La Liga returns with a bang after the international. Following a thrilling opening 13 games there are only seven points between the final European qualification spot and 17th, one place above the drop zone. Here are my five things to look out for this weekend.
Gareth Bale Watch
Saturday will make 49 days since Gareth Bale last pulled on a Real Madrid shirt and the drama surrounding him has done nothing but intensify in the Spanish media during that time. The Welshman sustained an injury on international duty with Wales in October and has not played since, until this week – that is when he helped his nation secure qualification to Euro 2020.
In the subsequent celebrations he was pictured with a flag stating “Wales, Golf, Madrid, in that order,'' which has antagonised Los Blancos followers. Saturday could test that relationship as Bale is fit and ready to take the field again as Madrid play Real Sociedad at the Santiago Bernabeau. The Basque side will look to demonstrate their top four ambitions by pulling off a shock and being the first side to win on Madrid’s home turf this season.
Barcelona have opened contract extension negotiations with Lionel Messi and the Argentinian is in full flow following a slow start to the season. The magician has now scored in each of his last five La Liga games, notching eight goals in the process. He will be looking to increase that number when top face bottom as the Blaugrana travel to Leganes, with Javier Aguirre looking for his first points as boss for the hosts.
Villarreal’s feast turns to famine
Just three games ago, free-scoring Villarreal were riding high as part of the chasing pack at the top of La Liga. Despite packing the Spain side with their talent this week, three bad results means the Yellow Submarine have sunk back to mid-table. Once top scorers in La Liga, they have scored just twice in three games – and one of those was a penalty. Villarreal will be hoping their good form at Estadio de la Cerámica returns as they face struggling Celta Vigo, who are yet to win on the road.
Best of the Rest
With the big two having a game in hand and Messi looking his imperious self again, it could turn out to be a competition for a Champions League spot for several sides. The two who look to be in the best shape currently are Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, managed by Julen Lopetegui. The Andalusians are the form side in La Liga right now and have the best record away from home. Following their Gran Derbi win over Real Betis they will be full of confidence and close the weekend away to Real Valladolid. Meanwhile, despite six draws already this season, Atleti sit just a point off top spot. Los Rojiblancos look to be warming up just at the right time as they face a tough run of Granada, Barcelona and Villarreal in their next three games. They will be without Diego Costa but are boosted by the return of Joao Felix.
Home sweet home
There are six teams yet to win away from home this season in La Liga and one without a single point to their name on their travels, Real Mallorca. Of those six clubs, four of them are away from home this weekend and will be looking to end their run. Pointless Mallorca open the weekend at Levante, with Granada facing the most daunting fixtures of all, visiting El Sadar where Osasuna are a record 31 games unbeaten. Oscar Garcia takes Celta Vigo to an out-of-form Villarreal, but probably with the best chance to take all three points are Alaves who make the short trip to the Ipurua to face Eibar in a regional Basque derby.