Only once since 2004 has a team other than Barcelona or Real Madrid won the Spanish Liga title. This exception came in 2014, 10 years after Valencia’s triumph under Rafael Benitez, when Atletico Madrid broke Spanish football’s duopoly to win La Liga. Since then, though, normal service has resumed, with Barca claiming three league titles and Real Madrid three.
Of course, this is a binary record and doesn’t quite illustrate the way Spanish football has been in recent years. Atletico Madrid’s title triumph four years wasn’t an anomaly, with Diego Simeone’s side making themselves an established part of the Liga elite, finishing second, ahead of Real Madrid, last season. Below the top three, though, there is a chasing pack getting closer and closer to the top. Take Valencia, for instance. After years of wasteful transfer market business and even worse managerial appointments (see Gary Neville), Marcelino has finally turned the Mestalla club into a force again, finishing fourth and qualifying for the Champions League last season.
Then there’s Sevilla, who made the quarterfinals of the Champions League last term and have poached the highly-rated Pablo Machin from Girona as their new manager and rivals Real Betis, who are building season on season. Villarreal are also strong at the moment, finishing fifth last season. Even among the big three, there are compelling storylines to follow. Last season’s La Liga champions, Barcelona, have added Brazilians Arthur and Malcom to their squad, with Clement Lenglet signing from Sevilla and Arturo Vidal somewhat surprisingly arriving from Bayern Munich. Despite claiming a league and cup double last season, the Catalans are expected to improve this term. Any regression could heap the pressure on Ernesto Valverde, who has never truly endeared himself to the Camp Nou.
Real Madrid’s summer could hardly have been any more dramatic, with Zinedine Zidane’s shock resignation before Julen Lopetegui’s whirlwind dismissal as Spain manager and subsequent appointment at the Santiago Bernabeu. On top of this, Cristiano Ronaldo left the club, leaving a rather large hole in Lopetegui’s team, both positionally and spiritually. How can they possibly replace a player of such quality?
Atletico Madrid have arguably strengthened the most over the off-season, not just keeping Antoine Griezmann, who looked destined to become a Barcelona player, but signing Thomas Lemar from Monaco, Rodri from Villarreal, Nikola Kalinic from AC Milan, Santiago Arias from PSV Eindhoven, Jonny Castro from Real Betis, Antonio Adan from Real Betis and Gelson Martins from Sporting Lisbon. Lemar, Arias and Martins, in particular, could take Atleti to the next level, especially with Griezmann, Diego Godin and Jan Oblak all staying amid interest from other clubs.
It remains highly unlikely that this season’s champion will come from outside the big three, but there is an element of competition that hasn’t been seen at the top end of La Liga for a generation. This season could be reminiscent of the early 2000s, when Deportivo La Coruna and Valencia made a habit of challenging Barcelona and Real Madrid. There could be a similar sort of vibe to the 2018/19 campaign.
The ignorant deride La Liga as a top-heavy division in the mould of the Bundesliga. They point to how Lionel Messi and Ronaldo have racked up the goals over the past decade or so as evidence of the vast inequality that exists in the Spanish game. But while this might ring true financially, there is no sign of it on the pitch. La Liga has never before been so competitive. Look at how tiny clubs like Eibar and Girona have managed to make themselves top half teams, while clubs of much bigger stature, like Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad, struggled down near the bottom. There are no grounds for derision and this season could prove just how open Spain’s top flight has become.
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.