La Liga return: Lionel Messi's Barcelona have the edge over Real Madrid

Barca hold two point lead at the top with a more favourable run-in

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LA LIGA FIXTURES

Thursday (All UAE kick-off times)

Sevilla v Real Betis (midnight)

Friday

Granada v Real Betis (9.30pm)

Valencia v Levante (midnight)

Saturday

Espanyol v Alaves (4pm)

Celta Vigo v Villarreal (7pm)

Leganes v Real Valladolid (9.30pm)

Mallorca v Barcelona (midnight)

Sunday

Atletic Bilbao v Atletico Madrid (4pm)

Real Madrid v Eibar (9.30pm)

Real Sociedad v Osasuna (midnight)

Week by week, Spain moves towards its new normal. Barcelona and Madrid, its two biggest cities, entered phase two in the easing of their hard lockdowns this week.

While residents still can’t travel outside their cities and schools remain closed, they can eat at restaurants if they sit outside.

A further step begins this week with the resumption of the top two tiers of Spanish football. With 11 league games to play in five weeks, Barcelona lead Real Madrid by two points.

Neither have been at their best. Sevilla are nine points behind in third, with a young and thrilling Real Sociedad and hard-working Getafe a further point behind in the race for the top four. Cup finalists La Real were the in-form team before the break, thanks in no small part to Norwegian Martin Odegaard, 21, on loan from Real Madrid.

Atletico Madrid, the team who eliminated holders Liverpool from the Champions League, find themselves in sixth, but only two points behind Sevilla. Valencia are seventh, three points behind Atletico.

The champions will almost certainly come from the biggest two, with Barca chasing a ninth title in 12 years, Madrid a first since 2017 – the only league title they have won in the last seven.

Barca's first game is at promoted Mallorca on Saturday. Madrid, who will play home games at the 6,000 capacity Alfredo di Stefano Stadium normally used by their reserve team because the Bernabeu is being extensively redeveloped, have every player available aside from Luka Jovic who is recovering from a broken foot.

Zinedine Zidane has to decide who he will play up front with Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard, the latter now back from injury after a frustrating first season in Spain.

Gareth Bale or Marco Asesnio will join them. James Rodriguez, 28, is almost certain to leave at the end of the season. The Colombian has suffered injuries this season but he’s been available to play since January and hasn't played a single minute in La Liga, failing to even make the squad for the huge games against Barca or Manchester City.

Madrid's 2-0 win against Barca on March 1 put them top of the table, but they lost league games either side of el clasico to Levante and Betis. With only 19 goals conceded in 27 league games compared to Barca's 31, Madrid have the league's best defence and Thibaut Courtois is favourite to win the Zamora award for best goalkeeper.

Madrid will host 16th-place Eibar, the league’s smallest club, on Sunday before another game at home to Valencia next Thursday and then visit Real Sociedad for a crucial match. Aside from that, they have an easier run in than Barcelona and play five of the bottom seven teams.

There will be games almost every day in Spain until July 19 and several clubs are unhappy they are being asked to play four games in the first 10 days of football since its return.

We know when the next four games will be, with weather forecasts taken into account when deciding kick-off times to prevent them being playing in the mid afternoon heat. Temperatures have been cooler than usual this week in Spain though it’s still hot in Seville, the hottest major city in Europe. Seville will host the first game, Thursday’s derby between Sevilla, managed by former Spain boss Julen Lopetegui, and 12th place Betis.

At Barcelona, Lionel Messi has trained separately from his teammates as he recovers from a knock, but should be fine for the Catalans’ opening game on Saturday.

The Argentine turns 33 this month and has been La Liga’s best player and the top scorer. With a small squad, Barca can at least enjoy all their players being fit and Messi, Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann being able to play together up front.

Messi did not activate his clause to leave the club this summer, though tension remains between the club and players, with several departures at director level amid accusations of undermining players and overspending. Barca’s players agreed to a pay cut, but not before criticising club president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

Barcelona are beset by financial problems and need to sell. They will try to bring funds in for Junior Firpo, Philippe Coutinho and maybe Ousmane Dembele and Ivan Rakitic.

Quique Setien’s side then travel to Sevilla, Celta Vigo and Villarreal in a challenging run in, while entertaining Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and their bottom-of-the-league neighbours Espanyol.

The second club of Barcelona are six points from safety and facing their first relegation since 1994. Espanyol finished seventh last season and qualified for Europe this season – before losing their coach and best player.

Remarkably, Espanyol’s home attendances have increased to over 22,000 pre-shutdown, making them the ninth best-supported team in the league. No team has beaten them by more than a single goal this year, but it will be hard to stay up, especially without their vocal fans.

The Spanish government has so far said that fans are not yet allowed back into stadiums, but the situation could change even before the end of the season, with some fans being allowed to attend.

The league are looking at a virtual public for the benefit of television viewers who will be able to see virtual crowds. La Liga was ahead of the rest in pitchside advertising which could be changed for the benefit of whichever market was watching the game.

And with La Liga being the second major league to return, millions will be eagerly awaiting the restart and watching around the world.

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The long read: how player power and politics made for a perfect storm at Barcelona

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - La Liga Santander - FC Barcelona v Real Sociedad - Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain - March 7, 2020  A picture of Lionel Messi is reflected in the Barcelona emblem outside the stadium before the match   REUTERS/Albert Gea/File Photo
LA LIGA FIXTURES

Thursday (All UAE kick-off times)

Sevilla v Real Betis (midnight)

Friday

Granada v Real Betis (9.30pm)

Valencia v Levante (midnight)

Saturday

Espanyol v Alaves (4pm)

Celta Vigo v Villarreal (7pm)

Leganes v Real Valladolid (9.30pm)

Mallorca v Barcelona (midnight)

Sunday

Atletic Bilbao v Atletico Madrid (4pm)

Real Madrid v Eibar (9.30pm)

Real Sociedad v Osasuna (midnight)

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