Widely perceived season after season as a two horse race between the ‘El Clasico’: Real Madrid and FC Barcelona for a share of the spoils, Atlético Madrid threw a curveball into the mixture last season by not only proving they could genuinely be a genuine challenger for the coveted league title in the early stages of the 2013/14 season but through a mixture of grit, hard-work & continued determination to last the distance and eventually come out on top as La Liga champions. Galvanised by a manager whose passion on the pitch as a player remains equally as powerful on the touchline as a manager, Diego Simeone’s men made history by toppling the traditional top two and capping a successful season on the pitch with a fully deserved league title. They were even within touching distance of doing in adding the Champions League to their recently re-opened trophy cabinet to go alongside their La Liga title but the fairy-tale wasn’t to be, as they were beaten in dramatic fashion by their cross-city rivals in the UEFA Champions League final last May.
One could say the moral victors that night in Lisbon would have in fact been Atlético Madrid after everything they had achieved throughout the season. One however, could say Real Madrid were in-fact the deserved winners and fully warranted their European success. However one thing that is widely accepted is that the red side of Madrid well and truly produced one of the biggest shocks of the 2013/14 La Liga season.
In almost all of the world’s biggest football leagues, there’s often a team who every season keep up the pace for the first half of the domestic season, yet to sustain their pre-Christmas run of form frequently proves that too demanding for a team often playing beyond their means. If anything, its full credit to Atlético Madrid in achieving what they did and as dominantly as they did. In recent times, a season whereby a side has pushed one of the traditional top two in La Liga all the way, even without coming out on top of the charts, has been recognised as a relative success. Yet Diego Simeone, on a much lesser budget than that of his fellow title contenders, utilised a squad of players with fairly limited experience in the upper echelons of Spanish football and did the unthinkable; the unbelievable in the eyes of the Atlético Madrid fans but the somewhat unsurprising for anybody who closely followed 2013/14 La Liga season.
But the question on everybody’s lips as the current La Liga campaign nears ever closer to the business end of the season is whether such a feat could once again be repeated this time around? Was Atlético Madrid’s league success last season merely a consequence of complacency from both Barcelona & Real Madrid or has the breath of fresh air from Atlético’s success refreshed Spanish domestic football for good? Have Diego Simeone’s side now opened the door for a wave of other La Liga sides to believe that they themselves could do the unthinkable and challenge at the very top end of Spanish football? The latter will only become evident as the La Liga season progresses even further, but admittedly as we do edge that bit closer towards the end of the current league campaign, there do however seem to be reasonable grounds to suggest that the once inconceivable idea that a side other than Barcelona or Real Madrid, could be crowned La Liga champions once again in the very near future.
Let us first turn our attention to Real Madrid. Currently sitting pretty in a position they’re somewhat used to come the 21st century, Carlo Ancelotti’s men as they so frequently do, look the ‘real deal’. After missing out on domestic success in the league last season, Real Madrid used the summer break to do what they do best as the Galacticos fully lived up to their worldwide reputation, flexing their financial muscle during the Summer transfer window. As we’ve seen so many times over the past decade, Real Madrid had their targets in place with the sole intention to bolster an already world-class squad with three of the finest exports from the 2014 World Cup, further solidifying what have already considered one of the strongest back-bones in world football. In came 2014 CONCACAF Player of the Year goalkeeper Keylor Navas, the 2014 World Cup winning anchorman Toni Kroos and widely regarded by many as the 2014 World Cup player of the tournament, Colombian playmaker James Rodriguez. And if these three additions, all at the top of their game, weren’t a clear enough signal of intent, their imperious start to the season which soon followed into October and all the way up to the very end of the 2014 calendar year will well and truly have made other teams not just in Spain but throughout Europe sit up and take notice that Real Madrid, as we have learnt to expect, remain a force to be well and truly reckoned with.
However it must be said that all that glitters isn’t gold. Yes of course, we can’t forget Real Madrid’s recent and incredible twenty-two game winning streak in all competitions, which seen Ancelotti’s side only narrowly miss out on breaking the current record for the longest run of games won held by Brazilian side Cortiba, but their 2-1 defeat at the Mestalla at the hands of an impressive Valencia side for example, should serve as a reminder to those on the periphery of the El Clasico pairing that both Real Madrid and Barcelona can be toppled once again. That despite the abundance of world class talent and accolades amongst their ranks, Real Madrid like anybody in world football have their weaknesses and it only takes a side such as Valencia or as Atlético did last season, or even their own fans turning on the likes of their own players such as Gareth Bale, to highlight that Real Madrid are maybe not as strong both internally and externally as they are often perceived. Yes, some might say Real Madrid in fact had the last laugh in defeating their local rivals by clinching a bittersweet Champions League triumph but ultimately, they were made to work incredibly hard for their deserved Decima success and any pre-existing premonition that Real Madrid are invincible, has certainly been questioned in recent times.
In regards to FC Barcelona, there is no denying that in the past decade that if there is one side which has embodied forward-thinking football and dominance in European competitions, it most definitely must be the Catalan side. With success on all fronts both domestically and throughout Europe, Barcelona have lived up to their description and have proved time and time again that they really are ‘mes que un club’. The recent transition from a sustained period of success under Pep Guardiola to the subsequent managerial changes and departures (admittedly for far different circumstances) of both Tito Villanova & Gerardo Martino, admittedly seen the club slump to one of their poorest seasons in recent times. Some questioned managerial decisions, some pointed the finger of blame at the ‘underperforming players’ whilst some fans simply resigned to the idea that it could maybe be the eventual end of such a successful era. Although both Madrid sides set the bar incredibly high last season in La Liga, it’s hard to believe that Pep Guardiola’s side of 2009/10 would have had the same misfortune in finishing behind Atlético Madrid and failing to match them in terms of footballing ability and success.
