This is arguably the biggest weekend of the season so far in La Liga with all the top four involved in big games, where real potential exists for them to drop points. While it’s still too early for the results to have a decisive impact on the destiny of the title, this is unquestionably the kind of weekend where a big momentum shift could take place.
Los Blancos hoping to hold on to top spot
Real Madrid are desperately hoping that the status quo is maintained. They’ve topped the table since October despite having played an inferior number of games to their rivals, however defeat at the Mestalla on Wednesday in one of their games in hand has raised fresh doubts about their ability to see the job through.
They have another really tricky game on Sunday as they head to Villarreal and they may well have been knocked off top spot by the time that kicks off. The Yellow Submarine have been a bit inconsistent this season but they have tended to raise their game against the stronger sides. Fran Escribá’s men are unbeaten in their seven matches against the current top five in La Liga and are always tough to beat at the Estadio de la Cerámica, as it is now known.
With Gareth Bale still not fit enough to start, Real may struggle to break down the side with the best defensive record in La Liga and it will be another real test of Zinedine Zidane’s tactical nous. He has invariably got it right in the big games during during his tenure but did attract some rare criticism on Wednesday, particularly with regards to his Second Half substitutions which many felt were poorly judged and ultimately failed to turn the game around.
If they were to concede top spot this weekend, Los Blancos may now have to wait a while to get it back. Celta Vigo’s surprise progress in Europe on Thursday, means that Real’s game in hand at Balaidos may now be pushed all the way back to the final week of the season and that will not be an easy match to have so late in the campaign.
Barça continue to bemuse ahead of tough trip to improving Atleti
A bad week for Los Blancos, would ordinarily do much to lift spirits in Barcelona, but right now they have far too many of their own problems to worry much about what’s going on in Madrid.
The general consensus seemed to be that Barcelona would respond to their mauling in Paris by unleashing their anger and most likely a flurry of goals on struggling Leganes last weekend. As it turned out they needed a 90th minute penalty from Leo Messi to secure three points in that game with their performance bafflingly bad at times. They only had two more shots than their relegation-threatened opponents and for by no means the first time this season, we were left reflecting on a hugely subdued performance from the defending champions.
A repeat of that level in this weekend’s game away to Atletico Madrid, could lead to a match that is every bit as one-sided as the one we witnessed in the French capital less than a fortnight ago. Atleti have shown real signs of life this week with Antoine Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro linking up brilliantly to help them score four in successive away games.
With Jan Oblak and Diego Godin set to be rushed back from injury to take their places in the side, this will be close to a full-strength Atleti that Barca are up against. Diego Simeone’s men will certainly be targeting three points too and it would just fire them back onto the fringes of the title picture.
If they do win this, Atleti would be only three points behind Barcelona and with the superior head-to-head record, which determines things in the event of two sides finishing level on points. They’d still be reliant on a few more slip-ups from Real Madrid but it would be the clearest sign yet that Atleti are nearing a return to their best and it would certainly be something to build from.
From a neutral’s perspective, slip ups for the traditional ‘big two’ this weekend could set up one of the most fascinating title races in years. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid have looked really fragile at times since the turn of the year and they are by no means the only players in this title race.
Sevilla – Genuine Title Contenders
Sevilla have to be viewed as genuine contenders and they once again showed the quality of football they are capable of against Leicester in the Champions League on Wednesday night. They are so dominant at home, that it’s hard to see them falling off the pace and if they can maintain their recent improvements on the road, then they will at least be in the picture going into the final few weeks of the campaign.
They cross the city to take on Real Betis at the Estadio Benito Villamarín in Spanish football’s feistiest local dust-up this Saturday, which kicks off what should be a cracking weekend at the top end of La Liga. They’ve been the dominant force in Seville derbies in recent years and Betis haven’t even scored in any of the last six meetings but Victor Sanchez has sorted their home form out, so this won’t be an easy game for Sampaoli’s men.
However as well as again securing local pride, Sevilla have the huge incentive of going top of La Liga if they can claim maximum points and that would just add a little more pressure on Real Madrid and Barcelona who both play the following day.
The title race in La Liga has had a tendency to go right down to the wire in recent years and with Sevilla in the hunt too this season, this weekend could just be the hors d’oeuvre for what promises to be a fascinating few months at the top end of the division.