Spain’s three-horse race, too close to call

A FEW weeks ago, the La Liga race looked a foregone conclusion with Atlético Madrid 10 points clear and favourites to lift their first title since 2014. Real Madrid and Barcelona, were shot, fading forces with old players, financial pressure and internal politics. Diego Simeone’s team were in full flow, supposedly more adventurous than ever before, buoyed by the goals of El Pistolero but still rock solid in defence.

Something has gone astray and the championship may now go to the final day of the campaign. Atléti are top of the table, but both Real and Barca are breathing hard down their necks and know how to time their run to the end of the season. Although Barca were dismantled by Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Champions League round of 16, Atléti also came up very short against Chelsea in the same competition. Real, on the other hand, showed some quality in beating Liverpool in the quarter-final first leg. In some ways, Atléti’s 3-0 aggregate defeat at the hands of Chelsea exposed the shortcomings of Simeone’s men.

It is hard for any Spanish club to win a long-distance run against the big two. No matter how consistent they might be, the track record, financial resources and cultural clout of Real Madrid and Barcelona gives them a sense of expectation that title pretenders lack. Right now, Atléti are trying to make a breakthrough, but Real, for example, have quietly moved back into contention. Barca, having put a finger in the dyke, have benefitted from an influx of youthful vigour and kept pace. But Atléti have stuttered and won 16 points out of their last 30. Real (26) and Barca (25) have fared much better in their last 10 games. Atléti have won just one of their last five La Liga games. A crisis is building and they have to get back on form quickly or face being overtaken.

To be fair to Atléti, they faced Real Betis on clasico weekend without leading scorer Luis Suárez and Marcos Llorente. Even so, with Real denting Barca’s chances, Atléti had the chance to put some insulation between themselves and Messi and co., but they had to settle for a 1-1 draw at the Estadio Benito Villamarín. Unfortunately, Atléti also added to their injury list, losing João Felix and Kieran Trippier. 

They still went back to the top of the table, regaining the position they lost 24 hours earlier when Real beat Barca 2-1 in the Clasico. But now there’s only two points separating the top three in La Liga and there’s just eight games to go. The average gap between top and second in Spain over the past decade has been almost seven points, while second and third has been 12. The battle is much tighter than at any time since 2014.

Where has it gone wrong for Atléti? Let’s examine their form earlier in the season. Their 20 wins in 2020-21 have included eight by a single goal and 10 by two goals. They’ve scored 52 goals and conceded 20, the lowest goals against figure in the league, but a goal haul that is some 17 goals lower than Barcelona. Basically, the margin of success is narrow, so when the machine is not rolling smoothly, those 1-0 wins can easily become 0-0 or 1-1 draws.

Suárez has netted 19 league goals but the rumour mill suggests he doesn’t like Simeone’s system and there is even talk of him returning to Liverpool in a shock move. He’s 34 years of age and the Simeone style is very intense and draining. Suárez is both injured and suspended, so he will miss vital games, and if Felix and Llorente are both unfit, Atléti will have serious problems.

Who has the most comfortable fixture list? The only clash between the top three remaining is Atléti’s trip to Barcelona on May 9, but of the top three, Real Madrid seem to have the most challenging run-in, with games against Sevilla, Bilbao and Villareal to come. Barcelona have to travel to Villareal and Valencia, while Atléti have a game in Bilbao and that vital clash in the Camp Nou. Real’s opponents have an average current league position of 9.75 while Atléti’s amount to 12.75 and Barca’s 10.75 – this can, of course, change by the day and is just one way of giving some form of value to outstanding fixtures.

Both Real and Atléti do look a little tired and both Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone have expressed concerns that their players are at their physical limits, hardly a surprise when Real, in particular, have a cluster of over-30 squad members, including Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema. While Real are also involved in the UEFA Champions League and Barca have a Copa Del Rey final coming up, Atléti can focus solely on the league.

It is going to be almost too tight to call, but Real Madrid are now favourites to retain their title. The growing view is that Atlético have allowed their advantage to be eroded and blown their best chance. It’s a premature assessment, but it is very clear the initiative is no longer with Los Colchoneros.

