Champions League winning coach Carlo Ancelotti from Paris Saint-Germain.
Real president Florentino Perez then showed his intention to build a new project full of young Spanish stars as under-21 internationals Isco and Asier Illaramendi were snapped up for just short of 70 million euros.
But the big splash Madrid had been waiting to make all summer finally arrived on September 1 as they finally announced the capture of Gareth Bale for a reported 91 million euros, although sources in England claimed the figure to be higher than Real’s world record capture of Cristiano Ronaldo for 94 million euros in 2009.
Barca’s business was done in reverse, their star signing Brazilian striker Neymar bought before the 2012/13 campaign had even finished in May for 57 million euros.
Sadly, though, they too were forced into a change of manager when Vilanova was forced to resign due to his on-going ill health in late July leading to the appointment of Argentine Gerardo Martino.
Both Bale and Neymar have settled in well without outshining their seniors in Ronaldo and World Player of the year Lionel Messi respectively.
Neymar had the better start and was decisive in the only meeting between the sides so far this season with a goal and assist in Barca’s 2-1 win in October.
Bale, meanwhile, was affected by a number of niggling muscle injuries early on caused by the lack of a proper pre-season. However, his slow start as quickly been forgotten by a flurry of goals and assists in November and December as Madrid closed to within five points of the leaders.