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Barcelona and Real Madrid ready to renew La Liga title battle

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Barcelona and Real Madrid ready to renew La Liga title battle
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Barcelona and Real Madrid ready to renew La Liga title battle

Barcelona lead Real Madrid by two points ahead of the 11 remaining games; follow Mallorca vs Barcelona on Saturday and Real Madrid vs Eibar on Sunday
La Liga is back – and that means the resumption of a title race between Real Madrid and Barcelona that could go right to the wire.

In truth, Spain’s heavyweights have been a shadow of their former selves this season but at least they’ve had the good grace to do it fairly evenly – just two points separate the sides with 11 games remaining.

Real will feel more than a little aggrieved not to have been top of the table before the league was suspended. El Clasico was the penultimate game before the closure, where goals from Vinicius Junior and Mariano saw Madrid run out 2-0 winners and go one point clear at the top.

A trip to mid-table Real Betis a week later would dethrone them though, after a 2-1 defeat and a performance that head coach Zinedine Zidane said “might be our worst of the season”. Barcelona had already squeezed past Real Sociedad thanks to a controversial Lionel Messi penalty to go back to the summit.
Barcelona have the slight advantage after 27 games. Since 2010/11, only one side has failed to go on to lift the trophy after being top at this stage. That was Real Madrid, who eventually finished third as neighbours Atletico lifted the trophy.
Real have one more home game left than Barcelona, with back-to-back home fixtures in store when the league returns. Zidane’s side are unbeaten at home in the league this season but, as we’ve seen already in the Bundesliga, home advantage seems to be reduced behind-closed-doors.
The advantage could be further diminished as Madrid will not be playing at the Bernabeu again this season due to refurbishment plans. Instead, games will be at the reserve team’s 6,000-seater Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium.

Both sides still have to face the current bottom three. Barcelona will be eased back into football with games against Mallorca and Leganes – 18th and 19th respectively – while Real will finish their season against Leganes, who will either have nothing to play for – or could be scrapping for their La Liga status.

Barcelona have already lost twice to Athletic Bilbao this season away from home
Barcelona have already lost twice to Athletic Bilbao this season away from home
Statistically, Barcelona have a very slight advantage in the run-in. Their remaining opponents have a current average position of 13th, with Real’s averaging 12th.

Barcelona recorded eight wins against the 11 teams they have left to play, suffering draws to current bottom-side Espanyol and Osasuna, with defeat by Athletic Bilbao.

As for Real Madrid, they failed to record victories against four of their upcoming opponents, with draws against Valencia, Bilbao and Villarreal. They have to face league minnows Mallorca again, who provided the shock result of the season by beating them 1-0 back in October. In this entirely unscientific prediction, if both sides mirrored those results, Barcelona would pick up the title by four points.

Two crucial gameweeks
Sevilla could dent Barcelona’s title big when they face off in gameweek 30
Sevilla could dent Barcelona’s title big when they face off in gameweek 30
The Spanish title could come down to results in two key rounds of fixtures.

Gameweek 30 sees Barcelona face their biggest remaining challenge with an away trip to Sevilla. Although the title will be beyond them, third-placed Sevilla still have plenty to fight for with just two points separating them and sixth-placed Atletico.

You’d be hard pushed to find a Real Madrid fan with a positive word to say about former boss Julen Lopetegui, after his ill-fated two-month spell at the Bernabeu last season, which culminated in a 5-1 thumping by Barca. But if his Sevilla side can topple Barcelona, he might just be granted freedom of the city.

Martin Odegaard celebrates after scoring against his parent club
Martin Odegaard celebrates after scoring against his parent club
Real also face an away trip to fourth-placed Real Sociedad, the side who knocked them out of the Copa del Rey this season with a thrilling 4-3 win. Real loanee Martin Odegaard got the opener that day; could he play a part in preventing his parent club from reclaiming the Spanish crown?

One other gameweek to highlight is 33, when Real’s rivals Atletico could do their city neighbours the biggest of favours when they travel to the Nou Camp. Real will have to produce the goods against fifth-placed Getafe though, who continue to be La Liga’s surprise package. They’re building on last season’s fifth-place finish, as they hunt a first Champions League spot.

