After a lengthy layoff because of the coronavirus pandemic, Spain's top flight is set to return to action on Thursday, June 11 as Sevilla face Real Betis in the Seville derby, with a full round of games following that weekend including Barcelona vs. Leganes (June 16) and Real Madrid vs. Valencia (June 18).
Jump to: Barca's title chances | Can Real pull it off? | Make-or-break for Atletico Madrid | Who has edge in top-four race? | End of the Barca derby? | Must-see matches | Rising stars to watch | Who has a point to prove? | Safety protocols
Title race: Are Barcelona the front-runners?
Barcelona have two factors in their favour when they resume their bid for a third successive La Liga title on Saturday with a trip to Mallorca. The first is that they begin the final 11 games with a two-point lead over Real Madrid. They just have to match Madrid's results between now and the end of the season to finish top. The second advantage they have is Lionel Messi, the league's top scorer (19) and assist provider (12). In 10 of the past 15 seasons, the team with Messi has won the title.
Messi's fitness has been a cause for concern over the past week, though. He missed two training sessions due to a thigh injury, although he is now back in full training and coach Quique Setien insists he's in "perfect" shape ahead of the league's restart. A packed fixture schedule will be the test of whether or not that's true. La Liga president Javier Tebas wants the league concluded before July 19, meaning two games a week for the next six weeks. Keeping Messi, who turns 33 this month, fresh is the challenge.
There are other challenges for Barca. No one thinks this will be straight-forward. For starters, their run-in is tricky. They still have to play away at Sevilla and Villarreal, places where they have struggled in the past, while they have tough home games to come against Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid. There's also a Catalan derby against Espanyol at Camp Nou pending.
Setien is also working with a small squad thanks to a January cull of fringe players and B-teamers. Ousmane Dembele will not play in the league again this season, leaving just 20 registered first-team players. Help from the club's vaunted academy, La Masia, will be needed. Meanwhile, there is the never-ending debate about the team's style and the jury is still out on Setien, who replaced Ernesto Valverde in January. His football philosophy drew Barca to him; now he must prove he can convert that into trophies.
What Setien does have is a squad brimming with experience and a fit-again Luis Suarez. The striker returns after five months sidelined with a knee injury. Along with Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and Messi, he's part of the spine of a team that has dominated Spanish football over the last decade. They know how to close titles out.
Sources close to the dressing room say the players have returned from lockdown in much better shape than they were in at the start of the season -- although they wouldn't say otherwise, would they?. They will need to be, too, because the next few weeks are going to be relentless. But with a two-point head start and the genius of Messi, the ball is in Barca's court. -- Sam Marsden
Title race: Breaking down Real Madrid's chances
One name is enough to explain why Real Madrid believe they can beat Barcelona to the title: Eden Hazard. A debut season in which the €100m man had been almost an irrelevance -- arriving overweight, starting slowly, missing months through injury -- was supposed to be over when Hazard underwent ankle surgery in Dallas in March. Reports from Valdebebas suggest his sharpness since regaining full fitness has surprised everybody, with a hat trick in a training ground practice match last week serving as a calling card. Real Madrid are at this point -- two points off top spot with 11 games to go -- without a meaningful contribution from La Liga's second most-talented player behind Messi. If the Belgian winger starts firing on all cylinders now, anything is possible.
Hazard isn't alone, either. Marco Asensio -- also expected to miss the entire season after rupturing cruciate ligaments last July -- is back too. Coach Zinedine Zidane likes the idea of pairing them both with striker Karim Benzema in a first-choice front three. Gareth Bale has bested the entire squad in a series of fitness tests throughout this mini-preseason and should enjoy playing without hearing fans' whistles for once. Vinicius Jr. offers a dynamic alternative and may benefit from the lack of fan pressure, having struggled for confidence this year. Run through the team, position by position, and it becomes clear that Real Madrid enjoy a depth of squad that Barcelona simply can't match. With five subs allowed per game, Zidane will have the opportunity to take full advantage.
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Other fixtures in the first-team will not expect to rotate. Much, as always, will depend on defensive midfielder Casemiro, the only player without a natural replacement; captain Sergio Ramos always saves his best form for the business end of the season; Thibaut Courtois has become a candidate for best goalkeeper in La Liga after an inconsistent start. And then there are bit-part players like James Rodriguez, Mariano and Brahim Diaz who have been limited in their contributions so far and will be desperate to make amends. Only €60m striking flop Luka Jovic will be forced to watch from the sideline, a bizarre year ended by a broken foot suffered in still-mysterious circumstances.