However it must be said last seasons’ domestic disappointment may not indicate a sign of the times and could yet prove to have been a minor blip in what has been such a successful winning formula. I mean come on, any team in the world, regardless of current form, that can boast a host of World Cup winners alongside the four time Ballon D’Or winner Lionel Messi, inevitably can not be dismissed as title contenders’ year upon year in all competitions. And it must be said that even in the face of growing uncertainty regarding what Barca fans would call ‘complacency’ both on and off the pitch, Barcelona have used their funds wisely of late and have done some shrewd business to strengthen their squad in the hope of returning back to their very best.
Amid the cloud of controversy following his unforgettable exploits in the 2014 World Cup, the Catalan side made a calculated decision and acted quickly to sign Luis Suarez from Liverpool. Despite serving a ban prohibiting the Uruguayan from participating in any footballing activity for such a sustained period, Barcelona quickly recognised his footballing quality and how integral Suarez was for Liverpool during his time at the club. The addition of Suarez alongside the pairing of Lionel Messi & Neymar which has already proved to be very successful throughout the 2014/15 season thus far, truly rivals the strength of their traditional rivals Real Madrid, competing against their ‘BBC’ front three of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.
We must not also forget Barcelona have worked hard in recent times to not be left behind and resultantly, they have had to modernise in order to keep up with the ever-changing nature of the modern game. Whilst the capture of promising young goal keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen was seen by many as somewhat of a transfer coup as the long term successor for Victor Valdes, the arrival of the experienced Claudio Bravo has seemingly worked wonders for all parties involved. The experienced Claudio Bravo has provided short-term stability in the league, earning valuable playing time with the worlds’ very best and his wealth of experience has then allowed ter Stegen to develop and reach his full potential in his own time, without being prematurely thrust into the limelight as Barcelona’s Number 1 at such a young age. In contrast the signing of Ivan Rakitic helps to exemplify one of FC Barcelona’s unique intentions to date. Through a mixture of what some would say are the past with the likes of Xavi and Iniesta still featuring regularly, the purchase of seasoned professionals who are presently performing at their very best such as Ivan Rakitic himself or Luis Suarez and with the rotation of the likes of promising youngsters Rafinha Alcantara and Munir El-Haddadi for example, there are undoubtedly very good reasons why pundits and journalists remain convinced that success may still only be a stone throw away for Luis Enrique’s side.
But if the traditional top two are showing cracks and appear to be there for the taking, the question is which teams are then capable of capitalising on their frailties? Of course, the stand out candidate has to be Atlético Madrid. With a strong foundation from their success last season, stable management in the hands of Diego Simeone and very few issues both on and off the pitch, on paper Atlético Madrid have a stability and consistency which Barcelona have craved at times throughout the 2014/15 season. But in the same as many musicians have struggled with the dreaded second-album syndrome, a sophomore slump could prove to be the stumbling block restricting Atlético Madrid from back to back La Liga titles.
Beyond Atlético Madrid, another name you hear often is that of Sevilla with many pundits suggesting that we should really sit up and take notice that are potentially the next best contenders to challenge at the top. After their Europa League success in May 2014, beating the likes of FC Porto, Benfica and fellow La Liga side Valencia on their way to the winning the trophy, Sevilla proved publicly that they can perform at the very top. Yet question marks do arise regarding their overall strength in depth and whether they have enough quality beneath their starting XI to last the distance and form any real challenge at the top. Their integration of both young and old players side by side has seemingly worked well for Unai Emery’s side, but maintaining their strength consistency in all competitions has often proved difficult. Inevitably, they remain a very strong side and a side who are definitely one to watch in the future but any expectancy to achieve success in La Liga this season would be unfair.
Some may then say Atletico Bilbao or maybe even Valencia could possibly break the mould in time to challenge at the very top but for different reasons, it doesn’t look like either side will be doing so anytime soon. Whilst Bilbao’s good form of 2013/14 has fluctuated this season as they juggle the demands of playing in the Champions League and performing equally as well in La Liga, Valencia on the other hand show great promise for the future. A poor showing on the pitch in 2013/14 saw the side miss out on European Football, whilst rumblings behind the scenes regarding a possible financial takeover seemed to be a distracting factor in their previous league campaign. And although the rumours and speculation finally bore fruit in late 2014 with the eventual take over by the Singapore businessman and investor Peter Lim, his initial signings show great potential and a clear sign of intent for the future to help Valencia return to the heavyweight status they’re used to. Although in my honest opinion the Valencia project seems very much a work in progress and instant success would be unrealistic. The future is bright, but whether the future is orange remains to be seen.
All things considered, only time will tell whether or not Real Madrid or FC Barcelona will falter in their attempts to re-affirm themselves as the dominant duo in Spanish football. Although both sides seem to epitomise the La Liga brand in terms of television rights and shirt sales to a global audience from the outside looking in, it’s clear that beneath the surface there is more to Spanish domestic football than meets the eye. A top two seems to be widening to a top three and the current trend seems to suggest this will grow even further in the future as teams begin to rise up against the traditional dominance of the El Clasico pairing, but the question however the question remains as to the legacy of Atlético Madrid’s title win last season. Will it long continue to serve as a motivation to other sides capable of challenging that the ‘impossible’ can be achieved, or will it simply go down in history and be remembered as nothing more than ‘that year’ when the traditional year were finally toppled.
Article written by: @Scouted_TTT