After an explosive summer transfer window which saw some of the world’s most talented players moving to Spain’s traditional big two – as well as some high-profile departures – the La Liga title race was always likely to be an intriguing affair. With no top division football in Spain this weekend and the table starting to take shape, we’ll take a quick look at how the two sides are shaping up a fortnight before the first Clasico of 2014/15.
At the start of the season, many were predicting Champions League winners Madrid to take the league by storm; Angel Di Maria had been replaced by the star player of a scintillating World Cup, and goalkeeper Kaylor Navas, who also excelled in Brazil, would bring an end to Carlo Ancelotti’s goalkeeping headache. Conversely, Barca had splashed a ridiculous amount of money on a player who could not play – until October’s Clasico – due to an inexplicable animalistic outburst and who would surely add to a perceived personality/style clash between Messi and Neymar up front. The leaky defense had been patched up by seemingly very average players, and fading stars such as Gerard Pique and Xavi were yet to be replaced with a transfer embargo looming over the horizon.
In reality, things could not really have started out much more differently; Barca have shot into an early lead at the top of the table while Madrid have faltered, looking off the pace and are already four points behind.
Early losses to Real Socieded and neighbors Atletico – in La Liga and the Spanish Super Cup – led to some murmurings of discontent and while there have been highlights such as the 8-2 thrashing of Deportivo and a recent 5-0 romp past Athletic Club, it has been an unsatisfactory start to the new campaign. The form of the supposed golden boy and newest galactico James Rodriguez has been a source of some complaint; he has not been awful but he has not made anything like the sort of impact which is expected with a price tag such as his own. The blistering start to life at Old Trafford made by rejected Real Madrid engine Angel Di Maria has not exactly helped matters, especially with the customary accompanying rumors that Ronaldo could be keen to make the same switch.
Meanwhile, the Catalans have been going about their business in a way reminiscent of the days of old – ruthlessly. A 3-2 defeat to PSG in the Champions League was disappointing without being disastrous, and other than that a 0-0 draw at Malaga remains the only blot on their copybook so far this year. Messi, returning from an injury-hit year capped off with a World Cup Final heartbreak, seems to have adapted his game to suit his changing physicality, bringing more assists into his game as his goalscoring will inevitably begin to drop off in future. Claudio Bravo has set a record for minutes unbeaten between the sticks and players like Thomas Vermaelen and Jeremy Mathieu have made a mockery of those who said they weren’t good enough for the club.
Some would say that the entire season will hinge on the integration of Suarez into the Barca team when he makes his long-awaited return from exile. Club legend Johan Cruyff has speculated that he could be the missing link in the Messi-Neymar partnership and it certainly seems that, if the terrifying trio do click in front of goal, the Catalans could take some catching.