LA Liga's extended break due to the COVID pandemic is obviously nothing to be celebrated anywhere, but the timing probably makes currently second placed Real Madrid new favourites to tip present leaders Barcelona to the 2019/20 title.
Tuesday’s moving of Euro 2020 to summer 2021 has opened up space for this season’s domestic Spanish campaign to stretch well past its original final date of May 24 – with La Liga president Javier Tebas clear that financial imperatives mean all 11 remaining games will be played at some point.
That has brought a focus on which teams and players might benefit most from getting a few weeks [or more likely months] to get key players back fit and in form for the season’s most decisive games, whenever they eventually come around. It looks evident that Madrid have most to gain from everything being pushed back. Zinedine Zidane’s team were creaking badly when all football was stopped last week – having won only one of their previous five games across all competitions.
Zidane was already without long-term injured attackers Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio, and had also lost goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and left-back Marcelo to muscle injuries ahead of this week’s [now postponed] Champions League game at Manchester City. Even Zidane’s long-term future as coach was being questioned again following the limp 1-2 defeat at Real Betis, which had allowed Barca to move back two points clear at the top.
Euro 2020 will be postponed until 2021 after UEFA reached an agreement with key governing bodies on Tuesday, sources have told ESPN. pic.twitter.com/pi8gVq4vHT
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 17, 2020
Now assuming the title run-in takes place in June or even later, Courtois and Marcelo will have plenty of time to recover, and Hazard and Asensio should both be primed and ready to go. Hazard underwent an operation on his ankle in Dallas on March 5, to ensure he was properly fit for Euro 2020 with Belgium from mid-June. Now Madrid will be the beneficiaries.
Another ‘new signing’ for the La Liga restart will be Asensio – who has sat out the entire 2019/20 after a serious knee operation last August. The now 24-year-old’s direct running and goal threat have been really badly missed. By mid-May he should be ready to play again, and fresh and hungry to show what he can do after so many frustrating months on the sidelines.
Zidane could also use this time to work out why his team lost so much drive and organisation in the month before the break. And come back recharged and refocused on a trophy which the Frenchman has always targeted as most important for this season. This may be one reason why some in or around the Camp Nou have been lobbying for the 2019/20 campaign to be called off now, and Barca to be named champions – as Mundo Deportivo called for last weekend.
The biggest blaugrana positive would be a return for Luis Suarez, who had either either scored or assisted 16 goals in the 10 games before his troublesome knee finally gave out in January. The required operation had put into doubt whether the 32-year-old would play for the club again this season, or maybe ever again. The stoppage means Suarez could return for at least 11 more games for Barca, before potentially heading to MLS during a summer shake-up at the Camp Nou.
Blaugrana midfielders Sergi Roberto and Arthur Melo were also sidelined when the football stopped, and should be fine to go whenever it restarts. Talisman Lionel Messi also looked in need of a rest. Ousmane Dembele is not due back until August from his latest hamstring injury however, so ‘emergency signing’ Martin Braithwaite could still play a key role.
La Liga president Javier Tebas: "I'm convinced we will end this season, we are working with other leagues to adjust our fixtures." pic.twitter.com/G0QdqVDxeO
— Goal (@goal) March 15, 2020
The enforced break may also be useful for Barca coach Quique Setien and his assistants to work out how to more practically ‘teach’ their players his tactical concepts. A mini pre-season of a few weeks once players return to collective training could help with that. The stoppage did not really come at a great time for Atletico Madrid – who had a fully fit squad for the first time all season. Diego Simeone will be relieved for sure though whenever games do restart, as his team currently sit outside the top four in La Liga, and need to get their domestic form sorted to assure participation in next year’s Champions League.
The biggest losers in all this has been obvious right from the start. Valencia on Monday announced that 35% of their players and staff had already tested positive for COVID 19. The Mestalla outfit say all the individuals are asymptomatic and should recover fine in time, but you could understand if all at the club would like to draw a line under 2019/20 now. 42 points from their first 27 games mean Los Che should be safe from relegation whatever happens, but you wouldn’t bet on them picking up many more wins between now and next season.
Given the seriousness of the situation, for instance at Valencia, speculation should really be balanced with sensitivity at the moment. Nobody really knows yet how things are going to sort out in the end. But the current stoppage has increased the chances of someone whose club season seemed over before it had really started – like Hazard or Asensio – returning to become key in their team lifting the 2019/20 La Liga trophy.