There’s been a shift in the balance of power in Spanish soccer over the past two or three seasons. While once upon a time, Barcelona reigned supreme in Spain; we head into the new La Liga season this weekend with Real Madrid already looking like overwhelming favorites.
The Whites are reining La Liga champions, European champions and just pasted Barça by a 5-1 aggregate score over two legs of the Spanish Super Cup. That last loss in particular seems to have cut the deepest, with Barça defender Gerard Pique admitting that he felt “inferior” to Madrid for the first time in his nine years wearing the Blaugrana jersey.
In the nine years Pique has been at Barça, the club has won three European cups, five Copa del Reys and six La Liga titles. In the first four of those nine years, Pique played under Pep Guardiola who revitalized the club and won an astonishing 14 of the 19 trophies the club competed for in his tenure.
Luis Enrique took over after a lean season under Tata Martino and guided the club to a treble and a double in his first two seasons. Last season however, Barça won only the Copa del Rey. Enrique is gone now and the club’s new manager, former Athletic Bilbao boss, Ernesto Valverde has inherited a side that’s in truth been on a downward slope for several seasons now.
Midfield maestro Xavi Hernandez is gone – to Qatari club Al Sadd – Andres Iniesta is injury-prone and no longer the player he was. Barça survived for several years without its midfield metronome, thanks to the attacking prowess of its deadly attacking trio of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.
But with Neymar now a Paris Saint-Germain player and Suarez out for a month with a knee problem, Messi will be the only truly world-class attacker available for selection for the season opener against Real Betis on Sunday.
Thus far the club has failed in its efforts to secure a replacement for Neymar, whether it be Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho or Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembele. Whether Valverde is truly the man to restore Barça’s dominance, or whether he’ll have anything like a team capable of rising to the occasion, remains to be seen.
Real Madrid in Ascendency
Having just won their third European title in four years and second La Liga in five, Real Madrid are the dominant force not just in Spanish, but also in European football at the moment. Since taking charge at the White House in January 2016, manager Zinedine Zidane has guided the club to seven trophies.
Heading into just his second full season in charge, Zidane is the only manager ever to have won back-to-back Champions League titles. Unlike Valverde’s, Zidane’s attacking “BBC” trio of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, remains very much intact, although Ronaldo will be suspended until September for shoving a ref in the first stage of the Super Cup.
But as Zidane’s team demonstrated in the second leg of the Cup, a 2-0 win over Barça, Madrid is capable of coping without Ronaldo. Although with the departures of James Rodriguez (Bayern) and Alvaro Morata (Chelsea), Madrid don’t have quite the depth they had last season. Should one of the BBC be sidelined by injury, or another suspension, it could present a problem with Borja Mayoral the only other recognized forward in the squad.
And then there’s Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. Atleti bucked the trend a few seasons ago, stealing the 2014 La Liga title out from under Real and Barça’s nose. The Colchoneros have enjoyed mixed fortunes since then, making it to two Champions League finals (and losing both to Real Madrid), and coming within three points of the title in 2016.
There’s been a fair amount of player turnover at Atleti since the 2014 title. The spine of the team – defenders Diego Godin, Juanfran, and Filipe Luis, midfielders Koke, Yannick Carrasco and Gabi – remain in place, although several are edging towards their mid-30s.
Attacker Antoine Griezmann is perhaps the only truly world-class player in his prime on Atleti’s books. Despite strong interest from any number of clubs, the Frenchman has pledged his loyalty to Atletico for at least another season.
While Atletico look a depleted force from the team that won the title a few seasons back, as long as Simeone remains in charge, the “Mattress Makers” will remain a factor in Spanish football. Whether that factor will manifest as another challenge to the Real-Barça hegemony is another question.
Watch FC Barcelona vs. Real Betis on Sunday, August 20 at 2:00 p.m. EST on beIN Sports.
You can watch Deportivo La Coruna vs. Real Madrid later that day at 3:10 p.m. EST, also on be INSports.