Barcelona, Real Madrid and LaLiga return: What to watch for


With the World Cup over, all of Europe’s main leagues are gearing up to restart the 2022-23 season. In Spain, LaLiga can be again on Thursday (matches, replays, highlights on ESPN/ESPN+) and, as usually is the case, Barcelona and Real Madrid can be battling for the highest spot.

It’s been six weeks since LaLiga was in motion, and you could be slightly rusty on the place issues stand. Who are chasing Barca and Real for these coveted Champions League spots? Are perennial contenders Atletico Madrid and Sevilla in bother? Which gamers are wanting to shine and which golf equipment are looking at relegation?

As your private home for all issues LaLiga, ESPN has you lined. Here’s what to preserve a watch earlier than the video games begin as soon as extra.

Can Barcelona fulfill burning want to win LaLiga?

When LaLiga resumes this week, it is going to achieve this with Barcelona sitting prime of the desk. A 2-1 comeback win towards Osasuna in November ensured they spent the World Cup two factors away from Real Madrid. There is then a nine-point hole to third-placed Real Sociedad which implies, following transient disturbances from Atletico Madrid lately, this season will as soon as once more be a Clasico shootout for the title.

Madrid received a LaLiga/Champions League double final season and, on most metrics, are maybe nonetheless barely forward of Barca, as their 3-1 win on the Bernabeu confirmed in October. But Barca have a necessity and a want to win the league this season which they may hope to channel to push them over the road.

The Catalans haven’t received the title since 2019, their longest run with out topping LaLiga since 2004. Two of the previous three seasons have ended with no trophy — they received the Copa del Rey in 2020-21 — and if they’d opted to rebuild on a base of youth, one other trophyless season may have been forgiven if not utterly accepted. However, after some monetary juggling allowed signings totalling over €150 million final summer time, there’s a want to justify that spending with trophies. With the Champions League gone — Barca dropped into the Europa League after ending third of their group — that brings LaLiga into focus.

In interviews with Barca TV over the Christmas interval, coach Xavi Hernandez and president Joan Laporta each spoke in these phrases. “LaLiga is the absolute priority,” Laporta stated. Xavi has even spoken about understanding a trophy is required to preserve his job. “Winning LaLiga will bring stability to the club,” he added, which is not any small factor given the rollercoaster experience Barca followers have been on since 2020.

With 12 wins from 14 video games up to now, they’re in a great place forward of the restart. Young expertise is combined with expertise, and Robert Lewandowski’s targets — 13 in 14 league video games up to now — ought to be sufficient to blow away most opposition, though the Poland striker will serve a three-game ban when motion resumes with the Catalan derby towards Espanyol on Dec. 31. — Marsden

Can Benzema assist Real Madrid chase down Barca?

It’s been an odd season for Real Madrid, and a fair stranger one for Karim Benzema. Madrid’s begin to the marketing campaign was so serene — going unbeaten of their first 16 video games in all competitions, a run that felt like a seamless extension of final season’s Double win — that it is nearly a shock to take a look at the LaLiga desk now and discover them two factors behind Barcelona, thanks to back-to-back dropped factors towards Girona and Rayo Vallecano earlier than the World Cup break.

Benzema’s private profession excessive, successful the Ballon d’Or in October, coincided along with his most underwhelming begin to a season in years. He’s performed simply seven of a potential 14 league video games — albeit scoring a decent 5 targets — with persistent hamstring issues and an in the end futile want to defend his restoration so as to star for France on the World Cup severely limiting his affect.

What occurred in Qatar, with Benzema seemingly despatched house prematurely by Les Bleus coach Didier Deschamps, may assist gasoline the ahead’s want to show himself another time. Benzema’s Champions League goal-scoring exploits final season felt like a one-man mission to lastly drag himself over the end line within the Ballon d’Or voting. The want for post-World Cup vindication would possibly simply do the identical in LaLiga now.

The actuality is that Madrid are two factors off the leaders, with no totally firing Benzema. Vinicius Junior (with six league targets), Rodrygo Goes (4) and Federico Valverde (six) have made up the goal-scoring shortfall. Add a match, hungry Benzema to the combination and that is grounds for encouragement for the remainder of the season. — Kirkland

Champions League: Who makes prime 4?

Sevilla’s struggles and Atletico Madrid’s scorching and chilly kind makes the race for the European locations one of the crucial fascinating components of the Spanish league this season. Two Basque rivals, Real Sociedad and Athletic Club, occupy third and fourth in the intervening time, however simply seven factors separate third from eleventh. Things can change rapidly.

