La Liga is set to return to action after a prolonged layoff due to the coronavirus pandemic, with the Seville derby scheduled to kick off the much-awaited fixtures on Thursday.
The Spanish top flight is not the first major European football league to return from the shutdown caused by the global health crisis; the German Bundesliga has been up and running for a month, with the Premier League and Serie A also expected to return in the next two weeks.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at five things to look forward to as La Liga resumes from Thursday.
#1 The stiff title race between Real Madrid and Barcelona
Barcelona and Real Madrid will predictably draw the bulk of the attention when La Liga resumes as the arch-rivals are once again in the midst of an inflexible title race. The Catalan giants currently sit at the summit of the Spanish top-tier league but only have a two-point lead over their arch-rivals in the capital.
Both clubs have displayed inconsistent and unconvincing performances domestically: while the Blaugrana have suffered five league defeats this season, Los Blancos faced their third defeat of the campaign in a 2-1 loss to Real Betis that saw them give up the top spot.
As things stand, Barcelona will only have to match their Madrid rivals’ results until the end of the season to finish at the top of the standings. Having said that, Real Madrid have a manager who has a track record when it comes to leading his team to glory in the business end of the season.
Zinedine Zidane commandeered a 12-game winning streak towards the end of his first season in charge of the club. While the run was not enough to dethrone the Catalans back then, a similar streak could lead to a much more successful result this season.
Both powerhouses have deformities that could see the title race go either way at the end of the campaign and we can subsequently expect a couple of slip-ups in the weeks to come.
#2 The hotly-contested battle for the Champions League spots
Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Getafe and Atletico Madrid are all set to battle it out in one of the closest battles for Champions League football in the Spanish top flight in recent memory.
Los Palanganas currently occupy third place on the La Liga standings and are favourites to secure one of the elite European spots. They, however, only have a one-point advantage over fourth-placed Real Sociedad, who boast of a lethal attacking line, led by Mikel Oyarzabal and Real Madrid loanee Martin Odegaard.
Getafe, who are indisputably the overachievers of the season, are level on points with the San Sebastian club at sixth place but have a challenging fixture list to overcome if they wish to make it to the top four places.
Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid have endured a particularly underwhelming season domestically and currently sit sixth on the standings. Having said that, Diego Simeone’s side remain one of the best teams in the world, with their Champions League elimination of Premier League champions-elect Liverpool a testament to the fact. As such, they will be determined to rescue their domestic campaign and maintain their status as regular contenders in the European competition.
#3 The equally-intense relegation dogfight
Espanyol, Leganes and Mallorca are the current occupants of La Liga’s relegation spots, with Eibar and Celta Vigo not far behind from the drop zone.
Barcelona’s second club, who sit at the bottom of the table with 20 points, look set to be relegated from the top division after a torrid campaign during which they scored only 23 goals and conceded a staggering 46. The Budgies have not won a league game since February and their fixture list after the lockdown will certainly do them no favours.
Leganes, who sit three points above Espanyol in 19th place, appear to be the most improved team of the group despite losing Martin Braithwaite to Barcelona in February, with 11 of their 14 La Liga defeats coming before Christmas.
Mallorca, on the other hand, occupy 16th place in the La Liga standings and have lost the most games in the Spanish top flight this season, with 16 defeats. Only a single point separates them from Celta Vigo while Eibar are just two points clear of the relegation zone.
The financial repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic mean the relegation dogfight holds heightened importance for the bottom-table clubs, who will have to do whatever it takes to stay in the top division to avoid the economic blow that comes with being dropped.
#4 The unexpected return of superstars with a point to prove
Barcelona’s Luis Suarez and Real Madrid’s Eden Hazard were initially not expected to play any part in the rest of the La Liga title race after both players underwent surgery for their respective injuries earlier this year.
However, the delayed resumption of the remaining fixtures in the Spanish top flight has presented the duo with a unique opportunity to return to the pitch and respond to their critics with improved performances.
Suarez’s future at the Nou Camp has long been questioned as multiple reports have claimed that Barcelona have already begun looking for his long-term replacement. At 33, the Uruguayan is aware that he is approaching the twilight years of his career and has even acknowledged the Catalans’ plans for a successor.
Before his knee surgery in January, the former Liverpool man played an important part in the Blaugrana’s attacking set-up and often showed up for them in crucial games. Despite his age and his injury troubles this campaign, he is still La Liga’s third-highest goalscorer with 11 goals.
Meanwhile, Hazard has endured a slow start to life at the Santiago Bernabeu after he left Chelsea to join the Spanish giants for a fee in the region of €100 million last summer. Like Suarez, the Belgian’s season has been hit with injuries and he subsequently made only 10 league appearances, during which he scored one goal.
#5 The rising stars of La Liga
The current season has witnessed the rise of some excellent new stars in La Liga and the remaining fixtures of the campaign will prove to be crucial in determining their futures.
Martin Odegaard, who is on loan at Real Sociedad from Real Madrid, has been exceptional for the San Sebastian club this season and appears to have secured his future at the Santiago Bernabeu with his scintillating displays.
The 21-year-old midfielder has registered four goals and five assists for La Real this term and his creative exploits have attracted attention from a host of European giants, including his parent club, who will be keen to bring him back to the capital to improve their underwhelming attacking set-up.
Ferran Torres, who currently plies his trade for Valencia, is also one of the best young Spanish players in La Liga, whose services are coveted across Europe. Los Ches are currently 7th on the league standings, three points off the Champions League places, and are on the verge of losing the winger, who has only a year left on his existing contract.
The next few games will, therefore, be important for Valencia not only in terms of the standings but also in terms of keeping Torres from leaving the club.
Apart from Odegaard and Torres, two other Real Madrid loanees- Take Kubo at Real Mallorca and Oscar Rodriguez at Leganes- have proven that they have the potential to become future stars and will play key roles as their clubs fight relegation in the remaining fixtures.