Is La Liga now the world's most competitive division?
I can’t decide whether to write ‘this century’ or ‘this millennium’ when referencing La Liga’s recent dominance in European competition. Both read like a four-year-old saying, “Never in all my life.” Fans tend to view the status quo as written in stone when time, in football terms as in everything else, is fleeting.
For two decades, give or take, Spanish clubs seemed to either be Champions or Europa League winners, if not both, year in and year out. Then, in 2018/19, Premier League clubs monopolised both tournaments. The football gods, it turns out, choose no favourites; they torment everyone equally.
When La Liga was in ascension, English football fans fought a guerilla war, engaging in misdirection and ambushes on the flank. If Spanish football was best, the argument went, the Premier League was easily the world’s most competitive. The debate immediately devolved into just what ‘competitive’ meant, distracting the Spanish side from their original assertion while disarming them of their victories and trophies.
Liverpool and Chelsea’s triumphs in Madrid and Baku signaled the end of the war for some. La Liga was no longer best. Even if it was just one campaign, English football was clearly better. El rey estaba muerto; long live the king.
But before Premier League denizens could drape UEFA’s castle in St George’s crosses, before they could refill their pints and call for another song about football coming home, their gaze was misdirected. They were ambushed on their flanks.
The Premier League suddenly comprises two powerful sides lording it over the rest. In 2018/19, Manchester City edged Liverpool by a single point to retain their title. The next nearest club, Chelsea, finished 28 points off the pace. This term, the Reds maintain a six-point lead over the Sky Blues while Chelsea and Leicester linger two points behind Pep Guardiola’s side, competing for the right to be called England’s Atletico Madrid. There is then a six-point drop-off to the pack chasing the quartet in the Champions League places. No one is suggesting the rivalry between Liverpool and City be dubbed ‘The Classic’ but today’s Premier League closely resembles yesterday’s La Liga.
Meanwhile, the Spanish first division is easily the world’s most competitive. After 11 rounds, three clubs stand level on 22 points. Barcelona edges Real Madrid and Real Sociedad on goal difference but all have scored at least 20 times. Atletico Madrid and Sevilla nip at the trio’s heels, just one point behind. This year’s surprise, Granada, are only two back and last year’s, Getafe, three.
If Villarreal could defend, they’d be much higher than eighth. Only Barcelona, with 29, eclipse their 25 goals. Real Madrid limp in third-best on 21. The problem is Javier Calleja’s squad either score in bunches, as evidenced by 4-1, 5-1 and 3-0 victories over Deportivo Alaves, Real Betis and Leganes respectively, or not enough, as in their 0-0 draw with Athletic Bilbao and 2-1 setbacks to Eibar, Osasuna, Barca and Levante. Another goal in three of those defeats [we’ll give them a pass for coming up short at the Nou Camp] would put them in fourth.
Osasuna’s six draws hold them level with the Yellow Submarine. Four more sides, Athletic, Levante, Vallodolid and Valencia lie a point below on 17. In all, 13 teams either occupy or sit within four points of the Champions League places.
Premier League fans may dismiss all that by saying the top sides will gather momentum, distancing themselves from the pretenders in the second half. Maybe. But there are no guarantees. If that lot could see into the future, they’d have told their La Liga rivals to wait until 2019/20 in the first place, rather than concocting creative arguments about who is more competitive.