Barcelona and Real Madrid made stumbling starts to the 79th Liga season but as they go into a short Christmas break it is business as usual for Spanish football’s biggest teams.
After 16 games eight points separates Villarreal in third from second-placed Real Madrid. Titleholders Barcelona are two further ahead and also boast a far superior goal difference – +42 – thanks in no small part to Lionel Messi’s 17 league strikes.
Josep Guardiola’s side have amassed more points than in the past two campaigns and are yet to drop a point on their travels. Most of the plaudits and attention are understandably focused on yet another record-breaking campaign at the Camp Nou, yet it was the Spanish capital where all eyes were focused prior to the season.
Shortly after guiding Inter Milan to Champions League glory at the Bernabeu, José Mourinho was back as REal Madrid’s new coach. One goal in their opening two league fixtures against Mallorca and Osasuna, however, initially had those on the white side of the divide doubting that there was better to come.
Reassurances were also sought among Barcelona fans when they witnessed their team suffer the surprise of the season so far, a 2-0 defeat at home to promoted Hércules on Matchday 2. But the big two were soon in their stride, Messi and new boy David Villa finding their touch at Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo equalling Alfredo di Stéfano’s Madrid record for goals before Christmas with 17 in 15 appearances.
It was no surprise that the first Clásico of the season, at the Camp Nou, was the focus of even more hype than normal. The event lived up to the billing as Barcelona ended Madrid’s unbeaten start with a spectacular 5-0 triumph, Mourinho’s heaviest defeat as a coach.
“I don’t want to go over the top but we should be conscious of what this team is doing,” said Guardiola. “We’re privileged to experience this.”
Not to be outdone, Mourinho concluded after the opening 16 games that he had “a team from another world with character to match”.
“We’ve been working exceptionally hard for six months and have only one negative result to show for it. I take enormous pride in being the coach of this squad”.
While the title seems out of reach to the rest, the race for third and what the media have dubbed ‘the other Liga title’, looks tense. Juan Carlos Garrido’s Villarreal consolidated third spot prior to the winter break with Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar delivering 19 goals for a club 11 points better off than this time last season.
Valencia are five points back in fourth, just ahead of Espanyol, who despite losing their perfect home record in last weekend’s derby – Barcelona winning 5-1 – continue to be Liga’s surprise side under coach Mauricio Pochettino.