High stakes between rivals Barcelona, Real Madrid

Massive investment from the Middle East and the former Soviet bloc is changing the balance of power in soccer in most of Europe. But not in Spain, where Barcelona and Real Madrid continue to dominate.

One of the world’s strongest rivalries will be on stage when Barcelona hosts Real Madrid Sunday. This is always an intense battle, the rough, no-holds-barred play usually taking a back seat to athleticism and skill.

Barcelona (6-0-0 in La Liga) was favored when the early odds were listed. But that was before Carles Puyol was injured in a Champions League game against Benfica Tuesday. Puyol will be out for two months after dislocating his elbow during Barcelona’s 2-0 victory.

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Barcelona is already playing without central defender Gerard Pique and there were questions about why Puyol was playing with a two-goal lead in the 72d minute of the match at Benfica. Though this seemed like an easy victory, with Barcelona dominating possession, the team’s defensive vulnerabilities were nearly exposed by Benfica. And after Alex Song replaced Puyol, Barcelona appeared even more fragile in the back.

Real Madrid (3-2-1, 10 points) is off to a slow start — the team lost only twice in 38 matches in La Liga last season. But Real Madrid has remained healthy and was off to a successful start in the Champions League before Wednesday’s game against Ajax.

But both Barcelona and Real Madrid have paid a high price for recent success. And, it seems, they have paid it without worrying about accountablility. Spanish clubs have accumulated more than 1 billion euros in debt, most of it attributed to Barcelona and Real Madrid.

With Spain’s economy in crisis, something is not adding up.

UEFA president Michel Platini is attempting to institute financial fair play regulations. But not everyone is paying attention to Platini (all cited contracts in euros):

During the summer transfer period, Barcelona paid 19 million to Arsenal for Song and 14 million to Valencia for Jordi Alba. There was no attempt to balance purchases and sales, except for a 500,000 take from Schalke 04 for Ibrahim Afellay.

It has been business as usual, accounting apparently not taken into consideration.

A year ago, Barcelona grabbed Cesc Fabregas from Arsenal (34 million) and Alexi Sanchez from Udinese (26m), selling Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Milan (24m) and Bojan Krkic to Roma (12m). Two years ago, Barcelona spent 72.5 million, mostly on David Villa (40m) and Javier Mascherano (20m) and transferring players worth 52.7 million.

Ibrahimovic, a 69.5 million Barcelona purchase from Inter in 2009, continues to play a major part in the transfer market. Six clubs have paid 169 million in transfer fees for Ibrahimovic since 2001. In August, Ibrahimovic went from Milan to Paris Saint-Germain for 21 million – a small price to pay for PSG, which shelled out 160 million on six players, including 42 million for Milan defender Thiago Silva.

Meanwhile, Real Madrid made only one offseason purchase – Luka Modric from Tottenham (30m) – selling six players worth 32.5 million. Last year, Real Madrid’s transfer deficit was 47 million, most of it spent on Fabio Coentrao from Benfica (30m). In 2010, Jose Mourinho’s first year as coach, Real Madrid’s transfer deficit was 83 million – it spent 93 million on six players, including Angel Di Maria’s 33-million purchase from Benfica.

Mourinho has been successful both because of and in spite of his high-spending ways. Upon being named Inter coach in 2009, Mourinho persuaded club president Massimo Moratti to buy Portuguese forward Ricardo Quaresma (24m) and Brazilian midfielder Mancini (13m), neither of whom would play a significant role on the team and were soon discarded.

But Mourinho has been almost parsimonious compared with previous Real Madrid coaches. `

Los Merengues’ transfer deficit the year before Mourinho arrived was 169.9 million. The club brought in Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United (94m), Kaka’ from Milan (65m), Xavi Alonso from Liverpool (35.4m), and Karim Benzema from Lyon (35m).

Sides are being taken in the “fair play” debate.

American investors in the Premiership, led by the Glazer family (Manchester United), are seeking monetary controls. Manchester City is among the opposition leaders, who are backed by Fulham’s Mohamed Al-Fayed, who believes the restrictions stifle ambition.

The clash will start playing out next year, when the UEFA plan is supposed to be implemented.

Pallotta learning

Running a soccer club is a hands-on activity, as Celtics owner James Pallotta is finding out with AS Roma. Pallotta, recently named AS Roma president, was scheduled to arrive in Italy Wednesday as the team attempts to recover from a 4-1 loss to Juventus.

After six weeks of Serie A play, Roma is tied for sixth place with eight points. But the Giallorossi have won only once — by forfeit over Cagliari — since Sept. 2. Questions are being raised about the commitment of administrators and the stability of the coaching staff.

Coach Zdenek Zeman’s hard-core training methods and attacking offensive style worked well when he was guiding Pescara in Serie B last season. But Zeman’s methods have not been effective with Roma, so far.

Roma collapsed defensively in the first half against Juventus. Zeman declined to defend Juve playmaker Andrea Pirlo man-to-man — “the only team in Europe not to do so,” according to an Italian publication — and Roma fell behind by three goals after 19 minutes.

Pallotta has attempted to bring continuity and stability to Roma as the club faces a transition. That could prove difficult should Roma fail to win against Atalanta Sunday.