La Liga returns tonight: what to expect?

Leo Messi Real Sociedad
Lionel Messi scored the winning goal in the La Liga table game between Barcelona and Real Sociedad at Camp Nou, Spain, March 7, 2020. /VCG

The future of the 2019/20 football season has been in the balance for several months after the coronavirus stuck a pin in events. Bundesliga and Liga NOS have returned already, Serie A and Premier League are due to restart soon and La Liga table takes off already this weekend.

Things are due to get back underway with Sevilla and Real Betis going head to head. So, despite having no fans in the stands, the La Liga fixtures are back up and running this evening.

Here we look at what to expect in the run-in.

One of the closest title race in Europe’s top divisions

A quick look across Europe will show you that most leagues know their Champions barring miracles.

Only few leagues, like the Liga NOS and Serie A table currently, have such a tight battle between the top two.

In the Premier League Liverpool has 25 points to the second-placed, PSG was already crowned champion of Ligue 1 due to their massive advantage and Bayern has solidified their leadership since the return (7 points clear).

That’s not the case in Spain. Barcelona currently leads Real Madrid by two points but with 11 games remaining both sides will be thinking they can reign supreme.

Fitness and fixtures will be key

The biggest change of note from the last game week is the return to fitness of key players. Quique Setien welcomes back Luis Suarez whilst Madrid fans might actually get to see Eden Hazard, who joined from Chelsea for a fee of €100m last summer. Also, Marco Asensio might make an appearance too after he was tipped unfit for the rest of the season.

All of them have the ability to win matches almost single-handedly and with such small margins potentially decisive in the title race title they’ll be worth keeping a very close eye on.

The flip side for Barcelona though concerns over how ready Lionel Messi will be to hit the ground running. Messi, who is the top scorer in La Liga, has been nursing a thigh strain.

The other factor we need to consider is the fixture list. Both sides have the same split of home and away games but the Barca schedule does, on paper at least, appear favorable.

Real Madrid has to take on Real Sociedad and Getafe – fourth and fifth respectively – with an away trip to Valencia also a potential banana skin.

The current league leaders meanwhile play eight of the bottom 10 with bottom two Espanyol and Leganes set to visit the Nou Camp. As strugglers tend to play their heart out to avoid relegation, this might not be as easy as it seems for a Barcelona side who has conceded too many goals this season (31)

It won’t all be plain sailing for Lionel Messi and co though with Sevilla and Atletico Madrid likely to pose a challenge.

Who will complete the top four?

The usual suspects might be well clear at the top but behind them is the big question of who will clinch the final two Champions League spots.

Sevilla and Real Sociedad currently occupy the positions but just five points separate Valencia in seventh from Sevilla. Valencia has been having quite a strange season since their coach Marcelino departed early in the season and was replaced by Celades.

They are the only team in the top 10 with a negative goal difference, so they are unlikely to escalate to European places. Villarreal and Granada (the later had a tremendous season start, but lost their fuel midway) might challenge for the remaining Europa League places.

With no form book to guide us and empty stadiums likely to reduce the benefit of the home advantage, it’s an extremely tough call to make on who will end in top 4 (or even top 6!).

Sevilla and Sociedad to complete the top four?

From the neutrals perspective, Real Sociedad will be many peoples pick, with forward Alexander Isak now offering a global appeal. The Swedish striker is supported by a duo of Mikel Oyarzabal, who has been linked with Manchester City, and Real Madrid loanee Martin Odegaard.

Given they ended last season in ninth, the fact they’re even in the discussion is evidence of what a good season they’ve had.

Sevilla is also having a positive season under the guidance of former Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui. They are currently 3rd and being favorites to complete the podium, they will not have an easy calendar.

The derby against Betis opens their schedule, but games against Barcelona and Real Sociedad will prove to be the match points for their hopes of Champions League football next season.

Getafe: will Jose Bordalas get them to 4th?

The other team that a lot of impartial fans will be rooting for is Getafe. Sure, they often get criticized for their style of play but after qualifying for the Europa League last year it’s clear they’re doing something right.

With the exception of Marc Cucurella, their squad is massively underrated hence the tag of underdog. The combination of a solid defense and Angel Rodriguez and Jaime Mata in attack they’ll always have a chance of winning games.

Getafe has conceded only 25 goals this season, only missing for Real Madrid (19) and Atletico (21) on the best defense title. The credits go to the work of Jose Bordalas, whose tactics might bore some, but he has done a brilliant job with the squad he has on his hands.

The ‘Azulones’ have the benefit of having already faced Barcelona and Sevilla, but still need to battle against Real Madrid, Atletico, and Real Sociedad.

Are Getafe strong enough to steal the fourth place spot, or will they miss out on the elite competition and have to rely on Europa League again next season? Sevilla – for whom the forced break came at a good time – and Real Sociedad are more likely to cement their places in the top four than Getafe to break in.

What about Atletico Madrid?

Although Getafe missing out on the Champions League might be heartbreaking for Jose Bordalas, it will be more of a blow to Atletico Madrid. They look like they’ll have to be content with the secondary tournament next year.

Surprisingly for a team that has eliminated Liverpool from the Champions League before the quarantine interruption. Atletico has actually only 21 goals conceded and is the second-best defense in La Liga, but have struggled to score.

Morata and Diego Costa have been inaccurate in front of goal and Joao Felix has not yet adapted (besides being cursed with injuries). Alvaro has scored 8 goals in 19 appearances (averaging 2.5 shots on goal) and Diego 2 (8 games).

In total, Atletico has 31 goals scored in La Liga, which is less than all the teams below them up to the 14th place (except Athletic Bilbao).

Being the team in La Liga with a higher number of draws (12) also confirms this theory. Simeone is probably eager to add a new striking force once transfer window reopens, but for now, he will have to work with what he has.

Missing the Champions League groups could have significant ramifications on their summer transfer plans too. Their only key to access the Champions League next season might be… winning the Champions League.

A feat that Simeone was already so close to achieving, but his dream was caught off guard in the final by Real Madrid (twice!). We won’t be surprised if Diego decides to bet all his chips on that horse instead, but it’s a risk that might not compensate.

They kick off again on Sunday, in the San Mames versus Athletic Bilbao.

The relegation fight

The La Liga table makes ugly reading for Espanyol. They currently prop things up and although being six points from safety isn’t an insurmountable haul it does look somewhat less likely when you consider the fact they’ve only won four games from 27 so far this season.

Things don’t look much better for Leganes either. They might have shocked Villarreal in their last match but prior to that, they’d dropped points to Alaves and fourth-bottom Celta Vigo. They also have the unwanted record of being the lowest scorers in La Liga.

That is not something that was helped by Martin Braithwaite’s emergency move to Barcelona in February and, in the long run, they might feel the pain of Chimy Avila getting injured longer than the player himself given he was rumored to be Setien’s preferred option.

Completing the bottom three is Mallorca. They had found a bit of form before the break with seven points from 12 and they’ll be hoping one of the stronger attacks in the relegation scrap can keep their heads above water.

On the contrary, Celta will be aiming to keep things tight to gather enough points. The team who we think might be in trouble is Eibar.

They visit Real Madrid on Sunday, which could hit their confidence immediately if things don’t go to plan. The fixtures then look tough until back to back games with Leganes and Espanyol. Fail to win those though and there are only two more games remaining.

There you have it, the low down on the La Liga return. What La Liga match are you looking forward to watching this weekend?

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