With just two points separating Barcelona and Real Madrid at the top of La Liga, the race to be crowned champions is very much on.
Football in Spain’s top division got back underway on Thursday, but it wasn’t until Saturday before fans were able to watch either of the top two in action. Barcelona produced a convincing display to ease past Mallorca 4-0, but Real responded when they hosted Eibar the next day – also securing all three points with a 3-1 win.
With very little to separate the two teams as we reach the business end of the season, 90min takes a look at who should be considered the favourites…
Well, look, the three month break didn’t really seem to have any kind of impact on Lionel Messi whatsoever. Maybe a little rusty? Maybe a bit of time to adjust? Anything? No, Messi was well…typical Messi.
Although he registered two assists against Mallorca, he could have picked up a couple more as well. Oh, he also capped off his fine night’s work with a low shot to make it 4-0. As for the team’s performance, Quique Setien couldn’t have asked for much more.
A clean sheet, a fast start and four goals (including a first goal for Martin Braithwaite). It was a convincing display, with players getting the chance to not only boost their match fitness but also to gain confidence playing together again ahead of the season run-in.
As for Real Madrid, it was a dominant first half display that did the damage against Eibar. Toni Kroos got Los Blancos off to the perfect start after just four minutes, while Sergio Ramos and Marcelo also netted before the break.
Playing at the Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium, Zinedine Zidane’s men didn’t need much time to adjust, instead looking right at home. Perhaps what will have impressed Zidane the most was the performance of Eden Hazard, who looked sharp and showed promising signs of being back to his best.
However, the second half saw Real’s tempo drop and Eibar pulled a goal back. Nonetheless, while there were signs of fatigue and match sharpness in the second period, this was to be expected. Overall, similar to Barça, it was a convincing display and one that will have pleased Zidane.
M29 – Barcelona vs Leganes
M30 – Sevilla vs Barcelona
M31 – Barcelona vs Athletic Club
M32 – Celta Vigo vs Barcelona
M33 – Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid
M34 – Villarreal vs Barcelona
M35 – Barcelona vs Espanyol
M36 – Valladolid vs Barcelona
M37 – Barcelona vs Osasuna
M38 – Alaves vs Barcelona
It isn’t an easy run-in for Barça, as five of their remaining ten clashes are with teams in the top half of the table. To that end, particularly tough clashes await against Sevilla (away), Atletico Madrid (home) and Athletic Club (home).
However, Barça are also still to play Espanyol and Leganes, both of whom are currently in the relegation zone. The problem for Barça, however, arises when you look at how the fixtures fall – after their clash against Leganes, they have those tricky fixtures all within the next five games.
This tough run could give Real the chance they need to reclaim top spot.
M29 – Real Madrid vs Valencia
M30 – Real Sociedad vs Real Madrid
M31 – Real Madrid vs Mallorca
M32 – Espanyol vs Real Madrid
M33 – Real Madrid vs Getafe
M34 – Athletic Club vs Real Madrid
M35 – Real Madrid vs Alaves
M36 – Granada vs Real Madrid
M37 – Real Madrid vs Villarreal
M38 – Leganes vs Real Madrid
If Barça’s season run-in wasn’t straightforward, then neither is Real’s. Six of their remaining ten league games are against teams in the top half of the table. Next up is a home clash with Valencia and Zidane’s starting lineup on Sunday underlined the importance of the game against Los Ches.
Federico Valverde started the game on the bench, as did Ferland Mendy, Vinicius Junior and Gareth Bale. Valverde and Mendy are the two most likely to come into the side against Valencia as they look to secure all three points in what is expected to be a tight contest.
While Los Blancos – like Barcelona – have a tough run of fixtures, it is worth noting that they have only lost three league games all season and will feel confident heading into the remaining clashes.
Prior to the enforced break, Barça were struggling with injuries. Luis Suarez, Ousmane Dembele and Sergi Roberto were the most notable absentees – but now, the Catalan giants have a fairly clean bill of health. Suarez returned to the bench for the clash with Mallorca, with Antoine Griezmann occupying the striking role and Braithwaite filling in on the wing.
However, due to problems at the back, Setien opted to go with young Ronald Araujo on Saturday evening. The 21-year-old was composed in his work, but it remains to be seen whether he has done enough to retain his place in the side.
While Setien will be pleased to have the majority of his players back fit again, there are still defensive and offensive question marks. Most notably, how would they cope should Messi be ruled out of a game through injury or suspension? Their over-reliance on the Argentine has been well documented, but it remains a major problem.
Real Madrid have arguably the best squad in Europe.
If any player were to get injured, Zidane has two or three outstanding other talents to select, while there is a constant battle to get into the starting lineup. The return of Hazard from injury will have been especially pleasing for fans on Sunday evening, with the Belgian starring.
Elsewhere, Marco Asensio will be looking to finish the season strongly, having now recovered from his serious injury. The options are endless for Zidane. But one player he will not have at his disposal is Luka Jovic, who could potentially miss the rest of the campaign through injury.
Of course, the Serbian has struggled to make a real impression during his first season in Madrid, but the lack of cover for Karim Benzema will be a concern.
Two points separate Barcelona and Real Madrid, that’s all. It could go either way, but considering Real’s squad depth as well as the fixtures left to play (and the timings of them), it appears as though Real Madrid are in a slightly stronger position and should be considered the favourites.
Barcelona’s run of games against Sevilla, Athletic Club, Celta Vigo, Atletico Madrid and Villarreal could make or break their season. The problem, however, is with games set to be played every three or four days, Barça could be in a very dangerous position should any player suffer an injury. This isn’t the case for Madrid.
Overall, we can expect a very tight title race, but Real may just come out on top.
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