Thursday, December 7, 2023

Rumors of Spain’s demise in Champions League after the Ronaldo-Messi era were greatly exaggerated

Don’t let Barcelona’s first season without Lionel Messi fool you. Rumors of the demise of La Liga success in European competitions has been greatly exaggerated. In fact, the downfall — domestically or internationally — never happened. Spanish sides in Europe this season aren’t just back — they are doing what they’ve always done. 

From 2008-09 to 2017-18, the Champions League was dominated by the clubs of Spain. Across those 10 seasons, Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona combined to lift the UCL trophy seven times. You bring Atletico Madrid into the fold and you can say two of those finals were all-Spain. 

Since then, things haven’t quite been the same, but the notion of La Liga’s downfall has been emphatically proven wrong this season. You try losing the two biggest stars in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and see how it goes. 

Eight teams remain in this season’s Champions League as we inch closer to Friday’s big draw (CBS Sports HQ and Paramount+), and only Spain and England can say they have three representatives, with Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Villarreal the cream of the crop in Spain thanks to dominant displays over the last week. 

There was this general perception that La Liga, without Ronaldo and Messi, would suffer. Sure, it took a while for both clubs to get readjusted, and there was likely just less interest in general, but that isn’t surprising. Those who have counted out Spanish teams need to start rethinking it. 

When Ronaldo left Real for Juve in 2018, it took Los Blancos well over a year to find themselves again. Now they are one of the top contenders to win a tournament they’ve conquered 12 times, more than anybody else. As for Barcelona, they continue to try and find stability without Messi and have been in exceptional form as of late, looking like contenders to win Europa League. Barcelona and Real Madrid were successful long before Messi and Ronaldo and they will continue to be successful in the future — even if Barca needed Spotify to open the coffers in order to do so.

Then we have Atletico Madrid. As long Diego Simeone is in charge, they’ll always look like contenders. Just ask the silenced fans at Old Trafford on Tuesday, who resorted to throwing bottles at the Atleti boss as he raced down the touchline following another away-day masterpiece. And you cannot forget little Villarreal, led by former Arsenal and PSG coach Unai Emery, who’s building off winning Europa League to now being the ultimate dark horse after his side handed Juventus one of the worst home losses in their rich UCL history.

First it was Messi’s new club, PSG, who were bounced from the round of 16 thanks to a sensational Karim Benzema hat trick with his old rival Real Madrid. A week later, it was mighty Manchester United and CR7, booted from the competition thanks to his old rival in Spain, Atletico Madrid. Juve surely had enough to get by Villarreal in Turin? Two conceded penalty kicks later, and the Old Lady’s Champions League woes continue. 

All three giants thoroughly taken care of by La Liga teams. 

Look, I get La Liga isn’t as sexy without Messi and Ronaldo. But you can argue that their departures have given hope to smaller clubs while forcing the giants to rediscover themselves. They might not win UCL this season, but nobody should be surprised if they do. 

Entering the second legs of the round of 16, most probably envisioned every Spanish team left to crash out. All three survived, but you know who didn’t? Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United, a star-studded PSG side that trotted out Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Messi, Erling Haaland’s Borussia Dortmund, and lastly, everybody’s favorite underdog, Ajax. When it comes to Mbappe and Haaland, it would come as no surprise to any soccer fan living under the rock to see them suit up for La Liga clubs next season.

Combining the Champions League and the Europa League teams remaining, no league features more teams than Spain’s six. Not too bad for a league that had fallen off the map to some. Three seasons ago, Barca were in the semifinals of UCL. Two seasons ago, two of the last eight were from Spain. Last season, Real Madrid were UCL semifinalists. 

So before you begin to question whether La Liga is truly back, both domestically and on the old continent, you must realize one thing: It never left. 

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