Tag Archives: atletico madrid

Upheaval in La Liga?

And why this just might be the year of Cholo…

Feature Image by FrodeCJ from Pixabay

Don’t look now, but there is something interesting happening in Spain.

It seems like every year we look at every league and think this could be the time for that outsider team to break through and win their title, but yet we end every season in disappointment as one of the teams we expect to win the league always does. We saw the start of the Premier League season and hope that the bright start for Everton or Leicester or Wolves could lead to us seeing a different champion come May. While that is probably a false dawn, the situation unfolding in Spain is certainly looking more promising.

It has been clear for all viewers that the quality of La Liga has declined from the peak it reached a decade ago, and Barcelona and Real Madrid are certainly shadows of their former selves. That did not stop those two from winning the last two league titles despite being in “crisis”, but now it seems like the issues going on at both clubs are beginning to seriously hold them back. A few years of papering over the cracks have come back to haunt both teams, and each of their poor starts to the season (especially Barcelona’s) implies more significant issues within the teams.

Barcelona’s almost-divorce with Lionel Messi this past summer was the boiling point of years of tension between players and board, as well as the poor sporting and development plan established by former club president Josep Maria Bartomeu. On the pitch, they have barely held it together, having embarrassingly fallen out of the Champions League against Roma, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich in consecutive seasons. Off the pitch, the club fell into significant debt, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to the club being unable to enact the significant on-pitch changes needed. They have sacked two managers in the last two years, having a very messy divorce with Ernesto Valverde and ditching his replacement, Quique Setién, for ex-Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman. This brings them to this season, where the departures of Nélson Semedo, Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suárez, and Arturo Vidal led to quite a shake-up in the first team. While this was good in giving chances to younger talent, including the prodigal Ansu Fati, it left them without a first choice striker, having to use Fati almost as a false nine. Their strong dependence on Messi over the last few seasons has caught up, as the exhausted Argentine has started this season quite poorly. Draws to Aláves and Sevilla and losses to Real Madrid and Getafe leave them in eighth, lacking much in the way of true cohesion as a team. It has not quite clicked for Koeman, being responsible for the worst league start for the Blaugrana in 25 years. This is not just growing pains under Koeman, this is the manifestation of years of mismanagement at all levels. It feels much more systemic, and it feels like something that is going to stop Barcelona from winning trophies this season, in what could be Messi’s final eight months in Catalonia.

And for Real Madrid, things are also not going well. No, there is not the massive structural issues plaguing the club as there is with Barcelona. They won the league last season with basically the exact same team. However, that team last season had quite a bit of issues, specifically in attack and chance creation, that have not been solved. Zinedine Zidane’s team won the league last season by simply not being as bad as Barcelona, able to use what was normally a strong defense to grind out enough results to finish top. In the post-Cristiano Ronaldo world in Madrid, the team has become significantly more defensive than in the past. Many times, if Karim Benzema did not score, there would not be many places where Zidane could find goals in his team. That worked last season, they were able to do what they had to do. They were great after the restart of the season, treating it as almost a knockout cup competition and grinding out results. This season, they have not been able to maintain that. It seems that the bounces, the calls, the luck that went Real Madrid’s way last season, and helped them grind out those close results, has stopped going their way. While they have not had as bad of a start to the league season as Barcelona, there are still signs that things are not right. A draw to Real Sociedad, a shock 1-0 loss to newly-promoted Cádiz, and their most recent 4-1 thumping against Valencia shows that the cracks that Zidane successfully papered over the last two seasons are still there. Bad European results also imply significant issues, as a team of Real Madrid’s pedigree should not be losing to a COVID-ravaged Shakhtar Donetsk team or needing to come from behind to scrape out a point against Borussia Mönchengladbach. I am not saying Real Madrid are in crisis or Zidane’s job is in as much peril as Koeman’s, and I do still think Real Madrid will definitely contend for the title this season, but it is clear this Los Blancos team is vulnerable.

And both sides have been vulnerable for the past few seasons. None of these issues are really new, but each team were able to just paper over the cracks the last few seasons and figure out what they had to do to win the league title. The team that won it would have been the team that was less bad between the two. Why is it not safe to assume that they will not do the same again this season?

Well, the last two seasons, there has not been a team good enough to challenge the Clasico duopoly. Atlético Madrid finished second and third the past two seasons, but they were significantly behind the league champion each time. It has been a bit of a struggle for the usual third horse in the title race the past few seasons. Valencia, Sevilla, and Real Sociedad have each presented themselves as teams that were talented enough to challenge for the title the past two seasons, but due to form, injuries, or some other reason, they were never able to be consistent enough throughout the season to break into that top three. There just has not been a team good enough to contend with the two struggling giants, but this season, it is a different story.

