THE LA LIGA title will go to either Real Madrid or Barcelona, as if we didn’t know it, but neither side will go down in history as one of the best for the Spanish giants. Given the influence and status of the two clubs, it is logical that they are always compared to the past and there seems to be the added moral obligation for both to produce outstanding teams on a conveyor belt. The 2019-20 sides represent two clubs on the brink of some restructuring, at the end of one era and preparing for the next.
With seven games to go in this haphazard, surreal season, Real and Barca are both on 68 points and between them, they have lost nine games in the league. La Liga champions, over the past decade, have lost on average three games a season.
Each year that passes, the career of Lionel Messi draws closer to its end. People have started to suggest we are seeing the beginning of the end of the little maestro’s reign at the top of the game. His contract has a year to run, but will it be his last with Barca? He has two ambitions, to win the Champions League for the fifth time and to finally win a major honour with Argentina.
Messi is still a great player, but he’s increasingly on his own, especially as Luis Suarez has been sidelined this season with injury. Messi and Suarez are both 33, but Barca also have Pique, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Vidal and Turan over 30. They have an ageing squad that needs replenishment, especially if they want to keep Messi happy and secure at the Camp Nou.
Messi’s influence is clear to see. Over the past 10 years, he has scored 35% of Barca’s league goals and his contribution has undoubtedly enabled his club to stay ahead of Real Madrid in Spain. But Barca will have seen how the departure of an iconic player or manager can impact a team’s performance. Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus left a big vacuum at Real – in his last season with the club, Ronaldo scored 26 league goals and Real’s total was 94, admittedly the first sub-100 haul in nine years, but way ahead of their total in 2019-20. Barca are already struggling for goals compared to the past, so the loss of Messi could be seismic.
Real’s first post-CR7 season saw them score 31 fewer goals than in 2017-18. This season, they’ve improved slightly, scoring an average of 1.9 per game. Barca’s goal per game rate is 2.25 which is lower than the two previous campaigns. Spain’s number three club, Atlético, are also finding goals harder to come by and are averaging just 1.26 per game.
Both Real and Barca have had the luxury of striking alternatives in the past and this resulted in a number of players hitting double figures in the league. The Barca MSN combination (Messi, Suarez, Neymar) was extremely prolific and Real had Karim Benzema, Gonzalo Higuain and the free-scoring CR7. In recent seasons, as Real’s firepower has diminished, Benzema is now their main source of goals. He’s no Ronaldo, but he has stuck in there. Barca, meanwhile, appear to be as reliant as ever on Messi.
Although both clubs could end up with a title and the Champions League (although for Real, it’s not looking good in the latter), there doesn’t seem much joy coming out of Barcelona or Madrid at the moment. In the case of Barca, they’ve had internal problems but the pandemic has exposed some weaknesses in their financial models, with both expected to lose north of € 150 million. They have huge wage bills to cover and they both carry a high level of debt. Furthermore, they both have big infrastructure projects that will absorb considerable amounts of cash.
As for their squads, Real have had a disappointing return on Eden Hazard so far and Barca’s fans consider Ousmane Dembélé to be one of their worst recent signings. Barca are now keen on Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but they’ll have to move quickly, he’s 31 years of age. Likewise, they are set to swap 23 year-old Arthur for Juventus’ Miralem Pjanić, who turned 30 in April. Hardly an attempt to bring down the average age of the squad or particularly forward-looking, is it? Barca’s recent shopping has looked desperate at times. Would Camp Nou regulars have envisaged them signing a player like Martin Braithwaite a few years ago? Where will Barca find Messi’s heir apparent? Is he already at the Camp Nou? Do they hope that Ansu Fati will eventually fill Messi’s boots?
Real Madrid, like Barca, have some old hands that need replacing soon. Gareth Bale, who is now 30, continues to be in and out of favour, with the emphasis on out. Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić and Benzema are all 30-plus. On the plus side, players like Vinícius Júnior and Federico Valverde are far from reaching their peak.
One way to gauge where the two clubs’ stand in terms of their squad strength or potential, is their representation in KPMG’s player valuation top 40. Messi is fourth and Hazard 11th and overall, Real and Barca have seven in the list. A few years back, the two clubs would have a more substantial presence.
So with seven games to go, who looks the most likely champion? Real have trips to relegation-threatened Espanyol and Leganés and will also travel to mid-table Athletic Bilbao and Granada. Their home games are more challenging – Getafe and Villareal along with Alaves. Barcelona have a tough game with Atlético Madrid and an away game at Villareal that should provide stiff opposition. Celta Vigo away may be a major hurdle as Barca have failed to win in their last four visits in the league, losing three and drawing one. They’ve also got a Barcelona derby sat home to Espanyol.
Whatever anyone thinks of the current Barca and Real line-ups, they’re both clearly way ahead of the rest of the top division. But that is nearly always the case. Clubs of their status are not building teams just for domestic dominance, it is all about Europe, and with Real Madrid facing a last 16 exit and Barca yet to secure their quarter-final place in the UEFA Champions League, this is where the two teams are truly benchmarked. Both need patching up, but will the post-virus have damaged their capabilities to compete in the transfer market?