With just one Spanish club left in the Champions League Quarterfinals, now seems like a good time to ask: Can Atlético Madrid win La Liga?
Mathematically, Diego Simeone‘s side absolutely could pull it off. On paper, a seven-point deficit with 11 games to play is far from insurmountable. But there’s a reason FiveThirtyEight currently gives Los Rojiblancos just a 3% chance to take home the La Liga crown. Anyone who’s seen Barcelona’s recent form probably agrees with FiveThirtyEight’s assessment.
Nobody’s calling this race a toss-up, but can we at least expect it to remain compelling until the season wraps up on May 19? Unfortunately, no. Anyone hoping for drama as the domestic season wraps up is going to be disappointed.
It’s not that Atlético is likely to falter in league play, although it will be interesting to see how this team responds following Tuesday’s disastrous capitulation against longtime nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus. The good news is they should be ready for Barcelona on April 6th considering their opponents before then are 12th-place Athletic Bilbao, fifth-place Alavés and 14th-place Girona.
Barcelona Just Too Good
It’s much more a matter of Barcelona’s current form, as well as the quality of their remaining La Liga opponents, that make a cruise to the finish line for the Catalans the most likely outcome. Even if Atleti can beat Barça, it’s hard to imagine the Madrid club making up the other four points that would be separating these teams without any other losses.
Barcelona is 19-6-2 in La Liga and they made a statement in Wednesday’s 5-1 win over Lyon in the Champions League. While this team has looked beatable in recent weeks, the bad news for Atleti is that the “swoon” appears to be a thing of the past.
For the first three weeks of February, Barcelona was out of sorts offensively, scoring just four goals in six games from Feb. 2-19. None of their opponents made them pay, though, and that’s why it’s going to take somewhat of a collapse by Ernesto Valverde’s men for Atlético to move into first. What happened in Turin on Tuesday will obviously be the low point of the year for Los Rojiblancos, but the losses to Real Betis on Feb. 3 and Real Madrid on Feb. 9 were catastrophic results that quietly ruined their chances in La Liga.
Barça recorded just one win but scratched out five draws during that stretch. Now that the thigh injury that hobbled Lionel Messi (to varying degrees) from when he suffered it Feb. 2 against Valencia until his hat trick on Feb. 23 against Sevilla is in the rear-view mirror, Barcelona is humming again. Including the blowout of Lyon, the Catalans have scored an impressive 16 goals in their last five games.
Luis Suárez, who has recently looked anything but washed up, and Messi are as dangerous as ever right now. Against Lyon, the 32-year-old Uruguayan was as impressive as the Argentine – who had two goals and two assists – even if the stat sheet didn’t show it. Those two are playing so well that the loss of Ousmane Dembélé to injury for about a month appears unlikely to be a major issue. And if Philippe Coutinho’s goal vs. Lyon proves to be the spark he needs to get going, it’s really not going to matter how well Atlético plays the rest of the season.
Barcelona’s defense has been rock-solid all year, allowing just 26 goals in 27 league games, so now that the offense is back on track, a double – the Copa del Rey and La Liga are both Barcelona’s to lose – seems like all but a foregone conclusion.
The real question is whether this team should be thinking treble. Oddsmakers think a treble will be a challenge, dropping Barcelona to third favorite in the Champions League after Friday’s pairings were annouced. We’ll tackle that conversation in a separate piece.
Last week’s Champions League games once again reminded us how unpredictable things can get at this stage of the tournament.
Juventus needs a dominant, if not miraculous, performance, as it’s down 2-0 and (obviously) cannot tally any away goals in Turin. Lyon also has a tough task traveling to Barcelona. Below are breakdowns of what to expect Tuesday at Juve’s Allianz Stadium at 4 p.m. Eastern and Wednesday at Camp Nou at the same time.
Los Rojiblancos were extremely impressive in the first leg in Madrid. Considering the opponent and the way the game played out, Manager Diego Simeone’s side’s 2-0 victory was among the strongest performances of the tournament. The Italians were very fortunate the game remained scoreless until the 78th. At this point, Atleti not giving up scoring opportunities is hardly newsworthy, even against an opponent with a goal scorer like Cristiano Ronaldo. But it was the La Liga club’s offense, particularly on the counter, that turned heads, especially after halftime.
