Real Madrid’s ‘dystopian’ dominance – Barcelona and La Liga rivals are way behind


There was an almost dystopian feel to Barcelona’s home La Liga game against Valencia last Monday.

Defending champions Barca kicked off knowing they needed a win to keep alive any faint hopes of retaining the title — or at least postpone the inevitability of Real Madrid taking the championship away from them for as long as possible.

Valencia’s visit to Montjuic was also Barca’s first game since it was confirmed Xavi would continue as head coach next season, having said in January he’d step down in the summer — in theory, something positive for their fans to get behind.

Still, the 30,167 crowd was the lowest of the season at what is their temporary home during extensive renovations at Camp Nou. The heavy rain was a factor, but their fans were also hurting after a tough few weeks, including the double pain of a Champions League exit to Paris Saint-Germain and a Clasico defeat at the Bernabeu in La Liga.

Those present got to see a quite entertaining 4-2 home win against a young Valencia team still with hopes of qualifying for Europe — but the quality was not good.

Valencia were handed their goals through farcical mistakes from goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and centre-back Ronald Araujo. Xavi’s team often struggled to find zip and creativity, even playing against 10 men after Giorgi Mamardashvili was sent off just before half-time. With the score level at 2-2, it seemed another night of frustration was coming for a team who have been through a lot lately.

This was when the home crowd began to rise to their feet, as a Mexican Wave rippled around the ground.

Waves are not unheard of at games in Spain, but they do generally occur when contented supporters have something to celebrate and nothing of real consequence is happening on the pitch.

The images of the wave sweeping around a half-full, rain-swept Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys, with Barca struggling and Xavi looking stressed on the bench, were startling to many observers.

“The wave at Montjuic is like an episode of Black Mirror,” posted broadcaster DAZN’s Miguel Quintana on X, referencing the normality-warping science-fiction TV series. It struck a chord. Quintana explained that he was not trying to be the “celebration police”, but the wave did seem to show a lack of respect for Barcelona’s proud history.

It also furthered a debate over how representative that crowd was of Barca’s traditional base. They only sold 17,500 season tickets at the hilltop venue, which many locals consider to be awkwardly inaccessible. Some supporters had spared themselves the hassle of the trip on a rainy April night, so many present were curious visitors to the Catalan capital, families who rarely go to games or international Barca fans making a rare and expensive pilgrimage to see their team in the flesh rather than on a screen.

Meanwhile, the sound of cackling could be heard all the way from the Bernabeu.

Everything seems to be coming up Madrid at the moment. Carlo Ancelotti’s team had taken another step closer to the title with a grimly determined 1-0 win at Real Sociedad on the previous Friday evening. A sixth successive La Liga victory was never really in doubt, even after Ancelotti rotated heavily ahead of the Champions League semi-final first leg against Bayern in Munich.


Nacho and Joselu celebrate Madrid’s third goal on Saturday (Burak Akbulut/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Expectations and optimism among Madrid fans are sky-high. The lengthy €1billion (£860m; $1.1bn) renovation of their stadium is almost complete, and supporters have been packing into the shiny new structure to cheer their team.

The mood was already jubilant around the Bernabeu on Saturday afternoon, from hours before kick-off. There was an inevitability about the 3-0 home win that followed, even with Cadiz desperate for points in their relegation struggle and Ancelotti rotating again. Back-up creative spark Brahim Diaz was outstanding with a goal and assist, the rested Jude Bellingham scored a few minutes after coming on just past the hour. When club captain Nacho burst forward to set up Joselu for the final goal in added time, the 72,654 crowd rose to their feet chanting ‘Campeones’. On the final whistle, the players stayed on the pitch afterwards to sing and dance and celebrate.

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GO DEEPER

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That was followed a few hours later by another disaster for Barcelona at Catalan neighbours Girona.

Barca were 2-1 up with an hour played and could have put the game out of reach but crumbled to a deserved 4-2 defeat. Afterwards, Xavi and club president Joan Laporta raged again about the unfairness of it all, but the consequences of over a decade of really bad decision-making at Barca is coming home to roost.

