FEATURE | Can Real Madrid or Barcelona reclaim the La Liga title from a strong Atlético Madrid?

The 2020/21 La Liga season was won by a team other than Barcelona or Real Madrid for the first time since 2014 as Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid side lifted the title ahead of local rivals Real. The last team to do so just so happened to be another Simeone lead side.

Since the 2014/15 season, Barcelona have topped the league four times with Real doing so twice. Barça have also been the only team to be able to win back to back titles since Real Madrid achieved the feat in 2008. So what are the odds that Atleti will be able to win a twelfth league title this season?

As mentioned above, Barcelona are the only side to be able to win back to back titles in the past 13 years, achieving this feat on five occasions. Real’s last successive title triumphs was over 30 years ago when Los Blancos won five league titles in a row from 1985/86 to 1989/90. Atlético Madrid have done it just twice, from 1939/40 to 1940/41 and then again in the 1949/50 and 1950/51 seasons.

The current favourites to win La Liga outright this season are Real Madrid, who opened their campaign with a 4-1 win over Alavés to end the first game week on top of the table. It’s likely that, as was the case last time out, the two Madrid teams will be pushing each other right until the very end.

Real Madrid’s title credentials

The 34-time winners came to within just two points of eventual league winners Atlético, who originally looked to be the runaway winners but started dropping points as the season progressed. Zinedine Zidane’s side at the time overcame a 10-point gap, with Atlético having a game in hand to bring us all into a final day of the season battle in which a win could have seen the Santiago Bernabéu outfit leapfrog their rivals into first place.

Along with the return of Carlo Ancelotti, the Chamartín outfit have only brought in one player in this transfer window, with Austria international David Alaba joining from Bayern Munich. Alaba has 10 Bundesliga titles, six DFB Pokals, five DFL Supercups and two Champions League to his name and will be keen to add to his impressive collection in the Spanish Capital. Despite the big-name addition, Real are arguably weaker now than at the start of the window with both Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane departing the club.

The season opener against Alavés saw a back four of Alaba, Nacho, Éder Militão and Lucas Vázquez playing in front of Thibaut Courtois. Up top was the ever-present Karim Benzema with Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale to each side. A devastating attack on its day with the potential to sweep aside any team as long as Hazard and Bale are able to find and maintain their form.

Off the pitch, the club are still battling on various legal fronts. The year brought the potentially most unpopular sporting announcement of the decade as the big three Spanish clubs joined various European giants to launch their own European Super League, which was headed up by Real president Florentino Pérez. The backlash saw all but Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus dropping out, resulting in them threatening legal action.

In recent weeks and more closer to home, a legal challenge against La Liga themselves is also in progress as the sale of 10% of the league for the next fifty years came without the permission of Real Madrid, which has resulted in them suing the league. Whether or not this will affect the on-the-pitch happenings is yet to be seen but divided attention and big-name departures could see title number 35 harder to come by.

Barcelona’s title credentials

Whilst there is no doubt that the Catalan side are always in with a shout to top the table, one would be excused for doubting them this season. Club President Joan Laporta recently revealed that the club’s debt has risen to €1.35 billion, a key factor in Barça’s financially troubled summer.

The signings of Sergio Agüero, Memphis Depay, Eric García and Rey Manaj were thrown into doubt with the league’s salary rules meaning that Barcelona were unable to register any of them. A substantial reduction to the salary of Gerard Piqué has meant that, along with the departure of Leonel Messi, Depay, García and Manaj have all been able to register with the league and therefore play. It is still unknown as to whether or not Agüero will appear for the Blaugrana after attempting to cancel his contract citing broken promises.

The biggest hinderance to their title challenge is, of course, the departure of La Liga’s top scorer for the past five seasons, and seven of the past 10, Leo Messi. Due to La Liga rules, Barcelona were left with no way of renewing the Argentine’s contract with a salary cut of 50 percent the lowest the club could go. A signed contract was rejected by the league and all parties had no choice but to bring the time of arguably the world’s greatest player at Camp Nou to an end.

Barça kicked off their season with a 4-2 win over Real Sociedad to find themselves third in the table. Up next is a trip to Athletic Club and they will meet last season’s champions on October 3. The first El Clásico will be at home on the 24th of the same month.

Atlético Madrid’s title credentials

With no big-name departures and the arrival of Rodrigo de Paul from Udinese and Marcos Paulo from Fluminese, it’s fair to say that Los Colchoneros could be the only one of Spain’s big three to be ending the transfer window with a stronger team than last season.

With the ever-improving João Félix, the clinical Luis Suárez leading the line and Marcos Llorente, Saúl, Koke and Trippier all remaining at the club, the core of the title winning side remains to retain the trophy. Credit must be given to Diego Simeone for being able to keep Saúl and Trippier at the club despite interest from the Premier League, at the time of writing, and ensuring the likelihood of future success.

The Wanda Metropolitano outfit have also signed key players José María Giménez, Stefan Savic and Marcos Llorente to new long-term deals, almost guaranteeing a healthy couple of years ahead on the field.

With the weakening of their closest rivals, one can be sure to count on Atlético to challenge for the top spot yet again, building on their consistent record of finishing in the top three seven seasons in a row and yet again upsetting the apple cart of the La Liga giants.

A shock title charge could of course come from elsewhere, with last season’s fourth-placed side Sevilla strengthening over the summer. Julen Lopetegui’s men fell just short on the domestic front last season and will be aiming for a higher finish this season. Of course, at the moment it is still very early days, with clubs still unsure of their starting elevens for 2021/22 but one thing is for sure, we are in for another intriguing title race in Spain.

Ben Nichols

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