Between their dominance in the first leg and their quiet streak of stellar play – they’re unbeaten since a now-baffling 3-1 loss to RM on February 9 – it’s easy to understand why FiveThirtyEight gives Atleti an 88% chance to advance.
There’s just one very handsome catch, though: CR7. Atleti fans are thrilled that their crosstown rivals were bounced last week, and not just because of the bad blood. Simeone’s men have had plenty of UCL success in recent years, but never against Los Blancos. While they’re now out of the picture, Ronaldo is not, at least not yet.
On one hand, if there’s any team that could advance when all they need to do is hold the opposition in check, it’s likely Atlético. On the other, it’s never wise to count out a team like Juventus, which boasts a dangerous combination of desperation, homefield advantage and a transcendent player in Ronaldo. The opening minutes will be pivotal. If Juventus hasn’t managed to get on the board by halftime, I think the second half will be academic. As we’ve seen plenty of times, though, an early goal by the heavy home underdog could change the tenor of the match in a hurry.
It will be interesting to see how aggressive Atleti will be. Considering the circumstances, parking the bus is not a terrible idea. But spending 90 minutes holding on for dear life is not advisable, either, so Atlético has an intriguing decision to make regarding their approach.
Ultimately, I think the odds are stacked too heavily against Juventus. This, however, remains a must-see match, and betting on a draw (+260) feels like the smart move.
Maybe it was the upsets last week. Or it could be the lingering feeling that Barcelona’s tendency to turn it on and off is going to make them pay sooner than later. Whatever is, this has the feel of the game of the week, and one Barcelona could very well lose. Lyon at +950 is hard to resist in this one, and not just because the first leg ended in a draw.
For Lyon, the most encouraging thing about that game, other than Barcelona failing to get a crucial away goal, was giving themselves a chance with their captain, Nabil Fekir, unavailable. That’s got to be a huge confidence boost for a team that lacks Barcelona’s star power. The Ligue 1 side also caught a break this week in the form of an injury to Ousmane Dembélé, who is doubtful with a hamstring injury. Barcelona is just about unstoppable when the Frenchman is healthy and clicking alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez, so that’s a big plus for Lyon, even though Barça remains, well, Barça.
While this game deserves close attention for the reasons above, Barcelona have the luxury of a great defense in addition to their superstars up top. Marc-André ter Stegen is a big reason why they’ve won a number of games this season without being at their best. It’s also hard to imagine another lackluster start, or any prolonged lull by Barcelona, in a game of this magnitude in front of their home fans.
So while Lyon is absolutely worth a flier at +950, I’m going to be boring, but consistent: the favorites in these two games will advance and give La Liga two teams in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Even as someone who liked Ajax’s chances of upsetting Real Madrid, I found what happened Tuesday at the Santiago Bernabéu jarring.
It would not have been shocking to see a Real Madrid team that had been struggling for most of this season continue to do so against a quality opponent like Ajax. But it will be a while before anyone who watched will forget seeing the winner of four of the last five Champions League trophies look so overwhelmed and helpless at its home ground.
Any Madridistas looking to make excuses can point to a few breaks that didn’t go their way. Maybe if Raphael Varane’s fourth-minute header would have hit the back of the net – which it should have, as he was in perfect position – things would have gone differently. The first-half injuries to Vinicius and Lucas Vázquez certainly did not help the cause. Neither did the absence of suspended captain Sergio Ramos, which, it’s worth noting, was his own fault.
Ajax is Back!
For those unfamiliar, Dutch club Ajax is one of the historically great teams in European football. They have 33 Eredivisie titles and four Champions League trophies (the last being in 1995). Their player development system is legendary.
While Ajax is historically great, their return to elite status is a new development. But this result wasn’t remotely fluky, and it’s the young Dutch club – six of 11 starters Tuesday are 22 or younger – that deserves the bulk of the attention. Here are three reasons every team still alive in the UCL should fear Ajax.
1). They convert their goal-scoring opportunities, in style
Prior to Tuesday, it was fair to wonder whether the Dutch club’s 13-1 cumulative score over its previous three games was a result of weak domestic competition. We got the answer in a hurry. Each of Ajax’s four goals was a head-turner, and on the first two, the setup was just as impressive as the finish.
Dusan Tadic took advantage of Real Madrid’s carelessness in the 7th to take over possession in an advantageous position on the first goal. His patience to wait for Hakim Ziyech, and the precision on the assist, were the first signs that RM were in deep trouble. Ziyech reminded the crowd at the Bernabéu what quality finishing looks like with a perfect left-footed strike to beat keeper Thibaut Courtois.
