In 2013’s closing feature, El Centrocampista takes a look at how Barcelona, Atletico, and Real Madrid are positioned to battle it out to the finish line
The winter break has arrived in La Liga and has proved that this is the most competitive championship since the 2006-07 season, when Barcelona and Real Madrid fought for the title until the last date of the tournament.
Moreover, this is the first time since 2004 that the league looks to be more than a two-horse race, with Atletico Madrid brilliantly keeping up the pace and fighting for the first spot with Azulgranas and Madridistas.
Odds on La Liga’s winner are the most interesting of the last six Christmas breaks, with Barcelona available at 4/6, Real Madrid 7/4 and Atletico 7/1. At this point any of them have shown enough qualities to earn this year’s crown.
The Catalans are favourites after sealing their best start to La Liga in their history, with eight consecutive wins in the first eight matches. Tata Martino has proved his managerial skills can bring the Azulgranas one step farther, after equaling Los Merengues’ 100 point record last season under Tito Vilanova.
Brazilian pearl Neymar has fulfilled the expectations, perfectly adapting to the team style and becoming the leader when Leo Messi has been absent. Martino has infused the high-pressure tactics throughout the team, which has successfully been used by Pep Guardiola, taking Barcelona’s game to a new level.
However, in the last few games, they have shown a few frailties, largely due to injuries. With Messi and Victor Valdes sidelined, the Azulgranas recorded two consecutive losses, struggling in defense and showing a worrying lack of ambition. Moreover, at 34 years old, Xavi Hernandez fitness may not hold out until the crucial moment of the season, leaving Barca without their key playmaker.
On the other hand, Los Blancos are going through the best moment of the year, showing an impressive state of shape –with the exception of their controversial draw at Osasuna. After a wobbly start to the season, suffering from serious defensive problems, Carlo Ancelotti has been able to find the perfect balance.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have quickly learnt to combine with Gareth Bale, forming a devastating attacking trio that is breaking many scoring records. Luka Modric and Isco’s brilliant performances in the playmaking zone have made the fans speedily forget about Mesut Ozil.
With the Portuguese in his best form since he arrived at Real Madrid –he is La Liga’s and the Champions League’s top scorer– and Xabi Alonso providing the necessary defensive balance, Los Merengues have become favorites again. Various members of the squad have already stated they are determined to win the long-awaited treble this year.
Atletico’s case is the most surprising of all. Despite their spectacular performance since Diego Simeone’s arrival in the hotseat, very few expected they could lead La Liga by December with the same points than Barcelona and have sealed the Champions League group stage with an astonishing five victories and one draw.
The Colchoneros are possibly the most solid team in Europe, defensively speaking. Their courage and spirit of sacrifice make it very difficult for any squad to beat them; in fact, they have only conceded one loss this season, against Espanyol in La Liga, and they beat their city rivals at Santiago Bernabeu.
In Diego Costa they have one of the best strikers in the world and the likes of Koke and Arda Turan in the second forward line have ensured the exit of Radamel Falcao has been perfectly covered. The fans main doubts are whether the team will be able to maintain such a physical style of play in the critical stage of the season, taking in account their bench is much lighter compared to that of Madrid or Barcelona.
In any case, La Liga fans can celebrate that for the first time in recent years La Liga’s interest will not only be focused on the battle for avoiding the relegation. Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are set to finally bring some excitement to the battle for the title.
Alejandro Gonzalez is the co-founder of Real Madrid NewsFollow @icentrocampista