Barcelona favourites to claim La Liga crown, but it could go to the wire

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Lionel Messi

La Liga has been far more competitive this season compared to recent campaigns. The top teams have been made to work extremely hard for their wins and the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid have hardly breezed through fixtures.

So far, 22 games have been played and Barca find themselves perched on top of the table, with a six-point lead. Second in the league, Atetico Madrid have a two-point lead over city rivals Real although the dynamics could change dramatically this weekend after the Madrid derby.

There are 16 matches left. European engagements. Injury crises. So many variables can still come into play. We take all of this into consideration, as we attempt to predict where the current top three will end up on the final day.

BARCELONA

Current form

The Catalan giants saw there eight-game winning run come to a halt after they were held to a 2-2 draw by Valencia last week. Barca have been churning out the results, while putting on convincing performances, ever since their 1-1 draw at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Lionel Messi has been his usual, marvelous and magical self and Ousmane Dembele has taken off spectacularly since establishing himself as a starter. In midfield, Arthur has looked calm and assured, and rarely has an off-day.

In defence, Gerard Pique has been having a great season and Clement Lenglet has gelled in well with Barca’s style of play. Jordi Alba has arguably been the best full-back in the league and his role will be crucial for the league leaders. Marc-Andre Ter Stegen has been solid in goal even if he has barely been tested in recent months.

Barcelona are at a vantage position

Barcelona are at an advantageous position at the top of La Liga.

European/cup engagements

February – or Hlebruary as the Barcelona faithful refer to the second month of the year as, due to the tendency of the team to dip in form at this time of the season – will be a hectic month.

The Blaugrana face Lyon in the last 16 of the Champions League and in the likely scenario that they progress, will have to endure a challenging schedule in April. There’s back to back away Clasicos lined up at the end of the month, one of which is the crucial Copa del Rey semi-final second leg against Real at the Bernabeu.

Nabil Fekir and Lyon could be a hurdle for Barcelona in the La Liga title race

Nabil Fekir and Lyon could be a hurdle for Barcelona in the Champions League.

Remaining league fixtures

None of the teams can be underestimated in La Liga this season, but these are the top bunch of challenging fixtures lined up for Barcelona: Sevilla (A), Real Madrid (A), Real Betis (A), Atletico Madrid (H), Alaves (H).

It helps Barca that Sevilla have been in terrible form in the past few weeks. In fact, the Catalans swept aside Pablo Machin’s men 6-1 in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals last week. Ernesto Valverde’s side have a brilliant record at the Bernabeu in the last few seasons, with scorelines reading 3-0, 3-2 and 4-0, all in their favour.

Facing Betis and Atletico could be tricky. The former will be fighting for a European spot and have already shown that they can dominate and defeat Valverde’s men.

Predicted finish: Champions (84 points)

Ousmane Dembele

Ousmane Dembele has been in stellar form after a patchy start to the season.

ATLETICO MADRID

Current form

Atleti’s five-month long unbeaten run saw the end of day recently after Quique Setien’s Betis edged out Los Rojiblancos at the Benito Villamarin last week.

Diego Simeone’s men had their fair share of troubles in November and December when they drew a couple of games and won in the most pallid of ways. Atletico have not been particularly brilliant ever since, but that’s exactly how they play – for results.

Having said that, Atletico’s attack has been rather blunt this season and new-signing Alvaro Morata must step up and deliver without wasting much time settling in.

The midfield has had good and bad days, but there has been nothing spectacular so far. Rodri remains a standout and Atletico’s most consistent performer.

The defence has not been its usual solid self, but the fact that the entire back line was injury-ridden for a huge part of the season so far earns them a pass here.

Atleti have been able to stay in second spot despite an average attack, midfield and defence. This goes to show how brilliant Jan Oblak has been between the posts. The custodian has proved repeatedly why he’s arguably the best keeper in the league and possibly Europe.

Antoine Griezmann has been the silver lining for Atletico Madrid

Antoine Griezmann has been the silver lining for Atletico Madrid.

European/cup engagements

An advantage – that might not be the term Atletico fans might want to use – that Los Rojiblancos hold over their two rivals here is that they will not face fixture congestion due to domestic duties. Simeone’s men were eliminated from the Copa del Rey in the last 16 by Girona.

It’s not all sunshine though. Atletico will take on Juventus in the Champions League – a significantly tougher opponent than Lyon or Ajax. But if they do get eliminated, while Barcelona and Real progress, this could give them an advantage in April when the latter two battle on in Europe. Only time can tell.

Ronaldo returns to Madrid

Ronaldo returns to Madrid when Juve take on Atletico in the Champions League last 16.

Remaining league fixtures

Some of the toughest fixtures for Atletico until the end of the season include: Real Madrid (H), Athletic Bilbao (A), Alaves (A), Girona (H), Barcelona (A), Celta Vigo (H) and Sevilla (H).

Again, this set of fixtures might not be as demanding as Barca’s. But the fact that their run contains some tough away ties could play against Los Rojiblancos.

Also, Atletico play Girona, Barca and Celta Vigo in a stretch of games, so that period will be extremely crucial in determining their final position.