Ajax capped the scoring with two more incredible strikes in the second half. There was nothing Courtois could do about Tadic’s blast in the 62nd. The final tally of the evening came on a stunning free kick by Lasse Schöne in the 72nd.
2). Manager Erik ten Hag’s team is deeper than advertised
There are two reasons I just went to the trouble of breaking down every goal in such a one-sided affair. First of all, it was an excuse to go back and re-watch each one a few more times.
But more importantly, it’s worth pointing out that none of those plays involved the biggest names on the Ajax roster. Stars Frenkie de Jong (joining Barcelona this summer) and Matthijs de Ligt (targeted by all the big clubs) were excellent, but their teammates stole the show with their work in the final third in a testament to the strength of the roster as a whole. We’ve known since January that de Jong’s and de Ligt’s days in Amsterdam were numbered, as those players are headed to wealthier pastures this summer. With a few more performances like Tuesday’s from Neres and Co., we may be seeing an even larger exodus than expected this offseason.
3). Can Tuesday’s effort be duplicated?
Nobody is doubting whether a performance like the one we just saw will be enough for Ajax to stand a chance in the quarterfinals. The question is whether Ajax can maintain that level of play. I, for one, believe they can, and it’s not just because of what we saw this week.
Going back to the Feb. 13 first leg against Real Madrid, the Dutch club has won four of its last five. The combined score in those matches of 18-4 (!) is staggering, no matter how you feel about their league foes or a disintegrating Real Madrid side.
Skeptics will want to know what Ajax will be able to do in (at least) two more games against Europe’s elite. We’ve now seen Ajax play 14 UCL games dating back to July, though, with the only loss the first-leg stumble against Real Madrid in February. This team played Bayern Munich to a draw twice and just knocked out the club that, no matter how flawed they’ve looked this year, has owned this tournament in recent years. Ajax has nothing to be afraid of. That’s all the more true when the other three teams that are in the final eight are ManU (which was left for dead not long ago), Porto and Tottenham.
Real Madrid is reeling heading into Tuesday’s Champions League Round of 16 second leg vs. Ajax. The team that won the first leg in Amsterdam 2-1 has fallen into a disappointing funk, one that could lead to a slew of personnel changes this offseason.
There will be plenty of time in the weeks and months to come about who will be coming and going this summer, though. For now, Real Madrid fans can still hold out hope of another Champions League run. First, RM must finish off Ajax at the Santiago Bernabéu on Tuesday at 3 p.m. Eastern.
A Case for Ajax at +410
With La Liga virtually unwinnable – Los Blancos are 12 points behind first-place Barcelona with 12 games remaining – and the Copa del Rey off the table after last Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to Barcelona, it will be interesting to see what kind of effort Santiago Solari’s players give. Real Madrid did not lose its last two games for lack of intensity, but what will this team have in the tank after back-to-back Clásicos?
I’m going to say not quite enough to advance to the quarterfinals, but not solely because of RM’s recent form. Ajax has a great chance to overcome their La Liga opponent’s edge on the scoreboard and homefield advantage. The fact they are +410 to win (at FanDuel NJ) makes that as tempting a bet as any that are currently available in the UCL.
I love those odds because:
- Ajax proved on Feb. 13 that it could hang with Real Madrid when the Spanish club was at its best. They had a legitimate argument that they were unlucky to lose the first leg, and that was just days after RM won 3-1 on the road at Atlético.
- It’s hard to do justice to the difference between Ajax’s stretch since the first match-up and Real Madrid’s. Let’s start with the mileage: Ajax has played three games, while Los Blancos have played four. More importantly, thanks largely to two games against Barcelona, RM has been outscored 7-3. Ajax, on the other hand, has not been tested since the first leg, outscoring their opponents 13-1 over the last 270 minutes.
- Are we sure that playing in Madrid constitutes homefield advantage for Real Madrid right now? Given what’s happened domestically, many Madridistas are going to view this season as a disappointment, regardless of whether RM makes a run in Europe. And there will be nothing but disappointment if this team is eliminated from the UCL. With that in mind, it’s as easy to imagine a lackluster start turning the home fans against Karim Benzema and Co. as it is to picture Ajax’s young team being rattled by a hostile atmosphere. It doesn’t help Real Madrid’s case that it has lost three in a row at home, with no wins at the Bernabéu since a 3-0 victory over Alavés on Feb. 3.
