Barcelona are clear favourites for title already and other talking points from La Liga

Andy West 19/11/2017
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In ominous form: Barcelona.

We may only be 12 games into the La Liga season but Barcelona already hold a ten-point advantage over Real Madrid at the top of the table.

Ernesto Valverde’s men are playing with swagger and look favourites to reclaim the Spanish title. Los Blancos, on the other hand, were held by city rivals Atletico Madrid on Saturday night – leaving boss Zinedine Zidane now with a tough task of winning back-to-back domestic crowns.

Indifferent form for Karim Benzema and a dry spell in front of goal for Cristiano Ronaldo, in the league at least, will also be of concern for the Frenchman.

Here, we look at three key talking points from the weekend’s action.

Let us know your thoughts, too – join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.

BARCA CHAMPIONS ALREADY?

This far from memorable Madrid derby was a great result for one team: Barcelona. The league leaders’ 3-0 win at Leganes earlier in the day, which saw Luis Suarez back on form with a brace, has sent them 10 points clear of the two Madrid teams. And although it’s only mid-November with 26 games still to play, the prospects of either side from the capital mounting the kind of run which would catapult them into first place currently look remote. Atletico, in particular, are desperately struggling in attack and rarely looked like scoring – even though they did have the game’s best two chances with Angel Correa’s early miss and Kevin Gameiro’s shot cleared off the line. Real clearly have quality in abundance but they’re just not clicking at the moment, with Karim Benzema’s ongoing poor form – and not just in front of goal – seeing many of their phases of possession break down tamely when they approach the opposition penalty area. Even now, Real need Barcelona to lose four games and then win every single remaining fixture, and right now Valencia look like posing the biggest title challenge.

Barcelona's Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring a goal during the Spanish league football match Leganes vs Barcelona at the Butarque stadium in Leganes on November 18, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / OSCAR DEL POZO (Photo credit should read OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP/Getty Images)

Luis Suarez has found form again.

DID REAL SIGN THE WRONG HERNANDEZ?

In a game surprisingly bereft of genuine world-class individual ability, there was, at least, a great performance to savour from the left-back by the name of Hernandez. But this was not Theo Hernandez, signed controversially by Real from Atletico at great expense in the summer, but his older (by 20 months) brother Lucas, who was selected ahead of Filipe Luis for Atletico and more than justified that decision with an excellent all-round display. Lucas is a versatile player whose long-term future may well lie in the centre of defence, but the ability on the ball he showed in this encounter showed that he could also have a bright future at left-back, ironically the same position as his sibling Theo, who has been slow to settle at the Bernabeu. Technically, Lucas certainly looks a far better bet than Theo, who caught the eye with a series of barnstorming charges down the left flank during his loan spell with Alaves last season. You can, perhaps, even mischievously picture the scene of Florentino Perez calling Zinedine Zidane and saying: “Erm…you know we agreed to sign that young Hernandez lad from Atletico in the summer…what was his first name again?”

MADRID, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 18: Cristiano Ronaldo (R) of Real Madrid CF clashes with Lucas Hernandez (L) of Atletico de Madrid during the La Liga match between Club Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid CF at Estadio Wanda Metropolitano on November 18, 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

Colossal presence at the back: Lucas Hernandez.

GRIEZMANN AND BENZEMA’S STRUGGLES CONTINUE

Before the game, the big question was which mis-firing striker would recover their form first: Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo or Antoine Griezmann. The answer, though, was simple: none of them, as they all drew yet another blank. That’s perhaps a little harsh on Ronaldo, who at least occasionally looked like scoring as he had two free-kicks clawed away by Jan Oblak and a couple of goalbound strikes solidly blocked. Ronaldo still, incredibly, one has one league goal this season but that statistic will surely change very soon. Benzema and Griezmann, however, were a very different matter with both Frenchmen again producing poor performances, with Benzema appearing to be totally devoid of confidence while Griezmann sometimes looked like he couldn’t be bothered. That’s a strong accusation to level at any professional athlete but there’s a growing sense that Griezmann is regretting his decision to turn down Manchester United last summer, and that this season – especially with Barcelona reportedly interested – will prove to be his last with Atletico.