The subheading of this blog implies a potential “year of Cholo”, so you know which team I am going to talk about. But Atléti are not the only team in this equation. Real Sociedad, as of right now, are top of La Liga and are the league’s highest-scoring side. La Real were one of the most enjoyable teams to watch last season, but many thought the departure of Martin Ødegaard would make them worse. While Ødegaard was immensely important for that team, they have seemingly survived without him, largely in part due to the contributions of the newly-arrived David Silva, the ever-reliable Portu, a budding superstar in Mikel Oyarzabal, and an incredibly reliable crop of academy graduates that are growing into underrated role players in the team. Villarreal are currently second, and while they have some issues to iron out with new manager Unai Emery, they are still a very talented team that could hang around the top of the table throughout the season. Sevilla was a team described last season as being a goalscorer away from being league title contenders, and while they have not had the best start to this season, they are still a quite talented team. If Julen Lopetegui can turn around their form, they are a team that could be in the fight at the top of the table. There are several teams outside the Claisco duo that have gotten stronger this season, making it a more interesting fight.

But there is one standing above the rest of the challengers. I truly believe this could be the year for Atlético Madrid to return to the top of the league. The oft-maligned Diego Simeone has had a rough last few years in Madrid, and there was legitimate concern that he was facing the sack during the first half of last season, when Atléti were struggling and at risk of falling out of the European places. A long unbeaten run, started after the league restart last season and carried into this season, has Atlético Madrid looking like genuine title contenders and, interestingly, looking significantly different from a typical Atlético team. While they have the league’s best defensive record so far, which is typical for a Cholo Simeone team, they are also the league’s second-highest scorers, scoring 17 goals through seven matches. It is easy to credit this to the free transfer signing of Luis Suárez, and in a way, that is correct, but it does not tell the whole story. As a team, in structure, formation, and pattern of play, they are more fluid and more attacking than the typical Simeone teams that came before them, and that makes them terrifying.

It revolves around Suárez, but it is not all his doing. On paper, Suárez is easily an upgrade on the rapidly aging Diego Costa and good-but-inconsistent Álvaro Morata, but how the Uruguayan fits into this team is what forced Simeone to crank up the attacking ability of the team. Due to Suárez’s specific traits as a player, as well as his age and declining pace, Atléti cannot attack in the same way they would normally, and Simeone acknowledged this when Suárez was brought into the team. Normally, they are able to play in that famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) low block, forcing the ball onto the wings, pressing the ball when it gets to the wings, and using a long ball for a forward to chase down in order to launch a counterattack. They are not able to do that with Suárez, and, as Simeone has pointed out, Atléti need to start their attacks closer to the Uruguayan in order for him to be fully involved and able to use his best traits as a player. This has caused Simeone to rethink his line ups, choosing now to include multiple attacking players in order for Suárez to play off of several forwards when in attack. These players, usually two of João Félix, Marcos Llorente, Ángel Correa, Thomas Lemar, and Yannick Carrasco, are able to combine with Suárez in attacking moves, creating a more fluid and less predictable pattern of build-up play and causing significantly more issues for opposition defenses than past Simeone teams have done.

This has been big for Suárez’s ability to bed into this Atlético Madrid team quickly, but it has also been a massive step in the development of João Félix. Now constantly in positions where he is not isolated and able to be involved in attacks, we are seeing the prodigal player we all expected to see when the young Portuguese departed Benfica for the Spanish capital. With seven goals and three assists in all competitions so far this season, Félix has instantly become arguably Atléti‘s most important player not named Jan Oblak, a player that is playing with incredible amounts of confidence and is involved in nearly every attack. If Félix is able to play at a high level throughout the season, then it provides Simeone with the dynamic, game-changing player that can get you something from nothing or be the reason you win a match, a player they have lacked since Antoine Griezmann’s departure. And the amazing thing is they probably have three more of that level of player already in the team with Suárez, Llorente, and Oblak. Atlético Madrid are a team that has often been plagued with not being able to get the most out of the attacking talent they have in the team, as they are often trying to shoehorn talented footballers into a Cholismo system requiring more in grit than in goalscoring. If Simeone is able to strike the balance between having a defensively solid team and one that can score goals at a more accelerated rate, then he may have created the best team in Spain.

I will admit this could be a massive overreaction. It could just be a poor start to the season. However, the reason I am writing this about La Liga and not the Premier League is because it does feel genuinely like more than just a bad start. In England, we had teams like Leicester and Wolves get off to hot starts to the season, but there is no reason to seriously believe that Manchester City and Liverpool will not be the two main title contenders come the end of the season. I have no sizable reasons to be confident in Barcelona and Real Madrid to be the sole title contenders. The issues at both clubs are too significant and have lingered for too long to be written off as a poor start. With the quality teams surrounding them, especially Atlético Madrid, it feels like we are looking at the scenario many people have longed for: a major league where the “Super League” club did not win the title. While the Premier League, Bundesliga, and Ligue 1 feel predictable, La Liga feels wide open, and I am very excited to see how it all plays out.

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La Liga Week in Review

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

1.) Villarreal

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

1.) Valencia

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.

2.) Barcelona

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.

3.) Espanyol

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…

Watch it?

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.

Arsenal’s Guendouzi Situation

On the crossroads facing Arsenal and their young French midfielder, and why the right choice may not be the obvious one…

Mattéo Guendouzi arrived in North London as an unknown, rose to be a promising and exciting young prospect in an Arsenal team with several exciting young talents, but just as quickly as that all happened, he may be on his way out.

