By Sid Lowe
December 23, 2010

Many thanks for all your questions. If I didn't get to your questions, we'll try to do the same again at another time, so feel free to send more my way either by's mailbox or by Twitter: @sidlowe. Please include #SIpostbag.

Which striker do you think Real Madrid will buy? And who do you think they should buy? What happens when Kaká comes back?

This question is at the heart of the internal divisions at Real Madrid at the moment. Jose Mourinho wanted an extra striker in the summer and was told by the club that it was not possible after the outlay on other players -- and indeed on sacking Manuel Pellegrini and bringing in him and his staff. Now, with the injury to Gonzalo Higuaín the need is even more pressing. But Mourinho has again faced resistance -- and he is not happy about it. Madrid, the club, would rather wait until the summer and sign Fernando Llorente (and I think he would be a great signing for them, especially because of how he fits Mourinho's approach, although I would prefer to see other Spanish teams withstanding the pressure to sell their best players all the time). If there is to be a signing now, and it is not clear that there will be, it is more likely that Madrid will take a cheaper option. From within the club they are reminding Mourinho of the return of Kaká -- that serves as evidence that he may not need another striker. I think we may see Ronaldo occasionally playing as a central attacker (even though Mourinho said last summer that anyone who thinks he is a no. 9 is wrong).

If eight out of 11 Barça players are from La Masia, they have the biggest ground, and their philosophy and model is the best etc. How come they are skint?

It still costs a hell of a lot of money to pay those players and Barcelona has, despite the fantastically successful work of the youth system, spent heavily too: Ibrahimovic, Villa, Maxwell, Keita, Chygrynskiy, Alves ... they didn't come cheap. It is clear too that there has been significant financial wastage beyond the purely footballing side. Also, Barcelona did not have any income from shirt sponsorship -- which they now do have of course.

Is a Chelsea/Man City-style revolution in La Liga the only way of ending the big two dominance in the next 10 years? There is no Valencia, Deportivo, Sevilla team challenging. Will anything be done to address RM/FCB duopoly? And does that duopoly mean that the rest of the league is bad? Is the LFP concerned that 18 teams are out of race by November? What is the current proposal on TV rights and can equal distribution of TV rights make La Liga more competitive? If not, are there two structural changes you recommend? If you had to name one team who can break their domination, who would it be and why?

First things first: There are some very good teams in the Spanish league, beyond Real Madrid and Barcelona. I would love to see how Villarreal would have got on in the Champions league this season, for instance -- or indeed in another league. But Madrid and Barcelona's dominance is extraordinary -- the product, among other factors, of a huge difference in the TV money, accumulated over the last few years. They take around $170 million a year in TV money while Valencia, the third biggest in Spain, take less than $52 million. That is less than the team that finished bottom of the English Premier league last season. Is the LFP worried? Well, as a confederation of clubs, yes. But that's a collective of clubs that cannot really bring Madrid and Barcelona fully into line.

The current TV proposal is for them to take 43 percent while Valencia and Atlético take 11 percent and the rest get 9 percent. So, the inequality will be maintained, but the effects of relegation will be palliated for instance -- there will now be a parachute payment. Sevilla and Villarreal, the teams nearest to Madrid and Barcelona, are furious. Atlético and Valencia appear to have decided that if they can't compete with Madrid and Barcelona they might as well cement their place as the third and fourth best teams and keep clubs like Sevilla at bay. In terms of TV interest and revenue, PPV hits etc, they are the next biggest.

The battle is getting Madrid and Barcelona to change their mentality. They see it in clear terms: we generate all the revenue, we should get the lion's share of it. Most clubs agree that they should be the senior partners. What Madrid and Barcelona appear not to see is the potential damage that they do to themselves if they effectively drive the rest of the league into a position of never, ever being able to compete.

In terms of the competition -- leaving aside business issues -- I would like equal moneys (but I know that's impossible), I would also try to limit squad numbers to prevent stock-piling of talents and deny clubs the right to loan players, forcing them to actually release them (and certainly ban the clauses that stop loan players playing against their owners).

Long term, only massive investment in others clubs is likely to break up the duopoly -- or massive collapse from the big two, because, despite their financial advantages, they do have huge debts. As it currently stands, then, you might say that the team most likely to break the hold of the big two is Malaga because of their Qatari owners. In footballing terms, Villarreal.

What keeps the Castilla players motivated with the prospect of playing time very slim with Mourinho as well as the previous coaches?

They know that even if they do not make it into the Real Madrid first team as regulars, they have a professional career against them. Madrid's cantera has proven hugely successful in developing talent -- just for other clubs. Last time I looked, Madrid had more youth teamers playing in the first division than anyone else.

Can you tell us a bit about Canales and whether you think he should go out on loan or stay on the bench at Real?

