Before Barcelona played Granada on the 20th of March at the Camp Nou winning 5-3 in the process – a match which will forever be entered in the annals of history as the date on which Lionel Messi succeeded club legend Cesar Rodriguez in becoming Barca’s all-time leading goalscorer – the gap in points between the Catalan side and their arch-rivals Real Madrid who were – and still are – perched on top of their table was ten points. Two days before Lionel Messi added to his already eye-popping list of records broken, Real had stumbled at home to a 1-1 draw against cash-rich Malaga, Santiago Cazorla’s superb free-kick in the dying minutes of the game giving the away side a point to take home from the Bernabeu.
A day later, on the 21st of March, Madrid stumbled to another 1-1 draw, this time on their travels against relegation battlers Villareal. Cristiano Ronaldo scored for Los Blancos in the 62nd minute before Marcos Senna equalised with another free kick seven minutes from time. On the 24th, Barcelona travelled to the isle of Mallorca and came away with a two-nil win. Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique scored for the Azulgrana, who coasted to victory despite having Thiago Alcantara sent off in the second half.
What changed between the two sets of games is that the points gap between Real Madrid and Barcelona dwindled from a hearty eleven to a more measly six, and in any other league table, this would still be considered healthy. But this isn’t quite the case in La Liga, where nail-biting finishes between Catalonia and Castille are considered an annual occurrence, with this season’s El Clasico at the Nou Camp to still be played.
Once again, the Clasico in April could well point the way to which club lifts the La Liga BBVA trophy come May. A similar situation across the Channel in England, where cross-town rivals Manchester United and Manchester City are currently slugging it out for that coveted top spot this season. City were leading the table for most of the season, but it is Sir Alex Ferguson‘s side that hold a two point lead over the Sky Blues with a game in hand, having clawed back City’s much-vaunted lead at the top.
In third place sit Valencia, one of the few sides to have challenged the dominance of the top two in Spain. Los Che have been permanent fixtures in the European calendar in the past, winning the UEFA Cup, two league titles, one Copa del Rey and the UEFA Super Cup between 1996 and 2004, during which period they also made it to the final of the UEFA Champions League twice, losing 3-0 to Real in Paris in 2000, and more agonisingly, against Bayern Munich a year later in Milan, losing 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
Their place in the automatic Champions League spots, however, could be challenged by a team that have seen a blank cheque inflate their coffers last summer. Malaga have the potential to be future competitors to breaking the Real-Barca hegemony and sit level on points with Valencia (both 47). A club that once upon a time which just about managed a mid-table finish and struggled to be financially solvent was bought over the summer by Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al Thani, a member of the Qatari Royal Family for an alleged price of 36 million Euros. With their new money, Malaga – who wear a strip similar to that of City – have splashed the cash on players that could – and have – propelled them to the upper reaches of the table. A raft of new players including Jeremy Toulalan, Joris Mathijsen, Santi Cazorla, Martin Demichelis, Carlos Kameni and Ruud van Nistelrooy joined the club last summer and the previous winter.
Similar to the current situation in England, where Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur. Newcastle and Arsenal are involved in a four-way tug-of-war for the third and fourth Champions League spots, Malaga and Valencia face stiff competition from Espanyol, Osasuna and the fairytale club of this season’s Liga, Levante, who at one point were near the summit of the table. In a rise similar to that of new boys Swansea in the Premier League, Levante have challenged the big boys of Spain on a budget of a few hundred thousand Euros. Levante currently sit in the Europa League spots and it would be a shame if this little club from Valencia didn’t get a reward for their doughty displays this season.
Propping up the table are Sporting Gijon, Racing Santander, Real Sociedad, Real Zaragoza, Granada, and most surprisingly, Villareal. While nine points separate fifteenth-placed Granada from bottom club Gijon, the Yellow Submarines are just three points above the drop zone, having lost ten of their previous away fixtures, having won just one of their last seven matches in all competitions, a situation akin to that of the relegation six-pointers in the Premier League, where seven points and four places separate Bolton from Wolverhampton, who are rooted to the bottom with 22 points, with Queen’s Park Rangers and Wigan Athletic separating the two sides.
Fans of La Liga will be rooting for their favourite side, while others will be gallantly supporting the underdog. Those of you who don’t watch the league, please do. It isn’t at all boring.