For those not caught up with the situation, I will fill you in. Guendouzi was more of a regular fixture in the Arsenal team under the management of Unai Emery, but upon arrival of Mikel Arteta in December, he has seen his role dwindle. Guendouzi has always been a bit of a hothead on the pitch, prone to episodes of frustration and anger that have never completely gotten out of hand, but have came close. The most famous prior example was his rugby tackle on Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha in October, a foul equally born out of tactical necessity and sheer frustration at the situation Arsenal found themselves in. In Arsenal’s match against Brighton last Saturday, however, it seemed to elevate to a step worse than before. Following the Gunners’ frustrating 2-1 loss on the South Coast, Guendouzi was shown grabbing at the throat of Brighton forward Neal Maupay, leading to a scuffle between the two teams. This seemed to be the start and finish of the situation, but Maupay’s interesting post-match interview, seemingly targeted at Guendouzi, hinted at other issues throughout the match. It would come out later that Guendouzi was taunting the Brighton players throughout the match, insulting them and stating that he and his Arsenal teammates will earn more money than they ever will. According to some accounts, this is not the only time that the young Frenchman has engaged in this type of behavior.

Mikel Arteta has responded by dropping Guendouzi from the team. The Frenchman did not feature in the starting XI or on the bench in Arsenal’s league win over Southampton or FA Cup Quarterfinal win over Sheffield United. Arteta probably did this to send a message to the youngster, as well as his whole team, that the behavior Guendouzi displayed against Brighton is immature and unacceptable in his team, but instead of deescalating the situation, things took another turn. According to French outlet L’Équipe, Guendouzi has approached the Arsenal hierarchy and demanded to leave the club, stating that he feels his development as a player has stagnated since Arteta’s arrival. Arteta and the player held private discussions to “clear the air”, but the rumors seemingly have not subsided. In Arteta’s pre-match press conference before their FA Cup tie, he said he only wants players at the club who are fully on board, and anyone who is not is free to leave with his blessing. The fact that this could have been targeted at multiple players is not a great thing for Arsenal fans to think about, but it is likely that one of the main intended recipients of this message was Guendouzi. Arsenal next play on Wednesday, hosting bottom of the league Norwich City, so we will see if Guendouzi is brought back into the fold for that much, but for now, that is all of the developments.

Mattéo Guendouzi is quite an interesting figure. The kid is clearly talented, and he has shown this talent in brilliant flashes while wearing an Arsenal shirt, to the point where it earned him a call-up to the French national team. However, he has also been very inconsistent, at times being just a player who runs everywhere without actually contributing much to the team or, worse, getting into needless trouble with officials or other players. Inconsistency is not unusual for a young player. Development is rarely a straight line, so it is natural for a young player to experience bumps in the road and setbacks. The trouble comes in the environment he has been in. The insanity of Arsenal has probably taken its toll on his development, and Unai Emery did not do a good job at forming an environment and dressing room that is conducive to developing a young player suffering from maturity issues. In the right environment, Guendouzi will likely develop into a fine player and have a great career, but he is at a major crossroads now, with the wrong choice potentially derailing a possibly stunning career.

So what should Guendouzi do? Let us look at the options.

There are three clubs reportedly heavily interested in securing Guendouzi’s signature: Atlético Madrid, Inter Milan, and PSG. Let us weigh up the options, starting with PSG.

Guendouzi hails from Poissy, one of the outer suburbs of Paris, and he began his career with the capital club as a youth player. From age six, he played within the PSG youth system before being released, signing with Lorient in 2014. He has previously talked about the motivation that being released at PSG gave him, and he famously was on the Lorient side that beat PSG in the French u17 Cup Final in 2015. He made it in the Lorient first team before signing with Arsenal, and it appears that the Parisians want their former youth player back. For a player who says he wants to go to a club to continue his development, PSG seems to be the wrong move. There are definitely positives. A move back to his native country might be more comfortable, and the ability to work with and compete against true world-class talent on a regular basis would help Guendouzi grow in training and be mentored by quality senior players. However, there are still significant issues. The Parisians have a notedly poor recent history with developing their young talent, with Presnel Kimpembe being among the few PSG youth products to break into the first team in the last few years. Guendouzi knows this well, having been released by PSG during his youth career, so I question why he would want to return. He has also just seen two players from within or near his age group at PSG, Adil Aouchiche and Tanguy Kouassi, leave the club for developmental reasons. If he wants to develop as a young player, all of the signs seem to say PSG is the wrong choice. He would also start out fairly low in the pecking order for center midfield spots, behind Marco Verratti, Idrissa Gueye, Leandro Paredes, and Ander Herrera. At his age, being at or close to the first team should be the priority, and it is hard to see how he fits in competing with those four for two starting places.

A move to Atlético Madrid or Inter would pose similar issues. Unless some notable departures happen, both sides have set midfields. For Atléti, the trio of Koke, Saúl, and Thomas Partey seem immovable, and the emergence of Marcos Llorente would be another obstacle to the pitch for Guendouzi. At Inter, the trio of Christian Eriksen, Nicolò Barella, and Marcelo Brozović seem to be the set starters, and with the club actively courting Brescia wonderkid Sandro Tonali, very few spaces in the team are left. Inter does have one slight positive, in that outside of those main three, there are very few quality midfield options. Stefano Sensi was very solid prior to dealing with injuries, but Inter could definitely do better than Borja Valero, Roberto Gagliardini, and Mathias Vecino. There is an opportunity there for Guendouzi to be a trusted substitute or rotational piece, but if he is not happy with a similar role at Arsenal, then he will not be happy with the same in Italy.

