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Is Real Madrid the team to beat?

Real Madrid have added another piece of silverware to their precipitously expanding trophy cabinet under ...

Is Real Madrid the team to beat?

Real Madrid have added another piece of silverware to their precipitously expanding trophy cabinet under Zinedine Zidane after winning the Super Cup on Tuesday. The matchup against Manchester United was highly billed, considering the popularity of both clubs on show, but it was a mismatch in large parts.

Having won three of the past four UEFA Champions League crowns, Real are by far and away the best team in Europe. But can they be the best in Spain again?

La Liga has been a two-horse race between archrivals Real and Barcelona for much of its almost century-long existence. Fittingly the very first La Liga title had Barca as the winners and Real as the runners-up. Barcelona and Real Madrid have 57 La Liga titles between them. All other clubs have a combined 29.

The dominance of the two arch-nemeses have been even more prominent since the 1984-85 season, having won 29 off the 33 La Liga titles since then. Atletico Madrid (1996, 2014), Deportivo La Coruna (2000) and Valencia (2004) have been the only clubs to wrestle the title away from their clutches.

And while Atletico have finished in the top three in the past five seasons — including the 2014 La Liga title — it’s still pretty much a two-horse race in Spain. This is especially true following the transfer ban on Atletico Madrid.

But who among Real Madrid and Barcelona go into the season as the favourite?

Having seen Barca win six of the previous eight (eight of the previous 12) La Liga titles, Madrid’s league triumph last year is expected to turn the tide in their favour domestically. The 2014 UCL title, their first in 12 years, was supposed to do the same on the European front, with Real now the clear dominant force on the continent.

For Real to retain the league title, they have to do pretty much what they’ve been doing since Zidane took over 20 months ago. With the Cristiano Ronaldo saga over, and French wonderkid Kylian Mbappe in their sight, Madrid would on paper be stronger than they were last year.

However, the rise of Isco last year and the potential arrival of Mbappe could see Gareth Bale head for the exit — the man who 12 months ago was the most expensive player in the world wouldn’t want to play second fiddle to anyone.

Bale’s departure actually demonstrates Madrid’s squad depth. It was the Welshman’s injury last year that brought Isco to the fore, and as the Spaniard further demonstrated against United on Tuesday, he’s among the hottest properties in the world right now.

Barca would’ve had to strengthen regardless of what Madrid did with their squad, to win the title back. But the loss of Neymar, over a well-documented world record move that is going to change the transfer rulebook forever, has left them significantly weaker.

While they now have £200 million of Neymar money and their sights on the likes of Phillip Coutinho and Alexis Sanchez, it is hard to see any of those players filling in Neymar’s shoes. Barca were on decline — especially in Europe as depicted by PSG for almost 180 minutes and then Juventus — even with Neymar, they would have to rebuild all over again, and in quick time, to dominate in Spain again.

But of course, there is
Lionel Messi and he is capable of doing the unprecedented singlehandedly. Luis Suarez was another prolific part of the troika that Barca had with Neymar on board. Barcawould need to sign a headline forward soon, and shore up the back to rebound from last season and recover from the Neymar transfer.

As usual, it is hard to see anyone outside of Real and Barca for the top 2. Atletico’s transfer ban till 2018 means they absolutely need to retain the squad that has put them in the final stages of European football and the La Liga title race in recent seasons.

This has ensured that the likes of Antoine Griezmann has stayed despite heavy interest from Manchester United along with Saul Niguez and Koke. Diego Simeone has a strong squad to battle on all fronts, and might have Diego Costa in January too.

But is it going to be enough to put more than a challenge and actually win the league? And is there a team outside these three that can pull off a Real Sociedad from 2003?

Athletic Bilbao have demonstrated that they can match the big boys, in patches if not regularly. In Aymeric Laporte — among the most sought after defenders in Europe — along with Iker Muniain and Inaki Williams — forwards who can damage any defence, they do have the personnel to conjure up a challenge. But they’d have to be on their best for a relentless 9-month campaign for Bilbao to break the top three.

Real Madrid would need to see their levels go down for there to be any chance for the rest of the sides — including Barcelona. And it would be intriguing to see if Atletico can continue to punch above their weight, following the transfer ban, or would they allow any other side a look at the tails of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

K Shahid

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