Weekend Previews

La Liga Has Returned!

The football world is very slowly returning to normal…

Feature Image by J. Ketelaars from Pixabay

Spanish football has returned! La Liga joins the Bundesliga among the top five leagues returning to action, but where did we leave off? What are the major stories to follow? What players should you look out for?

This article will be very similar to the “The Bundesliga Has Returned!” article that came out earlier, so the structure should be familiar.

La Liga had a gripping title race upon suspension of the league, and yes, it is between the two teams you think it is. Barcelona and Real Madrid are healthily ahead of the trailing pack, leaving a clear two horse race for the title. Barcelona will resume the league with a two point advantage, and while we look to be setting up a classic title race, it has not exactly been a year to remember for both teams.

Barcelona, outside of the always fantastic Lionel Messi and a strong year from Luis Suárez, have been average at best. The defense has struggled, and new signings Frenkie de Jong and Antoine Griezmann have also struggled to find their footing in Catalonia. Long-term injuries to Suarez and Ousmane Dembélé have left them weak in attack, even more reliant on Messi than usual. Struggles throughout the season eventually led to the sacking of then-manager Ernesto Valverde in January, and after a failed very public attempt to woo club legends Xavi and Ronald Koeman to return as manager, the Catalans turned to former Real Betis manager Quique Setién to right the ship. Setién took some time to settle in, but got his team into a groove, winning four straight league matches. A draw against Napoli in the Champions League and a loss to Real Madrid in the league was a massive hit to their confidence, but Real Madrid dropping points elsewhere means they retain a two point lead at the top of the table. Setién will have to hope that this extended layoff has given him enough time to impart his ideas and playing style into the team. The title is theirs to lose, so they have no room for errors.

Real Madrid have also had their struggles, and still have plenty of issues in their team. The start to their season was very inconsistent, with manager Zinedine Zidane seemingly just throwing ideas out there and seeing what stuck. They found some consistency in the goalscoring form of Karim Benzema, who has seemingly been their only consistent outlet for goals throughout this entire season, but other pieces in their attack have stuttered. It has not been a good start to life in Madrid for Eden Hazard, who struggled for form earlier in the season and has dealt with injury issues ever since. Luka Jović has also not adapted well to his move to Madrid, while Gareth Bale and James Rodríguez continue to find themselves in the fringes of the team. In midfield, Luka Modrić struggled for consistency at the beginning of the season, which opened up the chance for young Uruguayan midfielder Federico Valverde to have his breakout season for los Blancos. The young, energetic midfielder combines flair and skill with an incredible footballing IQ and work rate, injecting much needed life into Zidane’s midfield. In his first real full season with the first team, he earned a starting spot in the team over a Ballon d’Or winner, which is really quite impressive. While Real Madrid struggled to start the season, you could tell they were beginning to figure things out by the end of November, and by mid-December, they had become quite a formidable team. While they still struggled for goals, they became a defensive juggernaut, with the center back pairing of Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane becoming the most dominant in the league. A defining addition to that back line, however, was the introduction of new signing Ferland Mendy into the left back role over long-time stalwart Marcelo. The ex-Lyon fullback, while not being as talented as the legendary Brazilian going forward, has proven to be an immensely impressive defensive fullback, and his inclusion into the back line did make a tangible difference. Real Madrid went unbeaten in the league from the end of October to the end of February, a span that included wins over Atlético Madrid and Sevilla and a draw to Barcelona, and they would rocket up the league table and firmly into the top two. The “unbeaten” tag is a bit misleading, however, as they did have several disappointing draws, including against Athletic Bilbao, Real Betis, and Celta Vigo, which allowed Barcelona to hang around or be ahead of them, despite the Catalonians having issues of their own. This theme of imperfection and slipping up has seemingly defined this title race, and it was not better represented than in the final match weeks before the suspension of the league. Real Madrid’s final four matches before the suspension were the aforementioned draw to Celta Vigo, a loss to Levante, a win in El Clásico, and a loss to Real Betis. In that four match span, Real Madrid fell behind Barcelona, overtook them, and fell behind them again.

And that is what makes this title race so interesting. In the past, it always felt as if no team could afford to lose, knowing the other team was very likely to finish the season unbeaten if they slipped up. Here, it is seemingly the opposite. It is not just possible, but quite likely, that both teams could unnecessarily drop points between now and the end of the season. There will likely be more leapfrogging as the season comes to a conclusion, and while you could say Barcelona have the slightly easier run-in to finish the season, both sides are very likely to still drop points. It is almost as if the team that wins the title at the end will not be the best team of the two, but the least bad of the two. That about describes both teams this season, which one can be the least bad.