- It’s also hard to ignore Real Madrid’s recent lack of scoring touch. Three goals in four games is extremely concerning, even with the caveats that A) Barcelona is a quality opponent and B) Los Blancos have created opportunities (19 shots on goal in the last four games).
We wrote earlier that chances are either Porto or Ajax will overcome their Leg 1 defeats and move to the Champions League Quarterfinals. Taking a flier on Ajax at +410 may be worth a shot for a match-up that is closer than you may think.
On Wednesday, Real Madrid became the latest opponent to pay a steep price for failing to capitalize on a lackluster stretch by Barcelona.
The Copa del Rey semifinal second leg at the Santiago Bernabéu ended in a 3-0 win (4-1 aggregate) for the Catalans, who should have left the pitch at halftime down by at least a goal. But Barcelona, led by Luis Suárez, flipped a switch at halftime, as their efficient finishing gave them a comfortable victory despite just four shots total and only two on goal.
These teams will meet again Saturday in Madrid, this time in La Liga. Below are four takeaways from Barcelona advancing to face Valencia in the Copa final on May 25th. Barcelona enters the game as a -390 favorite to Valencia’s +340.
1) Suárez finds his touch
The Uruguayan scored what seemed like a meaningless goal in extra time last Saturday to wrap up a 4-2 win over Sevilla. But after his performance Wednesday, that last-minute breakthrough – the 32-year-old’s first goal since Jan. 30 – might be looked at as a pivotal moment a few months from now.
Barcelona has a great shot at a double – the Copa del Rey and La Liga both look like inevitabilities at this point – or a treble. Such an accomplishment is far more likely if Suárez can continue to finish in front of the net and silence the “Messidependencia” chatter.
On his first goal Wednesday, in the 50th minute, he was the beneficiary of an excellent pass from Ousmane Dembélé, but that didn’t make Suárez’s finish any less impressive. Barça’s tally in the 69th went down on the stat sheet as an own-goal by Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane, but it was Suárez who made the play. His second goal came from the spot after his foot was stepped on by RM’s Casemiro. Barcelona is dangerous enough when they have to be carried by Lionel Messi, who did not take a shot Wednesday (!). With Suárez and Dembélé on point, this is a team with every reason to be thinking treble.
2) Marc-André ter Stegen impenetrable, again
The keeper is rarely the first person you think of after a hat trick, but Marc-André ter Stegen was excellent for Barcelona.
Real Madrid was held scoreless despite no shortage of opportunities in the first half. Part of their inability to convert was self-inflicted, but a lot of it had to do with tremendous work by ter Stegen. His second-half stop of a header by Reguilón, which would have tied the match at 1-1, was a must-see diving save.
The first half of Wednesday’s game was the latest instance of Barcelona getting little going but staying level thanks to its keeper. Before the recent offensive explosion – the Catalans have scored seven goals in their last two matches – they were in a funk, with just two goals in four games from February 6-19. Thanks largely to ter Stegen, that stretch did not include a loss, as Barca managed a win and three draws with its offense MIA. With a keeper playing as well as ter Stegen complementing the inconsistent but undeniable firepower up top, it’s going to be hard to bet against this team in big games.
3) The nosedive continues for Los Blancos
It’s hard to fathom after the last two weeks, but there was legitimate reason to believe Real Madrid could get back into the La Liga mix earlier this month. Following the Champions League Round of 16 first-leg win over Ajax on Feb. 13, RM were as hot as anyone on the continent.
Since that game, Manager Santiago Solari’s club has lost to Girona and Barcelona and been fortunate to defeat Levante.
Unless Real Madrid bounces back with a victory Saturday in their second showdown against Barcelona in four days, they can forget about La Liga. The gap between third-place RM and the league leader is currently nine points. There will be no coming back from a 12-point deficit in the 12 games remaining after Matchday 26 – and the odds will remain long even if Los Blancos pull off the upset Saturday.
4) The silver lining
Vinicius had a head-turning performance for Real Madrid. Whether you choose to go glass half-full and fixate on all the chances he created for himself or take the pessimistic route and lament his inability to finish, there was no denying his impact.
