Who Will Be the Kings of Spain?
Floris de Bruin takes a look at what is shaping up to be one of the closest title races in La Liga history.
Spain’s elite football division, La Liga, is shaping up to be a close title race.
Only a few points separate Atlético de Madrid, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona from each other. With the the season already entering its final stretch, there is great cause for excitement to see how things pan out.
Atlético started the season in great form, clinching victories wherever they went in usual their usual rough and physical fashion, building a 10-point lead ahead of their stumbling rivals. Diego Simeone’s side have looked menacing with the likes of the trustworthy Jan Oblak between the sticks, the young phenomenon João Félix finally demonstrating his true ability and the shock signing of goalscoring ace Luis Suarez.
Barcelona’s bid for the trophy, on the other hand, was built on shaky foundations. Losing 8-2 to Bayern Munich in the Champions League last summer was a humiliating blow that saw the dismissal of coach Quique Setién. To blame their lacklustre performance on one man, however, is reductionist considering the poor management of the club by former president Josep Maria Bartomeu. It all began to go wrong since Neymar Jr’s departure to French giants PSG, as poor signings and mismanagement of player wages took their toll, culminating in total debt of £1.1 billion.
Star-man Lionel Messi was so disheartened and unhappy to the point where he requested to leave over the summer, sending shockwaves through the international community. In the final stages of his career, many doubted whether his talents were best served elsewhere than a club undergoing a transitional phase. Especially one led by former club legend Ronald Koeman, whose managerial accreditations did little to inspire confidence. This showed early on as the team registered many inconsistent performances, dropping valuable points against lower-tier sides. Messi, too, was far from his best after the club denied his summer exit, with many speculating that his increasingly old age spelt the beginning of the end of his stellar career.
Real Madrid similarly experienced a slow start to the campaign. Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in 2018 and the subsequent reliance upon older players such as Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos left the club in a vulnerable position. To make matters worse, injuries have plagued Los Blancos – in February, manager Zinedine Zidane only had 10 senior players to choose from ahead of their Champions League tie against Atalanta. Star signing Eden Hazard, who joined from Chelsea in 2019 is yet to live up to his expensive price tag as his injuries seem endless.
While fate may have favoured Atlético, football does not work that way.
In a manner unique to Atlético, they have slumped significantly in the second half of the season, dropping points against lower league sides Celta Vigo, Levante and Getafe. Conceding late equalisers to Celta Vigo and Real Madrid in early March is a troubling sign for a side that has struggled to get the job done in the past. A once-solid team has transformed into one with a shaky defence and a less clinical attacking force.
FC Barcelona, against all odds, are in incredible form right now in La Liga. Koeman’s decision to introduce players from La Masia, Barça’s academy, and a focus on youth has seen a breakthrough of extraordinary talent in the form of Óscar Mingueza and Pedri, among others. The Dutchman has found a way to unlock the side’s potential in the form of a 3-5-2 shape, accommodating the likes of Sergio Busquets, Ousmane Dembele, Frenkie de Jong and Antoine Griezmann at the same time. The fixed line-up after an ever-changing one has been conducive to more fluid play as it has generated great chemistry between the players who feel more settled in their positions.
As a result, Barcelona went on a 19-game unbeaten run, only ended recently by Real Madrid on Saturday. This is an incredible achievement considering their trials and tribulations at the start of the season. They play creatively and energetically, evident by their impressive 6-1 win against Real Sociedad which saw Messi and Barça back at their best. The recent appointment of Joan Laporta as the club’s new president has brought much-needed stability to the club. But Koeman, ever conscious of tempering expectations, claimed, “Things change very quickly, just a while back we were really bad. There is a long way to go yet before we win anything” This is still very much the case as Barcelona continue to struggle in big games.
Real Madrid, too, saw a change in fortune. Since February, Real Madrid have won eight and drawn two of their ten La Liga matches. Veterans Kroos and Modrić are back to their best and their younger generation has finally begun to step up. Vinicius Junior proved that last week as he netted an impressive brace against Liverpool in the Champions League. After all, Zidane is not one to give up. “This team won La Liga last season, we have the right to fight for our title, and to be respected,” the former Galactico said.
It has turned out to be a roller coaster of a season where it has become virtually impossible to predict what is going to happen. Atlético seems to be in an advantageous position as they can afford to focus solely on La Liga. On the other hand, Barcelona and Real Madrid have their attention turned elsewhere, as the former still has a Copa del Rey final to play and the latter is still in serious contention for the Champions League trophy.
With 9 games left, there is everything left to play for. Are you watching?