A new year is upon us, and with it comes the introduction of the ‘business end’ of the season. Managers face their final chance to strengthen their squads during the January transfer window as a scramble begins for the survival, for European spots, and for the title.
Well, perhaps this year, La Liga’s title race is not so much a scramble but a stroll. Barcelona sit eleven points clear of Atletico Madrid and an extraordinary sixteen points ahead of Real Madrid. Having dropped only two points all season, the league title looks all but sewn up for the Catalans, which would give them their fourth title in the past five years. Although the general consensus seems to be that this Barcelona side are not quite as good as Pep’s side of 2-3 years ago, they have enjoyed the greatest start to a campaign in La Liga history, and, with such an enormous gap between them and their closest rivals, they may be able to concentrate more on the Copa Del Rey and the Champions League, giving them a fantastic chance of once again sweeping a treble, this time with Tito Vilanova at the helm.
Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid continue to fight to hold on to their prize asset, Radamel Falcao, understood to be turning the heads of a number of top European clubs. Although it seems inevitable he will leave this year, their priority must be to hold onto him for the remainder of the season as he has been and will continue to be absolutely crucial to the magnificent campaign they have enjoyed in 2012/13. Manager Diego Simeone has galvanized his side and looks more than capable of leading Atletico to their best season since they won La Liga in 1996; also the last time they finished above great city rivals Real Madrid.
Speaking of Real Madrid, though sixteen points behind Barcelona they will continue to fight; they are that sort of club, full of world class professionals capable of just about anything. But with Barcelona’s electric form showing no signs of burning out, and Real Madrid’s negative issues in the dressing room, their attention will likely turn to the Champions League, in which they will meet Manchester United in the last 16 as Mourinho seeks to become the first ever manager to win the European Cup with four different teams.
The fight for the fourth Champions League in La Liga is perhaps the most exciting battle in the league, hotly contested by Malaga, Real Betis, Levante and Valencia, with the likes of Rayo Vallecano and Getafe also snapping at their heels. The financial implications of finishing fourth cannot be underestimated, and with monetary issues proving a huge problem for La Liga sides in recent times, this fourth spot is hugely coveted. Currently occupied by Malaga on goal difference, their fantastic defensive record – the best in the league having conceded only 13 goals – may well prove to be decisive come the end of the season. Again, they must fight to keep hold of their prize assets, such as midfield maestro Isco, linked with many top clubs this January.
Things are also extremely tight at the bottom , with Osasuna, Espanyol and Deportivo occupying the relegation spots, and Granada, Celta Vigo and Mallorca languishing just above them. Espanyol’s 4-0 defeat by Barcelona saw a five game unbeaten run come to a halt; a run which included a famous point at the Bernabaeu. With just 4 points separating all 6 teams, the relegation battles looks set to drag on until the final games of the season.