Watching an 18-year-old give Barcelona defenders fits was stunning, even if he ended up with nothing to show for it. Real Madrid needs him to learn to capitalize on his chances soon, but Madridistas have to be thrilled to have a teenager with the confidence and physical ability to put an elite club on its heels the way Vinicius did Wednesday.
All three La Liga teams in the Champions League Round of 16 have good reason to like their chances of advancing to the final eight.
Real Madrid won a tough away match 2-1 against a talented opponent in Ajax. Atlético Madrid turned in one of the best halves of the round to beat Juventus and longtime nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo 2-0 at Wanda Metropolitano. Barcelona will return to Camp Nou with a great chance to advance against Lyon after a 0-0 draw.
Atlético Madrid-Juventus Champions League Leg 2
|Juventus -150||Draw +280||Atlético Madrid +430
Manager Diego Simeone’s side was as impressive as anyone in the Round of 16 on Wednesday against Juventus. Seeing them at +430 here is a bit of a surprise.
The stout defense and intensity that have long been Atleti hallmarks were on full display at Wanda Metropolitano. But it was the suddenly potent offense that gave the La Liga side the look of a team that could play for a Champions League trophy at its home stadium on June 1. Atlético scored both its goals on set pieces, with defenders José Giménez and Diego Godín scoring in the 78th and 83rd, respectively.
Juventus was fortunate it did not lose 4-0 or 5-0, as Antoine Griezmann, Diego Costa and Álvaro Morata all had great opportunities. Costa used his speed and physicality to get behind the defense twice. In the first half, he was tripped and earned his team a free kick. Later, he took a perfect pass from Griezmann and beat his man for a one-on-one opportunity against Juve keeper Wojciech Szczesny, but pushed the shot wide of the net in the 49th. Minutes later, Griezmann nearly chipped a beautiful goal over the head of Szczesny, who was able to push the ball to the crossbar with his fingertips. Morata then appeared to score his first goal since joining Atlético earlier this month, but VAR took his header off the board, ruling that he pushed his defender to make space.
Those chances all came on a night when Atleti also stifled CR7, who ripped a free kick that required a great save by Jan Oblak and had a chance at a late header, but was otherwise limited. Simeone and Co. will travel to Turin for the second leg a heavy favorite to reach the quarters. With another performance like Wednesday’s, nothing will seem out of reach for them in this tournament.
Barcelona-Lyon Champions League Leg 2
|Barcelona -440||Draw +550||Lyon +950
The team that fared “worst” of the bunch, Barcelona, needs only a win at home in the second leg. But it might officially be time to worry about the Catalans’ offensive woes. In Barça’s last four games – one in the Copa del Rey, two in La Liga and Tuesday’s CL match – they have scored just twice, and one of those came on a penalty kick by Lionel Messi. Thanks to strong defense and some incredible work by keeper Marc-André ter Stegen, the offensive issues have not produced any losses. Manager Ernesto Valverde’s side is going to have to find some scoring soon, though. Otherwise, it will be another early Champions League exit – at least by Blaugrana standards – after the club bowed out in the quarterfinals a year ago.
The lack of scoring against Lyon was particularly frustrating considering Barcelona took 25 (!) shots, but just five on goal. The recent drought is even more puzzling considering Barcelona has scored 61 goals in 24 La Liga matches this season. It’s hard to imagine a team with this much firepower continuing to struggle to finish in front of the net for long.
The encouraging news for Lyon is that they earned a draw without captain Nabil Fekir, who was suspended for Tuesday’s match. The striker’s return for the March 13 rematch, and the fact that Lyon can advance with a draw as long as they score, are legitimate reasons for optimism.
I wouldn’t bet against Barcelona, though, unless more injuries pile up between now and the second leg. The -440 price is long though.
Real Madrid-Ajax Champions League Leg 2
|Reak Madrid -170||Draw +320||Ajax +450
Los Blancos are in great position to advance thanks to a late goal by Marco Asensio in Amsterdam.
Ajax left this one feeling unlucky after a first-half goal was taken off the board when it was ruled that Dusan Tadic interfered with RM keeper Thibaut Courtois on a goal by Nicolas Tagliafico.
Neither team scored until Karim Benzema gave Real Madrid a 1-0 lead in the 60th after being set up by Vinicius Jr.
