Following a coronavirus-enforced three month absence, La Liga makes its long-awaited return this week.
Similarly to the Premier League, the bosses in Spain’s top-flight have staggered fixtures throughout the week for football starved fans to get stuck into straight away.
The mouth-watering prospect of the Seville derby between Sevilla and Real Betis will kick things off on Thursday night while title challengers Barcelona and Real Madrid are in action on Saturday and Sunday respectively.
It has been a while since a ball has been kicked in La Liga so here is all you need to know ahead of the competition’s resumption.
State of play
Battle of the big two
PSG have already been crowned Ligue 1 winners, Bayern Munich and Liverpool are champions-elect in the Bundesliga and Premier League, while Juventus’ know-how means they are favourites to lift Serie A ahead of surprise challengers Lazio.
In La Liga, though, there is a real title race playing out with only two points separating the traditional ‘big two’ Barcelona in first and Real Madrid in second.
Both clubs are undergoing transitional periods as emphasised by Barcelona losing five games already in the league and Real Madrid seemingly on course for a second consecutive last-16 elimination in the Champions League.
Nevertheless, the pair remain head and shoulders above the rest in Spain with Sevilla nine points behind Real in third and Atletico Madrid, themselves embarking on a new era, in a scrap to finish in the top four.
Barcelona are ever so slightly in the driving seat due to their status as league leaders but their form has been shaky since Quique Setien’s arrival as shown by their three defeats in his dozen matches in charge.
Real Madrid, meanwhile, are seeking to modernise their side following their Champions League dominance this decade with ageing stars starting to be phased out and younger stars being blooded in. As such, inconsistency has hamstrung Zinedine Zidane’s side at times this term.
Both El Clasico fixtures have been played already with Real Madrid enjoying the upper hand courtesy of a 2-0 win at the Bernabeu in March and a 0-0 draw at Camp Nou back in December.
Should they manage to reduce the points on Barcelona ahead of them, perhaps that head-to-head record will prove pivotal in the title race…
Fixtures this weekend
Thursday 11 June
- Sevilla vs Real Betis (21.00)
Friday 12 June
- Granada vs Getafe (18.30)
- Valencia vs Levante (21.00)
Saturday 13 June
- Espanyol vs Alaves (13.00)
- Celta Vigo vs Villarreal (16.00)
- Leganes vs Vallodolid (18.30)
- Mallorca vs Barcelona (21.00)
Sunday 14 June
- Athletic Club vs Atletico Madrid (13.00)
- Real Madrid vs Eibar (18.30)
- Real Sociedad vs Osasuna (21.00)
Champions League race
Arguably as exciting, if not more so, than the race for the title is the battle for the third and fourth spots in the table with five clubs in with a realistic shot of securing Champions League football next season.
Sevilla, led by one-time Spain and Real Madrid boss Julen Lopetegui, are third but only five points separate them from Valencia down in seventh. Sandwiched between them are Real Sociedad, Getafe and Liverpool’s conquerors in March, Atletico Madrid.
Getafe, a side dwarfed by their city neighbours Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, have been the surprise story of the season, milling in and around the top-four throughout the campaign. Togolese defender Djene Dakonam and journeyman striker Jaime Mata, have taken most of the plaudits for their surge.
Atletico Madrid should not be discounted either despite being sixth when play resumes. It has been a difficult season for Diego Simeone with Atletico undergoing a major restructuring on the pitch, but March’s thrilling victory over Liverpool at Anfield will likely provide their youthful side a big boost in the coming months.
Finally, a word on Valencia who despite being seventh in the table, somehow have a goal difference of -1. A basket-case of a club, it would be miraculous if Albert Celades leads them into the top four before the season’s end given their defensive defiencies.
Relegation battle: Espanyol on the brink?
As with the Champions League battle, there are a clutch of clubs huddled together towards the foot of the table.
Alaves in 14th are probably safe but beyond them, there are six clubs in danger of going down. Espanyol have been La Liga ever-presents since the 1994-95 season but their 26-year stay in the top-flight is under severe threat as they currently prop up the table, six points from safety. The January arrival of Raul De Tomas from Benfica has given them a fighting chance, though, as he has scored four goals in his opening six matches for the club.
While Espanyol boosted their chances of survival by acquiring a new striker in the transfer window, the opposite was true for Leganes, who are a place better off. Youssef En-Nesyri was snapped up by Sevilla after they triggered his €20m release clause, while Barcelona did likewise to secure Martin Braithwaite for €18m, using a loophole in the Spanish system to sign him after the window had closed in late February. The club’s inability to replace either of their outgoing strikers has hit their ambitions hard.
Saturday’s action sees four of the bottom six play at home in Espanyol, Celta Vigo, Leganes and Mallorca. The game between Leganes and Valladolid, meanwhile, is a classic six-pointer.
Players to watch
Messi the magician
No La Liga preview would be complete without a nod to the division’s best player: Lionel Messi. Of course, highlighting Messi’s brilliance is hardly revolutionary, but his statistics this season are mind-blowing. In 22 La Liga matches, Messi has scored 19 goals and registered 12 assists, both of which are comfortably the best totals in the league. On average, Messi has had a hand in a goal every 61 minutes. Where would Barcelona be without him?
