Are we witnessing the dawn of La Liga's Big Six?
Your basic Premier League tribalist's default counterargument to Spain’s UEFA dominance is the English top flight’s competitive depth.
To their minds, that rebuffs Real Madrid and Barcelona winning seven from the last ten Champions Leagues and Atletico Madrid appearing in two finals. Spanish clubs winning nine of 20 slots available in the final over the past decade fails to impress. It’s enough the Premier League took four.
The important thing for those backing the regal lion with one paw on a football is just two Spanish clubs claimed all that glory. Every season, they’ll remind you, six English clubs fight for Champions League places. All hold the potential to go deep into the knockout rounds. Hush, now. Don’t mention Sevilla’s last visit to Old Trafford. Or Valencia's.
In the Europa League, glory has been harder to come by for La Liga. Just six titles came their way in the same period. Atleti and Sevilla each won three, a severe dropoff proving the Primera Division’s lack of depth.
Athletic Bilbao also managed a final appearance, falling to Los Colchoneros in 2012. English teams again made four appearances, winning two despite the Premier League’s notorious reluctance to reschedule matches, thus smoothing a contenders’ path to glory. The difficult question for Premier League backers is whether to add that Liverpool also made a final [where they capitulated to a Spanish side]?
Every season, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid vie for la Coruna de La Liga, at the same time qualifying for the Champions League with ease. The RM/Barca duopoly people like to ridicule has been a three-headed beast for some time.
Clubs like Valencia, Sevilla, Malaga and Villarreal rotate through the fourth berth. Each also battled against relegation this decade. Malaga now compete in la Segunda Division. Thus the perception a wide gap exists between Spain’s top three and their rivals.
Perception faces the test early this campaign.
Whereas Barcelona and Atletico each journeyed well beyond the new year without suffering defeat in 2017/18, with Madrid eventually falling in behind, both suffered defeat early in 2018/19.
Despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure, Real hasn’t struggled to start this season. Karim Benzema stepped up with five goals in nine appearances between the Liga, Champions League and UEFA Supercup. Gareth Bale added four and three assists in eight.
That said, Los Blancos wasted an opportunity to leap atop the table at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan last midweek. Sevilla humbled them 3-0 on three first-half goals Wednesday evening. Andre Silva’s brace preceded a strike from Wissam ben Yedder. Julen Lopetegui’s side went goalless for a second game on the weekend, drawing Atleti at the Santiago Bernabeu. That’s a more understandable result, although it leaves the three-year Champions League holders with one point from six this week.
With the opportunity to open a gap in the table, Barcelona took a turn, frittering away a chance to affirm their superiority. The Cules were held at the Nou Camp by Athletic Bilbao.
Consequently, seven teams remain within a single result of first place with seven rounds played. Another four linger within five points.
La Liga’s “Big Six” heading into the weekend doesn’t include Villarreal or Valencia.
The Yellow Submarine sit 12th, six points off the pace following their Sunday loss to Valladolid. Javier Calleja’s squad played lethargic football, failing to convert a VAR-gifted penalty to rescue a draw.
Los Che were mired far deeper in the bottom half. Five draws and a defeat to open the campaign put Marcelino on the hot seat and the club too near the relegation places. Finally, a win at the Anoeta against hosts Real Sociedad put the Bats’ sonar back on track. They’re 14th but expect them to climb into the top half before the holidays.
Alaves and Espanyol warmed their places in the new Seis Grandes.
Newly promoted Alaves take it a step further. On Thursday, they faced Getafe with the chance to join Real Madrid and Barcelona on 13 points. The visiting Azulones held the Babazorros to a one-goal draw. With Real and Atleti playing to a standstill in the Madrid Derby and Barca disinterested, a second chance at a share of the lead arrived Sunday with a trip to La Ciutat de Valencia to face Levante. Again, Abelardo’s squad came up short, losing 2-1. Two failed chances in succession suggest the Basque club's ready to fall off the pace. Wins from Real Betis and Celta Vigo only dropped them to sixth, however.
Celta, Valladolid, Betis, Getafe and Girona all crouched in the weeds, ready to pounce. Of the quintet, Celta show the heart but Los Beticos boast the most quality. Their lineup revolves around midfield duo Sergio Canales and Andres Guardado but also includes Paris Saint-Germain starlet Giovani lo Celso, defender Marc Bartra and up-and-coming striker Loren “I’m no” Moron. Portuguese d-mid William Carvalho will join them after recovering from a leg injury. The Celestes counter with Iago Aspas, Pione Sisto and a penchant for giant-killing. Inconsistent defending keep them from pushing higher up the table, but Betis surged to fifth on the weekend. There's no reason to believe they can't stay in that neighbourhood throughout the campaign.
Carvalho’s absence doesn’t explain the early goal drought for the Green and Blacks but the Andalusians rank among the clubs stealing a march from Diego Simeone’s Rojiblancos with their stalwart defence. Villarreal join Simeone’s crew in conceding just four goals on the young season. Betis are next in line with five. In 2017/18, Atleti, Barca and Getafe were the lone clubs to complete the campaign yielding less than a goal per match. Valencia finished dead on the mark. Nine clubs have conceded seven goals or less, this term.
Of course, most still await encounters with Lionel Messi or Real Madrid’s Benzema/Bale duet. Even so, it's too easy to blame a collectively sluggish start to the season from the top three. More equitable distribution of television revenue motivates clubs like Betis and Sevilla to be more daring in the market. Early results hint the balance of power's shifting to reflect their newfound wealth. La Liga may be as competitive as it’s ever been in 2018/19. That doesn’t bode well for the rest of the continent.