The opening few months of the season in Spain can be a bit of a slow-burner at the top end with the big guns feeling their way into the new campaign whilst rarely hitting top form or pulling clear of their rivals. Slip-ups don’t often inflict terminal damage on title dreams but this weekend, we surely witnessed the first decisive blows landed.
Few would argue that there are more than three teams with a realistic chance of winning the Primera Division this season and the fact that it is three rather than two is testament to the achievements of Diego Simeone and his team in recent years. However on Sunday, Atleti suffered arguably their worst defeat under the Argentine and it was instigated by an all too familiar foe.
Cristiano Ronaldo hit a clinical hat-trick to seal a 3-0 win and move him to the top of the all-time Madrid derby goalscoring charts with 18 goals. Real’s final league visit to the Vicente Calderon could not have gone any better and the fact they did it without as many as five regular first-teamers is testament to the ever-evolving tactical mind of Zinedine Zidane.
In some respects it was a more significant victory for the Frenchman than his side’s shoot-out success in the Champions League final against the same opposition in May. Few coaches outwit Diego Simeone in such a commanding fashion, let alone in his own backyard but that is exactly what Zidane did on Saturday. If any doubts as to his long-term suitability to the job still existed, they were surely banished this weekend.
As for Atleti, they find themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to do some soul-searching. They’ve made tentative strides towards a more attacking style this term but three defeats in four league games and even more surprisingly a run of five without a clean sheet suggest all is not well. They are now 9 points off the pace in La Liga and already their title hopes are teetering on the brink of extinction.
Perhaps the biggest irony on such a seismic weekend was that much of what we witnessed we already knew. On a good day, Cristiano Ronaldo is capable of showering destruction on even the very best of teams, and although he had a fair bit of help from an excellent Real Madrid team display, that is what he did to Atleti. 600km away in Catalonia and Barcelona once again showed their limitations when two of their front three are missing. A frustrating 0-0 draw with Malaga was the perfect set-up for what turned into a fantastic weekend for Los Blancos.
Despite their Champions League wins, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Real Madrid have very much played second fiddle to Barca over the past decade domestically and rarely has their Primera Division stock been as high as it is right now. You have to go back at least two years to October 2014 and their 3-1 clasico win over their eternal rivals for the last time things looked this rosy.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side were European champions and favourites to win La Liga on the back of their display and Madridistas were gearing up to re-assume top spot at the head of Spanish football’s pecking order once more after the Guardiola-inspired glory years of Barcelona.
It’s fair to say that things didn’t exactly go to plan with Barcelona soon going on a stunning run to secure a brilliant treble and certainly nobody at the Bernabeu will be counting their chickens this time around. However just that Real Madrid have recovered from a difficult spell on and off the pitch to re-assume virtually the same position they were in before things started going wrong under Ancelotti two years ago, is remarkable enough.
There is an awfully long way to go but it’s not completely beyond the realm of possibility that Real Madrid could have assumed a 10 point lead at the top of La Liga just a fortnight from now. The next two weeks are certainly going to be massive despite the relative infancy of this season. Real Madrid host a poor Sporting Gijon side next weekend and should cruise to three points while Barcelona travel to a red hot Real Sociedad side, who they have an awful recent away record against.
The Catalans haven’t won at the Anoeta since 2007 and if that record extends beyond next Sunday they will almost certainly head into el clasico the following weekend trailing their great rivals by at least 6 points. Victory or even a point for Real Madrid at Camp Nou would then give them a real stranglehold on this season’s title race and they’d be well placed to end a run of just one Primera Division triumph in eight seasons.