The Spanish Football league season has begun and Barcelona FC are top of the table with two wins and a +5 goal differential. Archrivals and 2012 Supercup Champions Real Madrid are at number 14 with a win and a loss and a -1 goal differential. Valladolid and Rayo Vallecano are at 6 points-a-piece, tied with Barca at the top of the table. So what does this unexpected beginning augur for the season, if anything?
The bottom line answer is not much. Real and Barca will once again dominate Spanish league play and end the year vying for the Copa del Rey, Champions League, and La Liga titles. The questions are, who will win what, and are there any domestic teams that might be ready to if not challenge at least make the top two work harder?
Real enter the new year with the title to defend against a superior Barca that is undergoing some change. This is the post Pep Guardiola era, the year David Villa returns from his broken leg, and the year Lionel Messi wants to ensure his individual superiority helps Barca succeed again as a team. Given so little ended up separating the Catalans from the Madridistas on the league table this is not an insurmountable task. In fact, with Villa back at Camp Nou and with Real coach Jose Mourinho still undecided about his starting line-up, or the most effective role of his benched superstars, Barca has a great opportunity to reassert their dominance over most global competitors and in specific over their archrivals.
Real, despite Mourinho’s missteps, are still flying high, if only on the adrenaline rush from a record year that yet required a hard fought ending for a title. They are now even more invigorated by their Supercup win and in particular by the manner of the win–they outplayed Barcelona yesterday for only the third time in the teams’ last 12 encounters. Most importantly, two of those better showings were trophy clinching 2-1 wins. Their cherry on top is that Cristiano Ronaldo scored the clinching goal in both games.
Therefore, the year shapes up much like last season with the two giants likely splitting domestic silverware while making the European Club scene their personal stage. Look for the middle of the season as the key indicators of which way the winds will blow since Real is likely to go on a tear shortly to reclaim their rightful La Liga perch while Barca will take what it can get until Villa is assimilated into his routine role. Once the dust settles the crystal ball will be more easily visible.
My prediction is that by mid-season the teams’ play will be scintillating since Real will most likely have the confidence edge they previously lacked and Barca will be settled into their possession ballet. Things could even get to be on a par with last year’s play. Messi and Ronaldo will likely score buckets of goals, yet it is hard to believe they could repeat their record peaks. And as all seems to settle into routine, this is where the other domestic teams come in.
Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, and Valencia, seem the likely spoilers. Each is coming off of a breakout year of sorts winning Europa League titles, Champion League slots, and at times offering the two Spanish giants something to think about on the pitch. Look for a couple of these teams to continue their hot run and pull a stunner or two that might tip the La Liga and Copa del Rey scales toward the center or the east of the nation–inevitably.
But come Champions League play, buckle your seat belts. Barcelona and Madrid both feel they let their fans down with what were for them early exits from the tournament. They both feel they had let downs at the worst moments–the matches at which their opponents had breakthrough performances. Real and Barca will be intent on showing who is who this year. Barring truly unexpected circumstances, one if not both of these teams will be in the finals this coming May