I am surprised by how little he has played and that is a concern because he is set, I think, to be a very, very good player. Mourinho seems a little unimpressed with his intensity (or lack of it). But Mourinho does not want him to go out on loan -- essentially because he does not trust anyone else with Canales' development. With patience, he'll be very good.

Does Barcelona really needs Cesc?

Maybe not right now (and they can't really afford him either). But yes, Xavi is getting older and is physically struggling. Cesc is the natural heir, even if he tends to play slightly further forward and is more dynamic.

How much of an impact do you think Mesut Ozil has had on Real Madrid?

He is intermittent, but has added a touch of smoothness and creativity to the side that they did not always have last year. I have been hugely impressed with him at the Bernabéu, less so away from home. In truth though the player who has most impressed me for Madrid this season (beyond the obvious answer of Ronaldo) is Ángel Di María.

Is Victor Valdés the most underrated goalkeeper in the world?

Not in Catalonia. And not any more. I think him making it to the World Cup was recognition of the fact that, last season at least, he was the best goalkeeper in La Liga. But I still think Casillas deserves to be Spain's number one. Possibly beyond Spain here is little acknowledgment of Valdés, simply because when you play in goal for Barcelona everyone assumes you're irrelevant. You could call it the Brazilian Goalkeeper Syndrome.

What is preventing Real Madrid from performing as cohesively as Barça?

Time and a clarity of identity.

Do you think Gregorio Manzano will be sacked over the winter break or is Sevilla willing for his to be a long-term project?

Barring a genuine disaster, some sort of huge opportunity to go for another coach, or some kind of major falling-out, Sevilla won't sack Manzano. I also think that, if they listen to him and are sensible with winter signings, things will improve. They have signed surprisingly badly in recent years. There is no creativity or technique in the middle of midfield (hence the decision to pull Kanoute back) and with Navas injured the way of overcoming that (by playing with out and out wingers, basically) has not been available to them.

Is Rafa Benítez's reputation in Spain intact after a horrible 18 months?

Sort of. Some people were delighted to see him fail at Inter: he is respected in Spain, but not very well liked. The balance has tipped a bit against him -- even the respect has diminished a bit. When he was at Valencia, few were willing to give him the credit he deserved. He was actually more popular in Spain because of what he did at Liverpool than he had ever been for what he did at Valencia.

What would England need to do to produce Spanish-level players? Is it even possible, realistically speaking?

There's an entirely different football culture so I think it's difficult to see England producing players like Spain. They can produce players who are as good, but different. The fact that most Spanish kids start playing fútbol sala (which is much more than just five aside football) has an impact, so does the mentality behind football: a greater stress on technique and less on physicality. As one Spanish player put it to me: "joder con el tackling". In other words: there's too much obsession with tackling. We still tend to value ostentatious effort over technique. But that's a cultural difference that is hard to fully overcome. That said, I do think the Spanish overstate the supposedly Neanderthal nature of English football.

Is there any sense at all over in Spain of Iniesta's standing suffering in a way Xavi's doesn't because of his play acting and diving?

No. Very, very few people in Spain accuse Iniesta of diving. It's virtually impossible to find a more universally well-liked player.

What's your opinion of Andy Gray's comments that he's unsure if Barcelona would be able to compete against the Premier League's more physical teams?

Initially, I was very critical. I have watched it again and I would perhaps temper my argument but I think he is wrong (again). What he said is not wholly unreasonable: it is true that some English teams present different challenges than Spanish ones. It is also true that we can't know for sure what Barcelona or Messi would be like in England, and it is true that the English league is, generally speaking, more physically demanding and a little more intense. But it is not as technically demanding. Also, it's worth picking up on what he said, specifically. First, a cold night in Stoke ... well, to start with, that's a horrific and utterly vacuous cliché ... no one relishes a cold night at Stoke or Blackburn or whoever. And it does actually get cold in Spain: in fact Soria or Valladolid, for example, are often far colder than Stoke is. There are physical, direct teams in Spain too. Secondly, Messi doesn't tend to do it against English clubs? So, the goal against Manchester United in the Champions league final doesn't count? And the four against Arsenal? Gray actually said that he doesn't tend to do it against Chelsea. Ok, so let's allow for the leaving out of evidence (United, Arsenal) that doesn't suit ... even so, his first great performance was against Chelsea, that night when he was hit by Del Horno. He was brilliant. In the semifinal when Barcelona went through, he might not have been brilliant but he had the cool head to play the pass for Iniesta that put Barcelona in the final. Football is a sport: even great players can have bad days occasionally -- and what's so incredible about Messi is how rarely he does. Losing is pat of the game. You can't win all the time even if you are the best. Thirdly, Valencia would lose to Tottenham. Would they? Hopefully, we'll see that in the Champions league and get the chance to judge it. And finally, would Ronaldo get the goals that he gets in Spain if he was playing in the Premier league? Well, the evidence from two years ago is a resounding yes. Andy Gray once said it was his job to promote the Premier League. I don't think that is his job at all. It certainly shouldn't be his job.

