With Ronaldo gone and Barca's core aging, who is the favorite in La Liga?

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Real Madrid and Barcelona remain the favorites in La Liga, but 2018-19 could end up being a three-team title race. (Getty)
Real Madrid and Barcelona remain the favorites in La Liga, but 2018-19 could end up being a three-team title race. (Getty)

For four consecutive seasons beginning in 2013, La Liga wasn’t just the best soccer league in the world; it was the tightest. Nine points decided four straight title races. Nine points combined. Atletico Madrid staged its stunning uprising to steal the first. Barcelona nicked the second and third. Real Madrid got its revenge in year four.

And then 2017-18 happened.

Barcelona, out of nowhere, waltzed to the top of the table. The league was all but over by Christmas. The Catalans finished 14 points ahead of their closest challengers and 17 points above their greatest rivals, the largest gap between Clasico contestants in a decade.

La Liga, for once, wasn’t all that compelling. And frankly, nothing that has happened since Barcelona jumped for joy in April has dragged the champions back toward the pack. Real Madrid, conversely, sold the greatest player to ever grace the club. Atleti lurks, but a season of overachievement still left it miles behind.

So there is nowhere else to begin a breakdown of the 2018-19 title race than with the incumbent. Beware, however: The coming season won’t be anywhere near as straightforward as the previous one.

The case against Barcelona

Let’s rewind 12 months – 359 days, to be exact. Three weeks after leaving Barcelona for Paris, Neymar had some thoughts on the state of his former employer. “They shouldn’t be in charge of Barcelona,” he said of the club’s board. “Barca deserve much better.”

Things certainly did get better on the field. But the sources of internal turmoil and external unrest didn’t just evaporate. In a way, they’re at the heart of the case against Barca in 2018-19.

A year ago, the club was in a bad place. It had lost its centerpiece of the future. Neymar’s departure had exposed a squad bereft of prime-age stars. Real Madrid had battered the Blaugrana in the Supercopa España, and Gerard Pique, for the first time as a Barcelona player, felt “inferior.”

The strange part about what transpired next was that many of the concerns came to fruition. Barca’s on-field support of Lionel Messi wasn’t sufficient. Ernesto Valverde’s roster wasn’t equipped to play the total football that had become synonymous with garnet and blue. Barca didn’t boss games like it once did. That’s why there’s still worry.

In the one statistical column that ultimately matters, Barcelona was dominant, but beneath the surface it wasn’t. Its Expected Goal totals were roughly on par with Real Madrid’s. They told of a team that was relatively fortunate to win as often as it did.

The adjacent concern is that Barca strayed from The Barca Way. Valverde implemented a conservative 4-4-2 that had fans calling for his head amid an unbeaten season. It was reliant on the brilliance of Messi and, to a lesser extent, Luis Suarez. Those two came through almost without fail.

But they are each now 31 years old. So is Pique. Sergio Busquets, his creeping decline evident, is 30. So is Ivan Rakitic. Andres Iniesta, meanwhile, is bamboozling defenders in Japan. If Barcelona follows the 2017-18 blueprint, it could find itself closer to 80 points than 92.

The case for Barcelona

On the other hand, Barca could be a better version of its 2017-18 self. Or it could revert to its pre-Valverde ways and dazzle once again.

Last year’s stylistic shift was, in part, a practical one. This year’s roster might render it no longer necessary. Ousmane Dembele, primed for an explosion after struggling with injury last year, brings sizzling, back-line-stretching pace in addition to final-third quality. Philippe Coutinho, signed in January, gives Valverde a dynamic creator.

Their second seasons will undoubtedly be more impactful than their firsts. They’ll feel like already-indoctrinated new signings. Two actual summer additions, Arthur and Malcom, will spark the attack in supplementary roles. Arturo Vidal, signed from Bayern Munich, will be a rich man’s Paulinho.

Barca is better equipped to succeed as it did last year. It’s also armed with tools to change. There are multiple routes to a repeat. And thus, there is a clear La Liga favorite.

