BARCELONA slipped to a 0-0 draw at Sevilla last week. A respectable result on paper but one that cost them top spot to Real Madrid. Barca's response? Why, it's to blame La Liga and the admittedly generous refereeing Madrid have received recently. But all these quibbles can be put aside for a few days at least, it's time for another round of La Liga fixtures. Watch all games live with Unibet TV.
Bilbao were in a bit of trouble before the enforced break and with legendary frontman Aritz Aduriz retiring during lockdown, there was an expectation they might struggle. However, with a narrow defeat away at Barcelona the only significant blot on an otherwise respectable copybook, Gaizka Garitano's have been plodding along nicely. Which is more than we can say for Mallorca whose best result of the restarted season has been a 1-1 draw at home to relegation rivals Leganes who scored in the 87th minute.
Otherwise, three defeats, no goals, and thanks to Celta Vigo's upturn in form, a place in the relegation zone. Mallorca are in dire straits but there is solace in the fact that more than half of their remaining games are against relegation rivals. To that end, it seems unlikely they would prioritise a trip to Bilbao where they have lost on six of their last eight visits.
The last 10 matches at the San Mames have all involved a maximum of two goals with four 1-0 wins for Athletic in the last six. I'm backing this one to follow the trend and for Inaki Williams to do the damage.
After taking 17 points from their first 20 league games, Celta have taken 16 from the next 10 – a vital run which has enabled them to open up a four-point gap from the relegation zone. The backbone of that success has been an outstanding defensive record: six clean sheets in the last seven games, just one goal conceded. Barcelona are also enjoying an impressive run out of shutouts – five in succession since the 2-0 defeat against Real Madrid.
Barca are unlikely to be particularly optimistic about a trip to the Estadio de Balaídos however having failed to win there on any of their last four trips in La Liga, losing three, and conceding on average three goals per game. However, the situation is less conducive to complacency this time around, dropping any points could be the difference between winning and losing the title, and the highly suspect VAR calls awarded in Real Madrid's in recent weeks have given Quique Setien's side renewed vigor to overcome their rivals.
Lionel Messi did most of the worm when Barcelona saw off Celta in November, bagging a hat-trick in a 4-1 win and that's a fair indication of how he's found it post-lockdown – of the eight goals Barcelona have so far, Messi has scored or assisted six. Celta will make this a tough game, Barca will have to dig deep, but ultimately, once again Messi will come to the rescue.
Atletico came out of lockdown in sixth position, not exactly having played badly but with genuine worries about qualifying for the Champions League. Four games in, they've virtually gone. 10 points from 12 have put Diego Simeone's side in position to take third place from Sevilla if they win their game in hand. And you'd be daft to bet against Atleti right now. Three straight clean sheets, Joao Felix producing his best form of the season, Marcos Llorente successfully redeployed as an attacker – everything has started to click at the Metropolitano.
As for Alaves, much the opposite. Three of their last four games have been defeats without scoring including a shocking 6-0 defeat at relegation-threatened Celta. The Basque side are comfortably midtable however probably already safe but certainly so with a few more positive results. That is not going to be happening away at an in-form Atleti however. Back Simeone's side to win this one comfortably.
Granada have been in reasonable nick of late, losing just one of their four games back. However, dropping seven points from 12 available has put a dent in legitimate aspirations of finishing in the top six. Granada need to rejuvenate their European push with a win this weekend but to do that, they will have to change their completely one-sided record with Sunday's opponents.
Granada have never beaten Eibar. In seven previous clashes, they've only managed two draws with three of their last four meetings ending in comfortable wins (3-0, 4-0, 5-1). However, recent history can only tell us so much about Granada. This season, under Diego Martinez, the Nazaríes have reinvented themselves: no longer flimsy, toothless relegation fodder, but instead an organised, disruptive, optimistic outfit. They have the third best home record in La Liga for instance. Eibar, out of interest, have the 17th worst away record.
Carlos Fernandez has been involved in all four of Granada's last four home games, scoring three and assisting one. Back Fernandez to make the difference here, and earn his side three points.
Villarreal have been in absolutely superb form since La Liga restarted. Three back-to-back 1-0 wins were followed up by an impressive 2-2 draw with high-flying Sevilla to leave The Yellow Submarine firmly in the hunt for a Europa League place. In fact, Villarreal are only five points behind Sevilla in fourth – finishing in the top four is entirely possible.
As for Valencia, they've been poor. Defeats away at Real Madrid and Eibar mean Los Che have only taken a single point from their last six away games in La Liga, and only managed to score in four of them. Valencia are only two points further back from Villarreal, in eighth place, but just two wins in their last 10 league games overall suggests the momentum has well and truly gone from their season.
Villarreal are also boosted by the long overdue returns of popular players. Having successfully reintegrated Santi Cazorla after two years out, Javier Calleja was able to name him alongside goalkeeper Serjio Asenjo who has recovered from his fourth cruciate injury, and Bruno Soriano who has missed over three years with a knee injury. All three started gave Villarreal a lift – not that they needed one – against Sevilla. Back them to inspire their side to a derby victory on Sunday.
Real Madrid were scoring on average 1.81 goals per game prior to lockdown. Since, that has lept to 2.5 goals a game, more than any other La Liga side in that time. Key to that has been upping the ante after the break – six of their last seven goals have come in the second half. In fact, Real's 35 goals scored after half-time is the best in La Liga this season (along with Barcelona) while no team has conceded more goals in this period than Espanyol (32).
The Periquitos are in real trouble, rock bottom of La Liga, eight points and a big goal difference swing from safety, having won just five league games all year. Barcelona are of course naturally desperate for Real Madrid to slip up, particularly following a week in which they've put pressure on referees for making a series of questionable calls in Real's favour, but they are probably best to suspend those hopes for a few days. Espanyol have no chance in this one.
Karim Benzema has been doing a lot of damage since the league restarted, and he has a fine record at the RCDE Stadium. Benzema bagged a brace there last season taking his total to four goals and an assist in his last five away games at Espanyol. Sometimes the answers are right there in front of you: back Real Madrid, and back Benzema.