It’s been an intriguing start to La Liga as after early signs that it might be another procession for Barcelona, they went a period of four games without a victory, something that has only occurred once since the start of the 2009/10 season. They then recaptured the initiative with healthy victories over Sevilla and in El Clasico, but after a shock defeat at home to Real Betis and a trip to the Wanda Metropolitino to come after the international break, it looks a prime opportunity to take a closer look at the title race in Spain.
Real Madrid And Barcelona Being Challenged
The Catalans lead by just one point ahead of Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and surprise package Alaves, while Real Madrid are four points adrift. In the previous eight seasons, Real or Barca have always led after 12 rounds, but on the five occasions they were clear by at least three points at that stage they went on to be crowned champions, while the other three seasons saw them finish second. For the last three years it’s been a four-point buffer, but with things much closer this time around and Barca showing signs of frailty, it’s certainly worth looking at the other contenders.
Current La Liga Outright Odds
Barcelona, 24pts – 1.40
Sevilla, 23pts – 41.00
Atletico Madrid, 23pts – 6.50
Alaves, 23pts – 501.00
Espanyol, 21pts – 501.00
Real Madrid, 20pts – 5.50
Who Can Challenge The Big Three?
No side has won the title outside the ‘Big Three’ since Valencia won back in 2003/04, but Los Che had also won the title in 2002, while Real Madrid and Barcelona had finished 1-2 (either way round) in the league just once in the six seasons prior. Although they’ve started brightly, we’re happy to dismiss outsiders Alaves and Espanyol straight away.
Sevilla are given much more of a chance by the market but realistically, it’s very unlikely they can maintain their challenge for the rest of the campaign, especially with Europa League commitments. Instead the main target will be that fourth spot and a return to Europe’s elite competition. Therefore, we’ll delve deeper into the ‘Big Three’ as the two Madrid clubs are the only likely candidates to topple the champions.
This is Barcelona’s worst total after 12 games since 2007/08, when they also had 24 points and ended up coming third. However, that was prior to the start of their domestic dominance and they’ve won seven of the 10 titles since 2008/09. They led at this stage in six of these seasons, going on to win on five occasions, though they were at least two points clear in each of these. In 2013/14, they were just one point ahead and they lost out to Atletico.
Prior to last season the Catalans were supposedly in turmoil, but they romped to the title by 14 points and since then their squad has improved immensely. Philippe Coutinho arrived in January, Arthur and Arturo Vidal offer competition and cover in midfield to Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets, while Ousmane Dembele is starting to show what he is capable of. With that greater strength in depth we wouldn’t put anyone off backing Barca, but we’re happy to leave them alone given there seems to be an extra emphasis on Europe this year.
Barca fans haven’t seen their beloved team get past the quarter-final stage in the last three seasons as they’ve watched arch rivals Real Madrid complete a hat-trick of titles, so the fans crave European success more than any other. Certainly, the way they dismantled Spurs at Wembley in the middle of their winless domestic run suggests that is a priority for Ernesto Valverde, who needs success on the continent to be fully accepted by the fans.
Like Barcelona, Real Madrid started the season well, but they went on their own winless run of five matches, culminating in a 5-1 humiliation in El Clasico which eventually led to the departure of Julen Lopetegui. Although they’ve won their two league outings since Santiago Solari took the reins, it doesn’t pave over the cracks at the Bernabeu.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was their big summer signing, but they’ve not strengthened their outfield squad with real quality in years – their only £30m+ signing since James Rodriguez in 2014 has been teenager Vinicius this summer and he’s more of an investment for the future. Ronaldo was accountable for 32% of Real’s goals in his nine seasons at the Bernabeu and without him they’re lacking a consistent goal threat.
Gareth Bale is the heir apparent to Ronaldo, but he is injury-prone and has never scored more than 20 in a season for Los Blancos. Given he’s been Real’s first-choice no.9 for several years now, Karim Benzema doesn’t score enough goals either with just one return of more than 20 goals in the previous six seasons, including just five last term. Mariano Diaz still has plenty to prove and while there is no doubting Marco Asensio’s talent, the Spaniard isn’t consistent enough to take over Ronaldo’s goalscoring mantra.
It’s just one title in the last six years for Real and when trailing at this stage, they’ve won La Liga just once in the last 10 attempts – in 2006/07 with a team full of Galacticos. Without really strengthening while their main rivals Barcelona have bolstered their squad, it’s difficult to see how they are going to close the 17-point gap between the two from last term. Indeed, the gulf between the two was evident in El Clasico and the Catalans were even without Lionel Messi that day.
Away from home – 5 English youngsters plying their trade abroad
Atletico Madrid were 10 points behind Barcelona at this stage last year but find themselves just a point adrift. They’ve never led outright after 12 games during Diego Simeone’s tenure, but the only time in the last five years they’ve been within three of the leaders was in 2013/14, when they were a point off. Atleti miraculously ousted the two powerhouses of Spanish football to win La Liga and lift the trophy that year, and although they had 33 points at this stage that season, the fact they’re in the thick of it this campaign will give them plenty of confidence of causing another upset.
The season Atleti won the title, both Real and Barca had squads full of star quality. Real boasted the likes of Ronaldo, Di Maria, Kaka, Ozil, Khedira, and Xabi Alonso. Barca’s meanwhile, had club legends Carlos Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta as well as Fabregas, Mascherano, Alexis Sanchez and Neymar. Neither are as strong today, while it could be argued that Atletico’s is as strong, if not even better.
On paper, we’d give them a much better chance of competing with the Big Two this term than they did in 2013/14 with world-class talent in Antoine Griezmann upfront and the signing of another French superstar Thomas Lemar. Koke and Saul were both youngsters in that title-winning squad and just making their way but have now developed into high-class operators. Diego Godin remains a stalwart at the back and has a fantastic relationship with countryman Jose Gimenez, while Jan Oblak is another world-class operator.
Barcelona have the best player on the planet in Lionel Messi, but they’ve not looked as defensively secure this season and the potential for them to be distracted by the Champions League means they’re worth taking on at 1.4. Real, on the other hand, can’t rely on Ronaldo anymore and we’d certainly favour their city rivals over them.
This looks to be Atletico’s best chance of winning the title since their 2013/14 success and where they basically relied on their defence back then, Simeone has the attacking players at his disposal to cause any side trouble this season. Although the campaign is still relatively young, the clash between Atleti and Barca after the international break is massive. Barca win and it’s difficult to see a way back, but the Madrid club are very strong at the Wanda Metropolitino and if they were to beat the Catalans, then there is no way they will still be 6.50 for the title.
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*odds subject to change.