There’s a question that is, without fail, banded around Spanish football every single season by the respective media outlets.
It reads ‘¿Hay Liga?’, literally meaning ‘is there league?’ but really it asks if there is a LaLiga title race or whether one of the same old parties of Real Madrid or Barcelona are going to run away with it again.
Sometimes it is often posed as a statement to confirm there are more than two teams trying to do battle for the main prize, and early signs dictate that this season will certainly belong to this category.
Real Madrid are one of four clubs sat on 21 points in a wildly exciting LaLiga title race so far
Currently, Real Sociedad lead the standings, three points ahead of three teams in Sevilla, Real Betis and the regular contenders Real Madrid. But their arch rivals Barcelona are languishing in ninth after their worst start to a season in 34 years, which has cost Ronald Koeman his job.
Current champions Atletico Madrid – who along with Real and Sevilla have played one game fewer than the rest at the top – are within touching distance of the top, though not without their issues so far this season. They were held to a 2-2 draw by Levante on Thursday.
But their respective struggles – Barcelona’s more pronounced than Atletico’s – have led to a new cohort including city rivals Sevilla and Real Betis, newly-promoted Rayo Vallecano and Osasuna occupy places among the top six.
Barcelona meanwhile look cut off as they continue to flounder, with Ronald Koeman sacked
It has caused one of the most exciting, wide open title races in LaLiga for years and probably in Europe this season. So how have we got to this stage after ten and eleven games played respectively?
Sportsmail looks at the clubs occupying the top seven as well as the Catalan outfit, who now look set to appoint former midfielder Xavi as their new boss.
An open title race is perhaps summarised efficiently by the fact Los Blancos do not sit top of the pile. Carlo Ancelotti’s men appear to be a team that has only performed at extremes for the majority of this season.
True, they have only succumbed to one league defeat so far this season – at Espanyol before this month’s international break – but late goals and surprising home stalemates have seen them fail to pull away from the rest.
There have been the customary thrashings handed out to the likes of Mallorca, Celta Vigo and Alaves. Moreover, no fan will forget the relative ease with which they beat Barcelona in El Clasico despite the 2-1 scoreline.
Madrid were happy to let their hosts have the ball, keep them at arm’s length for the majority of the game and then pick them off on the counter, largely through Vinicius Junior.
The Brazilian has taken his game to another level this season, netting five LaLiga goals already this term, two more than he managed throughout the whole of 2020-21.
Real Madrid have handed out some thrashings and comfortably won the latest Clasico
But there are still some doubts hanging around in relation to Carlo Ancelotti and his men
He has linked well with Ballon d’Or contender Karim Benzema, a striker who has improved immeasurably since regaining the spotlight following Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure and Gareth Bale’s loan spell at Spurs and latest injury woe.
But the France international has often – and perhaps too frequently – been the go-to man when Ancelotti’s men require a source of inspiration. Vinicius and Benzema scored to turn the win at Valencia on its head late on, while the latter gave his side hope with a piece of individual brilliance at Espanyol.
Moreover, they were reduced to shots off target in the goalless draw at home to Villarreal last month, while Osasuna frustrated them at the Bernabeu on Wednesday.
So when the duo haven’t clicked or have come up against resolute defending, Madrid appear to be able to offer little else going forward.
Eden Hazard is by Ancelotti’s own admission currently out of favour – and he has hardly pulled up any trees at Madrid since his move from Chelsea in any case – while Marco Asensio continues to drift in and out of matches. Rodrygo, 20, has impressed at times this season but has yet to find the net in 11 LaLiga matches.
Vinicius Junior (L) and Karim Benzema (R) look like the only forwards capable of firing regularly
Lucas Vazquez has often been forced to play at right-back, and Bale’s latest injury has always seemed to be a matter of weeks rather than months in the last few seasons.
Problems however have not been limited to the attack. Casemiro has looked lethargic and in need of a rest this season, but a lack of a like-for-like alternative and Federico Valverde sometimes playing at right-back has made chances for a break scarce.
The Brazilian is often the engine with the ageing Luka Modric and Toni Kroos alongside him, and although Eduardo Camavinga has impressed, Madrid have too often lost the battle in the middle of the park
Meanwhile in defence, Ferland Mendy and Marcelo’s absences saw Nacho and then David Alaba pushed out to left-back, with Ancelotti unwilling to trust 20-year-old academy graduate Miguel Gutierrez with a run in the side.
