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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Barcelona set to resume title push amid churn at top of Primera Liga table

One point separates fourth place from first in the Spanish top flight, as the season approaches a third of the way through its calendar

Jordi Alba, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez will be well aware of how precarious Barcelona's position at the top of the Primera Liga table is. Reuters
Jordi Alba, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez will be well aware of how precarious Barcelona's position at the top of the Primera Liga table is. Reuters

Stable leadership has been a most elusive quality in Spanish football over the past six months.

The national team have gone through three different managers in and either side of a rickety World Cup. Real Madrid, the emperors of Europe, are on their third since June.

That tells a story of dysfunction. But in the Primera Liga, unsteadiness at the top is a most dynamic impulse.

As the season approaches a third of the way through its calendar, it proudly boasts the most compelling title jostle of all Europe’s major leagues. One point separates fourth place from first.

This topsy-turvy panorama has Madrid – apparently in perpetual crisis until the second week of November – a mere four points from the summit but well outside the top four spots that guarantee participation in the Uefa Champions League they have have owned since 2016.

Santi Solari, their new, fresh-faced manager, has four wins under his belt from his first four matches as boss of any senior club side. And from his perspective, matchday 13 – starting on Friday night with Alaves’s trip to Leganes – looks an opportunity.

His side go to 13th-placed Eibar for the early kick-off on Saturday, hoping to have caught up on the behemoths who will then take on one another that evening. Atletico Madrid versus Barcelona – third against first – would look like a potential title-decider were there not such a bottleneck at the summit.

Two of the top seven play one another this weekend. So tight are the margins that between Friday night and Sunday afternoon, the leadership of the division could switch between four different clubs.

Barcelona, on 24 points but fresh from suffering a first home defeat for 42 matches – 4-3 to Real Betis – start as leaders. By 11pm local time (2am UAE), they might be leapfrogged by Alaves, the standout upstarts.

Alaves, direct and clinical under the management of the respected former Barcelona defender Abelardo Fernandez, are a point beneath Barca. They have beaten Real Madrid already and would regard Friday night's expedition to Leganes as relatively straightforward were 18th-placed Leganes not also part of the underdog festival that the league has become: Barca lost there in late September, 2-1, having taken an early lead.

Should Alaves win, the baton of leadership would move from the capital of Catalonia to the capital of the Basque Country. Should Atletico defeat Barcelona, they would then shift it to the national capital.

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Read more:

Enigmatic Real Betis adding some healthy unpredictability to the Primera Liga

Santiago Solari gets the Real Madrid manager's position on permanent basis

Struggles of Barca and Real Madrid make Primera Liga for exciting viewing

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Atletico, the only club in the past 15 seasons to have removed the Primera Liga trophy from the duopoly of Barca and Real, are gathering form. They are unbeaten in nine league games and hope Diego Costa has now put his early-season injury problems behind him.

A stalemate at the Wanda stadium on Saturday, or an Atletico win, would open up the possibility of the leadership hurtling south come Sunday.

Sevilla, second in the table and with 19 points from the last possible 24, entertain Valladolid.

The visitors, newly promoted via play-off from the second division, are handling their own state of vertigo comfortably enough after an uncertain start. They sit seventh, just three points behind Real Madrid.

“This is brutal league this year,” says Atletico manager Diego Simeone, the grand old duke of it, having been in his job for close to seven years. “Every team is tough, you see a lot of away wins, and it’s more competitive that at any time since I’ve been back in Spain, and being shaped by [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo.”

One of those is no longer a part of the show. The other is still at large, and champions Barca look reliant on him just to stay a light step ahead of pursuers from all corners of the country.