As a child, when you went to parties and played musical chairs, when the music stopped, you always wanted to get to a chair otherwise you were, of course, eliminated. Well if La Liga was a grown-up version of musical chairs, all you’d see is the big teams stood around when the music had stopped, refusing to find a chair to sit in. In Spain this season, it seems no one wants to win the title.
Of course, in reality, they do. Had Barcelona been 25 points clear by Christmas, Ernesto Valverde would have kept his job. Had Real Madrid been in a similar situation, there wouldn’t be so many questions around Zidane, Hazard and the club as a whole. Atletico Madrid? Let’s not even go there at the minute, because they’re not even at this party - they’re at a whole different party, where the prize on offer is a Europa League spot.
Much like the race for fourth in England, the main contenders are managing to mess up time and time again, meaning it’s more a ‘leader by default’ than it is a leader because you’re, well, Liverpool. Barcelona have of course sacked their manager - the first time they’ve done that during a season since the Van Gaal days 17 years ago - and the way they did it made getting Brexit done look positively efficient.
New boss Quique Setien was their sixth choice to take the role, with Xavi Hernandez the number one pick but the former midfielder was happy to pass this time, wait in the wings until his favoured candidate, Victor Font, stands for presidential election in a couple of years and take the job then. The likes of Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino were non-starters for differing reasons, and Barcelona had to scramble given everyone and their dog knew Valverde was a dead man walking - despite Barcelona being top of La Liga.
Setien came in and with it the passing the ball to death tactic became front and centre. It’s not working so far, with their results patchy at best and Real Madrid three clear at the top of La Liga. The players hearing the manager claim they didn’t understand his tactics isn’t ever going to win you the dressing room - and given some of these players have won 35 trophies each, a lack of tactical nouse isn’t the issue here.
Losing Luis Suarez for the rest of the season has hindered the Cules as well - yet the fans can’t have it both ways. When Suarez was playing, he was lambasted and called past his best, the issue and the reason the attack wasn’t as cohesive as it should be. Now he’s injured, they point to this as a key reason for the struggles. Go figure.
Of course, Leo Messi is as mercurial as ever, and at times you get the impression he and Ter Stegen are single-handedly keeping Barcelona in the race. Messi has not yet gelled with Antoine Griezmann, and you still feel as though Neymar is the one he’s holding out for. Given Ligue 1 officials feel it’s acceptable to book Neymar for showboating, whereas at Barcelona you’d get a statue for it, you’d assume getting out of France and returning to Catalunya has just knocked going to his sister’s birthday party off the top of his wishlist.
Barca have bigger issues - their board has let the fans and established players down time and time again of late in the market and the side needs a real overhaul. It’s no shock when Valverde took over, Gerard Pique made it clear he feels the side are now at a disadvantage compared to Real Madrid, an unthinkable comment in years gone by. Add to the mix Messi's public spat with Sporting Director Eric Abidal and a shock defeat in the Copa Del Rey, it's not party time right now at Camp Nou.
Real Madrid have their own issues, with Zidane looking like he could’ve been the first big-name manager to depart this season, yet they’ve turned it around - and all without Eden Hazard playing or indeed firing for most of the season. They owe a huge debt to Karim Benzema, who’s finally stepping out of the shadows and getting the true praise he deserves for being a genuinely world-class player.
Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez are as wanted by Zidane as the Coronavirus is by a healthy person, and will eventually be shipped out. The upturn in form from Thibaut Courtois has been a real boost as well, along with the ever-present Raphael Varane at the back. Real lead La Liga, and Zidane made it nine wins from nine cup finals in the Spanish Super Cup - thanks to a Fede Valverde foul in the dying minutes against Atletico Madrid that Diego Simeone must have been begrudgingly so impressed by.
It might be covering up the cracks, but if Barcelona can’t get their act together - and their January transfer moves were enough to make you wonder if the board had been sent several cases of tequila to try - Real Madrid could end up La Liga winners again by default.
Their neighbours certainly won’t be stopping them, despite Atleti being the side many La Liga watchers backed at the start of the season given their impressive summer activity, the fact Barcelona and Real Madrid both looked at transitional points as well and of course the Simeone factor.
How wrong that seems now. Atleti are fighting for a top-four spot, with injuries ravaging their squad, a lack of goals a huge issue and a Pochettino / Spurs situation brewing for Cholo and the club he loves so much. They lost the Madrid derby last weekend, and before the game, Real Madrid seemed like they would be the only winners. Relying on Alvaro Morata is never a great situation to be in when you need goals, but when he goes off, you’re basically ready to pop a viagra because you’ve just become impotent.
It was, of course, Benzema with the winner - the player of the season for Real Madrid no doubt, and another coup for Real Madrid, with the crowd singing ironically for Simeone to stay at Atleti. From now until the end of the season, you’d expect some twists and turns but this summer, the musical chairs could well be with managers in Spain. Zidane is expected to stay, but a trophyless season for Barcelona could see Setien out before he’s even really begun, and with a parting of the ways seeming imminent at Atletico Madrid, it’s just a case of who the music stops for first.