Usually, the top of the La Liga table is an ordinary penthouse. It’s a suite regularly frequented by, who else, Real Madrid and Barcelona, with very few visitors. Which makes sense. The two are almost always the best teams in Spain, a fact that the table usually reflects.
This year, however, the battering rams that are Villarreal and Celta Vigo have torn down the walls of La Liga’s annual beauty pageant in favor of a new narrative of struggle and survive. It’s a journey that feels fleeting, yes, but the greatest journeys often do in the moment.
Villarreal currently sit atop La Liga’s mountain and Celta Vigo sit in third, separated by a single point. They’ll battle each other this coming Sunday at El Madrigal in the early kickoff game. In a match that shouldn’t ever decide the potential league leader, even in October, this one does. It’s fair to say that, up to this point, this hasn’t been your Grandparents’ Liga season.
Villarreal have had a topsy-turvy recent history that involves a relegation in 2012 followed a deeply-invested — and successful — rebuild. And while all of that can’t — and shouldn’t — be forgotten in the fanfare of this year’s fireworks, they might as well be ancient memories to the Yellow Submarine and their supporters who are flying high on cloud nine.
After beginning this season with a draw against Betis, Marcelino’s Villarreal quickly fired off five straight wins before falling to Levante their last time out. In that time, they managed significant wins against Athletic Bilbao, Malaga, and preseason title-contenders Atletico Madrid.
Cedric Bakambu has been an early breakout star for Villarreal, starting his Amarillos career with three goals in as many appearances, while Roberto Soldado seems to have rediscovered his Valencia-era form in his return to Spain, contributing a total of two goals and three assists.
With a solid backline led by right-back and newly-capped Spanish International Mario Gaspar and budding Ivorian centre-half Eric Bailly, it’s evident that Marcelino has assembled a strong, well-balanced football squad who deserve their spot at the top. The question will be whether or not the Levante match was an anomaly or merely a sign of things to come. The emphatic showings they’ve put together so far this campaign would point towards the former.
Similarly, Eduardo Berizzo’s Celta Vigo have dazzled their way toward La Liga’s summit with plush, energetic football. Man of the moment Nolito remains one of Spain’s most exciting and productive footballers, scoring five league goals thus far, while Augusto Fernandez, Hugo Mallo and Fabian Orellana spearhead a feverish counterattack that has claimed many scalps over the last 15 months.
Unlike Villarreal, however, Celta have yet to taste defeat in their tender campaign. Although they’re coming into the weekend off of two straight draws — with Eibar and Getafe — it was the match before those stalemates when Berizzo’s side really put their flags into the soil.
The Celticos’s 4-1 dismantling of Barcelona in September stands out as one of the shock and awe results of recent Liga memory. It was a pulverizing display that made Luis Enrique’s Barca, a team whom many were lauding as one of the great teams ever prior to the season, look pedestrian. That’s not to say Celta didn’t simply encounter the defending champions on their baddest of bad days, but it wouldn’t be wise for Villarreal to test that theory.
Like Celta, both Madrid and Barca sit on 15 points heading into this weekend — in second and fourth place, respectively, on goal-differential — which means that either Villarreal or Celta Vigo could grace the top-of-the-table when the Matchday concludes. Hell, if both of the Big Two fail to pick up any points, there’s a good chance we could be looking at a La Liga table with Villarreal and Celta Vigo in the top two spots. That seems unlikely, but “unlikely” also seems to be the slogan for the early 15/16 Primera season.
Tradition is an important, powerful thing. But there’s nothing quite like when tradition is damned in favor of something new and unforeseeable. Yes, both Villarreal and Celta Vigo are teams who’ve been on steady inclines since their most recent lower division struggles. But the assumed Primera duopoly of Real Madrid and Barca — which, in its own right, has provided some fantastic duels — has put further emphasis on the necessity for variation in today’s global football landscape. It just so happens that these newer, albeit smaller, jewels of Spanish soccer are offering the same entertainment value as their towering cohorts, just with a little less pretension attached to their names.
The La Liga table probably won’t look like it does today for very much longer, so if you want to enjoy this momentary break for the norm, this is your chance.