Atletico Madrid's French forward Antoine Griezmann (R) talks with Spanish referee David Fernandez Borbalan during the Spanish league football match Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitan stadium in Madrid on November 18, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)

A frustrated figure: Griezmann.

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Atletico-Real player ratings as Benzema struggles and Ronaldo draws blank

Andy West 19/11/2017
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Benzema struggled for the Whites.

City neighbours Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid grinded out a dull 0-0 stalemate on Saturday night, with Los Blancos losing yet more ground on Barcelona at the top of the La Liga table.

Here, Andy West rates each and every performance.

Do you agree with his verdict?

Join the conversation and let us know – get in touch via Twitter and Facebook.

ATLETICO MADRID


Oblak 6: Twice did well to push away Ronaldo free-kicks but was lucky when he spilled a late shot from Kroos and it dropped to safety.
Juanfran 7: Tested by the dual threat of Isco and Marcelo down his flank but coped with everything well, especially when he outpaced Ronaldo to stop a dangerous break. Little attacking impact.
Godin 7: Flawless in defence, positioning himself intelligently to repeatedly get in the right place at the right time and avoiding mistakes by keeping it simple.
Savic 7: Very similar performance to Godin, making several clearances and blocks through good positional play. Booked for an ugly lunge on Kroos.
Lucas 8: The brother of Real defender Theo Hernandez was tigerish in defence and progressive in attack. Impressively composed in possession for such a young and inexperienced player and looks to have a big future. Made a brilliant late block from Ronaldo.
Correa 7: Direct and dangerous running down the right wing and easily Atletico’s biggest attacking threat, but spoiled his performance by missing a great early chance, shooting wide from ten yards.
Koke 6: Not really his type of game as Atletico faded from a bright start to lack fluency in possession. Worked hard but one of his less influential performances.
Partey 6: Disciplined and diligent in the centre of midfield, but offered little attacking contribution and was replaced early in the second half.
Gabi 6: Typically dogged display in the centre of midfield, maintaining his position to keep the team’s shape and snapping immediately onto any loose ball.
Saul 6: Playing on the left of midfield, he always tried to drive his team forward and delivered a handful of dangerous balls into the box. Sent a speculative long-range strike narrowly over the top.
Griezmann 4: Tough task leading the line by himself but lacked penetration, failing to show enough desire to attack the penalty box. Well below his best and replaced by Torres with 15 minutes left.

SUBS
Carrasco 5: Introduced early in the second half to give his team more attacking thrust, but failed in that task other than a shot deflected wide from a corner. Disappointing, and not for the first time recently.
Torres 5: Replaced Griezmann and quickly had an impact by setting up Gameiro, but did little else.
Gameiro 6: Came on for the last 15 minutes and almost scored immediately with a deft chip which Varane cleared off the line.

Real Madrid's Spanish midfielder Isco (L) vies with Atletico Madrid's Spanish midfielder Gabi during the Spanish league football match Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitan stadium in Madrid on November 18, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)

Competitive: Isco and Gabi’s midfield battle was intriguing.

REAL MADRID

Casilla 6: Didn’t make a single save, with Atletico’s only effort on target being cleared off the line by Varane.
Carvajal 7: Defended well against Saul and then Carrasco, and posed plenty of attacking threat on his return from injury. Rightly booked for a bad tackle on Lucas.
Varane 8: Early error led to Correa’s great chance but recovered to give a great performance. Had fellow Frenchman Griezmann in his pocket and made a crucial goal line clearance to deny Gameiro.
Ramos 6: Sent a brave near-post header wide, earning a bloody nose which forced him off at half-time. Solid during his 45 minutes on the pitch.
Marcelo 6: Lots of possession down the left but often imprecise in his use of the ball, notably when he gave away possession and Correa should have scored.
Modric 6: Subdued performance from the Croatian, who had been struggling with illness before the game and it told.
Casemiro 6: Often served as a third centre back, playing very deep to protect his penalty area. Carried out that task well but a minimal presence going forward.
Isco 7: At the heart of everything his team did in possession, receiving more touches than any other player. Spent more time on the left flank than usual but couldn’t fashion the breakthrough.
Kroos 8: Impeccable in his use of possession. Stabbed a decent chance into the side-netting after a neat one-two with Ronaldo and troubled Oblak with a fiercely-struck long-range effort.
Benzema 5: Largely anonymous and on the periphery of play, failing to link up with effectively with Ronaldo and replaced by Asensio. Continues to struggle.
Ronaldo 6: Little involvement in his team’s build-up play but a regular threat around the box. Created a chance for Kroos, tested Oblak with a pair of dipping long-range free-kicks and had a couple of dangerous shots well blocked. The game’s biggest goal threat by far.