Austrian Alaba has of course played there before at Bayern Munich but has looked a more commanding presence at his new club since returning to partner Eder Militao at centre-back in the last couple of games.
Casemiro has looked a shadow of his former self this season and is need of a rest at some stage
Mendy and Marcelo’s returns have solved the left-back issue but there is seemingly no quick fix on the other flank given the inconsistent Dani Carvajal, while Vazquez and Valverde fill in without looking totally comfortable.
Madrid face a trip to 15th-place Elche next, and they will be hopeful of picking up points there and at Granada in three matchdays time to put the Osasuna disappointment behind them.
The worry is that two of Madrid’s three LaLiga draws – as well as the famous defeat by minnows Sheriff in the Champions League – came on home soil, and sides in the top seven will arrive in their next three games at the Bernabeu.
First up are city rivals Rayo Vallecano, followed by the impressive Sevilla and finally the Madrid derby. Add a trip to La Real in there, and those fixtures are likely to determine what state the club are in to win the title going in to 2022.
The defending champions have had a patchy start to the campaign so far and after Thursday’s 2-2 draw against Levante, sit sixth in the standings.
The defensive solidity – conceding just 25 goals last season – has formed the base of their title challenges and victories for nearly a decade now under Diego Simeone.
But Atletico have too often have had to play the comeback role to salvage precious points. And make no mistake, Simeone is concerned about it.
Atletico Madrid have been able to score goals largely thanks to Luis Suarez this season
‘Yes, it’s worrying. It worries us and we have to improve as soon as possible,’ the Argentine said after Luis Suarez’s double saw them come from behind to draw at home to Real Sociedad at the weekend.
‘The team scores goals with one, two or three strikers. We can score, but there has to be balance.’
They had to battle from behind twice to secure a 2-2 draw at the Wanda Metropolitano against Villarreal at the start of the season, before they were reduced to 10-men and then held by Athletic Bilbao at the same venue.
Only once bottom club Getafe had a man sent off were they able to turn the match in their favour, but they had no such fortune at Alaves.
They dispatched Barcelona comfortably to ease some fears, but five goals conceded altogether against Liverpool and La Real on home soil is a worry.
But too often he is having to launch comebacks with Atletico conceding more goals than usual
Stefan Savic’s return from injury should however help the situation after his imperious form last term.
Simeone talked about balance in relation to his defence at the weekend, yet it appeared it was the attack that lacked that quality earlier in the season following Antoine Griezmann’s return to the club.
Atletico failed to score with him on the pitch in his first five appearances and their title defence appeared to stutter, but Griezmann has since started to fire, while Suarez remains a threat despite losing his running ability that made him one of the most deadly strikers in Europe at one time.
But is injuries to key men Thomas Lemar and Marcos Llorente as well as Geoffrey Kondogbia that will now concern Simeone, with a run of tough fixtures against Real Betis, Valencia, Osasuna, Sevilla and the Madrid derby all coming before Christmas.
However, they are by no means cut adrift and will along with Real Madrid be confident of ensuring there is not a new name on the trophy for the first time since Valencia in 2003-04.
While they are five points behind leaders Sociedad as it stands, they have a game in hand and can cut that gap down to just two.
The circus at the Catalan giants has continued this week. Although defeat at Rayo Vallecano and Koeman being sacked on the flight back fits perfectly into the narrative surrounding the club for the past 12 months.
The Dutchman is set to get a £10million pay off that will only impact on the dire state of their finances, with his relationship with president Joan Laporta rocky to say the least since last summer.
The club’s president openly admitted in the summer that the 58-year-old was remaining in charge because no acceptable alternative could be found.
Tentative contact was then made with possible replacements for Koeman at least one month ago, with rumours swirling around the Dutchman’s future after their Champions League defeat by Benfica.
Barcelona have endured their worst start to a Spanish league campaign since 1987-88
Koeman’s defeatist statements over the course of 2021-22 so far were realistic but failed to improve the mood around the club, so it was surprising to see Laporta come out and backed Koeman to turn his fortunes around after holding clear-the-air talks together.
But defeats by three clubs from the Spanish capital ensured that turnaround never came.
They have recorded just two LaLiga wins in seven matches, so sitting ninth with 15 points is the clearest sign of mid-table obscurity beckoning, and at this stage they look increasingly unlikely to become involved in a title race.
