Has the balance of power shifted in Spain?

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May 24, 2021
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    Atletico Madrid squad celebrateAtletico's title win is their 11th in La Liga and second under Diego Simeone

    A second-half winner from Luis Suarez – who else? – secured the title for Atletico Madrid in a dramatic final day which saw Diego Simeone's men finish two points above cross-town rivals Real Madrid.

    Saturday's 2-1 victory over Real Valladolid, who consequently suffered relegation, confirmed a deserved triumph for Atletico, with the Rojiblancos leading the league nearly all season and surviving a spring wobble by collecting 13 points from the last 15.

    And with their second league crown under Simeone coming at a time when traditional big two Real and Barcelona are in financial crisis, it begs the question whether the balance of power in Spanish football has taken a decisive shift.

    • Suarez scores winner as Atletico fight back to win title
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    Sustained success under Simeone

    With eight trophies won in the decade since Simeone's arrival, this is the most consistently successful period in Atletico's history.

    The Rojiblancos have finished third or higher in La Liga for nine consecutive seasons, having previously never done so for more than three years in a row, and have also reached two Champions League finals.

    Over the last four seasons they have averaged nearly the same number of points (77.8 per season) as Real (78.8), and Saturday's title triumph makes it clear that the gap between the big two and their closest challengers is nowhere near as large as it has been previously.

    In addition to Simeone's outstanding coaching, Atletico have achieved their leap in status by spending more money than ever before – notably with the capture of Portugal starlet Joao Felix for 126m euros – which has seen their debt approach £1bn.

    The traditional powers, however, have spent themselves into even more of a financial black hole in their desperate attempts to not only hold off Atletico but also to keep pace with the new oil state-backed elite of Manchester City and Paris St-Germain.

    That explains Real and Barca's desperation to form the aborted European Super League in the hope of boosting their finances and restoring what they regard as their rightful position. But with those plans in disarray and Atletico now celebrating their second La Liga in seven years, a very difficult period lies ahead for the big two.

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    Messi and Koeman headline Barca's summer unknowns

    Lionel Messi (left) and Ronald Koeman (right)Messi missed Barca's win at Eibar after being given permission to rest before this summer's Copa America

    Barca's lowest finish since 2008 comes at a traumatic time, with the club more than £1.1bn in debt and this week requiring a £100m emergency loan to cover unpaid player wages.

    Recently re-elected club president Joan Laporta has already publicly announced the "end of a cycle" amid local media reports that practically every player is up for sale if the price is right, while coach Ronald Koeman is expected to be fired despite stabilising the team this season.

    Club legend Xavi has been repeatedly linked with the post but speculation surrounding his recruitment has recently cooled, while outgoing Bayern Munich boss Hansi Flick is reported to have rejected an approach from Laporta in favour of Germany's national team.

    The new Barca coach, whoever he might be, will inherit a squad replenished by free transfers – Eric Garcia and Sergio Aguero from Manchester City, Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum and Lyon forward Memphis Depay are all in their sights.

    Looming large above everything else, of course, is the question of whether skipper Lionel Messi will be prepared to live through the ongoing transition process or reject a new contract and leave.

    Like everything else at the Camp Nou, there is enormous uncertainty over Messi's status at the club, and right now it's tough to envisage Barca returning to former glories anytime soon.

    Summer of transition for Real?

    Zinedine ZidaneZidane won La Liga with Real Madrid last season, but failed to defend their title in 2020-21

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    Real Madrid's situation isn't quite as desperate as Barca's… but is not far off.

    With debts approaching £1bn and club president Florentino Perez consequently openly scrambling to create a new European league, the deposed champions are also entering a major transitional period on the field.

    Rumours are rife that manager Zinedine Zidane will leave this summer while iconic skipper Sergio Ramos could also be on his way after so far failing to agree terms on a new contract.

    With key players Karim Benzema and Luka Modric well into their 30s, big-money signing Eden Hazard struggling to stay fit for more than a fortnight and none of the team's large selection of wingers regularly scoring, it's hard to predict how Real might line up next season.

    Homegrown young players Miguel, Gutierrez, Antonio Blanco and Marvin Park have all impressed in recent weeks, and Zidane's successor – which may be iconic ex-forward and current B team coach Raul – could be expected to increasingly turn to youth.

    Barring a sudden and unexpected injection of funding it's certainly hard to see how Real or Barca could compete for a showcase signing like Erling Braut Haaland or Kylian Mbappe – they just cannot afford to.

    All of this plays out perfectly for new champions Atletico, whose squad and behind-the-scenes infrastructure looks far more stable and sustainable.

    So when the next season gets underway in August, perhaps – for the first time in living memory – Atletico may even be regarded as title favourites.

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    May 24, 2021
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