SUBS
Nacho 7: Half-time replacement for Ramos and slotted straight into the back four without fuss.
Asensio 6: Came on for Benzema and looked more dangerous in 15 minutes than the Frenchman in 75. Pushing hard to become first choice.

MADRID, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 18: Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF reacts during the La Liga match between Club Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid CF at Estadio Wanda Metropolitano on November 18, 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

A frustrating night for the great man: Ronaldo.

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Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid key questions: Can Ronaldo or Griezmann end their drought?

Andy West 17/11/2017
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Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid go head-to-head on Saturday with little room for error.

Both teams are eight points behind La Liga leaders Barcelona and have several issues to address.

Here are some key questions ahead of the Madrid derby.

CAN GRIEZMANN, RONALDO OR BENZEMA START SCORING?

It’s scarcely plausible that we’re deep into November and Real’s forward pairing of Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo have only scored one league goal each, and the struggles ensured by his strikers is naturally a major issue for Zinedine Zidane ahead of his team’s first ever trip to the Wanda Metropolitano.

But there are similar concerns on the other side of the fence because Atlético superstar Antoine Griezmann has also been in poor form, failing to score in La Liga for two months and managing just two goals in nine games so far this season.

Griezmann’s difficulties are exacerbated by the lack of other serious goalscoring options within Atlético’s squad, with only four-goal Angel Correa managing more than one solitary strike among the forwards. And that, at least, is something Zidane has fewer concerns about, with the likes of Marco Asensio, Isco always capable of scoring from their midfield berths.

Nevertheless, neither manager should have to rely on back-ups and players of such proven quality as Griezmann, Ronaldo and Benzema surely won’t allow their barren runs to continue for much longer. The question of which will be the first to regain top form will go a long way towards deciding tonight’s outcome.

Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo

Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo

ARE ISCO AND MODRIC FULLY FIT?

Los Blancos fans were left holding their collective breath earlier this week when key midfield orchestrator Isco was forced to miss Spain’s friendly against Russia with a thigh injury sustained in last weekend’s meeting with Costa Rica. And those concerns were further magnified when another key man, Luka Modric, missed Thursday’s training session due to illness.

Isco and Modric were arguably the most important players in Real’s double winning campaign last year and their absence would be a major blow to the supply lines for Ronaldo and Benzema.

Zidane claimed in his press conference on Friday that both players are fit and available, but there’s a big difference between fit and fully fit, and a team as physically intense as Atlético would be sure to pounce upon any physical frailties in their opponents.

Isco and Modric will almost certainly both start, but whether they will be at their best and able to dominate the home team’s formidable trio of Saul, Gabi and Koke is another matter.

Luka Modric (R) and Isco

Luka Modric (R) and Isco

DO ATLETICO DARE SEIZE THE INITIATIVE?

In many respects, Real Madrid look like they are there for the taking. Their strikers are out of form, two of their key midfielders have missed training this week, their first-choice goalkeeper (Keylor Navas) is out injured and they have suffered a series of setbacks as a result of poor performances in the last few weeks.

Considering all those factors, you’d think the obvious thing for Atletico to do, especially as their brand-new stadium welcomes its first Madrid derby in what is sure to be an electric atmosphere, is to go for the jugular and try to kick their city rivals while they are down. But the big question is whether Atletico will dare themselves to do so.

Although his achievements with Atletico have been undeniably magnificent, there’s a growing sense that Diego Simeone struggles to instruct his team to seize the initiative rather than play on the back foot. It’s part of his mentality to assume the down-trodden, under-estimated underdogs role, and he is therefore naturally averse to embracing the tag as favourites even when his team logically merits it.

Tonight is one of those occasions where you’d wish Simeone and his Atletico players would just trust themselves to be the aggressors and take the game to their opponents, rather than sitting back and playing on the counter-attack. But it’s unlikely that they will.

Diego Simeone (R) and Zinedine Zidane

Diego Simeone (R) and Zinedine Zidane

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