Debates about which is the best domestic league in the world seem to create fierce differences in opinions and can often lead to blinkered arguments into something that, for now at least, is p
Debates about which is the best domestic league in the world seem to create fierce differences in opinions and can often lead to blinkered arguments into something that, for now at least, is purely hypothetical.
In my opinion, each season should be looked at individually to decide where the best viewing is available. Spain’s La Liga is this season the most keenly contested title race around Europe with three teams playing at exceptional levels.
There have long been accusations that La Liga is purely a two team league between the two biggest clubs in the world, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
The 2013/14 season is going someway to dispel this feeling. Obviously, Real Madrid and Barcelona are still challenging for the title, this is the greatest rivalry in the world and it would be odd not to see them tussling with each other. Two clubs always shaped by the other, searching for any single inch they can have to step ahead of their rivals.
Add to that already fascinating mix, Atletico Madrid, the working man’s club in Madrid. Diego Simeone has built a team worthy of challenging Spain’s big two. The challenge may only be short so it should be enjoyed while it lasts.
After Sunday’s enthralling Madrid derby which ended 2-2, Real are currently one point ahead of Barcelona and three ahead of Atletico. All three sides were top of the league at least one stage in February, breaking Barcelona’s previous successive 59 games at the pinnacle of Spanish football. With the title virtually wrapped up in Serie A, Bundesliga and to a lesser extent, Ligue 1, the uncertainty can be found in Spain.
All three teams look likely to reach the quarter finals of the UEFA Champions League if you needed proof they are genuine quality.
It is not just how tight the title race that makes the battle interesting. It is the style in which the teams are doing it. The title chasers all have definitive styles of play and the most appealing aspect is how different they are.
Contrast in playing styles
We all know how Barcelona have tried to play the game ever since Johan Cruyff revolutionised the Catalans. Cruyff installed a possession based style of play involving lots of technically able midfield players who can manipulate the ball in all areas of the pitch.
Xavi Hernandez is the symbol of everything Cruyff, Van Gaal and Guardiola wanted for the club. Add the magic of Messi and Neymar to the qualities of Iniesta, Busquets, Fabregas and Xavi himself and you wonder how the opposition ever touch the ball.
Tata Martino arrived at Barcelona with the idea of adding a more direct edge to their play but has reverted to a Guardiola style of play with plenty of passes between midfielders, Messi in a false nine position and expressive full backs.
Real Madrid, now a much more settled club under the guidance of Carlo Ancelotti, dismiss the importance of the possession Barcelona pride themselves on. Ancelotti has also released the shackles put on several players by Jose Mourinho. With Modric and Alonso deep, Real aim to get the ball into the dangerous third of the pitch quickly.
Gareth Bale, Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo typify the Madrid team as athletic, pacey attackers who like to shoot and cross as early as possible.
Atletico manager Diego Simeone had a reputation as a determined battler throughout his playing career and that personality shines through in his young challengers. Atletico are defensively astute as a team, killing spaces for opponents to work in in super quick time, leaving even the best in the world frustrated.
There are no passengers in the side defensively and this perhaps stifles their creativity as shown by their 59 goals this season compared to Real’s 71.
The Red and Whites often rely on their defence to maintain a clean sheet and then the creative talents of Koke, Arda Turan and Diego Costa to grab a goal to earn them the victory.
On and off the pitch
Football in Spain is much more political than we may be used to in England. The 3 clubs have a profound hatred of each other. The ‘Clasico’ rivalry as we know it dates back to the early days of General Franco’s reign over Spain. Atletico, whose Vicente Calderon stadium is situated in the poorer area of Madrid, hold a similar grudge against Real Madrid who were viewed, a little harshly, as the ‘General’s club’ due to their unprecedented success in the 1960s.
As has been widely reported, the Neymar transfer led to the resignation of Barcelona President Sandro Rosell after the club were forced to pay a large fine for tax fraud during the signing of the Brazilian.
Florentino Perez at Real Madrid is something of an enigma. His love for splashing the cash is bettered only by his love of dismissing managers. As Madridistas finally start to come round to the fact their hero Iker Casillas is no longer automatic first choice, Ancelotti must keep Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos happy to maintain fans’ happiness which is a crucial factor in the hiring and firing of managers.
Atletico are currently going ahead with plans to move to a new 60,000 seater stadium. Just as they challenge the big two all their money may suddenly have to be dedicated to this new stadium.
The big three still have big league games left against each other as well as a Clasico Copa Del Rey final. Surely these are worth a watch, especially when you consider the 18th May is the final day of the season.
Ones to watch:
• 23rd March – Real Madrid vs Barcelona
• 18th May – Barcelona vs Atletico
What do you think? What team will come out on top in the La Liga title race? Have your say in the comments section below.
Image: Google – Paul Hanna