Brutal January could be decisive for Atletico, Real Madrid and Barcelona
January is a hugely significant time in Spanish football. Those who love their English football, particularly its traditions, have a gentle laugh at La Liga over the festive period, while the Premier League becomes a "we never close" Windmill Theatre of limping limbs, lambs to the slaughter, laughs, loud crowds and title-influencing matches in quick succession.
I must admit that I've never detected so much jealousy among football addicts in Spain for the "game every two or three days" obstacle course in England -- particularly the Boxing Day fixtures.
I don't deny, either, that I just love being home to see my team, Aberdeen, play on Boxing Day or New Year's Day. These are electric occasions.
Meanwhile, La Liga's talents swan off to Paris, Vienna, Tenerife, Rio, Rosario and the like. From a couple of days before Christmas until the first weekend in January, Spain's stadiums lie dormant, shorn of competitive football, if not of the odd benefit game or friendly.
Then comes January.
Mostly because the Spanish FA refuse to make their Copa del Rey ties single matches, this month becomes football's equivalent of an Ironman Triathlon, part of which is run barefoot across broken glass. Quirks of the calendar mean that Atletico and Barcelona could meet three times, while Madrid and Atletico are guaranteed to play their fourth and fifth derbies of the season. In short, any successful team near the top end of the table will play nine times in 28 days.
A tough contest every three days, but not over a short holiday period like in England. Every three days for a month. Brutal. Time, then, to draw some conclusions, to cast ahead, to pinpoint the big three's strengths and weaknesses.
The champions: Atletico Madrid
They are in a photo finish with Madrid for the toughest month ahead. If things go to plan, Diego Simeone's Colchoneros will play Real Madrid twice and Barcelona three times before the end of January. (Potentially: Madrid H, Barcelona A, Madrid A, Granada H, Barcelona A, Rayo Vallecano H, Barcelona H.)
I'd be interested to know whether any team has ever had a more sapping, dangerous schedule in any given calendar month.
By a hair's breadth, Simeone got it just right last season. He gave La Copa, a trophy Atleti were defending, a decent degree of respect, but from precisely this stage a year ago, it was discernible that he was clear in his priorities: La Liga first, Champions League second, Copa third.
He regularly started with Jose Sosa, Josuha Guilavogui, Toby Alderweireld, Adrian and Cebolla Rodriguez in his Copa lineups. In the semifinal second leg, when Madrid were 3-0 up but still used a full XI, Simeone dipped still more heavily into his B-cast.
By May, as was shown by their collapse in extra time at the Champions League final and by the fact that they took the league despite only winning two of their last nine available points, Atleti were knackered. Fortunately, Barcelona and Madrid, the Copa finalists, were just that tiny degree more wobbly in the title chase, dropping crazy points to allow Los Colchoneros to edge over the line. Had Simeone gone hell for leather to retain the cup, it's arguable that they'd not have won the title or reached the highly lucrative Champions League final.
Just as last season I tipped them to win La Liga, I remain convinced that Atleti aren't now equipped to repeat that feat. But this week's Primera Division table tells a different tale if you care to look.
Some of the key questions for the Argentinian to answer, with regard to his team, are as follows: should he firmly put La Copa as his third priority again? Or should he decide that, as Madrid and Barcelona look vulnerable this month, it's a good percentage bet to push for yet another trophy via this competition? It's a subject that deserves very careful consideration.
Next: How to get the best out of Fernando Torres and Raul Jimenez?
Despite winning their last two Liga matches with a 7-2 aggregate score, the champions are worse off in every meaningful statistic compared to this time last season. This time in January 2014 they'd scored 46, conceded 11, and had 46 points. Now it's scored 34, conceded 15, points 38.
It's a substantial downturn. The eight-point deficit is most governed by the goal decline of 12 compared to last season. Jimenez has flopped, summer signing Alessio Cerci has been shipped out on loan to Milan, and El Nino has a lot to prove. Ultimately, titles are decided by small margins (read: goals).
Also: How to manage the central defence? The absolute cornerstone of Atleti's success over the last four seasons, Miranda and Diego Godin, are a pairing made in heaven. Miserly and aggressive at the back, between them they not only have a healthy tendency to hit the net; they have, respectively, scored goals to win the Cup, win the title and hold a lead until the dying seconds of the Champions League final.
However, Miranda has been more injured, missing more games this season than at any time since 2011-12. Godin remains thunderously good but he's played endless football for club and country, and the way in which Luciano Vietto skipped past him to score and inflict Atleti's only home defeat of 2014 in December, making the Uruguayan look like his legs each weighed two tons, was a warning. He will require the occasional "rotation" moving forward.
Finally, in my view, the next two or three months will dictate whether Simeone remains at Atleti. I'm advised by those who know the champions' training ground of his major players' concern that their manager's natural move will be to cash in this summer and accept a succulent offer from one of England's or Italy's biggest clubs, if the right proposition is on offer.
I think the betting is no better than 60-40 that he stays. But how his team performs, how the fans react to the coming months, how much Atleti can improve his salary terms will be almost as big an influence on his decision as whether one of Europe's "great" clubs offer him a special job, and the terms that accompany it.
The champions-elect: Real Madrid
It's a brutal reality for Carlo Ancelotti and his assistant Paul Clement, but the majority of "Madridistas," indeed the majority of educated onlookers, will now only consider Madrid winning the title and retaining the Champions League as "comprehensive" success this season.
This time the reasons have nothing to do with hauteur, aristocracy or complacent expectations. Instead, Madrid (aka Ancelotti) have created their own monster.
