Only a few weeks ago, Barcelona had started to tie the blaugrana ribbons on the Liga trophy. Their win over Getafe in the first game back after the short winter break observed in Spain put them five points clear at the top of the table, but perhaps most significantly it extended their advantage over rivals Real Madrid to a giant 10 points.
At that point, it seemed difficult to envisage how a title race could be reignited at the top of the Liga table. However, a lot has changed since then. After the busiest and most hectic period in the Spanish football calendar, the picture has shifted. Of late, many newspapers have run the headline ‘Hay Liga!’ – roughly translated to ‘There is a League!’
Of the past six games Barcelona have played in all competitions, they have won just two. They have drawn three in a row, dropping four points in two matches against Valencia and Athletic Bilbao. Meanwhile, Real Madrid have won seven of their last eight games, lifting them from fourth place to second. The gap between first and second now stands at just six points.
Indeed, Santiago Solari’s Real Madrid side look rejuvenated. The rise of Vinicius Junior has energised a club that looked on the brink of crisis at the start of the year, with the European champions now utterly dependent on the creativity of the Brazilian teenager. Vinicius is also bringing the best out of Karim Benzema, while Luka Modric and Toni Kroos have finally found something close to good form.
On the flip side, Barcelona have appeared weary in their last few appearances. They trudged off at San Mames last weekend having toiled to a goalless draw tired and despondent. The procession that not so long ago seemed destined to deliver yet another league title to Camp Nou now looks to be more of a slog to the finish.
Barca supporters know this feeling well. Last season, they suffered from similar problems. Ernesto Valverde was heavily criticised for failing to sufficiently rotate his squad, contributing to a late season dip in form. The theory went that had Valverde used his fringe players a little more frequently, Barcelona might not have suffered that infamous defeat to Roma in the Champions League. That they might have stopped Real Madrid from being crowned European champions for a third success year.
Valverde has tried to rotate more often this season. Arturo Vidal has been used to ease the burden on the midfield unit, with the shock addition of Kevin-Prince Boateng in January designed to give Luis Suarez a rest from time to time. And yet none of this has kept Barcelona away from the effects of fatigue such a packed schedule can have on a team.
Barcelona managed to hold things together in a domestic sense last season, lifting a Liga and Copa del Rey double. This time, however, their domestic performances are being affected. It’s not just Real Madrid who could catch the Catalans at the top of La Liga. Atletico Madrid, just a point behind their city rivals, must be considered part of the equation.
The 2018/19 La Liga campaign has been one of the most exhilarating on record. The first third of the season was characterised by a series of upsets that saw teams like Alaves, Real Betis and Espanyol populate the top places in the standings. Over time, though, that unpredictability slipped away and, to a certain extent, normal service resumed.
There is still time for La Liga to be given a fitting finale, though. Of course, a top three consisting of Atleti, Barca and Real would be entirely predictable, but nonetheless, a contest to the wire between the trio is something that didn’t look feasible a short while ago. ‘Hay Liga,’ indeed.
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