THE 90th La Liga season is about to kick-off with a sense of relief that the competition’s biggest unique selling point has decided to stay with Barcelona. La Liga without Lionel Messi is unthinkable, although the time will come soon when the Barca number 10 departs Spain and takes up a fresh challenge.
La Liga’s management will have to make the most of this season, not just in leveraging Messi’s extraordinary talent, but also to position a clutch of new superstars that can become the faces of the global-reaching Spanish league.
La Liga launched its new season with an online presentation that did its best to whip-up excitement after the disruption of 2019-20, under-achievements in the Champions League and the turmoil at Barcelona around presidents, players and the pandemic.
La Liga is upping its game in appealing to a broader audience, making its matches more accessible in the UK in a bid to go head-to-head with the Premier League. The league also opened an office in London earlier this year in the revived and increasingly trendy Kings Cross area. There’s little doubt that La Liga is a colourful, glamorous and exciting competition, but most still see it as a two-horse race, despite efforts by Atlético Madrid to keep pace.
Messi’s departure may be imminent, but the league is putting a brave face on it. “These things are cyclical and we have many young players coming through who will take the place of Messi and Ronaldo,” said Gaizka Mendieta, the former Spain international, when asked about the post-Messi era. “It is not something we are too worried about, the TV rights have been sold for the next four years.”
To some extent, Spain’s domestic football could be entering a period of transition. The performances of their major clubs in the Champions League, notably Barca’s complete humiliation against Bayern Munich in the quarter-final, suggested a crisis was brewing. Real, meanwhile, went out in the round of 16 and Atléti were eliminated by Leipzig in the last eight. On the other hand, Sevilla won the UEFA Europa League against Inter.
Real’s squad, like Barca’s, has too many old hands who need to be moved on, but after a tortuous 2018-19, they had enough in them to win the title by five points. They have some younger players who can start to take over from those that have served them well, such as Martin Ødegaard and Vinicius, who will surely get their chance to shine in 2020-21.
Zinedine Zidane has moved James Rodrigues on and is keen to unload Gareth Bale, but who will take the expensive Welshman on? And will Real add some big signings to their squad? Prudence is the name of the game at the moment given the pandemic’s affect on wages. Sensible signings was the message coming from the La Liga launch. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has, according to media reports, offered Real a trio of players at a knock-down price: Jorginho, Bakayoko and Tomori – a strange gesture and not exactly transformational players for a club like Real.
Despite Barca’s malaise and Real’s shortcomings in Europe, it is difficult to see anyone other than the big two lifting the title.
Of the 89 La Liga campaigns, Real and Barca have won 60 between them. Spanish football has been dominated by the big cities, 86 of the 89 champions have come from Madrid (44), Barcelona (26), Bilbao (8), Valencia (6) and Seville (2).
The financial gulf between Real, Barca and the rest of La Liga is insurmountable for their rivals. Real’s turnover of € 757 million is around double Atlético Madrid’s income and five times Sevilla’s total. Barca’s wage bill was half a billion euros in 2018-19, versus € 116 million at Valencia and € 104 million for Sevilla. With figures like that, it seems almost impossible that a team from outside the top three could win La Liga again.
That’s not to say Real and Barca cannot be beaten, because they can, but no other team has the consistency or depth of playing strength to challenge the top two over the course of a season. Over the past five years, Real have lost 28 games (12 of which were in 2018-19) and Barca 19. Atlético Madrid, the last team other then Real or Barca to win La Liga, lost 27 games over five years.
Atléti have been the perennial third club over the past decade, having finished in the top three in eight consecutive seasons. Yet they struggle to beat Real and Barca, recording just four victories from 40 league games, all of which have come in the Madrid derby. It is arguable that if Atléti were able to pick up more points from these clashes, they could have added another title to the one they secured in 2014. Teams like Valencia, Sevilla, Levante and Real Betis have won more games against Real Madrid and Barcelona over the past five years.
But Valencia and Sevilla are unlikely to be title contenders for the foreseeable future. Sevilla have found a niche in being able to win the Europa League on a regular basis, and they come from a passionate football city. Valencia is another city where football is like a religion but the club’s finances have certainly stymied their progress. They have sold two of their best players, Rodrigo to Leeds United for € 35 million and the excellent Ferran Torres to Manchester City for a bargain € 27 million.
Predictably, the battle will surely be between Real Madrid, the reigning champions, and Barcelona, who will doubtless try and galvanise their resources in order to ensure Lionel Messi is happy. It may not be a classic Barca squad, but with Messi in their line-up, the Blaugrana will doubtless have enough to climb above the rest of La Liga.