Welcome to La Liga. Where noone besides the big two of Real Madrid and Barcelona ever even challenges for the title. Until now, that is. Not since Rafa Benitez’s Valencia in ’02 and ’04 has another team won La Liga. A full decade later can the smaller club from the capital achieve it this time around?
Diego Simeone has turned around the fortunes of Atletico Madrid since taking over in 2011. He led them to Europa League success in 2012 (followed by winning the Super Cup later that year) and also won the Copa Del Rey in 2013. This season however his eyes are on the two big prizes. Simeone’s men are well-placed to knock Barcelona out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals after this weeks 1-1 first leg away result and they sit proudly on top of La Liga with seven games remaining. To break the stranglehold of the big two on the La Liga title may be the most satisfying victory for the Atletico fans however.
Diego Costa has scored twenty-four goals in thirty league appearances and, maybe just as impressively, managed to avoid a red-card all season. David Villa is proving to be a great acquisition from Barcelona, costing less than €6million, and chipping in with thirteen league goals so far.
Behind the strikers are the ever-impressive Arda Turan, Koke, Raul Garcia and Diego. Turan and co have chipped in with plenty of goals from midfield along the way. Diego Godin, Miranda and Filipe Luis have added the steel at the back when needed, in front of the brilliant young Belgian first-teamer, Thibaut Courtois. Courtois is still on loan from Chelsea and is possibly the best young goalkeeper on the planet at the moment.
Is this the year that Simeone turns Atletico Madrid from also-rans to Champions? They have shown that they are already very real contenders and this summer will tell its own story. It will show the height of the clubs ambitions, and if they are still a ‘selling’ club. Most bookies already have Costa on the plane to London to join Mourinho’s Chelsea after the World Cup. If they won La Liga or the Champions League, or both, that just might change.
Atletico Madrid’s remaining fixtures:
April 5th – Villarreal (H); April 13th – Getafe (A); April 20th – Elche (H); April 27th – Valencia (A); May 4th – Levante (A); May 11th – Malaga (H); May 18th – Barcelona (A)
Barcelona are apparently a club on a downward curve. The fact they are still challenging for La Liga, the Champions League and the Copa Del Rey while on this decline really points to the heights they have achieved and the standards they have set over the last five years.
Messi has been injured for a third of the season yet he still managed twenty-three league goals in his twenty-four appearances (twenty-two starts) so far and has recently looked to be getting back to close to his best. Neymar may not have lit up La Liga as much as was originally hoped but the potential is certainly there. The young Brazilian has nine league goals in eighteen starts. Xavi is still pulling the strings in midfield at thirty-four years young as he prepares for what is surely his international swan-song in Brazil this summer. Cesc Fabregas has been there all season, creating and scoring as he does best while Iniesta still possesses the closest control and possibly the deftest touch in football.
Victor Valdes has possibly played his last game for Barcelona as he is injured for the rest of the season and possibly leaving this summer. Jose Pinto is about to play a bigger part in the Catalan club’s season than he ever imagined. Jordi Alba has grown into a fantastic left-back while Alves offers such an attacking threat on the opposite flank. Gerard Pique is quickly becoming this decades Puyol, a role he appears to relish.
Barcelona’s remaining fixtures:
April 5th – Real Betis (H); April 12th – Granada (A); April 27th – Villarreal (A); May 4th – Getafe (H); May 7th – Athletic Bilbao (H); May 11th – Elche (A); May 18th – Atletico Madrid (H)
Real are still trying to rid themselves of the lingering residue of the Mourinho years. Mourinho turned Real Madrid into a much-hated club with their tactics, tricks and his trademark arrogance. Ancelotti is on his way to restoring pride to the great club and earning the respect of the football world again. Ronaldo and co have had a good season (a great one by 99% of other clubs standards) and are still competing on three fronts like Barca.
Ballon D’Or winner Ronaldo has had another stunning year with twenty-eight league goals in twenty-seven games and also looks likely to break Messi’s fourteen goal record in the Champions League this season (he equaled it this week against Dortmund). Last summers new-boy Gareth Bale has scored twelve goals in twenty-three appearances so far. With Bale and Ronaldo supporting Benzema they look pretty much onstoppable from an attacking viewpoint at the moment. In defence is where the issues lie however. Sergio Ramos has thirteen yellows and three red-cards and centre-back Pepe often appears more interested in theatrics and harrassing officials than actually defending. They do have the excellent young French defender, Varane, but he is still not a regular starter.
Xabi Alonso is still a consistent performer in the middle of the park while Modric, Isco and Di Maria provide the attacking verve from deep.
Real possibly have the ‘easiest’ run-in of games so even though they are three points off of Atletico Madrid at the moment you could not bet against them just yet.
Real Madrid’s remaining fixtures:
April 5th – Real Sociedad (A); April 13th – Almeria (H); April 20th – Valladolid (A); April 27th – Osasuna (H); May 4th – Valencia (H); May 11th – Celta Vigo (A); May 18th – Espanyol (H)
It promises to be a pulsating end to a fantastic La Liga season. The Champions may not be decided before the final day on May 18th. If not we will be glued to our screens for what would then be the decider at the Camp Nou between Barca and Atletico. What a finish that could be.
Let us know where you think the Spanish title is going in May. Just drop us a line in the comments section below.
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