With Real Madrid and Barcelona dropping points on a consistent basis, the path is clear for current leaders Atletico Madrid to push on and seal the title.
Diego Simeone has built a squad that is well stocked in all areas, with cover and competition to compensate for inevitable absences. There is, though, one exception.
Kieran Trippier has been indispensable at right-back, so confirmation of his ban until the end of February is very bad news.
The first statistic to show that Trippier’s importance to Atletico cannot be overstated: he is joint second in La Liga’s assists chart so far this season, and the only full-back in the top ten.
With his nickname ‘The Bury Beckham’, Trippier’s ability to create chances with excellent right-footed deliveries into the box is well known. But that’s not his only attribute.
The England international takes a heavy role in build-up play, shown by the fact that he comfortably tops all Atletico players for progressive passes towards the opposition goal.
He also uses his impressive physical stamina to cover a lot of ground up and down the right flank, transforming defence into attack with his ability to run at pace with the ball towards the opposition goal.
None of this detracts from his primary role as a defender, an aspect of the game his demanding coach Simeone is highly unlikely to take lightly. And Trippier has made more tackles and interceptions than any other Atletico player so far this season, showing he is more than capable of fulfilling his defensive duties.
So who will replace him? The like-for-like option is Sime Vrsaljko, the Croatian right-back who has never seemed to gain Simeone’s complete confidence despite being with Atletico since 2016.
Since returning from a loan season at Inter Milan 18 months ago, Vrsaljko has only been given six league starts by Simeone.
So he has a big task in suddenly stepping up to become an effective regular starter during Trippier’s suspension, especially with a hectic fixture schedule that includes the first leg of the Champions League knockout tie against Chelsea plus eight La Liga games in little more than a month.
Trippier’s importance to Atletico is further shown by the fact that he leads their list for the most shot-creating actions, most passes into the penalty area, and most crosses. So if Vrsaljko doesn’t step up, Simeone could be forced into repositioning another player – perhaps we’ll even see yet another new role for the multi-purpose Marcos Llorente, or a fresh task for energetic Argentine Angel Correa?
The good news is that Trippier will be back in time for the Madrid derby, at home to Real in the first weekend of March. But even this silver lining comes with a cloud…yes, Trippier will be fit and rested, but playing in his first game in six weeks will he be up to match speed?
His suspension is a big problem for Atletico – perhaps even the biggest hurdle they have to overcome on their path to the title.