This is a golden age for Madrid’s fans — and their club look set to strengthen significantly this summer. Everyone at the Bernabeu expects Kylian Mbappe’s arrival from Paris Saint-Germain to finally be confirmed once this season is over, although the history of him changing his mind has kept them cautious.

Brazilian wonderkid Endrick definitely is arriving — and the 18-year-old showed his great promise when scoring at Wembley and the Bernabeu in international friendlies in March. Luka Modric and backup defender Nacho look like they might leave, maybe Dani Ceballos and Joselu too, but high-quality replacements are being lined up, such as Bayern left-back Alphonso Davies and Lille centre-back Leny Yoro.

So Madrid should be even stronger in La Liga next season, having already cruised to this championship with their first-choice goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and Ancelotti’s preferred centre-back pairing Eder Militao and David Alaba missing most of the season. They have the best defensive record in the division (just 22 conceded after 34 games) and have lost just once in the league, away against city rivals Atletico in September.


Madrid fans celebrating in the city on Saturday night (Diego Radames/Europa Press via Getty Images)

Girona’s surprise title challenge aside (and maybe Xavi’s histrionics), this has not been a very dramatic La Liga season.

For months, it has looked almost certain that Almeria, Granada and Cadiz would be relegated. With four rounds of games to play, the only real jeopardy left is whether in-form Villarreal or that youthful Valencia team might pip Real Betis to seventh and the Europa Conference League spot it brings.

It has been a fantastic campaign by Girona, whose fantastic display of belief and skill against Barca on Saturday clinched Champions League qualification. The Catalan club are part of the City Football Group, but their annual budget is €60million — compared to Madrid’s €600m, Barcelona’s €500m and Atletico’s €300m. Their highest previous La Liga finish was 10th.

This is a spectacular achievement, and Girona coach Michel is being talked about as one of Europe’s most promising managers. But their startling success can also be taken as another sign of the general level falling within La Liga.


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Spanish football still has a tremendous production line of young players — Lamine Yamal and Pau Cubarsi at Barca and Nico Williams at Athletic Bilbao have enjoyed superb seasons. Las Palmas playmaker Alberto Moleiro, Valencia centre-back Cristhian Mosquera and Atletico midfielder Pablo Barrios have all made exciting steps forward. Villarreal playmaker Alex Baena looks ready to make a big impact at the top level.

But all of these players are more likely to move to the Premier League than become part of a new domestic project that could challenge Madrid.

Barcelona’s ongoing financial woes mean key players could be sold this summer. Atletico are on a cost-cutting drive, and Sevilla, Valencia and Villarreal are all trying to rebuild on the cheap. La Liga’s strict financial rules just do not permit anyone to take over a club and quickly launch them forward with a big splash of investment. Its Saudi Arabian-owned side, Almeria, have been relegated.


Barcelona’s Ronald Araujo could be sold this summer (Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images)

The mood at Atletico’s stadium was indicative when they beat Athletic 3-1 on April 27 in what was almost an elimination match for fourth spot and the final Champions League place on April 27.

Atletico were the better team against an Athletic side still hungover from their much-celebrated Copa del Rey victory a few weeks before. A first major trophy in four decades means Athletic’s players and fans are already very happy with how 2023-24 has gone, and many quite like the idea of playing in the Europa League next year as its final will be at their San Mames home.

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Views on the current campaign are much more mixed at Atletico, with midfielder Rodrigo De Paul annoying some fans when he said: “In general lines, this has been a great season for Atletico.”

De Paul cited making the Copa del Rey semi-finals and Champions League’s last eight while ensuring a 12th consecutive season in Europe’s elite club competition. That Atletico are a full 20 points behind neighbours Madrid in the Primera Division standings did not seem to matter too much.

For Madrid fans, things are likely to keep getting better and better.

Bellingham, Vinicius Junior, Federico Valverde, Rodrygo, Militao, Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga are all still in their early-to-mid-twenties, and Endrick and, of course, Mbappe should provide another big leap forward in talent.

But supporters of all the other La Liga clubs fear the dystopia will continue.

(Top photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP via Getty Images)





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