Shipped from Abroad, Spain: Valencia as the latest Real Madrid-Barcelona barometer

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On Sunday, Shakhtar Donetsk was claiming the headlines in one of Europe’s most oppressive duopolies while Cristiano Ronaldo’s recalcitrance stole the spotlight in another. After a La Liga match day that saw Real Madrid get its first victory (3-0 over Granada) while Barcelona claimed an important three points from visiting Valencia, Ronaldo’s undefined displeasure with Real higher ups has people speculating whether CR7 could move from the Bernabeu. This is the type of stuff we talk about when the transfer window closes.

Barcelona’s result against Valencia, however, deserves a little more attention. A 1-0 victory at the Nou Camp, the three points initially look like the home team holding serve, even if Valencia again showed their quality with another inspired road performance. Barcelona remains perfect through three rounds (the only unblemished team in Spain), giving Real Madrid a five-point deficit to go with their Supercopa.

More important than the points gap are the corresponding results. Valencia represents the giants’ first shared opponent, both having played Los Che at home. Where the varying strength of opening schedules can see small sample records distort a team’s quality, comparing shared opponents serves as a quick and easy way to establish a level playing field. Even after teams complete a turn through the league, looking at differing results helps describe where trophies are won and lost (especially when the top two teams are unlikely to drop many points).

El Real opened the season with a 1-1 draw against Valencia, a 42nd minute equalizer from Jones snatching a point while the defending champions were held scoreless over the match’s final 80 minutes. Two weeks later, an Adriano rocket from 24 yards into Alexis’s upper-left hand corner was the only thing separating Barça and Valencia at Camp Nou. In terms of the title race, Barcelona’s now claimed two points Real Madrid will have to make up elsewhere.

Last season, there were nine places Barcelona dropped points were Real did not. There were five places Real gave points back to Barcelona:

BARCELONA
Sept. 9 – at Real Sociedad, 2-2 (Real won 0-1 on Oct. 29)
Sept. 21 – at Valencia, 2-2 (Real won 2-3 on Nov. 19)
Oct. 22 – vs. Sevilla, 0-0 (Real won 2-0 on Apr. 29)
Nov. 6 – at Athletic, 2-2 (Real won 0-3 on May 2)
Nov. 26 – at Getafe, 1-0 (Real won 0-1 on Feb. 4)
Jan. 9 – at Espanyol, 1-1 (Real won 0-4 on Oct. 2)
Jan. 28 – at Villarreal, 0-0 (Real drew 1-1 on Mar. 21)
Feb. 11 – at Osasuna, 3-2 (Real won 1-5 on Mar. 31)
May 12 – at Real Betis, 2-2 (El Real won 2-3 on Mar. 10)

REAL MADRID
Sept. 18 – at Levante, 1-0 (Barcelona won 1-2 on Apr. 14)
Sept. 21 – at Racing, 0-0 (Barça won 0-2 on Mar. 11)
Mar. 18 – vs. Malaga, 1-1 (Barça won 4-1 on May 2)
Mar. 21 – at Villarreal, 1-1 (Barça drew 0-0 on Jan. 28)
Apr. 8 – vs. Valencia, 0-0 (Barça won 5-1 on Feb. 19)

The places where points were dropped to Valencia and Villarreal end up canceling out, the opposite team giving back points in the same or the reverse fixtures. Take those out and also ignore the Clasicos (where each team won on the road) and you’re left with three places the league champions gave points to Barcelona. (Interestingly, last year’s slips to Valencia were ultimately inconsequential.)

Though this comparison tells us far more about 2011-12 than this year’s race, it gives us a vague idea of the margins in Spain’s title race. Over the last three seasons, the team that won the league has dropped points in seven, eight, and six matches – already a small window. When you factor in the possibility of dropping points in the same matches, the remaining space to make up ground becomes as razor thin.

The Valencia results represent that first fissure between Barcelona and Real Madrid. If this season is anything like last’s, a handful of small distinctions will determine who claims the Primera División.

Elsewhere in Spain:

  • Celta da Vigo, returning to the first division after a five-year absence, got their first win of the season, 2-0 over visiting Osasuna (who finished the match with ten men). After a surprising seventh place finish last season, Osasuna is without a point through three rounds. Though they gave Barcelona a scare last week, Los Rojillos have been shut out on trips to Celta and Deportivo La Coruña, two teams that were playing in the second division last season.
  • Málaga’s plucky start continued with a 1-0 victory over Real Zaragoza. With support abandoning the club earlier this summer (and Santi Cazorla having to be sold at a loss to Arsenal), it was unclear what would come of a club once thought to be the best hope to break the top two. But Manuel Pellegrini has his team qualified for the Champions League group stage, and having allowed only one goal through 270 Liga minutes, Málaga may not be destined for collapse. After three rounds, the Andalusians sit third.
  • Just above them are Mallorca, whose only blemish of the season is a 1-1 draw at Málaga. In Saturday’s last match, a late goal from Víctor Casadesús downed visiting Real Sociedad, 1-0. While the victory failed to inspire, it was evokative of last year’s team that still finished eighth while scoring only 42 goals.
  • Two teams saw perfect records vanquished. Rayo Vallecano stays unbeaten after a 0-0 draw Sunday to visiting Sevilla, while newly-promoted Real Vallodolid had the unfortunate luck of visiting Bilbao just as Athletic Club has decided to get its act together. After losing their first two matches, Athletic won 2-0 on Sunday.
  • Levante, having scored once in their first two games, came back from a two-goal deficit, scoring their final goal in stoppage time (while down a man) to defeat visiting Espanyol 3-2. Espanyol is now 0-3-0 (W-L-D) while giving up a league-high seven goals.
  • And finally, Depor stayed undefeated, drawing with visiting Getafe, 1-1. Riki’s sixth minute goal meant La Coruña had scored six times in their first 186 minutes since promotion. Getafe was able to keep them quiet for the rest of the night.