Image by juanmaalmazan from Pixabay

Okay, enough about the title race and about the El Clásico teams. There is quite a bit more to talk about when it comes to this league. The final spots in the top four, and resulting spots in the Champions League, are still far from decided, as there is only a two point gap between third and sixth, and a five point gap between third and seventh (if you wanted to include Valencia). As things stand, Sevilla and Real Sociedad occupy the two Champions League places, while Getafe and Atlético Madrid occupy the Europa League places and Valencia occupies the Europa League qualifying place. There is also the matter of the Copa del Rey final, which offers a European place and in which Real Sociedad will participate, but that is a different blog for a different day.

The main story of this group of teams has to center around Atlético Madrid and the disappointing season they have had. While this is admittedly a rebuilding season for los Colchoneros, failing to qualify for the Champions League would be disastrous financially, and with the pressure already mounting on Diego Simeone, they have no choice but to qualify. This season has brought another example of creative players failing to function with Atléti, as teenage sensation João Félix has not adapted well to his move to the Spanish capital, failing to fill the void of the departed Antoine Griezmann. He is not the only player in the team struggling to make up for departed players, as the defense has not filled the massive Diego Godín-sized gap at center back, and club captain Koke has not had the same influence in the middle of the park as the departed Gabi. They have had issues with scoring goals, more than usual, with both Diego Costa and Álvaro Morata struggling for form and fitness. There are some positives, as Saúl has enjoyed another fine season in a red and white shirt and Renan Lodi has proven to be a bargain of an acquisition at left back, but overall, this has been a very disappointing season. Prior to the hiatus, however, Atléti recorded a historic result in the Champions League, winning 3-2 at Anfield to knock out reigning European Champions Liverpool. If Simeone is able to harness the momentum from that historic victory and utilize that motivation to improve the team during the hiatus, Atléti should be in great position to finish the season well and qualify for the Champions League. The hiatus could have also stifled that momentum. Guess we have to watch and find out.

Paired with Atléti are quite possibly their ideological twin: Getafe. Manager José Bordalás has created a team that, in an even more extreme sense than Atléti, are just an absolute nightmare to play against. Not only are they a rugged defensive side that is deadly on the counter, similar to Atlético Madrid, but they are also the roughest team in the league, being at or near the top in fouls committed among all La Liga teams. They also do a fantastic job at breaking up the game and frustrating their opponents, with the most famous example coming against Ajax in the Europa League, where the ball was only in play for 42 minutes and 36 seconds of that entire 90-plus minute match. Their style of play may be what dominates conversation, but they have some talent to go along with it. Marc Cucurella is a budding star, Dakonam Djené has been a rock at the back, and the attacking options of Jorge Molina, Jaime Mata, and Ángel Rodríguez have combined to score a fair amount of goals. Bordalás has done an incredible job with this team, and they have found themselves in a great position to qualify for the Champions League next season.

Real Sociedad, in the opinion of myself and many others, are probably the most exciting team in Spain. The young talent that Imanol Alguacil has at his disposal is quite insane, led by the potential world-class ability of midfielder Martin Ødegaard. The young Norwegian midfielder has since found his feet since his disappointing cameo with Real Madrid, having starred with Vitesse Arnhem on loan prior to this loan to the Basque club. Having amassed seven goals and eight assists through 28 games this season, Ødegaard has demonstrated the talent that we all know he had when he arrived in Spain. The amazing thing about la Real, however, is that he is not the only budding talent. Mikel Oyarzabal, Alexander Isak, and Mikel Merino are fellow young players in the starting line up with world-class potential. Igor Zubeldia, Robin Le Normand, Álex Remiro, and Ander Barrenetxea are also youngsters who have put in solid performances this season. All of this young, vibrant talent, even paired with experienced players like Willian José, Asier Illarramendi, and Portu, makes an exciting team that is able to get results against big teams and challenge for the Champions League. Also, they have been able to reach the Copa del Rey Final, in a run that included a massive win away to Real Madrid, where they will play Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao for a potential Europa League place. La Real have not always been the most consistent teams, but when they are on, they are definitely a joy to watch.

