Madrid, Barcelona taking eye off ball

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

The two fiercest foes in Spanish football no longer bother to ignore that their rivalry has become a mutual obsession.

Even this week, as attention turned to the UEFA Champions League, players, coaches and fans of Real Madrid and Barcelona were unable to pry themselves away from the verbal and psychological sparring that never ceases.

As far as these storied clubs are concerned, there might as well be only two teams on the planet.

A rivalry that has always been fierce, passionate and prone to give sane men bouts of dementia and delirium has become all-consuming, sparked by a quirk in the Spanish match schedule.

For now, the Champions League is a sideshow – with the routine business of negotiating the group stages something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

After long journeys east, with Madrid traveling to take on Zenit St. Petersburg and Barca heading to Shakhtar Donetsk both ended with unconvincing victories. The jobs were completed but they weren't very stylish. Barcelona came closest to losing, needing two late goals from the brilliant Lionel Messi to get past its tenacious Ukranian hosts 2-1. Madrid edged past Zenit by the same score, holding firm defensively to withstand an onslaught spearheaded by Russian superstar Andrei Arshavin.

Both Spanish teams have a point to prove in Europe, but they are in danger of becoming distracted by each other and the desire for domestic bragging rights.

The La Liga fixture list means every team in the Spanish first division will play Barcelona and Real Madrid on consecutive matchdays. Most observers believe that will be an advantage for Madrid, which gets to play an opponent coming off a tough contest each week and be able to monitor what it needs to do to control its title hopes.

It has also served to ferment the rivalry. When Barca beat Sporting Gijon 6-1 earlier this season, prompting glorifying headlines of delight in the Catalan press, Madrid responded with a 7-1 destruction of the same opponent three days later. The banter and posturing was in full flow.

However, Madrid would be well served to keep its eye on Champions League and the event that has done more than any other to forge its international reputation. The club has failed miserably to make the progress it wanted in this tournament in recent times. Repeated eliminations in the first round of the knockout phase have made the triumphs of 1998, 2000 and 2002 a fading memory.

Barcelona won it all in 2006, beating Arsenal in the final. But while two European Cup titles and three finals appearances would be outstanding for most clubs, it is an unspectacular return for an organization of Barcelona's size and magnificence.

Both Spanish giants have six points from two games and look to be in solid form, enough to have hopes of making major progress this season. But it will only happen if they get over themselves and focus on the task at hand.

Another Champions League matchday, another fresh wave of evidence that the current crop of Italian teams are poorly equipped for the rigors of European competition.

AC Milan lifted the trophy in 2007 but there has been a steady drop-off in the performances of Serie A sides in the tournament. Matchday 2 was the perfect illustration, as all four Italian teams struggled against weaker opposition

Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan managed only a 1-1 draw at home to Werder Bremen, while Fiorentina was held to a stalemate against Romania's Steaua Bucharest. Juventus suffered the biggest embarrassment, as it fell behind 2-0 to BATE Borisov of Belarus before clinching a 2-2 draw.

Roma provided Italy with its only win, coming from behind to defeat Bordeaux 3-1.

Many explanations and excuses have been made for the Italian teams' disappointing performances. Yet it is hard to look past the arrogance and complacency, particularly against smaller teams like Borisov.

Man of the matches: Lionel Messi (Barcelona). Is there a better player in the world than Messi right now? Barcelona certainly wouldn't swap him for anyone, especially after his two-goal effort spared them defeat in Donetsk.

Shock of the week: Anorthosis Famagusta of Cyprus continued to impress, upsetting Panathinaikos 3-1 with a courageous, up-tempo performance that deserved three points.

Milestone: Steve Gerrard celebrated his 100th goal in a Liverpool shirt with a stunning free kick as the Anfield club comfortably sunk PSV Eindhoven 3-1.

We're happy: CFR Cluj rejoiced in its 0-0 draw with Chelsea as if it had won the Champions League. With four points from two games, the Romanian club has made a dream start.

We're not: Chelsea suffered a frustrating night in Cluj – but the real bad news was a knee injury to Didier Drogba that could keep him out for six weeks.

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