Predicted finish: Third (78 points)

Atletico Madrid's season is in Jan Oblak's hands, literally

Atletico Madrid’s season is in Jan Oblak’s hands, literally.

REAL MADRID

Current form

Santiago Solari steadied the ship at Real Madrid after a disastrous start under Julen Lopetegui. But it’s never been a smooth ride for the Argentinian either. Los Blancos started 2019 with a draw against Villareal and a defeat to Real Sociedad.

Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior stepped up for the team though and the European champions have won all four games since, seemingly turning a corner. They were the better side for large spells in Wednesday night’s 1-1 Copa del Rey semi-final first leg draw at the Camp Nou. The fact that four league victories came against quality opponents in Betis, Sevilla, Espanyol and Alaves renders it all the more impressive.

However, the midfield is still far from it’s best and needs a fix-up before the crucial stages of the season exposes its flaws. Raphael Varane has been spectacular in defence, but Sergio Ramos has had better days.

Sergio Reguilon has replaced Marcelo at the left-back position and the youngster has proved every week that this has been one of Solari’s better decisions.

Thibaut Courtois struggled during his first few weeks with Los Blancos, but the Belgian has accustomed himself to the league now and the signs of improvements are plentiful.

Madrid will be heading to the next bunch of fixtures full of confidence.

Vinicius Junior has been a bright spot for Real Madrid.

Vinicius Junior has been a bright spot for Real Madrid.

European/cup engagements

Fatigue can really play against Real in this hectic stretch. Fresh from the Clasico in the Copa del Rey, Solari’s men now turn their eyes towards the Champions League as they travel to Amsterdam to take on Ajax.

Before all that though, there is the small matter of the Madrid derby awaiting them this weekend, which only strengthens the need for more rotation. Again, further progress in Europe will set them up for a challenging April.

Can Frenkie De Jong and co halt Madrid's Champions League monopoly?

Can Frenkie De Jong and Co end Madrid’s Champions League monopoly?

Remaining league fixtures

Los Blancos are already in the midst of a challenging run of games, so it can only get better for them. Some of the challenging engagements ahead include: Atletico Madrid (A), Levante (A), Barcelona (H), Getafe (A) and Real Betis (H).

The teams that have been mentioned apart from the obvious two are the ones which have either convincingly defeated Madrid or lost marginally after outplaying them.

Clearly, Madrid do have an easier set of fixtures left, compared to Barcelona or their rivals across the capital. But an eight-point lead is too big to make up in Spain and European distractions will provide them with further challenges.

Karim Benzema

Karim Benzema has been revitalised for Real since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure.

Predicted finish: Second (79 points)

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El Clasico: Lionel Messi guessing game dominates Barcelona v Real Madrid

Andy West 6/02/2019
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The first of three Clasicos in the space of less than a month takes place on Wednesday night as Barcelona host Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg.

Both clubs would readily admit that the cup comes third on their list of priorities for the season, and respective managers Ernesto Valverde and Santiago Solari have heavily rotated their starting line-ups during the earlier rounds.

However, the high profile of a Clasico contest – and the bragging rights which will inevitably follow – could tempt the coaches to field their strongest possible line-ups at the Camp Nou. But for Barca, the question of whether that will include their key player is the main talking point, and the first of our three big questions ahead of the game:

MESSI TO BE RISKED?

Barcelona are sweating on the fitness of captain Lionel Messi after the Argentine took a bang to his thigh during the 2-2 draw with Valencia at the weekend, and Valverde – and Messi himself – are being forced to decide whether they are prepared to take any risks or let Messi fully recover for the tough run of games that lie ahead.

The next few weeks will see Barca face tough trips to Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla, Madrid and Real Betis in La Liga, as well as resuming their Champions League campaign with a round-of-16 tie against Lyon. Having Messi available for those games is a much bigger priority than taking a gamble to proceed in the Copa – irrespective of the identity of their semi-final opponents – and it would be a dangerous game if Barca rush back their star man for this first leg.

The need for Messi to play is pronounced by the fact that Ousmane Dembele is still missing, despite returning to training following an ankle injury. Dembele resumed training on Monday, but he has also been suffering with illness and has not been named in the squad.

However, Barca’s concerns over heading into a Clasico without Messi will be assuaged by the fact that they did exactly that during the Argentine’s injury absence in October, and still managed to win 5-1.

SELECTION DILEMMAS IN MIDFIELD BATTLEGROUND

If Messi is able to play, that could mean a relegation to the bench for Philippe Coutinho, who is continuing to struggle for form.

Coutinho’s chances of starting are enhanced by the ongoing absence of Dembele, but manager Valverde is weighing up the option of seeking to control the contest by strengthening his midfield.

Barca have generally lined up in a 4-3-3 formation this season, but last year they played plenty of games in a 4-4-2 shape with Messi and Suarez up front, and there is a convincing argument that Arturo Vidal should be selected for his physical capabilities to complement the more technical skills of Arthur, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets, while youngster Carles Alenya also looks worthy of more playing time.

Madrid boss Solari, likewise, has plenty of possibilities for his three midfield places. Dani Ceballos, Marcos Llorente and out-of-favour Isco are competing to substitute regular starters Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric – especially with Saturday’s league derby trip to Atletico Madrid rapidly approaching.

