Another twist in the title race…
Welcome to La Liga Week in Review, where we review everything that happened in the top flight of Spanish football in the last week. We name our player of the week, our three winners and losers, and discuss what we learned after a week of matches.
It was a significant week in Spain, with important results at the top and bottom of the table, so let us take a look.
Player of the Week
Jaime Mata, Getafe (1 goal in 1-1 draw against Real Valladolid, 2 goals in 2-1 win over Real Sociedad)
The veteran Spanish striker scored three goals this week, including two incredibly important goals against European place rival Sociedad, that secured important results for Getafe in their chase for a top six finish. Their draw against Valladolid was not great, but the last minute win over Real Sociedad was massive. His winning goal against Sociedad may be the highlight of his week, while exemplifying Mata’s qualities as a player and Getafe’s qualities as a team. He took advantage of a lull in focus from the Basque team when Getafe won a throw in, making a ghosting run past Sociedad center back Aritz Elustondo. His strike partner Jorge Molina noticed it, throwing the ball directly into the path of Mata’s run. He still had quite a bit to do, but he managed to use his strength to hold off Elustondo and get toward the goal, using his wit and finishing ability to sneak the ball between goalkeeper Álex Remiro and the post, scoring a massive game winning goal for his team. A scrappy goal from a tenacious player and a hard-working team, it paints a perfect picture of Mata as a player and Getafe as a team. If José Bordalás’ team wants to be in Europe next season, they will need more performances like this from Mata.
Honorable Mentions: Santi Cazorla (Villarreal), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid) Marcos Llorente (Atlético Madrid)
Winners of the Week
The Yellow Submarine continue their rise up the table. A 2-2 draw against a quite unlucky Sevilla team, paired with a more controlling and confident 2-0 win against Valencia, has put Villarreal sixth in the table, securely in the Europa League places, with a four point lead over Real Sociedad in seventh. Quite possibly being the team that has had the most success since the restart, Villarreal have profited off of the poor form of other teams in the top six race to move from the outside-looking-in position they started in to well within the European hunt. Their form is largely thanks to one small Spanish midfield wizard that we will talk more about later, but this is really a team that is clicking at the right time. With matches against Real Sociedad and Getafe remaining, Villarreal’s fate is seemingly in their own hands. If they keep this great run of form going, their remaining matches against Barcelona and Real Madrid also gives Javier Calleja’s team the chance to play kingmaker at the top of the table.
2.) Real Madrid
Real Madrid took care of their business and Barcelona did not, leaving los Blancos top of the league and in pole position in the title race. While their latest wins, 2-0 over Mallorca and 1-0 over Espanyol, were not pretty, they continue the Real Madrid trend from earlier in the season of gritty wins when they need to win. Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos have been nothing short of phenomenal since the restart of the season, but they are also finding production from elsewhere. Players like Eden Hazard, Vinícius, and Casemiro have also been major difference makers in the team. While they are clearly not at the level they were a few years ago, Zinedine Zidane has built a team that is effective and difficult to beat, and now that they have pole position in the title race, it will be hard to knock them off the podium.
And if you have not seen Benzema’s assist for Casemiro’s goal against Espanyol, go find it on YouTube or Twitter. Goodness. What a player…
3.) Atlético Madrid
I will not shy away from what I wrote previously: I was very nervous for Atlético Madrid when the league restarted. Atléti, without question, needed to qualify for the Champions League, and their form prior to the restart did not give me confidence that they would be able to do that. A drab 1-1 draw away to Athletic Bilbao in their first game back only heightened my worries, and with the quality of the teams around them, I was afraid that los Colchoneros would fail to make the Champions League, likely resulting in the sacking of manager Diego Simeone. Since that draw at San Mamés, Atléti are unbeaten and undrawn, and they go into their match against Barcelona coming off of their best performance since the season restarted, a strong 2-1 win over Alavés. While it is clear that Simeone is still experimenting to find the best combination of players in his team, especially in attack, he has been getting strong performances from some key players, and good enough performances as a team to string together wins. This, combined with the teams around them going through very rough runs of form, has allowed Atléti to cement their top four status, and I feel much more confident in their ability to secure Champions League football for next season. Marcos Llorente continues to be a revelation for Atléti, and the usage of him in an advanced position as a wide/central attacking midfielder was a stroke of genius from Simeone. Llorente was again the difference-maker in their wins against Levante and Alavés, and he will be crucial to his team for the remainder of the season.
