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With Barcelona in disarray, Real Madrid faltering, La Liga is Atletico Madrid’s for the taking


When Andreas Ekberg blew the whistle to signal the end of Spain‘s match with Germany last week, a few seconds after Mikel Oyarzabal made it 6-0 to La Roja and inflicted Die Mannschaft‘s all-time record competitive defeat, a cyclone ended. But a tornado began.

Any footballer who limped back to his club jubilantly imagining that the end of the torrid international season for the next four months meant any kind of respite was in for a horrible shock. From now until the Copa del Rey takes full flight in January, La Liga’s biggest clubs, those competing in Europe, have only a couple of occasions when they aren’t playing a match every three days. We are squeezing the living daylights out of our footballers.

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The Christmas-New Year break, which 10 years ago was a full fortnight of rest and recuperation, now doesn’t exist at all. Just stop and think of that. Elite players must feel like little more than commodities being shunted from pillar to post without thought for their well-being so that we can be entertained and their industry can make money. They will be dizzy, dismayed and desperate not to be picked for their club’s Copa del Rey matches.

If only football’s authorities, club owners, broadcasters and sponsors would get together and admit that they’re treating the golden goose as if it were a battery hen. If only they could instead try to safeguard the mental and physical health of those we idolise and who make our lives better because they can see and do things on a football pitch that we’d like to be able to do but can’t. It’s not going to happen any time soon.

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Therefore: cue the moment to try and work out, from what we’ve seen so far, who might emerge positively from the other side.

Atletico Madrid have shown enough so far to suggest that if they’re not Spanish champions by the time they play Valladolid in late May then they’ve screwed up badly. Either that, or Jan Oblak will have left in the winter market (not happening) or got injured (please let that not happen).

Atleti have such a rounded squad, such experience, hunger and talent, plus they’ve stayed the course recently enough, in 2013-14. Given the obstacles facing their most traditional rivals, Barcelona and Real Madrid, this is a massive opportunity.

Saturday was an example. During the summer they bought Luis Suarez to add ferocity, winning goals and leadership. They added Lucas Torreira so that they might finally find someone to bring some of the street-smart, ‘I’m going to make your match hell-on-earth’ feistiness which they’ve never really replaced since Gabi left. Also, of late, Hector Herrera has been adding some nice frills and filigrees to Atleti’s midfield creativity not to mention his powerful, rangy running into dangerous creative areas.

Not one of those three even made it into Atleti’s 22-man squad to face Barcelona. Yet Los Colchoneros nevertheless achieved something which had escaped them for nine long years: defeating Barcelona in La Liga for the first time since the coach Diego Simeone took over. To achieve that without Suarez, Torreira and Herrera was one thing — but to do it in such style was a statement.

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Within the first five minutes, Atleti had produced a long, multi-player passing move — starting with a press to make Barcelona waste possession, zipping along through wonderful movement of the ball which would have fitted right into the Pep Guardiola style-book, one end of the pitch to the other and finishing with a ferocious Saul volley which Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved beautifully.

This was the transition from percentage ‘get one goal and win’ football which has stigmatised Simeone’s reign to the joie de vivre of a team with Joao Felix, Koke, Saul Niguez, Kieran Trippier, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Marcos Llorente, Yannick Carrasco and Angel Correa can exude.

Correa’s wit and vision when he fell into possession of the ball after Gerard Pique‘s horrible failure to control it halfway up the pitch was splendid. The little Argentine took a split second to transform into the world’s smallest quarterback, took a backwards step in order to create room for a pass so glorious that Ter Stegen didn’t know whether to race back to his goal or attempt an all-or-nothing tackle. And Carrasco’s most delicate of flicks to nutmeg the on-rushing German AND stay too far away from Ter Stegen for the Barca keeper to decide to collide with him — that was just pure magic.

Finally, for Atleti to run Barcelona into the ground, tiring them out so that long before the end the 1-0 win, their first clean sheet in La Liga against the Catalans since Simeone took over in 2011, looked totally assured — well, that put the old ‘Atleti’ stamp on a performance which, otherwise, was full of panache.

Their hunger is high, their squad is bursting with talent, they have one of the greatest midfield rosters in world football and it’s their time. Atleti to win the title or regret it forever.

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Sid Lowe examines the possibility Barca fail to finish top four in La Liga amid their worst start since 1991.