Years from now, when you and your wife are entertaining your grandkids, what will you still remember about 2010?

Hard to beat the World Cup for sheer impact. Then there's the 5-0 in the clásico. And Messi's four against Arsenal -- that was mind-blowing.

How long do you realistically think Jose Mourinho will last at Real Madrid?

I think he has to win something big before he walks away. But much will depend on circumstance, what other jobs are available, how supported he feels. Madrid will not be as quick to sack him as they were with other coaches, they have far too much to lose and far too much invested in him. I think he'll be in Madrid for three years at least.

Is this Barcelona golden generation more likely to be undone by age, Pep getting worn out, or the club's financial situation?

A combination of them all. I wonder what the impact of Xavi's inevitable retirement would be. Also the connection between players and coach makes the next manager's job very hard indeed. I am not convinced by the new presidential regime.

Which stadium has the best atmosphere in La Liga? Also who has the best away fans, especially as Barcelona took only few to Espanyol? Can you explain why fans travel in such small numbers when going to away matches in La Liga?

San Mamés, Sanchez Pizjuán, Calderón (when they're up for it) ... Spain is a big country and there is little real culture of traveling fans. One of the great things about Sporting Gijón's return to the first division was that they reintroduced what had become something of an alien concept -- going to games. Fans are not helped by the fact that they are held in utter contempt by the LFP, which only fixes dates and kick off times of games with 8 days' notice. In other words, by then cheap flights, trains and hotels are impossible. I think that's a genuine disgrace. Espanyol was a special case: Barcelona was given no tickets. Also, Spain has a TV football culture more than a traveling one anyway.

Is Mourinho just trying to win trophies at Real Madrid, or does he have a plan to change the culture/style of the club?

He has talked about leaving a legacy. Maybe not so much a style in terms of the way they play but the way things are structured and set up. I think he wants more than just trophies -- he has talked, for example, of bringing kids through, of being remembered, of re-organizing things at a number of levels and paving the way for the next coach. But, of course, the big thing is the European Cup.

If Madrid don't win league or CL this year, who will press/fans go after most? Perez, Valdano or Mourinho?

In signing Mourinho, Pérez was gambling everything on one hand. The good news is it is a hell of a hand. If Mourinho wins nothing -- but I think he will win things -- then people may well say: well, it's obviously something wrong with the club if even Mourinho couldn't win there. That would leave Pérez a little unprotected. If Madrid win nothing it would be a fifth successive season he leaves empty-handed. But there are layers of protection and I suspect that Valdano might pay the price. In any case, Madrid can withstand a year of no success. Two is a different matter.

I think Cazorla is the best player outside big two. How long till he leaves?

Brilliant player. I very much hope that clubs like Villarreal can resist sales, but Madrid did try once before ...

Who are your favorite La Liga players who never played for Barça or Madrid?

Over the last decade, which is the period I have watched La Liga closely, you have to look at those teams who have got close to winning things from outside the top two. So, Rubén Baraja at Valencia stands out (as, for one season at least, does Pablo Aimar). It was always wonderful to watch Juan Carlos Valerón play. I had a soft spot for rollie-pollie Brazilian Donato and also for Mauro Silva at Deportivo. And looking at that Sevilla side, Dani Alves apart, you have to look at Fredi Kanouté. Brilliant; when everyone else seems to be racing round losing their heads, he just glides through games.

What could possibly prevent Hercules from winning La Liga this year?

Royston Drenthe being banned from playing against Madrid. Players not getting paid. Showers not working at training ground.

How do you compare Guardiola's Barcelona with Rijkaard's? Both won a Champions League and a couple of national leagues, besides sharing several players. Messi is stellar now, but so was Ronaldinho. Is Messi better than Ronaldinho?

I think we forget too easily just how brilliant Ronaldinho was. This side is more of a collective and more slick in its passing. The pressure is higher up the pitch and more intense. This side is that bit more different to all other football teams, ever. Messi might be the best player we have seen for decades, but Ronaldinho did things that you had literally never seen anyone do before. The pity was that it was short-lived.

Was Xabi Alonso's inclusion in the Spain team a sop to the Madridistas, and an effort to manage team dynamics on the part of Vicente del Bosque?

No. I think his respect for Alonso is very genuine. I think it was an attempt to provide greater protection. And despite the dominance of Madrid and Barcelona and the bitterness of their rivalry, I don't think that coaches need to be choosing a team based on a quota system. Xavi and Casillas, for example, are very good friends.

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