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Is the La Liga title race already over?

Monday 1st January 2018

Manchester City is 14 points beyond Chelsea in the Premier League as the New Year turns. Bayern Munich is 11 points up on Schalke in the Bundesliga. A resurgent Paris Saint-Germain, with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe in the squad, lead Monaco and Lyon by nine. Somehow lost in all the excitement, Barcelona is also nine points clear in La Liga. Perhaps more important, Real Madrid is 14 back. The Spanish Primera Division's title race may well be over before the season has reached the halfway mark. 

Barca is in superb form. It is unbeaten in all competitions. Star man Lionel Messi is scoring goals for fun. Neymar's departure has seemingly lifted a weight from the Argentine's shoulders. Former Athletic Bilbao boss Ernesto Valverde has restored a balance between defence and attack. Even more shocking, ponderous ex-Tottenham midfielder Paulinho has awoken to his true potential after a brief exile in China.

Other than Atletico Madrid, no club seems capable of stopping Barcelona from capturing the league title this season. The Rojiblancos have held Real Madrid goalless and the Blaugrana to a single goal in draws against the two. They also finished on level terms with third-place Valencia at the Mestalla. Only a shock defeat to Espanyol before the winter break blemishes its loss column in La Liga.

Valencia began the season in sublime form under new head coach, Marcelino Garcia Toral. Los Che are slipping away from the title race, however, with a single win and four points in their last five games. The Bats have failed to mount any real title challenge in recent times. Financial troubles found them in relegation waters under Pako Ayestaran. They ended last season in 13th position. It is difficult to believe the early start under Garcia Toral is sustainable.

Real Madrid's situation was placed in an uncompromising light after the Clasico defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu. There is still time for Zinedine Zidane's team to get off the canvas, but that was a knockout punch, if there's ever been.

Real Madrid and Atleti have been the only real opposition to Barcelona in the title race in recent seasons. Barcelona has dominated the Spanish game, winning the title in six out of the last nine seasons. Diego Simeone stole one for Los Colchoneros in 2013/2014, ironically sewing it up at the Camp Nou in a one-goal draw. Real won its first title in five years last season.

Neither looks in sufficiently good shape to mount a challenge in 2018. Before its loss to the 'other' team in the Catalan capital, Atleti had also been eliminated from the Champions League. In the glass half-full department, Diego Costa's return might provide the emotional and scoring boost needed. However, it's a big ask for a player who hasn't played a minute since May. Nine points is not necessarily an impossible margin for Atletco to overcome. It's just that Barcelona don't look like losing anytime soon. On the other hand, it's on record Real has never claimed the title after falling 14 points behind. The title is Barcelona's to lose.

Only a serious and uncharacteristic capitulation from the Catalan side would bring that about. Valverde's squad must lose three matches for a perfect Atleti to draw even, five for Real. Last season, they lost only four while finishing second. In its 2014-15 and 2015-16 title seasons, Barca were defeated four and five times respectively. Results to date suggest that many losses are unlikely in a half-season.

If anything, both Madrid clubs are in for a serious fight to retain their top four places. Valencia, Sevilla, and even Villarreal appear ready to stake claims. As inexplicable as it seems, recruiting a manager from the Basque region and a defensive midfielder from the Chinese Super League has put Barcelona back where its passionate fans will only too happily tell you they belong: on top.

Emmanuel Odey

Emmanuel is a freelance journalist who lives and breathes the round leather game. He is a contributor on several platforms. You can follow him on Twitter for more.

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