Can the Real Madrid-Barcelona stranglehold ever be broken?

When last season the Spanish title race was pulled down to the wire with three teams in contention for the trophy going into the ultimate round of matches, there was a whisper of hope rippling across the nation and especially among the Spanish football commentators that the duopoly could be broken at last.

Real Madrid might have won their 30th La Liga trophy in history and FC Barcelona might have finished second level on points but Sevilla FC had finished third 5 points off the pace and Valencia CF had been in the title chase until the last weeks of the season in what had been one of the most exciting Spanish championship campaign in years.

The age-old duopoly in Spanish football, that Madrid-Barcelona axis suddenly appeared not so firm and there was optimism that there could be an end to the traditional Real Madrid-FC Barcelona duopoly. At the start of the season that positivity went a note higher when Atletico Madrid splashed millions to assemble a Hollywood line-up, Villarreal who had conjured up the best ever end-of-season run in La Liga last season by winning 8 successive matches too had made some shrewd decisions over the summer and Real Zaragoza held onto the players (except defender Gabriel Milito) who had been so prolific in the last campaign.

Yet somehow all those lofty hopes that at long last Spanish football could observe a new force emerge out of the shadows and take over the baton from Madrid and Barca crash-landed to the ground. Reigning champions Real Madrid still occupy the pole position, Barcelona are stuttering in second 4 points off the pace and although Villarreal are just two points worse than Barca they have only come into the picture after this weekend’s round of matches.

Atletico are fourth but only just after their early season ferocious form eroded to mid-season hanging-by-the-thread fiasco: Atleti are now 12 points behind Real and just 3 better off Racing Santander. Valencia meanwhile are languishing somewhere in mid-table (or nearabout) and are clinging onto slim hopes of a UEFA Cup entry next season too only through the Copa del Rey backdoor, Sevilla are only now beginning to gather some momentum that might sneak them to the prized fourth spot in the table but nothing more and as for Zaragoza, they’ve had four coaches already and lie a single point above safety.

Real Madrid’s 3-2 defeat to Valencia at the Bernabeu on Sunday evening might have just thrown the Spanish title chase open and made it a three-horse race but that ought not to eclipse the fact that for most of the season it has been Real and their eternal rivals Barcelona wrestling for the championship. More than a matter of two dogs fighting over the same bone, this season has been a case of the shuttlecock changing courts all the time with the rest of the 20-team Spanish top flight observing in amusing muteness.

Sevilla have been a major disappointment this season after three successive seasons of painstaking progress. From an also-ran the Andalucian club had transcended to become a genuine contender to breach the duopoly but this season they have been pulled down to their knees. Antonio Puerta’s tragic death in August coupled with Juande Ramos leaving them in October had punctured their form right from the start and the team too has been somewhat incoherent.

From Dani Alves’ still persisting appeal for a transfer (to Chelsea?) to Frederic Kanote’s battle for a new contract to mounting speculation on Luis Fabiano’s future at the Pizjuan, Sevilla’s season has been rocked rather than rocking. Years of constructive pattern laid down by president Jose Maria del Nido, sporting director Monchi and former coach Joaquín Caparrós and a sound youth policy notwithstanding, this season Sevilla will have to contend themselves with a last 16 UEFA Champions League exit and a run for the fourth spot in the league. Sevilla might just resurface next season but with one or two key players poised to leave, they should need some more time to strengthen themselves.

And Valencia could take longer than Sevilla for reconstruction. First off, Los Che need to de-destruct themselves and then reconstruct. For years they have been the best bet to break the duopoly in Spanish football but have fallen short of that final inch. They have been to two successive UEFA Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001 and in the three years that Rafael Benitez had been in charge, they had won two La Liga crowns and the UEFA Cup in 2004. During those glory days, on-pitch success had hidden the ugly boardroom divisions that came to the fore with the acrimonious departure of Rafa in the summer of 2004 complaining of players not believing in him. Since then Valencia have been on the consistent slide down the hill.

At the heart of that rot has been a certain Juan Soler whose presidential tenure in four years at the Mestalla had observed seven coaches and seven technical directors. This season of course Valencia have been at their nadir with Quique Sanchez Flores sacked at 4.23 am in the morning in late, late October when the club were just 4 points off the top in La Liga and still alive in the Champions League and Ronald Koeman drafted in only to keep the club 7 points afloat of safety and knocked out of Europe. Veteran Valencia players, Santiago Canizares, Miguel Angel Angulo and David Albelda all have been axed for reasons that only Sherlock Holmes can decipher and the president himself has left office citing poor health (his poor health, not the club’s which would have been rather more appropriate).

Valencia will certainly not be playing in the Champions League next season and top players are likely to depart. Star player David Villa has dropped big hints that he could be on his way out of the Mestalla in the summer and other key names wouldn’t hesitate to do the same. True, the club does possess the likes of gifted young individuals such as Juan Mata and Ever Banega but the youngsters would need time to mature and that would cripple Valencia from regaining championship credentials.

Atletico Madrid? Maybe but somehow you don’t feel too confident about them. These days Atleti are in a better shape than they were under the late Jesus Gil with president Enrique Cerezo putting in money and better organization in the club but as always, Atleti have failed to capitalize on their chances. Every season is their season to pull off a major success but during every season the Rojiblancos have to revise their ambitions and that revised ambition list doesn’t mention the top spot in La Liga. This time the pattern has been similar and Atleti remain el Pupas, the jinxed ones.

As for the rest, it’s better that we don’t donate much time to them. Deportivo la Coruna won the championship in 2000 and for the next four or five years did look as if they would force an entry into the history books only to deny themselves too heavily. With Mauro Silva, Naybet, Roy Makaay, Diego Tristan, Albert Luque all gone and Juan Carlos Valeron rushed to the medical room, the Galician club saw their force dwindle in the twinkle of an eye and Depor have now been reduced to staving off relegation.

Real Sociedad’s 2002-2003 La Liga run when they dragged Real Madrid to the wire for the title was an anomaly; la Real are now plying their trade in the Segunda Division and have always been destined to feed on the crusts and crumbs of the pie rather than on the cherry. Racing Santander and Espanyol Barcelona are rising up in the table but there’s a distinct suspicion that they are overachieving while Athletic de Bilbao are stuck in the mid-twentieth century with their tradition of playing only Basque players.

Spanish football doesn’t and wouldn’t run on the lines that English football does. In England nowadays taking over of clubs by foreign investment consortiums and individual m(b)illionaires are common and the nation as a whole has somehow come to embrace this new form of globalization of football. But in Spain, the intricate legal system impedes any direct overtaking of clubs and so you have the powers invested in presidents, vice-presidents and sporting directors. So the scenario of a billionaire from the Tundra taking over a Spanish club and radicalizing it into a championship wining unit is as much possible as living on the sun!

Therefore in Spain careful and patient laying down of the framework coupled with a long-term ambition to challenge for top honors is the key to establishing a force. But the sad point is that most of the clubs are glad to play second fiddle to the Madrid-Barcelona symphony and are satisfied by the becoming the best of the rest. And while a few clubs do intensely want to alter the Spanish football duopoly, they are crippled by internal politics and boardroom musical chair.

For the moment, the Real Madrid-FC Barcelona stranglehold on Spanish football is here to stay.

Who do you think can break the Real Madrid / FC Barcelona stranglehold at the top of La Liga? Let us know in the comments.

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