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Spanish Football wary of the ides of March

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Yesterday, AC Osasuna demolished visiting Atletico Madrid 3-0 at El Sadar stadium (http://bit.ly/OtVJUx) leaving Real Madrid at the top of the La Liga table with 63 points while Atletico and Barcelona FC are tied for second place at 60 points apiece. Barcelona lost its first place thanks to a 1-3 loss away to Real Sociedad. In Copa del Rey play, Real and Barca have an April 19th clasico final to play.

At the top of Spanish Football club play only Real are providing inspired football on the domestic front. But the international front is another story. In Champions League fixtures, Barcelona beat Manchester City 2-0 in Manchester while Atletico beat AC Milan 1-0 at the San Siro. Tomorrow, Real play Schalke 04 at Veltins Arena with a chance to make it a Spanish club sweep in their first leg away matches.

Obviously, Spanish Football had quite a week last week, but beware the ides of March, they loom as the bellwether for the rest of the domestic and international fronts.

Over the next few of weeks Barcelona play host to Manchester City and then meet Real at the Bernabeu. Real play away to both Schalke 04 in the Champions League, and then to Atletico, before playing hosts to Barca. Atletico play the mentioned games then host AC Milan in the second leg of their Champions League tie. One could argue that the fate of La Liga and the Champions League, for these three teams, will be made clear by about mid-March.

But there is a larger story at play here, and that is the coaching of Spain’s three top clubs. It is the wild card in the run for silverware and it seems poised to be the deciding factor. March might well tell us how.

Real is bouncing back nicely from the Jose Mourinho era, if only in 2014, but bouncing back they are. Coach Carlo Ancelotti seems to finally have gotten a hold of a formula that has kept his team fresh, most of his stars happy, and the team, which has not lost in its last nine outings, clicking on all cylinders. With Cristiano Ronaldo coming back, from his La Liga suspension break, for tomorrow’s game in Germany, the Merengues look ready to resume their highest caliber output.

Ironically, at Barca, after Pep Guardiola’s departure, Tata Martino is having a hard time figuring out how to make the best use of a roster that is arguably stronger, and a system that was mostly working just fine. Last year’s Champions League debacle aside, the Catalans are still a world class team and they are but a few back-to-back performances away from reminding us of just how dominant they once were. That dominance is not a thing of the past, but a few coaching tweaks from a thing of the near future. With Lionel Messi now healthy, Neymar reaching his form, and the team putting it mostly all in evidence at Manchester, one wonders how they could follow that performance up with such a La Liga loss at Sociedad. The answer lies in both the roster choices and player placements on the field made by Tata (http://es.pn/1h6toxk).

Similarly, Diego Simeone chose to rest some stars for his game against Osasuna to his peril and eventual dismay. Many might be able to point to a three week stretch, the Osasuna debacle preceded by the roster and tactical choices El Cholo made that led to a loss at Almeria (http://bit.ly/MUUBbk) when a win then would have put Atletico in first place, as the turning point for Atletico. But that would be a premature judgement. Simeone seems nobody's fool.

One can argue that with so many key games on the line not one of these coaches will take a risk and play anything but their strongest roster and most successful tactics for the foreseeable future. On Saturday, on Real Madrid’s website, Ancelotti responded to a question about roster choices for the stretch of domestic and international matches ahead, by saying: “Before we play Schalke we'll have to see how [each player] is doing physically...We will play the strongest possible team. Now all the matches are extremely important. It might be a case of whoever doesn't play on Wednesday will play on Sunday.”

Though Ancelotti's quote does not seem to signify he has a predetermined strategy, the question of whether he has settled on a formula will soon be evident. For the three coaches this short-term crucible will show whether they have learned from their mistakes and know what modifications to make, or whether they will hold fast to their preconceived approaches in hopes they will eventually prove prescient. All of those decisions will be made, and those fateful games will be played, in March.

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