The 2017/18 La Liga season is upon us, with Real Madrid and Barcelona set to continue their recent dominance having won 12 of the past 13 titles between them. Atlético Madrid won the title in 2013/14 with Diego Simeone firmly establishing Atlético as the third best team in Spain, but another battle between Real Madrid and Barcelona is the likely scenario.
The rivalry between Spain’s most successful clubs is a highlight in world football, the unprecedented Ballon d’Or battle between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo unlikely to be replicated any time soon. The bookmakers installed the Catalan club as early La Liga favourites, but the world record sale of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain and a comprehensive Super Cup defeat to Los Blancos has turned the tables.
Giants reassert their dominance
Atlético Madrid caused a sensation in 2013/14 by disrupting the natural order and winning La Liga. The two big guns bounced back however, Barcelona edging Real Madrid by two points in 2014/15 and just one point in 2015/16. Real bounced back last season, wrestling the title back from Barcelona by three points and winning the European Cup / Champions League for a record 12th time.
The two Spanish giants have dominated Europe in recent seasons, winning six of the past nine and the last four Champions League trophies between them. The challengers have been desperately attempting to end Spanish supremacy, Paris Saint-Germain’s stunning €222m capture of Neymar confirming the relentless battle for European glory.
Too close to call?
The last three La Liga titles have been decided by three points or less, which gives an impression that selecting a winner this season is a toss of the coin. The bookmakers had their own reasons for installing Barcelona as early favourites, but the turnaround is surely due to their loss of Neymar and comprehensive 5-1 aggregate defeat against Real Madrid in the Super Cup. Barcelona won the 2012/13 La Liga by 15 points over Real Madrid, so it’s not inconceivable that we could have a comfortable champion this season. Who is likely to deliver?
Messi and Ronaldo?
We have been blessed to witness two of the finest players the world has ever seen go head to head during the past decade. That they are icons of their respective clubs who are such bitter rivals means the battles occur regularly, but we should be mindful how fortunate we are because we may never see the likes of it again.
It’s understandable that Messi and Ronaldo are so vital to the fortunes of their respective clubs, so often delivering in crucial moments, but which club is best situated to survive and prosper without their main man? On the evidence produced in the Super Cup there is only one answer – Real Madrid. The emergence of 21-year-old
Nothing lasts forever
Barcelona were completely unstoppable in 2008/09, Pep Guardiola delivering the first treble in Spanish football history and no team in Europe able to get near the Blaugrana. They have been tremendously successful in the years since, winning two more Champions League and five La Liga titles, assembling a squad full of superstars, highlighted by one of the most devastating attacks the world has ever seen in Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
It appears that Barcelona might finally be falling from the lofty heights they so gracefully ascended to however. Criticism has been directed at the failure to develop homegrown talents from Barca’s famed La Masia youth academy, with problems at the top since Joan Laporta’s presidency ended in 2010. His successors have been embroiled in scandals, Sandro Rosell recently jailed for money-laundering and current president Josep Maria Bartomeu facing fraud and corruption charges over the 2013 Neymar deal.
Neymar’s departure symbolic
When Barcelona attempted to buy Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Veratti it appeared to be business as usual and a move likely to happen. Not only did PSG hold onto their star midfielder, they then completed a sensational €222m swoop for Neymar, the player most likely to inherit the Ballon d’Or when time eventually catches up with Messi and Ronaldo.
Essentially owned by the nation of Qatar, PSG’s ability to afford and lure Neymar is significant on many levels. One can speculate endlessly about Neymar’s motivations but one thing is certain, Barcelona are significantly weakened by his departure regardless of his replacements. Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele would be high quality additions, but Neymar’s departure could be something we look back on as a pivotal moment in Barcelona’s history.
Don’t underestimate the manager influence
Zinédine Zidane’s appointment surprised many when he replaced Rafael Benítez in January 2016, but everything he has touched has turned to gold. In just over 19 months in charge, Zidane as won seven trophies; 1 La Liga, 1 Spanish Super Cup, 2 Champions Leagues, 2 UEFA Super Cups and 1 FIFA Club World Cup. Zidane became the only manager to win back-to-back Champions League titles, with any doubts regarding his experience or suitability completely obliterated.
Luis Enrique enjoyed a successful three years in charge at the Camp Nou and has been replaced by Ernesto Valverde. The former Athletic Bilbao manager couldn’t have taken over at a more difficult time as Neymar’s departure couldn’t have been anticipated. Valverde will be under huge pressure to hit the ground running as Real Madrid’s relentlessness shows no signs of slowing down, yesterday’s 2-0 defeat of Barcelona the 68th consecutive match where
When Benítez took over Real Madrid in June 2015 I immediately backed Barcelona to win the 2015/16 La Liga title. Benítez lasted just seven months, Barcelona eventually winning by a solitary point, so I said a Hail Mary and backed off last season which appeared too close to call. This season however, with Valverde stepping into the hot seat and Neymar departing under such brutal circumstances, the title is surely Real Madrid’s to lose.
The Super Cup evidence simply can’t be ignored and supports the selection. Real Madrid are on fire with or without Ronaldo, scoring in 68 consecutive games with Barcelona appearing to be on a downward spiral. I didn’t even address their (lack of) defence. With Luis Suarez out of action for at least four weeks with a knee injury, the title race could be over sooner rather than later. Take Real Madrid to win La Liga with confidence.