Robbie Dunne reports from Spain as the weekend's action highlights a few issues
The Spanish top flight is known for its technical excellence and the glamour of El Clasico. For this season to turn into a war of attrition helps the league and the teams looking up the table at their high-flying neighbours.
The war of attrition I refer to is the injury-plagued January that Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have endured and the chink in their armour that has slowly revealed itself and the one that teams seem more aware of than ever.
Atletico Madrid and Barcelona face off in the Copa del Rey semi-final over the course of the next week and already have a midfield crisis in both of their sides. Barcelona are missing Andrea Iniesta and Sergio Busquets and showed against Real Betis that they are the lifeblood of the football team; the lack of a link between the midfield and attack was, at times, non-existent and Luis Enrique will have to conjure up some tactical magic in order to fill in the holes that both players have left in the squad.
Luis Enrique is being forced to rotate for fear of losing more players and with that comes a sense of instability within his side. Ditto Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.
"I’m going to rotate in all the games; if not the players won’t even reach February 15th," Enrique said prior to the Atletico Madrid game on Wednesday night. "It’s necessary when there’s tiredness, injuries and suspensions. So either I rotate or we can’t compete for all three competitions.
Atletico Madrid play a three-man midfield and currently only have three midfielders available to them with the possibility of Juanfran, a right-back, operating there and 19-year-old Keidi Bare being drafted in as a replacement if anyone else goes down. Jose Gimenez has been ruled out for at least three weeks as the injuries begin to seep into the back-line. Jan Oblak remains out with a dislocated shoulder too.
Real Madrid lured fitness coach, Antonio Pintus, from Lyon during the summer and set up a plan during the winter break that would allow them to be rested and ready for the huge demands that are required during January and early February. It is safe to say that Pintus’ plan needs some tweaking as Pepe, Marcelo, Dani Carvajal, Luka Modric and James Rodriguez continue to struggle with muscular injuries since the winter break.
For all intents and purposes, it is their league to lose but there is an uneasiness surrounding Real Madrid fans that suggests this season will provide plenty of drama before the final whistle blows on the season in May.
The true measure of any football league is the disparity between first and last. For a relatively smaller side, you can still lose in the away fixture against the big teams and have nothing to be ashamed of, but how you apply yourself in games at home can be a true indication of how far a team has come on. With Alavés, Espanyol and Real Betis welcoming three of the top four to their grounds last week, the test was to see each teams credentials for staving off relegation and possibly whether there was a risk of them threatening the European places and messing up the title race.
Not one of the three top teams won away from home last weekend and on Sunday night, Real Sociedad, one of the most improved teams this season, travelled to the Santiago Bernabéu on Sunday night. The 3-0 was slightly misleading in that La Real play the kind of expansive football that Florentino Perez dines out on - another sign of a growing confidence. It was a fascinating to see a once unbeatable Real Madrid act nervously until the first goal and an increasingly nervous Santiago Bernabéu egg them on with their eyes peeking out from behind their hands.
The problem with all four teams below Real Madrid playing away is that they all play at home next weekend. Real Madrid travel to Vigo where they failed to win last time they made their way up and across the country. Next weekend could change the entire complexion of the league standings when it is all said and done.
As the battle at the top remains a war of attrition, the teams slightly further down the league might feel a genuine sense of hope at home against the bigger teams. Through injuries, tetchiness, and knowing they can’t slip up, there are real chances for teams like Alavés and Real Betis to steal points against the giants.
Make no mistake about it, La Liga has become a war of attrition and it’s only getting started.