The battle for La Liga has become something of a two-horse race in recent years. Despite an Atletico Madrid victory in 2014, before that you have to go back to 2004 to find a winner of the competition who wasn’t Real Madrid or Barcelona.
Back in 2004, it was Rafael Benitez’s Valencia who managed to hold the trophy aloft at the end of the season. Over ten years later and Valencia are back on the scene, adding their names to the list of clubs fighting for the top spot in Spain’s biggest league.
Colin Millar looks at four contenders for the La Liga title this season and assesses each team’s chances of finishing the season with winners medals in their hands.
Having won eight of their opening nine league games, dropping two points only at Atletico Madrid, the Blaugrana are once again top candidates for the Spanish title. They’ve lifted six of the last nine titles and two of the last three, winning each of the last three Copa Del Reys to further reassert their domestic dominance.
There are caveats to their title push – a pre-season humbling at the hands of rivals Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercopa along with a haphazard summer transfer window which saw Neymar sold and a series of transfer targets missed.
Furthermore, seven of their eight victories to date have come against sides currently in the bottom eight, with an opening day win over injury-hit Real Betis the only exception. A draw at Atletico was no disgrace and, despite equalising late on, they ended up looking most likely to grab a winner.
Barcelona are now set for a daunting run of fixtures and, with Ousmane Dembele injured and Luis Suarez badly off-form, it will be a major test of their squad and once more of Lionel Messi’s genius.
2 Real Madrid
Zinedine Zidane’s side started the season as overwhelming favourites to retain their league crown and with just cause. After all, this is a side who have won five trophies within the past twelve months including La Liga and the Champions League. Since Zidane’s appointment in January 2016, they have lost only one more match in all competitions than the number of trophies they have won.
Real have class throughout their squad. Not only did Cristiano Ronaldo and Zidane win FIFA’s best Player and Coach of 2017 respectively, the club itself had a total of five players in the ideal XI – Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric joining the Portuguese superstar. Isco and Marco Asensio could consider themselves unfortunate to not be involved after stunning spells of form.
However, it might not be quite the awe-inspiring squad of last season. Alvaro Morata, James Rodriguez and Mariano Diaz all departed with no genuine attacking replacements, while Pepe’s departure from defence perhaps went under-reported. A tricky league start saw none of the opening three games won, including a shock home loss to Betis – the first time they had not scored in 75 matches: a European record.
The main question marks over Madrid retaining their league will revolve around the player’s hunger and desire, and also the question of whether they will stay injury-free. Last season’s achievements were made all the more remarkable by the fact that every player sustaining an injury at some point, and many more frequently. They have enough class to rule once more in Spain and Europe.
3 Atletico Madrid
Since the start of this season, Diego Simeone’s men have waved goodbye to their intimidating Vicente Calderon home, moving into the newly-built Wanda Metropolitano. More importantly, though, they did retain their highly-coveted Argentine boss who subsequently renewed his deal at the club, alongside star forward Antoine Griezmann. As the result of the on-going transfer ban, they also await the arrival of Spanish international duo Vitolo and Diego Costa in January.
Simeone's club have a tendency to sit deep and often lack creativity, allowing traditionally ‘smaller’ clubs to proseper against them. This means that, whilst Atletico are hard to beat, they have won only five of twelve matches across all competitions with draws once again being their downfall – four have already come in La Liga contributing to four scoreless games in all competitions.
Without an away loss in 2017, however, the club are well positioned in the top four and are unbeaten in their opening nine games, having already played six away from home. With squad reinforcements to come in January, they will have one eye on a sensational title push, although a top three finish will be a minimum requirement.
The most impressive side of the Spanish league to date, Valencia have made a flying start to their La Liga campaign with six wins and three draws coming from their opening nine fixtures. In that time, they earned well-deserved draws against both Madrid clubs and racked up a sensational ten goals against Seville duo Betis and Sevilla. These were big statements and all pointed towards one thing: they are back in the big time.
After successive 12th-placed finishes and three permanent managers last season, Marcelino – the man they had always wanted but had not been able to attain since last September – finally arrived. Along with a newly-constructed board to help reshape the team and the club, Marcelino has brought positivity where there was once negativity, doubts and pessimism.
Marcelino’s sides are always well-balanced. Defensively sound and carrying a substantial threat on the break, he can adapt his tactics to the occasion and has done so brilliantly thus far. They have played seven of the top eleven sides in the table in their opening nine games in an indicator of just how impressive their start has been.
A top-four finish at the start of the year appeared to be beyond Los Che, but so sharply have expectations risen that many now see this as a minimum requirement.
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