Spanish league proud of tight fight for the top

<p>
              FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 24, 2018 file photo, Javier Tebas, the president of the Spanish La Liga, speaks during the World Football summit in Madrid, Spain. A Spanish court is going to decide Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019 whether the Spanish league will be allowed to play the Villarreal-Atletico Madrid game in the United States next month. The league accuses the Spanish soccer federation of unfair competition for not giving its approval for the game scheduled for Dec. 6. The dispute is the latest between league president Javier Tebas and federation president Luis Rubiales, two outspoken figures in Spanish soccer who have been at odds over a series of issues. (AP Photo/Paul White, file)
            </p>

MADRID (AP) — The most competitive Spanish Liga in more than two decades is attributable to financial control measures, the league says.

It has never been tighter at the top of the league since victories were awarded three points in 1995, with the distance between the leader and the eighth-place team at five points after 13 rounds. The closest it had been before this season was in 1998, when six points separated the top eight.

There are nine teams within five points of leaders Barcelona and Real Madrid, which have a game in hand because their clásico was postponed from October until Dec. 18 because of a separatist rally in the Catalan capital.

Valladolid, in 13th place, is only three points from the qualification positions for European competitions, and Eibar, sitting 15th, is closer to the European spots than to the relegation zone.

Among the teams near the top of the standings this season are Real Sociedad, Getafe, and promoted Granada.

“The financial control measures that the league implemented six years ago allowed the teams to lower their debts and gave them a greater capacity to invest and to maintain their players,” Spanish league president Javier Tebas said. “The smaller teams have improved.”

Tebas said the 2015 change to a centralized method for the sales of television rights — instead of each team negotiating them separately — also helped increase the league’s competitiveness as it significantly increased the revenue of most smaller clubs.

“The top teams will always be fighting at the top, but not as comfortably as in previous years, when we used to have the 100-point league winners,” Tebas said in a meeting with international media on Wednesday. “It’s harder for the top teams to win matches now, there’s more parity.”

Two-time defending champion Barcelona already has three losses this season — to Levante, Granada, and Athletic Bilbao.

Real Madrid lost at promoted Mallorca, and Atlético Madrid fell against Real Sociedad.

Barcelona has won only 66% of its potential points, the smallest percentage among the leaders in the top five European leagues.

“It has become harder and harder,” Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “You will never have an easy game, no matter the opponent, even against those teams down in the table.”

Tebas said the league wants the smaller teams to become more competitive but at the same time needs to keep the top clubs thriving, as they are the ones that can sign the great players and succeed in the important European competitions. He said the goal was never to take money away from the top clubs to give it to the smaller teams.

“We have to be careful not to weaken our clubs that compete internationally because they are the ones that helped us create this brand,” Tebas said. “We need to find a balance.”

He said a possible departure of Lionel Messi from the league could potentially become a setback, but he noted that after Cristiano Ronaldo left no one contested the television rights contracts because he was not playing in Spain anymore.

“We have worked very hard to make sure that the Spanish league brand is above players and clubs,” Tebas said.