Is the La Liga title race officially over?
Considering the manner in which Barcelona were duly dispatched in the season’s Spanish Super Cup curtain-raiser against Real Madrid, few pundits would have thought the Catalan side could have streaked clear in the race for this season’s La Liga.
Real Madrid trail by fifteen points. Atletico are eight points behind. There is just one Clasico, and a Madrileño derby left between the top three sides. Realists must think the race is run. Me too; I struggle to see Barcelona collapsing.
Atleti and Real both fall off while Barcelona fly away
After Luis Enrique's departure, the Barcelona job appeared too daunting for an outsider even though there was no insider prepared to take the reins. Following the Spanish Super Cup, Gerard Pique painfully admitted Real Madrid were the superior side.
It’s quite amazing how the season has unfolded, especially with Real dropping so many points. The Merengues have dropped seventeen points more than they had last season. Meanwhile, their city rivals had the same total Real do now. This season, the Rojiblancos have been draw specialists, playing joint-most in the table's top half. The early season goal drought contributed largely to that, and to their premature exit from the Champions League. Two goalless draws against Qarabag? Stunning.
Barcelona: functional with a hint of flash
After Neymar's transfer, the Catalans were consigned to the scrap heap by the talking heads. With a new manager coming in, their future sold to an endlessly ambitious and monied side, a somewhat shaky looking defence, and a sound preseason thrashing courtesy Real Madrid, this season looked bleak.
Here we are, with eleven games to spare, the Catalan club have the best attack, have conceded just one more goal than Atleti, and remain unbeaten. Perhaps the most amazing thing is the talking heads are still men at work.
Barcelona have been heavily reliant on their two 30-something goal machines, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. The South American duo have scored more than 60% of the Blaugrana's Liga goals. Paulinho has pitched in, but Ousmane Dembele has been injured while Philippe Coutinho is still figuring out his role in his new team.
The real surprise, even beyond continually employed pundits, has been Valverde's ability to convince his attack-minded squad to play defence. Samuel Umtiti has partnered Gerard Pique almost as perfectly as Shakira. The superb Marc-Andre Ter Stegen has made almost three saves per game. Umtiti has made four tackles and an interception per game. Yerry Mina is prepared to step in when Pique ultimately chooses Shakira over Umtiti. The 23-year-old Colombian caught the eye on his debut with seven tackles, interceptions and blocks.
Not only has the season been refreshingly enjoyable for Cules, the future appears bright as well.
Any hope for their rivals?
The Blaugrana now expect to reach the last eight against a Chelsea side looking evermore adrift. Barca have three games over the next fortnight including the Blues. While it was through three draws, the Catalans have dropped six points in their last five games. The gap between themselves and Atletico had dropped to five points until they halted Atleti's advance personally.
Attacking depth is a concern. Dembele can't stay healthy. Coutinho is taking time to settle. An injury to either Messi or Suarez will massively hamper their continental prospects. The only testy games they have domestically are against Sevilla and Valencia, where dropped points could again make the race very interesting. But it is a two-horse race. Real is too far back. Valverde has not won a title. Yet, he has too many players who have for that to be an issue.
Is the La Liga title race over? Yes. Yes, it is.