Posted: Thursday September 1, 2011 12:32PM ; Updated: Friday September 9, 2011 9:00AM
Sid Lowe
Sid Lowe>INSIDE SOCCER

Gap continues to widen between Madrid, Barcelona and La Liga

Story Highlights

It's impossible to predict which team, Madrid or Barcelona, will top La Liga

Villareal and Valencia have both lost key players: Santi Cazorla and Juna Mata

Osasuna's struggles show the influence money has in smaller clubs' futures

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Two games in and Madrid and Barcelona have already risen to the top of La Liga.
Two games in and Madrid and Barcelona have already risen to the top of La Liga.
Geoff Bolte/Southcreek Global/ZUMAPRESS.com

Two games, 11 goals and one mighty familiar looking league table. A player's strike denied the Spanish league its opening round of games and put everything back by seven days, turning Week Two into Week One, but it only delayed the inevitable. And the inevitable still arrived with indecent haste, not even hanging on for a fortnight or two. When it did, it brought with it laments and arguments.

Real Madrid began the season by defeating Real Zaragoza 6-0, Barcelona beat Villarreal 5-0. An aggregate score of 11-0 and Madrid and Barcelona were top of the table after just one game. No one expects them to ever be anywhere else. Sevilla president José María del Nido called the league "rubbish" and, although Madrid defender Sergio Ramos responded by telling him that if he didn't like it he could go and play somewhere else, many agreed.

The first week of the season had reinforced what we already knew -- that Madrid and Barcelona will be the top two. Again.

The question is why, but that has been dealt with here before. So now the next question is in which order? Alas, it is a question with no real answer, impossible to judge or predict.

Much has been made of Madrid getting closer to Barcelona over the summer, as evidenced during the Spanish Super Copa. But Barcelona returned from a preseason that Pep Guardiola had openly complained about, whereas Madrid had built specifically toward that game; in other words, their margin for improvement was (as was shown against Villarreal) greater. Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sánchez have already demonstrated that they will add something to the league and Champions League winners.

And, besides, Barcelona ultimately won out.

It would take a brave commentator (or a Madrid fan) to declare Madrid the better team. Right now, Barcelona surely remains the best side in Europe.

In any case, the relative merits of Barcelona and Madrid may prove to be of only limited significance when it comes to winning the league. It is absurd that a team can get over 90 points two seasons in a row and not win the title but that is what has happened to Madrid.

Barcelona and Madrid are again likely to be so far ahead of the rest of the league -- last year Valencia, in third, was closer to relegation than to the title -- and will pick up so many points against everyone else that for all the action that 38 games will bring, the title could be decided in two.

Those two may not necessarily be the clásicos either. The smart money, however much Madrid draws closer to Barcelona, would be on a couple of draws or a win each across those two games. The smallest details will likely tip the balance this season and it could be against the smallest teams rather than in the big clashes. They will be billed as title deciders but the title is as likely to be decided elsewhere and when you least expect it.

Last season Madrid lost the league because of the 5-0 defeat against Barcelona, but also because of their failure to score against Mallorca, Levante, Deportivo and Sporting. Against Sporting they lost 1-0; in the other three the score was 0-0. Then there was a 1-1 draw with Almería, and a freak 3-2 loss to Zaragoza at a time in which they already believed the league to be beyond them. Even ignoring the Zaragoza defeat, that's 11 points dropped.

Against Barcelona, they dropped -- if you can call it dropped -- five, thanks to a draw and a defeat. In terms of their head-to-head with Barcelona, that only means slipping three points behind their rivals. They lost the league by four. In most leagues dropping 19 points would be nothing -- a near perfect campaign -- but in Spain it is huge. Barcelona dropped points in an early season defeat with Hércules, and 1-1 draws with Mallorca, Sporting and Sevilla (then, having clinched the title in two draws, 1-1 and 0-0, with Levante and Deportivo). That's nine points, 11 if you count the 1-1 draw with Madrid, and 15 in total.

The very awareness of that fact may change the approach this year, the refusal to accept a draw will be stronger. Both teams will look to batter, even the lowliest of opponents. After all, draws are the new defeat in Spain and goal difference may yet play a part. Madrid and Barcelona know that. Any bad result, any freak occurrence, could mean the title. Remember that bad miss in week nine against a seemingly irrelevant team? The guilty man might well do so -- and for the rest of his life.

