The Runners and Riders as La Liga Nears Half-Way

La Liga

With one round of fixtures left before the winter break, the top of this season’s La Liga table features the usual suspects as well as a surprise entry. Let’s have a look at the frontrunners and dissect their strengths, weaknesses, and title chances at the half-way stage.

Barcelona

Strengths

Even by Barcelona’s astronomically high standards, they could not have asked for a better first half of the season. Unbeaten in all of their 15 league games, the Catalan club sit five points clear of second and just as importantly, if not more, they sit eight points clear of Real Madrid. Their squad depth has massively improved from last year, with even rotational players such as Thomas Vermaelen, Lucas Digne and Paco Alcacer stepping up when needed to ease the burden on the main men. The decision to sign Paulinho was ridiculed when announced in the summer, yet the Brazilian has been impressive, scoring four goals from midfield and even earning his recall to the national team. Add an in-form Lionel Messi into the mix, it’s no wonder that Barca are top scorers in the league so far, with a certain Ousmane Dembele still to come back from injury.

Weaknesses

Going into the season, major questions were being asked as to how the club would cope with Neymar’s departure. Ernesto Valverde initially planned a like-for-like swap with Dembele filling in at left-wing, however, since his injury he has adopted a 4-4-2. With considerably less fire-power than last year, even more of the burden falls Lionel Messi, with strike partner, Luis Suarez, struggling for form. The lack of a Plan B up top could potentially be problematic should Suarez continue to under-perform into the new year and if Messi picks up even a small injury.

Chances

Even with Messi papering over the cracks in the attack, it would be a crime for Barca to let this year’s title slip considering Madrid’s woes.

9/10 for me.

Valencia

Strengths

To say the least, Valencia have been the surprise package of the season. With meticulous Marcelino at the helm, the club has shot up the table since last year, with a strength being the variety within the squad. The team features a mix of players, some with a point to prove such as Simone Zaza after his torrid time at West Ham. Geoffrey Kondogbia is another player trying to somewhat rebuild his career after failing to impress at Inter Milan. Club captain, Dani Parejo, bore the brunt of the abuse from fans when the club was in freefall, floating above relegation and in a managerial merry-go-round. Instead of leaving, he stayed and is now showing Spain why he is one of the most talented playmakers in the country. The team also possesses the pace and attacking flair of younger players which will inevitably become household names. Santi Mina, Goncalo Guedes, Jose Gaya and Andreas Pereira are all incredibly talented wide players being allowed to flourish with more experienced heads in the middle.

Weaknesses

Valencia are perhaps being taken seriously this year as they were the last club other than Barca, Madrid and Atletico to win the league, back in 2003-04. However, they still remain firm underdogs, with good reason. There is still a sense that this team is heavily over-achieving, and given the lack of title winning credentials in the squad, keeping a title challenge up until May is a huge ask.

Chances

A five-point gap behind Barcelona is a tremendous ask for a side who haven’t been anywhere near the top of the table for a few years now. Thanks to Leicester, however, it is now foolish to ever rule out an underdog.

6.5/10

Atletico Madrid

Strengths

Atletico’s strengths are obvious just by looking at their statistics. Seven goals conceded all season, nine wins, six draws, zero losses. Diego Simeone’s side has always been, and continues to be, incredibly hard to break down. Their defence is perhaps strongest in the league when it comes to actually defending (ahem Marcelo ahem), with stalwarts such as Diego Godin, Juanfran and Felipe Luis having an almost telepathic defensive sense after years of playing together.

Weaknesses

Atletico’s weakness is the opposite of what makes them strong, their attack has been misfiring all season, with no player managing to score more than four goals. In games where a moment of magic is needed, Barca call on Messi, Madrid call on Ronaldo, and traditionally, Atletico call on Griezmann. This season, however, the French forward has look jaded and less focused, consistently hinting – through the media and mainly through his brother- that he wants to leave. The fans have understandably been a bit miffed at Griezmann since, with the bottom line being, Simeone has to take some kind of action in January to keep up a realistic title challenge.

Chances

Atletico’s squad look like they have lost some impetus compared to the last couple of years, with the importance firmly placed a January refresh to boost the squad.

5.5/10

Real Madrid

Strengths

In what has been a mixed first half at best for Madrid, a positive has been players establishing themselves as crucial to the squad, rather than rotational players. Isco has put in stellar performances, adding to what is already arguably, the best midfield in world football. He is also Madrid’s joint top-scorer, however, this speaks volumes about Madrid’s season when his tally is only four.

Weaknesses

The glaring weakness in Madrid’s team is the famous BBC attack being chronically out of form. Together, they have scored just eight goals all season, five less than Messi has managed himself. With Gareth Bale’s future permanently unsure, Zinedine Zidane now has the task of either motivating his current players to regain form, or make a bold move and bring in reinforcements.

Chances

It would be foolish to write off a team of Madrid’s quality just half-way through the season. But I’m doing it anyway. I can’t see them toppling Barca this year given the polar opposite form of the two teams.

5.5/10