La Liga RETURNS: Barca & Real resume title race as Sevilla aim to cement UCL spot in 'El Gran Derbi'
La Liga was one of the first major football leagues to postpone play amid the Covid-19 outbreak across Europe, and Spain has been one of the worst-hit countries in the world by the deadly disease, having since recorded 242,000 cases of coronavirus and over 27,000 deaths.
After a three-month break, football has finally returned to the Iberian nation, following hot on the heels of the German Bundesliga, and will be played behind closed doors. Spain’s southernmost autonomous region of Andalusia will set the stage for the curtain raiser, as Sevilla welcome fellow Seville team Real Betis for ‘El Gran Derbi’, described as one of the most intense of the cross-city derbies in Spain.
Sevilla currently sit third on 47 points, 11 points off Barcelona in top spot, and with a win could put pressure on second-placed Real by moving within six points of Los Blancos. The reality for Julen Lopetegui’s side is they’ll be looking for three points to try and cement Champions League football for next season.
No side has won more Europa League titles than Sevilla’s five, but the club look set to make the step up a level in Europe for the first time since 2017/18, having enjoyed a fruitful 2019/20 season under former Spain and Real Madrid boss Lopetegui that was only truncated by the virus outbreak, and have lost just one game more than leaders Barca.
Betis on the other hand have not been nearly as successful as their neighbours, and are currently languishing in 12th place in the league eight points off the relegation zone and will need everything available from their remaining fixtures to keep their La Liga status intact for another year.
Among the heavy hitters, the league’s main man Lionel Messi, in search of his 11th La Liga title, leads a Barcelona side perched handsomely in top spot on a trip to the Balearics Islands in their match away to Mallorca on Saturday.
The Argentine maestro has already showed he has gathered minimal rust in the interim by scoring a delicious chip in training recently, the Barca captain's mercurial ability on the field is something that was sorely missed during the league's break.
Barca currently lead the league and title race with fierce rivals Real Madrid trailing by just two points, which will make for an intense run-in over the remaining fixtures.
With the two 'El Clasico' fixtures already having been played out and yielding a draw and a Madrid win, neither side has a too troublesome calendar of remaining games. On paper, only a home match to Atletico Madrid looks like taking any points from Barca's title charge.
However, Real have reportedly been unhappy with the timing and days of their remaining matches, apparently not content that Barca play the majority of their matches before their own, which eliminates the pressure of having to match or capitalise on any previous result from their title rivals, as well as being given less time to recover in between.
One day after the Catalan club kick off their restart to the season in the Spanish Saturday sun, 13-time Champions League winners Real welcome everyone’s favorite hipsters Eibar, who are hovering precariously just one place above the drop zone.
That match will be played at the 6,000-seater Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium, home to second string Real Madrid Castilla, as renovations are ongoing at the club’s usual home of the iconic 81,000 capacity Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. That alone raises the issue of the loss of home advantage, as the challenge of playing in front of a partisan crowd will not be a factor for the visiting side with games going on without fans.
Elsewhere, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid take a trip to the Basque Country to take on Atletic Bilbao. Sixth-placed Atletico are just a point behind Getafe in the league’s last Champions League spot, which they will be determined to land, having despatched holders Liverpool in this season’s tournament before its postponement and featured in two finals of the last six years.
So who will be the big movers and shakers in La Liga? the title race is still on a knife edge, but will we see the usual suspects finish in their usual places or will the break and the new circumstances throw up a few surprises? It's still all to play for in Spain, and play starts again this weekend.