La Liga snapshot: Who are the title contenders, European hopefuls and sides battling relegation

By Cillian Shields l @pile_of_eggs

With ten games remaining, the La Liga table is taking shape as it becomes clearer each week who has what to play for. We can see which teams stand to fight for the title, for Europe, who are sitting comfortably in mid table with little to play for, and who has a relegation battle on their hands.

The three usual suspects are battling it out for the title; Sevilla sit quite comfortably in 4th; Real Sociedad, Real Betis, and Villarreal are contesting for the Europa League spots (although all three could qualify if Barça beat Athletic in the 2020/21 Copa del Rey final); six points separate all of Granada, Athletic Bilbao, Levante, Celta Vigo, and Valencia in mid-table with this quarter of the league looking too far away to push for Europe but with enough of a gap behind them to not have to worry about going down; Osasuna, Cádiz, and Getafe are not out of the woods yet; while Valladolid, Elche, Eibar, Deportivo Alavés, and Huesca are right in the middle of the scrap.

At the top, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid both made life unnecessarily difficult for themselves and could easily have walked away frustrated with two points dropped. Instead, Jan Oblak’s brilliant penalty save from Alavés’s Joselu five minutes from time and Iago Aspas’s free late kick kissing the wrong side of the post for Celta Vigo saw all six points head to the capital.

Karim Benzema

Both of the Madrid sides’ wins came from the most familiar stories we’ve seen all year. In the case of Los Blancos, Karim Benzema was once again more agile, more skillful, and faster of feet and mind than any of his opposing defenders as he knocked in two and bagged an assist for the late decisive third in a 1-3 away win. The Frenchman is enjoying one of his best seasons ever, and even though Madrid don’t look quite at the level of the all-conquering Bayern Munich side of last year, Benzema looks like he wants to emulate the class that his contemporary Robert Lewandowski showed last year on his way to firing his team to Champions League glory.

In the Wanda Metropolitano, the Llorente-Trippier-Suárez connection once again proved fruitful and yielded three more priceless points. How quickly the trio have come to understand each other’s space and movement is outstanding, and if Atleti are to go all the way in the league this year, this right flank will be pivotal, as it has been all season. Between February 8-20, Los Colchoneros dropped six points to Levante and Celta Vigo – a spell right in the middle of Kieran Trippier’s ban.

The Englishman’s absence was felt all over the pitch, as Marcos Llorente was moved to the right to cover for him, and his absence was duly missed in midfield. The former Spurs man is now back and in fine form, helping Diego Simeone’s charges grind out win after win again. They do not need to do anything else but win ugly, although every game nowadays feels like a worrying slog, something which could yet take a mental toll on the squad.

Between the two Madrid sides sit Barcelona, primed to pounce on any potential further slip ups from Atleti. The Catalans dazzled in a 1-6 away win against Real Sociedad – a team they had struggled against in many recent visits to Donostia. Of their last 18 league games, the Blaugrana have enjoyed 15 wins, a run of form that stretches back to December.

In that time, Lionel Messi has stepped up his game to the unstoppable level we’re all familiar with, Pedri has grown each and every week into a hugely mature and skillful midfield player, Antoine Griezmann has found a place in the team that everyone appears a lot more comfortable with, Ousmane Dembélé has been trusted with a new central striker role, Frenkie de Jong has been deployed both higher up and further back the pitch to great success depending on the game or situation in question, and Ilaix Moriba has pushed his way from the youth team to the first team, enjoying plenty of minutes and already with his first brilliant goal for Barcelona under his belt.

Koeman has this side moving in the right direction, even in the PSG Champions League tie showed that the club is still way off the pace of Europe’s best at the moment. Those problems preceded the Dutch manager and are not of his making. The former Valencia boss can only do what he can with the pieces and situation he’s inherited, and to his enormous credit he has given the side a stability on the pitch that has been missing since Ernesto Valverde was delivering titles to the Camp Nou.

