La Liga’s eagerly awaited return is drawing near with next Thursday’s Seville derby set to kick off a hectic period which will see all clubs play 11 games in the space of 38 days. You’d be forgiven for having forgotten the current state of play. There hasn’t been a full round of fixtures since matchday 27 in early March with Eibar’s rearranged clash with Real Sociedad on 10th March the last action. Here’s the 2019-20 La Liga story so far.
by Mark Sochon – @marksoc1
2019/20 La Liga – The Key Battles
A Two-Horse Title Race
For the first time since the 2016/17 season, we have a genuine Barça-Madrid title race and it’s one that has tilted back and forth over the course of the campaign.
With Zinedine Zidane at the helm, Real Madrid put the disappointments of a woeful 2018/19 season behind them by starting the stronger of the two teams. Los Blancos didn’t lose any of their opening 8 fixtures, which included tough trips to Sevilla and Atletico Madrid. Barcelona’s title defence meanwhile got off to a poor start with an Aritz Aduriz wonder-goal sending them to defeat at San Mames in their opening game while a 2-0 loss at newly promoted Granada in September piled the pressure on Ernesto Valverde.
Granada even briefly topped the table during an opening to the season which saw all of the big clubs dropping points. Real Madrid were not immune, suffering their first defeat at new boys Mallorca in October and one of the underlying themes this season has been the feeling that there are no truly outstanding sides in the Spanish top flight this term.
With Atleti struggling for goals, following on from a summer which saw huge change at the Wanda Metropolitano, gradually Barcelona and Real Madrid started to open up an advantage on the rest. By the time of the first Clasico of the season (rearranged for December after the initial fixture was postponed due to unrest in Catalonia), it was pretty clear we had a two-horse title race on our hands.
Having been embarrassed at times in the four Clasico meetings in 2018/19, Real Madrid struck something of a psychological blow by leaving Camp Nou with a 0-0 draw – a game they may feel they should have won. However Los Blancos were held to another goalless draw at home to Athletic just four days later, leaving Barcelona in top spot at the end of 2019.
It wasn’t enough to save Ernesto Valverde though. The Barça boss was sacked less than a fortnight into the new year after Supercopa defeat to Atleti in Saudi Arabia. Quique Setién was subsequently appointed, in a rather messy fashion by a Barcelona board that has made gaff after gaff, but the new man’s possession-based style didn’t bring immediate results.
FULL TIME | Real Madrid 2-0 Barcelona
— Goal (@goal) March 1, 2020
Defeat at Valencia on matchday 21 saw Barcelona slip to 2nd as Real Madrid started the new year with five straight victories. They even beat the Catalans at the Bernabeu – a relatively rare feat for Los Blancos in recent seasons. However that victory is the only one in Real Madrid’s last four league games with Zidane’s men again undoing their hard work by losing at Betis the following weekend, a result which once more allowed Barcelona to regain top spot in the final round of fixtures before coronavirus brought not only Spanish football but virtually all aspects of normal Spanish life to a halt.
As a result, Barcelona have a 2 point advantage at the top heading into the resumption of the season. They are perhaps the slight favourites to win the title but it has been the kind of campaign where both clubs are dropping points, often in the most unlikely of fixtures so we can surely expect a few more twists and turns before the silverware is dished out.
The Battle for Europe
The battle for Champions League places is intense with just 2 points separating 3rd and 6th place as we get ready to kick things off again.
Atletico Madrid have struggled in front of goal with big money signing Joao Felix having a difficult first season in Spain. They’ve only the 11th best goalscoring record in La Liga but will be hoping that a sensational Champions League triumph over Liverpool will help inspire them on to at least a top four finish to ensure Diego Simeone’s men are in next season’s competition.
Sevilla will also back themselves to kick on and finish in the top four where they have been for most of the campaign. Overall it has been a relatively successful first season in Andalusia for Julen Lopetegui although he remains unpopular with sections of the Sevilla fanbase who went as far as calling for his head in recent home games with frustrations at the style of play a major factor in the discontent.
No such problems at Real Sociedad, whose enterprising, attacking football have made them one of the most watchable teams in La Liga this season. With young talents such as Martin Ødegaard, Mikel Oyarzabal and Alexander Isak shining, they’ve put themselves in a position to really push for Champions League qualification, while they also have a historic Basque derby Copa del Rey Final to look forward to, although it may be some time before that match is played with all parties keen to ensure it takes place with fans present.
Martin Ødegaard for Real Sociedad 2019/20
? 28 matches
⚽️ 7 goals
?️ 8 assists
? 2.5 key passes p/g (1st in La Liga)
? 2.5 dribbles won p/g (3rd in La Liga)
? 9 big chances created (4th in La Liga)
One of the best talents in world football. pic.twitter.com/n6rfzFB0BG
— SMFutball (@SMFutball) May 29, 2020
Getafe have also had another outstanding season. While you won’t find much in the way of swashbuckling football at the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez, Jose Bordalas’ side have built on the success of last season by continuing to be very tough to break down whilst offering just enough quality in the final third to win plenty of football matches. With their Europa League exploits no doubt giving them a taste for European football, Geta will be hungry to go one better this season and break into the top four.
