LaLiga 2020-21: Are Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in trouble?

By Sports Desk September 11, 2020

Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid comprised LaLiga's top three for an eighth consecutive season in 2019-20.

The big three of this era in Spain's top fight have not been apart since Valencia came in third in 2011-12 - 30 points shy of second-place Barca.

The order has shuffled into various configurations since, most sensationally when Atleti pipped the Blaugrana to finish top of the pile in 2013-14.

Madrid and Barcelona have cashed in on the superclub era, aided by arguably the two finest footballers of all-time, while Atletico gradually gained the weight they once punched above to become their country's third heavy hitter.

Nevertheless, each club heads into the new campaign with cracks appearing. If the end of an empire isn't quite upon us, it might be closing in.

MESSI, KOEMAN AND CATASTROPHE. WHAT IS GOING ON AT BARCELONA?

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

It is impossible to know whether Ronald Koeman has dwelt upon the wisdom of Oscar Wilde as he arrives at the apparent end of Barcelona's age of decadence, but there is something devastating about the timing of the Dutchman getting the job he has always coveted.

Indeed, it speaks volumes over how much Koeman wanted to come 'home' to Camp Nou that he would do so under an entirely discredited president to preside over an aging squad left somewhere close to mutiny by a humiliation of historic proportions.

Koeman did say he views Lionel Messi as key part of his project at Barca. And he has him, although there is the monumental catch of context.

In an explosive interview where he focused on everyone's fault but his own - a Leo culpa, if you will - Messi insisted he was only sticking around because Bartomeu had gone back on his word to him and made a departure financially "impossible".

"The truth is that there has been no project or anything for a long time, they juggle and cover holes as things go by," Messi told Goal Spain, in a remarkably damning inditement of those who remain his employers and team-mates.

Ivan Rakitic has gone, Luis Suarez is going and Koeman apparently wants to sign a selection of the Netherlands international players he left behind to take on the poisoned chalice of a lifetime.

As Messi allude to, decline has been eating away at Barcelona for some time. By the time they surrendered LaLiga to Real Madrid after the coronavirus hiatus - performances that effectively condemned Quique Setien's doomed reign even before the 8-2 Champions League loss to Bayern Munich - they had scored fewer goals (86), conceded more (38), had fewer shots (494), won fewer games (25) and lost more (six) than in any of their past five LaLiga seasons.

The potential saving grace - at the same time a damning indictment of the elite European game in the 21st century - is it seems there is only so far that a club on course for a $1billion record turnover before COVID-19 took hold should realistically be able to fall.

Even if the sum of Koeman's transfer incomings are some Oranje foot soldiers and Manchester City youngster Eric Garcia, a functional defensive set-up in front of the excellent Marc-Andre ter Stegen, a smooth midfield alliance between Frenkie de Jong and Miralem Pjanic and a delightful forward line featuring Messi, Antoine Griezmann, the prodigious Ansu Fati and the returning Philippe Coutinho is an assortment it is not too difficult to imagine as a championship-winning one.

MAGIC OF CHOLISMO STARTING TO FADE

Atletico do not have the luxury of mismanagement on the scale of which Josep Maria Bartomeu has shambolically overseen at Barcelona. At best they'd be Valencia; at worst they'd be playing Segunda Division football.

March's rousing Champions League triumph that unseated European champions Liverpool at Anfield showed Los Colchoneros retain an unmatched thirst for making an unholy nuisance of themselves against Europe's aristocrats.

Unfortunately, the start-up beverage spin-off that is RB Leipzig denied them another such showdown in the latter stages of the competition in Lisbon last month - a performance and result that spoke of problems that have quietly mounted to the point Simeone will struggle to shift them as he approaches nine years at the helm.

With their backs against the wall and the bit between their teeth, few teams want to face Atletico. But in games where they are expected to win and take the game to the opposition, they increasingly appear woefully short of the right moves - the transition from reactive to pro-active football beyond them.

They were favourites to beat Leipzig but played a low percentage game and paid the price, as they did over the course of 16 LaLiga draws last season. Their 14 points dropped from winning positions marked their worst return in the past five years.

That Joao Felix came off the bench against Leipzig to win a penalty, convert it and briefly turn the game in Atleti's favour also spoke ill of Simeone's failure to get the best out of the majestically skilled Portugal forward.

