Are We Seeing the End of Barcelona and Real Madrid's La Liga Duopoly?

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Are We Seeing the End of Barcelona and Real Madrid's La Liga Duopoly?
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Another weekend in La Liga and in any other season, plus ca change, you might think. Real Madrid stormed their way to a 5-0 win over neighbours Rayo Vallecano at the Bernabeu on Saturday night, hours after the inevitable Lionel Messi goal had made the difference in Barcelona's derby win at Espanyol. It's a script we've seen many times before in recent years.

The obvious red herring in this situation during this campaign, of course, is the continuation of Atletico Madrid's remarkable story. Diego Simeone's team remain top of the pile after winning at Athletic Bilbao in a display that was, simply, quintessential modern Atleti.

Los Colchoneros quickly went a goal down at the atmospheric new San Mames, after Iker Muniain scored but as with so many times this campaign, they showed their mental strength to react. Diego Costa's 25th Liga goal of the season paved the way for Koke's winner in a match that had looked like a potential banana skin some weeks in advance.

Fundamentally, Atleti didn't panic. Faced with coming from behind in two senses—in the match itself and chronologically, with playing after Barca's victory—they held their nerve. When they had originally taken La Liga leadership in February, it looked as if they might not be up to the pressure, as they slumped to a shock loss at Almeria. Not any more.

Simeone's shaping of Atleti in his own image over the last two-and-a-bit years is a remarkable tale in itself but events in recent weeks have tentatively suggested that maybe, just maybe, we could have a competition of genuine diversity warming up again for the seasons to come.

Sevilla's victory over Real Madrid last Wednesday had been something to stir the senses, a rousing win achieved by an Unai Emery side possessing the bravery so often lacking in the big two's opponents. Their captain Ivan Rakitic personified it, with his audacious flick over Pepe culminating in a pass that created Carlos Bacca's winner.

Emery's charges may have slipped to defeat at Celta Vigo on Saturday, but they remain the authors of a pleasantly surprising season of excitement.

Thursday's quarter-final trip to Porto in the Europa League recalls their thrilling seasons under Juande Ramos, when they won the competition twice in a row. The Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan side still have a shot at a Champions League place, lying six points short of fourth-placed Athletic after the latter's weekend defeat.

Still, Bilbao's revival under Ernesto Valverde, after the promise of Marcelo Bielsa's first season in charge ran aground, is a positive development for the competition too. Their blend of youth and experience, between Ander, Aritz Aduriz and Muniain, would be a fascinating addition to the Champions League.

Athletic's Basque rivals, Real Sociedad, have surprised with their own fortitude. After a tricky start to the Liga campaign under new coach Jagoba Arrasate (not to mention some harsh lessons in their Champions League campaign), they have recovered well to lay the foundations for a return to Europe.

Rarely have a team made Barca look so far past their best as La Real did in their 3-1 win over Tata Martino's side at the Anoeta in February. Like Sevilla, they are six points shy of Athletic.

The optimism must be tempered with realism. The gulf between the first three and the rest remains a chasm, of course. There is a 17-point gap between Carlo Ancelotti's team in third, and fourth-placed Athletic. Champions of 2004 Valencia, up for sale and still in financial trouble, are marooned in mid-table.

Liga de Futbol Profesional (LFP) president Javier Tebas ostensibly pledged to help correct the financial imbalances between the clubs on his election last year, but he is no revolutionary.

Tebas has highlighted heavy taxes, as per futbolfinanzas.com (h/t ESPN FC), as more of a problem than uneven television rights revenues. The status quo of Barca and El Real raking in the bulk of television cash will continue.

Yet for the first time in what seems like a long time, there is hope. Nobody is expecting a six-way battle for La Liga—in fact, with Atletico likely to lose at least Diego Costa and Thibaut Courtois at the season's end, it may be too much to expect even a repetition of this season's three-way tussle. It's clear that the big two will strengthen in summer.

Still, we can say that maybe the best of the rest aren't scared of their own shadows any more. It's progress, albeit gentle progress.

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