Valencia are three points further back on that cluster of teams between 3rd and 6th but Los Che cannot be discounted from the battle for Champions League qualification either. It has been a turbulent season at Mestalla with Marcelino controversially sacked earlier in the campaign by the club’s unpopular owners. His replacement Albert Celades, was on the surface an underwhelming appointment, and the jury is certainly still out on the former Spain U21 boss. Injuries have taken their toll but 5 defeats from their last 8 matches in all competitions, ensures the pressure will be firmly on when Valencia return to competitive action next week.
The delay of the Copa del Rey Final is likely to mean that 7th place in La Liga will be awarded Spain’s final Europa League spot which gives hope to a few more teams. Villarreal have had a much improved albeit inconsistent campaign and currently sit in 8th place and will certainly be targeting Europa League qualification.
Granada (9th) made a fabulous start to the season on their return to the top flight and they are already just 2 points shy of that magic 40 point mark. However with 68% of their points having come at home, they may be one team that really does suffer as a result of no fans being able to attend games. Athletic Club (10th) likewise have also been very dependent on their home results with the backing they receive at San Mames a key factor. Both sides may struggle to seriously compete for European qualification after the restart.
The Relegation Scrap
The battle for survival is also bubbling up nicely and it’ll be interesting to see if any teams can make this lengthy, unexpected break in the season work to their advantage. Celta Vigo, Mallorca, Leganes and Espanyol have been the bottom four clubs since all the way back on matchday 10. The order has frequently changed but it has felt for some time like three of those four teams would go down although the bottom sides were showing a few signs of life just when the season was halted.
Celta have only lost 1 of their last 9 in La Liga and while there have been a few too many draws for Oscar Garcia’s liking, they look like they may have enough quality to pull clear of trouble.
Following back-to-back promotions, this was always most likely going to be a tough year for Mallorca but they are only one point off safety with 11 games to play. A vital victory at fellow strugglers Eibar, their first on the road all season, provided a huge lift in their most recent league outing.
It’s hard to find much reason to be positive about Leganes’ survival hopes though with the club having sold their two biggest goal threats (Youssef En-Nesyri and Martin Braithwaite) already in 2020. There is still anger at the league’s decision to sanction Barcelona’s emergency signing of Braithwaite in February which left Lega very light on attacking options. To his credit though, Javier Aguirre has still been delivering results, including a surprise away win at Villarreal in their most recent league outing.
✅ Spanish FA grant footballing giants Barcelona request to sign an emergency striker.
?️ Barcelona sign Martin Braithwaite from Leganes who are fighting relegation.
❌ Spanish FA deny Leganes request to sign an emergency striker.
Modern football… pic.twitter.com/jLhFAjR5u8
— Sporting Index (@sportingindex) February 20, 2020
In contrast to Leganes, bottom club Espanyol strengthened considerably in January pouring around €40 million into the signings of Raul De Tomas, Adri Embarba and Leandro Cabrera in a desperate bid to try and avoid a first relegation since the 1990’s. While RDT has been firing, so far it looks like an expensive gamble that may not come off with the Catalans failing to win any of their final four league games before the season was halted.
In ordinary circumstances, the current bottom three teams would probably be viewed as the clear favourites for the drop but this is far from an ordinary situation. Initially at least we may see some surprise results given it’s almost inevitable that some teams will have done a better job of managing their players’ fitness over this challenging period than others.
The bottom three will certainly at the very least view Eibar and Real Valladolid as sides that could be dragged back into the very thick of the relegation battle. Eibar have been less impressive than in recent years and have lost 4 of their last 5 league matches. At times they’ve looked distinctly average but have invariably managed to pull a home win out of the bag when they’ve needed it most. Real Valladolid are also on paper are a bit short on quality in some areas of the pitch but they’ve once more shown tremendous team spirit to frequently grind out results against supposedly more talented sides.
Both Eibar and Real Valladolid certainly have to be seen as relegation candidates and there’s a small chance that even the teams from 11th to 14th could become vulnerable if they make a slow start once football gets going again, particularly with the games coming thick and fast.
In truth Real Betis (12th) should be far too strong to slip into trouble and Alaves (14th), who boast arguably the best strike duo in the bottom half with Joselu and Lucas Perez both enjoying strong seasons, will also back themselves to get over the line.
Levante (13th) though have the added disadvantage of having to play their home games almost 100 miles from their usual Valencia ground in the town of La Nucia. That could potentially have an unsettling effect while Osasuna have struggled a bit since losing top scorer Chimy Avila to injury in January and have lost 5 of their last 7 in all competitions.
The hectic schedule and increased risk of injuries, combined with teams expected to be allowed to make five substitutions per match may also give an advantage to those clubs with greater strength in depth. As a result there are many new variables that this unprecedented situation has thrown up which will have an impact on who wins the league, who clinches European football and who goes down – matters which if everything goes to plan, will all be resolved by July 19th at the latest.