Real tight at the back
Zinedine Zidane will be proud of Madrid’s defensive record so far this season
Zinedine Zidane will be proud of Madrid’s defensive record so far this season
Real Madrid have arguably boasted the largest array of world-class attacking talent in club football this century. Cristiano Ronaldo, Raul, Ronaldo Luis Nazario and current head coach Zidane have made the side synonymous with attacking play. Even centre-back Sergio Ramos is approaching 100 goals for the club. Not bad… but still some way off his predecessor Fernando Hierro’s haul of 127.

Perhaps the first time this century, Ramos and Co. have made Madrid’s defence their most valuable asset. How much this pleases the Bernabeu crowd is another topic altogether but the stats are undeniably impressive. They’ve conceded just 19 league goals all season, fewer than any other club in Europe’s top five leagues.

The last time the club had conceded so few – in fact, one fewer than at this stage – was way back in 1987/88. Last season, it took them just 13 games to concede 19 goals.

This tightest of defences has led to them being incredibly hard to beat. Only Liverpool (one) and Lazio (two) have lost fewer than Madrid’s three league games this season. The problem has been at the other end and a huge Cristiano-shaped hole that is proving predictably impossible to fill.

Madrid have only managed 49 league goals so far this season, 16 worse off than at this point in Ronaldo’s final season at the club. Coincidentally, he only played 27 league games that season. He scored 26 goals.

There’s only so much an ageing Karim Benzema can do. The lack of goals has led to too many draws, eight compared to Barca’s four, and this ultimately could cost them the title.

Injury boosts
Real haven’t been helped by injuries to their attacking talents though. Eden Hazard has been restricted to just 10 league games since his big-money move from Chelsea last summer, undergoing surgery on his ankle in March.

Marco Asensio hasn’t played a single minute of football this season, after rupturing his ACL against Arsenal in a pre-season match. The good news for fans is that the exciting pair are both back in training and could be fit for the run-in.

Luis Suarez underwent surgery on his right knee earlier this year
Luis Suarez underwent surgery on his right knee earlier this year
But Barca have had some very positive injury news too.

Luis Suarez, who only trails Messi and Benzema in the race for the Golden Boot, is back in training after undergoing knee surgery in January. An all-firing front three of Messi, Suarez and Antoine Griezmann would strike fear into any defence.

The La Liga title could then come down to which former Premier League star can make the biggest impact upon their return.

Suarez or Hazard? Barcelona or Real Madrid?

Real Madrid have had an enormous problem converting their match superiority not just into goals but match-winning goals. I think they began to look a bit ragged and tired.

Nobody would have wished for this gap and its consequences but I think they will come back sharper and stronger. I was speaking to Ruben Baraja, the Valencia legend who is the current Tenerife coach, and he was saying that, in his opinion, the teams who are as close to competitive sharpness as possible won’t just win but win by heavy margins.

Which of Real Madrid and Barcelona will have trained and built up better in a short period of time? I think both of them will dislike playing in games without atmosphere – every top player, when you’re playing away and rival fans are taunting you, rises to the occasion. It’s going to be much more about mental toughness.

I think we’ll see a battle right to the end but if Messi is fit and at full gas, I see Barcelona dropping fewer points against the so-called lesser sides. Let’s see – it’s fascinating.

Terry Gibson (Spanish football pundit)

It’s difficult to predict who is going to win the title but I’m going to go for Barcelona for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Luis Suarez is fit again after being expected to miss the entire season and it’s going to be interesting to see his recovery after his knee operation as it has been something he has been struggling with for a few seasons now. If fit and sharp he could be decisive.

Real Madrid do also have two players back who were also expected to miss the rest of the campaign in Hazard and Asensio but Suarez has the potential to score more than the two of those put together in the last 11 games. Secondly, I believe the fact that Real Madrid playing their games at the Valdebebas training centre in a 6,000 capacity stadium will hinder them.

I understand that nobody will be in the stadiums anyway but even playing in an empty Nou Camp will still intimidate opposing teams. Can you imagine how big that pitch and bowl of a stadium will look and feel even empty compared to the Di Stefano stadium with two small stands, I worry it will have a training game feel for both sets of players involved in games there.

David Garrido (Sky Sports News Presenter and La Liga Expert)

 

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