Spanish Intrigue: Dropping in on Barcelona, Atletico and Real

Barcelona emerged from the season’s first half after navigating a transfer ban along with injuries to Leo Messi and Andres Iniesta, Real Madrid sought momentum when handing its coaching reins to a club legend, and both Spanish giants are once again staring up in the standings at Atletico Madrid and its historically stingy defense.

Barcelona has won four of the last 10 Champions League titles, but few realize how Barca’s domestic supremacy has made even its biggest rival look historically feeble.

Real Madrid repeated as La Liga champions in 2007 and 2008, since then Barcelona has won five of Spain's seven league titles (Atletico and Real each won once). Barca’s five league titles are more than Bayern Munich or Juventus in that time, each has four, and you’d have to go all the way back to the late 1940’s to find a stretch where Real won less than two Liga titles in seven years.

Can either of Madrid’s top clubs topple Barcelona in La Liga?

Atletico Madrid. Diego Simeone, Atleti’s fiercely competitive coach, has once again turned conventional wisdom on its head by sheer force of nature. Conventional wisdom suggested the Barcelona we saw trample its way to a treble last season could not be slowed, and yet, here we are, 20 games into La Liga’s season, and Atletico Madrid is first in La Liga, with Barca holding a game in hand.

Simeone’s philosophy isn’t overly complicated, play hard, pay strict attention to detail, play some of the best defense on earth, and when in doubt, play even harder.

Atleti’s 2-1 loss at home to Barcelona was not just the only league game all season in which Atleti allowed more than one goal, Barca’s two-goal ‘outburst’ currently represents one fourth of the goals allowed by Atleti all season. With eight conceded in 20 matches, Atletico is on pace to allow just 15 goals, which would shatter La Liga’s 38-game goals conceded record of 18 goals.

Atleti bought 23-year-old Jan Oblak for nearly $20 million from Benfica in 2014, making him La Liga's most expensive goalkeeper. Oblak leads La Liga with 13 shutouts this season; Barca's Claudio Bravo is second with 10.

Simeone’s club only has 30 goals in La Liga (Barca has 50, Real has 57), which is why Antoine Griezmann, with 12 league goals, may be the most indispensible player in a country full of the world’s biggest stars.

Luis Suarez leads La Liga with 18 goals (Neymar, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo all have 16), but Griezmann, with 12 of Atleti's 30 goals (40 pct), has scored a higher percentage of his team's goals than all of them. While Barca and Real each have three different players with at least 10 goals, no player on Atletico has more than three goals, except Griezmann.

Finding a secondary scorer is key, Fernando Torres is a shadow of his former self, and Jackson Martinez, the prolific striker acquired from FC Porto for nearly $40 million, has struggled adjusting to Simeone's style.

Atletico is attempting to take down Barca and Real for a second time in three years, which would be a herculean achievement. The heavy lifting begins a week from Saturday, when Los Colchoneros visit Barcelona.

Real Madrid. Crisis turns coronation in Spain’s capital every time papers are printed, often turning back just as quickly. Currently, the Zinedine Zidane honeymoon is in full swing. Hired Jan. 4, Madrid won its two games since then by scores of 5-0 and 5-1. Soccer royalty, Zidane has the full attention of his players, which wasn’t always true under Rafa Benitez’s brief tenure, which lasted only half a season.

Real ended the summer transfer window by flubbing paperwork that would’ve brought David de Gea from Manchester United, the club received further ridicule for fielding an ineligible player in the Copa del Rey last fall, eliminating Los Blancos during a game they’d won.

One reality facing both clubs in Madrid is the transfer bans just imposed on Atletico and Real for two transfer windows (similar to Barca’s, over registration of youth players). The clubs can choose to appeal, in aims of doing business in this summer window. Atleti has done a remarkable job re-loading on a budget, and this stings for both clubs, but it comes at a terrible time for Real, right as the club is considering seismic shifts involving core players.

For many, Madrid signing James Rodriguez following his stellar 2014 World Cup was a coup equal to Barca’s capture of Neymar. James had an outstanding first season at Real, but rumors are now flying the club is less than happy with his play, even less so with his behavior off the field, and the Colombian chose an odd time to get into a sideline spat with his coach, last weekend, during Zizou’s second game in charge.

Gareth Bale, who is out for three weeks with a calf issue, has never had issues off the field, but even when he’s played at a high level, the Welshman has never been embraced by teammates or the Madridistas, a return to England may make more sense than toiling unappreciated at his dysfunctional dream club.

Benzema's stranger than fiction tale of sex, lies and videotape involving a fellow national team member may make this the worst time to try and turn a profit on the Frenchman (supposedly to splash for Robert Lewandowski). Finally, Cristiano Ronaldo turns 31 in two weeks, and the rumor mill suggesting his time in Madrid may be coming to a close has never been louder, and yet Madrid doesn’t have a Neymar waiting in the wings.

Before these bans, many predicted Real Madrid would re-vamp its entire attack, possibly moving on from all four of these players soon, but barring the craziest summer transfer spree ever, Real will likely end up sticking with some players it had planned on moving. How the team plays under Zidane could go a long way toward determining this.

Barcelona. What’s to say? Whether it’s moving on from the greatest Spanish player in history, Xavi, earning a treble under Luis Enrique to rival the feat of his more celebrated predecessor, Pep Guardiola, or grooming a transcendent player to replace the brightest star of them all, Barca does it better than anyone.

Barcelona remains the heavy favorite in La Liga in large part because the club continues to stress chemistry while also finding long-term solutions. The club hit a home run when it chose to move heaven and earth for Neymar, whose growing brilliance has performed a miracle, made it possible to imagine life after Messi. (It doesn’t hurt that Messi, Neymar and Suarez already have a legitimate claim as the greatest attacking trio ever).

Barcelona’s two additions are just now able to play after Barca’s own transfer ban. Aleix Vidal appears tabbed to inherit Dani Alves’ right back spot, while competing with Alves in the present, and Arda Turan, who spent four years at Atletico, will rotate in midfield with Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic. The Turkish midfielder called Iniesta his idol, and let slip Barca’s biggest objective on Tuesday.

“I hope we can win back-to-back Champions Leagues,” Turan, who joined Barca last July, said to Cadena Sur. “It’s what we talk about most in the locker room and what really motivates us. We want to the be the first team to win consecutive Champions Leagues.”

If Barca fails to win La Liga or the Champions League, it won’t be due to any lack of dexterity in Turan’s toes.

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