Three weeks ago, the Spanish league was beautifully set up for a five-way tussle for the title.
Barcelona led the way, followed by Valencia, Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid and Sevilla, who were all within eight points of the leaders
Three gameweeks later, and the picture is totally different. The eight points that separated the top five has become 16, and one runner from the five-horse race is now several lengths in front.
It would take a dramatic collapse to stop the title returning to Catalonia, as a perfect set of results for Barcelona in the final round of fixtures before the winter break saw them extend their lead to nine points.
Barça themselves produced the perfect away performance at the home of arch-rivals Real Madrid, winning 3-0 to extinguish whatever faint flicker of hope remained for Zinedine Zidane’s team to retain the title.
Zidane has come in for criticism for the way he set his side up, with four men in midfield charged with keeping the rampant Lionel Messi quiet, and the potent attacking trio of Gareth Bale, Isco and Marco Asensio consigned to the bench. It is understandable to want to contain Messi, but to set up in such a defensive manner is not becoming of Real Madrid, particularly at home in a game they absolutely had to win.
It backfired spectacularly, with Barcelona able to soak up benign pressure from Real Madrid before hitting them on the counter attack with alarming ease. Luis Suárez scored the visitors’ first after Ivan Rakitić was allowed to burst forward unchallenged from his own half, and the tie was as good as over when Messi converted a penalty after Dani Carvajal’s auxiliary goalkeeping was punished with a straight red card.
Bale and Asensio were introduced too late to have any impact on the outcome of the match, and Aleix Vidal’s injury-time winner completed Real Madrid’s home humiliation.
The reigning champions are now 14 points adrift of Barça, having played one game less due to their participation in the Club World Cup.
This was Barcelona’s third consecutive win since their draw with Celta de Vigo had provided their challengers with a glimmer of hope. They remain unbeaten in the league, and are achieving a consistency that none of the chasing pack can match.
Atlético Madrid are now their closest challengers, and until the weekend were the only side matching Barcelona form-wise. They had won five of their previous six, mostly by the odd goal (a 5-0 away thrashing of Levante being the only outlier), but came unstuck on their visit to Espanyol on Friday night.
In a tight encounter at the RCDE Stadium, Sergio García scored the only goal in the 88th minute to give the home side a 1-0 win, ending Atlético’s unbeaten start to the season and with it any realistic hope of the Rojiblancos taking the title.
This season’s surprise package Valencia had been tracking Barcelona closely, and remained unbeaten in the league until the start of this month. Manager Marcelino has had a December to forget, though, as his side have suffered three defeats in their last four matches before the Christmas break (to Getafe, Eibar and most recently Villarreal). To top it all off, he was lucky to avoid serious injury after crashing his car into a wild boar while driving back to his native Asturias for the holidays.
Valencia now find themselves eleven points behind the leaders, with next to no chance of winning their first title since 2004. But their excellent early-season performance will give them a good chance of Champions League qualification, which nobody would have predicted before the start of the season.
Since threatening to throw the cat amongst the pigeons at the top of the table at the start of this month, after three straight wins brought them within eight points of Barcelona, things have gone terribly for Sevilla.
In their last three matches, they have lost 5-0 at Real Madrid, with all the goals coming in the first half, drawn 0-0 at home to lowly Levante and fallen to a 3-1 defeat against Real Sociedad at Anoeta.
The defeat to La Real turned out to be Eduardo Berizzo’s last act as Sevilla manager, as the Argentine coach was sacked following the game, having only just returned to work following surgery to treat prostate cancer.
The best the Andalusian side can hope for now is a top-four finish, provided Berizzo’s successor is able to arrest their slide.
And so what briefly threatened to be a closely-fought title battle with several protagonists now looks like it will simply be a procession for the team in top spot. On current evidence, Barcelona won’t drop many more points before the season is over, and even if they were to falter, no side looks like they would have the quality or consistency to take advantage.