Indeed, there is a mounting list of talented attackers who have failed to hit the heights under Simeone, with Griezmann something of an outlier in the aftermath of their 2013-14 success.

Back then, Atletico beat Madrid and Barca when it did not look possible. Now the Classico rivals look deeply fallible, Simeone is unable to rustle up enough of the old magic.

ZZ STAYING ON TOP?

It is not a story to live up to the self-aggrandising history of Madrid, but Zinedine Zidane's steadying hand last year saw them win the title through not messing up as much as their rivals.

Where Barca and Atleti dropped 13 and 14 points from winning positions, Madrid shelled six.

That is not to do down Zidane's achievements as a serial trophy collector. He now has two domestic titles to go with three Champions Leagues across two spells in charge.

The France great is perfectly in tune with a squad he knows well and coaxed a magnificent, career-best season out of Karim Benzema last time around.

From the resumption after lockdown until LaLiga was secured, Madrid won 10 straight matches to comprehensively overhaul Barca.

Their subsequent Champions League loss to Manchester City, where 2-1 defeats in each leg ultimately flattered the 13-time European champions, put their dominant domestic form in context.

Having led the way for much of the past decade, LaLiga's big three presently feel like they're a rung below Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and the Premier League's top two of City and Liverpool. While it is easy to see Madrid retaining Spain's top-flight for the first time since 2007-08, it is hard the see the wider continental gap closing.

Eden Hazard must improve upon a stop-start first season at the Santiago Bernabeu, while Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo and Federico Valverde have futures of giddying excitement ahead of them. However, the old guard of Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Benzema remain the core and are the wrong side of 30. Galactico-hunters no more, Los Blancos have once again been fairly quiet in the transfer market.

Zidane's skill at Madrid has been to delay a wholesale transition, even when he returned in the aftermath of Cristiano Ronaldo's 2018 departure. But the clock is ticking on the time for change and, as Madrid's biggest rivals have shown, a painful process awaits.

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    Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman said his team are trying to win the Copa del Rey as they attempt to overhaul LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid.

    Barca came from behind to beat second-tier side Rayo Vallecano 2-1 in Wednesday's last-16 showdown in the Copa del Rey.

    Fran Garcia gave Vallecano a 63rd-minute lead before Lionel Messi equalised six minutes later and Frenkie de Jong completed Barca's comeback 10 minutes from time midweek.

    It has been a challenging season for Barca amid doubts over Messi's future, the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and a struggle for form as the Spanish giants sit third and 10 points behind Atletico, while they also lost the Supercopa de Espana final.

    But Koeman and Barca remain focused on the goal of silverware, with the Catalan club set to face Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League round of 16.

    "I am very happy," Koeman said post-match after reaching the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey. "From the beginning we played a good game. In the first part we forgave them on several occasions, in the last pass, there were plays in which there could be penalties.

    "Yes, we had problems in the first half. In the second one, especially with the score against, I think we've showed our personality, scoring quality goals, we came back in the game. At the end you always suffer with such a tight result with just one goal difference. Overall, the team played very well.

    "We know these are complicated games, it does not matter the category of the opponent. They played a great game, they complicated us. But, in the first half we forgave them, we should've scored one or two goals."

    "Our goal is to go game by game, try to win every game in order to try to move up in the table," Koeman added. "Cut the gap we have now [in the league], play in the Champions League.

    "We want to win the Copa [del Rey]. I think this is the mentality our team has shown in all competitions and try to get the most out of it. It is important, we are Barca, but there are no easy games.

    "We know how the Copa games are, it doesn't depend on the category of your opponent. You have to work a lot and play well. The field was not very good to play our game. Despite the state of the field, we played a very good game. Also, the team had the right mentality to overcome this play-off."

  • Rayo Vallecano 1-2 Barcelona: Messi and De Jong seal Copa del Rey progress Rayo Vallecano 1-2 Barcelona: Messi and De Jong seal Copa del Rey progress

    Barcelona booked their place in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals as goals from Lionel Messi and Frenkie de Jong sealed a 2-1 win over Rayo Vallecano on Wednesday. 

    Ronald Koeman's side had looked set to follow Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in losing to lower-league opposition when Fran Garcia gave Segunda Division side Rayo the lead shortly after the hour-mark. 