Real Sociedad have been knocking on the Champions League door for the previous three years below coach Imanol Alguacil, ending sixth, fifth and sixth. With Mikel Oyarzabal due to return from damage, this might be the season La Real lastly crack the highest 4. Atletico can be anticipated to be part of Barca and Madrid in Europe’s elite competitors, too, however they’re in an actual struggle for that privilege.

After Real Sociedad with 26 factors, Athletic, Atletico and Real Betis are all locked on 24 factors within the push for Champions League soccer. Osasuna (23 factors) and Rayo Vallecano (22 factors) are each having distinctive seasons, however the Champions League might show a step too far. A Europa League spot could also be a risk.

Below them, Villarreal (21 factors) and Valencia (19 factors) each have the standard of their squad to make a run with 24 video games nonetheless to be performed. They meet on New Year’s Eve. — Marsden

Simeone’s time up at Atletico Madrid?

An optimistic Atletico fan would possibly take a look at the second half of the LaLiga season and see a chance: A imaginative and prescient of a workforce, refreshed and energised by the World Cup break, with newly topped world champions Rodrigo de Paul, Nahuel Molina and Angel Correa amongst their ranks alongside crushed finalist and event standout Antoine Griezmann. Without the distraction of European soccer, they are going to be in a position to discover the consistency they’ve lacked up to now to cement a prime 4 place and perhaps win the Copa del Rey, too.

A pessimist would level to the departure of Matheus Cunha, a potential exit for a disenchanted Joao Felix and the potential for additional, financially pushed January gross sales, coupled with a torpid efficiency in a second spherical cup win at Arenteiro final week, and counsel that there is no indication that what’s to come can be any higher than what we have seen up to now.

Atletico’s elimination from the Champions League was humiliating for a membership that has labored so exhausting for their place amongst Europe’s elite, ending backside of the group behind FC Porto, Club Brugge and Bayer Leverkusen to miss out on the Europa League. Their LaLiga kind has been maddening too, with one win in 5 league video games earlier than the World Cup break together with losses away at Cadiz and Mallorca. Still although, they’re fifth, degree on factors with fourth-placed Athletic Club.

Atletico supervisor Diego Simeone’s targets had been spelled out in CEO Miguel Angel Gil Marin’s open letter to followers after the Champions League debacle: Qualify for subsequent season’s event to safe the membership’s monetary future and make a severe problem for the Copa del Rey. The supervisor spoke final week about feeling “excited and enthusiastic” after the break, however it stays to be seen if that pleasure interprets onto the pitch.

Simeone has been written off a number of instances throughout his 11 years in cost and, till now, has all the time turned issues round. This is perhaps the largest take a look at he is confronted but. — Kirkland

The World Cup hangover

No league had extra illustration within the World Cup remaining. Ten gamers from LaLiga featured as Argentina beat France, 5 on both sides. Another 5 had been unused substitutes for Argentina. Semifinalists Croatia and Morocco each had gamers from the Spanish league, too, together with Real Madrid’s 37-year-old midfielder Luka Modric, who performed 704 minutes, together with added time, throughout his nation’s seven video games in Qatar.

Barcelona had 17 gamers on the event, probably the most of any membership, however all of them, aside from French duo Jules Kounde and Ousmane Dembele, had been again earlier than the quarterfinals. Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola commented that those that had been on the World Cup had been in significantly better form than those that had not. The majority of Barca’s squad has the good thing about being on the finals with out the ache and additional minutes of dropping within the semifinal or remaining or the hangover of successful the trophy.

With that in thoughts, the ten LaLiga-based Argentina gamers — three every from Sevilla and Atletico and two every from Villarreal and Real Betis — may have a few weeks to ease themselves again into membership soccer in the event that they ever make it again from partying in Buenos Aires.

In normal, although, talking to sources at a number of Spanish golf equipment, they do not anticipate rapid penalties. In truth, they predict the mixture of the break for some, the World Cup for others and the texture of a contemporary begin to lead to high-level matches. However, they do see potential ramifications later within the season — be that accidents, fatigue or a dip in kind — as the results of a World Cup and a compressed marketing campaign meet up with some golf equipment who’re combating on a number of fronts. — Marsden

The relegation battle

Take a take a look at the LaLiga desk, and there is no doubt which workforce is up towards it: With 14 video games performed, Elche are rock-bottom with 4 factors and no wins. They’ve obtained the worst defence in LaLiga, with 31 targets conceded, and the second-worst assault.

