Left foot, right foot, head: It was late November in the southeast of the Spanish capital, and with a wonderfully rounded hat-track that featured a goal with each body part, one of La Liga's in-form forwards had confirmed himself as the story of the season to that point.
Personally, he was surging. His team was hot. The goals were pouring in. The Spanish top-flight admittedly has always been a high-scoring league, but still this was surprising, and for one main reason: It wasn't one of the usual suspects doing it.
No, it was Aritz Aduriz.
In Athletic Bilbao's 3-0 victory over Rayo Vallecano, Aduriz with his hat-trick steered Athletic to their seventh win in eight and his goal tally beyond that of anyone in Spain. These were the Basque's eighth, ninth and 10th goals of the season in the league; his 18th, 19th and 20th in all competitions—more than the then-swashbuckling Neymar and Suarez, more than the then-rampant Benzema. More than anyone.
"Aduriz lays waste to Vallecas," proclaimed AS, the game in Spain taking notice of something or someone outside the capital or Catalonia in a way it often doesn't. Aduriz's manager, Ernesto Valverde, was enamoured too.
"He's a treasure," said the Athletic boss of Aduriz. "He represents the culmination of the way we play, we have to hope that Barcelona don't sign him."
Valverde's admiration was real, but the Barcelona comment was more of a gag. Then 34 and now 35, Aduriz is beyond the age for a move to the Camp Nou, but what Valverde was playing on was the customary fear many of the country's clubs have harboured: Have a star player? Barcelona or Real Madrid will take him. Built a strong team? They will gut it.
This has always been the existence of Spain's "other" clubs, but now in this context there's a new threat. One that's diverse, distant and very different, but just as rich. Maybe even more so.
The Premier League.
When England's top division signed its historic £5.13 billion TV rights deal with Sky and BT Sport last February that will kick in at the beginning of next season (that figure will rise to in excess of £8 billion with the addition of money from overseas rights), the landscape of European football was always going to shift.
"I am surprised by the size of it," admitted Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore at the time. "Burnley are now, economically, bigger than Ajax."
Scudamore was right: Last summer, Burnley spent double in the market what Ajax did, per Transfermarkt, and even ahead of the arrival of the tidal wave of cash, the Premier League's clubs—all of them, not just the elite—raided the squads of domestic champions and title contenders all over Europe in the most ominous of manners.
Ominous? Yep, consider this bunch: Newcastle United took Georginio Wijnaldum, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Chancel Mbemba from PSV Eindhoven, Anderlecht and Marseille, respectively. Sunderland snatched Jeremain Lens from Dynamo Kyiv. Aston Villa grabbed Jordan Amavi from Nice and Idrissa Gueye from Lille. West Bromwich Albion landed Jose Salomon Rondon from Zenit Saint Petersburg.
The list goes on.
Southampton signed Jordy Clasie from Feyenoord. Swansea City lured Andre Ayew from Marseille. Stoke City grabbed Xherdan Shaqiri from Inter Milan. Crystal Palace took Yohan Cabaye from Paris Saint-Germain. West Ham United bought Dimitri Payet and Angelo Ogbonna from Marseille and Juventus, respectively. Leicester City signed Gokhan Inler and Christian Fuchs from Napoli and Schalke, respectively. Bournemouth signed Max Gradel from Saint-Etienne. Watford got Jose Manuel Jurado from Spartak Moscow.
The Premier League's financial power is obvious. European football now has a landscape in which, according to the Deloitte Football Money League, Everton have more cash than Inter Milan, and in which West Ham—even ahead of what will be a highly beneficial move to London's Olympic Stadium—are essentially on par with Atletico Madrid.
"The Premier League could become the NBA of football," warned La Liga president Javier Tebas earlier this month. "The risk is there."
It is. Though the positions of Barcelona and Real Madrid aren't threatened here, those of Spain's other clubs are. The likes of Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla, Villarreal and Celta Vigo, everyone really. For them, the threat now comes from home and abroad. In the coming months and years, Valverde might find himself replacing "we have to hope that Barcelona don't sign him," with "we have to hope that Crystal Palace don't sign him."
This is the new reality.
And a crunch summer looms for La Liga.
Beyond a suddenly juicy title race, one of the major themes of the current season in La Liga has been the continuation of a certain and encouraging levelling-out process that's been evident since 2013. Of course, the Primera Division is highly unlikely to ever take on the dynamic of the current Premier League campaign, but the once-colossal gap between them and the rest has narrowed.
Only fractionally, yes, but enough to be significant.
Between 2010 and 2013, La Liga essentially became two leagues. At the top, Barcelona and Real Madrid took their excellence to unprecedented levels, but elsewhere, the financial crisis crippled the rest. Their spending slashed, their need to sell heightened, their squads ripped apart, wages going unpaid and clubs going through administration, those outside the Santiago Bernabeu and Camp Nou couldn't compete in any capacity, essentially rendered irrelevant by Barcelona and Madrid.
