LaLiga Is Back, But Where Are We?
Written by Matt Clark
LaLiga returns on Thursday at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán where Sevilla will take on Real Betis in a much-anticipated encounter. There’ll be many nerves ahead of the return, fingers crossed that everything runs smoothly. For so many people, this match will represent the light at the end of a long tunnel that we have collectively been living through since the coronavirus pandemic struck.
A lot has happened since March 10th, the last time a ball was kicked in Spain’s top division. Real Sociedad beat Eibar on the same night that Valencia lost to Atalanta in the Champions League and the night before Atlético Madrid beat Liverpool at Anfield. 13 weeks later, LaLiga is back with a bang, with one of the biggest derbies of the season. But given everything that has happened, you’d be forgiven for being unsure what it all means for the season. It is easy to have forgotten the state of play at the crunch points in the table. This explainer will outline the situations for the title, European positions, and relegation, and will also flag up some of the key games to look out for as the season accelerates to a climax.
Unlike many European leagues this season, LaLiga has a hotly-contested title race. Barcelona and Real Madrid have directly exchanged leadership in the table five times already this season, and more twists and turns are surely on the cards. Real Madrid won the second Clásico of the campaign, but this win was sandwiched between two defeats for Zinedine Zidane's men, as they surrendered top spot to Barcelona, who have won six of Quique Setién’s first eight LaLiga games in charge. The Catalan side have the edge as things stand with a two-point cushion, but Real Madrid have the advantage in the head-to-head, which would prove decisive if the sides end level on points.
A big positive for Los Blancos is that they have got most of their daunting fixtures out of the way. Their toughest games look like being Valencia at home before trips to the Basque Country to face Real Sociedad and then Athletic Club. Meanwhile, Barça still have to go to Sevilla, while hosting Athletic and Atlético Madrid. Another bonus for Real Madrid is the return to fitness of some of their key players. Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio have had extra time to work their way back to full health, which should benefit the squad immensely. The ongoing redevelopment works at Santiago Bernabéu mean that Los Merengues will play their remaining home games at Estadio Alfredo Di Stéfano, at their Valdebebas training complex. This is another factor to add into the mix. Playing without fans will be strange enough, but having to do so without the surroundings of their home ground is an added challenge. Will they be able to motivate themselves to get the required intensity? With LaLiga on the line, the answer is probably yes, but it will require increased levels of focus and concentration. As for Barcelona, they too will rejoice that their star forward Luis Suárez is fit and available again, which could prove the difference. The downside of this good news is the unavailability of Ousmane Dembélé, who – despite also returning to fitness – is ineligible to play in LaLiga as part of the ruling which allowed Barça to sign Martin Braithwaite as emergency cover for Suárez. All things considered though, it is likely that if they had to choose, La Blaugrana would rather have Suárez than Dembélé. A further area of intrigue will be the effects of the new protocols in place for the return. Five substitutions will be permitted for each side per game, and it is widely accepted that Real Madrid will be the chief beneficiaries from this, given the depth of quality in their squad. You might expect Barcelona to welcome this change too, although Setién suggested that having more substitutions in a match will disrupt the rhythm of his team. Whether the absence of fans in stadia will have any effect on the outcomes of matches is up for debate, but since the Bundesliga resumed behind closed doors, away teams have had far more joy than normal. A staggering 49% of matches have been won by the visiting team (22/46), compared to just 22% for home teams (10/46). The sample size is small and the novelty factor has to be taken into account, but it will be interesting to see how this translates to Spain.
As is often the case, the race for Europe is looking intriguing. Just five points separate the third- and seventh-placed teams, with Sevilla and Real Sociedad looking to hold on to their spots in the top four. Getafe, Atleti and Valencia are the closest challengers, with Villarreal, Granada and Athletic Club slightly further back.
Other than the factors discussed previously, one area which may be relevant to the European race is, ironically, the lack of European competition. Atleti, Sevilla and Geta are still in Europe this season, and would normally be juggling fixtures at this stage of the season. But with international travel still problematic and UEFA only planning to resume their tournaments when domestic competitions are completed, this may give those clubs a boost. And given the relative size of those squads, Getafe may earn the biggest competitive advantage from this.
Under Julen Lopetegui, Sevilla are looking good in third, but have only won three league matches in 2020. They face a stiff test first up against their city rivals, and have to face three of the current top seven in their remaining games.
