Diego Forlan: As Alaves showed, even small teams can defeat giants like Barcelona

I wasn’t surprised that Barcelona were defeated at home to Alaves last weekend. As I have constantly said since I started this column, football has changed.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi, right, duels for the ball against Alaves's Victor Laguardia. Manu Fernandez / AP Photo
Barcelona's Lionel Messi, right, duels for the ball against Alaves's Victor Laguardia. Manu Fernandez / AP Photo

Diego Forlan writes a weekly column for The National, appearing each Friday. The former Manchester United, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid striker has been the top scorer in Europe twice and won the Golden Boot at the 2010 World Cup. Forlan’s column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.

I wasn’t surprised that Barcelona were defeated at home to Alaves last weekend. As I have constantly said since I started this column, football has changed.

Everyone can beat anyone and reputations count for less. There is criticism that a few teams are becoming too dominant, yet football is more interesting than ever because the lesser teams have all improved. It remains far less predictable than other sports and that is why it remains so popular.

See also:

• Andy Mitten: From a ‘good time’ at Huesca to stunning Barcelona

• In pictures: Barcelona, with Messi, Suarez and Iniesta on the bench, stunned by Alaves at Camp Nou

Leicester City won the toughest league in the world last season. That alone proves my point. However, the size of their achievement was probably a freak.

Alaves deserved to win at Camp Nou, but they will not win the Primera Liga. They beat Barcelona, but they can’t compete with their resources, their squad size, their talent levels of their players over a full season.

That is why the World Cup, European Championship, the Uefa Champions League and the Europa League are fascinating, because there are more surprises.

The knockout format helps; it increases risk. Throw in injuries, players sent off and luck and there are regular surprises in every tournament.

Look at Euro 2016 and how Iceland, Wales and Portugal did. A bad opening game in a tournament can knock the confidence of even the best sides. Anything really can happen.

Luis Enrique was right not to be too concerned about the defeat. Barcelona remain a great team with an amazing squad. There success can also be potholed by dangers, though, with too many games or injuries, but I would be stunned if they did not compete for trophies.

The biggest clubs also have deeper squads and combined with a large number of matches, it makes squad rotation key, especially if you are a European team with South American players because they do a lot more travelling to play for their countries.

The South American national team games are really tough and their World Cup qualifying group is much tougher than any European group. There is more travel, better opponents and games are played from sea level to 3,600 metres altitude.

You can also go from winter to summer in a couple of hours. Then you have a 13-hour flight back to Europe.

With that in mind, Enrique tried to rotate his squad against Alaves, making seven changes. When I played for Atletico Madrid, I had to fly to Uruguay to play in qualification games for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. We had two games, one in Bogota, Colombia at 2,600 metres. Two days later we played in Uruguay at sea level after a seven-hour flight south. We drew the game but at the end my hamstring felt sore.

I thought I was just a little tired after two tough games. I took the flight back to Madrid and talked to my manager about what had happened. He told me to stay in Madrid and miss the game at Real Valladolid away. 

The following Tuesday, we were playing a Uefa Champions League game against PSV Eindhoven. I felt recovered, but 15 minutes from the end I sprinted to get the ball and I felt a problem with my hamstring. I was substituted right away and was out for almost a month. That is why having a lot more than 11 players and rotation its important.

Barcelona bounced straight back, beating Celtic 7-0 on Tuesday. That result saddened me a little because both Glasgow teams were strong a decade ago.

I played in Glasgow in the Champions League last 16 with Villarreal, against Rangers in 2006. It was a great game against the backdrop of a quite incredible noise and colour. I looked around Glasgow, too, and was pleasantly surprised. The centre is beautiful.

We won the game, I scored and we went through. We lost in the semi-final against Arsenal, but Celtic and Rangers would not get near the quarter-finals now.

One of my best United goals was against Rangers, a volley at Old Trafford. And I played against Celtic in Seattle for United when they must have had 15,000 fans there.

Rangers and Celtic have huge support in North America. They are massive clubs who were getting 50,000 and 60,000 crowds when I played in England.

I used to check the numbers in the newspapers and be amazed. Those crowds – every week – were bigger than any club in South America.

It is sad that the Scottish league has got weaker to the point that their clubs can’t compete with those in England’s second and even third division. Perhaps a solution is the best Scottish teams playing against bigger clubs from other league more regularly.

One idea put forward was that they played with big Dutch and Belgian clubs in an Atlantic League. I know it is complicated, that the authorities would raise objections and that it could be very political. I respect football’s traditions and long-standing rivalries and know people don’t like change. Also, every other small league could start joining up and then what is the point of national leagues?

But it is sad when giant clubs like Rangers and Celtic like those from Glasgow suffer just because they have a small population like Uruguay.

I started this column saying that football is more equal than ever. Well, it is for teams in the biggest leagues and competitions.

If you are in a smaller league, like the Scottish one, that is certainly not the case and change may be needed to secure their future.

sports@thenational.ae

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Published: September 15, 2016 04:00 AM

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