2018 has seen quite a seismic turnaround in fortunes for the traditional top two. Few can truly gauge how, or why, Real Madrid have fallen so far from the summit over the past 18 months, but with Barcelona seemingly set for another La Liga title, how will the rest of the season unfold for Spain’s biggest clubs?
In a leading quartet that includes a Real Madrid side that is still hanging on to a top-four berth, there is little to separate the ‘Galacticos’ from leaders and mortal rivals Barcelona.
Famed for low-scoring draws this season, Valencia are seen as likely to recover by La Liga experts.
Unlike local rivals Atletico, and a strong Sevilla side managed by Pablo Machin, Real Madrid have the privilege of an augmented winter break between 15 December and 3 January. This 'week off' has impacted the odds of their title win, with Real's former shirt sponsors Bwin amongst providers showing a newly-shortened price of +500 in favour of the 'Galacticos' winning the title next spring. Yet, despite their shortening title odds, Real Madrid’s own campaign is making similarly uncomfortable similarities to past under-achievements. In fact, the last time Real accumulated fewer points at the same stage of a La Liga campaign was in 2001-02.
In terms of their ability to travel as well as they used to, Real Madrid’s numbers ultimately leave a lot to be desired. The ‘Galacticos’ are currently conceding an average of more than 2.5 goals per away match, and late goals have often been a feature as part of that, with Madrid seeing a majority of their recent away games produce goals in the final ten minutes of play.
The clash between Sevilla and Atletico Madrid on 6 January at the Sánchez Pizjuán is a potential dogfight which could well determine who can make a real fist of challenging Barcelona for the league title. Currently priced at as little as +700 to win the title, Atletico are set for a podium finish on merit, but Antoine Griezmann needs to improve on his current hit rate, which is undulating at around one goal every three games. Furthermore, he remains a marked man, which could ultimately work against the Europa League holders. Indeed, if Sevilla’s home form is taken into account, then the advantage of being in familiar surroundings gives Sevilla a very distinct edge in a match that is difficult to call.
Earlier in the winter, Sevilla went on a run of just defeat in six league matches at the Sánchez Pizjuán. That good home form is further augmented by a run of five straight wins from as many Europa League games up to mid-December, where the Andalusians scored 19 goals and conceded only once. Of Machin’s men, Pablo Sarabia stands out as a particularly prominent threat to Barcelona’s hold on the crown, with the winger spending much of 2018 as the top creator of goals:
This time last year, Villarreal were threatening the top six with a consistent brand of football, but it is the presence of Valencia in the lower reaches of the table – with odds as long as +10,000 against a title win – that is by far the more perplexing sight. Only this time last year, Valencia lay within two wins of leaders Barcelona, having scored more than twice as many goals as they had conceded.
With three home games between 23 December and 27 January, all of which are against other teams threatened by relegation, the next four weeks will be crucial to Valencia’s survival. Though they are not winning as consistently, Valencia have still shown the ability to pick up points from adverse positions. They have also gained a reputation as draw specialists, hitting the second weekend of December as the biggest draw specialists across the top five UEFA-ranked leagues – a further catalyst to their decline from last year.
In fact, this is how our nine focal teams have fared after 15 games in seasons gone by – and their finishing positions in the Spanish football pyramid.
Heading towards the La Liga winter break, Barcelona’s lead is a healthy one – but not insurmountable. The hosts have been a little unpredictable this La Liga campaign, and while they scored three or more goals in five of their first seven home fixtures this season – and won on four occasions – they managed just one clean sheet.
The ability to defend poorly and still win is a luxury that many La Liga title-winning squads of yore have enjoyed, and it is likely to continue being the ‘modus operandi’ of Barcelona over the coming months. Even conceding first is seldom an issue; as of early December, the Catalans had won more La Liga points from losing positions than any other team in the league. Late goals are also a regular feature in Barcelona’s home games, with the Nou Camp recently seeing a run of five competitive games where it witnessed a goal in the last ten minutes – so expect more late drama in the New Year!
It is little wonder that the 'Blaugranes' are still favourites at as little as -500 to retain the title. If they are to do so, then the period between 22 December and 20 January will be vital to their success. With three home games in four weeks over that timespan, and all of those games coming against teams that cannot really aspire to finish much higher than mid-table, there is no excuse for anything other than nine points from those games.