Hopes therefore rest on club legend Xavi to reinvigorate a group of undoubtedly talented players to ensure catastrophic consequences for the club’s already fragile finances as a result of finishing outside the top four are not suffered.
Ronald Koeman was sacked earlier this week with the defeat at Rayo Vallecano his last game
It is not as if the former midfielder has nothing to work with. Memphis Depay missed a crucial penalty against Rayo but has been their most lively forward this season and the attacker most likely to create something.
Sergio Aguero brings experience and has looked sharp since making his Barcelona debut this month following an injury, while the club will hope Ansu Fati’s latest setback is a matter of days not weeks following his impressive displays.
Nico, Gavi and Pedri represent a midfield not just for the future but for the present too. The latter has reportedly suffered an injury setback but the first two are delivering hugely impressive performances alongside Sergio Busquets, and they will surely only be aided if and when Xavi returns.
The other positive is a number of the current top seven are not coming their way in the immediate future, with Celta Vigo, the Catalan derby against Espanyol and Villarreal all up before they tackle Real Betis and Osasuna.
The downside is results are needed immediately, with a nine-point gap having already been established between them and the leaders, Sociedad.
Memphis Depay missed a crucial penalty but has been one of a few shining lights this term
Of greater concern is how the next manager tries to bring an identity back to their style of play, which in truth appeared lost when Gerard Pique went up to try and latch on to long balls in the home draw against Granada.
Luuk de Jong’s arrival has attracted plenty of criticism and along with Martin Braithwaite would appear out of place if Barcelona returned to a possession-based style.
The club have been suffering before and since Josep Bartomeu’s departure as president, but members on Spanish radio questioned at one point will Laporta’s begin and the past regime not constantly brought up.
What is for sure is the blame game now must cease at board and managerial level and ensure a smooth relationship between boss and coach can transmit similar play on the field.
Amid all the talk of the loss of identity at Barcelona, leaders Real Sociedad represent the polar opposite case.
The club’s Zubieta academy has brought through a number of their current first-team stars, whose unity was clear to see as they celebrated their Copa del Rey win and last-gasp victory against Mallorca a fortnight back.
But more importantly, La Real boss Imanol Alguacil rises to the challenge of player absences from his squad, using a ‘zero excuses’ policy.
‘Competing and being in Europe has a price. Obviously, if we want to compete against thoroughbreds, we have to prepare our players as thoroughbreds and that carries a risk,’ he said.
Real Sociedad look best placed to challenge the established trio for the league crown
Boss Imanol Alguacil has dealt with injuries and rotated well to keep the Basque outfit going
Alguacil has only been able to repeat the same starting XI once this season, with the Olympics and injuries contributing to a muddled scenario ahead of their opening-weekend defeat at Barcelona.
And they have not been minor absentees either. Former Arsenal players Nacho Monreal and Mat Ryan, Spain striker Mikel Oyarzabal and Sweden counterpart Alexander Isak have all been missing through injury at some stage.
Their transfer business appeared to have left a relatively thin squad, but Alguacil has not only found solutions to cover the numerous absences, but he has rotated effectively and squeezed every last drop out of his players.
Changes in formation have been another part of their success, with a 5-3-2 against Atletico Madrid with Alexander Sorloth and Isak up front scoring the goals, having also switched up their customary 4-3-3 formation with a 4-4-2.
But it has paid dividends, with the formations adapting to the needs and qualities of the players available rather than coming as a last resort when chasing a game.
Switches of formation, such as playing Alexanders Isak and Sorloth at Atletico, have worked
Alguacil indirectly addressed a possible title challenge for the first time after their draw at Atletico, and he will be confident of picking up more points starting with Celta Vigo at the weekend before the Basque derby.
Sevilla meanwhile have added similar entertainment value, winning an eight-goal thriller against Levante at the weekend before a disappointing 1-1 draw at Mallorca in midweek.
The Andalusian outfit have finished fourth in each of the last two seasons, but will now want a taste of pushing even higher under Julen Lopetegui, especially with Youssef En-Nesyri and Rafa Mir firing this term.
Ivan Rakitic and Jesus Navas provide the experience while Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde form a solid centre-back partnership, with the latter the rock Chelsea were courting in the summer. Many remain unconvinced by their style of play though, which has often seen them display their ugly side.
‘Our style of play or the image of the team is the same as the two previous years,’ Sevilla chief Monchi told Mundo Deportivo.
