Sep 29, 2013, 10:05 PM EDT
Last year, Barcelona dropped points six times on the way to their title: four draws; two losses. The year before, Real Madrid posted the same record: 100 points; only six blemishes. In this new era of championship perfectionism, you have to go all the way back to Pep Guardiola’s first year on Barcelona’s sidelines (2008-09) to find a Primera Division champion who lost more than two games. Even that season, most of Barça’s losses came after they’d sewn-up the title.
That’s part of the context for Real Madrid’s 1-0 loss to Atlético Madrid. Carrying one draw into Saturday’s game, los Merengues already had an early, unexpected stumble. Now, after losing to one of the league’s two perfect teams, Carlo Ancelotti’s team is five points back in a league with no meaningful margin of error.
It sounds insane to be talking about title implications seven matches into the season, particularly with a team that sits 5-1-1 after Saturday’s loss, but that’s the absurdity of Spanish soccer. When you have a Barcelona team that’s adding new tricks to their playbook and an Atletico club that’s forged a surprise challenger, the margin looks even thinner than before. Coming off a season where they never meaningfully threatened Barcelona’s title run, we’re left wondering how much longer El Real can stay relevant.
For a club where la decima (a 10th European title) is the priority, domestic bumps can always be put in perspective. But having suffered their second straight home loss to the Atleti — their first in league since 1999 — this team’s struggles have been cast in a unique perspective. They’d already lost last year’s Copa del Rey to their cross-town rivals, and now falling at hope to team that sold Falcão this summer, there’s reason to believe what was previously unthinkable: El Real may be numero dos in the capital.
Given the talent disparity between the two sides, that’s a difficult proposition to accept, but at some point, results are the only thing that matter. Atlético is undefeated this season. The only blemishes among their results are two Supercopa draws to Barcelona (they ended up losing the competition on away goals). Through Liga and Champions League, Atlético remains one of the three perfect teams among Europe’s top five leagues. Those credentials transcend Saturday’s surprise.
They don’t have the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Isco or Sergio Ramos, but Atlético do have Diego Costa – Spain’s co-leading scorer whose form has enticed the Spanish national team to try to lure him away from Brazil. His early goal was set up by Koke, the 21-year-old attacker who’s now tied for the league lead in assists (six). With Thiago (midfield), Diego Godin (defense), and Thibaut Courtois (goalkeeper) forming one of the stronger bases of a Spanish defense, a side short on superstars is also lacks any obvious weaknesses.
But what they lack in star power — that enviable quality that underlies the Barça-Real duopoly — Diego Simeone’s making up in cohesion, with a stalwart defense and efficient, mostly counter-atttacking style making the Atleti into surprise contenders. Though the Argentine has led Atletico to Europa League and Supercopa triumphs since his arrival just under two years ago, nobody predicted this surprise challenge to Spain’s Big Two. Thanks to an almost trite more than the sum of their parts scenario, that’s exactly what Atlético’s done.
If Real could capture a little of that spirit, there may be hope for them to re-enter the title race. And Atlético’s quality could actually help them keep up, if their the Colchoneros are able to take league points off of Barça. But after today’s loss, El Real sit seven matches into the season having already dropped seven points. And for now, after losing to their cross-town rivals at the Bernabéu, they’ve lost their claim to being the best team in Madrid.
Elsewhere in Spain:
- Real Valladolid 2-2 Málaga: A 76th minute goal by Bartlomiej Pawlowski salvages a result for Bernd Schuster’s side, with the point enough to carry Valladolid out of the drop.
- Valencia 1-0 Rayo Vallecano: Jonás’s 37th minute goal completes Los Che’s turnaround. After losing their first three, they’ve taken three on the trot. Rayo, on the other hand, sit last in La Liga, allowing three goals per game.
- Almería 0-2 Barcelona: More business-like than spectacular, Barcelona remains perfect. Lionel Messi picked up a goal and an injury.
- Real Sociedad 1-1 Sevilla: Another disappointing result for La Real, whose winless run hits seven games. A second half goal from Antoine Griezmann pulled back Jairo’s early opener.
- Osasuna 0-1 Levante: An 88th minute goal from Jordi Xumetra leaves Osasuna empty-handed from a match where they would have expected a result.
- Celta de Vigo 0-1 Elche: Rebounding from mid-week disappointment, the visitors took full points thanks to Javíer Xumetra’s second half winner, Celta having lost three of four.
- Espanyol 0-2 Getafe: Adrián Colunga scores in the 72nd, 93rd minutes to hand Espanyol their second straight loss, Getafe moving into eighth after their third win in four.
- Real Betis 1-0 Villarreal: The Yellow Submarine had a chance to leap Real Madrid and take over third place. Instead, a 36th minute goal from Nosa hands Marcelino’s team their first loss since returning to the Primera Division.
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