It’s seemed like an inevitability ever since Barcelona drew Atleti on matchday 33 on July 1, but Real Madrid did not officially wrap up their La Liga championship until they beat Villarreal 2-1 this afternoon. Plenty has been and will be written (including on High Press Soccer) on Barcelona collapsing this season, and that’s understandable. The Catalans, after all, were in first place (but only on goal differential) when they sacked Ernesto Valverde and turned to Quique Setién exactly halfway through the La Liga season. With stars like Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann, etc., a haul of 82 points (assuming they beat Alavés in the finale) over 38 games certainly represents a failure for Barcelona. Even when they finished second in ’16-17, they racked up 90 points. They won La Liga with 93 points in ’17-18 and 87 a year ago.
Barcelona has captured four of the last five trophies, including first-place finishes with double-digit-point cushions (14 in ’17-18 and 11 last season) between them and second place the last two years, but La Liga might have a new frontrunner.
Outstanding (For The Most Part) Since October
But RM has earned this with excellent play since the break, and they’ve been better than you might assume based on what will likely be an 89-point finish over 38 games. With 10 wins in 10 games since play resumed in June, Los Blancos turned in a dominant finish. Their strong play dates back to well before mid-June, though. Zinedine Zidane’s team struggled a bit early in ’19-20, but has mostly been dominant since losing to Mallorca on October 19. At that point, their record in LaLiga was just 5-3-1. They then went on a 21-game unbeaten streak across all competitions that did not end until a Feb. 6 loss (with far from their best XI) to Real Sociedad in the Copa del Rey quarters. They also were upset 1-0 by Levante on Feb. 22, and following a 2-1 UCL loss to Man City on Feb. 26, they fell to Real Betis on March 8. That blip in late February/early March notwithstanding, RM has quietly been excellent for a lengthy stretch. Yet no one — at least not anybody on my radar — is talking about this team as one of Europe’s best this season. Three losses over 38 games — RM’s current record is 26-8-3 — in a *good league is really impressive. *Say what you will about Barcelona and Atleti this season, but they’ll both likely make the Champions League quarterfinals. Even historically good Liverpool has lost three matches in the EPL this year. Meanwhile, Bayern Munich lost four (in 34 matches) in the Bundesliga, while Juventus has also lost four — and has five games remaining in Serie A.
The Winning Formula
Real Madrid has gotten it done thanks to ridiculously stout defense and a deep roster whose options only increased after the break. Welcome back, Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio! If we have to focus on two players to highlight, though, it’s an easy decision to go with keeper Thibaut Courtois and the underrated Karim Benzema.
Thibaut Courtois Has Been Unconscious
Move over, Atleti. This year, the toughest team in Europe to score on has not been Diego Simeone’s club. That honor goes to Los Blancos, who have given up just 22 goals in 36 games. That’s just over .6 goals per game, and it’s only possible if your keeper is absolutely top-notch. Courtois has had plenty of help from a rock-solid primary back line of centerbacks Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane plus Ferland Menday (and sometimes Marcelo) and Dani Carvajal. But the massive Belgian has made the case that he’s second to no one, even though he was overshadowed in recent years by tremendous seasons from rivals Jan Oblak (Atleti) and Marc-André ter Stegen (Barcelona). With 18 clean sheets in 34 starts, Courtois easily outperformed both Oblak (16 in 36) and ter Stegen (14 in 35) this year. According to understat.com, RM’s expected goals allowed (30.85) through 36 games was nearly identical to Atleti’s (30.04). But Los Rojiblancos conceded 26 goals compared to 22 by their crosstown rivals. All the more evidence, in case you needed it, of how lights out Courtois has been this season. The midfield has been impressive too, as 21-year-old Federico Valverde enjoyed a breakout season alongside Luka Modric (34) and Toni Kroos (30), who both look ageless right now.
Benzema Excellent, Again
It’s Benzema (32), however, who has stood out the most other than Courtois. His numbers jump off the page in their own right. He’s flirting with a 20-goal, 10-assist season (he’s on 21 and 8, with one game remaining). Enough said, right? Wrong. His production looks that much better considering he’s accounted for over 30% (!!) of his team’s goals through 37 matches. RM’s next-highest scorer after Benzema is Ramos, with 10 (including 6 on PKs). Not a bad follow-up to last year’s 21-goal, six-assist effort for the Frenchman. No one comes close to Lionel Messi, but Benzema’s not as far off as you would assume.
Can They Upset Man City In The Champions League Round Of 16, Though?
I delayed addressing this until now because of two reasons.
- 1) The fact that they lost the first leg 2-1 at home makes leg 2 an extremely uphill climb. Oddsmakers have them at +450 (compared to Man City’s -625) to advance. That’s also why they’re just +2,700 to win the UCL. At those prices, and considering their recent form and the history of both RM under Zidane and Man City under Guardiola in this tournament, that’s extremely tempting.
- 2) More importantly, August 7th is a long way away, and there will be plenty on this site about that match-up between now and then!
Where to bet the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League in the US
In the US, you can legally bet on soccer in New Jersey, Indiana and Pennsylvania.