La Liga Run-in Roundup Part #1: Titles, Clasicos, and the Race for Champions League

It’s never too late to start paying attention to the other important leagues around Europe, and there are few places better to start than with Spain’s La Liga. This dynamic, impressive league features two of the best supported clubs in world football in the form of Real Madrid and Barcelona, and has held the top spot in the UEFA Coefficient (given to the statistically strongest league in Europe) for 15 out of the past 20 years.

Why should you care? First, it’s a great way to watch some extra, high-quality football. Second, Spanish clubs have been excelling in European Competition since the inception of the European Cup. Real Madrid hold the current record for most continental trophies with 13 European Cup/Champions League wins (including the last 3 consecutively).

If you support a team of European caliber, there is a good chance your side has faced off against one of these juggernauts in the last few years. If not, there is always the potential that one of Spain’s top teams may flex their financial muscle to pluck away some of your favorite players when they need to recruit. Knowing is half the battle, so I am here to catch you up on all 2018-19 has had to offer in sunny Spain.

Who will win La Liga in 2018-19?

Spain, like many other top leagues in Europe, has a fairly predictable cast of characters who will be fighting for the title every year and this year was no exception. Only once in the last 14 years has someone other than Barcelona or Real Madrid managed to win La Liga (Simeone’s heroic march to the title with Atletico Madrid in 2013-14), and this season looks likely to see that trend continue.

Barcelona currently enjoy a seven-point lead at the top of the league, and have a goal difference that is 20 goals better than 2nd place Atletico Madrid. Real Madrid’s attempt to keep Barcelona from winning back-to-back titles fell apart spectacularly (which will be discussed more in Part #2 of the La Liga Roundup), and Atletico’s squad lacks sufficient quality to compete over the course of the season despite some admirable effort and a talented crew.

What has been the key to their success? A quick glance at the statistics will tell you that Lionel Messi currently leads the league in both goals and assists (with 25 and 11 respectively), while Real Madrid doesn’t feature a player in the Top 5 for either category. This suggests they are feeling the effects of perpetual top-scorer and overall enigma Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus more sharply than they would have anticipated.

This sudden and dramatic decline in productivity, coupled with surprising defensive frailty, has seen Real Madrid fall 12 points behind Barcelona at the time of writing – a gap which almost certainly means they are out of the title race. This makes Diego Simeone’s gruff Atletico Madrid the best chance of disrupting Barcelona’s hike toward a 2nd consecutive La Liga title.

So, have Lionel Messi’s superhuman numbers been the only factor in Barcelona’s form? His 25 goals and 11 assists mean he has been directly involved in 55% of Barcelona’s league goals to date, which is an absurd sum; however, they have also displayed a grittiness that is more often associated with this season’s closest chaser, Atletico Madrid, during some of the most important games of the season. Last weekend’s hard-fought 1-0 victory at the home of Real Madrid was the type of game that can go a long way to determining a title.

Some early season results also showed a tenacity befitting of a title winner. They salvaged a draw at home against Girona despite being a goal down and a man down since the 35th minute, Suarez notched a 90th minute winner against Vallecano back in November and they twice came from behind to record a win at Champions League – chasing Sevilla just 10 days ago.

These results matter and they typify the strength and mentality of this current Barcelona squad and their experienced manager, Ernesto Valverde. Are they quite as entertaining as they were under Luis Enrique or Pep Guardiola? Probably not, but they’ve been resilient and they are still the best Spain has to offer. The attacking trident of Messi, Suarez and born-again Ousmane Dembele have more than enough quality to see them over the line.

Ernesto Valverde will steer Barcelona to their 4th title in the last 5 years.

Who will end up in the top 4?

Spain is like England in the fact that the Top 4 league positions are granted automatic entry into next season’s Champions League group stage.

However, league revenue is not as evenly split in Spain as it is in England (despite some recent changes hoping to remedy that fact), so the extra revenue generated by European competition can be vital in attracting and paying for top-level players. It is hugely important.

Other than Barcelona, Atletico seem the safest to lock up one of these lucrative positions due to them possessing the meanest defense in La Liga; but, they have struggled immensely to find regular goal scorers due to a rapid drop in form from the once-reliable Diego Costa.

To illustrate, Alvaro Morata was purchased in January, has made five league appearances and has already become the second-highest scorer at the club behind Antoine Griezmann with a paltry three goals. Despite this, they should have no trouble shoring up the same league position they attained last year (2nd place) because the other usual suspects who tend to chase the top 4, like Sevilla and Villarreal, have faltered substantially.

So is Real Madrid’s 3rd place position in jeopardy? Probably not. They can “benefit” from the fact that they have been knocked out of every other competition and they will focus solely on the league for the remainder of the campaign. This, and a healthy eight-point lead over 5th placed Alaves, likely means they will have no trouble attaining a Champions League spot.

This leaves a single spot realistically up for grabs and the competition will be extremely tight. Getafe currently occupy that position, but only nine points separate 4th from 13th at the moment which belies an extremely congested table. Alaves is only two points back and they have fast-starting Sevilla, Valencia and Real Betis nipping at their heels.

If Sevilla can recapture the form that saw them touted as contenders for the title early in the season they will snag the 4th position, but they have only won one of their last eight league games.

Can they overcome their awful form and wrestle 4th back from Getafe? Or will Getafe surprisingly hold their nerve and clinch their 1st ever spot in the Champions League? Sevilla’s continued involvement in the Europa League knockout rounds could sap them of vital energy. Advantage Getafe.

What’s happened in the Copa del Rey?

Spain features a single domestic cup competition known as the Copa del Rey which contains both two-legged matches and seeding that generally sees the traditional big clubs given a fairly easy route to the latter stages of the tournament.

This makes it virtually impossible for smaller clubs to get much of a chance at grasping the trophy (only 14 different clubs have won the trophy in its 117 year history), but it also means exciting matches between powerful clubs by the end.

Excitement mounted when Barcelona were drawn against Real Madrid in the semi-finals, and it seemed as if Madrid had the perfect opportunity to at least deny Barcelona the chance to win this trophy. Extra Clasicos? Yes, please.

The probability of interrupting Barcelona’s domestic season increased substantially when Madrid managed a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou after Lucas Vasquez’s early goal was cancelled out by the impressive (and oft underused) Malcom. All Madrid needed was a home win or a 0-0 draw and they would be in the final at the expense of their biggest rival.

Did they manage that result? Real Madrid had the better of the play in a tense opening half at the Santiago Bernabeu, but they couldn’t break the deadlock. Barcelona came out after the interval and put on a clinic of clinical finishing as Suarez netted twice and Raphael Varane scored an unfortunate, but necessary, own goal. Barcelona had beaten them 3-0 on their own turf which meant Madrid’s only hope of a trophy was to put all their eggs in the Champions League basket. I wonder how that went…

Valencia edged Real Betis 3-2 over two legs in the other hotly contested semi-final which sets up one last match between Barcelona and Valencia. Barca remain heavy favorites to win their 5th consecutive Copa del Rey (a record streak), but Valencia will be no pushovers and have managed draws in both of their league games against the Catalan club this season.

Can Valencia break Barcelona’s iron grip on the Copa del Rey and snag their first trophy since 2008? They have the quality to make it a real fight, but Barcelona have the knack for winning the big games and will have every expectation of gaining another trophy when the final is played in Seville on May 25th.

Stay tuned for the next installment of my La Liga update. which will feature the season’s biggest surprises, disappointments and the teams fighting for their top-flight survival.

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