Atletico Madrid have seen their lead at the top of La Liga eaten away by Real Madrid and Barcelona, and Spanish football expert Alvaro Montero believes this weekend’s El Clasico will go a long way to deciding the Spanish title race.
While Manchester City are cantering to a third Premier League title in four years, Bayern Munich are in pole position for a ninth successive Bundesliga win and Inter Milan are edging closer to a first Serie A crown since 2010… Hay Liga!
Atletico’s loss away to Sevilla last weekend has blown the Spanish title race wide open. For the first time in more than three months, Barcelona depend on their own results to be crowned La Liga champions. Win their remaining nine league games and they will be finish top for the first time in two years.
Real Madrid are playing with belief and real momentum.
At the back end of January, they fell seven points behind Atletico – who had two games in hand – following a 2-1 home defeat to Levante. But in the past two months, Diego Simeone has seen his side’s advantage whittled down to just a solitary point to Barcelona in second.
Real are only two points further back in third, but with two teams above them still to play each other, Zinedine Zidane’s men will be confident of making up the ground in the final two months of the campaign.
“Both teams arrive in the best moment of a bad moment,” Spanish football expert Alvaro Montero tells Sky Sports. “It’s been a weird season for both clubs.
“This is not the Barcelona of three or four years ago and nor is it the same Real Madrid. It’s been a strange season where Atletico raced into a lead in La Liga, Real suffered in the group stages of the Champions League and Barcelona were knocked out by PSG.
“Neither are as good as they used to be with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi at their best, but they’re both in the best moment of their season. Both arrive having just played huge games for differing reasons.
“In the case of Barcelona, it was the manner of their win over Real Valladolid in the last minute. A month ago, the feeling was that Liverpool would certainly knock Real out of the Champions League but they demonstrated once again how they perform when it comes to this stage in the competition.”
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Zidane: My team has been underrated
The pandemic has built greater steel to this Real side that makes them favourites heading into Saturday’s encounter, despite the added complication of a trip to Anfield next week.
Speaking after the quarter-final first-leg win against Liverpool, Zidane said: “This is the good thing about this team – they always want more and more. These are players with a lot of experience, players who have won a lot, but they still want to win more. And this shows you the spirit that these players have.”
Having had his tactical acumen previously questioned given Real’s wealth of options, making a success of his second stint by adding a fourth Champions League title to a domestic title defence would bring clarity to his place among the game’s great managers.
“My team has been underrated but I believe in them and know what they can do,” Zidane added.
“Whenever there are still signs of life, we never give up. We’re going to keep on fighting for everything, we’ve had some very difficult moments this season, we’re much better now but we still haven’t achieved anything.”
Will Hazard return to play vital role?
Real have been beset by injuries this season while Zidane is also juggling an aging squad in need of rebirth. As has been the case for much of the campaign, the fitness of Eden Hazard has been a major bone of contention. The Belgian has faced five separate setbacks and made only 11 starts in all competitions.
A hamstring injury, a fracture to his right distal fibula, and a period out with Covid have all contributed to previous absences but his latest problem has been a hip complaint which has kept him out since March 13. Thankfully for Real, Zidane has come up with a plan without him.
Speaking ahead of the Liverpool tie, the Frenchman said: “Eden has to be calm. We never risk a player returning if he’s not ready. We’ll do things little by little and we’ll see when he’ll play again. That’s how it is at the moment. If the player is in good shape then I’ll want to play him but right now we’re going to take things slowly and see what happens.”
It is not a new conundrum for Zidane, who has been able to provide Hazard with 20 La Liga starts since signing for the club for £89m in June 2019. The 30-year-old has spent more time on the treatment table than on the pitch, only showing mere glimpses of his undoubted talent. It has fallen on others to fill the enormous void left behind by Ronaldo.
Montero says: “When I spoke with Zidane after the Elche game three weeks ago, he told me he hadn’t rushed Eden’s return from injury but I feel that was the case. He wasn’t physically prepared, but he is back training properly and has been with the group for the past four or five days. He’s been working with a Belgian fitness coach in Madrid so let’s see.
“Clearly he’s a good player, so if he comes back strong he could make a big difference for the final two months. He can offer a lot in the remaining games. The second leg against Liverpool may come too soon, but if they were to progress he would then be ready to have an impact in the Champions League as well.
“My feeling is they won’t rush him for El Clasico. With the European Championships this summer as well, they will do things correctly this time.”
Vazquez in good form but at crossroads
As far as the three title protagonists are concerned, Barcelona have the Copa del Rey final against Athletic on April 17 but Real remain the only side in Europe.
Madrid were missing three of their first-choice back four against the Premier League champions in midweek, but Zidane’s courage to start Vinicius Junior in attack as part of an offensive 4-3-3 line-up was rewarded.