THE EUROPEAN PLACES:

The gap this season between Madrid and Barcelona and the rest looks greater than ever before. Villarreal and Valencia have both lost key players with Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata departing, while Atlético Madrid has sold Diego Forlán and Sergio Aguero.

But that only tells part of the story and, as the transfer window closes, a different picture comes into focus. Once again Valencia has rebuilt cleverly: they have made $6.3M and slimmed down their wage bill, but while Mata has gone, Piatti, Parejo and Canales have all arrived and the impressive Bernat is coming through. Do not underestimate the significance of the two defensive additions too -- Adil Rami and Víctor Ruíz. Villarreal, meanwhile, has kept Giuseppe Rossi and added the talented Jonathan De Guzman. And if a fortnight ago Atlético appeared to have gone into a terminal decline, the mood could hardly be different now.

Falcao, Turan, Gabi and Diego have all arrived and not all of them have been paid for. Looking at Atlético's side there is genuine creativity throughout now. A midfield of Diego, Thiago, and Gabi with Reyes, Falcao and Ardan in front of them is impressive indeed.

Athletic Bilbao looks stronger too. Election year meant a new president and a new manager -- the fascinating Marcelo Bielsa. It also meant creating the conditions that saw them keep Fernando Llorente, resisting advances from elsewhere, while the talented Ander Herrera has joined an already impressive side that looks set for an switch in identity to a more creative, technical game. The query some Athletic supporters have is: is this all going that bit too fast? Will the players be able to take on an implement Bielsa's ideas?

The other team likely to be in the fight for a Champions League place is Sevilla who have reinforced well, kept Fredi Kanouté and, under new management with Marcelino, may succeed in getting the best out of Álvaro Negredo for an entire campaign after he finished last season so strongly.

Rakitic, who arrived midway through last season, is an important addition to the squad too. On the opening day, Sevilla showed that, with Navas and Perrotti, they can still be creative while Negredo was irresistible against the other side that should be in the fight for the European places: Málaga.

Their project has been dealt with here before, but they have the players to be taken seriously, even if it is hard to be overly enthusiastic about the center of their defense. Now, they need the time.

AT THE BOTTOM:

On the final day of last season, Osasuna was in danger of going down. They finished ninth. That tells you everything about the different strata in Spain where generating money is virtually impossible for the smaller clubs and competing well is not even a dream any more. A brief glance at the transfer window reveals much: only five teams had a net spend -- Madrid ($68.5M), Barcelona ($80M), Malaga ($80M) Athletic ($10.7M) and Granada ($9.3M). Those teams that will be down the bottom fighting for their lives may actually be fighting for their lives: Relegation can be fatal.

Last season, nine teams could have gone down on the final day; there will be almost as many candidates this time round. Of the three teams that came up, Betis -- who have a tidy midfield trio with Beñat, Sevilla and Iriney and have just signed Roque Santa Cruz -- look the best equipped to survive.

Osasuna's stadium often appears enough to allow them survive; their team rarely does. Getafe has new owners but there was no sign of the cash: in fact, Parejo, Boateng and Manu all left. Diego Castro, Lopo, and Pedro León's arrivals suggest that they may have enough to survive reasonably comfortably though -- and they have a clever coach with Luis García..

When Luis García's former club Levante survived last season it was a miracle. If they do so again this it will be even more of one. Felipe Caicedo has gone, his work here done - survival secured on the pitch with his goals and survival secured of it with his $10.7M transfer fee. Zaragoza are in administration and over $143M in debt but they have still spent $11.4M on a goalkeeper, Roberto, thanks to an investment fund that means they only had to actually fork out $428,730 but it is hard to see a desperately limited side surviving - at least it was until the late arrival on deadline day of Luis García and Helder Postiga. The way they were torn apart by Madrid on the opening day was depressing for fans. But for that new goalkeeper, 6-0 could have been 16.

Granada's opening day match against Betis revealed that Mikel Rico is a very good player but little else, except the fact that it is easy to understand how they found themselves wrapped up in such controversy last season. Racing Santander, victims of another savior whose project turned out to be more vulture than venture, are in administration and in crisis. They were flattered by a 4-3 defeat at Valencia that suggested that they are much better than they really are. Hector Cúper has experience and personality; courage too. But they will struggle. Rayo Vallecano fans are determined to enjoy it while it lasts and, quite rightly, don't think that will be very long. And Mallorca will definitely be in relegation having yet again sold their best player.

But then again, we say that every year. And Mallorca are still here.

 
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