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Dublin: 9 °C Sunday 31 August, 2014

5 talking points at the halfway point of the La Liga season

Has Gareth Bale been a success? Will Atletico last the distance? What of Lionel Messi’s injury?

Gareth Bale's Real Madrid career thus far has been hampered by injury problems.
Gareth Bale's Real Madrid career thus far has been hampered by injury problems.

1. Was Messi’s injury a blessing in disguise?

LAST YEAR, THE Argentinian superstar’s injury had an obviously negative effect on his teammates at Barcelona. They were in serious danger of exiting the Champions League at the hands of Paris St Germain, before a barely recovered Messi’s belated introduction into the game saved them, while he was a pale shadow of his fully fit self in the portion of the tie he did play amid their two-leg trashing against Bayern Munich.

However, this season, Messi’s injury seemingly occurred at the ideal time. Barcelona had already beaten Real Madrid and established a lead at the top when the setback occurred, while it also coincided with a run of games that were all very winnable.

Consequently, in contrast with last year, Barca did not suffer unduly without their maestro.

And perhaps more importantly, Messi got some much-needed rest and recuperation back in his native Argentina, ahead of what is arguably set be the most intense and pressure-filled few months of the 26-year-old’s career so far, with the whole of Argentina expecting him to emulate Diego Maradona in 1986 and inspire the country to World Cup glory in what would surely be the star’s greatest achievement to date.

2. Can Atletico Madrid last the distance?

There is no doubt that Atletico Madrid have already overachieved hugely this season as, in many ways, they are the Liverpool of La Liga.

Just as Brendan Rodgers’ side have managed to keep pace with their more free-spending rivals, Atletico Madrid are currently level on points with Barcelona, and three ahead of Real Madrid, despite having just a fraction of their budgets.

And in Diego Costa, they have their Luis Suarez — with Costa having scored 19 goals thus far (only one less than top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo).

Costa has, however, hit a rare dry patch of late, recently failing to score in three consecutive matches, though the same cannot be said for Atletico, who earned their third draw of the season against Barca last weekend (with the previous two coming in the Spanish Super Cup) in a highly impressive fashion, limiting their opponents to almost no chances and forcing them to alter their tactics substantially. In addition, they also went unbeaten in the Champions League, thereby illustrating their appetite to challenge for honours on multiple fronts.

Coach Diego Simeone regularly tells the media that they cannot be expected to challenge in the long run with Real and Barca, however the more victories they acquire, the less convincing he sounds. And if they do maintain their phenomenal form, it could conceivably be one of the most exciting climaxes ever to a La Liga campaign, with Simeone’s men set to take on Barca on the final day of the season.

3. How bad is the quality of the rest of the Spanish league?

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(Bilbao pulled off a shock victory over Barcelona, but have still failed to keep pace with the leading pack — Alvaro Barrientos/AP/Press Association Images)

There is no doubt about it — La Liga is very much a three-horse race. While Barca, Atletico and Real are within three points of one another, the next team — Athletic Bilbao — are 11 points off third spot.

The three top teams’ respective records accentuate this significant disparity between themselves and the rest of the sides – Barca and Atletico have both won 16, drawn two and lost one, while Real have won 15, drawn two and lost two.

Nonetheless, to suggest that the Spanish league is not competitive wrongly infers that it is somehow unique in the worst possible way, when if anything, it is more competitive than many other big European leagues. Juventus and Bayern Munich both appear to be running away with their domestic competitions, while the Premier League is the exception that proves the rule — and even in this instance, United comfortably triumphed last year ultimately, while most would agree that Manchester City should win comfortably this time around provided they maintain a positive attitude and avoid complacency.

Still, Real Sociedad’s dire performance in the Champions League and Swansea’s thrashing away to Valencia in the Europa League have led many to speak somewhat dismissively about La Liga, but don’t forget that last season — in a typically knee-jerk fashion — people were similarly writing off the Premier League for their sides’ inept performance among Europe’s elite, only for the English teams to come back arguably stronger than ever this year.

4. Has Gareth Bale been a success?

At this stage, it’s too early to give anything approaching a definitive verdict on the world’s most expensive player.

How one begins to go about justifying such an exorbitant £86million price tag is impossible to measure, and it would be unfair to label Bale a disappointment thus far.

As expected, he has been somewhat eclipsed by Cristiano Ronaldo, who has 20 goals compared with Bale’s eight (Karim Benzema, meanwhile, has scored nine).

But Bale’s game time in Spain thus far has been shortened significantly by injury problems, which he continues to suffer from to a degree currently.

Moreover, the Welshman has struggled to get in the team since the turn of the year, despite previously showing glimpses of the brilliance he routinely displayed with Tottenham.

Coach Carlo Ancelotti insists he is pleased with Bale’s form though, but acknowledges that there remains room for improvement, recently commenting: “Of course he can do better because he needs to combine better with his team-mates.

“But those are normal problems for a player who’s discovering a new culture, new football and new country.”

5. Is Gerardo Martino suited to Barcelona?

Barcelona have performed efficiently this season and have done relatively well under the circumstances — despite being without their best player, Lionel Messi, for a considerable portion of the season, they are currently top of La Liga and also emerged with relative ease from their Champions League group.

Following successful stints with both the Paraguayan national side and Newell’s Old Boys, Martino replaced Tito Vilanova at the Catalan club’s helm in the summer, after the latter’s struggle with health problems that had continually dogged his year as Barca boss finally caused him to admit defeat and step down.

And many critics have since been slow to warm to the newly installed Argentinian coach’s style. Although his intense, high pressing and attacking strategy is conducive to Barca’s philosophy to an extent, there is a lingering suspicion that his approach is too direct, and that elegant ball players such as Xavi and Anders Iniesta are not being utilised to full effect.

Consequently, though the results have been positive, that fact alone is not enough for a club with the astronomical standards of Barcelona. It is the outcome of the next few months, however, that will determine whether his obstinate and not entirely popular way of playing is justified.

And there is much at stake for the 51-year-old in this short upcoming period of time — failure to win at least one of the big two (La Liga and the Champions League) will quite possibly cost him his illustrious position as coach of Spain’s most successful club.

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