With half of the La Liga season completed, the table is shaping up to look exactly what everyone thought it would. Currently Real Madrid (with a game in hand) sits atop of the table, one point ahead of their rivals Barcelona and 4 points ahead of last year’s winners, Atletico Madrid.
All three teams are still alive in the Champions League and after next week’s Copa Del Rey matchup between Barca and Atletico, only one team will remain in that competition. Therefore, with 19 more games to be played (20 for Real Madrid) all three teams are more or less on even ground and can control their own destiny. With that being the case, the race for La Liga Champions is wide open.
The least unlikely of the three to become La Liga Champions this year has to be Atletico Madrid. Even though their play this season pales in comparison to their superb efforts of last season, the club is still having a strong year. They finished on top of their Champions’ League group and should be able to knock off their round of 16 opponent Bayer 04 Leverkusen.
Additionally, with three victories and two ties, they have not lost to Real Madrid this year. That being said, it seems that Atletico’s squad may be too thin to compete for both the Champions League and La Liga once again this year. Already the team has shown some signs of fatigue and as games take on more importance Atletico may not have the legs to compete fully in both competitions. Unless the club gets knocks out of Europe soon and shifts all its attention to the league, expect the gap between them and the top of the table to remain or expand.
The biggest wild card in the race for the title is Barcelona. On one hand the club is in crisis with the way the current administration has handled things, the way Enrique is being perceived by the club supporters and possibly viewed by the players, and the stagnated style of play the team has so far displayed.
On the other hand, Barcelona is only one point behind Real Madrid, still alive in all competitions, and has conceded only 9 goals while scoring 48. If outside turmoil continues, if Enrique is unable to win over (or back) the squad, and if the team continues to rely too heavily on Messi and not enough on shape, movement, and possession, Barcelona will probably only have a chance at the Copa Del Rey. However, Barcelona could also be poised to take off and legitimately challenge for all three trophies.
If Suarez can find his place and his form, if the team’s stars remain healthy and focused, and if Enrique can stick to a single line-up, Barcelona has the chance to create some cohesion and real fear in their opponents. A forward line of Neymar, Messi, and Suarez all in form with a defense giving up less than a goal a game is a squad that should be the favorites on every pitch they step onto (unless Bayern Munich is also there). What Barcelona will show up for the rest of the season? No one knows and that is their problem.
The last contender and current favorite is Real Madrid. Despite their bumpy start and questionable transfer moves, Madrid has shown little hangover from being crowned European Champions last summer and has been on cruise control since early October—at one point winning 22 games in a row and winning the Club World Cup. The club’s form has been spectacular for the most part and Carlos Ancelotti has been excellent making sure the players (well except for one guy) are putting the team ahead of themselves. However, there are two problems with expecting Madrid to march to the league title.
The first problem is Madrid’s problem with Atletico this year. As mentioned above, Real has yet to beat their in-town rivals and another lost there would minimize their breathing room and create friction inside the club. More worrying for the club though is that despite their scorching start to the season, Barcelona is still only one point behind them (again Madrid does have a game in hand). Can Madrid really continue to play as well as they have? With the Champions League starting up again, the opportunity to slip up increases and if they do, their league chances may slip as well.
As it stands and not accounting for injuries or the absurd, it seems Real Madrid has the best chance to finish the season at the top of the table. However, the great thing about football—and La Liga especially— is that you can never predict what will happen. All we know is that Real, Atletico, or Barcelona will finish on top and that it is not going to be easy for any of them. That is bad news for them but great news for La Liga fans.