The Bundesliga in Germany will no longer have the stage to itself (with all apologies to Poland’s Ekstraklasa). Thursday afternoon, the Seville Derby between Sevilla and Real Betis will announce La Liga’s return to the soccer and sporting scene. So let’s catch you up on where we are in Spain and where we’re going.
Is Spain Really Ready To Have Soccer Return?
As ready as anyone else is. While Spain was one of the hardest hit countries in Europe, their total lockdown and slow reopening has seen them register just 314 new cases on Tuesday and 167 new cases last Sunday (in a very Spanish way, the slow reopening included a designated outdoor exercise time for those over the age of 70 between 7 and 8pm). The country will begin to open to foreign travel in July, hoping to save as much of their summer tourism business as they can.
There are still strict guidelines for travel between and within provinces, and guidelines about how many people are allowed in various kinds of businesses.
As far as the league itself, its process was similar to Germany’s, with blanket testing and step-ladder stages or a return to training from individual to small groups to full squads. Five players in La Liga and the second division tested positive in the original round and were immediately isolated, only allowed to return to training after two negative tests.
So Where Were We?
Where we always are with La Liga, with Barcelona and Madrid keeping the title discussion a highly private one between themselves. Barca are two points in the lead, and the teams do not play each other again. They could have given themselves quite the cushion right before the break, but were pretty well beaten 2-0 in Madrid two weeks before the shutdown.
Barca’s lead is very shaky considering what their season has looked like as a whole. They’ve been as Lionel Messi-dependent as they’ve ever been. With his 19 goals and 12 assists, Messi has had a hand in half of all of Barca’s goals in the league. Of the rest of the squad, only Luis Suarez has more than 10 goals. They will catch a break in that Suarez was due to miss the rest of the season, or most of it, had it gone on as scheduled. But with the break, he has returned from knee surgery and is available from the jump.
If it weren’t for Messi, Barca could have been a real mess this season. Keeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen has been off-form, Gerard Pique has looked every bit of his 32 years, Frankie de Jong has been an iffy fit in midfield and Antoine Griezmann hasn’t fit in at all at forward (which means we haven’t seen as many of his dumbass goal celebrations as Barca would have hoped). Barca still suffer from being unable to back up their self-produced golden generation of a few years ago, and ask Messi to pull their ass out of a sling pretty much every week. He’s still quite capable of that, however.
Madrid will benefit from similar injury fortune as Barca in their bid to chase them down. Eden Hazard would have missed the rest of a normal season with a broken ankle. Hazard has only appeared 10 times for Madrid this year due to various injury and fitness issues, but they’ve been much better when he’s been around, having a +0.55 better expected-goal differential when he’s been on the field vs. when he’s been off. If he remains healthy throughout the rest of the restarted season, Madrid will be adding one of the five or ten best players in the world. Madrid could certainly use the added firepower, as they’ve scored 14 less goals than Barcelona and only have had Karim Benzema as a consistent scorer. They’ve done it through their impenetrable wall through the middle of Casemiro, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos (and all his shithousery) and Thibaut Courtois.
As far as schedules, Barca have a pretty easy one. Their toughest games are against Champions League chasers Sevilla and Atletico, but the remaining nine games are against teams with nothing to play for or toward the relegation battle.
But Madrid’s run-in is just about as easy, with matches against Valencia and Sociedad the only ones against teams at the top of the table. So this could be quite a sprint.
As if playing behind closed doors wasn’t going to be weird enough for Madrid, they’ll be playing their home games at their training ground stadium, thanks to construction going on at their normal home, the Bernabeu.
What Else Is Worth Paying Attention To?
Lots, actually. The race for the last two Champions League spots (3rd and 4th) is a complete bar brawl, with Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Getafe, Atletico Madrid, and Valencia all within five points of each other. Getafe and Sociedad are great stories, as the former was only promoted three seasons ago and has never finished above 5th in La Liga. Sociedad have been the definition of a mid-table side since returning to La Liga in 2009 and haven’t appeared in the Champions League since the ‘13-’14 season. Sociedad have one of the best players of the season outside of the Madrid-Barca duopoly at the top in Willian Jose.
Atletico are still the walking embodiment of a middle finger, one point behind fourth-place, surrendered the second-least amount of goals at 21, and doing it all with a sneer to match their unhinged manager Diego Simeone. If they can get Alvaro Morata firing in the way his metrics suggest he should be, they’re likely to nab their customary Champions League spot.
At the bottom of the table, six teams are in danger of ending up in the bottom three spots and being relegated to the Segunda. Barcelona’s city rivals Espanyol foot the table and are six points from safety with 20. They’ve been in the top flight for 26 years and have spent 76 seasons in La Liga, so this is quite alien to them. Leganes, Mallorca, Celta Vigo, Eibar, and Real Valladolid are all within six points of each other.
Unlike the Bundesliga, which has stuck to its normal Saturday-Sunday schedule, La Liga will become a television product and offer games every day. So if you get BeIn Sports and are able to listen to Ray Hudson for more than six consecutive seconds without tearing out your own larynx, you’re in for a real treat.