Barcelona and Real Madrid’s aura shattered as La Liga welcomes most open title race in years

Following the latest weekend of thrills and spills in La Liga, just one point separate the top five teams in the most open Spanish title race in years.

An 89th minute strike from Real Sociedad forward Cristian ‘Portu’ Portugues clinched a 2-1 win at Granada on Sunday evening, and sent the San Sebastian-based side onto 22 points – joint-leaders with Barcelona and Real Madrid after 12 games of the season.

Atletico Madrid and Sevilla are just one point behind on 21, while all of Granada [20], Getafe [19], Osasuna and Villarreal [18] and Valencia, Levante, Athletic Bilbao and Valladolid [17] are within five points of the top.

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Helping the concertina effect was all three of the expected title challengers slipping up one after another on Saturday. Barca were beaten 3-1 at Levante, Atletico drew 1-1 at Sevilla, and Madrid drew 0-0 at home to a struggling Real Betis.

“That is the reality of football,” Madrid skipper Sergio Ramos said on Movistar TV. “It’s getting more and more difficult. Today Levante have beaten Barcelona, so you can never say someone is definitely going to win. That is what makes our league the best in the world. Any mistake can see you drop down the table.”


Power rankings: Champions League group stage





1/33 Champions League Group Stage Power Rankings

2/33 32. Genk (-)

3/33 31. Atalanta (-1)

4/33 30. Red Star Belgrade (-2)

5/33 29. Shakhtar Donetsk (-2)

6/33 28. Galatasaray (-2)

7/33 27. Benfica (-4)

8/33 26. Club Brugge (+5)

9/33 25. Dinamo Zagreb (-)

10/33 24. Slavia Prague (+5)

11/33 23. Bayer Leverkusen (-3)

12/33 22. Lille (-)

13/33 21. Lokomotiv Moscow (-)

14/33 20. Olympiacos (+4)

15/33 19. Zenit St Petersburg (-)

16/33 18. Valencia (-1)

17/33 17. Lyon (-1)

18/33 16. FC Salzburg (+2)

19/33 15. Ajax (-3)

20/33 14. Chelsea (-)

21/33 13. Tottenham Hotspur (-)

22/33 12. RB Leipzig (-1)

23/33 11. Napoli (-1)

24/33 10. Borussia Dortmund (-3)

25/33 9. Atletico Madrid (-)

26/33 8. Real Madrid (-)

27/33 7. Inter Milan (+8)

28/33 6. Bayern Munich (-)

29/33 5. Juventus (-1)

30/33 4. PSG (+1)

31/33 3. Liverpool (-)

32/33 2. Barcelona (-)

33/33 1. Manchester City (-)

1/33 Champions League Group Stage Power Rankings

2/33 32. Genk (-)

3/33 31. Atalanta (-1)

4/33 30. Red Star Belgrade (-2)

5/33 29. Shakhtar Donetsk (-2)

6/33 28. Galatasaray (-2)

7/33 27. Benfica (-4)

8/33 26. Club Brugge (+5)

9/33 25. Dinamo Zagreb (-)

10/33 24. Slavia Prague (+5)

11/33 23. Bayer Leverkusen (-3)

12/33 22. Lille (-)

13/33 21. Lokomotiv Moscow (-)

14/33 20. Olympiacos (+4)

15/33 19. Zenit St Petersburg (-)

16/33 18. Valencia (-1)

17/33 17. Lyon (-1)

18/33 16. FC Salzburg (+2)

19/33 15. Ajax (-3)

20/33 14. Chelsea (-)

21/33 13. Tottenham Hotspur (-)

22/33 12. RB Leipzig (-1)

23/33 11. Napoli (-1)

24/33 10. Borussia Dortmund (-3)

25/33 9. Atletico Madrid (-)

26/33 8. Real Madrid (-)

27/33 7. Inter Milan (+8)

28/33 6. Bayern Munich (-)

29/33 5. Juventus (-1)

30/33 4. PSG (+1)

31/33 3. Liverpool (-)

32/33 2. Barcelona (-)

33/33 1. Manchester City (-)

Ramos was saying what he had to, and maybe does believe it. But while better financial management throughout La Liga has helped most Primera Division clubs become more stable in recent years, it is also undeniable that the top three sides are in decline.

Most obviously Cristiano Ronaldo is no longer at Real Madrid, while Atletico Madrid are in transition and Barca’s aging team are more reliant than ever on Lionel Messi’s individual genius.

Messi’s return from injury last month appeared to have settled Barca after a bad start to 2019/20. Four goals and four assists from the blaugrana captain helped his team to win four in a row in La Liga, and go top of the table last week.

