Can resurgent Real Madrid end Barçelona’s era of La Liga dominance?

It has been a curious decade for Spanish football. On one hand, Real Madrid have clocked up four more Champions League wins to cement themselves as the undisputed kings of Europe’s premier club competition with six more trophies than any other club.

However on the domestic front, Barcelona have enjoyed an almost unprecedented era of dominance with 8 La Liga titles in 11 years.

Not since the great Real Madrid side of the 1960s has one team enjoyed such a monopoly on the Spanish league.

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Even as Real Madrid conquered Europe again under Zinedine Zidane in 2018, they did so as the wheels were starting to come off at home.

They finished an enormous 17 points behind Barcelona in La Liga that season and were even further back last term as Los Blancos finished third for the second year running having suffered 12 league defeats. You have to go back to 1973/74 for the last time they suffered more.

The return of Zizou, less than ten months after his initial departure, initially did little to lift the gloom.

Even as recently as September when Real Madrid sunk to a miserable 3-0 defeat in Paris against what was essentially Paris Saint-Germain’s second-string forward-line, all the signs were that Los Blancos had lost their sparkle in Europe and would find it impossible to compete with a Messi-inspired Barcelona in La Liga.

Fast-forward to December though and things are suddenly starting to look brighter in the Spanish capital.

Real Madrid appear to be improving in all areas of the pitch and they remain neck and neck with the Catalans, who admittedly haven’t brilliant, in what is shaping up to be the closest title race since Real won their solitary league title under Zidane in 2016-17, the only time in the last five years that Barcelona have failed to clinch La Liga.

It’s not too difficult to draw parallels between this campaign and that one when Real’s extra squad depth essentially proved the decisive factor in their ability to pip Barcelona to the title.

Not one Real Madrid player made 30 league starts that season as Zidane frequently put his faith in the ‘B team’ with the 15 goals scored by back-up forward Alvaro Morata as significant as the 25 netted by Cristiano Ronaldo.

The quality of back-up players may not be quite at the same level now as it was then but it may not need to be.

From Benjamin Mendy and Éder Militão to the likes of Rodrygo and Vinícius Júnior, Real Madrid have players pushing the established first team regulars and while Zidane has largely remained loyal to those who delivered during his first spell in charge, he has also shown a willingness to trust youth.

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Defensively they suddenly look as assured as they have done at any point during Zidane’s tenure with a much more impressive defensive record than Barcelona so far this season in La Liga.

The balance that they’ve found in midfield is certainly a major factor in that with Fede Valverde coming into the team and energising the whole side.

The Uruguayan is increasingly starting to feel like the missing piece in the jigsaw for Los Blancos with his performances having been on such a high level that it now feels as though Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are competing for one place in the team.

Barcelona by contrast still look like a side that lacks a clear vision of what kind of team they want to be.

With their European away day blues starting to manifest themselves more frequently on a domestic stage, at the very least we look set for a genuine title race this season, an improvement on the previous two years where Barça have managed to stroll to league glory, seldom needing to hit top gear.

Right now, Real Madrid look the slicker outfit in most areas of the pitch and also have a greater number of emerging talents, both at the club and out on loan with the likes of Martin Ødegaard and Achraf Hakimi starring elsewhere.

In ordinary circumstances that would be enough to suggest that they are on the brink of ending this era of Barça domestic dominance.

However the reality is Real Madrid will need to have the edge in many different departments just to compensate for the brilliance of Leo Messi as long as the little Argentine keeps performing at or close to his current levels which are in a different stratosphere to any other player in Spain.

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As ever, the acid test of whether this is a truly resurgent Real Madrid capable of taking the fight to Barcelona will be the rearranged Clásico, which takes place on 18th December at Camp Nou.

There were moments even during the depressing depths of last season where Los Blancos appeared to be rediscovering their mojo.

They impressed in early 2019 with Karim Benzema and Vinícius Júnior combining brilliantly at times as Los Blancos won 7 out of 8 in all competitions during a run of games which saw them travel to Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Ajax.

However that brief period of optimism came to a shuddering halt as Real Madrid’s entire season unravelled in one disastrous week which saw them beaten three times at the Bernabéu in three different competitions (twice by Barça and once by Ajax) to end their chances of winning any silverware.

Barcelona beat Real Madrid by an aggregate score of 10-2 across last season’s four El Clásico matches.

“It’s no longer funny to win here 0-3, 0-4, 0-5”, quipped Gerard Pique after one of Barça’s wins at the Bernabéu and victories in the fixture have become a matter of routine for Barcelona over the past decade.

The latest meeting of these two eternal rivals will take on greater significance for all kinds of reasons.

Not only will it be one of the most politically charged in recent years following the postponement of the original fixture due to protests in Catalonia, it also comes at a time when the two teams are neck and neck in what already looks like a definite two-horse title race.

A victory for Real Madrid would be the clearest sign yet that they are capable of ending Barcelona’s era of domestic domination.

The Author

Mark Sochon

Freelance football writer based in Madrid. Featured in World Soccer, Guardian Sport, IBWM, Inside Futbol.

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