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LaLiga find themselves in the rather awkward position of wanting the competition to be internally competitive while at the same time being desperate for the ‘big two’ to remain the giants they are, with Real Madrid and Barcelona being good for business.
President Javier Tebas insists LaLiga is the most competitive league in the world in sporting terms, which he says has been proven by the performances of Spanish sides in Europe over the last 20 or so years.
To his credit, Tebas’ incredibly divisive figure has done Spanish football a lot of good. In general, it is much more financially stable than when it was elected in 2013, and the centralized sale of television broadcasting rights has leveled the playing field a bit more.
Fair or not, however, many feel there are only two – or in some years three – teams capable of winning the league, showing their lack of competitiveness.
But when a club goes haywire, the financial disparity between Real Madrid and Barcelona and the rest makes the feat of simply challenging all the more impressive.
This time it’s Real Sociedad and they could make a statement on Sunday.
La Real wants to attract the attention of the big boys
The omens are not good.
Real Madrid have lost just one of their last 15 home La Liga games against La Real (W12 U2), with one exception in May 2019.
But this vintage is different.
Until Thursday’s narrow 1-0 Copa del Rey defeat by Barcelona at the Camp Nou, La Real’s nine-game winning streak in all competitions was their best since returning to LaLiga for the 2010/11 season.
In third place going into the weekend, La Real are seven points clear of fourth-placed Atletico Madrid and already looking almost certain for the Champions League.
Losing to Barca in the week was undoubtedly a setback but it was further proof that they are not easy to beat.
The fact that their 38 points from 18 games are just two shy of a club record set in 2002/03 – more on that team later – underscores how impressive they have been in general.
Still, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Imanol Alguacil has overseen this start of the season despite losing Alexander Isak to Newcastle United and substitute Umar Sadiq succumbing to a serious knee injury – from which he has still not recovered – after playing just 82 minutes for his new club.
Well-groomed and intelligent, Martin Zubimendi thrives in defensive midfield; 36-year-old David Silva continues to defy his age as No. 10; Robin Le Normand has emerged as one of the most underrated centre-backs in the league; Brais Mendez has taken his midfield to a new level; and Alexander Sorloth – who failed to score in the Premier League for a year at Crystal Palace and scored just four for La Real last season – is the unlikely talisman at the top.
The great Norwegian has scored eight goals in LaLiga, none of which came from penalties. Only Robert Lewandowski (13) has more, while Sorloth is third in goals not expected in a penalty shootout (xG) with 6.0.
We can’t call it a title challenge just yet. They are still six points behind Barca after playing one more game than the Blaugrana.
But with just over half the season left, La Real find themselves in a position to pounce should Xavi’s side slack off – provided they can maintain their own momentum.
If you win at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday, everyone else will start to take you a little more seriously too.
Two points from immortality
La Real has been here before.
Their flirtation with the title in 2002/03 is probably the finest example of a history so close yet so distant in modern Spanish football.
It also came practically out of nowhere.
Four straight seasons in mid-table had given no indication of what was to come and what followed that campaign made it all seem like a far-fetched dream.
La Real pushed a Madrid side that included Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Roberto Carlos to the top, even beating them 4-2 at Anoeta to revive their campaign after a sobering derby defeat in late 2002 against Athletic Bilbao something followed a stain.
The Basques went into the final three games of the season knowing nine points would secure their rarest title win.
Up to this point, they were up to most challenges. Their small and large forward duo of Darko Kovacevic and Nihat Kahveci plundered goals at will, scoring 43 goals together; Xabi Alonso gave them almost uninterrupted control in midfield; Valery Karpin and Javier de Pedro provided ammunition from the flanks.
But it can’t have come as a shock that a team without a league title since 1982 ended up collapsing. A home draw against Valencia was followed by a loss to Celta Vigo in Galicia, while Madrid beat Atletico Madrid.
La Real’s win over Los Colchoneros on the final day of the season wasn’t enough to keep hopes alive as Madrid comfortably defeated Athletic.
It was a valiant effort to end up winning La Real by two points, but it wasn’t the start of a successful new era. What followed were four seasons of relegation in contention, the last of which eventually claimed them and led to three campaigns in the second division.
The difference this time? stability, consistency. The past six years have essentially confirmed La Real as a top-half team, finishing sixth or higher on four occasions, including in the bottom three each time.
Imanol was responsible for these three and shaped La Real into a highly organised, high-pressing and dynamic side. But their institutional excellence runs deeper, with top-down synergy a key priority, which is why 15 first-team members have risen through the academy or B-Team. Do that 16 if you involve the trainer himself.
In all likelihood, La Real are unlikely to be that close to becoming the first team to upset the established order of the historic ‘big three’ since Valencia in 2004. Barcelona and Real Madrid are still too big for most to really compete. to-toe with over 38 games season regardless of Tebas’ changes.
But with an arguably far more talented squad than they were 20 years ago, La Real are much better equipped to make title challenges at least a regular dream.