La Liga Hangover: 1 Point to Glory at the Top; 1 Point from Doom at the Bottom

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistApril 25, 2016

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 23:  Neymar Santos Jr of FC Barcelona is congratulated by his teammates Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi after scoring his team's fifth goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Sporting Gijon at Camp Nou on April 23, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Welcome to La Liga Hangover, a weekly column running throughout the season in which we take a light-hearted, though in-depth, look at the key stories and talking points from the most recent weekend of action in Spanish football's top flight. With a focus on the biggest teams, such as Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona, and a worthwhile nod toward the rest, we examine how the league is shaping up each week and what to look out for going forward.

 

Can All 3 Win Out?

We haven't had a Liga Hangover column since three matchdays ago, and since then the top of the table has become absurdly congested. Just a single point separates Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, with the Catalan outfit top on head-to-head over Atleti.

For the past two rounds of matches, though, all three sides have won their fixtures: Barcelona have rediscovered an outrageous scoring touch, netting 14 goals in two games, Atletico have won both of their extremely tough fixtures by a 1-0 scoreline and Real have been their usual inconsistent selves, hammering Villarreal before almost losing the plot against Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.

Real Madrid's Welsh forward Gareth Bale (L) celebrates after scoring with Real Madrid's forward Jese Rodriguez during the Spanish league football match Rayo Vallecano de Madrid vs Real Madrid CF at the Vallecas stadium in Madrid on April 23, 2016. / AFP /
CURTO DE LA TORRE/Getty Images

As hard as the two Madrid clubs are pushing and keeping the pressure on Barcelona, there's nothing either of them can do to wrest the title from Luis Enrique's team. It all hinges on whether Barcelona win their last three games: away to Betis, the derby at home to Espanyol and then away to Granada. On paper, Barca should win them all. If they do, the title is theirs by the smallest of margins.

That said, as Saturday showed, there is no room for error.

Real Madrid played first and went top. Atletico played second and went top. Barca played last and finished the day top.

All three sides are capable of winning out the rest of the Liga campaign, but somewhere, someone will drop points. For all three involved, it's about holding their nerve, showing their quality and being ready to take advantage when a mistake occurs elsewhere.

 

Jornada 35 Results

Las Palmas 4-0 Espanyol

Rayo Vallecano 2-3 Real Madrid

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Malaga

Barcelona 6-0 Sporting Gijon

Eibar 1-1 Deportivo La Coruna

Levante 2-2 Athletic Bilbao

Sevilla 2-0 Real Betis

Getafe 2-2 Valencia

Villarreal 0-0 Real Sociedad

Celta Vigo vs. Granada, Monday 7:30 p.m. BST KO

 

Suicidal Levante Leaves 2 from 4

Levante were two minutes from a huge three points early on Sunday, beating Athletic Bilbao 2-0 heading into the final moments of the game. Cue some of the most lax and inept defending you'll see in any top flight this season.

For the first goal, Levante had at least three chances to clear their lines before failing to block a shot. Then, in injury time, a routine low cross into the box was swept home by Athletic centre-back Mikel San Jose despite no fewer than six Levante defenders being stood around him. Instead of being on 31 points and two from safety, Levante are four adrift, and with Malaga, Atletico Madrid and Rayo to play, they may have passed up their last big chance of survival.

Above them, it's Getafe and Sporting Gijon in the drop zone, with Granada just outside.

As at the top of the table, one point separates those three teams. Whichever finishes first in that mini league will celebrate as if they have won the title.

Rayo, in 16th, aren't yet completely safe but should take something from their last three fixtures to ensure survival. From the three teams below them, it's perhaps Granada who have the biggest worries. They play their game in hand on Monday night to wrap up Jornada 35 and will be desperate to get some sort of result from the match, as they finish against in-form Las Palmas, away to Sevilla and home to Barcelona, who will likely need a win on the final day to take the title.

Stress levels: through the roof.

 

Points of Authority and Tactical Notes

  • Diego Reyes reprised his holding-midfield role for Real Sociedad on Sunday after a few weeks in the back four. He starts play neatly from deep and allows the aggressive midfielders ahead of him to win back possession, but La Real lack numbers in the final third with a 4-3-3.
  • Barcelona's penalty woes have been well-documented this season, so top marks for netting three out of three on Saturday.
  • Villarreal continued their rotation of the goalkeeper role this weekend, with Sergio Asenjo keeping a clean sheet. It all points to the Spaniard being No. 1 again next term rather than a permanent deal for Alphonse Areola.
  • The Andalusian derby between Sevilla and Real Betis was poor, but at least there were fewer cards and more goals than in the reverse fixture: nine instead of 12 and two instead of none respectively.
  • It's a bit late to be gambling, but with Getafe's basic system not yielding rewards in either half of the pitch, why didn't Fran Escriba change the approach? New manager Juan Esnaider has tried with two forwards already since coming in earlier in April and altered to a 4-1-4-1 against Valencia. Four points from the last two games has given them some hope. 

 

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 23:  Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's sixth goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Sporting Gijon at Camp Nou on April 23, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Ima
Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Stat Attack

  • Eight goals in two games for Luis Suarez see him flying clear in the Pichichi chart on 34, three ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo.
  • Real Madrid have nine wins in a row in La Liga. The best streak for this season is 12, from Barcelona, which Real could match by the end of the campaign.
  • It's now 18 games since Deportivo La Coruna kept a clean sheet.
  • Depor, Espanyol and Malaga are five games without a win, the longest current streaks in La Liga.
  • Sevilla's win in the derby was their 14th home victory of the league season. Only Barca and Real Madrid have won more times at home than Unai Emery's side, but every team has won more times than Sevilla away from home—the Andalusians yet to register a victory on the road.
  • Villarreal need six points to guarantee fourth place and a UEFA Champions League spot for next season. That will be reduced to four points if Celta don't win on Monday night.

 

Good Week, Bad Week

The Good

Las Palmas are finishing strongly. They're now up to ninth, have more wins than Malaga, Valencia and Real Sociedad and have won seven of their last 10 games.

Angel Correa came on and changed the flow of the game for Atletico Madrid on Saturday. With five goals and four assists off the bench, he's the super-sub whose made the most impact in La Liga this season, per Transfermarkt.

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 23: Angel Martin Correa5 (3dL) celebrates scoring their opening goal with teammates during the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Malaga CF at Vicente Calderon Stadium on April 23, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gon
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Real Madrid have been accused of lacking leaders at times this season. In the second half of their comeback against Rayo, one emerged in a technical sense, displaying intelligence, determination and end product. His name is Gareth Bale.

 

The Bad

Neymar and Raphael Varane head the list of big names who had a particularly difficult time of things on the pitch this weekend.

Referee Clos Gomez managed to put in an admirably terrible performance between Barcelona and Sporting, along with his assistants. He wasn't alone in poor officiating in Spain's top flight this weekend.

It's now one win in 21 for Depor, with that victory coming against the league's bottom side, Levante, through an own goal five minutes from time. It's been an awful 2016 for them.