Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The La Liga Title Race – A Tale Of Two Wounded Lions In Real Madrid And Barcelona

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La Liga Santander 2019/20 is turning out a rather bleak and timid one for the neutral in which the two of the biggest forces, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are not hitting the higher gears with considerable ease. The two giants largely contest the Primera Division amongst themselves as noticed over the years, but things could be a bit different this season if the two giants do not get their focus right.

Since the turn of the century, Real and Barcelona have collectively won 17 out of a possible 20 title races. Valencia found themselves lucky enough on two occasions in the early 2000s followed by a shock title victory by Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid in 2013/14.

Coming back the 2020/21 La Liga season which started way later than previous years, all courtesy to the ongoing global pandemic. A rather unusual start to the season followed by an excessive and tiring list of fixtures has changed the ball game altogether for the 20 competitive teams in the Spanish top flight.

In a summer window which was rather uncharacteristic of both the teams, neither of them coughed up the money and went all guns blazing in the transfer market. Barcelona did have a handful of players being bought in the likes of Pjanic, Dest, Trincao, Matheus Fernandes and Pedri. Their eternal rivals, Real Madrid, resorted to utilising their squad from the past season with a few notable departures in the form of Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez.

Real Madrid have played nine games this season with five wins to their credit and are placed at the fourth position in the points table with a game in hand over Real Sociedad (a win in the game in hand would take them to the second position in the table). However, the major area of concern for Zidane is the fact that his team has already dropped ten points this season with draws against Real Sociedad and Villarreal and defeats at the hands of newly-promoted Cadiz and Valencia.

Barcelona, on the other hand, started their campaign even later than Real Madrid and are currently two games behind. Despite playing eight games this season, Barcelona have only amassed 11 points with three defeats and two draws to their record. The Catalans started the season on a high with two consecutive victories, but everything has gone downhill ever since. Following victories over Villareal and Celta, Barca dropped points against Sevilla before losing out to Getafe and Real Madrid.

However, the points table at the moment is an extremely unfair judge of the overall situation. The 2020/21 season could also be in for a surprise with a couple of determined-looking sides who unfortunately do not have the financial prowess like Los Blancos or the Blaugrana looking to take advantage of the volatility.

Real Madrid – Zidane’s Side Which Is Missing The Spark

The Story So Far

Matchday 2 –  Real Sociedad vs Real Madrid

A game of mixed emotions to start of the season with for Zidane & Co. The French gaffer seemed to get his substitutions wrong, and it ended in a stalemate at Anoeta.

Matchday 3 – Real Betis vs Real Madrid

Zidane’s side took an early lead with a goal by Valverde but found themselves trailing by a goal at half time as the Andalusian side struck twice in quick succession before the half time whistle. An own goal followed by a penalty in the second half saw Madrid across the line.

Matchday 4 – Real Madrid vs Real Valladolid

Zidane’s men once again put in a lacklustre performance and were only a goal to the good against an injury struck Valladolid side. Vinicius Junior found himself on the scoresheet. Another game where the Whites dominated the stats but failed to make it count.

Matchday 5 – Levante vs Real  Madrid

On Matchday 5 the Whites faced off against Levante and cruised through the entire game after taking charge early in the first half through Vinicius Jr. Karim Benzema doubled the lead in injury time as the visitors enjoyed a staggering 63% possession apart from 13 shots on goal.

Matchday 6 – Real Madrid vs Cadiz

In a rather unseen turn of events, Madrid lost to Cadiz after the international break. Playing at their makeshift stadium, the Alfredo de Stefano, Real looked absolutely out of ideas to break down the newly-promoted side. Despite a staggering 75% possession in the game, the Whites failed to get themselves on the scoresheet.

Matchday 7 – Barcelona vs Real Madrid

Real Madrid approached the El Classico in the worst possible form with two back to back defeats. However, they got their act together and managed to thrash Barcelona 3-1. Valverde, Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric were able to beat Neto on three occasions. Another game where Real Madrid took the game by its throat after burying the chances.

Matchday 8 – Real Madrid vs Huesca 

The Whites were commanding against Huesca and an Eden Hazard goal was perfect for Los Blancos after a triumphant trip to the Camp Nou stadium. The Whites grabbed the game by its head just after the restart of play and there was no way back for Huesca who were hammered 4-1 by Real Madrid.

Matchday 9 – Valencia vs Real Madrid

If Zidane could erase one memory from the season so far, it would certainly be this trip to Valencia where Real were humbled by a scoreline of 4-1. Each of the four members of the Los Blancos back-line made errors chance by chance for each of Valencia’s goal and that pretty much summed up Rea’s night who had taken the lead in the fixture via a Karim Benzema screamer.

