Are Barcelona and Real Madrid issues a sign of Spain’s slipping grip on European football?

Updated: 24/06/2024

After winning the 1970 World Cup, Brazil were awarded the Jules Rimet Trophy to keep. As three-time champions, FIFA decided that the famous footballing nation had earned the right to display the golden hardware in their trophy cabinet forever. By that token, UEFA should probably think about giving Spain the Champions League trophy. After all, they have made the competition their own over the past five years.

Indeed, it’s that long since a club from outside Spain was crowned European champions, with Bayern Munich the last team to break the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly back in 2013.

But the continental dynamic might be about to shift.

On the basis of what we have seen so far this season, the duopoly could very well be broken.

Defending Champions League winners Real Madrid aren’t the force they were last season, or the season before that, or the season before that. The exit of Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer has seen the capital club enter a transitional period that has so far only witnessed them travel from superiority to mediocrity.

Some argued that Real Madrid were, as they have done in previous seasons, finding their form at just the right time, stringing together a run that saw them win nine from 11 following the winter break. However, that form wasn’t sustainable and Santiago Solari’s side have since suffered damaging home defeats to Girona and Barcelona in Wednesday’s Copa del Rey semi final second leg.

Barcelona, despite that emphatic win at the Santiago Bernabeu, aren’t in great shape themselves. Before last week’s win over Sevilla and the midweek win over Real Madrid, Ernesto Valverde’s side had claimed just one win from their previous five games.

Their performances were becoming increasingly laboured with every passing week.

They suffered the same thing last season. Valverde was criticised for not rotating his squad, with many viewing the Champions League quarter final collapse to Roma as a consequence of that. By the time Barcelona got to the crunch, heading down the final stretch of the campaign, they looked tired and weary.

Valverde vowed to change his ways this season, and he has used figures like Arturo Vidal, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Carles Alena and Clement Lenglet to ease the burden on some of his more proven performers, but this hasn’t enough. Barca, in recent weeks, have once again looked tired weary.

Both Barcelona and Real Madrid were handed favourable draws in the last 16 of this Champions League, and it’s likely that the pair will progress to the quarter finals. However, there have been signs of weakness in their performances in the competition this season. They are not the power couple they have been in recent years.

The best placed Spanish side to finish atop the continental pile might well be Atletico Madrid, who are in pole position to move past one of the tournament favourites Juventus following a convincing last 16 first leg win. Of course, Diego Simeone have come close to winning the Champions League before, losing two finals in three years between 2014 and 2016,

But even taking into account Atleti’s status as Champions League contenders, the competition has rarely been as open as it is this season. The argument could be made that not since the 2003/04 season, when Jose Mourinho’s Porto beat Monaco in the final, has Europe’s premier club competition boasted such a wide field of potential winners.

Of course, this wide field could still result in a Spanish winner of this season’s Champions League. Only Manchester City and possibly Paris Saint-Germain look stronger than Barca and Real, but their grip on European football isn’t as tight as it has been in recent years. A changing of the guard might be about to occur.

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