In the white corner, ladies and gentlemen, the reigning Spanish champion, conqueror of all comers in Italy and England, still lean, still mean, still fighting fit Joooooseeee ‘Don’t Call Me the Special One call me the Only One’ Mourinhoooo.
In the blue and purple corner – the challenger, unknown, tall and spindly, short of fanfare and unproven in whether he can give or take a punch Titoooooo ‘The Marquis’ Vilanova.
So, if we are about to get ready to rumble, what’s the tale of the tape in Spain?
Well, even if it’s feasible that Real Madrid and Barcelona manage to headhunt two Premier League talents in Luka Modric and Alex Song before the market closes the absolutely remarkable fact is that Spain’s two big clubs have, at this stage of the summer, made ONE signing between them – Jordi Alba moving from Valencia to his alma mater club at the Camp Nou.
Last season Los Blancos played a hard-nosed, athletic, often entertaining but noticeably ruthless brand of football which smashed all records. More points (100), more goals (121), more away wins than ever before and a goal difference which resembles a John Daly scorecard on a bad day round Troon in the wind (+89).
The triumph, of course, made Mourinho the only man to have coached a champion side in the Premier, Serie A and La Liga. Hats off to him.
What’s likeable about their preparation, despite the terminally slow job they are making of converting their passion for Modric, is that they’ve been equally steely eyed about their pre-season. A long, well-organised training camp in the US without massive, regular travelling, a firm emphasis on physical preparation and a series of good, competitive wins.
It’s the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ school of management and Chelsea fans who enjoyed the golden age of the Special One at Stamford Bridge will recognise it.
Last season’s heroes were, unquestionably, located in the spine of the team – Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos (converted to centre back) Xabi Alonso, Karim Benzema and a Cristiano Ronaldo who not only crashed in the goals but became as generous a team player as at any time in his already prolific career.
Mourinho, and club President Florentino Perez, are authors of a frantic campaign to persuade voters (every national team coach and captain in the FIFA family plus selected France Football correspondents) that Ronaldo must win the Ballon D’Or in January. I think they are wrong in their premise and I think that the electorate will again show their awe at Lionel Messi’s skills (83 goals for club and country last season, Eighty. Three. For. God’s. Sakes) but what’s important in the short term is that Ronaldo has a short window of opportunity (the Spanish Supercup, the Champions League Group stage, about a quarter of La Liga and one league Clasico) with which to convince further and convert doubters.
Ronaldo’s battle for Ballon D’Or
Will he put on the turbo chargers as a soloist, making more selfish decisions on the ball which contrast with last season, or can he continue to harness his exceptional powers to the benefit of the group as Real Madrid, institutionally, make patent their ache for him to dethrone Messi who has brought the Ballon D’Or to the Camp Nou for the last three years? Watch this space.
In theory Barcelona are not only a proper threat to Madrid domestically but prime candidates to repeat their 2011 Champions League triumph at Wembley again this season. Since winning in 2006 Barça have only once not either won the tournament or been knocked out in the semi final by the eventual winner. Their risk factor goes beyond Vilanova’s debut season. He’s a smart, durable, football-intelligent bloke who does have the respect of his squad.
As a novice he may make mistakes but if the group of veteran winners at his disposal react as they should do to the manner of their La Liga loss last season then he’ll merely need a guiding hand on the tiller, not whips, thumbscrews and a constantly harsh, commanding voice.
Their key? Can they get David Villa, Carles Puyol and Xavi fully fit and functioning with regard to their respective problems which are recovery from a broken leg, second knee surgery in 12 months and a chronic achilles problem?
Should Eric Abidal fulfil his dream to be back to first-team football in December after liver transplant surgery in spring then, regardless of being Blanco or Blaugrana, everyone should celebrate.
However, can Barça really expect that each of these medical bulletins result in the all clear… all season?
Messi has just enjoyed his longest summer break since becoming a Barça first-team player and responded with his most prolific pre season form. He’s probably got a future in the game that lad.
Valencia and Real Sociedad provide strong opposition
This weekend Spain’s big two face Valencia at the Santiago Bernabéu and Real Sociedad at the Camp Nou before doing battle with each other in the first leg of the Spanish Supercup next Thursday.
The Basques haven’t beaten Barça away since they were powered by John Aldridge and Dalian Atkinson two decades ago and even the decent acquisitions of Carlos Vela and Jose Angel plus the fact that Barça often look a little constipated after an international week (particularly when players are shipped to and from Puerto Rico!) shouldn’t negate a home win.
The mouth-watering tie is, of course, between the champions and Spain’s third-placed team last season. Valencia have a new coach in Mauricio Pellegrino, normally debutants are meat and drink to Mourinho, but their level of threat will be modified depending on whether star striker Roberto Soldado is fit (which he expects to be).
La Liga is back, flaws and all, which means for those of us who like our football to be technically exquisite, tactical and tribal the next 10 months shape up as sheer joy.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based, British soccer writer whose passionate insight into La Liga can regularly be heard on TV and radio. He will be providing regular columns for the Paddy Power Blog on Spanish football this season. Follow him on twitter here.