La Liga returns to action on Thursday and there is plenty at stake with the title race, European places and the battle to avoid relegation all wide open.
Games will be played behind closed doors every single day so the pace will be frantic, and with a host of compelling storylines to cover here is your guide to the remainder of the Spanish season.
- What is it like managing La Liga team as Spanish football returns?
- De Jong on life at Barcelona
- Gary Lineker on ‘bewildering’ Lionel Messi
Suarez’s return to boost Barca?
A tight title race is in store, with Barcelona two points ahead of Real Madrid.
But neither team has convinced. Barca have particularly struggled away from home, dropping points on 11 occasions on their travels in all competitions. Financial problems are forcing coach Quique Setien, appointed in January, to work with a threadbare squad containing only 18 senior professionals (excluding Ousmane Dembele, who is out indefinitely through injury).
Setien’s resources are especially stretched in defence. With Clement Lenglet suspended and Samuel Umtiti returning from the latest of many injuries, Gerard Pique could be the only available central defender for Saturday’s trip to Real Mallorca.
Young Uruguayan Ronald Araujo, who was sent off 14 minutes into his only previous first-team appearance, could be thrown in at the deep end.
Barca’s strength, of course, lies at the other end of the field. Lionel Messi is once again the league’s leading scorer (19 goals in 22 appearances), and a huge bonus is the return of Luis Suarez, who was set to miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury before the pause in action allowed him to recover.
But it will take more than the magical Messi-Suarez combination to secure the title, and Barca were looking disjointed and disconnected both on and off the pitch before the break.
Repeated speculation over the futures of midfielders Arthur, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal will hardly help restore unity, and guiding a small, ageing and dissatisfied squad through a hectic schedule (there is already concern over Messi after he picked up a knock in training) will be a severe challenge for Setien, who has never won a major trophy.
Can Real find consistency?
There is no such shortage of options for Zinedine Zidane, especially as the Real Madrid boss can now call upon Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio after their returns from injury.
The question, however, is which of the many front men at Zidane’s disposal can hit the target. Other than Karim Benzema, who netted 12 of his 14 league goals before January, Real’s seven forwards – including Hazard, Gareth Bale and Luka Jovic – have scored a measly 12 league goals between them all season.
Real had lost three of their four games before the interruption and, although their overall play has generally been more convincing than Barcelona’s, their lack of penalty-box precision could cost a title that should be there for the taking.
One potentially significant factor is Real’s temporary move away from the Bernabeu, which is undergoing reconstruction work. Instead, Zidane’s men will host games at the 6,000 capacity Alfredo di Stefano Stadium, located within the club’s training complex and normally used by the reserve team. (Mid-table Levante, based in Valencia, will similarly stage their home games nearly 100 miles away, near Alicante).
Playing within the confines of their training ground, Zidane’s players are obviously familiar with their temporary matchday surroundings. But the prospect of visiting a humble 6,000-seater rather than the vast Bernabeu is a far less daunting proposition for opponents and that lack of home-field advantage could be telling.
Clash of styles in top-four race
The race for Champions League qualification is extremely close, with five teams separated by five points.
Third place is currently occupied by Sevilla, who will get the ball rolling on Thursday at home to city rivals Real Betis, but two highly contrasting teams are in hot pursuit. Real Sociedad are arguably the most exciting young side in Europe, with classy playmaker Martin Odegaard supported by midfielder Mikel Merino, winger Mikel Oyarzabal and Swedish striker Alexander Isak to create a free-flowing collective.
Getafe, on the other hand, are widely regarded as ugly but effective. Barca boss Setien once raged that their rugged style “makes my blood boil”, but Jose Bordalas’s team play to their strengths better than anyone else and deserve huge credit for making the most of what they’ve got.
The chasing pack is completed by Valencia and Atletico Madrid, who are psychologically lifted following their extraordinary Champions League triumph at Anfield but who have already suffered another injury blow after Portuguese starlet Joao Felix broke down in training.
At the bottom, the big storyline is whether Espanyol can escape the drop. The rock-bottom Barcelona-based club have spent 85 of La Liga’s 89 seasons in the top flight, but they are currently six points from safety and on their third manager of the season (former Barca defender Abelardo) after winning four games out of 27.
Five other teams are in danger, including Ronaldo-owned Real Valladolid, but Espanyol’s demise – a year after they qualified for Europe – will take some avoiding.
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