There have been some reports linking Guendouzi with a move to Manchester United, which I do not completely buy. United’s needs lie elsewhere, and I do not imagine they would pay a high price for Guendouzi when they already have an excessive amount of midfielders. Nothing would surprise me with Ed Woodward’s transfer policy, however, and Guendouzi definitely is not the first Arsenal player with temper issues to move to a Premier League rival. I am more skeptical of the United link than the others and do not think it would be a good move for either party, but hey let us keep it in.

Now, all of these are just rumors, but if there is concrete contact between these clubs and Arsenal, and especially if there is concrete contact between these clubs and Guendouzi’s agent, then it shows evidence of something that I fear with young players. Guendouzi, either through poor advice or immaturity on his part, has decided to leave the most ideal current situation for him and is courting interest from clubs where his development will actually stagnate. Yes, Guendouzi should stay at Arsenal. It seems that the obvious choice is to hop off the sinking ship, but that would probably be the worst thing Guendouzi could do. Although he may not be featuring at the moment, he will likely find significantly more time in the first team next season, considering the questions that still surround the future of Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos in North London. At the end of the day, a player at Guendouzi’s stage of his career needs to play. It at least seems that Arsenal have reached a point of tranquility with Arteta as manager, and with a likely rebuild coming, Guendouzi has the chance to be one of the center pieces of this new look Arsenal team, rather than just be a forgettable extra at a bigger club. Arsenal will likely not sell, as they will probably not get that much in return in this COVID-impacted transfer market, but Guendouzi needs to realize that staying in North London is an opportunity, rather than a punishment. Arteta is a great man manager, and as a former Premier League veteran player in a position similar to Guendouzi, he is an ideal mentor for the young Frenchman. Ceballos will likely return to Spain at the end of the season, which allows Guendouzi to step into his preferred midfield position. Yes, Arsenal are not on the same level as those other three clubs, but to be honest, Guendouzi is not yet at that level either. He is not at the level or have the consistency as a player necessary to be a difference maker for a major Champions League side, and while Arsenal are definitely not in a good state, Guendouzi has more opportunities as a player, now working with a competent manager that can build him into a great professional.

This is a major turning point, and a major growing up moment, in Guendouzi’s career. In a team where many key players may have their minds set on moves elsewhere, it is easy for him to begin speculating about a move away from North London. However, there is a very harsh lesson to learn about the grass not always being greener on the other side, and while Arsenal may be on the verge of losing several players, Guendouzi cannot think of himself as one of them. His actions may have caused problems between himself and Arteta, but that relationship is not beyond repair, and there is still time for the youngster to realize that the best place for him to be is exactly where he already is. Guendouzi’s immaturity has cost him on the pitch before, but he cannot let it cost him off the pitch as well.

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La Liga Week in Review (6/15-6/21)

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.

3.) Villarreal

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

1.) Barcelona

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.

La Liga Match Week Review (6/11-6/14)

The Match Week Reviews get a decidedly Spanish flair this week, as we add a new league into the mix…

Welcome to the Match Week Review, where we talk about the football we just watched, but for this edition, we discuss the first match week of the resumed La Liga season. We will name our player of the match week, three winners and losers, and discuss what we learned from the first match week in the resumed Spanish First Division.

So, what happened in Match Week 28 in La Liga? Here are your results:

6/11

Sevilla 2-0 Real Betis

6/12

Granada 2-1 Getafe

Valencia 1-1 Levante

6/13

Espanyol 2-0 Alavés

Celta Vigo 0-1 Villarreal

Leganés 1-2 Real Valladolid

Real Mallorca 0-4 Barcelona

6/14

Athletic Bilbao 1-1 Atlético Madrid

Real Madrid 3-1 Eibar

Real Sociedad 1-1 Osasuna

Player of the Match Week

Lionel Messi, Barcelona (1 goal and 2 assists in Barcelona’s 4-0 win over Mallorca)

Lionel Messi officially emerged from quarantine looking better than the vast majority of people on this planet. The beard was shaven, the hair was much longer but still looked good on him, and he is still the best footballer in the world. He demonstrated to the footballing community that his insane talents stuck through the lockdown, putting on an attacking masterclass against poor Mallorca. Twitter seemed to be in awe of the Argentinian magician, as they usually are, but I think it was refreshing for all of us to experience this feeling after a long time away. His performance reinforced his already healthy lead as La Liga’s top scorer and top assister, which is absurd but seemingly expected at this point with Messi. He was sharp, the key cog in a fantastic Barcelona performance.

Honorable Mentions: Adri Embarba (Espanyol), Diego Carlos (Sevilla), Unai Simón (Athletic Bilbao)

Winners of the Match Week

1.) Sevilla

I said in the “La Liga is back” piece that a quick start for every team is important in not only the title race, but also the Champions League race and relegation race. Sevilla seemingly took that idea to heart, dispatching of derby-rivals Betis in a comfortable 2-0 victory. Their lack of a goal-scoring striker, which has been their issue all season, did not hinder them, as the regularly-great Lucas Ocampos found a goal, as well as a contribution from defensive midfielder Fernando. The defense and midfield, where Sevilla are the strongest, were just as strong as they were before the hiatus, and the center back pairing of Diego Carlos and Jules Koundé seems to be developing into a formidable partnership. 11 points out of first might be too steep of a deficit to call them dark horse title contenders, and I think the lack of a solid number nine and goalscoring threat will hold them back from finishing any higher than third, but if they beat Barcelona next weekend I will be willing to reconsider.