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In 6th position, Real Betis are turning into one of the revelations of the second half of this campaign. The side that could not find consistency for the last number of frustrating seasons are now showing Champions League form ever since the turn of the year. In 12 La Liga encounters in 2021 they have picked up 26 points, with the only defeats during that spell being a hearty 3-2 loss to Barcelona and a bitterly disappointing recent Seville derby.

Villarreal have finally won two games on the spin for the first time since the beginning of 2021, putting their awful run of form behind them three points at a time. Gerard Moreno opened the scoring for the yellow submarine, and he is making his claim to be Spain’s best striker stronger every passing week. With 12 goals to his name since the turn of the year, and 17 goal contributions (goals and assists) since returning from injury in February (1.65 per 90 minutes), he is looking like an indispensable player for the upcoming European Championships.

Gerard Moreno, Villarreal

Among forwards from across Europe’s big 5 leagues over the last year, Moreno stands in the 94th percentile for assists, 96th for expected assists, 76th percentile for non-penalty goals, 84th for progressive carries, and 98th for dribbles completed per 90 minutes.

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In the relegation battle, four of the five bottom-placed teams in La Liga right now all gained a point on Alavés. By and large, the bottom quarter remains ‘as you were’.

Real Valladolid will be kicking themselves for dropping two points against 4th placed Sevilla, after Bono, the goalkeeper for the Andalusians, popped up with a bizarre last-gasp equaliser.

Eibar can be somewhat pleased they fought for a point against Basque neighbours Athletic Bilbao, with their manager José Luis Mendilibar saying the result will “give them confidence.” Their high press once again paid dividends with a goal from Kike García to equalise, and Bryan Gil nearly put them ahead shortly after – both chances coming from winning the ball high up the pitch.

Huesca will feel like they could have taken better advantage of their meeting with Osasuna, while Elche must be satisfied with a point against Getafe after Ángel’s penalty was excellently saved by goalkeeper Edgar Badía with the clock winding down.

Eibar have one of the toughest remaining fixture lists of the teams in the scrap, including matches against the top three title contenders as well as Real Sociedad.

Valladolid have a cushion of four points above the drop zone, but half of their remaining games are against sides chasing Europe. Huesca’s fixtures could give them hope for survival, with just three games against teams fighting for European spots. Meanwhile, Elche have plenty of games they will be earmarking to win points in as they plot their route to safety.

Alavés also hold a large part of their fate within their grasp, with six-pointers against numerous direct rivals including Huesca, Eibar, and Elche remaining.

However, turbulence is creeping into the Basque’s camp, as star forward Lucas Pérez was left out of the matchday squad entirely for their game against Atletico Madrid. When asked about it in the post-game press conference, coach Abelardo wanted to get his message straight, responding: “In Alavés, my idea is bravery, courage, commitment, giving everything for this club. Those who do not want to give it obviously do not deserve to join this team.”

 

Goal(s) of the week: This weekend provided a real treat of goals to enjoy, so instead of one, I’ll pick three very different goals.

Yuri Berchiche doesn’t get many for Athletic Bilbao, but when he does they’re memorable. His unstoppable thumping left-footed volley directly from a corner put the Lions ahead in their derby with Eibar. A superb moment of individual quality.

Second, for the sheer madness of it, Yassine Bono saved a point for Sevilla with a 94th minute strike following a moment of frenzy, as plenty of players from both teams had assumed the ball was on its way out of play. It fell to the feet of the Sevilla goalkeeper and he knocked in his first goal in professional football, but not the first goal from a goalkeeper this season.

Lastly, Leo Messi, celebrating his record 768th appearance for Barcelona – more than anyone else in the history of the club – capped off his amazing night with one of the best team goals we’ll see from any league all season. Between them, Messi, Moriba, Alba, and Puig beautifully ping-ponged their way through the La Real defence with intricate one-touch passes and movement that bewildered the back line. Messi’s fine side-footed finish kissed off the inside of the post to make it 6-1 in the 89th minute. The goal could go down as the quintessential textbook Alba to Messi cutback goal, preceded by a wonderful team move that personified the absolute best of FC Barcelona, and showed football at its most artistic.