Rafa Mir has aided Sevilla’s search for more goals this season as part of a balanced side
‘If we look at the first year of Julen, we also had similar games. I accept that we are not playing well, but winning, when we play a little better, imagine it. All is going well.’
That much appears true. Sevilla have not managed to match Real Madrid much since the turn of the century but they are level on points so far at this stage.
And with all the major clubs struggling, they may not get a better chance to win it.
‘Sevilla’s objective doesn’t have to be winning the league,’ Monchi however told ESPN earlier this season. ‘We still don’t quite have that level of demand. If you put the bar too high in terms of objectives, it can generate frustration.
‘Sevilla is an ambitious club. That’s why we’ve grown so much, but it’s also always been a club that keeps its feet on the ground.’
They will need to do just that with Osasuna and Real Madrid coming either side of the Seville derby, but it is a side that looks ready for lift off in the Spanish league this term.
Many are unconvinced by their style of play, which has often seen them display their ugly side
And then there were three. Three clubs that many had not predicted would be anywhere near the top six, even at this stage of a quarter of the season behind us.
Real Betis have held the tag as the league’s greatest entertainers for many a season, and are continuing to play with such an expressive nature having scoring 19 goals already in LaLiga. Only Real Madrid have netted more.
‘They’re playing with the personality to beat any rival,’ boss Manuel Pellegrini said of his side last month.
And there are plenty of characters in his team to back up that assertion. Nabil Fekir is starting to shine once more in behind the main striker, and Willian Jose and Borja Iglesias are firing when called upon.
Real Betis have long held the tag as one of the most consistently entertaining sides in LaLiga
Nabil Fekir (back) is starting to fire behind the main forward, such as Borja Iglesias (front)
On-loan Arsenal right-back Hector Bellerin and German Pezzella are part of a settled defensive line-up, although they have always been a side liable to conceding goals.
‘Hopefully we can maintain this dynamic for as long as possible,’ Pellegrini added. Their next four games may well be the litmus test in that regard, with a trip to Atletico Madrid on Sunday preceding the Seville derby.
A trip to the Camp Nou then follows before Real Sociedad visit the Benito Villamarin, but their fans are determined – just like their players – to enjoy wherever the ride takes them.
Their finishes in previous seasons vary from a Europa League spot to 15th place, so no one can truly predict what is next. But there is a feel good-factor that the former Manchester City and West Ham boss has certainly returned to the club.
Rayo Vallecano were playing second division football but have enjoyed a meteoric rise
Radamel Falcao is their new hero with four goals in five, the latest the winner against Barca
Rayo Vallecano were playing in the second division 12 months ago and just about clinched the final play-off spot. But following a dramatic return to the top-flight, they are now experiencing what last year would have been deemed unthinkable.
True, their supporters are continuing their protests against club president Raul Martin Presa, holding a long list of grievances against his ownership from everything to ticket prices to differences in political beliefs.
But on the field there is no such fury, with a lean-looking Radamel Falcao joining the club in the summer and scoring four LaLiga goals in five games, the latest the winner against Barcelona.
Back-to-back defeats against Sevilla and Real Sociedad left fans fearing the worst, but attacking football which heavily features the use of the full-backs and wide players has brought some remarkable results too.
The best of those results – including 4-0 and 3-0 wins against Granada and Getafe – came at San Mames with a 2-1 victory against Athletic Bilbao. Few will dream of Europe just yet though, but Real Madrid is the only match they will fear for the remainder of the calendar year.
Osasuna had won all their away games prior to their midweek draw at the Bernabeu
Overall, they have won one more game but lost one more too than Osasuna, who were resolute in defence at the Bernabeu in midweek. Madrid threw plenty at them, but someway or another, they got their bodies behind the line and in front of crosses at the critical moment.
They had won all of their away games prior to that, and it is their form at El Sadar – where they have lost easily to Valencia and Betis – which if anything has let them down.
Chimy Avila’s incredible journey from cruciate ligament injury hell to a leader in the side is just one of the reasons the club is packed full of heart and courage in their side.
And the Argentine has been central to their sudden charge up the table, scoring a vital goal at home to Granada after scoring a late dramatic winner at Villarreal.
But ultimately hopes will only truly be raised if they are still amongst it once their visits to Sevilla and Atletico Madrid are out of the way either side of a home game against Real Sociedad.
Chimy Avila has earned vital points in recent weeks and symbolises the courage in the squad