One game into the second half of the season and a cursory look at the Liga table shows you don’t have to be a footballing genius to work out that, barring a miracle, the winner of the 2013-14 title will be Barcelona, Atletico Madrid or Real Madrid.
That said, I’ve seen nothing in the first half that can sway me from my original prediction that Real Madrid will be crowned champions in May.
Let’s take a look at the three contenders.
As it was last year, the second half of the season could well prove to be a difficult time for Atletico. Back then, having amassed 44 points out of an available 57 at the halfway stage, they went on to notch just 32 in the reverse fixtures and I expect a similar outcome this time around.
Having broken all kinds of records last year, Diego Costa is still to score in 2014. Meanwhile, Diego Simeone knows his best side and along with that comes a reluctance to rotate, a dangerous game when you’re battling for the league, cup and Champions League.
But Simeone is of the opinion that tiredness is a state of mind and that when things are going well you can push your players that bit more. Unfortunately without fresh legs, things begin to get a bit stale.
That said, the Atletico coach puts great faith in his fitness team and the side, like Real and Barcelona, have been putting in extra sessions over the Christmas break in a mini pre-season type of exercise. He is also hoping, no doubt, that a slightly larger squad will make them more consistent in the second period.
However Josuha Guilavogui has not added much and the jury is still out on Jose Sosa, although Adrian is showing more this season than he did last. It’s crunch time for Atletico and for me I still see them more suited to the sprints of the cup tournaments than the marathon that is La Liga.
Barcelona will, I feel, continue to falter because the structure of the side continues to rely too heavily on the individual quality of certain players at the expense of the team collective. As a result when teams make it hard for them, as Levante did, everything depends on the ‘big boys’ turning up. When they don’t, it ends in tears, and it will happen again before the end of the season.
All teams play—or at least should play—to their strengths. So what you get is rapid counter attacks from Real and loads of hard work and counters from Atletico. Meanwhile at Barcelona what you’re getting is a system that mixes possession with counters. A system that I have always said doesn’t suit the players Tata Martino has in his squad.
The team that are now really finding their feet are Real Madrid.
Carlo Ancelotti is settling on a 4-3-3 formation, albeit with a line-up that has changed following the injury to Sami Khedira.
Angel Di Maria is getting the nod in midfield, ahead of the highly rated Isco who Ancelotti clearly believes is not yet ready to command an automatic place in the Real Madrid starting XI. The Argentinian has scored in each of his last two games and, while he is perhaps a bit too direct to be a natural midfielder, works harder without the ball than his Spanish counterpart.
Alongside him are Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric. The latter has been outstanding and is certainly Real Madrid’s best player this season.
We still have yet to see the very best of Gareth Bale and probably won’t this time around because, despite scoring, he is not involved enough in the game, although this will surely come.