Euro 2020 Special

La Liga Season Leaves as Many Questions as Answers

After another compelling campaign the question being asked is: have Atletico Madrid and their impressive boss Diego Simeone taken a longer-term La Liga control over Real Madrid and Barcelona?

This SBOTOP writer thinks not.

And I suspect the La Liga betting odds for next season will ultimately place Atletico as third favourites again.

However, for Los Rojiblancos to be crowned kings of Spain against the might of the established big-hitters is a mighty fine achievement and cannot be underplayed.

Atletico’s aces deserve utmost respect

To win the title once would be something but twice in seven years, creating plenty of La Liga highlights along the way, is superb and Simeone deserves all the plaudits that come his way.

Yes, you may argue their cross-city rivals and Barca are not the sides they were and you’d be right but that is hardly Atletico’s fault.

In truth, their class of 2021 is not as strong as those assembled by Simeone over the past decade but when you consider the duopoly’s greater spending power, Atletico’s success is an even greater achievement than some acknowledge.

Although the race swung one way then the other, few would have thought it would even come down to the final day of the season in the early part of the year as Atletico capitalized on the inconsistency of Real and Barcelona to open up a healthy lead.

Then, as the established two found some form, Atletico had a wobble.

They got over the line via two last weekend comebacks, culminating in celebrations at relegated Real Valladolid.

With eight trophies won in the decade since Simeone’s arrival, this is the most consistently successful period in Atletico’s history.

The Rojiblancos have finished third or higher in La Liga for nine consecutive seasons, having previously never done so for more than three years in a row, and have also reached two Champions League finals.

Respect indeed.

Big summer ahead for Real

It’s time for some big decisions at Real Madrid this summer.

Although there is increased speculation that Zinedine Zidane will depart, the coach has showed plenty of character this term and the club should keep the Frenchman and allow him to rebuild.

Real Madrid ended their La Liga season at second place, two points behind champions Atletico Madrid
Real Madrid Zinedine Zidane commands his players from the touchline during their match against Villarreal

That is quite a task if you believe the club is struggling financially meaning they may struggle to sign either of the top young talents in world football right now – Kylian Mbappe and Erling Braut Haaland – two players regularly linked with a switch to the Bernabeu.

It is even more difficult when you factor in that key players such as Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric (who has signed a one-year extension) are well into their 30s and big-money signing Eden Hazard is struggling to stay fit.

However, then look back at Zidane and the team’s reaction to adversity.

When the odds were stacked against them earlier in the campaign, he revived them, made them believe silverware was possible and managed to guide them to the Champions League semi-finals and take the title race to the final day of the season.

To do that, Real embarked on an 18-game unbeaten run in La Liga, managing an impressive 13 victories in a row and five draws.

David Alaba is on his way from German champions Bayern Munich this summer. A few more like him and a campaign without silverware may well remain a rare occurrence.

Can Barca bounce back?

Their lowest finish since 2008 barely tells the story.

That really lies in the fact they are supposedly more than £1 billion in debt and this week required a £100 million emergency loan to cover unpaid player wages.

If coach Ronald Koeman is fired, despite guiding the team to a Copa del Rey success, it will be harsh as the real fault-lines appear to lie elsewhere.

Their main summer targets seem to be free transfers which outlines their financial plight but all those linked to the club share the experience factor also – a trait they were short of at times during 2020/21.

The additions of defender Eric Garcia and, particularly, Sergio Aguero from Manchester City will boost the squad and the latter could prove a masterstroke. Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum also looks set to arrive on a free transfer, while another fellow Dutchman, Lyon forward Memphis Depay, has long been rumored to move to the Nou Camp – all of which make the case to retain Koeman’s services stronger.

Looming large above everything else, of course, is the question of whether skipper Lionel Messi will stay.

I suspect not but even if he does, that would only serve to paper over some of the cracks.

Unai Emery and Julian Lopetegui have had a rough few years and been much maligned in recent years. They have again both proved their worth this term with the former guiding his side to the final of the Europa League – a fine achievement for a club of Villarreal’s stature, regardless of the result – whereas after a miserable sojourn at Real, Lopetegui has also proved his point, not least a fortnight before the end of the season where the point he claimed at his former employers probably cost them the title.