Real Madrid continue their quest for a first La Liga title in five years at home to fourth-placed Sevilla on Sunday.
Zinedine Zidane’s side currently sit second in the table, level on points with leaders Barcelona, albeit with a game in hand.
Here, we looks at the main talking points ahead of a potentially-crucial match at the Bernabeu.
FIGHTING ON TWO FRONTS
Real have been balancing their attempts to win the Spanish title for the first time since 2012 with trying to become the first team to retain the Champions League.
While rivals Barcelona, who were knocked out of Europe last month, have had seven days’ rest between their last two league fixtures, Zidane’s men have faced two midweek games against neighbours Atletico, the second of which proved a real test.
Real have shown they can cut it in Europe, lifting the Champions League trophy twice in three years, but recent domestic failures mean plenty of question marks surround their ability to challenge at home and abroad.
MORE SEVILLA PUNISHMENT?
Real were unbeaten this season until the reverse fixture in January. They looked on course to continue that record at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan until two goals in the final six minutes earned the hosts a 2-1 victory.
The manner of the late loss, courtesy of a Sergio Ramos own goal against his former club and a 90th-minute strike from Stevan Jovetic, will have hurt Real and they will be intent on revenge to move within touching distance of the title.
Sevilla, however, will be in no mood to roll over as they attempt to complete a memorable double by winning at the Bernabeu for the first time in eight seasons.
WILL IN-FORM JAMES HAUNT SEVILLA AGAIN?
James Rodriguez has played an increasingly prominent role in Real’s title bid and he has a fine scoring record against Sevilla. The Colombia international, who has scored five times in his last four outings, has found the back of the net against Los Nervionenses in each of his three seasons at the Bernabeu.
Along with Granada, they are the team he has had most goalscoring success against. He claimed the opener in a 2-1 league victory in 2015, scored a consolation in a 3-2 defeat in Andalusia the following year before bagging a brace during the 3-0 Copa del Rey victory this campaign.
James Rodriguez is one of only 2 midfielders in La Liga to have 9+ goals & 12+ assists (the other is Sevilla's Pablo Sarabia) pic.twitter.com/0jl7aCubw9— James FC (@TheCoIombian) April 29, 2017
VISITORS COULD ENSURE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
More important than ending their poor record in Madrid, Sevilla can seal a Champions League spot this weekend. A top-four finish is almost certainly assured, but they still need a point to mathematically guarantee it.
Defeat at Real, coupled with victory for Villarreal at home to Deportivo, would leave them requiring a result heading into the final weekend and put them under avoidable pressure. That said, they conclude the campaign at home to relegated Osasuna, a team they would expect to comfortably beat.
SAMPAOLI WILL WANT STRONG FINISH
It was not that long ago that Sevilla were in title contention and manager Jorge Sampaoli was being tipped to move on to bigger and better things.
The Argentinian, in his debut season in Spain after leading Chile to successive Copa America wins, was talked about as a potential successor to Luis Enrique at Barcelona, although that speculation died down amid three league wins from 11 – including a comprehensive loss in the Nou Camp – and Champions League elimination to Leicester.
Sampaoli will no doubt be desperate for Sevilla to finish the campaign in style and restore any damage to his reputation.
Each week, Sport360 brings you the best five players from La Liga, as chosen by you the supporters through our ValoraFutbol fan ratings tool.
YOU have direct influence on who appears in each Top Five, so be sure to rate each weekend.
What do you make of this week’s ratings?
1. JAMES RODRIGUEZ (REAL MADRID) – 7.7
Zinedine Zidane has famously made a habit of full-scale rotation in between Champions League games this season, and there have even been questions about whether Real Madrid’s ‘B’ team is even better than the ‘A’ team. The reserves have certainly been dominant in recent outings, led by players like Isco, Alvaro Morata, and, on Saturday, James Rodriguez.
23 - James Rodriguez has been involved in more goals than any other La Liga midfielder this season (11 goals and 12 assists - all comps). 10 pic.twitter.com/mqQpcJj4sr— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 6, 2017
The Colombian’s brace kept up a fine run of form, which must make him wonder what more he has to do to earn Zidane’s faith and graduate to the first-choice XI. It’s no wonder there are strong rumours linking him with a move away from the Santiago Bernabeu this summer.