2.) Espanyol

One of these days, Espanyol will finally get themselves out of last place. They have genuinely been putting in some good performances since their spending spree in January, but never had the luck before the hiatus to change their overall fortunes. A 2-0 win over fellow strugglers Alavés might have changed that. Now, with a fast start to the restarted league season, they could find the form to overtake Leganés and Mallorca. Currently level on points with Leganés and two points behind Mallorca, Espanyol have a realistic chance at safety. If they continue this hot start, then their fortunes will only improve.

3.) Villarreal

The theme for this review is seemingly how teams can take advantage of fast starts. Villarreal were on the outside looking in when it comes to the European discussion, but Manu Trigueros’ last minute winner against Celta Vigo gave the Yellow Submarine three points that they did not realize the significance of at the time. With Valencia, Getafe, Atlético Madrid, and Real Sociedad all dropping points, Villarreal now find themselves suddenly within reach of the top six, and even the top four. Five points separate them from the Europa League places, while six points separate them from the Champions League places. There is still quite a bit more football to be played, but the possibility is there.

Losers of the Match Week

1.) Atlético Madrid

Atléti resumed the league season almost the same way they ended it previously: struggling to win away from home in the league. While they had their chances, namely one each from Yannick Carrasco and Santiago Arias that should have been goals, it was another largely tepid, not good enough performance from an Atléti team that is struggling for identity. Inability to consistently get points off of lower table teams has seemingly been a problem that has plagued Diego Simeone’s entire tenure, as his Cholismo style struggles against teams that also sit back and force Atléti to break them down. They have a few of those matches coming up, before a trip to face league-leaders Barcelona, so this is a dilemma that Simeone needs to figure out. Not only does Atléti now need to keep an eye on the teams above them in the table, but they also need to start looking over their shoulder. Dropped points from Sociedad and Getafe means that it is only a one point gap between Atléti and fourth, but Villarreal’s win puts los Colchoneros only five points ahead of them. The nightmare scenario of not qualifying for the Champions League is still very real, but now encroaching is a doomsday scenario of not playing European football of any kind next season. Simeone needs to right the ship, and he needs to do it quickly.

2.) Celta Vigo

I said in the league returning piece, and still stand by, that Celta are too good of a team to be in a relegation race, but here we are. Celta were very poor against Villarreal, but they had seemingly defended hard enough and done enough to get a point out of the match. Trigueros’ late winner, especially in the manner in how it was conceded, broke their spirits, and they dropped a valuable point in what could be an incredibly close relegation fight. They were bailed out by Leganés, Mallorca, and Eibar all losing, but they still only sit three points clear of last-placed Espanyol. Still, with plenty of matches left to be played, nothing is set in stone, but Celta are in a very desperate situation at the moment.

3.) Valencia

Valencia, like Atléti, stayed true to their form from before the hiatus upon the league’s return. Valencia entered the hiatus unable to consistently scored goals, and they continued that form into their 1-1 draw against derby-rivals Levante. Yes, I will say that they were incredibly unlucky. Carlos Soler hit the crossbar in the first half, squandering a great chance to open the scoring. Rodrigo’s goal was seemingly the winner, and you would expect in most scenarios that a 90th minute goal would be a match-winner. However, unfortunate circumstances and a VAR delay led to a 98th minute penalty, which was converted by Gonzalo Melero to level the score. It was unlucky, but it was also more or less deserved. Levante deserved at least a draw, being the better team for large spells of that match, and the penalty was the correct decision. Valencia continue to struggle with an inability to create goalscoring chances. They had a man advantage for the final 15 minutes of the match, and while they did score their goal in this time, it was seemingly their only clear chance. Valencia were aided by teams around them dropping points, so they are still in the Champions League picture, but they are also now only two points ahead of Villarreal and Granada. Quick starts are important with this restarted league season, and Valencia need to move past this disappointment and kickstart a run of good form in order to keep themselves in the European picture.

What We Learned

1.) Yep, there’s a title race, alright…

Barcelona and Real Madrid both came out of the hiatus with sharp, professional, and convincing performances in their first match back. Yes, they were playing teams near the bottom of the table, but it was more about how they went about their victory rather than putting up a high scoreline against an average side. Messi was great for Barcelona, but I would be more reassured by great performances from the supporting cast around him, namely Jordi Alba and Arturo Vidal. In a situation where many thought this Barcelona team would look sluggish or struggle, they put out a complete team performance, almost as if the hiatus never happened. The same logic applies for Real Madrid. Yes, the players you expected to play well, like Benzema and Kroos and Ramos, played well, but I would be very reassured by the confident and dynamic performance of Eden Hazard. Hazard has largely struggled to find his feet in Madrid, with a mix of poor performances, injury issues, and lack of confidence holding him back. Against Eibar, Hazard was very good, combining well with Benzema and Marcelo in attack and looking like the Hazard we all remember from his days at Chelsea. It was not a maestro performance, or one that matches the price tag that Real Madrid paid for the Belgian, but it is one that gives me confidence and hope. Both teams came out of the hiatus strong, and if they are able to keep this form, we will have a thrilling title race.