Indeed, in 2009-10, the Catalans won the title with 99 points ahead of Madrid on 96. Pep Guardiola labelled the tallies "f---ing barbaric," and yet they hadn't stopped going north. In 2011-12, Madrid won the league with 100 points. The next season, Barcelona did the same.
In the former, third-place Valencia were closer on points to relegation than the title.
"[This league is] rubbish," said then-Sevilla president Jose Maria del Nido in September 2011, per the Guardian's Sid Lowe, "the biggest pile of junk in Europe."
At the time, Del Nido had a point. But not so much now.
In 2013-14, Atletico emerged as a third Spanish power in extraordinary fashion to claim the title with 90 points, the lowest tally by a distance since Barcelona won with 87 in 2008-09. Last season, Barcelona—yeah, that Barcelona—were triumphant with "only" 94, while this season's title will be won with a maximum of 91.
Evidently, the league is levelling out to a certain extent. Once a 100-point league, now it's a 90-point affair. Madrid and Barcelona have competition. Atletico have cemented their position as contenders. Valencia have new financial strength. Villarreal are excellent, and so are Sevilla. Athletic Bilbao's level is remarkable given their strict transfer policy. Celta are overachieving considerably. Eibar and Las Palmas are even more so, and Real Sociedad will come again. Spanish clubs are dominating both tiers in Europe.
As such, La Liga right now is perhaps the strongest it's been in years, a number of factors culminating in an improved top-to-bottom (or at least top-to-middle) strength: savvy scouting, excellent youth development, coaching depth, the easing of financial turmoil and, perhaps as a result, the presence of standouts outside Barcelona and Madrid.
The issue, though, is that these standouts, from now on, will be financially accessible to all those in the Premier League, almost regardless of who and where they are.
Indeed, newly promoted clubs in England will see more cash than many of their established counterparts in Spain. In London, West Ham and Palace will be financial giants in comparison with Sevilla or Villarreal. On the south coast, Southampton and Bournemouth could go shopping almost anywhere in Spain. Leicester's pulling power will only increase. Watford is now the primary focus of the Pozzo family who also owns Granada. Stoke have already shown they're now keen on Spanish talent. The surging Tottenham Hotspur are now heavyweights with a manager who knows all about La Liga.
And then there are the traditional powerhouses: The Manchester giants, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
This summer, Spain's "other" clubs could be raided, severely, and the talent to be found is rich and exciting: Cedric Bakambu, Eric Bailly and Mateo Musacchio at Villarreal; Shkodran Mustafi at Valencia; Kevin Gameiro and Grzegorz Krychowiak at Sevilla; Nolito at Celta Vigo; Inaki Williams and Aymeric Laporte at Athletic; Borja Baston, Sergi Enrich and Keko at Eibar; Lucas Perez at Deportivo La Coruna; Ignacio Camacho at Malaga.
There are plenty of others, too. That's just scratching the surface.
Thus, La Liga as a whole is closing in on a pivotal summer. Hang on to the stars and limit the damage, and the league will be just fine; suffer heavy losses across the board everywhere except Barcelona and Madrid, and it could be taken back half a decade, several years of progress wiped out.
"We hope to grow so the Premier League does not become the biggest competition in the world and we can be at the same level economically," said Tebas recently, per Azi Farni of BBC Sport. "We do not want the Premier League as a leader one step ahead of the rest. We plan to work harder in the TV rights market and in the sponsorship market to get more money."
In that respect, La Liga has taken steps. This season in Spain has featured the league's first TV rights deal negotiated collectively, and from the beginning of next season, such a process will be mandated by law.
The league is also working to make its kick-off times more friendly for an array of international markets such as the United Kingdom and Asia, the idea of taking competitive games overseas has been floated, Tebas continues to champion the merits of third-party ownership for competitive balance, and offices are being opened on several continents.
These are steps in the right direction, yes, but genuine progress will take time, even though it's time that La Liga might not have. The Premier League's financial strength is snowballing, its presence all-consuming for those with the responsibility of responding to it.
"The risk is there," as Tebas acknowledged.
That risk, that threat: It's set to ramp up come the summer, when clubs like Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla, like Villarreal and Celta—the clubs whose success is levelling out La Liga to an extent—will brace themselves, hoping to ride out the potentially heavy raids.
Of course, these clubs have experienced raids before, but now they will happen on a new scale. It's not just Barcelona and Real Madrid who stand as the threat; it's the likes of West Ham, Palace, Swansea, Everton, Bournemouth, Southampton and Watford, too—clubs a step below the elite in their own country but who, financially, are light years ahead of their equivalents across Europe.
This is the new reality.
For La Liga, the approaching summer is huge.