2. EZEQUIEL GARAY (VALENCIA) – 7.7
Ezequiel Garay has been solid at the back during Valencia’s bid to turnaround their season after another horrible start, but on Sunday it was his presence in the opposition box that was crucial to Los Che’s win. The Argentinian’s brace helped his side cruise to a 4-1 victory over bottom side Osasuna.
Valencia had secured their safety a while ago, although this is a club used to fighting at the other end of the table, and given their poor showing in recent years, they will struggle to keep hold of Garay.
3. LIONEL MESSI (BARCELONA) – 7.7
While Neymar stole the headlines on Sunday with a dazzling display against Villarreal, a certain Argentinian brought up 50 goals for the season across all competitions with a brace.
The maestro has carried Barcelona this season, almost single-handedly keeping them in the title race. Although no such heroics were needed this time, as the Blaugrana cruised to a 4-1 victory, his two-goal haul was another reminder that while his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo is shining on the European stage, Messi and his teammates will not give up their Spanish crown without a fight.
4. SIMONE ZAZA (VALENCIA) – 7.6
The Italian is unrecognizable from the player who had little to no impact in the Premier League, struggling to produce anything for West Ham.
A January move to Valencia has brought out the best in Zaza, who scored the third in Valencia’s 4-1 win. That was his sixth goal for the Whites, and he has certainly made his presence felt in Spain. Hammers fans will be forgiven for wondering where this Zaza was six months ago.
5. ALVARO MORATA (REAL MADRID) – 7.6
Another who has benefited from Real Madrid’s rotation policy, and another who will wonder why he isn’t making the step up to the first XI. Morata bagged another brace to bring his total to 20 goals across all competitions this season, more than Gareth Bale or Karim Benzema.
Alvaro Morata has now scored as many league goals (15) in 24 games for Real Madrid this season as he did in 63 games for Juventus.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 6, 2017
Yet despite outscoring his more illustrious teammates, Morata has had to be content with a place on the bench, starting only when the big guns are rested. Real Madrid’s strength in depth is astonishing, but how long will they be able to keep all the players who would easily get first-team minutes elsewhere?
Regular readers of the column will recall that back in October I flew south to watch the game between Granada and Sporting, a turgid 0-0 draw that threatened to make a mockery of my trip until that same evening I stumbled (in a bar) upon a wonderful flamenco-singing couple, showing far more passion than the home team had demonstrated.
In the article I later concluded that both teams were ‘destined to struggle, but especially Granada’, which hardly qualifies me as a wise soothsayer, but I nevertheless got it right. Seven months later, in the chilly yellow of spring, Granada are down (and out) and Sporting are hanging on for dear life.
In many ways, it is these stories that furnish football with its real emotions – the sheer grubby agony of a relegation fight whilst the teams at the top cruise on and the middleweights relax and begin to plan their summer holidays.
Sporting de Gijon’s 1-0 home win against Las Palmas was the first time this season that the hosts have not conceded a goal at home. Third from bottom with a mathematical chance of survival, they simply had to win the game in order to keep Leganés (and Deportivo) in their statistical sights.
Las Palmas arrived as decent cannon-fodder, in an alarming decline and on a run of only one win in the last eight. They hadn’t won away since the opening game of the season, a 4-2 thumping of Valencia which seemed to presage a happy season ahead but which was in reality a false dawn.
Sporting’s sporting chance, if you’ll forgive the phrase, now rests on Monday night’s game between Leganés and Betis, in Madrid. It was a shame that this match was scheduled for the Monday, so central has it now become.
If Leganés win – and with Betis safe you suspect they certainly might – then Sporting will fall back to six points behind and will need to win their two remaining games and hope Leganés lose both of theirs. The drama that this sort of situation generates often supersedes the issues of who will play in Europe next year, for example.