Sevilla are such a curious case, so much so that they are probably more deserving of their own paragraph than any of these teams. You may remember their manager, Julen Lopetegui, who infamously was fired from his position as Spanish National Team manager on the eve of the 2018 World Cup for publicly courting and accepting a managerial job with Real Madrid. He then floundered as Real Madrid manager, losing his job in a matter of months. He then ended up with Sevilla, with Monchi arriving as sporting director from Roma. Monchi then brought in 13 (!!!!!!!!!!) players in the summer transfer window after losing Wissam Ben Yedder, Luis Muriel, Pablo Sarabia, and Quincy Promes. Rony Lopes, Jules Koundé, Lucas Ocampos, Diego Carlos, Fernando, Sergio Reguílon, and Joan Jordán were among the major signings, and each of them has seemingly worked out well. In the case of Ocampos and Carlos, they have worked out very well. This model of aggressive player acquisiton, combined with a very good managerial job from Lopetegui, has created a very solid Sevilla team that is strong in multiple areas. Diego Carlos has arguably been the best center back in the league this season, and a defense including him, Reguílon, and Jesús Navas has been formidable, while also being deadly in attack through the fullbacks. They have plenty of options in midfield, allowing them to combine the brute physical presence of Jordán and Fernando with the technical finesse of Éver Banega, Franco Vázquez, or Ólivier Torres. On the wings, Ocampos has been among the best attacking players in the league this season, and Munir has also done a very good job on the other side. The only issue is they lack a striker. Luuk de Jong and Munas Dabbur were signed to replace Ben Yedder, but neither have done enough to be effective in that position. Dabbur has since left the club for Hoffenheim, being replaced by Youssef En-Nesyri from Leganés, but they still have not found the goalscoring striker that is able to replace Ben Yedder, and it has been a massive issue this season. Despite this, Sevilla, following their win over Betis yesterday, sit in third and only eight points off the top of the league. I would dare say that, had they found the replacement for Ben Yedder they needed in the summer, this Sevilla team could be a title contender. With the unknowns that surround this restart of the season, the teams hunting the Champions League places needed a fast start to the season, and Sevilla got that with their dominant win over Betis. Depending on how things play out, Sevilla may still be able to creep into the title picture, but as of right now, they should be considered the favorite among the Champions League race.

The relegation discussion is also interesting, as there is only a nine point gap between 15th and 20th. Real Valladolid, Eibar, Celta Vigo, Mallorca, Leganés, and Espanyol all find themselves in this fight, and the need for a fast start applies here as much as it does in other fights higher up the table. Some of the circumstances in this relegation fight make it even more interesting. Celta Vigo are widely considered to be too good on paper to be in this discussion, but they have been struggling for the last few seasons despite the talent the team has. Perhaps an over-reliance on the heroics of Iago Aspas may come back to haunt them. Espanyol made the bold move of sacking manager Pablo Machín in December, bringing in new manager Abelardo Fernández and giving him money to spend in January. That money brought in several signings, most notably veteran La Liga striker Raúl de Tomás. Despite all of this, and despite notable improvements in the team performances, they remain glued to the bottom of the table. Leganés have been affected by matters outside of their control. La Liga ruling that Barcelona is able to make an emergency signing due to injury concerns led to the poaching of Lega‘s leading scorer Martin Braithwaite. Their other star striker Youssef En-Nesyri also departed the club in January, leaving for Sevilla, leaving Leganés without goal scorers and possibly already doomed to relegation. The story of Leganés might be the most notable, and the saddest, from this relegation scrap, as the loss of Braithwaite in a bogus situation they had no control over has significantly impacted their hopes of staying up. However, a quick start from them, or any of these teams, has the potential to change the league table significantly.

To quickly cover some players to keep an eye on, we will try and steer clear of Barcelona and Real Madrid, as people have a clear idea of the make-up of those teams. For players mentioned previously in this piece, Sevilla’s Lucas Ocampos and Diego Carlos are two to definitely keep an eye on. Ocampos has maybe been the signing of the season in Spain, and Carlos is much more than a player you hate to come up against on FIFA. He is genuinely quite talented and is arguably the best in his position in the league this season. Real Sociedad’s youngsters are all worthy of a watch, but Mikel Merino will get the shoutout, as it feels like he has gone a little under the radar due to the headline performances of Ødegaard and Isak. His dominant midfield performances demonstrate his versatility in the middle of the park, but his ability to incorporate into the system and, along with Zubeldia, provide a platform for Sociedad to attack is the ultimate demonstration of his ability and football IQ. With Atlético Madrid, everyone knows about Saúl, but Renan Lodi is also deserving of coverage, coming into the team and filling the void left by Filipe Luis so well. If you are willing to look past Getafe’s style of play, Marc Cucurella is a genuinely talented wide midfielder who is a joy to watch at times. Villarreal may be stuck in mid-table, but viewers familiar with Santi Cazorla’s time in England should see how the Spanish midfield maestro has rejuvenated his career for the Yellow Submarine. Real Betis may be somewhat forgettable at times as a team, but Nabil Fekir has shined for them in his first year in Spain, and if you did not get to see the Frenchman play for Lyon, it is worth seeing him with his new club.

So, what is going to happen? Depends on what you are asking about. With the title race, I really am not sure. I have a sneaking suspicion that Barcelona will eventually edge out Real Madrid for the title, but it is going to be very close. With the Champions League race, I think Sevilla have established themselves as favorites to finish in those two spots, and I still feel like Atléti will make it, but I am not very confident with them at the moment. With relegation, it feels as though Espanyol and Leganés are, more or less, already doomed, and it is the third spot that is still up in the air. Mallorca just feels like the natural third team to go down, but at this point it is too early and too close to call. The restart of the league can change all of these discussions dramatically. We saw how a crash from Schalke at the restart took them out of the European places race in Germany, so really how these teams play from the beginning will have a massive influence in how these races will finish. Regardless, I am very excited and happy that the football world is able to somewhat return to a form of normalcy.

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