Messi’s brilliance doesn’t stop there either. He has completed 118 take-ons (45 more than second-placed Nabil Fekir) and created 55 chances (only Jose Campana with 58 has more). Furthermore, if (or more realistically when) Messi provides three more assists, he will have managed 15+ goals and assists in La Liga for the fifth time in his career. No other player in Europe’s top five leagues has done it more than twice.
Since 2006/07, only four players had scored 15+ goals and provided 15+ assists in a single season of a top-five European division:
✓ Lionel Messi (x4)
✓ Eden Hazard (x2)
✓ Cristiano Ronaldo
✓ Luis Suárez
Jadon Sancho has just made it five. 🤯 pic.twitter.com/Yvb1kpWBZC
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 31, 2020
It seems strange to describe Martin Ødegaard as a ‘wonderkid’ considering he has been around seemingly forever, but the Norwegian schemer is still only 21 and enjoying a magnificent season for Champions League contenders Real Sociedad. Signed on loan from Real Madrid in the summer following a couple of productive years in the Eredivisie, Ødegaard has scored four goals and returned five assists including *that* beauty against Alaves when he nutmegged Tomas Pina before playing a perfect pass to Mikel Oyarzabal to score.
Speaking of Oyarzabal, he has a pretty bright future himself. Now 23, Oyarzabal has eight goals and six assists to his name, while 19-year-old Swedish striker Alexander Isak completes the exciting triumvirate of attacking talent at the Anoeta, after netting seven times in his debut campaign in Spain.
This season has also seen the emergence of Barcelona’s boy-wonder, Ansu Fati. The 17-year-old has broken all manner of records during his first season as a professional. In August, he became Barcelona’s youngest ever goalscorer at 16 years and 304 days, in September he became Barcelona’s youngest-ever player in the Champions League and in December he became the youngest-ever goalscorer in the competition at 17 years and 40 days. The sky is the limit.
Real Madrid also have some prodigious young talents at their disposal too, in the form of Brazilian pair Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo. Both 19, the Brazilians have scored two goals apiece in La Liga and have been earmarked to eventually replace Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale on the flanks. All-action midfielder Federico Valverde, the 21-year-old Uruguayan, has also become an increasingly prominent member of Zidane’s side, starting 14 La Liga matches.
Elsewhere, Valladolid’s 21-year-old Ghanaian centre-back Mohammed Salisu has been earning rave reviews at the back with Manchester United among the clubs to have been linked with him. Valencia winger Ferran Torres (20) is another to have enjoyed breakthrough year having contributed towards eight league goals (four goals and assists apiece) while Marc Cucurella (21) has performed well for Getafe since a summer move from Barcelona, via briefly Eibar.
Joao Felix (20) is yet to showcase his talents consistently for Atletico Madrid since his nine-figure move from Benfica, but he will be raring to go when the competition restarts.
The unsung heroes
Lucas Perez was unable to transfer his talents to the Premier League with either Arsenal or West Ham but he has been sensational since signing for Alaves last summer, scoring 11 goals and providing five assists. Only Messi (19) and Karim Benzema (14) have outscored Perez in La Liga. Joselu, another player with a forgettable career in England, has also chipped in with nine goals for Alaves.
Real Betis have had an average season, shown by their position in 12th, but their marquee signing last summer Nabil Fekir has impressed with seven goals and three assists in 22 games. The World Cup winner has dovetailed effectively with Sergio Canales in attacking midfield and given their quality, Betis arguably should be higher up the table.
Villarreal are another club who have underachieved but in Gerard Moreno, they have one of the most consistent attackers in Spanish football. The 28-year-old winger has managed 11 goals this season and his early-season form led to inclusion to Spain’s national squad where he scored three goals in his first three caps.
The standout players behind Sevilla’s Champions League challenge are Argentine winger Lucas Ocampos and Real Madrid-owned Sergio Reguilón. Ocampos has top-scored for the side with ten goals, while Reguilón’s form has been so impressive at left-back that he has been tipped to stake a first-team place when he returns to his parent club at the end of the season.
Finally, a word for Levante shot-stopper Aitor Fernández who has made a staggering 124 saves in 27 matches (at an average of 4.5 per game) which is 36 more than any other goalkeeper in the division. That Levante are practically safe from the drop-zone is in no small part down to Fernández‘s exploits.
Did you know…
- Real Madrid’s remaining six homes games in La Liga will not be played at the imposing Santiago Bernabeu but instead at the Alfredo Di Stéfano Stadium in Valdebebas where their Castilla B team plays its matches. That is because extensive construction work is underway to modernise the Bernabeu, with a state-of-the-art retractable pitch set to be installed. As a consequence, the pitch currently resembles more of a beach than a football surface as it completely covered in sand.
- La Liga will use virtual images of fans in club colours in the stands and use ‘fan audio’ developed by the makers of FIFA in TV broadcasts when the matches resume this week. In a statement on Sunday, La Liga said the use of audio “will allow matches to be seen in an attractive way that closely resembles how they looked and sounded before the competition was postponed.” La Liga president Javier Tebas added: “We work with global partners to offer a great viewer experience. We are in an exceptional situation, but for us it has been important to be able to adapt and offer a compelling, cutting-edge broadcast to our fans.”