Barcelona and Real Madrid look set to duke it out for the title when La Liga resumes amidst the coronavirus pandemic, but there are loose ends across Spain that are also worthy of attention.
Just below the dominant duo is a rabid race for European qualification, and only two points separate third-place Sevilla from Atletico Madrid in sixth as things stand.
The main relegation candidates will hope to launch a renewed survival effort following the suspension, with Espanyol, Leganes and Mallorca currently making up the bottom three.
La Liga is primed to return on Thursday, and it isn’t just the usual suspects who will gauge interest when the teams get back on the pitch.
10. Athletic Bilbao vs. Real Madrid (Week 34)
The second-most played fixture in Spanish football history, El Viejo Clasico (The Old Classic) brings Real to San Mames in Week 34 hoping Athletic Bilbao don’t impede their path to La Liga’s peak.
Los Leones progressed to this season’s Copa del Rey final but have been inconsistent in the league, recovering to cement the 10th spot before the pause in play. The problem as far as Zinedine Zidane’s side are concerned comes from the fact they’ve already dropped points this term to Athletic, who also beat Barcelona on the opening day.
Gaizka Garitano’s side know they’ll advance to next season’s Europa League if they were to win the Copa del Rey. However, Spanish football writer Colin Millar touched on a lifeline in the event that date with rivals Real Sociedad is cancelled:
Although 19 points and eight places separate the two teams, a trip to face Athletic in the Basque country could be the biggest domestic test remaining on Real’s calendar.
9. Barcelona vs. Atletico Madrid (Week 33)
Barcelona and Atlético Madrid have enough history between them that their meetings have been dubbed El Otro Clasico (The Other Classic), albeit without quite the same prestige as Spain’s top rivalry.
The clash will bring Diego Simeone back into contact with countryman Lionel Messi, a player who frequently attracts praise from the Atlético boss, per Argentinian football writer Roy Nemer:
Atleti’s form has been ragged by their usual standards in a campaign where they’ve had to adjust to widespread changes among the squad. However, ousting holders Liverpool out of the UEFA Champions League just prior to football being suspended—a feat Barca couldn’t manage in 2019—served as a reminder Simeone can still coax some of the old tricks out of this new dog.
Quique Setien wasn’t in charge at Barcelona when they lost 3-2 to Los Rojiblancos in January’s Spanish Super Cup semi-final, hoping to improve his own record of just three wins in 11 meetings with Atlético as a coach.
8. Sevilla vs. Real Betis – Thursday, June 11
As written about by our very own Graham Ruthven, La Liga rivalries don’t get much bigger than the Seville derby. The thought of welcoming Spanish football back with one in front of an empty Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan will both excite and unsettle many fans.
Betis came out on top in a FIFA equivalent in March, with Borja Iglesias besting Sergio Reguilon in the virtual arena:
Third-place Sevilla perhaps have more reason to feel the pressure after losing form in their pursuit of Champions League qualification leading up to March. Julen Lopetegui had his team flying high earlier this season, but Sevilla have won one of their last four home games and looked to be feeling the heat ahead of what could be their highest finish since 2009.
Betis are considerably worse off in 12th and not yet entirely safe from what lies below, but few things would delight Los Verdiblancos more than to stun Sevilla in the first week back.
7. Real Sociedad vs. Real Madrid (Week 30)
Martin Odegaard might have found himself on the visitors’ bench for this fixture had the last few seasons progressed differently. However, after finally getting his big break in Spain at Real Sociedad, he’ll see this clash as a chance to show his parent club what was behind door No. 2:
The Norwegian hasn’t been the lone difference-maker at Sociedad this season, but it’s no coincidence his surge to prominence has boosted the team's reach for fourth place for the first time since 2013. What's more, La Real are the third highest-scorers in La Liga behind Barca and Real.
A Week 30 meeting at Anoeta will either see Zidane’s men take a considerable step in the title race or give up points to one of this season’s greatest surprise packages.
