With three points between first and second, five between top and third, and fourth place Real Madrid’s game in hand giving them the opportunity to cut the distance with Barça to a not insurmountable five, it’s going to be a nail-biting race for the La Liga title in the coming months.
All four of the hopefuls have problem areas in their squads though, and with the margins so fine, that could make a difference. Here’s where they need to strengthen…
The defending champions are already well aware that this year’s Spanish title isn’t going to be easily won, having lost twice, including a rare home defeat to Real Betis, as well as dropping points in four further games. Defensive problems were a particular issue in the first third of their campaign, and can in part be explained by the absence of key centre-back Samuel Umtiti due to persistent knee issues.
An inability to rely on the Frenchman coupled with recurring injuries to Thomas Vermaelen have left Barça threadbare at the back: Ivan Rakitic even had to fill in at centre-back for 30 minutes of their trip to Levante. Sensing the impending danger ahead, the Catalans acted swiftly, securing a loan deal for Valencia’s Jeison Murillo before the winter window had even opened.
Murillo has barely kicked a ball this season and wasn’t exactly a glamour signing, but Barcelona feel his pace and ability on the ball should fit the requirements at the Camp Nou. Their biggest problem position is now covered, but a less discussed issue is at centre-forward: 31-year-old Luis Suárez remains a vital player for Barça, and the drop off from him to back-up striker Munir is huge.
Even if they could do with some more quality there, it’s unlikely Barça will bring in an extra striker in winter though, so they had best hope the Uruguayan’s long-term knee niggle doesn’t flare up for the sake of their trophy hopes.
Atlético did some impressive business in the summer, adding the likes of World Cup winner Thomas Lemar and last year’s outstanding Spanish midfielder Rodri to their squad. Both have made significant contributions to their excellent league season so far, where the Madrid side have only lost once and are undefeated since early September.
Adding back-up for Diego Costa was also a necessity, and Atleti’s business there was less impressive. Bringing in Niko Kalinic, who only managed six goals in Serie A last season, was slightly underwhelming. With Costa now injured, the Croatian has stepped in to score two goals in his last three league games, but it remains to be seen whether he can sustain the kind of scoring rate necessary to keep the Colchoneros biting at Barça’s heels.
Doubts over Kalinic combined with a persistent sensation that Costa may be on a downward trajectory mean Diego Simeone could do with another striker. A salary cap holding an iron grip on the Colchoneros however means they won’t sign unless someone goes in the other direction. Depending on the outcome of Bayern’s push for Lucas Hernández that could yet happen, but losing a huge player from an already stretched defensive line would open up a need for further reinforcement in other areas of the pitch.
Given an injection of attacking intent and tactical sophistication by new coach Pablo Machin, Sevilla have been one of the surprise packages of the season, turning over Real Madrid in a thrilling 3-0 win in September then keeping within touching distance of the other big boys Barça and Atleti. Even if they still lead Madrid in the table, Sevilla remain the outsiders of the top four to stay in the title race, and have the biggest talent gap to close of all the hopefuls.
The financially immaculate Andalucians have some money to spend though, and boss Machin expects winter signings from sporting director Joaquin Caparros, sensing the unique opportunity offered up by an unusually even La Liga season. In a dream scenario the coach would love to reunite with old pupil and Girona forward Portu, who Sevilla pushed hard to bring to the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán in the summer. Girona will try to hold their nerve once more however, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Caparros has to turn elsewhere.
Machin’s desire to go fishing at his old club doesn’t end there. Girona centre-back Juanpe was another summer target, and according to Girona-based journalist Gerard Bellera, Sevilla will make a new offer in the forthcoming winter window. The 27-year-old has been excellent this season and knows the system the coach uses like the back of his hand.
There is one reunion that looks more likely than any other. The Sevilla media is currently in overdrive about the possibility of Liverpool left-back Alberto Moreno returning to the club, and as an academy graduate who would slot into the left wing-back position that Machin is keen to cover, he fits the bill well.
Estadio Deportivo reports that Moreno rejected a contract extension at Anfield because he wants to return to Sevilla, where he recently bought a new house, and with only six months left on his Liverpool deal the fee to sign him in January would be well within the La Liga side’s means.
Real Madrid’s shaky start to the league season has already cost one coach his job, and Julen Lopetegui’s replacement Santiago Solari found out through an embarrassing 3-0 defeat to Eibar that the problems in their squad still run deep. The impending changing of the guard at the Santiago Bernabéu can’t be fixed in a January transfer window, but some marginal improvements can at least be made, and Madrid are expected to sign.
The principle target is Manchester City youngster Brahim Díaz, who has been all over the front pages of Marca for several weeks now, where it is claimed that the final details of a deal to bring him to the Spanish capital are being hammered out. Brahim would add some much-needed energy and creativity to a forward line that has struggled for consistency and goals, most obviously in the wide positions.
As a general rule Madrid are reluctant to do bring players in during the winter window, so adding Brahim alone would be significant, but the exceptional nature of their circumstances mean a further surprise isn’t out of question. The other most likely arrival is River Plate midfielder Exequiel Palacios, who Los Blancos clearly like, judging by the series of leaks to the local media about their interest in him during recent weeks. Fresh off a Copa Libertadores win at the Bernabéu, the sharp-minded midfielder with a good eye for a cutting pass would provide useful relief for both Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, who have had an inconsistent season.