When anyone mentions La Liga, the top soccer division in Spain, in the United States, the most popular notion which comes to mind is the FC Barcelona-Real Madrid dichotomy which has ruled the country and succeeded in European play for decades. The last team other than these two to win La Liga was a Mista-led Valencia squad in 2003-’04, a season in which Barcelona finished second and Real Madrid finished fourth. Incredibly, Madrid (32) and Barcelona (22) have accounted for 54 out of a possible 81 La Liga championships since the inception of the league in 1929, and the two best players in the world, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Christiano Ronaldo, keep these teams at the vanguard of Spanish football thought. This season may just end the decade-long reign of those two clubs, however, as a powerful team has emerged just south of Real’s Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid.
For years, Spanish football has gotten a bad rap as an exclusively two-horse race, with two of the biggest clubs in the world exchanging (and dropping) trophies both domestic and European. The Ballon d’Or, FIFA’s award for the best player in any given year, has turned into an annual occasion on which to compare the per 90 minutes statistics and “team impact” quotients of Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo, with the occasional nod to Xavi, Iniesta or Neymar thrown in for good measure. Indeed, the last person not named Messi or Ronaldo to win the Ballon d’Or was Kaká at AC Milan in 2007, and he has since been in and out of La Liga, returning to Milan after never quite fitting in with Jose Mourinho’s Blancos. In the last nine years alone, Barcelona has captured nine league titles to Real Madrid’s three, with only one team, Villareal in 2007-’08, managing to supplant either giant in the top two.
This year was expected to be another battle for supremacy featuring the heavyweights, with every other club serving only as disruptive foils and under bills. Neymar completed a reportedly €57 million transfer to Barcelona, taking some of the impossible scoring weight off of Messi, while Madrid broke its own transfer fee record in the acquisition of Gareth Bale, reportedly anywhere from €91-100 million. The rich would stay the rich, and all the other teams could only hope to gather scraps from the La Liga table in the form of UEFA Cup berths and Copa del Rey runs. The only way everyone else was going to factor into this season, it seemed, would be for a club to defeat either Barcelona or Real Madrid on a day in which the other won, putting the losing club at a disadvantage and giving the smaller club a nice headline to take home.
One team, however, wasn’t buying into it. Real Madrid’s neighbor and rival, Club Atlético de Madrid, had other ideas, and its execution through 32 games has led it to the top of the La Liga table, one point ahead of Barcelona and six ahead of Real Madrid, though Madrid has a game in hand. Atlético has received outstanding goalkeeping from Belgium’s Thibault Courteois, who has been the main reason why his team leads the league in goals allowed, at 22, and clean sheets, with 17. Its leading goal scorer, the 25-year-old Brazilian Diego Costa, is having the season of a lifetime, matching Lionel Messi’s 25 goals for second in the league (it is happening, fortuitously, just in time for his country to host the World Cup this summer). Former Barcelona striker, and Spanish national, David Villa is contributing as well, adding a cool 13 goals on the year.
Atlético is also currently involved in a Champions League quarter-final tie with Barcelona, the first leg of which resulted in a Diego Costa hamstring injury which may keep him out of the lineup for a stretch. For Atlético to keep it close at the Camp Nou forces Barcelona into the compromising position of trying to win an away game in the Estadio Vicente Calderón, which is a challenging prospect even without Costa. The reverse fixture on April 9th should feature a hungry Atlético facing a rattled Barcelona, who has possibly settled into a dangerous spell of complacency. Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino did say after the game, “After [Atlético’s] goal you saw the best of Barcelona,” perhaps implying that Diego’s marvelous strike lit a fire under the Blaugranas.
“Playing with a chip on its shoulder” does not do justice to how Atlético is treating this season. Manager Diego Simeone has carried his freewheeling playing style to the bench, allowing for a counterattacking creativity which tiki-taka, possession-heavy clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid do not typically display. The defense has been staunch, the goals have come in waves and the midfield, with Raúl García and Koke leading the charge, has impressed. The team, naturally, has the third-leading goal differential in La Liga, but, as the idiom goes, defense wins championships, and no Spanish club has a better one on paper than Atlético.
With matches against cellar-dwellers Getafe and Leche upcoming, as well as entirely winnable games against Valencia, Levante and Malaga, all of this seems to be building toward a May 18th date with destiny at the Camp Nou. Barring a crucial misstep by either Barcelona or Atlético, or a not-out-of-the-question late-season run from Real, that final game of the season will determine the La Liga champion. Diego Costa should be back in the lineup and back in form by then, and a knee injury to Victor Valdes, Barcelona’s first-choice keeper, means his backup, Pinto, will likely be starting in goal on that Sunday. Particularly if Atlético can best Barcelona in European play, Los Rojiblancos may just find themselves in an unfamiliar position, that of the favorite. On that Sunday, the Spanish sun could set on the other side of Madrid.