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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Girona let La Liga dream of a title race – Real Madrid provided a reality check

That Real Madrid are now almost certain to win the 2023-24 La Liga crown, with a third of the season still to play, reflects the many positives of Carlo Ancelotti’s side.

But it is not such a good look for the current competitive state of Spanish football.

On Saturday evening at the Santiago Bernabeu, league leaders Madrid played second-placed Girona in Spain’s top flight, billed as a crunch meeting between the only two teams realistically competing for this year’s title.

The excitement ahead of the game, and not just around Girona, had been understandable. Many people wanted to believe that Michel’s exciting young team really had a chance of winning La Liga, as it would have provided a new breath of excitement for Spanish football.

That was never really plausible, as the 90 minutes at the Bernabeu showed so clearly. Once Vinicius Junior’s superb early strike put the home side 1-0 up, there was only going to be one winner. The 4-0 final scoreline was a fair reflection of the difference in quality between the two teams, and Madrid now lead Girona by five points.

“Madrid were at such a high level, and when they play at their best, we cannot match them,” said Girona manager Michel at his post-match news conference.

“Today I never felt in any moment that we could win. It is just a reminder of our level, we’re aiming for fourth, we always have been. We did all we could, but there are only three or four teams in the world who can compete with Madrid like this.”

Michel was speaking sense. He admitted his team had gone to the Bernabeu with the “dream” of competing with Madrid, and it had then pained him to see them “suffer” so much in the game.


Girona manager Michel was suspended for Saturday’s match and had to watch from the stands (Mateo Villalba/Getty Images)

Still, the wish to see Girona as really capable of competing for the title — despite so much logical evidence to the contrary, such as their €60million (£51.2m; $64.7m) annual budget, about 10 per cent of Madrid’s — was understandable. Neutrals and fans of most other clubs just wanted to see some kind of challenge coming from somewhere.

Reigning La Liga champions Barcelona have made a complete mess of defending their title, with draws against Mallorca, Valencia, Granada and Rayo Vallecano coming before the recent 5-3 home defeat by Villarreal, a spectacular blow-up that prompted Xavi to announce that he would resign at the end of this campaign. Sunday’s draw at home to Granada left Barca 10 points behind Los Blancos, and nobody has ever come from so far back to win the Spanish league.

Atletico Madrid began 2023-24 as the only other realistic possible title winner and handed Real their only La Liga defeat so far at the Metropolitano in September. But Diego Simeone’s side have not shown enough consistency or quality through the campaign, suffering defeats at Valencia and Las Palmas, and somehow also losing at Girona despite Alvaro Morata scoring a hat-trick. They are now fourth, 13 points off Ancelotti’s side, with Athletic Bilbao close behind in the hunt for a Champions League spot.


Bellingham’s two goals took his La Liga tally to 16 for the season (Alberto Gardin/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

That Madrid look so likely to canter to the title is especially concerning, given all the problems they have faced since last season ended.

Star centre-forward Karim Benzema, key to all their recent successes, was tempted away last summer to a golden semi-retirement in Saudi Arabia (which he does not seem to be particularly enjoying at the moment). Madrid’s hierarchy decided against signing a direct replacement, while awaiting a chance to finally bring in Kylian Mbappe from Paris Saint-Germain.

Just before the season started, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, widely acknowledged as one of the best in the world, suffered an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury. His loan replacement Kepa Arrizabalaga has not impressed, so back-up choice Andriy Lunin is currently learning on the job.

Then, starting defenders Eder Militao and David Alaba both also suffered ACL injuries. That situation got even worse ahead of Saturday’s game with Girona, with Madrid’s other two senior centre-backs, Antonio Rudiger and Nacho, also ruled out.

So, for Saturday’s supposed title clash, Ancelotti had no choice but to field right-back Dani Carvajal and midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni in the centre of the back four. The patched-up defence still had little trouble stopping a Girona attack that had scored four times against both Barcelona and Atletico earlier this season.

Ancelotti joked afterwards that “today we broke the world record for injured centre-backs”, but he was more serious when asked to explain how his team has built their La Liga lead despite having so many injuries through the campaign.

“Quality is the most important, but if you can combine that with commitment and attitude, like today, you can perform at a very high level,” the Italian said. “I do what I can to try and get the best out of this squad. It is a group that motivates me a lot, we get on well, and I have a lot of respect for them. The key is always to have quality players who use that quality for the collective.”


Rodrygo and Ancelotti embrace after the Brazilian scored Madrid’s fourth on Saturday (Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Ancelotti is correct that he does have lots of good players. Madrid were able to spend an initial €103million (now £88million; $111m) last summer to sign Jude Bellingham, who has had such a tremendous impact on La Liga this year, and scored twice against Girona on Saturday to take his tally to a competition-leading 16 goals.

A canny transfer policy has also seen them invest wisely in young talent, including Saturday’s other goalscorers Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo, and midfielders Federico Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga.

But through history Madrid have often had very talented individuals who did not always blend together well into hard-working and consistent teams. As Ancelotti said on Saturday evening, the key has been to get all his stars to work together for the benefit of the group, and the 64-year-old deserves a huge amount of credit for managing that.

The worry now, for those who would like to see competitive title races in Spain, and even sometimes surprise winners, is that the gap from Madrid to the rest could soon get even bigger.

Some around the Bernabeu remain confident that Madrid president Florentino Perez will finally persuade Mbappe to join this summer. Adding the Frenchman to Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo and Bellingham in attack is a tremendous prospect. Endrick is already set to arrive.

Meanwhile, Barcelona’s continuing financial issues have raised fears they could sell stars like Ronald Araujo and Frenkie de Jong. Atletico will also have to wheel and deal in the transfer market, as they always do. Other clubs that traditionally could challenge in Spain, such as Sevilla and Valencia, are currently going through difficult periods on and off the pitch.

So, the dream of a shock new La Liga winner this year is all but over. Girona coach Michel was correct in saying that his team were never realistically going to challenge Madrid for the title over a 38-game season.

The concern now for Spanish football is whether any other team will be able to do so in the near future.

(Top image: Diego Souto/Getty Images)



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