2.) Maybe the relegation places are not completely decided…

Espanyol are showing that, eventually, they will find their way out of the bottom place in the league table. Now only three points away from safety, Espanyol has moved from a likely relegation candidate to a team that has all of the ability and coaching needed to stay up. Leganés, due to the unfortunate situation with Martin Braithwaite, seem destined for relegation, but while Mallorca did not show much against Barcelona, they still clearly have the ability to overtake the also-struggling Celta Vigo and Eibar. The Leganés situation is very unfortunate, and I still think they will go down, but I am no longer confident in saying we have relegation teams decided already, especially when talking about Espanyol.

3.) Man, Valencia and Atléti love shooting themselves in the foot…

Apart from Sevilla’s win, the rest of the teams clearly in the Champions League picture dropped points, and this is an especially massive blown chance for Atlético Madrid and Valencia given that their results came largely due to their own mistakes. Atléti have shown this season how much they are missing the consistent goalscoring striker that they seemed to always have. From Fernando Torres to Sergio Agüero, Radamel Falcao and Diego Forlan to Antoine Griezmann, Atléti seemingly always got away with generating so few goalscoring chances because they always had strikers who could put away any chance that they got. Diego Costa and Álvaro Morata are not getting it done. The big chances in their match against Athletic Bilbao, which fell to Arias and Carrasco, were not converted. This has been an issue that has plagued Simeone’s team all season, and it has not gotten better. Valencia face a similar inability to score, but they had done enough through 90 minutes to get the win over Levante, but a silly mistake from Mouctar Diakhaby cost them all three points. You could really pinpoint the moment from each of these matches where Valencia and Atléti shot themselves in the foot: Diakhaby’s foul conceding the penalty and Arias’ missed big chance late in the match, respectively. Both of these teams, especially Valencia, now have to proceed knowing Villarreal and Granada are hovering just over their shoulders, ready to overtake if they keep slipping up.

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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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Champions League Round of 16 Preview Part 3 (3/10-3/11)

A quick preview for this week’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg matches…

Tuesday 3/10

RB Leipzig vs. Tottenham

None of this is really ideal for Spurs, is it?

But first, let’s talk about the Germans. Things are not entirely going great for them. Some dropped points in the league has probably handed Bayern the title, but Leipzig are still in a race to guarantee a spot in the Champions League for next season. They gave some rest to some key players, including Timo Werner, in their previous match against Wolfsburg, so they should come into the second leg with a near-full strength team. Werner is obviously the danger man in this team, with his goal in North London being the only difference between the two sides, but Christopher Nkunku will also be seen as a difference-making player in this Leipzig team. Nominated for the Bundesliga’s Rookie of the Month award this month, the Frenchman has dazzled this season with his turn of pace, ability on the ball, and knack to find a key pass. The Spurs defense, which has improved but is still not great under Mourinho, will have to work to limit his ability to pick a pass and find the forwards. Leipzig do not feel pressured to score, as Spurs need to score twice to overhaul the Germans’ away goals advantage, but come on, this is Leipzig we are talking about. The Red Bulls always play an attacking style, so they could be fancied to score in this match. Nagelsmann will just have to find a balance between looking for a second goal and preserving a lead, as he does not want control of this tie to run away from him.

Oh no, Spurs. Oh no, indeed. One point from their last nine available, as well as a bad FA Cup defeat to Norwich on penalties, is one thing entirely, but on top of all of that, January signing Steven Bergwijn is likely out for the season with a serious ankle injury. For those keeping score at home, that is now five of Spurs’ seven leading scorers either injured or, in Christian Eriksen’s case, no longer with the team. Not an ideal situation to be in when you are going into a Champions League second leg where you must score at least two goals to move on. Well, Dele Alli and Lucas Moura, the pressure is on you. Spurs have found some form of defensive solidity with the move to use Eric Dier as a center back, but they are still far from a defensively solid team. Burnley’s near dominance, especially in the first half, highlighted the many issues with this Spurs team outside of their injured goalscorers. Not even mentioned among their issues at the beginning of this paragraph, but Jose Mourinho’s very public dispute with midfielder Tanguy Ndombele is not going to help out his team in this situation. Spurs will travel to the former East Germany as strong underdogs. Mourinho will have to tap into whatever European magic Mauricio Pochettino found in this team in order to have any hope of moving on. Their likely strategy will be a defensive and counter attacking set up, deploying the five-at-the-back formation they used against Burnley and relying on the pace of Lucas on the counter. Spurs have a mountain to climb here, and it is possible, given the relatively poor form of their opposition, that they can overcome this trial, but it is not likely.

Prediction: I think it is safe to say that neither of these teams will be favorites to lift the trophy come May, but Leipzig are definitely the better team on paper of the two. While I do admit that football is definitely not played on paper, and Spurs do have a chance here, I think this will not be a massive challenge for Nagelsmann’s team. Leipzig move on, Spurs’ season is over.