Lucas Vazquez was deployed at right-back while Ferland Mendy kept the more experienced Marcelo on the bench. Uncertainty remains over the future of Vazquez at Madrid, but his versatility could prove decisive in the final stretch of the season given Dani Carvajal’s prolonged absence through injury.
“It’s not Vazquez’s natural position but he’s playing there right now as Carvajal is injured, while Alvaro Odriozola has also been out and Zidane doesn’t really count on him,” says Montero.
“But the Vazquez contract situation is quite tricky. It is due to expire this summer and like Sergio Ramos, he has not signed a renewal. He’s free to sign with any club, and Real are currently not willing to offer a new deal on the player’s terms.
“In January, he was offered a new two-year contract with the option of a third season on the same salary with the 10 per cent decrease that had been put in place as a result of the pandemic, but he rejected it. I think he believes there’s a Premier League, Italian or German team that will come in for him. He’s a good player to have at a big club as you can’t have 25 superstars – Nacho is another example.”
Koeman winning over critics… but silverware now needed
Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman said his side have what it takes to win their nine remaining games and sweep to the La Liga title after snatching a last-gasp 1-0 win over Real Valladolid on Monday.
The Catalans were far from their best but a volley from Ousmane Dembele in stoppage time meant they grabbed a sixth straight league win. Whoever wins at Madrid’s Alfredo Di Stefano training pitch on Saturday will go top of the table before Atletico visit Real Betis the next day.
“It’s a huge game for Koeman, and one that could decide if he is there next season,” says Montero. “If Barcelona win on Saturday, lift the Copa del Rey and they end up winning La Liga, Joan Laporta will be forced to stick with him for at least one more year.
“Xavi Hernandez will be the next coach, but there’s always the possibility that he decides to stay in Qatar for another year. The feeling in Barcelona over the past few weeks, not only since Laporta returned, is that Koeman has made good decisions and the dressing room now trusts him.
“He has established himself much more than he did two or three months ago, and right now the future looks a lot brighter. Lionel Messi has come out and said publicly that he feels Koeman is a good coach, and that he likes him. Results have helped him win over the confidence of his players.
“A player who has embodied the positive reaction is Pedri. He is the next Spanish superstar who is already playing under Luis Enrique for the national team. Oscar Mingueza has come into the side while Dembele has been in good form for a period of time now.
“Koeman has moved around his pieces and has turned what wasn’t a very good Barcelona into a competitive outfit that is fighting on two fronts. It was always impossible to compete with PSG as they’re currently on another level but the belief is growing in Koeman.
“Before Laporta arrived, he may not have thought that he would be the coach moving forward but the feeling now in Barcelona is that he will stay if he secures a domestic double.”
How will both sides line up?
The immediate challenge for Koeman will be to nullify a Real Madrid front line that will be bristling with confidence after their victory over Liverpool, without their central defensive rock Gerard Pique. The experienced centre-back is struggling to overcome a knee injury and his chances of being passed fit are extremely remote.
Pique’s absence could pave the way for Frenkie De Jong to operate as ‘libero’, splitting the two centre-backs Mingueza and Clement Lenglet while allowing the wing-backs Jordi Alaba and Sergino Dest to roam forward.
“The game against Valladolid was the fourth in a row that Koeman used the same team, with Dembele, Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann up front,” Montero says.
“The Spanish papers reflected the view that Zidane tactically won his battle with Jurgen Klopp, and the manager recognised afterwards that Raphael Varane’s positive Covid test didn’t alter his line-up plans. Only Zidane knows if this was the case, but the second leg against Liverpool next Wednesday will be in his thinking ahead of the Clasico.
“In my opinion, he needs to change things up. Zidane needs to look to block the midfield for the first 60 minutes and that might mean Federico Valverde starting to provide some more legs. Then he may look to Isco or Rodrygo depending on the state of the game.”
Verdict: Winners will go on to lift Spanish title
Montero continues: “What can’t be overlooked is that Real only really have this game with Barcelona as the final major obstacle among their league fixtures. Barca have to play Atletico Madrid so if I were Zidane, I would see the possibility of that ending in a draw. That would suit Real, as if they were all to finish level on points, Real have the better head-to-head.”
“For Real, I believe a draw is a good result but I believe if Barcelona win, they will go on to win La Liga.
“Atletico Madrid have lost their way and they have a problem right now. They’ve had a huge season and were superb in September and October, but now they’re losing a lot of points. Luis Suarez is out for three weeks with an injury and the team aren’t performing as well as they were.
“The team that wins El Clasico will win La Liga. A draw would then depend on what happens when Atletico face Barca at the Camp Nou [on May 9].”
Follow Real Madrid vs Barcelona with our dedicated live blog across Sky Sports’ digital platforms on Saturday from 6.30pm; Kick-off 8pm.