As for Barcelona their task now looks like ensuring they don’t finish outside the Champions League positions for the first time in 18 years. I’m not joking.

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It might sound foolhardy to state that they have zero chance of winning this title race, even one as open as it promises to be, but that’s what the evidence suggests. Because Barcelona’s quality and intensity have been diminishing yearly, just gradually leaking away, they reached a stage last season when they were paper thin and lambs to Bayern Munich‘s slaughter, losing 8-2 in the semifinals of the Champions League.

That meant that the freshness of new coach Ronald Koeman’s training regime, the impetus of cool young footballers like Ansu Fati, Pedri, Francisco Trincao, Sergino Dest and the threat of a Ousmane Dembele renaissance all lent Barca a hint of credibility. That was hugely increased by the ease with which they beat Juventus in Turin for the first time ever. But it’s a veneer.

Lionel Messi isn’t enjoying himself, Antoine Griezmann‘s confidence desperately needs the medicine of hitting the back of the net, Philippe Coutinho left the ‘new’ Coutinho back at Bayern, Jordi Alba isn’t the athlete he once was and Sergio Busquets‘ brain now works far more quickly and powerfully than his legs and lungs.

The club has no board, the presidential elections in January threaten to bring disruption, the financial situation is parlous and, frankly, if Koeman can last the season and leave Xavi to inherit a Champions League campaign then he’ll have done well enough.

There’s no reason to think that Barcelona can’t muster the odd win against a top team and it’s true that, in the future, fans may think back nostalgically to the season in which Ansu flowered, Dest, Pedri and Trincao made their debuts and Ronald Araujo became regarded as a long-term centre-half solution. But it’s going to be a long, hard winter.

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Gab Marcotti outlines Ronald Koeman’s options with Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto out for a couple months.

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Real Sociedad are a joy to watch. That’s what we’ve discovered so far. From the ashes of last season’s post-lockdown meltdown has risen a phoenix of startling plumage. And as terrific as David Silva has been since the brilliant smash-and-grab raid La Real mounted to stop him joining Lazio, it’s not all down to the 34-year-old magician by any means.

This is an exemplary club right now. I interviewed Xabi Alonso last week, who’s now coach of La Real‘s B team, and his excitement at the calibre of home-grown player populating the entire Zubieta training ground (youth, B team and first team) was palpable. This hard-bitten warrior of Real Madrid, Liverpool and Bayern genuinely thinks that he’s involved in something special.

In Imanol Aguacil, they’re coached by a guy who’d wear an undershirt of nettles and walk shoeless to work every day if he thought it would win La Real just a single extra point every season.

This is a squad which lives, eats and breathes ‘Txuri-urdin‘ (blue-and-white) sentiment. Led by their ‘Big Foot’ captain, Mikel Oyarzabal who’s celebrating his fifth anniversary as a first-team player at the age of 23, La Real are a band of brothers. Albeit, led by someone who takes a size 13 boot, hence the affectionate nickname. There’s a huge clutch of these ‘hermanos‘ in the squad who are between 18 and 24, bristling with energy, ambition and a proper love for the badge either from being born locally or educated for several years in their Zubieta academy. It’s a northern version of when Victor Valdes, Pique, Carles Puyol, Alba, Busquets, Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Pedro ruled the Camp Nou.

Please note: with four goals conceded in 10 league matches, their goals-against record is better than any super-club in Europe’s top five leagues. Better, yes, than Bayern, Juve, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Paris Saint-Germain. That’s damn impressive.

That this league-leading team is also so fun to watch, that the atmosphere at La Real is bringing the best football in the careers of Portu, Adnan Januzaj, Alexander Isak, Willian Jose, Aritz Elustondo, Mikel Merino, Alex Remiro, Ander Guevara and Igor Zubeldia all at the same time — well, Real Sociedad are a blessing in this winter packed full of challenges and difficulties. Long may it last.

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The title? Perhaps not — but winning the delayed 2020 Copa del Rey final in April in a Basque ‘Derbi‘ against Athletic Bilbao? Winning the Europa League? Neither is out of the question.

Some employees at Valencia must be looking north and thinking ‘if only!’ They, too, are in the midst of a remarkable harvest.

