It’s all change at the top of La Liga with Real Madrid three points clear and now favourites for the title. You could see it coming from their defeat against Barcelona in El Clasico (yes, before you say anything, I did say Real would win the league, even then!).
Real haven’t lost since that 2-1 defeat and I always felt that they looked like a team that could get much better. And so it has proved.
Mind you, they have been ably assisted by the downturn in performances by their two main rivals for the title, Atletico and Barcelona.
What Diego Simeone has done at Atletico is wonderful, but his style—and he only really believes in one style—will only take him so far. Effectively his side has hit a wall.
He has brought players into the side like Jose Sosa and Diego. Sosa has come in to give him more of the same—hard work, lots of running, defending and counter-attacking—while Diego has been brought in with a view to adding something when the opposition defends deep and he needs someone to keep possession and control of the ball.
Diego didn’t play against AC Milan, as Simeone looked to his tried-and-trusted players to do a job for him. Raul Garcia tends to get the nod ahead of David Villa, and all the signs are he believes in a small group of players and a certain style of play.
And while that may well take them far in the Champions League because they trust their defensive structure and always believe they have a chance, it’s burning out some of his players, not least Diego Costa.
The lack of alternatives means that they have lost three games to date—at Espanyol, Almeria and, most recently, Osasuna (in fact, four defeats in three weeks, including the cup)—and the likelihood is that they will not compete for the title.
Meanwhile, Barcelona are also at a crossroads. With a team like this, you have two choices. Either improve the style you’ve been using for the past six years or change the players.
Unfortunately, what manager Tata Martino has tried is a kind of halfway-house, half changing the style, and despite a change in his attitude following conversations and compromises with the players that saw an improvement over the previous three games, changed it again for the match against Real Sociedad with disastrous consequences.
Into Sergio Busquets' holding midfield position went Alex Song, with Busquets moved to the midfield position normally occupied by Xavi and the Busquets/Iniesta combination didn’t work.
To make matters worse, the attitude of the players that looked distinctly unhappy with the new style didn’t help. Something was missing and the ambition and attitude displayed by Real Sociedad that saw them win just about every 50/50 challenge made them worthy winners.
In truth, Tata and Barcelona are facing three big worries. Firstly the attitude of the players which needs addressing. Secondly the decision-making of Tata himself and his inability to change it when he realises he has gotten it wrong. And finally just what is going to happen to Barcelona between now and the end of the season because, despite what occurs in the Champions League, I don’t see this Barcelona as anything quite as solid as Barcelona sides of the past.
Which brings me to the machine that is Real Madrid. Since losing to Barcelona, Real have shown a solidity and strength at the back that suggests they will finish as top dogs this year.
In addition, they have shown they are more than capable of creating numerous chances and scoring goals from nothing, even if sometimes their collective display is poor.
Gareth Bale’s scorcher is a case in point. The Welshman has recently experienced his first taste of being whistled at by the Bernabeu crowd who see him as a bit too distant and not involved enough in the build-up play, which is maybe true but is purely because he has not quite yet adapted to the style of the club.
That said, his stats so far this season, with 12 goals in 24 appearances, are pretty impressive. But even Ancelotti admitted that it was a different Gareth Bale after the goal against Elche than the one that was playing before it.
But he will eventually adapt to the team and I firmly believe that at a very minimum will finish his first season with Real with a league winner's medal.