Football

La Liga: No Longer A Two Horse Race?

Barcelona’s perfect start to the season was finally brought to a halt by a typically dogged performance by Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid – the last team aside from Spain’s two giants (Barca and Real Madrid) to win La Liga.

Labelling their monumental 2013-14 title triumph as extraordinary would be quite the understatement – at the time it had been 10 years since someone else won the title and the nearest anyone has been over the previous five years was 24, 39, 25, 28 and 17 points.

Attempting to topple this duopoly is the equivalent of trying to overcome a peak Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the same Grand Slam. It can seem an impossible task and given Barcelona’s and Real Madrid’s dominance and superstar rosters, should we expect anything other than a two-horse race?

To put into perspective the dominance of Barca and Real, in the 18 seasons there have been from 1999-2000 to the present day, only Deportivo La Coruna, Valencia (twice) and the aforementioned Athletico have invaded on the title parade since the turn of the century. The other 14 trophies have ended up at either the Nou Camp or Santiago Bernabéu.

Despite Barcelona’s ominous inception, just five points separate Valencia in second and Real Betis in ninth in this year’s competition which appears to be rebelling against its perceived image of being all too predictable and lacking the competitive nature of other major leagues in Europe.

We assess the chances of the habitual title contenders along with those intent on tearing up the script and immersing their own footballing chapter into Spanish folklore.

Barcelona

Crisis, what crisis? So far, the only blemish on new manager Ernesto Valverde’s record is the gutsy draw they earned at the impressive state-of-the-art Wanda Metropolitano stadium.

Neymar’s astonishing departure to Paris Saint-Germain may have brought the curtain down on Barcelona’s deadly triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and the Samba star – the trio racked up a staggering 173 assists and 364 goals in the 450 games they featured in together.

Many thought the end of this formidable three-pronged attack would leave the Blaugrana club exposed in attack and look more pedestrian. However, Valverde managed to secure the exciting arrival of Borussia Dortmund youngster Ousmane Dembele (out injured for two to three months) whilst the capture of former Spurs midfielder Paulinho deemed to be an obvious ‘panic buy’ has settled in well to his new surroundings.

A crushing victory at home to last season’s Champions League finalists Juventus has been the highlight of their virtually flawless opening period, but difficult games against Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla over the next few weeks will give us a greater indication into how much trust Valverde has in his paper-thin squad.

Real Madrid

Zinedine Zidane’s side appeared virtually unbeatable following their crusade to a La Liga and European Cup double last year – in the process they became the first side to win back-to-back Champions League titles.

An apathetic start to this campaign already sees them five points off the pace with their main goal source Cristiano Ronaldo banned for five matches after being sent off and then shoving the referee in their Super Cup victory over their arch-rivals back in August.

Los Blancos endured their worst start at the Bernabeu in over 20 years having failed to win any of their opening three league games – ironically the Portuguese star’s return coincided in a shock loss to Betis and also ended the club’s 73-game scoring sequence.

Real have been lacking a clinical edge in front of goal with the likes of Ronaldo and Bale still eyeing a return to form. This struggle for goals has been their biggest problem having gone from 3.5 average goals per game last year to just 1.8 this time round.

The pressure on Zidane was cranked up a notch last night after Real’s disappointing draw at home to Tottenham Hotspur. Can the mercurial Frenchman reignite his faltering star-studded squad as Real target consecutive La Liga titles for the first time in a decade?

Atletico Madrid

An excellent side in their own right. Atletico are yet to taste defeat having won four and drawn four of their opening eight La Liga encounters. The charismatic Simeone guided his side to two Champions League finals in three years (2014 & 2016) and despite being under a transfer embargo until January, they enjoyed a fruitful summer whilst managing to keep the nucleus of the squad together.

The capture of Sevilla winger Vitolo and the return of Diego Costa (who left following the 2013-14 success) at the start of the next transfer window in January will add depth and intensity to the Argentine’s all-action, high-octane squad.

Los Colchoneros are now notoriously one of the most difficult sides to beat in Europe with the vast amount of quality and power in their ranks making them a stern test for any opponent.

Valencia

Sitting in the dizzy heights of second place, Valencia appear to be a club reborn with their pace on the counter attack proving to be a toxic weapon, as illustrated in their thrilling 3-6 win at Betis on Sunday. After years of frustration, financial problems, fan protests and flattery to deceive, Los Che are one of three undefeated teams in La Liga so far this season.

Manager Marcelino has breathed new life into his squad – Spanish striker Rodrigo has netted six goals in six games to earn himself a call-up to the national side, whereas former West Ham flop Simone Zaza only has the otherworldly Messi above him in the Pichici race.

At the same stage last season, Valencia had already lost five times and sat just two points above the relegation zone – what a remarkable turnaround.

Sevilla

Sevilla’s brave title challenge last year faded towards the business end of the campaign in which they ended up finishing fourth and highly-rated manager Jorge Sampaoli was unable to resist the temptation of taking charge of the Argentina national team.

Former Celta Vigo boss Eduardo Berizzo has replaced his fellow countryman and taken over the reins at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium. Berizzo has presided over five victories and suffered just two defeats with his attention to detail second to none.

Sevilla are full of energy, regardless of whether they’re in attack or defence with last season’s Ligue 1 Right-Back of the Year Sebastian Corchia particularly impressive with his offensive contribution and exceptional defensive consistency. Los Blanquirrojos have not won the league since 1946. Could this be their year? If you fancy them as an outside bet then when not check out Betfair and other top bookies to get the best odds?

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