Is the race to win Spain’s league title already over? Alex Rea, Brendon Netto and Stuart Appleby discuss that, whether Los Blancos can be completely ruled out and which star will lay claim to winning the top goalscorer Pichichi Trophy award come May.
Agree or disagree with our writers? Let us know as they go head-to-head in our new-look three question debate.
IS THE TITLE RACE OVER?
AR: Were it not for the all-conquering Barcelona – they are 32 games unbeaten – Atletico Madrid would command far more attention. Diego Simeone’s side have won all seven games since their Copa del Rey exit and this week offers an opportunity to cut a sizable slice out of Barca’s seven-point lead. Los Rojiblancos host Leganes before the top-two meet at Camp Nou on Sunday. With their chaos-calm strike partnership of Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann firing, they have a chance.
BN: Barcelona are firm favourites and it’s hard to imagine anyone else lifting the trophy at the end of the campaign. The Catalans did have a couple of blips against Getafe and Espanyol in the league this month but with Ousmane Dembele regaining match fitness and Philippe Coutinho looking more like he belongs with every passing game, they’re set for a strong end to the season. Atletico Madrid are on a good run of form and boosted by Diego Costa’s introduction and Antoine Griezmann’s resurgence but will struggle to catch Barcelona. Expect Barca to beat them this week and end their hopes of catching up as well. The Catalans will have one eye on the Champions League but Diego Simeone’s side will be equally preoccupied with the Europa League.
SA: No, Atletico Madrid are right in it. A Diego Simeone-managed side should never be written off and you can be rest assured his players will continue to give it everything. Antoine Griezmann’s return to form, the Frenchman has scored six goals in eight league matches this year after managing just five in the first-half of the season, is massive. More goals for him increase his chances of a big summer move.
ARE REAL MADRID COMPLETELY OUT OF THE RUNNING?
AR: Los Blancos have rediscovered their swagger but it’s come too late to join the title party. After an atrocious first six months to their Liga defence, Zinedine Zidane has recharged Real and they have been electric in recent weeks. Granted, there is a long way to go but they are 14 points adrift and the more achievable target is to try and catch their city rivals in second.
BN: Off the record, Zinedine Zidane has surely conceded the La Liga title race and rightly so. The reality is that it’s not worth pursuing, especially when Real Madrid already have one foot in the Champions League quarter-finals and could set one of club football’s more unattainable records if they were to win Europe’s elite competition for a third consecutive year. It’s a bold strategy no doubt, but the only one Zidane has to save Madrid’s season and his job.
SA: There’s no way back for Los Blancos but given the way Zinedine Zidane’s men have found form, it might be a blessing in disguise that they can just tick over in La Liga and fully focus on the Champions League. Adding an historic hat-trick of European crowns to their already unprecedented back-to-back triumphs would be remarkable. Stopping Barcelona from winning in Europe would mean more than preventing them domestically this year.
WHO WILL WILL WIN THE PICHICHI?
AR: Predictably Lionel Messi tops the goalscoring charts with 22 and Luis Suarez sits behind him on 20. Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas (16) has plundered five in his last six league outings so can’t be discounted but his former Liverpool teammate Suarez will claim the Pichichi. Injuries tore Suarez apart in the early part of the season but he’s not just Spain’s most outstanding centre-forward, but Europe’s, too. With Messi the premier playmaker in behind, there will be plenty more goals from the lethal Uruguayan.
BN: It has to be between Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. Cristiano Ronaldo has returned to goal-scoring ways in the league but is well behind the Barca duo and is likely to be rested on occasion as well with focus shifting to the Champions League. Suarez is the one getting into the box more than Messi who has doubled as a playmaker as well. However, the Argentine is pure magic and is scary consistent while his team-mate can go off the boil. Messi for the win.
SA: You just have to back Messi. The little maestro will want to retain his title and is actually well set to surpass his 37-goal haul from last season. His form and fitness is at its peak level right now and he’ll be doing everything to keep it that way with La Liga honours to play for and a World Cup on the horizon. His nearest rival will be team-mate Luis Suarez and it’s going to be intriguing watching the duo battle it out, but expect the Argentine to claim his fifth Pichichi that puts him one behind all-time leader Telmo Zarra.
Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane is not letting Espanyol’s lowly league placing fool him into thinking Tuesday’s clash will be a stroll in the park for his rejuvenated side.
Madrid head to the RCDE Stadium looking to build on a seven-match unbeaten run in La Liga which has seen them pick up six victories and score 30 goals.
Here’s a look at three talking points ahead of the encounter.
