10 games, three teams, six points between them and a whole lot of drama ahead.
The 2020-21 LaLiga title race, for it is a race, promises much. So often it is not. For the contest to run into the final weeks is a rarity rather than the norm. Every last drop of this botellón (literally ‘big bottle’ in Spanish, describing an outdoors soirée involving intoxication) should be savoured with glee. The only thing missing is the dearly beloved galleries. Their absence robs us of real-time sounds of the anguish, delight and nervousness taking place simultaneously all over the world.
The most reliable team of the lot is in last place of our mini-table, the leaders are struggling for spirit and the form team must play both of these sides which they lost to earlier on. Here’s a look at how the contenders arrive to the fray.
Atlético de Madrid
Football is a state of mind according to Jorge Valdano’s common refrain. Los Colchoneros’ state of mind is in urgent need of some tender, loving care. So often the easy villain, this international break feels like a gift from above for Los Rojiblancos.
A trip down to the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán on their return feels poignant; outfoxing the trickiest customer outside of the title race is a sure-fire way of letting the pressure out of the ballooning narrative. On the other hand, failure to win would mean Barcelona have the title back in their own hands.
It’s important to remember that their slump was partly induced by Covid-19 cases, injuries and even the English FA. Since their 1-1 draw with Levante on 17th February, Atleti have won three, drawn three and lost three. For context, nine of the previous 10 league matches were victories and they took a point from the other. Mario Hermoso, Kieran Trippier, Yannick Carrasco, João Félix and José María Giménez all missed games during January and February, which undeniably knocked them off their rhythm. Even with a full complement now, Simeone is still having issues finding it again.
There was however little doubt that the earlier results had been a little flattering. Marginal wins, often by virtue of Luis Suárez’s fearsome vengeance effort, require fine balance. That ability to straddle the right side of those margins has always been at the heart of Simeone’s modus operandi.
With that comes a risk too; any loss of sharpness or harmony can cost results.
Mentally, it feels as if Simeone’s biggest task is overcoming their traumatic Champions League tie against Chelsea. In the second leg, the Argentine did look for solutions by returning to a 4-4-2 and dropping Hermoso. The sole effect was exposing last season’s weaknesses which the 5-3-2 tries to hide. The damage was in the complete lack of grit and fight shown by Atleti. Rarely has a Simeone side looked so achingly vanilla – even Stefan Savić’s red card was meek.
Hence why the international break could be so instrumental in reversing that momentum. Those with their national sides will have been placed into a different dynamic. Those still in Madrid have rest and relaxation, free to go about their work in peace. And Simeone has the most sacred commodity of all, time. To assess, to train, to prepare.
In Suárez and Jan Oblak, they have the most decisive players in the league at either end of the pitch (discounting Messi). The former will benefit as much as anyone from that rest too.
The coming seven games will push Atleti to their absolute limit in terms of nerve. Only Eibar and perhaps Huesca’s trips to the Wanda Metropolitano look anything like simple before the big showdown with Barcelona. All six ties involve teams who will be fighting tooth and nail for every point, three of which will likely to be playing in Europe next season. Just a single booking separates cornerstones Suárez, Marcos Llorente and Hermoso from missing one of these matches too.
Their final three ties look a little kinder and should they leave Catalonia with the lead, triumph would feel ever so close. Such is football’s romantic way, it does appear that the road to victory will require a draw or perhaps even a win at Camp Nou. Just as it did in 2014.
X-factor: João Félix
Numerous think pieces have been written on the Portuguese’s presence at the Wanda and whether he and cholismo can coexist. Perhaps he feels like the easy choice but one way or another, he remains the largest source of untapped potential at Simeone’s disposal. No other player in that squad has the technique Félix does. Should he find his creative flow, that could free up the rest of the attack and turn Los Rojiblancos into a different proposition.
MD29 – Sevilla (A) MD30 – Real Betis (A) MD31 – Eibar (H) MD32 – Huesca (H) MD33 – Athletic Club (A) MD34 – Elche (A) MD35 – Barcelona (A) MD36 – Real Sociedad (H) MD37 – Osasuna (H) MD38 – Real Valladolid (A)
It’s been a season of two halves for Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona, his decision to vacate the rigid 4-2-3-1 marking a definitive turning point. The first half, for various reasons, was poor to the point where Koeman himself said the title was probably a step too far this season.
Since he did so, Barcelona have won 12 matches and drawn one in a run nobody could have predicted. The initial switch to 4-3-3 saw a team with focus and a discernible idea, even if the kinks still needed straightening out.
The more recent 3-5-2 has seen the Dutchman go full circle. Before 2021, the midfield was empty and gaping at Barcelona; a rabble of horses could’ve galloped through without raising much concern from health and safety. Now, the lines have been united and Sergio Busquets rules the roost once more. Ball circulation is at a five-year high and Ousmane Dembélé provides a similarly missed threat in behind the opposition defence.
As with all the best versions of modern-day Barcelona, the key is working out a method of finding Lionel Messi in space, a crucial change which has yielded 16 goals and seven assists in 12 LaLiga games since that formation change. Knowing that Messi’s contribution extends far beyond statistics, they make incredible reading even by Messi standards.
Integral to that explosion is the structure around him. There are now sufficient threats and distractions to attract attention away from Messi. The Argentine feels far more like a cog, albeit the decisive one, in a system. Previously, the opposition felt like an obstacle course for him to repeatedly attempt for 90 long minutes.