Even extra worryingly, they picked up only one level from their previous 4 video games earlier than the break, all winnable fixtures towards bottom-half rivals: Espanyol, Getafe, Real Valladolid and Girona. Pablo Machin — their third full-time coach this season — failed in his previous three LaLiga jobs at Sevilla, Espanyol and Alaves, and his appointment conjures up little confidence of conjuring what can be a historic escape from the drop.

Elsewhere within the backside three, Cadiz can draw confidence from some eye-catching latest pleasant outcomes which have seen them beat Manchester United 4-2 and Roma 3-0. Celta Vigo, only a level above Cadiz and Sevilla, have a brand new supervisor in Carlos Carvalhal after sacking Eduardo Coudet, and can be hoping that the evergreen expertise of talisman Iago Aspas — in addition to teen Gabri Veiga — helps them discover a manner out of bother.

That leaves Espanyol and Getafe, who’re one and three factors off relegation, respectively. Diego Martinez is a extremely rated coach, however his Espanyol revolution hasn’t fairly taken off. Forward Joselu’s targets — seven in LaLiga up to now — is perhaps sufficient to preserve them protected. Getafe had been many individuals’s (together with this author’s) ideas to push for Europe, however as an alternative discover themselves in a relegation scrap. And additional up the desk, you would not rule out Real Valladolid (at the moment twelfth), Girona (thirteenth) or Almeria (14th) getting caught up in it both. — Kirkland

Can Sampaoli save Sevilla from relegation?

The most exceptional story in Spain up to now this season options Sevilla. This time final yr, they had been the largest risk to Real Madrid’s title hopes. They tailed off in the long run, although, and finally completed fourth, beneath Barca and Atletico, too. That dip proved an indication of issues to come this season.

A troublesome begin led to the dismissal of Julen Lopetegui. The charismatic Argentine Jorge Sampaoli returned for a second spell on the Sanchez Pizjuan, however outcomes haven’t improved. After 14 video games, Sevilla have simply 11 factors and reside within the backside three. Only Cadiz (additionally 11 factors) and Elche (4 factors) are beneath them.

Since returning to the highest flight in 2001, Sevilla have by no means ended exterior the highest 10 in LaLiga. They have completed within the prime 4 in 4 of the previous six seasons, together with every of the previous three campaigns. Surely, to use that outdated cliche, they’re too good to go down?

In concept, sure. Their squad boasts three World Cup-winning Argentines, together with Gonzalo Montiel, who scored the successful penalty within the remaining towards France, and Moroccan stars Yassine Bounou and Youssef En-Nesyri. There can also be baggage of expertise in Ivan Rakitic and Jesus Navas.

However, there are growing indicators of a workforce disaster, with the membership terminating Isco’s contract this month after the midfielder fell out with members of workers. He had solely joined from Real Madrid in the summertime.

Sampaoli has an enormous job on his palms. A visit to Celta Vigo on Dec. 30 is way from the simplest restart. — Marsden

Players to watch

If you had been the perfect participant — Lionel Messi apart — on the World Cup, there is no cause you possibly can’t come house and be the perfect participant in LaLiga, is there? Griezmann’s begin to the season was disrupted by the row between Atletico and former membership Barca that led to him being benched recreation after the sport, however he is nonetheless contributed 5 targets and would be the undisputed inventive fulcrum of the workforce if Felix does certainly depart.

At Barcelona, the jury continues to be out on whether or not Ansu Fati will turn out to be the participant he appeared destined to be earlier than his long-term accidents. It can be nice information for membership, nation and LaLiga itself if he may make a constant affect.

Real Madrid will need Valverde to get again to the shape that made him Europe’s most fun goal-scoring midfielder in September and October, whereas Marco Asensio is taking part in for a brand new contract along with his deal due to expire in June.

Oyarzabal hasn’t performed a minute this season as he recovers from a knee ligament damage. His return is a serious enhance in Real Sociedad’s quest to break into the highest 4. Nico Williams comes again to Athletic Club along with his fame and confidence hovering after his contribution for Spain, whereas Borja Iglesias will look to make up for his personal World Cup absence by including to the eight targets he is already scored for Real Betis.

Forgotten man Raul de Tomas can be in a position to characteristic for Rayo Vallecano after his delayed post-transfer deadline transfer from Espanyol, and children Alex Baena and Nicolas Jackson can be wanted to add some spark to Quique Setien’s slow-starting Villarreal. And do not forget Valencia’s flying winger Samuel Lino, who is perhaps probably the most persistently enjoyable participant to watch in LaLiga. — Kirkland


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