Sporting registered a capacity crowd for the Las Palmas game, and celebrated at the final whistle as if they had won the league. It’s a curious state of affairs, but sport-related emotions rarely respond to logic. Hope springs eternal, until the mathematics finally kick in.
In the satellite community of Leganés, they’re all pumped up for Monday night’s game, and will attend in their droves. Sporting de Gijón play Eibar and Betis to end their season, and could quite feasibly win both.
With the head-to-head on Leganés, the league’s new-timers must beat Betis on Monday but then squeeze a point from Athletic or Alavés to guarantee another season in the elite. It might seem small beer for the teams in the top seven (for whom Europe should beckon next season), but emotional satisfaction arises proportionally from expectations – which is a posh way of saying that if you don’t expect much, the rewards are often greater. It’s worth remembering the dictum, at this stage of the season.
Relegation is never much fun, unless it galvanises a club and enables them to reflect on what has gone wrong – the first step in getting the wheels back onto the tracks. Granada, a club whose turn-over of players has simply been too great in the past two seasons, paid the price in the end.
However, unlike Osasuna, you feel that the messages coming from their post-mortem declarations veer towards the positive, even as they lost their sixth game in succession on Saturday, 4-0 at home to Real Madrid’s reserves. The last time they went on such a poor run was in 1975, and next week, symbolically perhaps, they visit bottom club Osasuna, the only side this season who have managed to make Granada feel better about themselves.
Osasuna, up to their necks in financial problems, saddled with a debt of 10 million still owed to the regional tax authorities, and under investigation for alleged payments to Betis in 2014 to throw a game against them, look destined for a rather less promising future.
This time, no payments would have saved them, and their 88 goals so far conceded is the worst defensive record at this level since Nastic conceded 99 in 1951.Osasuna are unlikely to return to this level in the immediate future. As Captain Oates famously remarked, as he stepped out of his tent into the blizzard, ‘I may be gone for some time’
What it is that marks out a relegation candidate, so much so such that it was obvious back in October that Granada and Sporting would struggle? Interestingly enough, one of the signs was the body language of their respective coaches (Abelardo and Lucas Alcaraz). The former seemed a bag of negative nerves, cursing at the skies at every misplaced pass and positional error, blaming the slings and arrows, but never himself.
Lucas Alcaraz, Granada’s coach that night, simply paced up and down like a silent but deranged panther, trapped inside a zoo cage. You just knew they wouldn’t last the season, and you’d have been right.
On the pitch, both sides lacked creative midfielders. Granada went for muscle, Sporting for lighter more insubstantial types – but at least the side from the north unearthed Burgui and later Mikel Vesga from the ruins of the season – loan players who they will need to keep on next campaign, wherever they end up.
The full-backs were always too scared to overlap, and the forwards dropped too deep. There didn’t seem to be any obvious plan or style, and no single player seemed to be taking the reins – a sure sign of trouble. Oh – and neither of them scored, or even looked remotely like doing so. It tends to become a problem.
In a parallel universe, Real Madrid exercised their frisky ponies in an Andaluz field at the weekend, whilst the stallions were rested for the rigours to come in the Calderón on Wednesday night. Atlético, who lost 3-0 last week in the Bernabéu, are also clinging to the idea that hope springs eternal, but found it rather more difficult to dispatch a lively Eibar (1-0) on Saturday than their Champions League opponents who walked to an aforementioned 4-0 win in Granada, all the goals scored in the first half.
The fabled double (League and Champions League) for Real Madrid, not won since 1958, thus remains alive and kicking, although Barcelona’s convincing defeat of the potentially dangerous Villarreal (4-1) keeps the Catalans on top of the tree for the time being. Real Madrid now require seven points from their three remaining games, starting with a tricky one at home to Sevilla next Sunday. With Barcelona facing Las Palmas and Eibar to finish their league season, you get the impression that Real Madrid will need all seven points.
It’s difficult to see Real Madrid blowing it on Wednesday night, but you never know. Assuming that logic prevails and they win, their sky-high morale should see them through their next three games, stressful though the pressure to keep winning might be. The grand finale approaches, at the bottom and at the top, and there are still some possible twists and turns. Do not adjust your set.