Real Sociedad have perhaps been the most entertaining team to watch in LaLiga this season, with their thrilling forward play reaping rewards under Imanol Alguacil. Has the break hindered their chances of Champions League football, or has it focused their minds on the task? They have the toughest fixtures on paper, having to face Real Madrid, Getafe, Sevilla and Atleti. Those matches will be crucial in determining whether a good season will become a great one.
On the flip side, Atleti, Villarreal and Athletic all stuttered before the break. Can the pause give them renewed zest in their chase for European spots? Atleti in particular will be buoyed by their victory at Anfield, and will want to give assistant coach Mono Burgos the send-off he deserves. Niggling injury problems have already returned to Los Colchoneros’ squad, with João Félix and Ángel Correa suffering setbacks. But you wouldn’t bet against Diego Simeone’s men, and according to the bookmakers’ odds, Atleti are favourites to be among the top four behind Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The elephant in the room is the Copa del Rey final. The date of the all-Basque showpiece is yet to be determined, largely because both clubs agreed that this final should not happen without fans in the stadium. Given UEFA's strict timescales, this means that as things stand, the European place for the Copa is unfulfilled, so seventh place in LaLiga becomes a qualifying spot. Valencia currently occupy it, but it could be a golden ticket to Europe for any of the clubs in the mix.
Key Games – Title Race & Europe
- REAL MADRID v VALENCIA (MD29) - REAL SOCIEDAD v REAL MADRID (MD30) - SEVILLA v BARCELONA (MD30) - GETAFE v REAL SOCIEDAD (MD32) - BARCELONA v ATLETI (MD33) - GETAFE v ATLETI (MD37) - REAL SOCIEDAD v SEVILLA (MD37) - ATLETI v REAL SOCIEDAD (MD38) - SEVILLA v VALENCIA (MD38)
This has the makings of a real scrap to the finish, with as many as six teams definitely involved. Even Betis and Levante, LaLiga’s two consistently inconsistent teams, are both on 33 points and would start to nervously look down if they lost their respective derbies when LaLiga resumes this week. Espanyol are bottom and almost cut adrift, stranded six points from safety, so really need a quick start. They have Alavés up first, but Los Periquitos still have to face five of the top seven, including both Barça and Real Madrid, so the challenge facing Abelardo is not an enviable one. However, they also play three of their direct rivals in the bottom six – all at home – so can make gains there. They will hope that January signing Raúl de Tomás will continue his early promise to fire them to safety.
For Leganés, the challenge is similar, as are their fixtures. There have been signs of improvement under Javier Aguirre, but the club were left hamstrung when forwards Youssef En-Nesyri and Braithwaite left in January. Do they offer enough of a goal threat to get them the points to survive? The general problem for teams at the sharp end will be playing behind closed doors. Normally, sides at the bottom rally their supporters to create a hostile atmosphere for opponents in crucial games. Celta Vigo have utilised this to good effect in recent seasons, making Balaídos a fortress, and fans witnessed several dramatic wins in 2018-19. Lega and Espanyol have been attempting to do the same this time around, but with no crowds allowed, this will make their task a whole lot harder.
Celta were unbeaten in five matches before the lockdown, so will be hopeful that they continue to pick up points, led by talismanic captain Iago Aspas. Very few pundits predicted Celta would struggle this season, and the talent in their squad belies their lowly position. But for all their attractive build-up play, they need to create more for Aspas to work his magic.
Mallorca and Lega both showed signs of life with wins immediately before the break, and will want to build on what little momentum remains from those confidence-boosting victories. In contrast, Real Valladolid and Eibar are both out of form, each losing two games in a row before the stoppage, leaving them precariously placed. As the key games below show, there are some tantalising matches ahead, in what could be the tightest battle for a few years. No team is really dead and buried, and all of them have the opportunity to use this restart to kick-start to their season.
Key Games – Relegation Battle
- ESPANYOL v ALAVÉS (MD 28)
- LEGANÉS v REAL VALLADOLID (MD28) - REAL VALLADOLID v CELTA (MD29) - CELTA v ALAVÉS (MD30) - MALLORCA v LEGANÉS (MD30) - MALLORCA v CELTA (MD33) - ESPANYOL v LEGANÉS (MD34) - EIBAR v LEGANÉS (MD35) - ESPANYOL v EIBAR (MD36) - EIBAR v REAL VALLADOLID (MD37) - ESPANYOL v CELTA (MD38)
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