There’s no trophy handed out for it but Real Madrid claimed another title last week. And then, three days later, they lost one. Knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Celta de Vigo and their dreams of a treble gone, Zinedine Zidane’s side, European and World champions, are at least Spain’s “Winter Champions” — an honorary title bestowed upon the team that’s top of the table at the half-way stage of the season.
It doesn’t mean much but it does mean something. More than those front-page headlines that declared Zidane the champion of his own “virtual league,” impressive though his record is: 96 points from his first 38 league games in charge, a total only matched at Madrid by Manuel Pellegrini. Because the half-way stage of the season is a genuine watershed and a genuine marker, too.
La Liga is split into two identical halves, mirror images of each other in which you play the same teams in the same order, just home where you were away and away where you were at home. In other words, at the half way stage, everyone has played everyone once. Position is not a quirk, nor the product of fortunate fixtures. Nor, of course, is it permanent.
There have been 189 games played and 549 goals scored, 44 of them penalties (out of 61 taken) and 221 different goalscorers. No one’s scored more than Luis Suarez or Leo Messi, on 15 each. Toni Kroos has the most assists, Neymar the most dribbles and Messi the most passes. Diego Llorente has won the ball more times than anyone, Neymar has been fouled the most while Florin Andone and Raúl García have fouled the most. When it comes to bad fouls, no one’s got more cards than Fernando Amorebieta.
Leganés have scored the fewest goals, Villarreal have conceded the fewest. Barcelona have scored the most. But top of the most important table of them all is Real Madrid, defeated just once in the first half of the season.
The thing is, that one defeat came just two games ago. And it didn’t come alone. Defeated in Seville and defeated by Celta at the Bernabéu, Real Madrid have now been beaten as many times in 2017 as they were in the whole of 2016; they’ve won just one of their last five. The team that went 40 games unbeaten lost two in two, no longer feeling quite so invincible, and changing everything. Emotionally, at least.
As the second half of the season begins, there are just two points separating the top three: Madrid 43, Sevilla 42, Barcelona 41. It feels tight. Tighter than it probably is: beat Valencia in that game in hand and Madrid will be four points clear of Sevilla, five above Barca. It’s also tighter than most expected. With five minutes to go against Sevilla, Real led: many thought that winning that game would have meant the title race was virtually over. Two goals later, it was on again. They were going wild at the Sánchez Pizjuán and wild in Barcelona.
“Hay Liga!” ran the headlines, inevitably. Literally, it means “there is a league.” It’s not just that Madrid’s lead has been reduced, but that the veneer of invincibility has gone as well. They have let in 10 goals in five games. The lead is still a good one and the Copa del Rey accounts for two draws and one defeat of that poor five-game run. That doesn’t matter for the league, you might think, but it does. Psychologically, at least.
Madrid begin the second half of the season with a lead of one point, perhaps still four. And that matters. They have also been to Seville, Barcelona, San Sebastián and the Calderón already; they’ve visited the four teams nearest to them in the table. Now, they will play them at home: advantage Madrid. They also have players to return from injury. Gareth Bale’s absence has been mentioned little, but it is important. Who knows, these next two weeks without the Cup may help – especially with Atlético and Barcelona facing each other.
Ask at the start of the season and Real Madrid would have happily signed up for this. But things feel different now. The league is alive. The “Winter Title” seemed an inevitable prelude to the actual title, but that sensation has slipped.
Barcelona have won their last six; they’re starting to score goals and play well. Sevilla have something, that’s for sure. There’s belief: they were losing against Espanyol, Las Palmas, Deportivo, Madrid and, last week vs. Osasuna, but won them all. Even Atlético, eight points behind, may decide that they haven’t given up after all by the end of the month. If they can pick up full points against Alavés, Leganés, Celta and Sporting, the table could look a little different.
Above all, the chasing pack have renewed hope that Madrid will give them a chance. They have not played as badly as their results suggest, just as they had not played as well as their results suggested when they went 40 games unbeaten, but results have turned and that impacts on everyone. Injuries have hit them hard; their confidence has been hit too. Marcelo admitted after they were defeated by Celta that the loss in Sevilla had “affected us more than we realised.” Now, they must manage the mental impact.
Spaniards talk about an “uphill January,” a month that hurts after Christmas: a long, difficult slog. Madrid’s has fit that profile so far — it’s more or less fit the post-World Club Cup collapse theory too — and February looks tough as well. Real Sociedad on Sunday is followed by Celta away, Osasuna away, Napoli, Espanyol at home, Valencia away and Villarreal away.
“Hay Liga?” There is, yeah. And a title at the end of it, a real one. Whether or not that actually hand out a trophy the day it’s decided is another matter entirely.
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