Let's cut to the chase, Spain is having a bit of a pronounced dip. The sheen and dominance of La Liga has fallen away and in a dramatic fashion.
La Liga hasn't been the best league in the world for some time. The Premier League, on a whole, has been the most challenging and difficult league in football for years. The general quality from top to bottom has for seasons been better in England. But La Liga always had the grander team-by-team ability. The superior individual talent. The experience. The aura. You would always put your tenner on the Spanish sides in any big, European tie. But, now? Not so much.
For about the last 20 or so years (I'd say about 23, personally), Spain took up the mantle from Italy's Serie A and has since been the ideal. Read: a top Spanish club was in the mix of best team in the world. Real Madrid. Barcelona. Atlético Madrid (to a much lesser extent, of course). There was Real Madrid with Roberto Carlos, Raúl and Fernando Morientes that won three Champions League titles between 1998 and 2002. There was Barcelona with Ronaldinho. And without Ronaldinho, but with Lionel Messi (Xavi and Andrés Iniesta the only ones present for all four Champions League wins). And then there was Atlético Madrid, who never won but quietly went to two Champions League finals, triumphed three times in the Europa League and took home the La Liga crown in 2014. It's also worth mentioning that Sevilla won the Europa League SIX times in the last 15 years. So, you get my point.
But, deep in the throes of the 2020-21 season, that has vastly faded away. La Liga and its clubs all look a shadow of their former selves. The glamor and bite have gone. And for varying reasons. If you look at Barcelona, they have been criminally mismanaged by their Board. They have not strategized for a future that does not contain the aforementioned Messi. They have no money. And they have strayed from their La Masia youth policy and spent wildly on players who simply have not delivered. Real Madrid, on the other hand, lost Cristiano Ronaldo and that has crippled them, especially in Europe. Karim Benzema has done his bit, but the team, much like Barcelona is aging with no infusion of fresh, hungry footballers. It is just all so stale. Atlético Madrid sit atop the table quite comfortably. They could have sown up the title by now had they not had their very recent sputter. And they just got swept aside sort of casually by a not-close-to-the-top-of-the-league Chelsea in the Champions League. It was only 1-0, but man, a pedestrian Atléti looked rather futile. And this is Spain's best! To further emphasize my argument, one of the better teams in La Liga this season has been Real Sociedad. La Real (as they are known) sit fifth in the standings with only 5 losses. They are nine points adrift of Barcelona and Real Madrid and just drew against the latter. That Real Sociedad team, in form, got absolutely battered like a school of cultured haddock in Scarborough 4-0 by a woefully inconsistent Manchester United. For those of you who watch both the Premier League and La Liga, my work here is done.
And listen, this proclamation is anything but premature (see: Barcelona and their European exploits of the last five years). The match day quality has plummeted. The defending is sloppy. There is so much space. The empty stands only add to the slog. And yes, the pandemic has played its part. Clubs have been ravaged financially. And mentally. But, that's certainly not unique to Spain. The top individual talent I spoke of before just isn't in Spain anymore. There are obviously world class athletes (hello, Mr. Messi), but if I concocted a 2021 World XI, how many of the players would call La Liga home? One? And that one would be the Argentinian actively trying to exit La Liga.
I'm not telling you to nip home and turn the Saudi league on or anything of that nature. La Liga is still the best league in the European Union by some margin. The teams attack and play with technique and at times, speed. In contrast, there is nothing more sleep-inducing than Serie A. And that hurts me to say. I grew up watching the titanic teams of the late 80s and 90s. But, my days, those matches nowadays are at walking pace and it's almost as if they're trying to miss the goal. The point is simply that the era of Spain and its teams trouncing all fellow European opposition is, for now, over.
Bayern Munich are the only non-English team that could (or maybe it's more suitable to use "should", here) compete for the Champions League this term. Manchester City are the best team in the world. They have world class depth and have used their unlimited resources to actually fund a defensive line this time. Liverpool are still monumental threats. When they decide to play, and maybe get a few bodies back, they are elite. And Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel look to have their solidity and swagger back. Plus have an Olivier Giroud who takes 85% of seasons off and then pops up to bang in a couple of golazos just as springtime hits.
And I'm not dismissing PSG. The fact that I didn't mention them above only highlights this entire thesis that La Liga has slipped. PSG manhandled Barcelona. It was like men against malnutritioned newborns. The now iconic photograph of Gerard Piqué desperately grasping at Kylian Mbappé's top as KM sprints clear sums up the current scene in Spain. The old guard has been surpassed. And the mauling that took place was scripted by a PSG side that are not top of a farcically bad Ligue 1 (the gap between fourth and fifth is a ludicrous 14 points, for example) and already lost to RB Leipzig and Manchester United in the Champions League. Can the Parisiens win it all? Sure. It's about hitting form. Should they? Definitely sodding not.
For neutral fans, this is great news. The sport needs a bit of a shakeup. For fans of La Liga, all this means is that for the next season or two, things will be unpredictable. Barcelona and Real Madrid will both eventually restock with a bevy of stars. But that will take time as there will need to be sales before purchases (losing Messi's obscene salary will lighten the load, for one) and price tags from teams will have to step back from some of the more wild numbers of the pre-pandemic era. But every major club in Spain and around the continent have a road to glory and this is the time to take advantage. As Atléti are showing now, there are prizes to be won as the biggest fish lay vulnerable. Use the turmoil. Win some games. Because before we all know it, La Liga will be back on high.
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