RB Leipzig 2-0 Tottenham

Valencia vs. Atalanta

Speaking of longshots, hola Valencia…

I mean, they lost the first leg 4-1. Yes, they got the away goal, but this is quite the mountain for los Ches to climb. Overall, their recent league form has been inconsistent following a strong 2-2 draw with Atletico Madrid. A thumping at the hands of Real Sociedad was paired with a too-close-for-comfort win over a struggling Betis team and a draw to also struggling Alaves. Injuries have ravaged Albert Celades’ team, with them now being without forward Maxi Gomez until April. He joins center back Ezequiel Garay on the injury list, but, in good news for Celades, he will have Cristiano Piccini and Manu Vallejo both fit and available for selection. This still does not solve the biggest issue at the heart of the Valencia team, which is that they give up too many good chances to their opposition. While it is entirely possible that Valencia score one, maybe even two, goals in this match, it is hard to imagine them being able to keep Atalanta from scoring. They can take some comfort knowing they have a strong record at home in European competition, but this will not be a normal home match. Due to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Spanish and UEFA authorities have ordered this match to be played behind closed doors. Valencia will not be able to be boosted by what was likely to be a red-hot, hostile atmosphere at the Estadio Mestalla. Seemingly everything has been working against Valencia going into this game. If they are to move on, they will have to put out a historic performance. In a pretty famous previous Champions League tie between an Italian and Spanish team, it was the Italian team, Roma, who overcame a 4-1 first leg defeat to move on to the next round on away goals against the Spanish team, Barcelona. The roles will have to be reversed here.

Atalanta are also being affected by the Coronavirus outbreak, as the Bergamasque side has not played since the beginning of the month. In that game, however, they scored seven goals, so it is fair to say that, on the field at least, they are in tip-top shape. It might be safe to assume that the virus has taken a toll on the team, however. Being located in Lombardy, the center of the virus epidemic in Italy, the government restrictions have probably affected the day-to-day activities of the club, players, and staff. It is not business as usual for Atalanta. Obviously, there are more important things than football, and this virus has had a massive impact on Italy and on the lives of millions around the world, but, for this specific blog, it is a fair assumption to make. Going into this game, Gian Piero Gasperini knows he has some breathing room, knowing Valencia must score three times and keep a clean sheet in order to move on, but, with the suspension of Serie A, he has no reason to not name a first-choice team. Rafael Toloi is the only injury concern in the team, but the Brazilian will probably be able to feature for la Dea in some manner. Star forward Duvan Zapata, who was on the bench for the first leg, should start the second leg after scoring a hat trick in the aforementioned seven-goal demolition of Lecce. Like Nagelsmann in the Leipzig-Spurs game, there is some sense of Gasperini needing to balance going for more goals with defending his lead, but with the sheer potency of this Atalanta team, it is very hard to believe that they will not score at least one more goal.

Prediction: It would be an incredible story for Valencia to move on, but I just do not see it. There have been several very famous Remontadas in previous Champions League history, but there is too much going against Valencia for this game to add another famous comeback. Valencia should score, but so should Atalanta. The Italians will move on easily.

Valencia 1-3 Atalanta

Wednesday 3/11

Liverpool vs. Atletico Madrid

*Insert cheesy tagline about European nights at Anfield here*

Yes, Liverpool have lost a few games. I do not think anyone saw their loss to Watford coming, and, while we all know the disdain Jürgen Klopp holds for England’s cup competitions, it was still surprising the degree with which they lost to Chelsea in the FA Cup. Their win against Bournemouth, paired with the knowledge that their league title quest is almost complete, will do much to restore the Reds’ confidence, as will the reassurance of knowing that they will be playing at Anfield, where they have been comfortable regardless of the challenge they face, but this is not a guarantee. Atleti got under their skin in the first leg, and they will have to devise a way to get around the proverbial parked Colchonero bus that will be in front of them. Klopp will likely be relieved by the return of captain Jordan Henderson, who missed the last four games with an injury he picked up in the first leg of this tie. The Englishman has quietly become one of the best midfielders in the Premier League this season, and he is crucial for how that Liverpool midfield operates. With goalkeeper Alisson Becker still sidelined due to injury, they will have to rely on Adrian once again between the posts. The Spaniard has had some issues in previous games, and he may not face that many attacks from Atleti this game, but Liverpool need him to be secure when he faces challenge. Another Atleti goal could make this lead almost insurmountable, given the Spaniards’ defensive reputation.

I do not think Atleti anticipated being in this situation going into the second leg. Their win against Liverpool in the first leg was fairly improbable, and outside observers would think that big victory would help Atleti kick on in the league, right? Well…that is not quite the case. Following that win, they did add another big win in the league, a 3-1 triumph over top four rival Villarreal, but followed that up with two disappointing draws to Espanyol and Sevilla. Those two matches were microcosms of Atleti’s season, with their defense not always being good enough when the attack finds the goals, as their attack is not always good enough when the defense gives them the chance to win the game. The Liverpool game is different, though, and their league struggles may not be fully reflective of their ability to leave Anfield with a result. The basis of Atletico’s style, the very essence of what makes Cholismo what it is, is the idea that Atleti are the underdogs that must resist the attacks of a larger force. Atleti’s struggles under Diego Simeone, historically, have come from times when they were forced to play a more expansive style against a “smaller” team, while their best performances came when they embraced Cholismo playing against a “bigger” team. On top of this, Atleti, especially when they embrace that underdog mentality, become the anti-Liverpool. Liverpool were unable to create many clear cut chances in Madrid because Atleti robbed them of their most threatening aspect, the ability to press and win the ball high up the pitch, leading to uneven attacks where the pace and dynamism of their front three causes mayhem. Atleti scored a very early goal and demanded the Liverpool team get around a deep lying block. Knowing they have this early lead, Atleti will likely see what they can get early on in the game, but spend most of the game playing on the defensive and aiming to frustrate Liverpool. It has worked previously, and it can work again. If they concede, however, then they run the risk of losing control quickly.

