By Joe Meloni
By season’s end, Atletico Madrid’s key contribution to the 2010-11 season may be sidelining Barcelona dynamo Lionel Messi for a couple weeks. The Argentine left Sunday’s match, which Barcelona won 2-1, in the final minutes after a challenge from Tomas Ujfalusi.
Failing to pull any points from Barca cost Atletico a chance to continue its early season success. Currently, los Rojiblancos are in the obligatory late-September, four-way tie for fourth place with Barcelona, among others. Three days from now, Atletico will meet current table topper Valenica, which, even with former talisman David Villa roaming the Camp Nou, has handled its three games with as many victories. While the triumphs came against middling sides Malaga, Racing Santander and Hercules, securing maximum points from these fixtures is key to winning La Liga.
Both Atletico and Valencia entered the season with eyes on unseating the El Clasico combatants from their throne atop Spain’s top league. Even with the hot starts, outlasting Real Madrid and Barcelona is no small order. For Valencia, a win at its Mestalla would it stay at least two points clear of Sevilla and Real Madrid, both of which are currently tied in second place. Losing the No. 1 spot now may seem irrelevant, but it’s always easier to lead the race than it is to catch up.
Similarly, for Atletico, watching a club in front of it add three points to its lead this early in the season – and following Sunday’s tough home defeat to Barca – could be a turning point.
Throughout the summer, conversations about the futures of Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero with the club swirled. Both players are in demand by some of Europe richest and most successful clubs, and Atletico’s front office has done everything it can to avoid moving for them. Should Atletico enter the January transfer window in contention for either the league title or a place in the 2011-12 Champions League, Atletico’s bosses will have even more of a reason to respectfully decline when, say, Sir Alex Ferguson makes the call. With Atletico’s ninth-place finish last season, it’s not participating in either European club competition this season. Therefore clubs may be willing to spend a little more since either player would be available to play in both domestic and continental competitions.
It should be said that losing on Wednesday is hardly a death sentence for either side this season. Their margin for error, though, is not particularly large. The league’s premier powers often struggle in the early going before spending the second half of the season trading first place back and forth for the final few months.
In the past, clubs such as Atletico, Valencia and Villareal have led at various points before the giants found their stride and either sailed to a title or battled with each other until one of them received a crown. In fact, Barcelona and Real Madrid have finished in the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in four of the last five seasons. In 2007-08, Real Madrid won the league easily, but Villareal finished 10 points clear of Barca for the second spot. Not since 2003-04, when Valencia won the league by five points, has another club managed to earn the top spot in Spanish soccer.
Needless to say, making 2010-11 another of those years marked by a changing of the guard in La Liga will be a challenging feat whether or not they pull three points from Wednesday’s match. However, coming from the game with no points will only make life even more difficult.
Ultimately, it seems as though both Valencia and Ateltico are satisfied every year with qualifying for Europe. And considering the warchest Barca and Real Madrid have at their disposal, that expectation is entirely reasonable. Even there, though, 2010-11 will be especially difficult without the three points available on Wednesday night in Eastern Spain. Clubs such as Espanyol, Sevilla and Villareal appear capable of filling out the two Champions League spots not previously reserved for the nation’s two giants.
Come Thursday morning, not much will have changed in La Liga’s table. There will, however, be a point or three more attached to the names of one or both of the clubs. The difference between fifth place and fourth and second place and first could be fewer than three points. With both clubs involved likely to finish in one of the five spots, these three points mean a little more than most handed out on a Wednesday night in September usually do.
Joe Meloni is a writer and editor for TheSoccerGuysOnline.com. He can be reached at Joe.Meloni@TheSoccerGuysOnline.com.