Champions League: Is LaLiga dominance under threat?
When a Gareth Bale-inspired Real Madrid overcame Liverpool 3-1 in last season's Champions League final, the triumph merely scratched the surface of LaLiga's recent dominance in Europe's premier club competition.
Having become the first team in the Champions League era to retain the title against Juventus in Cardiff in 2017, head coach Zinedine Zidane made it three in a row before riding off into the sunset.
Madrid have won four out of five, their bitter rivals Barcelona interrupting the streak in 2015. Indeed, Liverpool and Juventus proved to be the only interlopers on a Spanish party during this period – Atletico Madrid were left in anguish by their city rivals in 2014 and 2016.
Five wins out of five and seven of the previous 10 finalists paints a picture of total domination that felt unlikely after Bayern Munich beat Borussia Dortmund in an all-Bundesliga affair at Wembley in 2013.
That experience shows the folly of declaring the beginning and end of eras, but LaLiga's grip on continental supremacy appears somewhat looser as this season's knockout rounds get underway.
— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadriden) 26 May 2018
No Zidane, no Ronaldo = no party
That Madrid's struggles since Kiev have seemed, to an extent, so inevitable is a damning indictment of Florentino Perez and the Bernabeu hierarchy.
Zidane caught them off guard – Madrid head coaches are habitually pushed rather than jumping on their own terms – but the pursuit of Julen Lopetegui was an unseemly mess that counted torpedoing Spain's World Cup campaign among its collateral.
A chequebook that remained tightly bound even after Cristiano Ronaldo's departure to Juventus gave an indication of why Los Blancos were so hasty in wrapping up the Lopetegui deal. They were not presenting a strong hand to any incoming coach.
Being able to rely on an all-time great forward and the inspiration of a club hero in the dressing room had papered over plenty of ills and Lopetegui trudged out of his second dream job in a matter of months following a 5-1 hammering in El Clasico.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) 28 October 2018
Messi carrying Barcelona
Barcelona accomplished that October humiliation of their bitter foes without a sidelined Lionel Messi as Luis Suarez produced a bravura display.
However, recent weeks have added weight to claims of Messidependencia. The mercurial Argentinian was rested for Copa del Rey ties at Levante and Sevilla and had to be recalled to pull around first-leg defeats. He was selected to face Madrid in last week's semi final despite injury fears.
Those losses and a 2-2 LaLiga draw against Valencia pointed to unaddressed defensive vulnerabilities, exacerbated by Ernesto Valverde's squad rotation – a necessity of the modern game, but the drop-off when the Barca boss rests weary legs is often stark.
That does not bode well for a battle on multiple fronts, while uncertainty over whether Valverde will stay beyond the end of this season might count against players going the extra mile. Philippe Coutinho, for example, could be minded to wait out key fixtures on the bench until a new coach arrives rather than wrestle the situation into his favour.
Current mood pic.twitter.com/5JjwgQWk5o
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) 28 October 2018
Atletico fluffing their lines
The thrill of Atletico's 2013-14 LaLiga triumph and their Champions League final appearances was how against the odds it all felt.
Diego Simeone's side cannot be so easily cast in that role this time around, given they mark a contrast to the sense of drift evident from at their city rivals and Barca.
After tying star forward Antoine Griezmann down to a long-term contract, Simeone was reportedly set to follow suit at the end of last year. What he has built in the shadow of two giants is, by any measure, incredible.
But it feels reasonable to ask whether Atleti could be doing more.
Barcelona have left the door ajar in LaLiga, failing to win seven matches this term. As nearest challengers Atleti have dropped points eight times, with the loss to Real Betis a day on from Valencia's draw at Camp Nou particularly sapping.
— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) 3 February 2019
PSG, Juventus, Manchester City – can anyone take advantage?
If those flaws paint an unconvincing picture for Atletico, Barcelona and Real Madrid, the lack of a convincing counter-argument from Europe's pretenders to the throne gives cause for encouragement.
Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham are embroiled in a fierce and sapping battle for the Premier League title, which is magnifying the flaws in each team on a weekly basis. All face Bundesliga opposition this month and must be wary of becoming over-stretched.
The other Premier League participant, Manchester United, are revelling in a post-Jose Mourinho feelgood factor under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and represent an unappetising prospect for a Neymar-less Paris Saint-Germain, who are still to bring their Ligue 1 dominance to bear on the European stage.
Juventus' move for Ronaldo was the clearest statement yet of their determination to take the final step – an experienced side hitting the sort of peak Bayern Munich now have in their rear view mirror.
The Old Lady's showdown with Atleti is the pick of the last 16 ties and could prove a bellwether when it comes to assessing LaLiga's current strength.
Following a home loss to Real Sociedad at the start of the year, Madrid have rediscovered the winning feeling, something deeply ingrained in their muscle memory where the big trophy is concerned. Meanwhile, focusing upon Barca without Messi ignores the terrifying prospect for opponents when he is in full flight.
LaLiga's heavyweights might not swagger as they once did, but the rest will have to walk taller than before to knock them off their stride.