Perhaps their biggest hurdle to the title will be their own form – what goes up must come down. The Blaugrana will likely need to beat the big Madrid duo, or at minimum draw El Clásico and beat Atleti. Even in that eventuality, with the gap at four points, two slip-ups or more outwith those matches means the end of their charge. Counting eight wins of the remaining 10 games, that would take the necessary total to 20 wins from their final 23 matches...
On top of that, Pedri has played 42 of Barça’s 43 official matches. Koeman clearly sees nobody else capable of replacing him and likewise Jordi Alba, Sergiño Dest and Dembélé have no clear alternatives either. Their minutes will need to managed carefully, as sharpness will be crucial in the run-in. Outside of the two titanic Madrid clashes, the fixture list is probably the kindest of the three – Athletic Club (H), Villarreal (A) and Levante (A) represent the toughest opponents.
Koeman’s men have demonstrated consistency against the rest of the league, but winning means passing the most stringent tests in Atlético and Real Madrid. It’s the next step for the Azulgrana and it’s the biggest one. Yet morale is high. There is faith in the idea they are implementing on the pitch. Beyond everything else, those are the key reasons Barcelona are in this race.
X-factor: Ousmane Dembélé
How many times have Barcelona fans rued a missed opportunity by Dembélé, with the distinct feeling that it may have all ended differently had the Frenchman scored? Nobody else in the squad has the ability to conjure up magic* quite like the Frenchman. By virtue of his skillset, these opportunities are earned by him. Ansu Fati remains injured and without another ‘killer’*, any title celebrations may well require him to finish a key chance with the same conviction he showed against Real Sociedad.
- *As always, Messi aside. Messi is also the de facto ‘killer’ which Dembélé must complement.
MD29 – Real Valladolid (H) MD30 – Real Madrid (A) MD31 – Getafe (H) MD32 – Villarreal (A) MD33 – Granada (H) MD34 – Valencia (A) MD35 – Atlético Madrid (H) MD36 – Levante (A) MD37 – Celta Vigo (H) MD38 – Eibar (A)
Six points behind the leaders, with just one reliable forward and one eye on the Champions League, Los Blancos should be rank outsiders. Merely watching them play domestically, with a few exceptions, would provide enough evidence for many to scoff at the idea of this team walking away as champions. Like their injury list, the catalogue of reasons why this Real Madrid are not cut out for a title victory is long.
Next to that voluminous discussion lies one major reason why they can win it, written in block capitals; they are Real Madrid. Only a fool would rule them out.
Similar doubts were prevalent this time last season before the Covid-19 enforced break, when Real Madrid’s old guard did their own scoffing and proceeded to win 10 straight fixtures. Having touched on the mood at the other contenders, Real Madrid are impervious in this sense. Precisely when things look most perilous, Zinedine Zidane’s wounded lion is most dangerous.
Their biggest weakness tends to be an inability to dispatch the more humble sides, visible in their calamitous loss to Alcoyano in the Copa del Rey. Rarely do they lose big games.
That special talent will be pushed to the limit following the international break. After Eibar at home, El Clásico is bookended by two matches with Liverpool in a season-defining eight days. This is of course is their second season-defining week of the season: on the brink of elimination from Europe and potentially the title race, they beat Sevilla, Gladbach and Atleti in succession.
Should they make it through that week intact, the fixtures ease a little before a tricky run towards the end. Their greatest advantage is the experience of last season. What came with it was the knowledge that if they set their mind to it, they can win every game.
The contrasts to last season may well be too great though. Their ageing stars are a year older, without the enforced break and unlike last season, they have a distraction.
Eden Hazard’s constant absences are unlikely to be felt much – you can’t miss what you never had. Sergio Ramos’ current absence is another matter entirely, sidelined by a left calf injury for the next month, ruling him out of El Clásico and the Liverpool tie. Not ideal when, to borrow an Americanism, he is one of the most ‘clutch’ players in football history. His manner of forcing the matter represents a major part of Real Madrid’s ability to sway big moments. Although he’s been absent often this year, coming from a deficit means swinging most of those moments.
Upon their grizzled and brutishly strong spine Zidane will build the title defence. If they can avoid conceding, the holy quartet of Karim Benzema, Luka Modrić, Kroos and Casemiro will manufacture a goal. After the break last season, they conceded just four goals in that 10-game winning streak.
By all prognoses, their league hopes do hinge on a victory against Barcelona. A match they are perhaps favourites for; Zidane has beaten Barcelona in two their last three clashes. If they can make it past Barcelona with a win, the margin for error is still unlikely to be more than one match.
Pintarse la cara - to paint the face in Spanish, derives from the idea of making someone look like a clown and thus humiliating or making the victim look silly. Zidane’s Real Madrid have painted many faces in the past. Even when it seems unlikely, their players are simply too good, too competitive and too resilient to be written off.
X-factor: Raphaël Varane
Despite all of Benzema’s craft and invention, it’s difficult to see them getting over the line without a miserly defence. With Ramos out of action for the time being, the burden falls on Varane to martial that operation. Against Manchester City last year, he faced heavy criticism without Ramos – this is his chance to be differential. Good form alongside a good defender in Nacho Fernández is encouraging, but the big challenges begin now.
MD29 – Eibar (H)
MD30 – Barcelona (H)
MD31 – Getafe (A)
MD32 – Cádiz (A)
MD33 – Real Betis (H)
MD34 – Osasuna (H)
MD35 – Sevilla (H)
MD36 – Granada (A)
MD37 – Athletic Club (A)
MD38 – Villarreal (H)
It might not be the finest LaLiga vintage this year, but it could end up being the most fun in a while. After all, seldom do you remember what you were drinking, you remember the party. Strap yourselves in.
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