Matchday 10 – Villarreal vs Real Madrid

The Whites headed into this fixture with a lack-lustre squad wherein several first-team regulars like Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema were missing. Real paid the price for it as they dropped points on two consecutive matchdays. Despite enjoying the lions share of possession, Real were unable to open up the Villarreal backline. A Thibaut Courtois error inside the penalty box allowed the Yellow Submarines to salvage a point from the fixture after Mariano had opened the scoring in the first two minutes of play.

Real Madrid’s players celebrate their third goal during the Spanish League football match between Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on October 24, 2020. (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s The Area Of Concern?

1) Squad Lacking Morale

Real Madrid have had a decent start to the season, but this isn’t the Real Madrid side we are used to seeing from over the years. The team seems to be missing something from when they took the field last season after the pandemic break to run riot for 11 straight games going undefeated and also winning the Primera La Liga as a reward.

Apart from the sluggish nature that the players have adapted to during key fixtures, they have also been guilty of becoming complacent when facing the comparatively easier teams in the league, which certainly is not a quality a side aiming for the League title will want to be hampered by.

2) Unhappy Second String Players

The Real Madrid squad is filled with the best of performers, and as Zidane, you know you are in trouble when Isco, Marcelo and Jovic are not getting a chance in the starting eleven. The Spaniard Isco has in fact not even started two consecutive league games for Los Blancos in almost a season or so. At the left-back position, where Barcelona have to replace Jordi Alba with a young Firpo, Zidane is entrusted with the responsibility of striking a balance between an iconic figure in Real Madrid’s history, Marcelo and a young, jubilant and rock-solid Ferland Mendy.

What’s In Store For The Future?

Despite the visibility of a few cracks in this Real Madrid side, Zidane seems to have things in control. The gaffer needs to pull the right strings at the right moment to guide Real Madrid to another La Liga title victory. Man-management skills of Zidane has always been lauded upon by the Santiago Bernabeu faithful, and that does not seem to be a huge cause of concern at the moment.

Real Madrid cannot let go of the pedal on the gas, and the side needs to build on the relatively firm base it has laid in the opening six Matchdays of the season. A few hiccups were expected and predicted with the challenging fixture list. However, it is of great significance that Zidane’s men do not let go of the momentum which they gathered after the Clasico victory. With a six-point lead over Barca, Real are currently favourites to defend the La Liga title.

FC Barcelona – A Team On Its Steepest Decline

The Story So Far

Matchday 3 –  Barcelona vs Villareal

A thumping display against Villarreal and Koeman’s side started the season in the best possible manner with a four-goal victory at the Camp Nou. Lionel Messi and Ansu Fati got themselves on the scoresheet.

Matchday 4 – Celta Vigo vs Barcelona

The Catalans backed their opening day performance with a 3 goal victory against Celta away from home. A huge talking point from this fixture was the fact that Barcelona played a half or so with 10 men and yet outclassed Celta. Ansu Fati and Sergi Roberto made it onto the scoresheet. However, beyond this, Barcelona have looked like a completely different side in La Liga.

Matchday 5 – Barcelona vs Sevilla

Despite fielding a strong eleven against Sevilla, Barcelona only managed to secure a point playing at the Camp Nou. Koeman did not seem to get his tactics right, and it led to Barcelona’s first taste of dropping points.

Matchday 6 – Getafe vs Barcelona

The following weekend Barca made the trip to Madrid to play against Getafe and lost to a clinical performance from Getafe. Despite enjoying a staggering 73% possession, Lionel Messi & Co could not put a single goal past Soria.

Matchday 7 – Barcelona vs Real Madrid

The Catalans seemingly entered the Clasico with a form advantage, but it all went out of the window when Zidane’s side took an early lead in the tie. Koeman’s tactics were questionable, and his substitutions were even more amusing as he left on five strikers on the field of play in an unorthodox fashion. Ansu Fati scored a goal to give Barcelona hope, but the Whites were determined to return to Madrid with three points in the bag. Koeman lost his first-ever Clasico by three goals to one.

Matchday 8 – Alaves vs Barcelona 

Matchday 9 – Barcelona vs Real Betis

Matchday 10 – Atletico Madrid vs Barcelona

Barcelona Player Ratings Vs Real Madrid - Timid display by Messi.
Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi reacts during the Spanish League football match between Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on October 24, 2020. (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s The Area Of Concern?

1) The Upset Dressing Room

Barcelona are a club in transition with a new manager in charge alongside the problematic Barcelona board which has even disheartened and failed its very own beloved child, Lionel Messi. The past few gaffers who had a chance at running the club, all seemed to fail at handling the egos in the dressing room. Be it Ernesto Valverde or Setien, the Barcelona dressing room is filled with star-studded names, and it can get a bit tricky handling all these players without disappointing another big name.

