Footy Times

Oh, La Liga! Thank you for the century’s best league season

With a four-way battle in Spain, the race for the league title is closer than ever before.

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Modern football certainly owes its fame to the English Football Association. Simply because, until they decided on a set of rules and regulations, the sport we call football resembled rugby. Even handling the ball was an integral part of the game. Imagine that.

Soon the rest of Europe and the planet adopted these rules and the league format they introduced in the late 18th century. Back then, the players were unpaid amateurs until the clubs started charging the fans for entry into the grounds. Since then, professional football hasn’t looked back.

In the past ten years, even though England’s premier competition has had more winners than any other top-five leagues in Europe, is it really that exciting anymore?

The “Excitement” of the Premier League

Premier League Winner 2021
Pep and his team of international stars will look to secure the Premier League trophy this weekend. CC:

Manchester City is looking at a third league title in four years. Pep Guardiola and his new and improved “Tika-Taka” is still dominating the Premier League. Klopp and his high voltage Liverpool team touted as the next big thing after their runaway victory in 2020 has shown an inability to sustain their form or fitness.

Meanwhile, the biggest club in the country hasn’t managed to put up a meaningful fight for the title in the past ten years. Yes, I do mean Manchester United. The Leicester win in the 15/16 season was indeed magical. Yet, the likelihood of a Leicester winning another title is close to none.

While Germany rarely sees a champion other than Bayern and Juventus recently dominating Italy until this year, La Liga has consistently seen Real Madrid or Barcelona win, with the occasional win for Atleti or Valencia.

But, very rarely does a team run away with the title. A two-horse race is nearly guaranteed. Hence, you never know who will win it, often until the end of the season. A blessing, having seen Liverpool and Manchester City shamelessly dominate the planet’s most “exciting” league these two years.

La Liga’s growth this century

La Liga's attraction
At the start of the season, Leo Messi publicly stated he wanted away from the club. But after a tumultuous 10 months, the Argentine looks poised to stay. CC: Eurosport France

In the 90s, while the Premier League was developing into the powerhouse it is today; the club of the 20th century, Real Madrid, hadn’t won in Europe for more than three decades until their victory over Italian giants Juventus in 1998. The Los Blancos followed it up with another triumph two years later.

While they managed to demonstrate their power in Europe, rivals Barcelona won six league titles in the 90s. The Cryuff way dominated Spain while the Premier League had no answer for Sir Alex’s Red Devils. The 2000s saw further domination by Barcelona in the league, while Real and Valencia did manage a few titles on the way, including another European Cup in 2002, courtesy of Zidane and co.

The impeccable camera quality of the Premier League had bested La Liga, but the world’s best players plied their trade in Spain. Brazilians Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo all went through the peak of their careers in Spain. While the enchanting Zizou was the most expensive of the first bunch of Galacticos that included England’s own superstar, David Beckham.

The Premier League failed to attract the biggest names in the game in the 2000s. Despite a large amount of English talent flooding into the league, the best players in the Premiership came from across the channel. Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes and Rooney did stand out among the foreigners. But, soon came young Cristiano Ronaldo, who captured English hearts before breaking it.

By the decade’s end, there was no doubt that Cristiano and Messi were destined to be the most consequential players of tomorrow. And before United could even truly enjoy him, Real Madrid came knocking. That set up a decade of delectable football in La Liga that included two trebles for Barcelona and an unprecedented hattrick of Champions Leagues for the Merengues.

The 2020/21 La Liga season

Fourth placed team in La Liga
With a mix of youth and experience in their ranks, Sevilla has managed to keep up with the top 3 all season. CC: ZUMA Wire

As the third decade of this century begins, this La Liga season can proudly claim to be the most exciting league season in contemporary times in Europe. It has been an unforeseen two seasons of football in Europe with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last season, a stretch spanning ten games of sheer will and determination saw Real Madrid lift their 34th La Liga title. This year, their city rivals in red and white are currently top of the league with 76 points after 34 intense games.

With four fixtures left, Atleti has a “simple” task ahead. Win all their games, and they can lift their 11th Liga crown.

To make things sweeter, Atlético’s two standout players this season, Luis Suarez and, Marcos Llorente were gifts from their rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid, who are right on their tail with 74 points each. The trophy this year would be savored unlike any other.

Meanwhile, Sevilla is fourth and led by a disgruntled former Real manager, Julien Lopetegui. They now find themselves separated from the top 3 after a home loss to Athletic Bilbao. An Inaki Williams strike at the final minute of the regulation period struck an arrow through Andalusian hearts. With 70 points from their 34 games, they are still in with an outside chance.

