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Why this weekend’s fixtures could define La Liga’s title race

2017-01-24 12:09:21 | Author: Muhammad Butt | Source:squawka
Abstract:We head into week 19 of La Liga with the title race threatening to heat up.

Only two points separate the top three clubs, Sevilla are just one point off the top spot with Barcelona one further back. Meanwhile, Atlético are back in fourth just six points off leaders Real Madrid (albeit Los Blancos have a game-in-hand).

Now Madrid have lost two matches in a row, one of them in the Copa del Rey, their aura of invincibility seems to have faded. Now the points lead they had doesn’t look so daunting and now it seems feasible they could lose the one or two games they have to in order for their rivals to overtake them.

Week 19 is the final week of the first half of La Liga, which means that next week the fixtures return to the same order they began at in Week 1, only with the home/away order flipped. So, Sevilla played Espanyol at home on the opening weekend of this season, meaning that next week they will travel to the Cornella El-Prat for the return fixture.

What that means is that this week is essentially a preview of the final weekend of the Liga season. The games played this weekend will be repeated in Week 38, a day which will obviously be decisive for the title race. But what’s notable is that Week 19 itself could be decisive.

Two of the contenders have fairly straightforward games, whilst two of them have trickier ties. How could those games play out? How will they impact the Title race? Squawka investigates!

 

Real Madrid

The first of the title challengers in action is league leaders Los Blancos, they’re also the only side of the four to play at home, so that’s two major advantages for them before they’ve even taken the field. And they’ll need those advantages as they come into the game in the worst form of the contenders.

Having gone a barely believable 40 games (a Spanish record) without losing, Madrid have now lost two games in a row. The first defeat was against Sevilla, with Jorge Sampaoli’s men finally figuring them out after losing and drawing the first two games against Los Blancos this season. It was a thrilling last minute defeat, the kind they have repeatedly inflicted on opponents during their 40 game run.

Celta Vigo won 1-2 at the Santiago Bernabeu in the Copa del Rey midweek.

But that it was followed up by a poor performance against Celta in the Copa, despite a strong side being put out, this should be worrying for Madrid. Great runs like theirs are often followed by a rebalancing period where the side has to adjust to their refound mortality.

Luckily for Los Blancos, their opponents Málaga are in wretched form. They haven’t won in seven games (since the end of November) and have lost the last four in a row. So even with their current travails, Madrid should get their groove back, get the win and move four points ahead of Sevilla.

 

Sevilla

Sevilla are the second side to play at the weekend. Their defeat in Madrid the only one they’ve suffered in the last nine games. They’ve played four times in 2017, three of them against Madrid. After that chastening defeat, Sampaoli learned his lessons. Sevilla were unlucky to only draw the second game and then in the third they finally vanquished Los Blancos.

Their other game in 2017 saw them brutalise fifth place Real Sociedad 0-4 in San Sebastian. That was La Real’s heaviest home defeat since April 2014 and an unerringly good performance. Sevilla are rolling right now, probably the finest side in Spain. Sampaoli’s ideas have really taken hold and they are really playing with great harmony and precision, meanwhile, Osasuna are rock bottom of La Liga.

The Navarran club have drawn their last three games, and they lost the one before that at home to Eibar. They’re just not very good, and the only thing going for them is that Pamplona is 847 miles away from Seville and they’re playing at midday (in Spain). This is such a mismatch that they’re left hoping for Sevilla to just sort of show up confused and tired and maybe somehow they could nick it.

 

Atlético Madrid

Atleti are clinging onto their place in the title race with their fingernails at this point. They’re six points behind Madrid as it is and Los Blancos have a game in hand. This is further muddied because their game this weekend is easily the hardest of the top four.

24 hours after Madrid kick off against Málaga, Atleti do the same in Bilbao against the powerful Athletic Club. Usually a daunting prospect, in the last three years this has actually been a happy hunting ground for Los Colchoneros.

Atleti won the corresponding fixture last season thanks to a Fernando Torres goal.

Atléti have won on their last four visits to San Mámes (three La Liga, one Copa) and have lost just one of their last eight games, and that was a fixture they could afford to lose, while winning the other seven. However Athletic have lost just once at home all season, and that was the first game of the season to Barcelona.

Now out of the Copa del Rey, Athletic will be able to throw all their energy into stopping Atleti and ending their barren run against them. This is bad news for Los Colchoneros, any more dropped points while Madrid are sure to win will see Atletico’s fingernails slip and them fall fully out of the title race.

 

Barcelona

The last match of the weekend sees Barcelona step up to try and keep pace. They’ve had an up-and-down season, with Luis Enrique prioritising the bedding in of new signings to the detriment of the side’s coherence. But that patience is now starting to pay off and Barcelona are starting to look like Barcelona again, they just have to hope they haven’t dropped too many points already.

They visit Eibar in good form, coming off three wins in a row, so they will have confidence in themselves. However the match comes just three days after their gruelling 1-0 win against Real Sociedad in Anoeta. The first time Barcelona have beaten La Real away from home since 2007.

It was a monumental win, but it was exhausting and bruising. Midfield maestro Andrés Iniesta left the game at half-time with an injury and won’t be fit for the Eibar clash. It was Barcelona’s only away win of 2017 so far, drawing and losing the other two. And they have the return leg the following midweek.

Meanwhile, Eibar have lost at home just twice all season, drawing four and winning seven times, and have always given the Blaugrana a tough game at the wonderful Ipurua stadium. Coming at the end of the gameweek, with everyone else having played and with Barça’s attentions focused on that brutal tie against La Real to come, this could be a very dangerous banana skin for Barcelona.

Having just gotten back into the title race last week when Madrid lost to Sevilla (having fallen out of it the week before when they drew with Villarreal), Barça need to be at their brilliant best to avoid taking another backwards step. Madrid and Sevilla have easier matches this week, matches they will expect to win, and if the Blaugrana aren’t careful La Liga could very quickly become a two-horse race.

 

 


Related Information:

Barcelona; Real Madrid; La Liga’s title