La Liga 2023-24 title race: Real Madrid, Girona in end-to-end battle; Barcelona, Atletico Madrid take up supporting role
Real Madrid are on top of the La Liga table, followed by Girona. The pair are level on points, but Madrid have higher goal difference.
The 2023-24 La Liga has become an epic battle, and could go down in history as one of the most intense title races in the competition. On Saturday, fans saw Rodrygo continue his goal-scoring form as he scored to help Real Madrid seal a 2-0 win over Granada. The win was crucial as it helped them reclaim their lead in La Liga from minnows Girona. Girona grabbed an inspiring 2-1 win against Valencia to move temporarily on top of the table, but Madrid have overtaken them on goal difference.
It was end-to-end action on Gameweek 15 as Barcelona grabbed a crucial 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid on Sunday, courtesy of an exquisite dink from Joao Felix. The Portugal international, who is on loan from Atletico, helped Barcelona reclaim third position from Diego Simeone's side, and now trail leaders Real Madrid and second-placed Girona by four points.
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Jude Bellingham in dreamland
Jude Bellingham arrived in Madrid amid much pomp and fan-fare. The La Liga side signed him on a six-year contract, and Borussia Dortmund received a base transfer fee of 103 million euros, with potential to rise by 30 percent, to approximately 133.9 million euros due to add-ons. The transfer also saw a sell-on clause through which Birmingham City earned 6 million pounds. The bombshell move saw him become the sixth Englishman to join Real Madrid in the professional and called it his 'proudest day'.
Ahead of his transfer to Real Madrid, fans and pundits already knew about Bellingham's goal-scoring abilities. But since his arrival to Spain, he has taken it a notch higher and has hammered 11 goals in 15 La Liga matches. In the process, he has broken countless records, belonging to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo. Carlo Ancelotti's usage of the Englishman in the central attacking midfielder role has reaped dividends. The credit also goes to the former Dortmund man, who has really worked on his runs into the box, and in this skillset is getting closer to the abilities of England legend Frank Lampard.
Such has been Bellingham's impact in Madrid, that he is already being regarded as England's main player for UEFA Euro 2024. The continental event will be held in Germany next year and it could be a huge advantage for Bellingham due to his time with Dortmund. Such is his impact in the playing XI, that Real Madrid are one of the contenders to clinch the Champions League title this season. If they fail to claim the La Liga trophy, Bellingham's first season in Spain will be an utter failure.
Girona's tactical mastermind Michel
Former Rayo Vallecano manager Michel has been scripting history since his arrival to Catalonian club Girona. A former player, Michel began his managerial career with Rayo Vallecano, and they achieved promotion to the top division under him, in the 2017-18 season as champions. Meanwhile, he also achieved plenty with Huesca, who were demoted to the second tier on his arrival in 2019. Under him, they gained promotion through top spot.
In his first season with Girona, the club achieved promotion in his first season after a 3-1 victory against CD Tenerife in the playoff final. Meanwhile, they also reached the last 16 of Copa del Rey, where they crashed to a 2-1 loss against his former side Rayo. In May 2022, he signed a new contract with the club, with the deal ending in 2024.
In the ongoing 2023-24 season, Girona have been one of the best teams in Spain. Michel's tactical acumen has revealed a new dimension in the club's tactical approach to matches, also influenced by City Football Group, who own a stake in the club and are the owners of Manchester City. Such has been his impact, that Michel is also being regarded as Pep Guardiola's successor at The Etihad.
During the ongoing season, Girona have lost only once in 15 La Liga fixtures, winning 12 games and drawing twice. In their last five games, they have remained unbeaten with four wins and a draw. Their tactical approach has seen a shift from modern-day tactics, and Michel has been taking inspiration from Guardiola's tiki-taka and Brazil interim head coach and Fluminense head coach Fernando Diniz's relationism style.
Over the course of their 15 league games, Michel has implemented a patient passing approach, where Girona end up playing with their opposition with smart passes and triangles. Also while attacking, Girona have a very unique formation, where most players crowd up in areas where the ball is. On further analysis, such a strategy makes it easier for Girona to steal the ball from their opponents and form quick, slick passes due to the presence of plenty of teammates in the specific zone.
The presence of Ukrainian striker Artem Dovbyk has helped them get the goals, especially with the growing age of Christian Stuani. During this season, Stuani has mainly been on the bench, with Dovbyk starting mostly. The Ukrainian is a pure goal-scoring poacher, who is powerful in the box and possesses good ball control and technique. During the ongoing season, he has scored seven goals and will be looking to increase his tally.
Meanwhile, defensive midfielder Aleix Garcia is Girona's heartbeat for this season. The Manchester City youth product is their veteran, and he takes up the position between his side's backline and midfield. His experience comes in handy, and he sets the tempo to their attacking moves. Such is his impact this season that he also made his maiden Spain debut this year, at the age of 26.
Barcelona and Atletico Madrid supporting acts
Defending champions Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez has suddenly come to a standstill. In their last five matches, they have lost once, won thrice and drawn a game. Xavi hasn't been able to find the perfect replacement for Ousmane Dembele, whose impact in the final third was crucial for Barcelona.
Meanwhile, the management expected Lionel Messi to join in the summer transfer window, but they couldn't afford his salary, especially with the presence of Dembele, who was earning a huge salary. At that point, Dembele didn't want to leave the Catalans, so they decided to not pursue Messi anymore. But the Frenchman had other plans, and took a u-turn on his decision days later, joining Ligue 1 giants PSG in a shock move. To make matters worse, by that time Messi joined David Beckham co-owned Inter Miami.
The responsibility for goals has fallen on Robert Lewandowski, who has scored seven times. But the lack of creative help has seen it fade away in many games. Meanwhile, the arrival of Joao Cancelo on loan from Manchester City and Joao Felix from Atletico, gave Barca fans plenty of hope at the beginning. But their impact has also been erratic, with Felix recently scoring the winner against his parent club Atletico.
Meanwhile, Simeone's Atletico have been having an erratic season. Antoine Griezmann has rediscovered himself this year, and so has Alvaro Morata, but the team has been lost thrice already this season. They sit in fourth position with 31 points in 14 fixtures, packed with four wins and a draw. In their last five fixtures, they have lost twice, and won thrice.
With Matchday 16 scheduled to begin on December 9, all eyes will be on Real Madrid, who will take on Real Betis away from home. Meanwhile, Atletico face Almeria on December 10. The star attraction will be Barcelona taking on Girona, and it will be a huge test for Michel. A win will prove their credentials as title contenders, but a defeat for Girona will split the title race wide open.