This was as evenly played as any round of 16 match-up, and the stats backed that up. Possession ended up exactly 50-50, and Real Madrid narrowly edged Ajax in shots on goal, 8-7. Even fouls (10 for Ajax, 11 for Real Madrid) and corners (three for Ajax, two for RM) were even.
The return leg at the Santiago Bernabéu will likely be another hard-fought battle, but homefield advantage plus the experience factor – not to mention the Spanish side’s edge on the scoreboard – mean the smart money is on RM to go through and give La Liga three teams in the quarterfinals.
Perhaps it was a little unreasonable to count on Real Madrid sustaining the form that allowed them to earn a Copa del Rey draw at Barcelona followed by road wins over Atlético Madrid (La Liga) and Ajax (Champions League). That stretch could have been a flash in the pan for a talented but flawed team. Or it might have been fatigue that caused Los Blancos to falter in a devastating 2-1 loss to 15th-place Girona last Sunday.
What’s not up for debate – not that it was exactly an open question – is who the heavy favorite should be in La Liga. There was nothing pretty about Barcelona’s 1-0 win over Valladolid last week, but those three points mean Barça (54 points) remains well clear of second-place Atletico (47) and third-place RM (45).
Last weekend was yet another example of Barcelona getting at least a point despite being a long way from its best. Manager Ernesto Valverde’s side have now recorded two draws and an uninspiring win in their last three La Liga contests (five points), but neither Atletico (with three points in their last three) nor Real Madrid (six points in their last three) have fully taken advantage.
Saturday’s trip to face fourth-place Sevilla at Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán at 10:15 a.m. Eastern appears to be Barcelona’s toughest La Liga match-up in weeks. That’s as much an indictment of the Catalans’ slate since the winter break – of their seven league foes this calendar year, Getafe is the only one in the top five of the table – as anything.
Sevilla (37 points) is a considerable distance from the top of the table and has struggled since beating Levante 5-0 on Jan. 26. The club has won just one of its last three La Liga matches, including a 3-0 loss to Villarreal last Sunday. But they showed what they’re capable of in big games on Wednesday, beating Lazio 2-0 to advance to the Europa League’s Round of 16.
Barcelona handled these teams’ first match-up of the season, winning 4-2 back in October. Sevilla trailed 2-0 after 12 minutes as Philippe Coutinho and Lionel Messi both found the back of the net in the early going.
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.
As mentioned here, Real Madrid was poised to get a ton of hype if they could knock off crosstown rival Atlético Madrid at Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday.
Los Blancos did exactly that, winning 3-1. It was a head-turning result considering how difficult it is to score on Atleti anywhere, much less when the Rojiblancos are at home. Suddenly, a Real Madrid team that spent the first half of the season floundering is the favorite to win at Ajax in the Champions League Round of 16 on Wednesday at 3 p.m. Eastern.
Is Real Madrid for Real?
The burning question is whether Los Blancos have truly turned things around and returned to the form that allowed them to go on a historic run of Champions League success – last year gave the club three Champions League titles in a row and four in five seasons.
It’s too early for me to feel confident predicting the club will be hoisting its 14th European Cup on June 1 at Wanda Metropolitano, of all places. I do believe, though, that manager Santiago Solari’s side is the smart pick Wednesday at Ajax. Over the past month, FiveThirtyEight has even boosted them as a 59% favorite to advance against Ajax following Saturday’s result. Betting markets agree with the analytics, as Real Madrid are favorites to win their first leg match at Ajax next week.
|Ajax +280||Draw +310||Real Madrid -120|
Ajax does not lack star power, but they don’t have anywhere near the experience that Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Co. bring to the table. There’s a reason 21-year-old Frenkie de Jong will be joining Barcelona for more than $85 million this summer, and he’s not the only Ajax player being circled by Europe’s elite. Matthijs de Ligt, 19, is among the most coveted young players on the continent. While there’s no doubting the talent for Ajax, the gulf in big-game experience between these teams will be the difference.
Another thing to keep in mind for anyone expecting a letdown from RM – which will be playing its third straight difficult match away from the Santiago Bernabéu in just seven days – is the result of Ajax’s last match. The inexplicable 1-0 loss to to Heracles, the eighth-placed team in the Eredivisie, is a major red flag. Whether Heracles truly deserved to win a match in which it was out-shot 22-8 (7-2 in shots on goal) and out-possessed 64-36 is beside the point when trying to make the case that Ajax will beat the reigning European champ.
