Barcelona, Real Madrid could have company in La Liga title race

Barcelona, Real Madrid could have company in La Liga title race

In any kind of preview of an upcoming La Liga season, it's just about mandatory to start with a well-worn stat. So that's where we'll begin here as well in our look at the upcoming season which kicks off Saturday. Here goes: Just once in the last 11 seasons has a club other than Barcelona or Real Madrid been crowned champion of Spain.

And lately, the gap seems only to have gotten bigger. Atletico Madrid managed to interrupt the Big Two's run in 2013-14 by snagging the first title of the Mattress Makers (that's really their nickname) since 1996. But that was seen as something of a fluke, a perfect storm of poor form by Barca and Real and timely performances by Atletico.

Historically, Real Madrid and Barcelona have towered over the rest of La Liga. Since the league's beginning in 1929, they have 1,590 and 1,524 wins, respectively. No other team has more than 1,190 (also Atletico).

What has set the megaclubs from Madrid and Catalonia apart recently, however, isn't just that they draw more spectators to their stadiums, have larger fan bases and sell more merchandise than anybody else. It's that they hog most of the all-important television money. That allows them to hoard talent, claim the bulk of the prize money and then generate yet more revenues. It's a cycle that perpetuates its own inequality.

Spanish clubs don't bargain for their broadcast deals collectively. Or at least, they didn't until signing a new deal in May. That meant Barcelona and Real Madrid collected $154 million in television money apiece in 2013-14, while the third-highest earning club was Valencia at some $53 million. That will soon change. A new Spanish law calls for more even distribution of the television spoils among La Liga's clubs. That said, a clause guaranteeing that clubs will see no less money for the first six years after the new deal goes into effect, at the start of the 2016-17 season, does ensure that the disparity will persist in the short term.

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But even if a real threat to the duopoly seems a long way off, this might nevertheless be a much closer-run 2015-16 season than many would expect. Because Barca and Real have been facing real difficulties. While the clubs always seem to be in some kind of crisis or other, whether contrived by an eager local press or actually legitimate, both had difficult summers.

That may sound weird consider that the Blaugranas just won the treble and claimed the UEFA Super Cup over Sevilla, and the socios reelected the president who finally brought stability and prosperity back to the club. But the defending Spanish and European champions are still saddled with the savage penalty in this past January transfer window and the ongoing one. Painfully, Barca has been barred from buying players – well, registering them, technically – because of myriad violations in the recruitment of underage players. As such, a team that saw several veterans age out and already had real depth problems, has had no opportunity to re-tool.

Which isn't to say that Barcelona did nothing at all on the market. Right back Aleix Vidal was bought expensively from Sevilla to eventually succeed Dani Alves, who was re-signed after much convincing. The signature of Atletico attacking midfielder and talisman Arda Turan was also secured, for even more money. But neither man is eligible to play until January, when Barca's transfer ban finally expires and the club can register players again.

But with Xavi moving on, Martin Montoya loaned to Inter Milan and Pedro leaving for Chelsea, Barcelona has even less depth in its ranks than last year. And if defender Adriano winds up departing as well, that will only get worse. Especially because manager Luis Enrique has been slow to integrate the latest wave of talent pushing through from the academy, leaving Barca short of experience.

As for Real Madrid, it almost got its own transfer ban for the same sort of transgressions. There's much drama in the capital, where the ever-popular manager Carlo Ancelotti was fired in the offseason despite finally ending Real's Champions League drought the season prior and being the very rare manager there to enjoy the support of virtually the entire senior team. Ancelotti's exit was the doing of despotic club president Florentino Perez in his continued campaign to consolidate power.

Perez wanted a manager who would essentially be a puppet and pander to his every whim – like playing Gareth Bale centrally – because he has staked his reputation on the world-record transfer fee he paid for the underachieving Welshman and wants him to deliver, even though such a move would come at the expense of one Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps the best player in club history. But Perez's new manager, Rafa Benitez, has happily adhered to the edict thus far, playing Bale in the middle, setting the manager and his overzealous president on a collision course with the squad.

Perez, meanwhile, finally managed to banish veteran goalkeeper and longtime captain Iker Casillas, who wielded immense power within the locker room, to FC Porto. The club didn't do much in the market, other than overpay for Porto right back Danilo and bring some other players back for depth, meaning much of the focus will likely be on the club's various internal power struggles.

And while the Big Two have remained stagnant, if they haven't gotten worse for reasons on or off the field, last year's third-, fourth- and fifth-placed teams have positioned themselves well to challenge.

Atletico Madrid reloaded with the signing of Colombian star striker Jackson Martinez. (Reuters)
Atletico Madrid reloaded with the signing of Colombian star striker Jackson Martinez. (Reuters)

After something of an off-year for Atletico Madrid, which was to be expected following an improbable title and a run to the Champions League final, Atleti reloaded this summer. Certainly, Turan is gone and that will hurt, but left back Filipe Luis was brought back from Chelsea and fellow defender Stefan Savic and midfielders Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Bernard Mensah came in as well. The real coup, however, was the signing of FC Porto striker Jackson Martinez, who will be joined on the front line by Luciano Vietto from Villarreal. So in spite of a few losses, that's a serious injection of young talent. Atletico should close the 14-point gap that separated its third place from second-place Real last season.

Valencia and Sevilla, which placed fourth and fifth and one and two points below Atletico, respectively, have had promising summers as well.

Although the losses of striker Carlos Bacca and the aforementioned Vidal and his fellow defender Stephane M'Bia sting, Sevilla managed to snag strong replacements and more. Defender Adil Rami, midfielders Michael Krohn-Dehli and Steve N'Zonzi, wingers Yevhen Konoplyanka and Gael Kakutaand striker Ciro Immobile should ensure that Sevilla is even better than in its back-to-back Europa League winning seasons.

And Valencia lost nobody of consequence while securing striker Alvaro Negredo on a permanent basis, buying the talented trio of Joao Cancelo, Andre Gomes and Rodrigo Moreno from Benfica for a bundle of money, and snapping up highly touted teenage attacking midfielders Santi Mina and Zakaria Bakkali from Celta and PSV, respectively.

Here's another statistic that might very conceivably lead La Liga previews next season: Barcelona or Real Madrid have won La Liga just once in the last three seasons.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.