A twist in the title race…
Welcome to the week in review, where we cover what has happened in La Liga for the last week, covering Match Days 29 and 30. We share our player of the week, pick our winners and losers, and state what we learned from the last week.
Player of the Week
Karim Benzema, Real Madrid (2 goals in 3-0 win over Valencia, 1 goal in 2-1 win over Real Sociedad)
In this post-Ronaldo world, Real Madrid have seemingly only gone as far as Karim Benzema could carry them. While his teammates did definitely pick up the slack, Benzema has been at his usual best this past week, with three goals in two games, including one absolute worldy goal against Valencia. His goalscoring efforts have elevated him to fifth on Real Madrid’s all time goalscoring list, an incredible feat for a player who has often been underrated and overlooked throughout his time in the Spanish capital. His goals are not the only thing in discussion from this week, but his ability to combine with the front three, namely a now-fully-fit Eden Hazard, exemplifies his talents as a footballer and highlights how dangerous this Real Madrid team are looking at the moment. Yes, the performance against Sociedad was worse than against Valencia, but they are still two impressive wins, and Benzema was the star of the show in both.
Honorable Mentions: Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Rafinha (Celta Vigo), Marcos Llorente (Atlético Madrid)
Winners of the Week
1.) Real Madrid
With two important wins against very solid Valencia and Sociedad teams, and thanks to some help from Sevilla, Real Madrid are top of the league after match day 30. They looked very sharp against Valencia, especially Eden Hazard and Karim Benzema, and despite a worse performance against Sociedad, albeit while rotating some key starting players, they managed to pull out the victory thanks to some debatable VAR decisions. The title race will be defined by these teams’ ability to take advantage of each others’ mistakes, and Real Madrid struck first, taking advantage of Barcelona’s dropped points in Seville. With an easier run of games compared to their Catalonian adversaries, Real Madrid need to keep this hot streak going to cement their place at the top of the league.
2.) Atlético Madrid
I will not lie, I was concerned about Atléti. I did not think there was enough in that team to get into the Champions League, and I recognized the absolute dire straits they would be in should they not qualify for the Champions League, but they have so far proven me wrong. A 5-0 thrashing of Osasuna, a rarity for Diego Simeone’s Atletico, combined with a tense but good enough 1-0 win over Valladolid and teams around them dropping points, has lifted los Colchoneros into the top four, building a lead to feel secure in the Champions League places. Yes, it is safe to assume that five goal routes will not be commonplace for Atléti now, but there are signs of growing attacking prowess in this team. The attack mainly centers around midfielder Marcos Llorente, who has been turned into a dynamic, fast-paced attacking midfielder by Simeone. Joāo Félix has been much improved as well, namely against Osasuna. There are still issues with the strikers, as neither Álvaro Morata nor Diego Costa have been productive enough in front of goal, but I feel better about Atléti’s chances at making the Champions League next season.
While teams around them stuttered, Villarreal steadily climbed. Another two wins added to their total, and the Yellow Submarine now find themselves firmly placed in the top six and in the frame for the Champions League hunt. This recent surge is thanks to the production of their strikers, with Gerard Moreno, Paco Alcacer, and Carlos Bacca all scoring goals at important times. Their upcoming fixtures are tough but very important in their chances at Europe next season, having to play Valencia, Getafe, and Real Sociedad in their next five matches. Key results in those matches could see a place in at least the Europa League well within their grasp.
Losers of the Week
In the Wild West-style duel for the title, Barcelona were the ones to blink first. Their draw to Sevilla allowed Real Madrid to leapfrog them into first, meaning Barcelona must now hope for los Blancos to make a similar error. To make matters worse, the Catalans upcoming fixtures are more difficult, having to face Atlético Madrid and Villarreal in two of their next four matches. Also mixed in are difficult fixtures against Celta Vigo and Espanyol, which are not simple match ups in the slightest. It is an uphill battle for Barcelona to win the league this season, and after this slip up, they need to aim for perfection and hope for their rivals to mess up as well.
2.) Real Sociedad
It has not been a good week for la Real. A bad loss to Alavés, combined with a controversial but tough defeat to Real Madrid, leaves the Basque side on the edge of the European places and at risk of falling out. It has not been a good restart to the league season for Sociedad, who have not been in good form in the slightest since the return. Key players, namely Martin Ødegaard and Alexander Isak, have not been producing in the attacking third, which has allowed poorer opposition to stay in matches with them, forcing draws or, in the case of Alavés, winning the match. Sociedad know that they must play Getafe, Villarreal, Sevilla, and Atlético Madrid before the end of the season, so they can be reassured in knowing they have plenty of chances to make the gap up. However, if they do not reverse their fortunes and reignite their exciting and dynamic attack, they will likely not be playing in Europe next season.
3.) Real Mallorca
In a relegation picture that has stayed largely as-is, Mallorca get one of the losers spots for two bad missed opportunities. They had plenty of chances in their loss to Villarreal, probably being unlucky to not score, and they led in their match against Leganés until the 87th minute. The Leganés draw especially will sting, as they missed the opportunity to extend their gap with the rest of the relegation teams and claw toward safety, chasing after an Eibar team that also dropped points twice this week. Survival is possible for Mallorca, but it is becoming a harder gap to overcome, so they need to string some results together if they want to stay up.
What We Learned
1.) Atlético Madrid can turn it around, and can score goals while doing it?
Atléti scoring five goals in a match was seemingly a shock to quite a few people, and probably many of their fans. Before the season was suspended, Atléti looked like they were seriously struggling, and Champions League football next season was slowly becoming more and more of an impossible dream. Their triumph against Liverpool probably did a lot for their confidence, and they have seemingly been able to ride that momentum through the hiatus and into the restarted season. Despite a bad draw in their first match against Athletic Bilbao, they have managed to string together two important wins. Most importantly, they have started much better than the teams around them in the table, which has allowed them to skyrocket into the top four. As I said in every league returning piece, how a team starts will have a massive impact in how the rest of their season will go, and fast starts will be especially crucial for teams competing for Europe. Atléti have gotten the message.
2.) Eden Hazard has arrived
I am trying to not get ahead of myself, but man Hazard looked incredible against Valencia, like the Hazard we all remembered from Chelsea. His ability to combine with the midfield and attack, and especially with Benzema, and his ability to dribble and create are things that Real Madrid have missed this season. The difference in Real Madrid without him, as they were against Real Sociedad, was tangible, as they missed that dynamism and near-unguardable movement that Hazard provides in the final third. A healthy, hungry, and motivated Hazard could be the difference in the title race this season.
3.) In Ansu Fati, Messi has finally found a teammate that he does not hate
For a team with the incredible talent that Barcelona has, they can be very frustrating to watch. While they were very impressive against Mallorca, they were tepid at times against Leganés and seemingly overwhelmed against Sevilla. Messi did what he could, but he could not lift the world by himself. The difference against Leganés, however, came from teenage sensation Ansu Fati, who brings the traits into the team that Barcelona desperately needed. Fati is seemingly the only other player on that team that can provide the movement, dribbling ability, creativity, and finishing in a similar, but clearly not as good, way as what Messi can provide. Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann are both very talented, but Suárez’s mobility and movement have been hampered by age, and Griezmann does not possess that dynamic dribbling ability that Fati seemingly already has. While Fati is still clearly very young and definitely not ready to start in this Barcelona team, I do see him taking up a very important role as a super sub for this team, being the man to come on when they need a difference-maker or be rotated into the team when another player needs rest. Most importantly, he is seemingly the one teammate Messi has that does not make him endlessly frustrated more often than not.