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Seven years ago this week, Atletico Madrid beat Athletic Bilbao 2-0 to stay hot on the heels of Barcelona at the top of the La Liga table. That victory over Athletic came in their 12th game of the season, 11 of which had ended with Diego Simeone’s side triumphant.
It took until matchday 22 before Atletico sat at the summit of the standings for the first time. By that stage, they had taken 57 points from a possible 66, an extraordinarily consistent run for a team that had not been expected to even challenge for the championship that season. Atletico suffered a slight wobble in February and another in May, but the campaign concluded with a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou that secured the Colchoneros the title ahead of Barcelona.
It was an incredible achievement, but normal service was swiftly resumed. Atletico has not exactly faded away – they have finished second twice and third four times since 2013/14 – but the league title has been shared between Barcelona and Real Madrid over the last six seasons.
In all likelihood, one of Spain’s big two will again be victorious in 2020/21. But if another team is to break up the duopoly, this could be the season for it. The compressed nature of the campaign, coupled with the clear shortcomings of Madrid and Barcelona, means a surprise title winner is not entirely out of the question.
Let’s start with the deficiencies of the two favorites. According to the latest odds from DraftKings Sportsbook, Real Madrid are -182 to win the title and Barcelona is +300. The bookmakers are correct with their pricing; Madrid and Barca have been flawed in recent seasons yet still won the title. Achieving consistency across 38 games is not easy for pretenders to the throne.
Even so, it is notable that DraftKings Sportsbook considers Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and Liverpool better placed to win the Champions League than either of La Liga’s big two. Barcelona and Madrid are used to being kings of the continent, but it is hard to see either lifting the trophy as things stand.
Madrid is the defending champions in La Liga, with last term’s triumph built on defensive solidity first and foremost. The same formula may well bring the same outcome in 2020/21, but Madrid has already looked vulnerable in matches against Real Sociedad and Cadiz. Their attack, meanwhile, can no longer be labeled ‘elite’, with Los Blancos still far too reliant on the soon-to-be 33-year-old Karim Benzema.
Barcelona managed to retain Lionel Messi in the summer, and his presence alone gives them a great chance of finishing on top of the pile. The 17-year-old Ansu Fati is proving the old adage that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough, but problems exist elsewhere. Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets have certainly seen better days, while Antoine Griezmann has been a disastrous signing so far. Doubts remain over Ronald Koeman’s managerial acumen at the highest level, and Barcelona has won only two of their first six La Liga encounters.
If neither Madrid nor Barcelona comes out on top, Atletico are next in line in the betting market – DraftKings Sportsbook rate their chances at +500. The signing of Luis Suarez from Barca could well be looked back on as a turning point for both clubs, with the Uruguayan having already increased Atletico’s attacking firepower.
Simeone is a tremendous manager but his tendency towards caution is part of the reason why Atletico has not yet managed to replicate their title triumph of 2013/14. Atletico amassed 90 points that term, and although their defense was the best in the league with only 26 goals conceded, they also scored 77 at the other end.
In the last four seasons, they have not got past 80 points, and in the last three, they have scored fewer than 60 goals. Both of those statistics form part of the reason why Atleti have not finished on top of the pile in the last six years.
The hope for Simeone and co. this season is that the title winner might only require 80-something points, which would certainly give them a chance – provided they do not drop too many points against mid-table opposition, that is.
Real Sociedad have been the surprise package so far in 2020/21. Many tipped La Real to be involved in the mix for Champions League qualification this campaign, but few would have anticipated them starting so strongly.
Sociedad, currently available at +6600 with DraftKings Sportsbook to win the title, are led from the dugout by the astute Imanol Alguacil. He is getting the best out of Mikel Oyarzabal, arguably La Liga’s standout performer at the start of this season, while the veteran David Silva has shown there is life in the old dog yet after his move from Manchester City.
Sevilla will also hope to be there or thereabouts when the curtain comes down on the campaign. Julen Lopetegui is determined to prove his worth after a disastrous spell in charge of Real Madrid, and their Europa League triumph last term will give the squad belief that they can compete for major prizes. DraftKings Sportsbook offer +5000 on Sevilla winning the league, while Villarreal is listed at +10000.
It would be a major story if Real Madrid and Barcelona did not win La Liga this season. Yet Spain’s top flight has some excellent teams outside the big two, and Madrid and Barcelona both have significant shortcomings. It is still a long shot, but there could be a different name on the La Liga trophy in seven months’ time.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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