2) A Forgotten Ideology – A Forgotten Dream

Barcelona, as pointed out earlier, are a team of superstars, much like the Galacticos of Real Madrid from the early 2000s. The likes of Coutinho, Dembele, Griezmann, Messi and so on are a bunch of extremely talented footballers. However, there is a fine print which we often seem to ignore. The best of the sides are built on chemistry and not money.

The Barcelona under Pep Guardiola was a team which knew other side’s game and in fact complemented one another as they took to the field together. It seems all very different now with Barcelona’s La Masia academy not living up to its name and reputation. The commentary delegation for the El Clasico rightfully pointed this out when Barcelona seemed to be clueless about what was going on around them.

What’s In Store For The Future?

The departure of Josep Maria Bartomeu has seemingly turned the gloomy sky into one with glittering with sunlight. The man who has been blamed for Barcelona’s downfall in recent years decided to step down from the position of the President after six long and draining years for the Camp Nou faithful. There seems to be light at the end of this tunnel for those who have been loyal to the Blaugrana. Koeman has not had enough time at the helm, and these are still early days in the season.

Barcelona nevertheless, needs to get their act together before things steer uncontrollably out of hand and from there on, there will be only remorse.

Is The La Liga Capable of Delivering Us A Leicester City Like Finish?

When Leicester City won the Premier League by surprise in 2015/16, the football world was quick to call it a fairytale. However, is it actually possible to have similar ‘fairytale’ endings in football of today which has become so centric to money? Is it worth pondering over the fact that a player of Cristiano Ronaldo’s calibre and potential cost Real Madrid about 90 million euros and fast forward to 2018, wherein Barcelona spend approximately 150 million euros on Philippe Coutinho only to loan him out after 18 months at the club?

La Liga Santander has completely dominated European football in the past decade or so with Real Madrid and Sevilla in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League. The two Spanish sides have run havoc on European football over the seasons and made the two abovementioned competitions their very own and personalised backyard. Real Madrid won three Champions League titles on the bounce, and so did Sevilla in the Europa League.

However, the disparity in La Liga has never been bridged. The likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona have no match in the league in terms of dimensions. The wage bills, transfer spendings, stadium-quality, academy, to name a few are state of the art and second to none in the league. Here’s my take on the possibility of a repeat of a scenario that took place in England in the 2015/16 season:

Rising and Shining – Real Sociedad

La Real have emerged as a force to reckon under the tutelage of Imanol Alguacil. The manager has brought on a revelation at the club which has started putting in dominating performances against the big boys in La Liga. Real Sociedad even held Real Madrid to a goalless draw on their opening fixture of the season. They are currently placed first in the points table with 23 points from their opening ten fixtures.

Imanol is in the process of building a side that has become rock solid in defence along with a force to reckon with while going forward. This is visibly evident from the fact that La Real have only conceded 4 goals so far this season and have put in 21 at the other end.

After an impressive sixth-place finish last season, La Real are certainly aiming higher this time around. However, the side’s hopes have been dented by the departure of Martin Odegaard who was an instrumental figure in midfield last season.

Peaked Out – Sevilla 

The Andalusian side have no one but themselves to blame for their situation where they have been unable to emerge as a threatening force to compete for the Spanish top-flight title. Sevilla seem to follow an extremely tacky transfer practise wherein they let the most pivotal of squad players leave for a profit they would be solely registering in the accounts book and not the pitch.

Sevilla won the UEFA Europa League last season as well where they defeated Inter Milan in the final. Post the commencement of the new season, Sevilla have been aided by the departure of Ivan Rakitic, Suso and Oscar Rodriguez. Under the leadership of Julen Lopetegui, the side has seemingly returned to its glory days, and that was made evident last season when Sevilla finished fourth with 70 points to their credit along with the European triumph. The team from Andalusia seems to be heading in the right direction this season as well. Seville held Barcelona to a one apiece draw at the Camp Nou.

Despite the heaps of praises that this side garners from the football faithful, they seemed to have peaked out in terms of maximum potential. It will be in their best interests to explore other alternatives in terms of expansion if they are to follow the footsteps of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

On an ending note, it will be extremely rude to compare these two sides so early on in the season to a sensational Leicester City side which ran riot in the Premier League. Despite their spirited attempts at reaching the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, these sides do not seem prepared yet to impose a challenge to the Big Two for the coveted Primera Division trophy. The differences are huge, and it will take these two young clubs much more than a meagre roar if they plan to get their name in Spanish football history.

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