Ok, it’s time to talk about Barça and Madrid.
It seems fairly obvious to everyone involved that the destination of the LaLiga title this season is going to come down to these two age-old rivals. Real Madrid coasted fairly comfortably to their record-extending 35th league title last season, and while Ancelotti’s side retained much of the quality that saw them be league and European champions previously, it is clear that the road to repeating is much more difficult this time around, with a weird and uneven league schedule, caused by the World Cup this winter, as well as a resurgent Barcelona standing in their way. Repeating as champions is also not something Real Madrid traditionally do well, having only successfully defended their league title once since the late 1980s. Carlo Ancelotti also tends to not win multiple league titles in once place, with his five league crowns in his career all coming for five different teams in five different leagues. All signs seem to point to this being a difficult title race for these two teams.
But let us start with Los Blancos. The reigning Spanish and European Champions are, unsurprisingly, still a very good team. Bold statement, I know.
Real Madrid have returned more or less the same team that were double champions last season. Yes, Kylian Mbappé is not there, and that whole saga had the potential of derailing the things that were already going well for Madrid, but ultimately I do not think it really matters. Vinícius and Benzema are still there, and if both of them are still there and still kicking, then Real Madrid are one of the best teams in the world. Viní Jr. was nothing short of outstanding last season and has started this season at a similar level, cementing himself as one of the best young players in world football at the moment. Benzema was obviously also outstanding last season, and while he has had a slower start to this season, as well as getting injured in their game against Celtic, he has still been influential in many ways when on the pitch. There is a reason why he is going to win the Ballon d’Or.
The biggest advantage this Madrid team has over last year’s team, however, is that it is not solely on Benzema and Viní. Last year’s team was not 100% them either, to be fair, but they were certainly the main men, alongside an ageless Luka Modrić. This season has been different, though. Modrić continues to defy logic, human nature, and Father Time himself, remaining one of the best midfielders in the world at age 37, but new addition Aurélien Tchouaméni, as well as the second-season youngster Eduardo Camavinga, are improving the already strong Madrid midfield and guiding them into the transition to the post-Kroos and Modrić era, whenever that comes around.
Federico Valverde has been immense this season, being the main standout Real Madrid player up to this point. He was a useful role player the past few seasons, slotting in as a midfielder, winger, and even a right back at times, but he has now truly emerged as a serious talent in his own right. His daring confidence combined with a strong technical ability, ball-carrying ability, and never-exhausting engine has made him one of the best midfielders in Spain through this stage of the season. Rodrygo as well, a player who might have fully lost his place in the team had Mbappé made the move to Spain, has now emerged as a serious contributor in this team. The 21 year old Brazilian played a key role in Real Madrid’s run to the Champions League title last season, and he has taken the next step from that experience to being a highly-trusted player who can fill multiple roles for Ancelotti.
It is through Rodrygo and Valverde in particular that Los Blancos‘ attack has been bolstered, especially since Benzema’s injury. Benzema came off the pitch injured in the first half of Real Madrid’s Champions League game against Celtic, and since that point, Madrid scored three goals in the second half in Celtic Park and an additional eight goals in their next three games. Even with the difficult start to the season that Benzema has had, it seems that Real Madrid have, for the most part, not skipped a beat. Even with the loss of Casemiro, Tchouaméni has come in and been outstanding in midfield, being everything Casemiro was and, in some ways, much more. They clearly need more from Benzema to repeat as champions, but this is a team that in many ways has improved from last season, presenting a more formidable obstacle for an outside team aiming to be champions.
And that outside team aiming to dethrone Los Blancos is their arch nemesis. Barcelona have, well, been in the news lately. They have made a lot of signings, they have sold a lot of things, Joan Laporta has said a lot of stuff. You have likely heard the word palanca repeated incessantly. Barcelona’s financial issues and the issues that might come with the logic of these palancas, basically Barça selling percentages of assets in their club (TV revenue, marketing, licensing, etc) to get immediate revenue, can be a blog in its own right, but we will not focus on that here. Just know that they did what they did, they are now more compliant with LaLiga’s financial and salary regulations, and what they did was legitimate and legal (at least that we know of).
But the team Barcelona have created is actually quite good. We saw issues with Barça last season under Koeman, and even after Xavi was appointed in November, the high’s of the Catalan legend’s reign has been paired with some wild inconsistencies and embarrassing moments.
This summer has been the start of a massive shift for the Blaugrana, however, adding several major additions that make their team much better. This is most notable in attack, where Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha have added serious firepower. Lewandowski is taking the opportunity to remind the world that, even playing in a different league, he is still one of the best players of his generation and one of the best goal scorers that we have ever seen. The sheer incredible amount of options that Xavi has to field around Lewandowski is what really makes the difference in this team, and it is what makes Barça terrifying going forward. Around one of the best forwards ever is some combination of Raphinha, Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembélé, Ferran Torres, and Memphis Depay, who are all very good in their own right. This is why Barcelona lead LaLiga in goalscoring with a whopping 19 goals in 7 games.
As you go further back in the team, some issues begin to arise but also some strengths. The midfield pairing of Gavi and Pedri looks very strong early on, and the ability to rotate Frenkie de Jong or Franck Kessié in when the situation calls for it is a huge advantage. Not having a replacement for Sergio Busquets is very problematic, and that is an issue that needs to be resolved soon, but he is still relatively fine for now. While they have not found a permanent replacement for Jordi Alba at left back, the signing of Jules Koundé and emergence of Ronald Araujo has strengthened the defense of this team significantly.
The biggest question and issue surrounding Barcelona this season really is the mystery of what we do not know: how will this team stack up when it matters the most? So far, Barça have won the games against teams they were much better than and lost the games that was more even. While they did play well against Bayern and can feel aggrieved about the missed penalty call against Inter, they still lost the games, and we are long past the time where Barcelona should even be remotely considering accepting moral victories from defeats. The season’s first Clasico should be very illuminating when it comes to showing where this Barcelona team actually is, and how Barça perform when the going gets tough will illustrate how much really has changed in Catalonia and whether the Blaugrana are ready to contend for major honors again.
Which then leads us to the bedrock question of this article: who will be champions of Spain?
The truth is I really do not know. There is enough to support saying either will be champions, and that is ultimately a good thing for LaLiga this season. While it is boring seeing those same two teams fight for the title once again, actually having a title race will put eyes on screens around the world for the league, especially given that it is very possible that three of Europe’s main five leagues will not even have a two horse race for their championships. Barcelona are revolutionized but still unproven, and Real Madrid are steady but not quite evolved enough to stay ahead of the competition.
But this is a prediction article, and I need to put my neck out there and say something definitive instead of waffle on for a whole article, so here we go: Real Madrid will repeat as champions.
While I do believe Barcelona will be much improved and are set up well to be champions very soon, I think this is one season too early for them. Not everything will have perfectly gelled for Xavi’s side this early, and that defense in particular looks very suspect should injuries happen to key figures. While Real Madrid could suffer from a setback given that the unbelievable form of key players from last season is hard to maintain, this is still a team that is very experienced and very confident in who they are and how they play. The rise of players like Rodrygo, Tchouaméni, and Valverde will help fill holes and allow Benzema, Modrić, and Vinícius to not have to be superheroes.
Could I be wrong? Absolutely. I flip-flopped on this answer for ages. It should be a close race, and regardless of outcome, we will all surely be entertained.
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