With 16 games left in La Liga’s campaign, the three clubs in Spain’s title race are being made to answer a slightly lewd question: Just how big are your balls?
That’s the blunt refrain that now surrounds Real Madrid, with last weekend’s embarrassment at the Vicente Calderón (and the party that followed) leaving supporters wanting more “cojones” out of Spain’s leaders. Yet it also has resonance with Spain’s two other title contenders, with Barcelona head coach Luis Enrique now put in a position to prove his huevos match those of Madrid’s two contenders.
We already know Atlético Madrid’s are of a substantial size. Atléti defied the laws of economics to beat Barcelona and Real Madrid to top spot last season, when they also reached the Champions League final. Even then, this race’s new testicular theme was apparent. “I want to thank the mothers of these players because they gave birth to them with huevos this big,” he said after clinching the title at Camp Nou last May, gesturing as if holding a soccer ball. Incessantly demanding every inch of effort from his players, Simeone has received precisely what asked for.
In contrast, there are new questions about whether Cristiano Ronaldo’s measure up. In the eyes of fans, he has brought an element of shame on himself and the club this week after daring to celebrate his 30th birthday after Madrid were routed by Atlético, throwing a 250,000 euro bash in the Spanish capital and indulging in karaoke with Colombian singer Kevin Roldan.
The whole affair has rocked the boat at the Bernabéu, with los Blancos now taking over for Barça as Spain’s club in crisis. This week saw fans turn up at Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground to demand Ronaldo start showing some more balls. “More cojones, less parties,” they shouted at the Portuguese playboy, building on what’s becoming a theme at the top of La Liga.
Ronaldo’s manager could also be judged guilty of lacking in the same department; at least, when it comes to winning league titles. Carlo Ancelotti has three Champions League trophies inscribed into his honors, but there is a surprising lack of league success. In two decades of management, he’s taken only three league titles, winning each of Serie A, the Premier League and Ligue 1 once. He fell short in his first season with Paris Saint-Germain, allowing Montpellier to snatch the crown, and blew it with Madrid last spring, losing three and drawing two of the final 10 games. Winning la decima overshadowed that failure, but his history shows a series of well-supported teams that have often fallen short.
Away from Madrid, Luis Enrique is being measured by a similar standard. His managerial career is still young(ish), and he’s not yet tasted success, but Club Brugge’s Victor Vazquez, who played under Lucho at Barca B, described Barcelona’s current boss as “like Josep Guardiola, just with more huevos.”
That this race might come down something as intangible as testicular fortitude (or its less gendered equivalent) is a treat in itself. Genuinely competitive fights at the top of tables across Europe are becoming endangered species. Bayern Munich is eight points clear in Germany and won the Bundesliga by 19 points last season. It’s a similar tale in Turin, where Juventus sits on the Italian throne, while Chelsea has opened up a seven-point gap in the Premier League, although that race did go to the wire last season before being awarded to Manchester City.
Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images.
But in Spain, the possibility persists: We may once again have a race come the final day of the season. Last time out, Atlético had the nerve to claim its first title in almost 20 years in Barcelona’s back yard, while the Blaugrana only edged Madrid for second due to a superior head-to-head record. Just three points separated the sides.
This year, only four points separate the trio, though that’s unlikely to change this weekend. Madrid has a one-point lead over Barça, and all signs point toward it walloping Deportivo de La Coruña on Saturday (it won 8-2 when the teams played in Galicia this season). Barcelona hosts relegation-battling Levante, while Atlético visits 10th place Celta in the trio’s most difficult challenge.
But with tensions high after last weekend’s results, something more than points is at stake. Hurting from their derby blues, los Blancos will be keen to make a statement, potentially showing what Ronaldo and Ancelotti may lack in cojones can be offset by overwhelming depth and quality. Still, if the Italian fails domestically for a second year running, it won’t be soccer gods asking the questions; it will be Florentino Pérez.
Yet for all the focus over the last week on the capital, it’s currently Barça with the momentum. In addition to having one hand on the Copa del Rey, the Catalans have won 10 in a row and beat Atlético three times in January. Lionel Messi and Neymar’s friendship blossoms with each passing week, and they’re now allowing fellow South American Luis Suárez to infiltrate that circle. They also have the league’s stingiest defence, with Claudio Bravo leaking just 13 goals in 22 games.
As soon as that winning run ends, the club will invariably fall back into circus mode, but if Luis Enrique’s huevos are as big as Vazquez reckons, Barcelona should be able to walk its tightrope. And due to his constant player rotations during the first half of the season, Lucho may have the freshest squad.
Photo: DANI POZO/AFP/Getty Images.
Once again, despite being the league’s reigning champion, Atlético is left lurking in the shadows – an underdog role that merely plays into the mentality Simeone has installed. His team is four points behind Madrid at the moment and three away from Barça, who still have to welcome Ancelotti to Camp Nou before visiting Atléti in May. To borrow José Mourinho’s words, Atlético is the little horse in the race, even if it’s bathed in that role before.
Before last week’s Madrid derby, Marca’s cover dared teams to “Sal con huevos” – a phrase taken from Real Madrid defender Álvaro Arbeloa’s war of words with Simeone. Literally translated, the phrase means “salt with eggs,” but it also conveys a challenge: “Go out and show you have balls.”
Later that day, Atlético showed it still measures up. Madrid and Barça have 16 matches to show they do, too.