6. Barcelona vs. Espanyol (Week 35)
Espanyol haven’t won a league fixture at the Camp Nou in more than a decade (February 2009), yet even that can’t kill suspense ahead of the Catalan derby set for Week 35.
Barcelona and their city rivals are at opposite ends of the table after 27 games, but both scripts can be heavily impacted depending on what happens in an audience-less derby encounter.
Setien previously spoke to The Coaches’ Voice about one of his best wins over Los Periquitos:
Unlikely as it seems that Espanyol will somehow break habits enough to beat the Blaugrana, 12 of their 20 points this season have come away from home (including three of their four wins).
5. Villarreal vs. Valencia (Week 32)
Villarreal manager Javier Calleja and his Valencia counterpart, Albert Celades, are two of La Liga’s more promising, younger coaches who could form a rivalry for years to come. However, there’s a lot to fight for between the two teams here and now.
The Derbi de la Comunitat is still in its infancy compared to Spain’s more established feuds—started in 1997 between brothers and then-opposing club owners—but a win in Week 32 could mean the difference in playing European football next season or watching from their couches.
Villarreal and Valencia have recent history in the UEFA Europa League after the latter darted late to clinch a 3-1 first-leg lead in the 2019 quarter-finals:
Los Che have won the last four consecutive meetings between the two clubs, though they haven’t won at the Estadio de la Ceramica (formerly El Madrigal) in La Liga since January 2017.
4. Getafe vs. Atletico Madrid (Week 37)
Getafe made history last season when they came fifth to secure their highest finish in Spanish football. Not content with that achievement, Jose Bordalais is within sight of at least repeating the feat, and a win at home to Atletico Madrid in Week 37 would go a long way to fueling that dream.
Atleti’s last road game of this term looks far from simple; they’re one point and a place below Getafe, not to mention they’ve only won three times away from home in 2019-20.
The Madrid duo don’t have their own derby, per se, but one can envision these meetings between capital-city rivals becoming a fiercer fixture if Getafe can cement their top-six contention.
3. Espanyol vs. Celta Vigo (Week 38)
Fixtures impacting the relegation race may naturally draw less attention among neutral fans, but Espanyol’s potential drop to the second tier is worth keeping an eye on after 26 years in La Liga.
Celta Vigo—in their eighth straight top-flight season—are one point above the bottom three, and Abelardo Fernandez must ensure his side don’t leave it until the final week to save their top-tier future, currently six points from safety.
Though many fans will prefer the glitz of the top teams, Espanyol and Celta have drawn five of their last six meetings and only tend to be one goal apart if a winner has emerged in their recent history.
2. Real Sociedad vs. Sevilla (Week 37)
Sociedad have been saddled with a difficult run-in to the end of the campaign, one that will be all the tougher given they’ll be required to play multiple matches per week until season’s end.
Ben Hayward of the Evening Standard remarked early on during the lockdown period that these two teams would be among the biggest losers if the season were to be voided:
Sevilla don’t promise to be polite guests in their last home game of the season. Both teams have changed a lot since Los Nervionenses battered their hosts 4-0 at Anoeta in January 2017, and the pair have pushed high enough to consider this a potential Champions League knockout.
The two teams produced 12 goals from their two encounters in 2019—both in Seville—and the potential prize on offer in this penultimate-day clash makes sparks that much more likely to fly.
1. Atletico Madrid vs. Real Sociedad (Week 38)
Sociedad’s rise into the top-four melee has greatly affected La Liga’s usual paradigm and had to come at someone’s expense, with Atlético the losing party as the table currently stands.
Sociedad beat Simeone’s men 2-0 at Anoeta in September, but a last-day bid for the Champions League could rest on whether they can beat Atletico away, something they haven’t done since March 2013:
A streak of seven successive top-three finishes is at risk of ending following last summer’s spree of transfers, while Imanol Alguacil’s side are on the verge of a return to Europe’s elite.
Traditionally so difficult to beat at home, Atleti’s lost confidence has made them more vulnerable at the Wanda Metropolitano this term, and one of the most exciting attacks in Europe will want to exploit that.