Then there's the coach. Zidane has a track record when it comes to leading Real Madrid to a flawless end-of-year run. He inspired the team to a record-breaking 12 straight wins at the end of his first season in charge, 2015-16, a streak that wasn't enough to overhaul leaders Barcelona. Eleven consecutive wins now would surely see a different outcome. Madrid's fixtures are winnable -- away trips to Basque sides Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao are arguably the most difficult tests -- with four games to play against teams in La Liga's bottom five.
Playing home games at the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium is a wild card that may become a disadvantage if fans are allowed back into stadia in July. Madrid took the decision to speed up construction work at the Bernabeu when clubs were warned to expect behind-closed-doors games until 2021, but the panorama has shifted radically since then. If Barcelona are being cheered on by 30,000 fans at Camp Nou next month while Madrid remain at the 6,000 capacity Di Stefano, expect to hear some vocal complaints.
Remember too that while Barcelona have a two-point lead, Real Madrid have the head-to-head advantage after their El Clasico win back in March. If the pair finish level on points, Madrid will take home the trophy. -- Kirkland.
Title race: Make-or-break time for Atletico
Atletico Madrid's season -- at least until their now-infamous 3-2 win at Anfield in the Champions League -- has been underwhelming. So has €126m wonder-kid Joao Felix. Atletico like to play the role of underdogs, but make no mistake: this is now a top-tier club operating on a top-tier budget. Unlike Sevilla, Real Sociedad and Getafe, they don't just dream about Champions League qualification. Their business plan depends on it. Already struggling for liquidity before COVID-19 hit, the pandemic left the club on the ropes, with manager Diego Simeone and his players taking a 70% pay cut. Failure to make the top four would be a knockout blow.
This season was supposed to be different. Simeone admitted last summer that Atletico were no longer "the club of the people," settled in the state-of-the-art Wanda Metropolitano stadium with a training complex to match on the way. He also suggested (not for the first time) that their football might be more expansive. Instead, they have found scoring goals difficult, while their defence is no longer the best in La Liga: 21 goals conceded to Real Madrid's 19.
There are plenty of positives: in goal, Jan Oblak remains the best in the business; centre-back Felipe has been one of the revelations of the season; midfielders Thomas Partey and Saul Niguez are coveted by half of Europe; Felix, Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa should be a top-notch attacking trio, even if performances have frequently suggested otherwise.
One further motivational factor (if any were needed) is the departure of Simeone's much-loved right-hand man German "Mono" Burgos. He deserves a fitting send-off, and Atletico doing something special now -- perhaps in Europe -- would be very Atletico. As captain Koke said last week: "Strange things are happening. With Atleti strange things always happen. This could be our year." -- Kirkland.
Who should you go for in top-four race?
There's a team for all tastes in the hotly contested battle for Champions League qualification. Sevilla (47 points) and Real Sociedad (46) currently lead the race, but in close pursuit are Getafe (46), Atletico (45) and Valencia (42). Given the congested nature of the table, there will be little room for error over the next six weeks as the five teams vie for two places.
Real Sociedad are the hipster's choice. Martin Odegaard, Alexander Isak and Mikel Oyarzabal are three young players who have made big waves this season. Beyond them, the squad is packed with quality and coach Imanol Alguacil has made them great fun to watch. And who can resist the lure of San Sebastian? Set on the beautiful beach of La Concha, you tell any Spaniard you're visiting the city and they will respond with the same uniformed line: 'Uffff, you'll eat well there!'
Getafe are the less-fancied option. Jose Bordalas has worked wonders with the Madrid club, but they're the dictionary definition of unfashionable. They are a team of journeymen (their three top scorers -- Angel Rodriguez, Jaime Mata and Jorge Molina -- are aged 33, 31 and 38) and football purist Setien, the Barca coach, has (unfairly) criticised their style of play. They may not play glamorous football, but they're well-drilled, work hard and press diligently.
Sevilla and Atletico should be the favourites. The former have just three wins in nine since the return of the league, but currently sit third and have a far bigger budget than La Real and Getafe. As for Atletico, the best of the rest outside of Barca and Madrid for so long now, it would be a disaster if they came up short.
Valencia are another of Spain's big clubs. Given the rocky nature of their season, though, and the fact they're five points back from Sevilla, they are the outside bet. -- Marsden
Relegation threat could end the Barcelona derby
While Barca sit top of the table, just 5 miles (8 kilometres) across the Catalan city, local rivals Espanyol are circling the drain and are in danger of being flushed out of the top flight for the first time since 1993. They've spent just four seasons in the second division -- and never two in a row -- since La Liga was founded in 1929, but that's where they were heading when the league was suspended.
Espanyol are bottom of the pile with 20 points (six from safety) and have a tough fixture list ahead of them. They still have to face Barca, Real Madrid and Valencia. Games against mid-table dwellers like Alaves, Levante and Real Betis will be targeted in terms of picking up points, but it's the matches against those at the bottom that will define their season. They still have to play Leganes (19th, 23 points), Eibar (16th, 27 points) and then, on the final day of the campaign, Celta Vigo (17th, 26 points).
