Back and forth, back and forth; a bit like watching the ball being recycled across the pitch in a trademark Real Madrid or FC Barcelona performance, in a similar way it is these two sides continue to dominate the Spanish top flight game after game, season upon season. After seemingly tossing the La Liga trophy back and forth for the past two decades, waiting until either one doesn’t wish to play any longer or even for the extremely unlikely circumstances that both metaphorically take their ball home and allow their coveted silverware to be looked after for a year before being returned to one of its two previous holders, you can bet your final Euro that no matter what the potential competition is that’s put in front of them, even in spite of all the slip up’s and false dawns, it’s always more than likely that one of the two come out on top after thirty-right league games.
If former Real boss José Mourinho once spoke of horses and remarked that the little horse can reign supreme much to everybody’s surprise in the English Premier League, in similar equine terms there’s no denying that the Spanish La Liga is perhaps the greatest two horse race on the planet. Charging across each furlong and avoiding every obstacle put in front of them, each year presents its own Grand National in the form of El Clasico where the horse adorned in claret and blue pits its wits against a galactico in a battle that truly illustrates which horse is not only in the best shape and fit to earn deserved success no matter the conditions, but the one that has the greater potential to last the distance and not fall short at the final hurdle. Directed currently by both Luis Enrique and Zinedine Zidane at the Catalan outfit and in the Spanish capital respectively, jockeys may come and go but as racehorses, year upon year both are trained well and ready to compete no matter what, making the battle for the La Liga crown all the more exciting and particularly appealing to a wider global audience with some of the biggest names in the sport on show.
Inevitably as in every horse-race, there are exceptions to the rule and once every so often, that outsider that never looked capable of maintaining such good form on all surfaces throughout the entirety of a league season can win one of the most difficult races of all by a whisker, or a nose if you like. Take Atlético Madrid resurgence in recent seasons marked most notably by their league title success in 2013/14, or even Valencia’s surprising and stand-out league title victory way back in 2001/02 and 2003/04 under Rafael Benitez, whilst this shows that it can be done and that success by either one of the El Clasico pairing isn’t so much of a foregone conclusion as one might have thought, chances are often slim and it therefore takes something nothing short of special to overturn what has become tradition in the Spanish top flight. Likewise, perhaps more common but albeit an incredibly difficult feat to obtain, domestic cup success in the Copa deal Rey is maybe somewhat more probable but even still, it’s difficult to see past either one of Barça or Real as the teams whittle down in the competition and both heavyweights breeze through each round with complete ease.
Yet in spite of both clubs’ dominance, there remain eighteen other top flight teams with their own set of supporters and backroom staff, as well as first-team and wider squad players that inevitably must have to believe in themselves and that anything is possible. And partially in the words of the Arctic Monkeys, whilst expectation and anticipation can have a habit to set you up for disappointment and entertainment, it’d be wrong for a top tier team to head into a league season without their own set of pre-determined aims ahead of the league campaign. With this in mind and looking towards to the top half of La Liga specifically, given the nature and predictable dominance of the select couple, what can therefore be deemed as a successful season and what should be deemed as success for a Spanish repeatedly on the periphery of finishing in the top two?
A good run in the cup, qualifying for Europe or just getting one over your fierce local rivals and earning all-important bragging rights for the next twelve months through a higher league standing and number of derby day victories? Beauty or in this case success is solely on the eye of the beholder and unless a manager cataclysmically fails to meet the simplest of expectations, those at the top can go from season to season untouched without a top four finish or piece of silverware to their name.
Sevilla have been as good as any competition this season for Real Madrid and Barcelona but as expected, the glimmer of hope and flashes of brilliance look like they’re starting to fade as the Andulusian club attempt to maintain their high-intensity, top quality performances whilst balancing the demands of being one of few sides to still be fighting it out for UEFA Champions League success. Similarly whilst you can never fully write off ‘Cholo’ Simeone’s Atlético Madrid given the abundance of attacking talent the Argentinian has at his disposal, this season has been a rollercoaster of a year by their usually very high standards and for them as they experienced themselves after La Liga success some years ago, when there’s a large deficit between yourselves and the league leaders, it can prove awfully difficult to reach. Both sides may therefore have the potential and the squads on paper to provide a real challenge to both Barça and Real but once again as it proves so often, it appears that whilst two is company, three or even four is most certainly a crowd.
Away from Real’s cross city rivals alongside Jorge Sampaoli’s men, you struggle to see where the next real threat of competition will come from. Villarreal and Celta Vigo have fell far short of the mark this season as they both attempt to juggle the extra demands of European Football whilst the likes of Eibar and Las Palmas may grab the headlines through stunning, striking and somewhat surprising victories against the so called ‘big-boys’ in La Liga but just like Vigo and Villarreal, you too would be incredibly wrong to even seriously consider either side as a serious contender for a European standing in La Liga, let alone a realistic competitor for the league title! Meanwhile former Spanish giants Valencia and Deportivo la Coruña may looked to have cracked the enigma code in the early noughties due to their domestic individual success but their dominance (if you can call it that) was a bit like Gary Neville’s time at Los Che: full of hope and optimism to begin with before ending somewhat abruptly – extremely short-lived for both clubs.
Clearly every club has their barometer of both what can and more so what should be seen as a successful season but with fewer and fewer clubs failing to provide any real form of competition to Real or Barça, simply succumbing to the might of the two La Liga giants, the Spanish top flight looks as much as a two horse race as it ever has been. It’s easy to say only time will tell in the event of a surprising sporting moment but it almost certainly has done in the case of the few sides that were actually able to stem the flow of Catalonian and capital city success. Somewhat unbelievable to begin with and ultimately somewhat far-fetched to even think such success could ever be sustained. Of course financial muscle, club stature and extensive backing behind the scenes separates Barcelona and Madrid from the chasing pack but even with Simeone and Sampaoli, two of most sought managers in Europe challenging the top two and their highly capable, astute club sides, neither have proven to be able to achieve anywhere near as much success or good form as their counterparts.
Therefore when you’re next in the bookies eyeing up the odds and next seasons La Liga victor, unlike a 5.40 at Punchestown or 2.10 at Aintree whereby an outsider can often offer the best value money with much longer odds than the favoured two, when it comes to the Spanish top flight you’re probably best saving your money or simply placing it on the two, often joint favourites. Nobody knows which way it will eventually go but you can almost guarantee that the Spanish league title will somehow make its way onto an open top bus tour through the streets of either Barcelona or Madrid city centre come the end of the footballing season. And as for the rest, the faithful few that one day dream of doing a Leicester City, they really will need to defy all odds to get anywhere near even challenging at the top, let alone galloping to a league victory outright.