Barcelona vs Real Madrid: What's going on in LaLiga?

Barcelona is top, if not entirely convincingly, while Real Madrid heads into El Clasico below Deportivo Alaves and Valladolid.

Barcelona striker Luis Suarez   -  Getty Images

Normally, the battle between Spain's heavyweight frontrunners, the first Clasico of 2018-19 arrives with LaLiga in a state of flux.

Barcelona is at the top of the table despite not having everything its own way, while bitter rival Real Madrid heads to Camp Nou in seventh position after a torrid period that has left head coach Julen Lopetegui on the brink.

A broken arm means Barca talisman Lionel Messi is sidelined, while Los Blancos is stumbling through life without departed record goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo, who has inexplicably not been replaced.

Powered by the exploits of its two defining superpowers, LaLiga has sat largely unchallenged as Europe's most dominant league over the past decade.

As such, the current standings make for exciting, if slightly disorientating, reading. But how did we get here?

READ: Ter Stegen warns Barcelona: Madrid was more than Ronaldo

Not all rosy in Valverde's garden

Top after nine games, all-but assured of Champions League progression halfway through the group stage and watching Lopetegui's Madrid reign collapse inwards from afar. Life looks pretty sweet right now for Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde.

But, scratch a little below the surface and the Blaugrana is not quite the powerhouse it has been for much of the modern era.

Wednesday's 2-0 win over Inter in Messi's absence arrived with welcome authority, given Valverde's side have come to look increasingly lost without the great man on the field.

Rested among the substitutes for last month's visit to Athletic Bilbao, Messi hauled himself from the bench with Barca behind and they grabbed a 1-1 draw.

He made Philippe Coutinho's opener and scored the second as Sevilla faced a thrashing at Camp Nou last time out. Then, injury struck and improbable heroics from Marc Andre ter Stegen were required to hold out for a 4-2 win.

The lineup Valverde selected against Inter was curious. High-profile attacking signings Ousmane Dembele and Malcom were unused substitutes, while Rafinha started against the team he was loaned out to last season.

The academy system from which Rafinha emerged has not produced plentifully for some time, which means coach and board appearing completely at cross purposes in the transfer market is an even bigger problem for a first team that has won five of their nine top-flight games this season.

ALSO READ: Barcelona vs Real Madrid: The last El Clasico without Messi and Ronaldo - where are they now?

Lopetegui on the brink

All that said, one has to wonder what Lopetegui would not give to swap Valverde's problems for his own. Prising Zinedine Zidane's successor from his World Cup assignment with Spain so clumsily was one thing, but selling Madrid's all-time leading goalscorer and not bringing in any notable replacement left Valverde on a hiding to nothing.

Zidane's shrewd management of a talented dressing room bustling with egos brought three successive European titles. The irony is that the Galacticos policy president Florentino Perez launched at the start of the century, with the aim of bringing Champions League dominance, had been parked by the time it arrived.

After breaking the world transfer record to sign Gareth Bale in 2013, Madrid did its usual trick of paying big money for World Cup standouts in James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos, 12 months later.

Its most expensive arrival between then and this year's capture of Brazilian youngster Vinicius from Flamengo was Manchester City's current reserve right-back Danilo.

A focus on young signings has not been without merit. Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos could be the long-term stars of Spain's next generation. But, while Barcelona is not buying the right players for Valverde, Madrid is just not buying anyone of match-winning calibre.

Zidane harnessed the stars already at his disposal for a career-defining push. With that unforgettable cycle at an end, Lopetegui and whoever his successor might be look set to be shackled by a transfer policy lacking both direction and ambition.

ALSO READ: Barcelona vs Real Madrid: El Clasico the end for Lopetegui?

Wasn't it supposed to be Atletico's year?

Barcelona's golden generation aging, Madrid being in transition and Antoine Griezmann penning a bumper new contract signalled good times for Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid.

A joyous 4-2 UEFA Super Cup win over its city rival underlined the impression that this could be the year the Rojiblancos followed its 2013-14 title heist with something more dominant.

It still might, but is flailing a little in fifth place, with four wins and as many draws from nine matches. If Barca and Madrid were in anything like the form they have displayed over recent years, Atleti would have kissed dreams of glory goodbye already.

Griezmann has been limited to two goals apiece in LaLiga and the Champions League, while Wednesday's 4-0 shellacking at the hands of Borussia Dortmund was the latest startling demonstration that Diego Godin's imperious powers at the heart of defence might be on the wane.

The upshot is Espanyol are in second and Deportivo Alaves in third, with Sevilla and Valladolid either side of Atletico to round out a top six with a notable absentee.

Experience and resources mean LaLiga will adopt a more familiar look over Spain's winter months. But, recent Madrid conquerors Alaves, Levante and the rest should be inspired to continue firing shots across the bows.

The transition from a golden age is not being expertly managed at Camp Nou or the Santiago Bernabeu, meaning opportunities will continue to present themselves.