Prediction: There is no guarantee here for Liverpool. This will be a very tough match for them. While Atleti have their own issues, they have shown their ability to formulate and execute the perfect gameplan to shut down a team like Liverpool. They have also gotten healthier since the first leg. This is a very intriguing match up in many ways, but weird things tend to happen at Anfield. The bounces tend to go Liverpool’s way. Call it witchcraft, luck, or “European nights at Anfield”, I think this is going to go Liverpool’s way.

Liverpool 2-0 Atletico Madrid

PSG vs. Borussia Dortmund

The battle of the European wunderkinds. Will PSG be able to cast aside their European skeletons in the closet, or will they suffer another humiliation on the continental stage?

PSG have safely won the league, there is no real reason to doubt that. Their goal was always the Champions League, however, and they are in a very difficult situation. The Parisians were incredibly disappointing in the first leg, with Neymar being the only player who really covered himself in any glory. They will not be benefitted by the amount of goals they have conceded recently. A total of 11 goals conceded in five matches against Lyon (twice), Nantes, Amiens, and Bordeaux is not exactly the form your defense needs to be in going into an important European match against a team with a very good attack. The availability of Thiago Silva is also a massive doubt. While it is possible he is fit enough to feature, they could likely have to rely on Abdou Diallo or youngster Tanguy Kouassi for this match. They will also be without Marco Verratti and Thomas Meunier, who miss out due to suspension. With off-pitch disputes between Thomas Tuchel and Kylian Mbappe, as well as questions about Tuchel’s future in Paris, also circulating through the media, this seems to have the makings of another Parisian European meltdown. Where this situation is different, however, is the form of their attack. Unlike their loss to Manchester United last season, their entire attack, including Neymar, is fit and able to take part. They are beginning to iron out some issues in their 4-2-4, and they are beginning to get the most out of both Mbappe and Neymar in the formation. The introduction of Pablo Sarabia into the team has also made a massive impact and provided more balance to a team that was often too attacking and exposed at the back. Dortmund’s defense, while improved, is not exactly stacked with talent, so PSG should fancy their chances to score, given the amount of firepower they have going forward. Disappointingly, as Valencia are not able to lean on the support from their home crowd, PSG will also be without the backing of a home crowd at the Parc des Princes, as the match has been ordered to be played behind closed doors due to the Coronavirus outbreak. While PSG have had some notable disappointments in Europe, they have also had some major successes, and the basis of some of those successful European nights was a hostile atmosphere at home. Atmosphere does make a difference, and playing this match behind closed doors, while probably necessary, is a disadvantage for PSG. They will have to hope for a worse performance from the Dortmund defense, especially from ex-PSG center back Dan-Axel Zagadou, and to outscore the Dortmund team.

The beginning of this paragraph will be the only mention I give to Erling Haland in the Dortmund section of this preview. Yes, he has been incredible, but that has been covered and has not been the driving story of BVB’s last few matches. Jadon Sancho, however, has been the omnipresent force that has driven Dortmund forward in the last month or so. He has probably been involved in a goal in every game in the last month, and the Englishman is undoubtedly enjoying his best season as a professional footballer, going into a summer where he will be the most wanted man in Europe. But that is for later, and right now, Sancho will be the key man for Dortmund if they want to move on to the quarterfinals. The story that Sancho is now covering up, having been the story covered up by Haland, is that now, the Dortmund defense may not be completely terrible. Having been a mess of errors earlier in the season, Dortmund have kept clean sheets in three of their last five matches. Their defense did enough in the first leg to keep out a potent Parisian attack, with ex-PSG man Zagadou being the star in that match and ever since. The towering center back has hardly put a foot wrong in Dortmund’s last few matches, and he could be playing himself into a Euros or Olympics appearance in the summer. He will be looked upon again to lead a defense in what is probably Dortmund’s most important match of the season. It is safe to assume that both teams will score, but Dortmund have to limit the damage that PSG can cause if they hope to move on.

Prediction: It is very hard to tell how this match will go. Going into this tie, I think we all had flashbacks of the Manchester City-Monaco tie a few years ago, and while the first leg was not the goalfest we all expected, it is clear both of these teams are still potent. There will be goals in this match, but it will come down to which defense I trust more. While Kouassi has been very impressive for PSG this season, I am blown away by Zagadou and the Dortmund defense as of late. They will not be perfect, but they will be enough to send the Germans into the quarterfinals and break Parisian hearts once again.

PSG 2-2 Borussia Dortmund