TWO OUT OF FOUR TO ACCOMPANY BENZEMA

One player surely set to start is Karim Benzema, who has produced some of the best football of his career over the last month. The French forward has always been a silky-smooth contributor to build-up play, but now he is also adding end product by scoring six goals in his last four games.

The bigger question for Solari, however, is who will accompany Benzema on the flanks, with four players – Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale, Vinicius Junior and Lucas Vazquez – all available to fill just two places.

Bale has just returned from injury and delivered a disappointing performance in Sunday night’s victory over Alaves, being replaced by Asensio – also coming back after injury – after an hour. But the only way for Bale to regain rhythm and match fitness is by playing, and Solari therefore could well decide this is the ideal stage for the Welshman to follow the path towards full sharpness.

Meanwhile, teen sensation Vinicius is hoping to continue his meteoric rise by playing in El Clasico for the very first time, giving him a first real opportunity to shine on a truly global stage. However, he has played a lot of football in recent weeks, starting the last nine games in a row, so this could also be the opportunity for Solari to rest the youngster – and keep him as a surprise package to spring upon Barca in the second leg or league clash in a few weeks’ time.

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Battle of the Brazilians set to decide El Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid

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Barcelona and Real Madrid both have Brazilian stars looking to shine.

The Copa del Rey has thrown Spanish football a bonus edition of El Clasico, with Real Madrid and Barcelona set to meet over two legs of the semi-final tie.

Both sets of players know exactly what’s at stake, beginning with Wednesday’s first leg at the Camp Nou. This fixture is always fiercely contested, and the opportunity to deny each other a trophy will add more spice to a rivalry like no other.

Here’s a look at the key player battles ahead of the first leg.

Philippe Coutinho v Vinicius Junior

Philippe Coutinho has had a turbulent first full season at Barcelona. His form dipped at the same time Ousmane Dembele’s took off, and since then, he’s been in and out of Ernesto Valverde’s first-choice XI.

In 31 appearances across competitions this season, the Brazilian has managed just eight goals and five assists, and though two of those goals came in the quarter-final thrashing of Sevilla last month, that emphasises how much he’d struggled to make an impact before that fixture.

Coutinho did net against Madrid earlier in the season. A repeat on Wednesday could go a long way in getting his Barca career back on track.

Real Madrid have a Brazilian star of their own, and he has not been struggling for form. Though Vinicius Junior has managed only four goals in Madrid’s famous white shirt, his overall impact on the squad cannot be understated.

As an 18-year-old, in his first season at the club, Vinicius has been the bright spark through an up-and-down season, and his speed and skill on the ball is now helping Madrid’s entire attack improve. The way he links up with Karim Benzema has been instrumental in Real Madrid’s recent upturn in form. He won’t be fazed by the El Clasico stage.

Coutinho and Vinicius Junior.

Coutinho and Vinicius Junior.

Luis Suarez v Karim Benzema

Whenever Lionel Messi misses time with injury, all eyes to turn to Luis Suarez to provide leadership as well as that spark of magic in attack. His 15 league goals put him second on the La Liga scoring charts – behind only Messi, of course – and the last time he faced Real Madrid, he managed a hat-trick.

That performance came without Messi, as well, which bodes well for Barcelona. The talismanic captain is always a huge miss, of course, but they know Suarez can step up in his absence. He’ll be relishing the thought of tormenting Real Madrid again.

After an inconsistent start to the season, Benzema is finally stepping into the role of Real Madrid’s main goalscorer, the role he was supposed to take after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Frenchman has six goals in his last four games, bringing his tally to 18 for the season.

Now, he has the chance to truly claim the spotlight. Benzema is Madrid’s headline player in a Clasico matchup – a new experience for the French veteran. But he’s hit form at just the right time.

If he can lead Madrid to a win in this cup tie, he’ll have kicked off a new chapter of his Los Blancos career.

Suarez and Benzema.

Suarez and Benzema.

Gerard Pique v Sergio Ramos

No mention of El Clasico is complete without the two players who are the heart and soul of their respective teams.

First, Gerard Pique, the player whose pride in wearing the famous Catalan colours of Barcelona is always on display.

He’s had a shaky season in 2018/19, weathering some criticism over his form, but in recent weeks he’s resembled the solid performer he’s always been.

And as should be expected, he’s always up for a game against Barcelona’s famous old enemy. Pique will relish his contests with Benzema and Vinicius, and if Barca win, he won’t let Madrid forget it.

Every bit as passionate as his Barcelona counterpart, Sergio Ramos lives for these games as well. He, too has had an up and down season, though more as captain of an inconsistent side than for his own form.

Ramos is capable of a rash moment every now and then, and Barcelona do seem to bring that side out in him the most, but, on the flip side, the Los Blancos skipper knows he’s capable of willing his side to victory in a game like this.

He’ll have to be on his toes to handle the threat of Suarez and company, but Ramos should be more than up to the task.

Pique and Ramos - the souls of Barcelona and Madrid.

Pique and Ramos – the souls of Barcelona and Madrid.

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