6 Storylines to Follow in La Liga for Weekend of January 23-26
As we have crossed the halfway point in La Liga for the 2014-15 season, clubs are now officially heading toward the home straight, where objectives and aims for the campaign can be realised—or missed.
Every point in every match has to be hard-fought and deserved, but with inconsistencies throughout the league this year, stringing a few wins together could make all the difference. We've taken our weekly look at the matchday ahead in Spain's top flight to see what the key games are, which are the issues to watch out for and who might be making the headlines.
It's our storylines to follow, and we begin with a match with huge money-spinning potential.
The Big Battle in the Top-4 Race
Forget the points in the league table for a moment, consistency and previous years tell us that we're currently looking at two races of three teams: Atletico, Real and Barcelona for the title, with Sevilla, Valencia and Villarreal fighting it out for fourth.
This weekend sees two of the second group clash, with Valencia set to host Sevilla.
Los Che need the points to close a potential gap and overtake the Andalusians in real terms, while Sevilla have a one-point lead and also a game in hand at present. So Valencia—also the home team so facing more pressure to attack—cannot afford defeat in case Sevilla also win that game in hand (against Real Madrid).
Sevilla, on the other hand, know that a win not only puts a significant gap between themselves and fifth, but it will also shove them toward the first group, the title-chasers. If they are still within a point or so of the top three once they have made up their game in hand, played February 4, then we can consider making that top cluster a four-team chase.
It was not long into the season that it looked it would be a campaign of doom for one of the top flight's smallest sides Elche. They did extremely well to survive last season, finishing 16th in the end, one point above the drop zone, but this season was going horribly up until the end of October, by which time they had a won a measly five points.
They doubled that tally before the winter break, but it has been since the return to action in 2015 that they seem to have really kicked on, winning two and drawing one since the resumption of La Liga, bumping them up to 16th once more.
Brazilian striker Jonathas has been key to their success, with his strength, dribbling ability and capacity to run across defences and score vital components of their team. Defenders Mario Pasalic and David Lomban have been much more solid and Garry Rodrigues brings flair and unpredictability from the flanks, but their survival is all about getting service and support to Jonathas.
The big test this weekend is to avoid defeat to a big-hitter—they play at home to Barcelona.
Luis Enrique's Same Selections
Speaking of which, Barcelona have their own storyline to watch—regarding manager Luis Enrique's team selections.
Noted for rotations and not seeming to know his best-strength team for some months of the season, Enrique has recently settled on his outfield lineup and last weekend named his first unchanged XI between one Liga game and the next.
A weekend win over Atletico Madrid saw an impressive attacking showing, so—excluding a Copa second leg win over Elche, with his team already 5-0 up, as rotations were sensible for that game—Enrique has been well served by sticking with the same the side since.
An unchanged XI saw Deportivo La Coruna dispatched last time out in the league, and even the midweek Copa del Rey win over Atletico Madrid featured the same outfield 10, with only cup goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen coming in for Claudio Bravo.
Will Enrique be tempted to change for the trip to Elche? Should he? The forwards are firing, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta look great together in midfield, and they've only conceded one goal in the last seven in all competitions.
Xavi, Pedro, Jeremy Mathieu and Rafinha await their next chance.
The Game Nobody Wants to Win?
Getafe vs. Celta Vigo: look it up, mark it in your diaries for this weekend—and then stay well away from your TV screens while it's on.
An exaggeration, of course (no, really, it's Monday night, 20:45 CET), but it certainly seems that neither side at present has either the ability or the inclination to scrape themselves a win.
Getafe are 15th; Celta are 11th. Getafe haven't won in nine in La Liga, since October 31. Celta haven't won in 10, since November 1 (see what we're saying?).
It gets worse: Getafe haven't scored in their last two games and haven't scored twice in a match in 2015 yet. Celta Vigo have scored just one goal in their last nine Liga matches.
Prediction: Granada 2-4 Celta Vigo.
La Liga's Worst Current Losing Streak
Getafe-Celta sounds about as bad as it can get in La Liga, but Athletic Bilbao stand proudly above all with the league's current worst streak, having lost four straight games and dropping to 13th in the process.
Since the Basque derby draw with Real Sociedad, Athletic have lost to Atletico Madrid, Deportivo La Coruna, Elche and Villarreal, teams that can't be grouped as any particular style, ability level, traditional bogey teams or even by formation.
Ernesto Valverde has seen his team unravel completely this term compared to last year's fourth-place finish, and he isn't getting any closer to solving the riddle. Athletic need far more from their attacking options, particularly Iker Muniain and Mikel Susaeta. Pairing Xabier Etxeita and Aymeric Laporte in the centre of defence gives them their most solid-looking back line, but the problems appear deep-seated at present, not just with underperforming personnel.
This weekend, Athletic play Malaga—themselves with two defeats in three—and they must see it as a chance to get back to winning ways. Then again, so must Malaga if they have any lingering hopes of gaining European football.
Real Madrid's Away Day Scoring Rush
We'll finish up with league-leading Real Madrid, who are away from home against Cordoba on Saturday. Playing at home usually gives clubs some semblance of solidity and hope for a good win, and with Cordoba three games unbeaten that feeling could be increased. But not in this case.
Real Madrid have been astonishing away from home in La Liga, taking at least four more points than any other club on the road and outscoring everybody.
Outscoring isn't really the word: Real have hit 35 goals in 10 away matches. The next highest is Barcelona, who have 16. Even at home, nobody has scored more than the 32 Real have notched in nine games! Real Madrid's scoring form away from home means they have hit more goals on the road than 16 of the 20 La Liga sides have managed all season!
Away from home again, maybe even Karim Benzema can contribute this time—the Frenchman hasn't scored a competitive goal since December 16, and he hasn't scored in La Liga since the end of November.