Barca fans will celebrate their demise, but it would be sad for the league. It may not be the most competitive derby in Spain, but it's thrown up plenty of storylines in recent years. From the Tamudazo in 2007 to more recent clashes -- on and off the pitch -- with Pique, it's often delivered on theatrics.
To stay up, Espanyol will need others to flop. Leganes and Mallorca (18th, 25 points) currently join them in the drop zone, but it's going to be an anxious few weeks for Celta, Eibar and Real Valladolid (15th, 29 points), too. Alaves, Levante, Betis and Osasuna complete the bottom half, but with over 30 points they should be safe for another season. -- Marsden
Must-watch fixtures for the run-in
Sevilla vs. Real Betis, June 11: It's the first game back. It's Spain's best derby. Of course you should be watching.
Real Madrid vs. Valencia, June 18: Real Madrid's second game back and their first major test.
Sevilla vs. Barcelona, June 19: Sevilla have enough going forward, especially if the outstanding Lucas Ocampos is fit to cause Barca problems.
Real Sociedad vs. Real Madrid, June 21: Another audition for Martin Odegaard against parent club Real Madrid.
Barcelona vs. Atletico Madrid, TBD: Atleti head to Camp Nou with their top four hopes in the balance.
Rising stars to keep an eye on
These 11 games could determine the future of the best young Spanish player in La Liga: Ferran Torres.
The ever-dysfunctional Valencia, who are seventh, three points off the European places after a stop-start campaign, have somehow got themselves into a position where the 20-year-old has just a year left on his contract. There are no shortage of suitors both domestically and overseas, and it seems inevitable that Torres will leave at some stage. But if Valencia show that they're heading in the right direction, or at least a direction, it might be enough to convince him to renew with a release clause substantially higher than the current €100m.
Real Sociedad are a team packed full of exciting young players (as discussed above) and Odegaard is the one to watch, with Alexander Isak, Mikel Oyarzabal and the underrated Mikel Merino (if the latter two qualify as young, aged 23) not far behind.
At Barcelona and Real Madrid, Ansu Fati and Vinicius Jr. are two teenagers who will benefit from more game time, and their characteristics suit being used as impact subs against tiring, not-yet match fit defences. Fati exploded onto the scene early this season aged just 16 and has, understandably, dropped off a little since then, while Vinicius remains raw and often frustrating but made his biggest impact so far by scoring the opener in Real Madrid's Clasico win in March.
Two youngsters on loan from Madrid -- Take Kubo at Real Mallorca and Oscar Rodriguez at Leganes -- have both impressed and proved themselves capable of being decisive already this season. They will need to deliver if either team are to avoid relegation. At Real Valladolid, another team under threat, defender Mohammed Salisu will want to maintain a level of performance that has seen Atletico Madrid and a number of Premier League teams express an interest. -- Kirkland
Superstars that have a point to prove
Before La Liga was suspended, Barca striker Luis Suarez and Madrid forward Eden Hazard looked set to miss the rest of the season injured. Now, following the three-month pause in competition due to the coronavirus, they have both have the chance to respond to critics on the pitch.
Many wondered if Suarez's Camp Nou career could be over when he underwent knee surgery in January, shortly before turning 33. Suarez himself has acknowledged the club's need for a succession plan and Barca are working on a deal for Inter Milan's Lautaro Martinez. However, he now has 11 games to show he's not ready to step aside yet. The Uruguay international has often delivered when it has mattered for Barca and, despite missing a chunk of the season, he remains the league's third top scorer. His form has been questionable at times but what is undeniable is that Barca, and especially Messi, are better for his presence.
Hazard has not enjoyed the same success at Madrid so far. An injury-hit campaign has seen him restricted to just 10 league appearances and one goal. That would have been a disastrous first-season return for a €100 million signing, but the Belgian has been presented with an unanticipated opportunity to help Zidane's side win a first league title in three years.
Across Madrid, another €100m-plus signing has failed to regularly deliver. Joao Felix has scored just four league goals since joining Atletico from Benfica. If he can start to deliver on his potential over the next month, it would go a long way to helping Simeone's side, who have scored just 31 goals in 27 games, finish in the top four. -- Marsden
Testing protocols for teams, players
La Liga worked relentlessly -- and transparently -- to bring the competition back. In collaboration with the Spanish government, it has drawn up a strict protocol to ensure the league can return, which includes players and officials undergoing coronavirus tests 24 hours before games and having their temperatures taken on the way into stadiums.
Tebas insists positive cases will not derail the campaign. Players would have to isolate, though, and Match Zone data would be utilised to map contact and possible contagions with other players during a game. -- Marsden.