Injuries and Inconsistencies

Injuries in La Liga
The Real Madrid squad has sustained more than 50 injuries through the season. Talismanic captain, Sergio Ramos looks set to return from a lengthy layoff on the sidelines. CC: PressFocus

A season full of ups and downs, marred by injuries across teams, the Rojiblancos have led the league since overtaking Real Madrid on Matchday 9. To the surprise of everyone, Simeone and his team came out this year playing attacking football. A written-off Suarez was in swashbuckling form through the first half of the season.

At the end of Matchday 21, Simeone and company were 11 points ahead of their nearest rivals. But draws against Celta and Levante, followed by a loss to Levante at the Metropolitano, had Real and Barcelona right at their heels. Barcelona went on a 19-game unbeaten run since the turn of the year to get their season back on track.

Real Madrid ended Barcelona’s unbeaten run in the season’s second El Clasico but have since themselves stuttered with multiple draws. Currently, they are on an unbeaten 19-game run as they go to England as Spain’s sole representative left in the Champions League.

A victory in the weekend against Real Madrid can propel Sevilla closer to the leaders. Up till now, all three teams have stumbled when presented with the opportunity to go atop the table. But the remaining set of fixtures are sure to further complicate matters.

Crunch time in May

La Liga Manager
Victory at every game will guarantee Atletico an 11th La Liga title. CC: AS

On the back of the loss to Bilbao, Sevilla travels to Madrid on Sunday, May 7. The Los Blancos will have a clear sense where a triumph against the Andalusians will take them on the table as the Blaugrana welcome league leaders Atleti at the Camp Nou on Saturday.

The remaining fixtures for all four teams the following weeks are no cakewalk either. Atleti face Real Sociedad, Osasuna and Real Valladoid. La Real is yet to seal their Europa League spot with Real Betis on their heels. Whereas, Valladolid is among the five teams separated by five points fighting relegation.

Real Madrid has to face Granada, Athletic Bilbao and Villareal in their last three games. Villareal is the third team fighting for a European spot with Betis and Sociedad and might be looking for points in the final week of the year. Traveling to San Mames is never an easy assignment. But, it might be easier than facing a team fighting relegation. While Granada did just beat Barcelona at home.

The Blaugrana go to Levante after Atleti visits and welcomes Celta just after. The final week sees Messi and Co. visit Eibar who are languishing at 20th in the table but are still in with a chance to survive. On paper, Barcelona has the most straightforward set of fixtures after the leaders visit, though Celta is known to spring surprises, and Eibar will be on survival mode.

The Andalusians take on Valencia after their crucial visit to the Valdebebas. They then travel to Villareal on the penultimate week, followed by a visit from Deportivo Alaves in the closing week, who are also part of the relegation scramble.

Lock onto La Liga and Ligue 1

French Football
To the surprise of football fans, in Ligue 1, PSG trail Lille by a point with three fixture to play. CC: Reuters

Both Manchester City and Bayern Munich are a victory away from their league trophies. Inter Milan has already secured their first Serie A in more than a decade. Ligue 1 has surprised many, with Lille continuing to top the table.

It is yet to be seen if Lille can hold on to win the league and mark ten years of their last title with another one. PSG trail the northerners by a single point with three games to go after Lille came from behind to beat Lyon last weekend. Monaco and Lyon are also on their heels. But, the remaining fixtures are comparatively straightforward.

In Spain, things are muddled beyond comprehension.

The 13/14 season saw Atleti hold on to a similar lead to win their “La Decima” of Liga titles. Finishing level with Real Madrid will not suffice for the Rojiblancos as Real boasts better head-to-head records against both Atleti and Barcelona, while they can still make sure they do so against Sevilla.

The Blancos can yet defend their crown even though a galore of injuries plagued them through the season. Barcelona has found their mojo under Koeman despite an inglorious start to their campaign. Sevilla has impressed under Lopetegui and a mixed bunch of players. They have found themselves in a new territory, daring for a second ever domestic title.

No top European league has witnessed four teams scrap it out for the title at the tail end of a season like this. You may be a staunch fan of English football but, it is time to put the Premier League aside for the next couple of weeks. A repeat winner is on the cards again, but at least the question still remains, “Who though?”

Lend your attention to the La Liga spectacle in May while keeping an eye on Ligue 1.

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