Messi also netted a first half penalty at Levante on Saturday, but Barca were never really in control, and were then stunned by three goals in seven minutes early in the second half.

No longer able to completely dominate games through possession, Ernesto Valverde’s side can also look startlingly brittle, with age catching up on their 30 something spine of Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Luis Suarez. They are still steamrolling most visitors to the Camp Nou, but seven points from their first six away games is their worst start on the road in La Liga since 2007/08.

Madrid’s problems are pretty similar, although their biggest issue at the moment is at a very cranky Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. Zinedine Zidane’s side started brightly against Betis on Saturday, but despite having a poor season so far the visitors were able to grow into the game and deserved their point.

Last summer’s planned renewal of the Los Blancos squad has just not taken place, and Zidane cannot get consistent performances from veterans like Ramos and Luka Modric, or starlets such as Vinicius Junior or new galactico Eden Hazard – who has one goal in nine games his €100 million arrival.

Most strikingly, the aura that used to surround La Liga’s big two has clearly dissipated. There were joyous ‘Oles’ from Levante fans during Saturday’s endgame, as ex-Crystal Palace midfielder Jose Campana and former Blackburn playmaker Ruben Rochina played keep-ball while Barca’s players chased forlornly. It was a complete role-reversal of the days when Xavi and Iniesta toyed mercilessly with already beaten rivals.

Opponents visiting Madrid also now have hope where there was very little before. A few years ago smaller teams still in the game late on were penned back with a furious assault, as the noise inside the Bernabeu rose and rose. The abiding memory of 2016/17, when Los Blancos won their last La Liga title, is of Ronaldo and company turning around losing situations with a burst of late goals.

Both the Bernabeu and its team no longer believe in such invincibility, and opponents actually believe they can hang on in the end. Betis could hold possession for over 90 seconds on Saturday as the clock ran down, confident from scoring late to win at the Bernabeu in both the last two seasons. Zidane said afterwards that his team had been “perfect” in their play and intensity, and were just lacking a finishing touch, but was fooling nobody.

Atletico are also not the force they were – having undergone a pretty complete squad overhaul last summer. Their 2019/20 season so far has yet to really get going, with senior players like Koke and Diego Costa [who missed a penalty at Sevilla] badly out of form. Meanwhile, England international Kieran Trippier being substituted at half-time on Saturday dramatised the continuing challenge of bedding new players into Simeone’s system.

El Cholo must be frustrated at not being able to take advantage of both Barca and Madrid having below-par years, as he did in 2013/14 when Atletico became the only ‘other’ team to win La Liga over the last 15 seasons. That year the rojiblancos took 33 points from their first 12 games – compared to 21 now. And scored 31 goals, compared to this year’s 12.

Barca and Madrid would usually shoot out early ahead of everyone else, then battle between themselves for the rest of the season. Jose Mourinho’s Madrid got to 100 points in 2011/12, with Tito Vilanova’s Barca matching that tally the following season. Through these seasons the third placed finisher was generally 20 plus points behind.

Things have changed quite quickly. Two years ago, Barca lead with 34 points from their first 12 games, four ahead of second placed Valencia, with Madrid 10 back in third. Last season Barca were top at this point with just 24, with five other teams within four points. This season has seen even more squeezing together, and seven different leaders over the first 12 weeks.

With Messi in sublime form through the springtime, Barca won last season’s title with 87 points, the lowest winning total in a decade. This year even fewer will likely be needed to take the trophy. To contradict Ramos’ view from Saturday, La Liga has not become more equal because it is the best tournament in the world, but because the top teams’ level has dropped significantly.

Another possible leveler is VAR ensuring the bigger teams no longer get the majority of 50/50 calls from referees. It was striking on Saturday that all of Messi / Barca, Costa / Atletico and Hazard / Madrid had goals correctly ruled out after the on-pitch officials had not seen any problem at first.

All the uncertainty makes things more exciting, although any Leicester in 2015/16 style win seems unlikely. Gravity is likely to catch up on Real Sociedad, Granada, Getafe and Osasuna before long. Sevilla remain a work in progress under Julen Lopetegui, while Valencia are struggling through yet another institutional crisis.

So Barca, Madrid and Atletico are still all but sure to be the top three by the end. And it remains very likely that Messi will win enough games on his own to claim his 11th career La Liga winner’s medal.

Most worryingly overall for Spanish football is that unless something radically changes no La Liga club will make a big mark in this season’s Champions League. We are set for the most exciting title race in years, and winning it will likely be the primary objective of all involved.

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