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Real Madrid flattering to deceive is making La Liga's title battle a two-horse race

Madrid are still looking unconvincing under Solari

Not since the 2006-07 season have La Liga’s leaders had a lower points total at the halfway stage.

But while Barcelona are finally turning the screw with only Atletico Madrid in tow, Real Madrid’s greatest battle continues to be an internal one.

Barca, Atleti leaving Real to fight an internal battle

From Messi’s 400th league goal to another Isco omission, there was no shortage of drama from Sunday’s action in Spain.

After second-placed Atletico Madrid began the four-match schedule with a 1-0 win over Levante, third-placed Sevilla fell to a 2-0 defeat at Athletic Bilbao before leaders Barcelona regained their five-point advantage with a comfortable 3-0 victory against Eibar.

The curtain-closer saw Real Madrid head to Real Betis, and, needing three points to reclaim fourth from Alaves, Santiago Solari’s side stole them all in an enthralling encounter thanks to Dani Ceballos’ late winner…

Papering over the cracks

Real’s 2-1 victory only somewhat lifts the pressure off Solari, who will face another week of intense questioning on Isco after once more snubbing the midfielder at the Benito Villamarin.

In a side depleted by seven injuries to first-team players, Solari still found no room for Isco in the starting XI, while he turned to Ceballos, Cristo Gonzalez and new recruit Brahim Diaz as his options off the bench.

In Ceballos the switch paid dividends, but a disregarded Isco took as many headlines, particularly as the victory arrived with fortune after a fraught second half where Betis were arguably the better side.

This hostile relationship with Isco – one which captain Sergio Ramos described as “complicated” last week – looks set to be the defining issue of Solari’s tenure at Real, and unless it can be resolved, it could play a major role in his dismissal.

Kroos

Solari willingly stepped into the cauldron following Julen Lopetegui’s swift departure, but the heat remains on the former Real player with the club 10 points behind leaders Barcelona.

There are positives for Real to take into the second half of the season, particularly Vinicius Junior’s emergence as their main attacking threat, but the stats make for grim reading after 19 games.

Having boasted a goal difference of +49 and +48 at this stage in the past decade, they now sit on just +4. That is a 19-year low for the club, while their current points total of 33 is their worst after 19 games since the 1999-2000 season when they had 29 points.

This season’s total is only two points fewer than last season, whereby Real trailed Barca by 16 points, but as we know Zinedine Zidane’s side papered over the cracks with a third straight Champions League. It remains to be seen whether Solari will be given enough time to chase Europe’s most coveted prize himself.

The Atleti we know

All the while, Real’s city rivals Atletico returned to doing what they do best – winning 1-0 at home.

Diego Simeone’s side will look back on the first half of their league campaign and lament the eight drawn matches, including a staggering seven 1-1s – perhaps the most disappointing of scorelines for a side which boasts the league’s most watertight defence.

But Sunday’s win over Levante – thanks to an Antoine Griezmann penalty – ensured Atleti remain arguably Barcelona’s only contenders for the crown.

Griezmann’s goal was his sixth in five matches, and the prospect of an in-form striker and re-shored up defence makes for a lethal combination which will surely keep Barcelona in check as the season progresses.

Already, Barca’s April meeting at home to Atleti is catching the eye.

Atleti

Barca on a roll

Naturally, the current league leaders will want to avoid any talk of a title showdown come April, and momentum certainly appears to be behind Barcelona after their November slump.

Ernesto Valverde’s side have won six league games on the spin at an aggregate of 16-1. Messi has scored eight goals in five, Suarez five in five, and while Barca are maintaining their swagger up front, it is the formidable defensive partnership of Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet – deputising for the injured Samuel Umtiti – which has been instrumental in putting this run together.

Indeed, it could well be the pivotal streak which sees Barca retain the title.

As we approached the halfway stage there was talk of the gap narrowing, particularly with Alaves punching above their weight and Sevilla in the mix, and though Barca’s total of 43 points after 19 games is the joint-lowest since they led the way in 2006-07 with 39 points, the signs are positive for the Catalan club as they enter the second half of the season.

With a trip to the Bernabeu in March, Barcelona will not get ahead of themselves, but carry this impetus with them, and a 10th league title in 14 years is surely theirs.