Leo Messi and Barcelona battle Real Madrid for La Liga title
Leo Messi is still the leading man, but Barcelona isn't enjoying the dominance it did in years past. Juanjo Martin/EPA.

At first glance, La Liga’s landscape is this season as it has been for several seasons, decades even. Since 1985, only three teams (Atlético Madrid, Deportivo La Coruña and Valencia) have broken Barcelona and Real Madrid’s duopoly. This season, the Spanish title will be claimed once again by one of the two predominant clubs.

Look a little longer at the rival sides sitting atop La Liga, however, and it will become clear that Barcelona and Real Madrid’s stranglehold has loosened. While they have led a Spanish dominance of European soccer for the better part of a decade, winning the Champions League title six times between them over the last 10 years, their flaws haven’t been this obvious for a long, long time.

The Clásico played at the Santiago Bernabeu on March 1, just two weeks before the coronavirus shutdown, was a demonstration of where these two teams are at this moment. Real Madrid emerged 2-0 winners, but they were just as vulnerable as Barcelona, underlined by the 2-1 defeat they suffered to Real Betis just one week later.

For years, at least during the height of the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo rivalry, El Clásico was a show of strength. The latest version was a showcase of how far these two teams have fallen. Even Messi looked worn down, exhausted by the expectation placed on him that he will always rescue Barcelona no matter how dire the situation.

Inconsistency has created an exciting La Liga title race

But from this weakness has come the most compelling and unpredictable La Liga title race since the 2013/14 contest, which went down to the final day between Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid and Barcelona. It seems likely that this season will also go down to the wire–not because two teams are setting a lightning pace, but because two teams can’t stop tripping over each other and themselves.

It's fair to reason that a few critical injuries to both squads has played a role in their dip in form. The loss of Luis Suarez in January was a major blow for Barcelona, stripping the Catalans of their second-highest scorer from each of the previous five seasons. Presumed fill-in Ousmane Dembélé was sidelined only a month later, leading to the controversial signing of Martin Braithwaite from Leganes.

In Madrid, summer signing Eden Hazard struggled with injuries from the jump before a February ankle fracture put him on the shelf for an extended period of time. Defense mainstay Marcelo has missed ten matches due to injury, and racked up six sessions on the bench, many during recovery.

Even with a few injuries, these teams ooze talent and depth at every position. And yet, they collectively couldn't create more than a 3-point gap between themselves and the rest of La Liga until the 19th week of the season, hinting that something larger was at play.

Two traditional powers in transition

Both sides are in the midst of a transition. Barcelona are stuck between generations–Andres Iniesta is gone, yet to be truly replaced, while Sergio Busquets isn’t the unmovable midfield force he once was. Messi remains the most devastating force in the history of the game, but now, into his 30s, the Argentine is fading physically.

Big money signings like Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann have become emblems of Barcelona’s scattergun approach in the transfer market. The Catalans once viewed Real Madrid with derision for their ‘Galactico’ ways, for targeting the biggest names regardless of whether they were the right names, but the two clubs’ roles have been reversed in recent years.

Now, it is Real Madrid luring the best and brightest young talent, even bringing through their own academy products. Meanwhile, Barcelona have become the ‘Galacticos’ with no common thread between each signing–other than costing a fortune and causing headlines. The reversal of this dynamic has added another layer to this season’s title race.

There has been greater clarity of thought at the Santiago Bernabeu, at least in terms of their recent signings, but Real Madrid are not without troubles. Zinedine Zidane has struggled to move the club on from the Ronaldo age. Karim Benzema has stepped up somewhat, scoring 14 times in La Liga this season, but Los Blancos' edge has been blunted.

While the likes of Ferland Mendy, Eder Militao, Rodrygo, Fede Valverde and Vinicius Junior represent Madrid’s future, others like Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos and James Rodriguez might not be at the club beyond the summer. Zidane might have a clearer vision of what Real Madrid’s future should look like, but he still has to get there. In Catalonia, the future is perhaps even murkier given that manager Quique Setién has been on the job for a paltry 12 matches.

Failing to seize their opportunity

Many in Spanish soccer will look back at this season as a missed opportunity. Atlético Madrid entered the campaign with hopes of implementing a more expansive style of play and challenging for the title. Instead, they are scrambling for a top four place. Sevilla have enjoyed a positive campaign with Monchi back at the club and Julen Lopetegui at the helm, but each time they appear to be on the brink of becoming title challengers, they suffer a lapse.

Real Sociedad have played La Liga’s most entertaining, exciting brand of soccer, and their spot in an all-Basque Copa del Rey Final is further evidence of a downtrodden Real Madrid and Barcelona. But the tournament's new format lent itself to La Real's success, while in La Liga their young team has showcased its inconsistency.

It is something of a paradox that La Liga boasts more depth throughout the division just as its best two teams have dipped in quality. It is reflective of the advantage Barcelona and Real Madrid have built up over the rest of Spanish soccer that even in these vulnerable times they are still out of sight at the top of the table. But when one of them gets their hands on the trophy, whenever it is eventually handed out, take it not as an image of supremacy, but as a mask on their weakness.