The case for Real Madrid

Real Madrid’s 2017-18 season was downright strange. Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema combined to score just six times over the season’s first five months. By that point, the title holders were 19 points back of Barca, with only 32 goals on 44.3 xG (per Understat). Days later, they were out of the Copa Del Rey as well. They were a colossal, seemingly incorrigible disappointment.

Then they won a fourth Champions League in five years. They phoned in La Liga, yet were only one point worse than Barcelona over the season’s second half. Their underlying numbers were better than the eventual champs’.

The case for Real Madrid begins with the argument that the real Real is the one described in the paragraph above. It began and ended last season as the best team in Europe. Those five dire months were complete and utter flukes.

Furthermore, common counterarguments are refuted by summer changes. Did Madrid, over-reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo, suffer at the whims of his finishing? Well he’s off to Juventus. At the back, Real was a victim of either inexplicably hot opposing strikers or Keylor Navas shortcomings. If the former, that’s likely out of Madrid’s control. If the latter, Thibaut Courtois has arrived as the solution.

Of course, it is difficult to frame Ronaldo’s departure as a positive. But Madrid had become unashamedly Ronaldo-centric, perhaps to a fault. It no longer will be. Balance, in theory, fosters consistency and unpredictability. Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Isco and Marco Asensio could thrive with heightened responsibility. Real could be tougher to defend …

The case against Real Madrid

… But it probably won’t be. Isco and Asensio are primarily creators. They’re separate breeds. Benzema has become less a goalscorer, more a facilitator with age. Bale is the only viable Ronaldo replacement, but he hasn’t played more than 53 percent of available league minutes since his age 25 season (2014-15).

Some will point to new coach Julen Lopetegui’s system as the true replacement. It certainly could engineer better midfield ball progression and a more firm grasp on games.

But Loptegui is a major question mark. The squad, especially with Casemiro as the lone capable defense midfielder, seems ill-suited to his style. And he himself is alarmingly unproven. His first of only two club jobs, with Rayo Vallecano in the Spanish second division, ended in a sacking after 10 games. His second was Porto, where he lasted one-and-a-half trophy-less years. He was unbeaten in qualifiers and friendlies with the Spanish national team. But are we sure he’s actually any good?

The case for Atletico Madrid

Madrid and Barcelona are at varying stages of transformations. Atleti, meanwhile, is as stable as can be in year eight of Diego Simeone’s Cholismo. And it might be more than just stable.

Atleti’s approach under Simeone has made it a force on the continent, largely because it is built to neutralize superior teams and play without the ball. The side-effects of that identity are struggles against inferior foes. Simeone’s side hasn’t been expressive or incisive enough in possession to claim three points after three points after three points against the bottom of the league.

But 2018-19 will be the first full year of the Antoine Griezmann-Diego Costa partnership. Angel Correa and Vitolo will provide depth, and the four together will give Atletico its most potent front line since the title-winning campaign. They’ll also have better service. Thomas Lemar joined from Monaco for a club-record fee to give Simeone a second creative narrow winger to bookend Koke. Saul will play the box-to-box role.

The defense, at this point, is a given. Backstopped by Jan Oblak, it conceded 22 goals last season. And remember, Atleti was one victory away from cutting Barcelona’s deficit to two points in March. It wasn’t far off. And it has strengthened. So if Barca and Real are indeed in transition, why not Atletico?

The case against Atleti, and for status quo in La Liga

Simeone, though, would need to make a fundamental change to turn Atleti into a legitimate league challenge once again. The firepower is there. The system simply isn’t. Atletico has been overperforming xG expectations for years now, and still hasn’t surpassed 70 goals since 2013-14. Barcelona and Madrid have averaged 109 and 107, respectively, in that interim. It is simply very, very difficult to win a three-team race with that disparity, even if reinforcements close the gap.

Atleti is good enough to hang around. If it can take 8-10 points from its four games against its title rivals, it can hang around. And if it does, it is better constructed to convert contention into a crown than it has been in recent years past.

But Real Madrid has more upside. Barcelona has the highest floor. It also has the pedigree and the talent. The Catalans are vulnerable to regression. They’re also our pick to win a 26th La Liga title.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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