Losers of the Week
Valencia are a team that, despite their size as a club and the talent and resources they have at their disposal, are prone to moments of insanity. This happened earlier this season, when the board basically refused to back then manager Marcelino, who was coming off of winning the Copa del Rey. Eventually, Marcelino was sacked, despite protestations from the players, and was replaced by Albert Celades. Celades somewhat steadied the ship, but Valencia still struggled for consistency. Their defeat to Atalanta in the Champions League, combined with winning just once since the league restarted, put significant pressure on Celades, and he began to lose favor with the players. The insanity was kicking in again. Following a dismal 2-0 defeat to Villarreal in the Derbi de la Comunitat, Celades was sacked. The extent to which he lost the dressing room came out after the loss, when it was revealed that he got into a bust-up in training with striker Maxi Gómez. Celades wanted to drop Gómez from the team, but significant pressure from the players, including from club captain Dani Parejo, led to him reversing his decision. This story comes after center back Mouctar Diakhaby had to deny reports that significant tension within the club has strained his mental health.
Long story short, none of this is good for Valencia. Celades was not a great manager, but this internal feuding is not good for the long-term health of the club, let alone their hopes of being in Europe next season. Two bad losses in the last week, the aforementioned derby loss and a 1-0 defeat to Eibar, has left los Che in a difficult position in the European race. They are still in it, and only one point behind Real Sociedad in the Europa League qualifiers spot, but Villarreal and Getafe are pulling further away from them in the top six. To make matters worse, they are set to lose key center back Ezequiel Garay on a free transfer, as he and the club did not agree to a new contract. Yeah, things are not going well.
Things may not be as disastrous as in Valencia, but the title race has taken a quite sour turn for Barcelona. The Catalans looked poor in their 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao, bailed out by a scrappy and lucky goal by Ivan Rakitić, but they could not secure the three points against Celta Vigo. A great free kick from Iago Aspas in the 90th minute snatched the points away from Barcelona, inflicting a major blow in their hopes for the title. As a result of that match and Real Madrid’s win against Espanyol, Barcelona have lost the top spot to los Blancos. With a two point gap to the top, and Real Madrid’s tiebreaker advantage over them, Barcelona cannot afford to mess up again. Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig continue to shine, but there is not enough production from senior players not named Lionel Messi. Suárez did score twice against Celta, but he has generally looked unfit and off the pace since the restart, possibly still suffering from his injury issues. The defense, outside of some solid performances from Clément Lenglet, has not been good enough, and the midfield lacks any dynamism or energy outside of Puig. Messi really has to do everything. While there is still definitely a title race, it feels pretty secure in Real Madrid’s hands. Barcelona have to hope that they slip up while remaining perfect through a difficult run of games. It is a tall order, but any team with Messi on it cannot be counted out.
Espanyol have joined Valencia in the manager sacking party. Following a run of three straight losses and having only won once since the league resumed play, the Catalan club sacked manager Abelardo Fernández following their 1-0 loss to Real Betis. Taking his place is Francisco Rufete, their sporting director, becoming the fourth manager hired by Espanyol this season. Their poor form since the restart has found them in a very significant hole, still bottom of the table and ten points from safety. Espanyol spent over €40 million on transfers in the January window, and despite that investment, they have remained in the relegation zone, being stuck at or near the bottom of the table. With only six matches remaining, it looks like, barring an unforeseen miracle, Espanyol will be relegated this season.
