Four teams are fighting for Spanish honours this season, writes Lee Roden – and just five points separate them as Barcelona prepare to host Atletico Madrid this weekend...
Atlético Madrid’s La Liga win last year was a breath of fresh air for neutrals who watched the big two dominate for 10 years. Perhaps it was a breath of fresh air for some non-neutrals too, judging by the way Barça fans applauded the Rojiblancos off the Camp Nou pitch on the last day of the season.
They weren’t pretty, they didn’t play beautiful football and they didn’t care – Diego Simeone’s side tore down the La Liga hierarchy, letting them know there was a third power in town.
A fourth is well on its way. Valencia’s 2-1 win over Real Madrid at a packed Mestalla last Sunday showed off the kind of unity between supporters, players, manager and club that Atlético used to such great effect last year.
More importantly, Los Che also showed off genuine quality. Since taking over last summer, Peter Lim has invested over €100 million in elite level footballers like Álvaro Negredo, André Gomes and Enzo Pérez.
Wins over both the Champions League and La Liga holders in the last few months makes a return to the heady days of the Rafa Benitez era look far less fanciful than it did this time last year.
Like Valencia, Atlético also claimed maximum points at the weekend, while Barça and Madrid both lost. As things stand, a mere five points separates fourth-placed Valencia with top dogs Real Madrid – half the number that divides the same positions in the Premier League – while Barcelona and Atlético lag behind Los Blancos by only one. Not since 2007 has the gap at the top been this small after 17 games played.
As recently as December there was talk of Carlo Ancelotti’s side running away with the title, but those predictions are less forthcoming now – particularly with some of the most important head-to-head fixtures yet to be played.
Madrid have a game in hand but their schedule over the next month is a minefield. To start with, there’s a city derby against Atlético to navigate in the Copa del Rey, the first leg of which they lost 2-0 to Simeone’s side (the fourth successive edition of this fixture that Ancelotti has failed to win).
Cristiano Ronaldo spent 60 minutes on the bench on Wednesday, but with a 2-0 deficit to claw back, that luxury isn’t likely to be afforded in the return leg. If Real manage to turn things around and progress, the next round will almost certainly feature a late January Clásico. Neither fixture permits the resting of too many big players given the importance of the rivalries, and that means more fatigue in league games.
The pressure will continue when Sevilla make a midweek visit to the Bernabéu on February 4, the remaining league fixture to be played from the first half of the season. Unai Emery’s side have enough quality to hurt the biggest teams on their day: a 2-1 win for the Andalucians last March put a major dent in Ancelotti’s league campaign. Regardless of what happens this time around, Los Blancos need to regroup quickly, as they travel to the Vicente Calderón for a league derby the following weekend.
The period between the first week of January and February 8 could settle Madrid’s title challenge one way or another. It could also play an important part in Barcelona’s. In the midst of an institutional and sporting crisis, the Catalans host Atlético this Sunday.
A repeat of the fixture in which the Rojiblancos claimed their 10th league title last year, a win this weekend would see them take a major step towards an 11th, opening up a three-point (plus head-to-head) advantage over the Blaugrana. Given the state Barça are in at the moment, you wouldn’t bet against it.
Catalan progression over Elche in the Copa del Rey, meanwhile, would lead to two demanding games with either Atlético or Real Madrid. As if that wasn’t enough for Barça, the tricky period is then bookended by a trip to the new San Mamés – where they lost to Athletic Club last year – on the weekend of February 8.
Mark the date on your calendar: with Atlético playing Real Madrid in the league the same weekend, there could be a significant shake-up at the top.
The narrow gap combined with a run of tough fixtures means La Liga’s use of head-to-head to separate sides level on points could be particularly important in this year’s race. At the moment the real underdogs of the pack have an advantage in that regard. Valencia may be the least likely of the big hitters to win the league, but they do have the best head-to-head record out of the top four.
Nuno's side have played all three of their superiors and come away with two victories, losing narrowly to Barcelona. Real Madrid have won one of their three fixtures against the biggest sides, with Barça and Atlético yet to play one another.
The remaining league Clásico of the season hasn’t even been mentioned yet, a significant point in itself. While for several years it felt like the entire La Liga title race could be reduced to those two games, Valencia and Atlético will play just as big a part in where the trophy ends up this year.
In the case of Simeone’s side, maintaining their presence at the top of the league would be an even bigger achievement than getting there in the first place, as the club hasn’t successfully defended a league title since 1951.
Right now they have more than a fighting chance of breaking that trend: the combination of an exceptional manager and smart reinvestment has allowed them to keep pace when many thought they would flounder.
For Valencia, investment is and will be even more significant. Having already revamped their squad, the club are frank about their desire to sign more players in the January transfer window. Names like Ezequiel Lavezzi are linked to the Mestalla without fear of raised eyebrows these days.
Coach Nuno is careful to manage expectations, but the long-term goal is to make them a major force once more and rewrite the wrongs that have dogged them since the turn of the millennium by winning the European Cup.
The first obstacle is finishing in a Champions League spot, and even if the league proves a step too far this season, what about the next?
With Barcelona unable to sign new players until 2016, a window of opportunity is open, and Valencia now have the finances and talent to take advantage. Like Atlético, they aren’t going away. La Liga is more intriguing now than ever.