    As is so often the case, though, Messi pulled Barca level soon after with a close-range finish. 

    That set the stage for the impressive De Jong to secure Barca's progression 10 minutes from time.

    The first clear sight of goal did not come until the 20th minute, De Jong looping an effort from six yards onto Stole Dimitrievski's crossbar.

    The visitors somehow failed to take the lead 10 minutes before the interval when Dimitrievski initially pawed away Trincao's strike before Riqui Puig's follow-up was diverted onto the crossbar by Ivan Martos.

    Antoine Griezmann and De Jong had further chances, but Barca were ultimately unable to make their superiority count at the break.

    Messi clipped the top of the crossbar with a free-kick three minutes after the restart before the Argentina international blazed over after being played clean through soon after.

    Barca were made to rue those misses in the 63rd minute when Fran Garcia turned home from almost on the line after Neto had parried Alvaro Garcia's cross into his path.

    Messi restored parity six minutes later, however, sliding in from six yards after being teed up by Griezmann.

    De Jong ensured there would be no need for extra time to settle the result, stroking home from a similar position to Messi from Jordi Alba's cross.

  • Juventus 4-0 SPAL: Frabotta stunner helps tee up Derby d'Italia semi-final Juventus 4-0 SPAL: Frabotta stunner helps tee up Derby d'Italia semi-final

    Gianluca Frabotta scored his first senior goal as Juventus eased into a Coppa Italia semi-final tie against Inter with a comfortable 4-0 win over second-tier SPAL at Allianz Stadium.

    Alvaro Morata scored his first penalty for Juve since February 2016 to put last season's runners up, without the rested Cristiano Ronaldo, ahead in the opening stages.

    Frabotta's strike was the highlight, however – his wonderful finish handing Andrea Pirlo's team complete control.

    Aaron Ramsey squandered two good chances to add to Juve's lead, though it was an error in the SPAL defence which enabled Dejan Kulusevski and Federico Chiesa to wrap things up.

    Frabotta lashed a low effort across the face of goal as Juve hunted an early opener, and it duly came in the 16th minute.

    Adrien Rabiot was booked for simulation after he went down under Francesco Vicari's challenge, yet the referee changed his decision after consulting VAR, and Morata sent Etrit Berisha the wrong way from 12 yards.

    Morata turned provider eight minutes later, with Kulusevski stinging Berisha's palms, before Ramsey hit the side netting.

    Berisha was picking the ball out of his net again a minute later, though – Frabotta thumping in a brilliant first-time strike from the edge of the area.

    SPAL veteran Sergio Floccari had an immediate chance to haul one back, but sliced wide of the left-hand upright.

    Frabotta almost turned provider with a wicked cross early in the second half, though Ramsey failed to turn it home.

    Ramsey found his route to goal blocked by Berisha prior to the hour, while Kulusevski – who had teed up Frabotta's goal at the end of an impressive run – continued to run SPAL ragged.

    Kulusevski had the goal his performance deserved with 12 minutes remaining, the forward coolly slotting home after Morata had pounced on Nenad Tomovic's mistake.

    And substitute Chiesa added further gloss in the final minute of stoppage time when he rounded Berisha to tuck in.

    What does it mean? Derby d'Italia coming up

    Juve failed to perform when Inter came to town on January 17, but now have a chance to bite back over two legs, which will take place next month.

    Between them, Juve and Inter have won the Coppa Italia 20 times, albeit the Bianconeri have the majority share in that particular aspect, having triumphed on 13 occasions.

    Frabotta fires one in

    Left-back Frabotta has been a regular under Pirlo this term, with Wednesday's game his 14th appearance of the season in all competitions, and the 21-year-old took his first senior goal in supremely confident fashion.

    It capped a fine individual display as he became the youngest Italian player to score for Juve since Moise Kean in April 2016.

    Bernardeschi injury blow

    Federico Bernardeschi is still awaiting his first goal of the campaign, with the Italy international having made just six starts in total.

    However, his wait might be set to go on, with the former Fiorentina attacker succumbing to a knock and going off at half-time, having failed to register a single attempt or create a chance.

    What's next?

    An away trip to Sampdoria is Juve's next Serie A fixture, on Saturday, while SPAL host Monza in Serie B.

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