What a difference a few weeks has made in La Liga.
The way Barcelona was cruising going into Matchday 22, it was hard to imagine Lionel Messi’s team falling back to the pack against either Valencia or Athletic Bilbao.
After draws in both of those matches, though, we have a race atop the La Liga table — or at the very least, much more intrigue than we’d have expected at the first of the month.
Should Barcelona Still Be Heavy Favorites?
Barcelona (51 points) is now only six points clear of Real Madrid (45) and has a seven-point cushion on third-place Atlético Madrid (44). The Catalan side is heavily favored (-600) to win the league, as FiveThirtyEight gives them a 78% chance to capture another La Liga title.
I might be reading too much into a small sample size of the handful of games we’ve seen in February, but I think that’s a little high.
A healthy, fresh Barcelona team might justify those odds, but neither of those adjectives currently apply. Messi has been hobbled and far from himself since injuring his right thigh against Valencia on Feb. 2. In Barcelona’s two games since – in which he was limited, but active – the club has scratched out a 1-1 draw against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey on February 6 and slogged its way to a 0-0 draw against Athletic Bilbao on February 10. Against Athletic, it took excellent work by keeper Marc-André ter Stegen for Barça to avoid its third La Liga loss of the year.
Real Madrid Has the Momentum
It’s Real Madrid’s recent form, however, that really has me convinced the odds are skewed too heavily in favor of Barcelona (RM is now priced at +600). I would have said as much before Los Blancos won 2-1 at Ajax in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 on Wednesday to conclude a brutal three-game stretch. It would be impossible to overstate how impressive the reigning European champs have looked since last Wednesday, securing a draw at Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey and a 3-1 La Liga win over Atleti at Wanda Metropolitano before defeating Ajax.
It’s understandable that Real Madrid still has its doubters after the way the team looked to start the season, but if the recent run wasn’t enough to dispel the doubts, I can only wonder what will. It’s also easier to believe a team’s early-season struggles are behind it when it has a core of talented veterans like Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos. Real Madrid has enough weapons to stay in the mix even if breakout star Vinicius ever starts looking like most 18-year-olds do against Europe’s elite. But if the assist the Brazilian made to set up Karim Benzema for RM’s first goal against Ajax was any indication, that shouldn’t be a major concern for Madridistas.
Fighting For Fourth
A look at the La Liga table shows that several teams are well within reach of the all-important fourth-place spot. Sevilla (37 points) would join Spain’s three perennial Champions League fixtures in next season’s top competition if the season ended today, but Getafe (35), Alavés (35) and Real Betis (32) are not far behind. I’m going to go with the known product – and by “known product,” I mean the Europa League champ in ’14, ’15 and ’16 – in Sevilla. FiveThirtyEight agrees, giving them a 55% chance to qualify for the Champions League, while saying Getafe has the next-best shot, with just a 15% chance.