Following a compelling World Cup interval, the second act of this La Liga season is equally intriguing. Yes, that’s obvious, but there is a lot to play for in Spain, with both Clásico teams set to compete for the league title—and the modern financial rewards and bonuses that go with it—in a tussle distinct from their historic battles.
While that head-to-head appears set to lead the way, there are other stories to consider, with implications beyond the games themselves.
Here are three things to monitor as the 20 squads readjust to Spanish domestic soccer and prepare for a new calendar year.
Real Madrid started with the swagger and results, so ruling over Spain and the Champions League again seemed a sure bet a few months back. In contrast, free-spending, share-selling Barcelona appeared a little desperate around the start of the season.
But after closing the gap, Barcelona now has a narrow lead over its rival as it eyes a first league crown in four years. If it can steal back the trophy, the economic gambles—risky expenditure on players and flogging parts of the club to third parties—will have paid off to some degree. Though dropping out of the Champions League means it has missed out on financial bonuses from UEFA, winning La Liga and the Europa League would see its purse recover. It would also ensure its brand value heightens, making it more attractive commercially to sponsors and players in the transfer market. That may give it a slight leg up over rival Real.
For all Los Blancos’ accolades in Spain and Europe, it’s not the finished article. Surprisingly, UEFA recently made its coefficient sixth in Europe, behind biggest winner Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, each yet to win the Champions League. While these are questionable awards, it suggests Real is not well ahead of everyone.
Relative to teams’ performances, coefficients influence how many sides from each European league are strong enough to qualify for the Champions League and how well-positioned they are in the draw. Of course, teams with a better coefficient have the advantage. Real is unlikely to face any troubles but will want to reassert its dominance. That starts with winning back-to-back La Ligas and another continental prize. Doing so would earn many millions for the league—taking television rights money and other considerations into the account—and much more based on its European results.
This year won’t be definitive. But any slip-ups will slightly check its momentum—potentially making Real a less appealing option for Jude Bellingham and any other reinforcements poised to move during the summer rather than January. Besides Barcelona, a tough Champions League knockout encounter with Liverpool—emboldened after recruiting the Dutch forward Cody Gakpo (Spanish)—awaits in February, which will be the acid test for its credentials. The Spaniards have the know-how, though, often peaking at the business end of the campaign.
Meanwhile, there is a feeling that La Liga is becoming a two-team league in terms of winning the championship. At least for the moment. Atlético coach Diego Simeone has accepted his team’s struggles—sitting way off the pace in Spain and out of Europe altogether—lie more with him than anyone else (Spanish).
And then there is Atlético’s €126 million ($134 million) man, Joao Felix, being linked to a move away from the club. While he’s not consistently delivered the goods in Madrid, losing him for much less than their initial investment would represent a failure on the club’s part. More importantly, it raises doubts as to where the side is heading. Matheus Cunha’s switch to Wolves limits it further in the attack.
In search of solutions, the side is supposedly interested in Real Betis striker Borja Iglesias and 34-year-old World Cup winner Nicolas Otamendi in defense. It has got catching up to do.
Perhaps the most intriguing storyline comes near the foot of the table, however. Sevilla, last relegated before this century, has an unrivaled six Europa League titles. But those are no use at present, with the side embroiled in a fight against the drop.
Sevilla, also keen on Otamendi, is still an unlikely candidate to go down—a fate that would see its global status suffer a hefty blow. As long as nobody important jumps ship in January, the coach Jorge Sampaoli has some confident stars to call on as it tries to fix its on-field problems.
It will need to respond immediately. Its first match back, against Celta Vigo, is a contest between La Liga’s biggest underachievers this year. Whoever wins will have to fuel to go on and survive. Some of the most crucial months in the side’s history are on the horizon.