War of words and 11 goals without reply reignite debate over Barcelona and Real Madrid’s hold over La Liga

The opening weekend of the La Liga season resulted in plenty of debate, mainly focused on the heavy defeats dished out by Real Madrid and Barcelona. Such was the attention generated on how strong the top two look in comparison to the rest of the League that it sparked criticism from Sevilla President Jose Maria Del Nido and a biting response from Sergio Ramos.

Real beat Zaragoza 6-0 at La Romareda whilst the Catalans welcomed Villarreal to the Camp Nou before putting five past their visitors, with both results immediately re-opening discussion on the competitiveness of the Primera Division.

Most notably following Barcelona’s win against statistically the fourth best team in the League last term, Sevilla President Del Nido slammed the role the two La Liga giants are playing in the development of Spain’s top flight, declaring: “Our league is not just the biggest crap in Europe, but worldwide. It is a league in which two clubs subtract money from the others that compete through television.”

As it stands, Real Madrid and Barcelona earn €140m each from television rights per year, whilst Valencia and Atletico Madrid receive the next biggest amount set at €42m. The sides who earn the least amount of money – last season this was Sporting Gijon, Hercules and Malaga – are awarded just €12m, less than a 10th of the amount Barca and Real pull in. Del Nido has regularly argued that this disproportionate allocation has effected and continues to effect the competitiveness of the League, as the top two sides can re-invest money that the other teams cannot.

“We denigrate the Spanish League,” Del Nido explained. “The reality is that we continue to widen the difference between the large clubs and the rest. But by God, is there any fan who does not say the league is prostituted, adulterated, corrupted?”

In the past, La Liga has been compared to the Scottish Premier League, a division where two teams – Celtic and Rangers – have won the last 26 League titles between them, in a title fight that is consistently only between the two Glasgow clubs. Between them they have won 96 League titles whilst Scotland’s third most successful League sides are Hearts, Aberdeen and Hibernian on four titles each. Indeed, looking at just League titles, Real (31) and Barca (21) outstrip the rest of La Liga convincingly – Atletico are next on nine titles – but the comparison with Scotland can also be drawn beyond the basic trophy count.

Across the past five years in the SPL, the average points gap between the teams finishing second and third in the table is 20.6 points. La Liga’s average points gap between the second and third placing teams is slightly less at 13.8, but the previous two seasons have pulled that average up – Real Madrid finishing 25 and 21 points clear of third place Valencia. It also compares poorly with the English Premier League’s average of six points between second and third place teams. The average gap in the past five seasons between second and third stands at 7.8 in Italy’s Serie A, whilst Germany’s Bundesliga has not only seen four different champions in the last five seasons, but the gap between second and third averages just 2.8.

Last season, Barcelona scored five or more goals in a single game five times. Compare that to Premier League champions and fellow Champions League finalists Manchester United. The Red Devils scored five or more in a game on two occasions, the same amount of times as runners-up Chelsea. La Liga’s second-place side Real Madrid scored five or more goals in a game seven times.

In Spain, only one other side scored five goals in a match – Valencia, and that was only once. In the Premier League there were seven other matches that had a team score at least five times. Although this appears to suggest the majority of the clubs in La Liga are more consistently matched against each other than in the Premier League, it also highlights the gulf in class that Real and Barca have over their opponents that England’s regular top two do not have.

In the 2006-07 season, Sevilla came close to credibly capturing the League title – after 32 rounds they sat in second, a point behind Barcelona and a point ahead of Real Madrid. This was the carefully-assembled squad that had won the 2006 UEFA Cup and would go on to retain it in 2007, but a late-season collapse saw them finish third, five points behind both Real and Barca above them. Since then, Del Nido has spent heavily on the club, but not in comparison to the big two, and seen his team slip back from title rivals to top four to top six.

Blaming a number of factors – including technical errors in the transfer market and the comparatively small fan-base the team attract in comparison to most Champions League sides – Del Nido’s over-riding focus has been on television rights, and the imbalanced amounts Real and Barca receive, and the consequence of a duopoly this is continuing to feed.

However, not everyone agrees with Del Nido. Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso opposed it simply stating: “The league is not crap. It is very good and consolidated,” whilst former Sevilla defender, Sergio Ramos hit back at Del Nido’s now-typical outspoken comments: “If you do not like this league, look for another.”

The two big clubs have undoubtedly had the better of the last decade, and in particular the past few seasons, but over the last 10 years, Villarreal have finished second ahead of Barcelona, Sevilla were in mathematical contention until the final day of 2006-07, Valencia won the title twice and Deportivo La Coruna managed a second-placed finish after winning the League at the end of the previous decade.

However, one of the other major problems with the clubs in Spain is how unsustainable their spending is. It is impossible for most of the teams to compete on a level playing field with sides such as Real Madrid and Barcelona, and their attempts to do so are with finances they do not have. The result is the financial crisis hitting the League, that prompted the AFE’s strike action, and has six top-flight sides starting the campaign in administration.

Real Madrid’s net spend over the last decade is just over €621m whilst Barcelona’s is approximately €249m and Atletico Madrid have spent €173.5m. These are amounts that without a guaranteed revenue stream to offset them against – as Real and Barca have – are unsustainable and otherwise out of reach for the rest of La Liga’s sides.

The most stable club in terms of spending in the last 10 years in Real Mallorca, who have turned an overall profit of €72.5m, yet they are still plagued by financial insecurities. UEFA’s Financial Fair Play initiative will go a long way to ensuring the likes of Valencia do not rack up a €500m debt spending money they do not have, but with Real and Barca both projected to turn a profit in the coming season – with roughly a quarter of their respective revenues set to be from television rights – they will remain largely unaffected by Michel Platini’s intentions to re-introduce competitive spending.

The number of matches that Real Madrid and Barcelona have won between them in the last three years helps bring the gap into perspective, and given the degree by which they have strengthened this summer, it is unlikely it will decrease.

During the from the start of 2008-09 through to the end of 2010-11, the big two have claimed 173 league wins out of 230 league matches. That is the same number of victories the respective teams who have finished third, fourth and fifth each year have recorded all together, and they played 112 more matches to achieve that same win total.

The marker for where the 2011-12 campaign is set to go has been set earlier than the previous seasons, with Real and Barca’s 11 goals without reply looking ominous. Ramos’ jibe to his former President is one you would perhaps expect, given that his side is one of two teams that sits atop the La Liga table year after year, but the statistics

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