Glance at the La Liga table right now and I bet nobody would have predicted what you’d see. It’s early February and with the season entering the final third, neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid lead the way. On a weekend where Barcelona suffered a very rare home defeat and Real Madrid could only manage a draw, Atletico Madrid are now three points clear at the summit.
In fact, in a league often criticised for being entirely centred around the unequalled might of Barcelona and Real Madrid, this has to be one of the most exciting title battles in years. In fact it has been ten years since neither of those sides won the title (when it was won by Rafa Benitez’s Valencia). What this doesn’t mean though is that the competition in the Spanish league is weak. Inevitably, with two gigantic clubs (possibly the biggest two in the world bar Bayern Munich right now), it’s always likely that they will be too powerful to stop over a 38 game season and they’re somewhat expected to dominate. Between them they have an embarrassment of riches, including the majority of the all-conquering Spain squads of the last few years as well as the current best two players in the world (Ronaldo and Messi) and of course, the world’s most expensive player Gareth Bale. The strength of the two squads surely cannot be matched by any team in the world. Therefore, no matter who competes in the same domestic league as them, it’s going to be a near impossible task to overhaul them. Even if the crazy idea of forming a European “Super League” comes into fruition, you wouldn’t look past either of these two sides (or possibly Bayern) to win it.
Therefore, it has to be said, the fact that Atletico Madrid have managed to put some daylight between themselves and those two clubs at the top of La Liga is an incredible achievement. As I’ve often said in previous blogs, it’s virtually impossible to compare leagues in terms of strength as there’s no single criteria to judge them on. What is evident though is that La Liga is a very strong league in its own right, even without Barcelona and Real Madrid. Atletico Madrid have shown this season that they can more than match them and are also being touted as a dark horse in the Champions League. Athletic Bilbao continue to prove themselves as dangerous opponents for anyone. Villarreal have made a very strong return on their comeback to the top flight and of course then there’s the likes of Sevilla and Barcelona’s conquerors Valencia who, despite losing many star players in recent years, are still more than capable of upsetting the apple cart on their day.
Even in previous seasons when Barca and Real have been in a league of their own at the top, it’s more to do with the fact that they are simply too strong rather than the other 18 teams in the league not being competitive enough. In any other league we realistically expect to see only two or three sides battle it out for the title and Spain is no different. However, with Atletico having an absolutely fantastic season, the Spanish title race looks set to be far more open than usual which can only be a good thing. Not many people will be backing Atletico to come out on top after 38 games but they’ll certainly be in contention until the end. Even if they come second or third, they’ve been mightily impressive and their performances act as good evidence to show that there’s more to La Liga than the usual suspects.