Feel-good factor returning to Madrid?
After a hugely disappointing first six months of the season, perhaps the second half of Real Madrid’s Champions League clash with PSG will prove to be a much-needed turning point for Zinedine Zidane’s men.
Since Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty equaliser in that high-powered Bernabeu meeting, Los Blancos have scored 14 goals in three-and-a-half games, enough to gain vital victories over PSG in that Champions League tussle and three straight league triumphs over Real Betis, Leganes and Alaves.
The convincing manner of Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of Alaves, in particular, suggested that the dark days of winter are being left behind. Zidane’s team could be emerging into a bright new spring with the idea of retaining the Champions League crown suddenly becoming a much more realistic proposition.
There’s a very long way to go, of course, but this weekend’s game displayed a sense of confidence running throughout the team which has been absent for a long time, and another convincing win over lowly Espanyol would certainly strengthen the growing suspicion that Real are back in business before they head to Paris for the crucial second leg.
Vazquez becoming undroppable for Zidane?
With the headlines being dominated by Gareth Bale’s future at the club, the rise of Marco Asensio and the decidedly mixed form of Karim Benzema, one man has been left almost forgotten: Lucas Vazquez.
The 26 year-old youth team graduate has never been a regular starter during his three years in the senior squad, only starting around one in four games – mostly against lightweight opposition – and generally having to content himself with brief outings from the bench when other players higher up the food chain needed a rest.
But the hard-working winger has been given a far more prominent role in recent weeks, starting the last four league games and responding with goals against Real Sociedad and Leganes along with a neat assist for Casemiro in the latter and another smart set-up for Cristiano Ronaldo on Saturday.
With Toni Kroos and Luka Modric both injured, Vazquez has made the most of the vacancies in midfield to suggest that he should now be considered on equal terms with the likes of Bale and Asensio – and he will certainly feel at home on Tuesday night after enjoying an excellent season on loan with Espanyol in 2014/15.
If he plays well again, Zidane will be hard pushed to omit him from the all-important clash with PSG. But with Asensio, Bale and Isco also pushing for a starting place, the French coach is not lacking options from wide positions in the new-look 4-4-2 formation he has adopted in the last few games.
Are Espanyol sliding towards basement battle?
It has been a frustrating season for Tuesday’s hosts Espanyol, who entered the campaign with plenty of positivity after the arrival of new owners from China and promises of heavy investment. But the new funds haven’t quite materialised and manager Quique Sanchez Flores has at times come under pressure from fans after leading his team through a decidedly underwhelming season, with a lack of creativity hampering the ability of excellent striker Gerard Moreno to reach his full potential.
Espanyol’s recent form has been neither one thing nor the other, with a run of four successive draws keeping them away from immediate relegation danger but without much room for comfort.
One of those draws came against cross-city rivals Barcelona, whose fans will not be holding their breath in the hope that Espanyol pull out a similar performance against Real – the two clubs have a historically close relationship (hence deals like Vazquez’s loan move), with Espanyol disparagingly nicknamed ‘Real Madrid B’ by many Barca fans.
But considering their current position it would be tough to suggest that Espanyol might ‘take it easy’, and the home team’s attempts to put some daylight between themselves and the bottom three should give Zidane’s men an uncomfortable night – especially if they can feed Moreno.
Zinedine Zidane insists he will be keeping his fingers crossed over Neymar’s fitness after the Brazilian suffered a major injury scare ahead of the blockbuster Champions League clash between Real Madrid and PSG.
Neymar posted a picture of his heavily bandaged ankle on Instagram earlier on Monday, having left the field in tears and on a stretcher during PSG’s win over Marseille the day before.
With the game just eight days away, the Paris side’s task of overturning a 3-1 deficit would be that much more difficult without their world record signing in the side.
However, Zidane doesn’t think Neymar’s absence would affect the game – though hopes that he makes it onto the pitch.
“I don’t think it influences the game,” he said at his pre-match press conference for the Espanyol encounter.
“But I hope he can play, I will never want a rival player to be injured.”
Real are on a genuine hot streak for the first time this season, having won five games in a row in all competitions.
Retaining the La Liga title may be beyond them – 14 points behind leaders Barcelona – but a win at Espanyol on Tuesday would be another important stepping stone ahead of that crunch Champions League clash.
One of the factors in the turnaround of form is undoubtedly Cristiano Ronaldo, who has scored seven goals in his past four games.
“He knows himself very well and we talk because it’s very important to have Cristiano always at his best,” Zidane added.
“He knows that sometimes he has to rest because the season is very long, at the end of the year there is a World Cup.”