This was supposed to be the season when everything changed. New coach Zinedine Zidane had pushed Barcelona all the way to the tape as Real Madrid missed out on La Liga by a single point in 2015-16. So as the current campaign got underway, the momentum was with Los Blancos.
And for a while, Zidane’s side looked like big favourites to win the Primera Division this term. Madrid appeared almost invincible through a 40-match unbeaten streak in all competitions. Now, however, it is too close for comfort at the top of the table.
In the space of exactly one week, Real’s cushion was wiped out, a potential seven-point advantage now only two – and that only if Los Blancos can win their game in hand away to Celta Vigo.
A 2-1 loss at Valencia last week sewed seeds of doubt and four days later, Madrid needed a dramatic turnaround to beat Villarreal after going 2-0 down at the Estadio de la Cerámica on Sunday. It was not good enough – and another poor performance followed at home to Las Palmas on Wednesday.
This time, Madrid conceded three (two after the dismissal of Gareth Bale for lashing out at Jonathan Viera) and even though there was another comeback, it was only enough to win a point and saw Barcelona finish the night as Liga leaders.
Real, of course, have been here before. Only once in the past eight seasons have Los Blancos won La Liga and that is a poor return for Spain’s most successful side. Because even though they have claimed the Champions League twice in the past three years, this is a team that prides itself in dominating not only in Europe, but also at home.
Madrid president Florentino Pérez is said to be embarrassed when his high-profile guests at the Santiago Bernabéu ask why the club cannot win La Liga. He has no answer to that question and prior to José Mourinho’s sole success in the Primera División in 2011-12, Real’s last league title was in 2007-08.
So to miss out again would be a big blow – more so considering the advantage the team had just over a week ago, and also because Barcelona have hardly been at their brilliant best in 2016-17.
For the Catalans, winning La Liga in the current circumstances would be especially sweet. But for Madrid, losing out once again to their fiercest rivals would be particularly painful.