What we Learned
1.) The title is officially Real Madrid’s to lose
With Barcelona’s dropped points against Sevilla and Celta Vigo, Real Madrid are now firmly in the driver’s seat in the title race. They have looked the more impressive side since the restart, and with only six matches remaining, they know that they are in the home stretch. With an easier run in of matches compared to their Clásico rivals, Zidane knows that his team can afford to not be completely perfect and still be in position to win the league title. Also as a benefit, Real Madrid hold the tiebreaker advantage over Barcelona. In Spain, ties in points in the league table are not decided by goal difference, but by a separate tiebreaker system, which prioritizes head-to-head results. Since the first Clásico was a draw and the second was won by Real Madrid, los Blancos own the tiebreaker, so in the event that both teams finish level on points, Real Madrid would win the league.
While I do not expect both teams to be perfect between now and the end of the season, that inherently still benefits Real Madrid. Barcelona must be perfect from now on, and if they slip up, then that will likely seal the title for Real Madrid. The race is clearly not over, and there are still matches for both teams that will be a test for their title hopes, Real Madrid are in pole position. It will take significant help from other teams for Barcelona to win the league now.
2.) Top Four is officially Atlético Madrid’s to lose
In a similar sense to Real Madrid, Atléti have taken advantage of the mistakes of teams around them to catapult themselves up the table, going from narrowly hanging onto the top six to third place since the resumption of the season. While they have been far from perfect, they have been able to scrape and claw their way to tight victories, in the traditional Atlético Madrid way, and have greatly benefitted from the teams around them struggling. They now find themselves with a six point gap between themselves and fifth, which, with six matches remaining, is starting to look more and more comfortable. They have an easy-ish run-in to finish the season, with matches against Getafe and Real Sociedad still sticking out, and while they have not pulled away from Sevilla, I feel confident in saying it looks like those are the two teams that will be in the Champions League next season, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid. There is still a chance for a slip up, but Atléti’s fast start to the resumed season has potentially saved their season and Diego Simeone’s job.
3.) In case you did not get the message before, Santi Cazorla has still got it…
Before you read on, go find a video of Cazorla’s assist for Gerard Moreno’s goal against Valencia.
Don’t worry, I’ll wait…
What a pass. What a touch. What a player. Taking a long kick from the goalkeeper in his stride, playing one calculated touch to control the ball and send it directly into the path of Moreno to fire into the goal. None of that is easy, and Santi made it look effortless.
This small moment is a microcosm of the joy of Cazorla’s revival. He has gone from being told that he may never play football again to being able to star for his boyhood club. Cazorla has been a massive influence in Villarreal’s success in the last two seasons and has been their best player this season, especially since the resumption of the league. Two assists in his last two games, including that wonderful pass to Moreno that you just watched, have helped to provide crucial wins for the Yellow Submarine in their hunt for European football. 12 goals and 9 assists in all competitions this season is remarkable, especially given his age and everything he went through. His contract with Villarreal is up at the end of the season, and there is no guarantee that he will not retire then, so we need to appreciate a player as technically gifted and wonderful as Cazorla while we still can.
4.) Relegation might already be decided
In my league resumption piece, I talked about the relegation race teetering on the edge of being already decided, but still having teams with enough quality to give a serious push for survival. Since then, the bottom three has remain basically unchanged, and those three clubs continue to dig themselves deeper into the hole, while clubs around the bottom three have begun to pull away. Espanyol’s transfer spending in January seemingly has not worked, and the sacking of manager Abelardo Fernández might be the nail in the coffin for them. Leganés continue to suffer from incredible bad luck and misfortune, really starting right around Martin Braithwaite’s departure to Barcelona, and it looks as though survival for them is almost impossible. Mallorca continue to show some fight, as a quite attacking team despite their small status, but they still find themselves with a significant gap between them and safety. With six matches remaining, it looks as though we have our three relegated teams already. I do not see things getting better for Espanyol and Leganés, and the gap is too big for Mallorca to reasonably overcome in that short amount of time.