La Liga restart gives Barcelona's Spain stars chance to put World Cup woes in the past

Busquets, Gavi and Pedri can now focus on maintaining lead over Real Madrid at top of table

Spain's Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets, centre, who missed a penalty in the last-16 shoot-out loss to Morocco at the World Cup. Getty
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A country’s early exit from a World Cup carries blessings for the league employing most of its footballers.

Fatigue should be reduced, recovery more gently scheduled. As Spain’s La Liga resumes on Thursday, the 18 locally-based Spaniards who slunk home from Qatar at the last-16 stage ought to feel fresh. They have had a full 23 days to recover from losing on penalties to Morocco.

That’s good news for top-of-the-table Barcelona, or at least the trio of midfielders central to Spain’s pass-and-move game plan, although the precocious Pedri and Gavi and the experienced Sergio Busquets may still be downcast.

They have spent the past three weeks hearing noisy criticism of the possession-based style so fundamental to the national team and so associated with Barca. In Qatar, Spain looked stagnant. For a second successive World Cup, they exited after all their precise passing failed to break down a stubborn opponent.

For a football culture that prides itself on technical superiority that is uncomfortable. Add to it a sensation that more and more of Spain’s top technicians are drifting abroad. A number of clubs returning to league action over the next three days are coping with the disruption not only of a mid-term World Cup but recent changes of personnel. Villarreal lost their excellent head coach, Unai Emery, lured to Aston Villa. The manager who began the season at Sevilla, Julen Lopetegui, has joined Wolverhampton Wanderers.

That’s two Spanish managers who, in winning the Europa Leagues of 2021 and 2020, helped enhance La Liga’s all-conquering reputation but are now in the super-wealthy Premier League. Lopetegui will, as of January 1, have Matheus Cunha, the Brazilian striker signed from Atletico Madrid in his Wolves squad.

Cunha is the 13th player since June to move from Spain to England’s top flight, an exodus worth €300 million to Spanish clubs in fees but depriving it of stars like Casemiro (Real Madrid to Manchester United) and emerging talent like Alexander Isak, who joined Newcastle United from Real Sociedad.

Gavi and Pedri return to Barcelona duty after a disappointing World Cup for Spain. EPA

At Madrid, the reigning champions, colleagues have been offering heartening words to Casemiro’s gifted successor, Aurelien Tchouameni, who fluffed a penalty for France in the losing World Cup final shoot-out.

They hope the frustrations of another Frenchman who controversially missed the tournament are channelled to their benefit. Karim Benzema, who suffered what he says was a minor injury, shaken off quickly last month, was excluded by France coach Didier Deschamps for fitness reasons.

The holder of the Ballon D’Or was unhappy not to be retained in Qatar, where he insists he could have played in later games.

The upside? A rested, fired-up Benzema, eager to make up the two points in the table that separate Madrid from Barca and take on a congested fixture list. Starting at Valladolid tomorrow, Madrid face a possible 17 games within 60 days across La Liga, cup, Super Cup, Club World Cup and Champions League. Even the tireless Luka Modric, who was still galvanising Croatia in Qatar 12 days ago, must find that a daunting schedule.

Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema should be rested and fired up for La Liga's restart after missing France's World Cup campaign with injury. Reuters

Barcelona, out of the Champions League but in the Europa, have a busy diary too but are urged by their president Joan Laporta to “make the league our priority. The dressing-room knows that,” he said. “We need to win the title to show our process of recovery is on track.”

Barca, whose last Liga triumph was in 2019, must do without their leading scorer, Robert Lewandowski, for the next three outings starting with a derby against Espanyol, the Poland captain suspended for a gesture towards a referee in his last club match.

One striker who could cover, Memphis Depay, is being pushed to leave the club, to relieve the Barca wage bill. Another, Ansu Fati, is reported fit after an autumn of injury setbacks.

Morocco v Spain ratings

Spain’s other Real, Sociedad, were only lightly affected by World Cup call-ups, and lead a strong push for Champions League qualification by the big Basque clubs, with la Real third and Athletic Bilbao fourth. “We can go far,” says David Silva, the veteran la Real midfielder and, at nearly 37, a vital cog in a team thriving even without Isak and injury-hit Mikel Oyarzabal, who should soon return to lead the attack.

If the title race looks confined to a Barcelona-Real Madrid duel, the tussle for the top four is tight. Sitting fifth are the 2020-21 champions Atletico Madrid, who had four players involved in the World Cup final. Diego Simeone’s men need to move on from a poor autumn.

Atletico can be thankful their struggles are not on the scale of Sevilla’s, fourth last season but currently in the relegation zone – a stark reminder to their several World Cup heroes, the gold-medallist Argentinians Gonzalo Montiel, Marcos Acuna and Papu Gomez and the Moroccan semi-finalists Yassine Bounou and Youssef En-Nesyri that club football can be a very different beast from a joyous World Cup adventure.

Updated: December 29, 2022, 4:54 AM
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