Anybody just now tuning in to the La Liga season, figuring that they had the entire league figured out and only looking at the table to see whether Barcelona or Real Madrid is at the top this time around, is in for a bit of a surprise.
Like it or not, last season's European and La Liga champions, four games into the season, are not at the top of the table. Neither are the 2010-11 La Liga runners-up and Champions League semifinalists, Real Madrid.
Instead, the table looks like this: Real Betis in first place, Valencia in second, Malaga in third and only then do you find FC Barcelona sitting in fourth. Sevilla and Levante follow, with Real Madrid holding on to the seventh-place slot.
Of course, the key piece of information in everything that I just said is this: "four games into the season." Oddly enough, the current table reflects the results of both of the Spanish giants suffering through wildly uncharacteristic early-season slumps.
Well, if you can call them slumps.
There are plenty who would argue that only FC Barcelona could be considered "slumping" after producing two draws in three games, separated by an 8-0 blowout victory. And only Real Madrid could raise so many eyebrows by starting the season with a 2-1-1 record.
The early-season discussions circling around Spanish football tend to follow a fairly predictable path following the matches that led to such a bizarre La Liga table. Real Madrid, as the conversations point out, fell to Levante. Barcelona failed to beat Real Sociedad and Valencia, much like Madrid did against Racing.
It's all predicated by the notion that these clubs should win their fixtures, and given the quality of players that both sides have on their roster, they probably should. But it may not be such a bad thing that, at the moment, they're not.
One way of looking at it that's been largely left out of the dialogue is this: Levante defeated Real Madrid. Real Sociedad and Valencia held off Barcelona, with Valencia looking strong enough in some moments of attack to secure a full three points.
La Liga currently boasts two of the strongest squads in Europe (and therefore, the way things are in this sport, the world), with Barcelona making the European title look effortless last season and Real Madrid capable of going who knows how far in the competition if they didn't run into the unstoppable Barcelona in the semifinals.
One thing that the league has been known to lack, however, is an overall degree of strong competition, with the third-place side in last season's final tally finishing a full 25 points behind Barcelona, and the fourth-place side finishing another nine points back from that.
From there, things even out a bit more in the Spanish top tier, but the gap between the top two and the rest of the pack is still enormous, and the quality of play that the top two produce against those sides is extraordinarily more impressive.
Last season, Barcelona only failed to win eight matches in the entire campaign, only two of which came in the form of losses at times when Barca either enjoyed a strong enough lead in the table to breathe easy or had difficult European obligations surrounding the match.
The figures weren't all that different for Real Madrid, either. In essence, both of the sides had little difficulty crushing whomever they desired to crush (Barcelona had a goal difference of plus-74) throughout much of the season. In far too many ways, La Liga was a breeze for Barca and Madrid.
There is a positive side to this level of domination, of course, as it creates very strong competitors in European Championship tournaments. But the rest of the league suffers and flounders with the knowledge that legitimately competing against either of the two Spanish giants over the course of a season is an entirely lost cause.
Of course, there are plenty of other successful leagues that continue to thrive despite hosting a select few sides that consistently outperform the rest of the competition. The English Premier League is an easy example, with Manchester United, Chelsea and now Manchester City emerging as a strong contender for the league title.
But the domination of those sides in their respective leagues isn't nearly as extensive as what has existed in La Liga over the past few years. It's not quite as head-turning or mind-boggling to find out that Manchester City drew to Fulham or that United lost to Wolves at Molineux. It's surprising, but the league as a whole is competitive enough to make the result seem and feel like it was entirely within the realm of the possible.
Eventually, the La Liga table is going to rework itself into the positions that we all know we can easily predict long before the start of the season. These early-season "slumps" will end in no time at all, and Madrid will resume its race with Barca to stand alone at the top of the table, with everybody else trailing light years behind.
But until then, the current standings are a nice little glimpse into what the Spanish domestic league could be, without ever-dominating presences constantly hogging all the glory and attention.
This—the way the table is organized right now, the way these last couple of weeks have played out, the strong showings from lesser teams against the sides with the highest payrolls—is exactly how La Liga ought to be.
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