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The gap in competition was made evident in Europe again this week as Barcelona and Atletico Madrid took major steps towards a passage into the last 8 of the Champions League. A 0-2 lead will be taken back to the Nou Camp as Manchester City were beaten on Tuesday night while 24 hours later, Diego Costa gave Atletico a valuable 0-1 lead against AC Milan, an away goal to cherish as they seek a way into their first quarter-final of Europe’s premier competition for the first time in 17 years.
The spread of competition in La Liga maybe undermined by a woeful disparity in television revenue distribution but with English and Italian opposition being slain on the continent, there was further evidence that the Spanish domestic summit remains extremely high.
Perhaps rivalled only by Germany who boast little on the same parity of Bayern Munich, the ferociously gifted machine that took their own first-leg lead away from England on Wednesday night.
Chelsea, guided by the nous and the fiery drive of Jose Mourinho, may pose some threat to Munich’s European crown but with Real Madrid facing Schalke, the German side who sit 4th in the Bundesliga and 19 points adrift of Bayern’s runaway lead, in the next glut of last-16 matches next week, it is likely that La Liga will still boast 3 representatives when the competition moves into its last 8. Those 3 clubs are locked in battle for their own domestic crown, all on 60 points after 24 games played and all with identical records, Barcelona’s goal-difference posting them top.
With Juventus leading Serie A by a margin of 9 points over Roma and Paris St Germain and Monaco leading the way in a top-heavy French League dominated by obscene levels of cash, the excitement of Spain’s title run-in is matched only by England where Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal and league leaders Chelsea are separated by just 4 points.
It is Liverpool’s inclusion that is particularly intriguing, having taken advantage of Manchester United’s turbulent introduction to life after Sir Alex Ferguson not only to become favourites for a return to Champions League after a four year absence, but to also give themselves a legitimate chance of winning a title they last won 23 years ago.
A slightly shorter period separates Atletico Madrid from their last league win, 17 years to be precise, and their involvement in this year’s Spanish title race is arguably more welcome than Liverpool’s over in the Premier League.
It is approaching a decade since the El Clasico hegemony was last broken as a result of an outrageously top-heavy distribution of television rights which posts the £140 million income of Real Madrid and Barcelona almost 100% ahead of the next two biggest-earning teams, Valencia and Atletico.
The latter’s residency at the top this year has satisfied some complaints about Spain’s lack of competition for the big two, though it should not deflect attention away from a system that is desperately in need of reform. The majority of clubs remain crippled by debts, mainly money owed to the Spanish government to the tune of a total in the region of £700 million and almost half the league has struggled to land sponsorship.
Atletico’s emergence has convinced some that the chasm can be breached, though it has been a meticulous project, led by Diego Simeone since his appointment in 2011, financed by a reported debt of 120 million Euros. While Atletico, winners of the Europa League and the Copa Del Rey in recent years, have brought a discernible threat to Barca and Real’s dominance on the field, they are still finding it hard to compete with them off it.
A summer spending spree of £21 million, on deals with a clear eye on the future in Toby Alderweireld, Joshua Guilavogui and Leo Baptistao, was dwarfed by Real Madrid’s £80 million capture of Gareth Bale as well as £26 million deals for Isco and Asier Illaramendi while Barcelona signed Neymar for £50 million, a fee later reported to be more in the region of £90 million.
Atletico did pull off a huge summer coup in David Villa in a £4 million deal that weighed heavily in clauses and instalments as well as wages and there was no escaping the fact the Spaniard had become a cast-off from a side Atletico were planning to rival.
What Simeone’s team have lacked in significant investment they have made up for in rugged determination and fortitude, becoming a perfect representation of the doggedness and industry that typified their Argentine coach during his playing days. Diego Costa, who scored his 26th goal in 28 games in the San Siro on Wednesday, has led the line powerfully alongside Villa whose 11 league goals and experience have proved invaluable.
Arda Turan, Gabi and Tiago have worked tirelessly in midfield to allow Koke, whose 9 assists are bettered only by Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas, to pull the strings. Of course, a solid defence always helps and Atletico’s is the best in the league, conceding just 16 goals. The back four of Felipe Luis, Miranda, Diego Godin and Juanfran, complimented by the superb talent of Thibaut Courtois in goal, have kept 12 clean sheets in total, a tally equalled only by Barcelona.
There is a fear, exacerbated by the way he saw his team brushed aside in the semi-finals of the Copa Del Rey by Real, that Simeone may again fall short due to a lack of genuine strength in depth, though a January loan of Wolfsburg’s Diego Ribas, who was excellent in his last spell at the Calderon two years ago, may have the galvanising effect that is needed, especially in attack where they have sometimes looked short of ideas in the face of teams willing to just sit and stifle.
It is a similar problem that faces the other two, though Real Madrid, who possess the phenomenal Cristiano Ronaldo, are packed with the fire-power required to deal with any concerted defensive effort, as are Barcelona who have Lionel Messi.
The duo’s scoring rivalry has not been as intense as recent seasons but both occupy impressive numbers all the same. Ronaldo’s 22 league goals from 21 games is typically outstanding though Messi’s 13 from 15, in a season hampered by injury and destabilising accusations of tax-fraud, is equally marked.
Even though in Carlo Ancelotti and Gerardo “Tata” Martino the big 2 have managers yet to experience success in Spain, their star players have both been there, done it and with both motivated by a vehement desire to outdo each other, faith will be rightfully installed in them to drive them over the line.
Just as vital however will be the supporting cast, the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xavi who make-up the wonderfully gifted spine of Barcelona, and Madrid’s Angel Di Maria and Karim Benzema, who have both shown discernible improvement during the transition from Jose Mourinho to Ancelotti.
Luka Modric has developed into one of the league’s prized assets and has formed a fearsome midfield together with Xabi Alonso, while Gareth Bale has settled into La Liga life very well indeed even if without the headlines, scoring 9 goals and registering as many assists. The emergence of Jese Rodriguez has also been promising, the 20 year old winger helping himself to 5 goals and 4 assists in 15 appearances, only 3 of which have been starts.
Alexis Sanchez, Barcelona’s 15 goal right winger, has cut a totally difference force from the troubled one that laboured on the periphery of matches last year, while Pedro has managed 13 from the opposite flank. It is perhaps due to the more direct style in operation under Martino, one that utilises more long balls and faster counter-attacking, one that saw them cede possession for the first time in five years at Rayo Vallecano earlier in the year.
A defence that lumbers on in the absence of a yet-to-be-replaced Carles Puyol has managed well enough, though Valencia and Sofiane Feghouli showed what could be done if pressure is applied on Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano, earning a recent shock 2-3 victory in the Nou Camp.
That weekend, Atletico went top, a perfect tribute to the late Luis Aragones, the coach who led them to their last title triumph, but a week later, top-spot was back in the hands of Barcelona after Simeone saw his side lose for the just the 2nd time this season, away at relegation-threatened Almeria.
Real meanwhile, who last held the summit on the 25th January, are the only side in consistent form having not lost since the end of October. It is an ominous run of just 4 points dropped from the past 14 games that will be put under intense scrutiny when they travel across the capital to face rivals Atletico in the first week of March.
Atletico won the season’s first derby, a 0-1 victory in the Bernebau, the first time they had beaten their more illustrious neighbours in the league since 1999. It was the moment that cemented Atletico as genuine title contenders, though Real Madrid and Barcelona, like always, are also in that group. Who makes the most irresistible case? It is too tight to say. Though none of them dare blink next.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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