This La Liga season, perhaps more than any other, has been a topsy-turvy affair, with no club pushing on and grabbing the title race by the scruff of the neck.
For example, before the pandemic forced the postponement of the Spanish top flight, Barcelona sat atop the table despite having their worst start to a campaign in 25 years.
Sacking their manager when in first place back in January was an odd move to say the least, with the Catalans then forced to plunder the emergency transfer market after injuries left them light in attack.
And did we mention the ridiculous situation of the new assistant coach, Eder Sarabia, having to apologise to the players for offending them with his outbursts, and Lionel Messi calling out Eric Abidal for a potential smearing of the squad in relation to Ernesto Valverde’s sacking?
Somehow, with the second-worst defensive record of the top six, the destination of the title remains in Barcelona’s hands. That’s no doubt due to the scoring prowess of Lionel Messi, who tops the chart for goals scored at this point with 19.
That’s five more than Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema who has played four games more than the Argentinian. Zinedine Zidane’s side are breathing down Barca’s necks and are just two points behind at present.
After winning the recent El Clasico between the pair, the chance was there for Los Blancos to build up a gap at the top, but two losses and a draw in their last five handed the initiative back to Barca.
Zidane will be now hopeful of putting consistent pressure on Quique Setien’s side in the last 11 games, given that the break has allowed the Frenchman the unexpected bonus of getting back almost every player that would’ve otherwise been out with injury.
Even Eden Hazard should be able to put in an appearance for at least half a dozen games, and that could be the game-changer for the coach as he looks to curtail Barca’s recent dominance of the domestic competition.
The rest of the top six
With Sevilla another nine points back in third, only the bravest would back the Andalusians to split the top two. Ditto Real Sociedad (fourth with 46 points), Getafe (fifth with 46 points) and Atletico Madrid (sixth with 45 points).
Though a late-season run is by no means beyond any of them, as with most of the teams in the division, it’s a lack of consistency that has cost them.
Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla side have lost just three times since early December, and we have to go all the way back to the beginning of October for another defeat, to Barcelona at the Camp Nou, but only four clean sheets in the last five months is arguably their Achilles Heel.
La Real have played some of the best football seen in this La Liga season, but have still lost nine games already. Martin Odegaard has been a creator supreme with five assists to match his four goals, whilst young Alexander Isak has weighed in with seven goals to really make his mark. Portu’s chance creation and general play deserves more than an honorary mention too.
Atleti have been solid but have drawn more (12) than they’ve won (11), and Diego Simeone looks likely to need to overhaul his squad again at the end of the campaign with the likes of Thomas Partey and Saul Niguez already being earmarked for big money moves.
If you start to question just how much more he can get out of this squad when the immediate future of so many is elsewhere and the title is beyond them, then a quick re-run of their epic Champions League win at Liverpool will set you straight.
As the season moves into the business end, the Rojiblancos certainly know what it takes to grind out results, and that hands them a significant advantage compared to the teams around them.
The one overriding issue is their lack of goals. Of the top 13 teams, only Athletic Club with 29 have less than Atleti’s 31. It’s perhaps with that in mind that Diego Costa will be shipped out for a second time in the summer, his two goals a pathetic return.
Alvaro Morata’s eight is marginally better, and they’ll be banking on the former Chelsea man to fire them back into the Champions League spots before the season’s end.
Europa League chase
How many times have we heard it’s all about ‘momentum’ where football is concerned?
Where those clubs who make a later charge for Europe or otherwise are the ones that remain best placed when the final few points are up for grabs.
In the race for Europe, Valencia in seventh are the chief threat to the teams above them. On 42 points at present, they’re only three behind Atleti, but once again, Los Che need to up their win percentage.
One in the last five is the worst recent form of the top seven, and Albert Celades’ side are also the only team in the top 10 with a negative goal difference.
Villarreal, Granada and Athletic Club are within touching distance of the Europa League spots, but it’s unlikely that the teams above them will falter to such an extent as to allow them in through the back door.
The race to stay up
At the opposite end of the table, you have to fear for Espanyol. Barcelona’s nearest neighbours geographically, are as polar opposite in the table as it’s possible to be, with the Periquitos propping up the other 19 teams.
Just four wins from 27 games tells its own story and at this point, they’ll need to win half as many again just to draw level with Celta Vigo who are fourth bottom.
Of the other teams in the relegation dogfight, six points separate Leganes (23 points) in 19th place and Real Valladolid in 15th, on 29 points. Little Eibar, in 16th, could finally be about to drop out of the top tier, as their inevitable slide continues.
Since remarkably winning promotion to La Liga back in 2014, the Basque side have progressively worsened season by season, and they have the worst current form of all the sides at the bottom, including Espanyol.
Jose Luis Mendilibar will keep them competitive, but they need to find a spark from somewhere in order to keep the threat of going down at bay.
Mallorca have the players to mount a late charge for safety; Real Madrid loanee, Takefusa Kubo, being one. However, there are too many games played where they’ve been close but no cigar. They must turn those into wins.
They remain just a point behind Celta Vigo who, with just 22 goals scored, have the worst attack in the division bar Leganes. The Galician’s 11 draws are the joint second-most with Valladolid, and how they must wish that some of those could be turned into victories.