Atlético MadridReal MadridBarcelona
April 18Eibar (h)Getafe (a) 
April 21 Cadiz (a) 
Apr 22Huesca (h) Getafe (h)
Apr 24 R. Betis (h) 
Apr 25A.Bilbao (a) Villareal (a)
Apr 28  Granada (h)
May 2Elche (a)Osasuna (h)Valencia (a)
May 9Barcelona (a)Sevilla (h)Atlético (h)
May 12Sociedad (h)Granada (a)Levante (a)
May 16Osasuna (h)A.Bilbao (a)Celta V (h)
May 23Valladolid (a)Villareal (h)Eibar (a)

Is it with Barca? Amid all the talk about Lionel Messi and the political wrangling at the club, Barca have lifted themselves back into contention. Before losing to Real Madrid, Barca were unbeaten in the league in 2021 and Messi had regained his touch to become top scorer in La Liga. After a lack lustre start to the season, the introduction of a batch of young players has helped revitalise Barca, including Pedri (18), Trincão (21), Sergiño Dest (20), Óscar Mingueza (21), Riqui Puig (21) and Ronald Araújo (22), not to mention the exciting Ansu Fati (18) who is currently sidelined with injury.

It’s not necessarily a classic season in Spain and the big clubs are in something of a transitional period, but it is surely going to be one of the most exciting finales. Watch this space, as they say.

Photo: Alamy

La Liga’s European worries – decline may be a strong word

THERE was a little introspection in Madrid, Barcelona and Seville after the first legs of the UEFA Champions League, with Spanish football officials fearing a series of setbacks had signalled the decline of the most successful nation in European club competitions.

Like most events big or small, disappointment was accompanied by social media-driven over-reaction and hysteria, with some keyboard experts interpreting the results as the onset of the apocalypse. 

In the past, underperformance would be brushed aside in the knowledge that players like Lionel Messi and the now departed Cristiano Ronaldo would soon produce a rabbit out of a top hat and restore normal service. Not so today, for time has painfully caught-up with Barca and Atlético Madrid were effectively hoisted by their own petard. Meanwhile, in the Europa League, early season leaders Real Sociedad – David Silva and all – were thrashed at “home” by Manchester United. Real scraped a win against Atalanta, but this is no classic campaign for the reigning La Liga champions.

The pandemic has hit Spanish football hard, exposing the high debt levels of the country’s major clubs. Before anyone had ever heard of covid-19, though, debt levels at Real, Barca and Atléti were already substantial. Debt is fine if you can service it and you keep it manageable, but the diminished levels of income have made people a little nervous and some are treating it as an existential threat. 

La Liga’s Javier Tebas has tried to brush aside the debt story, although it was the outspoken league president who predicted a financial crisis could break out in the aftermath of the pandemic. He revealed that a series of financial controls have helped clubs prepare for a major crisis and believes they will manage their way out of any difficulties. The league also plays an important part in determining how much a club can spend on salaries. Tebas added he is more concerned about Barcelona’s lack of leadership as their presidential election approaches.

The debt levels are intimidating by any standards, though, with the overall total debt of the big three clubs now heading towards a staggering € 3 billion. On a net debt basis, however, Barca’s figure is around € 300 million and Real’s € 118 million, still sizeable figures but not the “bankruptcy level” some newspapers are talking of. As Tebas said, the important thing about debt is its relationship to the ability to generate revenue. Obviously, the pandemic has compromised that ability, for the time being, although matchday revenues only account for just 18% and 15% of Real and Barca’s income respectively. 

One can safely assume that Barca will work their way through their problems and that nobody, be they bankers, politicians or creditors, will want to be responsible for pushing the club towards the wall. Nevertheless, debt may stymie clubs from competing on the European stage, especially as Real and Barca are in need of a squad rebuilding programme that would require hard cash. Not that transfer activity is frantic at the moment, it has fallen off a cliff in Spain thanks to the pandemic. Both Barca and Real are also undergoing major infrastructure projects, which will be a drag on capital. 

Has Spain become less attractive as a vibrant football market and has started to lose the battle with the Premier League and Bundesliga? There’s no doubt there are fewer world class players in their prime currently earning a living in La Liga. A glance at the Guardian’s top 100 players list, which was last issued in December 2020, provides some evidence. There were only eight Spanish players included and 21 playing for Spanish clubs. The top Spaniard is 34 year-old Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid. 

Compare that to the 2015 list when there were 16 Spaniards and 28 La Liga representatives. There has been a 50% decline in five years of Spanish players in the top 100. The elite clubs – Atléti (72%), Real (72%), Sevilla (66.5%), Barca (65.3%) and Valencia (57.8%) – are heavily staffed by foreign players. Equally concerning has to be the average age of La Liga squads, almost 28 years of age, which is one of the highest across Europe – only Turkey and Cyprus have older squads.

