Pitchside Europe

Can Atletico Madrid topple the big two in 2014?

The Primera Liga restarts this weekend after a two-week break. The Spanish season finishes a week later than England, with a potential title decider between Barcelona v Atletico Madrid set for May 18th.

While Daniel Alves used his free time to paddle surf in the Atlantic off his native Bahia, several of his Barcelona teammates stayed in Catalonia, where their national side beat Cape Verde 4-1 in a friendly.Lionel Messi continued his recuperation in sunny Argentina - 2014 is a huge year for him with the World Cup which he so desperately wants to win.

Almost all the Primera Liga players are back in training, often in front of big crowds as clubs opened their gates during the festive period. Over 14,000 watched Atletico Madrid train on Tuesday, while 6,000 filled the Alfredo di Stefano stadium at Real Madrid’s ciudad deportivo.

Atletico, who last won the league in 1996, are in a rare position: joint top and five points clear of their grander neighbours 17 games into the the 38 match league calendar, winning 15 and drawing one so far. It’s their best ever start to a season, though it’s equalled by Barca who’ve also only lost once - at Athletic Bilbao. The January 11th tie between Atletico and Barca at the Calderon will be Spain’s biggest game of the season so far. When was the last time a non-clasico game was afforded that status?

It’s the second game back for both teams, with Barca playing Elche this Sunday and Atletico at Malaga. Atletico have won all nine of their home games, scoring 33 and conceding six. That’s 3.6 goals scored per home game and only 0.6 conceded. They’ve also beaten Real Madrid away, but if they can beat Barcelona it will be another huge skittle knocked down on their way to lifting the title. Not bad for a side who were 40/1 outsiders at the start of the season. The third best team in Spain and their odds were that long. That shows how skewed the Spanish title race had become, with Barça and Madrid, who’ve won every title since Valencia’s success in 2004, both around 2/1.

Atletico set out to finish in the top four, but expectations have risen thanks to their brilliance and they’re already 17 points clear of Real Sociedad in fifth.

There’s belief among their players that David can triumph over Goliath and they can win the league. The few neutrals in Spain hope they can for the good of football in the country; they’re bored with the dominance of the big two.

The title’s a three way race, but what do the rest expect? Barça, naturally, want to retain the title under new boss Gerardo Martino. They’ve played well without ever hitting the superlative heights of recent years. Neymar Junior has settled quickly, Messi hopes 2014 gives him better luck with injuries than 2013 while cules want to see a top class central defender and goalkeeper join. Only the Champions League (starting with a difficult last 16 tie vs. Manchester City) will do as an alternative trophy to the league.

Real Madrid would accept a record tenth European Cup in lieu of a title. They’ve got stronger in recent months under Carlo Ancelotti and Gareth Bale has been a success after an injury interrupted start. He now forms the most potent attack in world football alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.

Athletic Bilbao have impressed too under new boss Ernesto Valverde. They’re the only team to beat Barcelona and they sit fourth, eight points off the breakaway three, as they hope to bring Champions League football to their huge new San Mames home, where they remain unbeaten. The stadium deserves top European football and the fourth stand will be completed in time for next season.

Their Basque neighbours Real Sociedad have impressed after a dreadful start. They’ve found the form which helped them finish fourth last season. They looked as callow as their 35-year-old manager Jagoba Arrasate in the Champions League, but five wins from their ultimate six league games has got bigger clubs watching their star players like Antoine Grizeman. Both Basque sides are battling for that fourth Champions League spot, with the strongest competition coming from promoted Villarreal, who ended Atletico’s unbeaten run and sit sixth. Sevilla have also recovered from an atrocious start and risen to seventh with four wins and a draw from their last six.

Getafe, in 8th, have half the points of the leading two and have lost more games than they’ve won. With four figure average crowds, they’re the worst supported team in the league by a distance, yet they head a group of six clubs who are separated by only three points. Espanyol are suffering rapidly dwindling crowds themselves – just 14,000 watched their recent home match against Real Sociedad, their lowest league crowd since they moved to Cornella in 2009.

Malaga, Champions League quarter-finalists in April, sold their best players including Isco and suffered major cutbacks. It could have fallen apart at the Rosaleda, yet they’re 13th. Survival will be a relative success.

There’s surprise that Valencia are 11th and they dismissed their coach Miroslav Dukic after less than six months on December 12th. Eleventh isn’t good enough for a club of their standing, financial problems or not and Valencia have been beaten as many times at home as they’ve won. New coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, a 45 year-old-Argentinian, came from San Lorenzo in his homeland. He’s a former Valencia and Barcelona striker and his first game is a derby, on Saturday, against a Levante side on the same points.

Further down, success will be staying up for Granada, Elche, Celta Vigo, Almeria, Valladolid, Osasuna and Rayo, while bottom place Real Betis have won two of their 17 matches so far and are five points from safety. It's nowhere near good enough for a team who average 35,000.

The real interest is at the top. Can Atletico break the two-team hegemony?

Andy Mitten (on Twitter: @AndyMitten)