The State of Play as La Liga Returns
La Liga is back. Nearly a month after the Bundesliga became the first of the major European leagues to resume, the Spanish top flight returns with an enticing set of fixtures that begin with a city derby between Sevilla and Real Betis on Thursday evening. Up and down the league, there is still much to be decided across the remaining 11 rounds of action.
The Title Race
Realistically, Barcelona and Real Madrid are the only two teams in the title race. Barcelona lead the way, two points clear of Madrid and a further nine ahead of Sevilla in third.
The momentum would appear to be with the leaders. Since Quique Setién replaced Ernesto Valverde in January, they’ve taken more points than any other side in La Liga. Over that fairly small sample size of eight matches, they’ve also had the best expected goal difference, and by some distance:
Setién’s heavily possession-based style should also be a good fit for the hectic fixture list that, if everything runs smoothly, will see the teams play their remaining 11 matches over the course of just over five weeks of action.
There are some counterpoints. On paper, Madrid look to have the easier run-in. The pause has also given Eden Hazard the opportunity to recover from what seemed likely to be a season-ending injury. With Marco Asensio likewise closing in on a return, Madrid look better equipped than they might otherwise have been to go toe-to-toe for the title.
The contest for the two remaining Champions League places will be a thrilling watch. Just two points currently span Sevilla in third, Real Sociedad in fourth, Getafe in fifth and Atlético Madrid in sixth.
Sevilla possibly have a slight edge. January signings Youssef En-Nesyri and Suso have added some needed variety to their attack, and while both Getafe and Real Sociedad have gained ground on them since the turn of the year, Sevilla’s underlying numbers have remained strong.
But this is a very difficult race to call. Real Sociedad have won admirers as a young and vibrant team playing attractive football, but they look to have the toughest schedule of any of the top-four aspirants. Getafe have been on a tear since the turn of the year, but can they maintain their intense play style through the crammed fixture list? With their finishing slump seemingly behind them, and with a fairly accessible run-in, can Atlético barge into the top four?
What seems clearer is that the race is limited to those four teams. Valencia are only actually three points back from Atlético but seem to have had more than their fair share of fortune. They’ve consistently over-performed their poor underlying numbers.
Valencia’s numbers are trending in the wrong direction, and it seems improbable that a team taking less than nine shots a match while conceding nearly 15 can continue to get the results necessary to keep pace with those ahead.
In fact, their seventh place, a position that could yield a Europa League spot depending on the outcomes of domestic and continental cup competitions, could come under threat from behind. Villarreal have been frustratingly inconsistent but have enough quality in attack to make up the four-point difference if things go their way. Granada have impressed on their return to the top flight and made a good start to 2020.
But that’s probably it. Athletic Club have one of the best defensive records in the league but their attacking output is below average, and they’ve benefited from a positive swing versus their underlying numbers. They’ve also taken just 11 points from their last 12 fixtures. The Copa del Rey final against Basque rivals Real Sociedad would seem to offer their best hope of European qualification.
There are three relegation places to be filled and six teams trying to avoid them. While there is still an outside chance that Alavés or Levante might get dragged into it, the battle against the drop is likely to be contested by Espanyol, Leganés, Mallorca, Celta Vigo, Eibar and Real Valladolid.
Espanyol are bottom of the pile. Results have improved considerably since Abelardo became their third head coach of the campaign late into December, but there hasn’t been an accompanying improvement in their underlying numbers. In that time, they’ve been one of the league’s worst sides:
With other teams towards the foot of the table also picking up good points in the lead up to the league stoppage, they are still six points shy of safety. All is not lost. There is still over a quarter of the campaign to be played. But Espanyol are not in a good position right now.
Second from bottom are Leganés. They’ve had mid-table underlying numbers all season but have consistently underperformed those numbers at both ends of the pitch.
Their luck may yet turn, but the January departures of En-Nesyri and Martin Braithwaite, between them scorers of almost half of their league-low tally of 21 goals, certainly didn’t help their cause.
Next up are Mallorca, Celta Vigo and Eibar, all separated by just two points between 18th and 16th. Mallorca have shown signs of improvement since the turn of the year, particularly in defence, but they have one of the hardest closing schedules and a thin squad.
Things look brighter for Celta Vigo, who have been a lot better under Óscar García and added players in three key positions during the January window.
Eibar might be in trouble. While they’ve improved upon their pitiful early season performances, they’ve still been one of the worst three teams in the division by the underlying numbers since the turn of the year. A combination of the league’s oldest squad and an aggressive play style is unlikely to mesh well with the condensed schedule.
Valladolid have a four-point cushion over the last relegation place. While they are far from home and dry, if they can continue to pick up points at their current rate -- which seems doable considering they are performing pretty much exactly in line with their underlying numbers -- it is unlikely that three teams will overtake them.