It may be that Spain is simply coming to the end of a golden age, one in which Spanish clubs won 17 out of 30 European competitions (eight Champions League, nine Europa League) including four years where the country won both major prizes. Nothing goes on forever, even though cyclical success is less accepted than at any time in the past.

Even so, four teams won through to the last 16 of the Champions League in 2020-21 which suggests Spain still has strength in depth. Real were the sole group winners, but Atléti, Sevilla and Barca lost only one game each. It is the results against clubs from the big five leagues that have worried Spain’s footballing community. Barca’s 4-1 home defeat at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain was devastating, especially as it came a few months after their 8-2 humiliation by Bayern Munich. Atléti looked very limited and lacking in invention against a Chelsea team still in transition.  

Spain’s record in the Champions League knockout phase over the past five years has produced a 58% win rate in big-five KO games, but in 2019-20, it was a rather lowly 38%. As well as Barca’s collapse, Real were beaten twice by Manchester City and Atléti slipped up against Leipzig. Go back five years and the win rate was an impressive 70%. It is not out of the question that there may not be a Spanish club in the last eight this season for the first time since 2005. 

A combination of lower performance levels, financial pressure, ageing star players and empty stadiums makes for a slightly downbeat environment, but Spain is not alone. Football across Europe has suffered but when life begins to return to normal, the hunger for the game will, if anything, result in something of a boom period. And Spain will be among the front-runners once more.

Photo: PA Images

Atlético v Chelsea: A moment of brilliance stops the yawning

FOOTBALL is a results business, so for Chelsea, it was a case of job done in Bucharest. But if it is also deemed to be an entertainment industry, then it was, at times, white handkerchief territory in the Arena Nationala at times. 

Curiously, nobody has really considered the pandemic could be a competitive disadvantage for clubs that have to switch their home games to neutral – or Covid friendly – territory. Chelsea couldn’t go to Spain, so it had to played elsewhere. When they meet again in three weeks time, the second leg will be played at Stamford Bridge, hence Chelsea will have the upper hand in more ways than one.

In theory, UEFA should – in these difficult times – merely opt for a one-leg tie. The closing stages of last season’s competition were surprisingly successful and as a remedy to a major problem, the two-legged concept is not only unnecessary but also impractical in the current climate.

Atlético played the game as if they were an away side trying to earn a draw to take back to their place. They didn’t have a single shot on target in 90 minutes, a real indictment given Atléti coach Diego Simeone had Jõao Felix and Luis Suarez in his line-up. 

For much of the game, the strategic approach of both teams made for an uninspiring event, although Chelsea left the Romanian capital content enough. Their coach, Thomas Tuchel, sat contorted in his airline seat, clearly unhappy for much of the time. Chelsea’s best chance in the opening 45 fell to Timo Werner, who continues to be praised to the nines even when he doesn’t score. There are shades of the stuttering career of Fernando Torres in Werner’s debut season, countless people trying to justify his large fee by highlighting his overall contribution when really, all they want is for the German to score goals – and plenty of them. If Werner doesn’t get 20 goals a season, will Chelsea persevere with their expensive capture from Leipzig?

Thankfully, Chelsea have options and considerably more invention in their line-up than Simeone was willing to reveal. The winning goal came from that old Cheval de bataille , Olivier Giroud, the 34 year-old former Arsenal player whose transfer across London has certainly been more successful, and more appreciated, than the contribution made by Chelsea old boys moving in the opposite direction. What a memorable strike, a bicycle kick that gave Jan Oblak no chance and even dumbfounded the VAR team, who tried to rule it out. The three-minute delay in determining whether it was a legitimate goal was worth it, as it would have been a shame if Giroud’s marvellous effort had been consigned to the great forgotten goals of all time!

It was niggly at times – Suarez returned to form with a cheeky pinch of Rüdiger’s “inner thigh”, which might have meant he was trying to gain an extra set of cojones, and he also tried to “game” his way through the second half. Great forward he may have been (perhaps still is) but the little Uruguayan is still a sly old dog. 

It may not have set the world alight or prevented you from switching over to watch Bayern trounce Lazio, but it was one for the die-hards. Chelsea produced a classic away leg performance that positions them nicely for the second leg. In games between teams of the status of Atléti and Chelsea, played in empty grounds, the gap between home and away is smaller than it might have been before we evacuated the world’s stadiums. One tip for the TV pundits… it is “Atlético” not “Athletico”.

Photo: PA Images