I contend that, pound for pound and taking into account domestic challenges, squad, the coaching staff, experience, attitude and outright talent, Madrid at their best have an edge on every other major European side.
Of course, football creates a myriad of booby traps, and if Los Blancos were to suffer horrible injuries to the wrong players, then all bets are off. But right now I like their chances of becoming the first club to retain the Champions League.
As for La Liga, they are, on form, significantly better than anyone else -- even including an Atleti side that has beaten them twice this season before Madrid hitting ramming speed.
Imponderables aside, their main obstacle will be key players dropping performance levels, whether it's because of mental or physical burnout. Ancelotti's massive challenge is to risk-manage this area a whisker better than last term, beginning with La Copa.
For years, Madrid treated the Copa del Rey as an inconvenience. You'd have been forgiven for thinking that Iker Casillas (who absolutely yearned to lift it) was the only one at the Bernabeu who genuinely cared. It reached the point when Madrid weren't winning anything, whereby, just like with Pep Guardiola's first season at the Camp Nou, winning the Cup suddenly assumed massive proportions, simply to break the the losing dynamic. Simply to don that jacket of ruthlessness it takes to be a trophy winner again.
Since then Los Blancos have reached the final three times, won it twice and removed that thorn from their sides.
Sunday's defeat at Valencia was far from a disaster. Madrid were slightly under par (but not by a great deal) and missed a hatful of chances via that they could have drawn or won. What it underlined, firmly, was the massive degree of intensity with which they'd played during the previous 22 consecutive wins. It was a level that was unsustainable all the way through from September 2014 (when their winning run began) until May/June 2015, when the league and Champions League will be decided.
It also underlined that the Italian coach's attitude about prioritising his squad playing their way to sharpness and stamina, while putting emphasis on tactics, technique and squad unity/team spirit in daily training, might leave Madrid a touch vulnerable for the next two or three games after their festive break until it all clicks again.
Ancelotti may well view it differently but my advice to him is that talk of "equal priority" between the league and the cup is misplaced (unless, of course, he's speaking with a "forked tongue") and that the next two brutal, bruising cup ties against Atleti should be contested to win -- but only using second-string players.
Why? So that the guys who can (in principle) make history during April, May and June are fresh enough to do so.
Greater freefall than Karim Benzema's dives in Dubai: FC Barcelona
The palliative effects of winning a couple of games are absolutely extraordinary.
Imagine, hypothetically, if Barcelona were to exact vengeance Sunday for the last two hugely costly home draws they conceded to Atleti, results that respectively lost them the Champions League and La Liga, and went on to eliminate either of the Madrid powerhouses from the Copa del Rey quarterfinal. By the end of January, people would be mocking those of us who now talk of a serious institutional crisis.
But the reality is that this month appears to hold the potential to make or break Luis Enrique as Barcelona's coach.
It seems inconceivable that they don't go past Elche, a club in some disarray, when they meet in La Copa. However, Thursday's late-night tie will be cold and ill-attended, and only Luis "smartest man in the room" Enrique knows what kind of starting XI he'll apply.
Perhaps the pivotal night is when the league champions come to town this weekend. Lionel Messi won't be fully match-fit, he's in a huff with his coach and, moreover, Simeone has consistently found ways to stop him excelling.
It's been over two years and seven matches in three different competitions since the Argentinian scored against Atletico. Given that Messi has 17 goals in 21 career games against Los Colchoneros, just think how prolific he was before Simeone figuring out how to manacle his countryman!
Enrique's entire strategy appears to be putting the fable of the tortoise and the hare into footballing reality. Looking sluggish, ill at ease and utterly without a guiding playing style for the first five and a half months but, in theory, stumbling upon top gear sometime soon and then strolling past the exhausted hares of Madrid and Atletico to win the title.
It's a plan that no doubt relies on Neymar, Messi or (really?) Luis Suarez to produce a moment or two of inspiration to overcome the champions of England for the second successive year in the Champions League. Good luck with the fable, "Lucho." It's just that this team used to be fabulous and that's still the marker via which your performance will be judged.
Should he survive in his post that long, the burning question for Enrique to answer before the key moments of the season is "Where is the real Andres Iniesta, and what has the guy playing in Barcelona's No. 8 shirt done with him?"
Carles Puyol retiring, Xavi aging, Victor Valdes choosing to leave: all these are out of Enrique's control. But Iniesta was the abiding jewel in Barcelona's crown, and he's either uninspired by the new coach and the playing system (or vice versa), is short of confidence or doesn't feel fully match-fit.
Because not only is he light-years away from his normal inspirational self, but he performs the manoeuvres that normally sculpt space for himself and his team mates so slowly and so timorously that he's easier to read than a nursery rhyme.
Ivan Rakitic and Jeremy Mathieu both arrived last summer looking like terrifically dynamic and confident additions to an evolving Barcelona playing style; slightly less possession-based, but still technical, intelligent and dynamic. Yet each player has been dropped sufficiently that their confidence has been eroded while Gerard Pique, Barca's most consistent, powerful, and competitive player for weeks, was infuriated not only to be dropped for last weekend's game at the Anoeta but to see the team toss away a chance to top the table.
On the basis of that old saying -- in a "derby" all form goes out the window and anything can happen -- then perhaps the best Enrique can wish for is that Madrid eliminate Atletico in the Copa and Barca are faced with two Clasicos before the end of January. A footballing version of poker's "all-in."
One thing is for sure: they need something to shock them out of the languorous, torpid football that continues to erode the footballing excellence with which, not so long ago, the Barcelona name was synonymous.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.