Even though they sold the thrilling Ferran Torres to Manchester City because he refused to renew his contract this is an era when Yunus Musah, Kang-in Lee, Hugo Guillamon, Jose Gaya, Maxi Gomez, Thierry Correia, Carlos Soler, Toni Lato, Goncalo Guedes, Alex Blanco, Vicente Esquerdo, Uros Racic and Manu Vallejo are all breaking through or consolidating their first-team importance at the same time. An extraordinary talent vault, and not one of them over 25. Most of them nearer 20.

But the institutional solidity, unity of purpose and long term footballing strategy which La Real possess, and which shimmers in its consistency, is something that Valencia, right now, can only dream of and, thus, their real objective is to somehow lever themselves into the most competitive top four Spain has seen for many years.

Villarreal are equipped to edge them out of that coveted, lucrative spot. When Unai Emery learns how to trust having Paco Alcacer, Gerard Moreno, Take Kubo and Samu Chukweze on the pitch at the same time, from the start more often — especially when Pervis Estupinan, Dani Parejo, Vicente Iborra, Pau Torres and Sergio Asenjo are all in the same starting XI — the Yellow Submarine will be a match for just about anyone in Europe. Their trouble is that their coach remains tentative, valuing ‘not losing’ ahead of ‘must win’ at this early stage of his project.

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They could, too, do with two or three top quality defensive additions, unless Juan Foyth can become one of those. This won’t be a title season for Villarreal – but why can’t they dream of the Champions League? I know their president does. Watch out with your overly-cautious approach, Unai. It could trip you up.

Sevilla patently found it hard to cope with the hangover of winning the Europa League, kissing goodbye to Ever Banega, not signing a prolific goal scorer and with the demands of a tough Champions League group.

It’s also ridiculous how much easier Sevilla are to defeat if a guy who’s only just turned 22, Jules Kounde, isn’t in the team — the Frenchman has suffered just five defeats in his 48 matches since joining. Of the 12 La Liga matches where Kounde hasn’t featured at all since he joined Sevilla have been beaten six times. Extraordinary.

That said, if the Europa League holders were to win their two games in hand they’d be third in La Liga right now. More, there’s a character and depth to Julen Lopetegui’s side and he’s loving coaching them. They’re hard to play against, ingenious, inventive, never say die and IF they can find one player, be that Munir El Haddadi, Lucas Ocampos, Luuk de Jong or Youssef En-Nesyri to score freely then by spring they can still be in the race to the tape. I don’t think it falls to Sevilla to be kings of Spain this season — for that they’d need a top quality centre forward. But king-makers? Yes. Some of the leading candidates will fall to Sevilla, no question. And if they’re not in the top four come May I’ll be surprised.

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Janusz Michallik says Real Madrid showed character without their stars in a 1-1 draw vs. Villarreal.

That leaves Real Madrid. A plague of injuries, deep misfortune with the timing and impact of Covid infections, a midfield which isn’t anywhere near as ‘hustle-hassle’ as it was last season, meaning that coach Zinedine Zidane’s side is easier to play against, easier to score against — all that plus Karim Benzema in a huff with Vinicius Jr. because the French prince can’t deal with the young pretender’s profile, individuality and idiosyncrasy. It’s been a bumpy beginning to La Liga for our reigning champions.

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To end the brutal record of only having defended the Spanish league title once in 30 years, this needs to be Los Blancos‘ season. And I think it’s self-evident that if Zidane could have this XI on the pitch in a 4-2-3-1 formation most weeks then this would be Madrid’s title to throw away: Thibaut Courtois; Dani Carvajal, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, Ferland Mendy; Casemiro, Luka Modric/Toni Kroos; Vinicius, Eden Hazard, Federico Valverde; Benzema. But that kind of selection heaven is not going to be the case.

It already looks as if the hunger, the all-pitch pressing, the blue-collar work which, to a man, they were willing to put in last season has dropped a level or two. Enough sweating, some of them want to swagger.

But, beware. This, for the first time in absolute ages, will be a campaign in La Liga for the stubborn, the aggressive, the stayers, the fighters, the team with a teak-tough mentality which refuses to be battered off course by adversity, injury, divisions within the dressing room, illness, tiredness or the demands of a horrible calendar. I don’t know… a team, for example, with Luis Suarez, Oblak, Koke, Saul, Diego Costa, Torreira, Carrasco, Correa and led by Simeone… you get my drift.

Destiny is calling you, Atletico. I swear I can hear it.



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