The La Liga table became a whole lot more compelling last weekend. Barcelona’s 2-2 draw against Valencia gave both Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid chances to close the gap. Real Madrid took full advantage, defeating Alavés 3-0. Second-place Atleti, however, suffered a disappointing 1-0 loss to Real Betis.
After those results, Barcelona (50 points) sits just six points clear of Atleti (44), while suddenly red-hot Real Madrid (42) has a chance to move into second place this weekend. All eyes will be on Los Blancos for their trip to Wanda Metropolitano to square off with their crosstown rival Saturday at 10:15 Eastern.
Atlético Madrid vs. Real Madrid Preview
|FanDuel Match Odds|
|Atlético Madrid +140||Draw +220
||Real Madrid +200|
The oddsmakers expect a close game. As usual, they’re probably right.
Real Madrid was going to enter this one on a tear in league play, regardless of Wednesday’s Copa del Rey semifinal first leg at Barcelona.
Following a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou (which we’ll break down at the end of this post), Real Madrid can boast of its strong recent form without anyone being able to attribute their success to “mediocre” opponents. Since a 2-0 loss to Real Sociedad on Jan. 6 in league play, Santiago Solari’s men have won four La Liga matches in a row by a combined score of 11-3.
The buzz about the potency of the attack led by Karim Benzema and Vinicius Jr. will only grow with another strong performance against Diego Simeone’s squad. Benzema has scored three goals in the last two La Liga matches, while Vinicius followed a strong performance against Espanyol on January 27 with a goal in the win over Alavés, which earned him a spot in the starting lineup against Barça.
Álvaro Morata’s debut for the Rojiblancos did not go as planned for the former Real Madrid player or his new team. The loss to Real Betis was Atlético’s first in La Liga since September 1 and just its second of the season. Simeone and Co. are hoping Morata can combine with Antoine Griezmann to give the defensively stout club more scoring punch. Given his history with the opposition and the stage, few players in Europe will be under more scrutiny than Morata on Saturday.
The first meeting of the season between the Madrid rivals ended in a 0-0 draw back in September. That was actually one of the better results for Real Madrid during a brutal start to life without Cristiano Ronaldo. Real Madrid controlled possession for 66% of that match and outshot Atlético, producing six shots on goal while allowing just three.
This promises to be a slugfest, and another low-scoring draw seems as likely as any outcome. It will be interesting to see how Real Madrid looks down the stretch after Wednesday’s clash with Barcelona. This will be the second of three road games in a row for Solari’s team, with Saturday’s clash sandwiched between the trip to Barcelona and next week’s Champions League Round of 16 match at Ajax.
It’s hard to pick against a team with just two losses in La Liga this year, especially one with a homefield advantage like Atlético’s, but I believe Real Madrid will pull off a victory and overtake its rival in second place.
Copa del Rey Takeaways
Barcelona and Real Madrid drew 1-1 in the first semifinal leg of the Copa del Rey on Wednesday. Here are some key takeaways from the match.
Barcelona’s star started the game on the bench due to a thigh injury he suffered in the draw against Valencia. He came on for the final 30 minutes, but neither side managed to score during his time on the pitch. Wednesday was the latest example of Barcelona playing well against Real Madrid in Messi’s (partial, in this case) absence. The last two Clásicos Barcelona played without the Argentine were a 4-0 win on November 21, 2015 and the 5-1 romp earlier this season that led to a coaching change for Real Madrid. On Wednesday, it was Malcom, who started in place of Messi, who accounted for Barcelona’s lone goal.
Real Madrid Strikes Fast, Again
A quick goal from Lucas Vázquez, who found the back of the net in the sixth minute, helped subdue the packed house in the early going. It continued a positive recent trend for Real Madrid, which has scored first in five of its last six matches including La Liga and the Copa. Vázquez’s early score also marked the second time in four games that Real Madrid was on the board in less than 10 minutes after Benzema scored in the fourth minute against Espanyol on January 27.
Both teams seemed to come away from Wednesday’s match relatively pleased, apparently confident in their chances in the second leg on February 27. It’s hard to know exactly how meaningful that one will be. If Barcelona has managed to pull further away from the pack in La Liga by that time, one would expect the Copa will take on added importance for Real Madrid. The second leg of the Copa semifinal is scheduled for just a week before the second leg of the Champions League round of 16, which could also affect the managers’ lineup decisions for the match at the Santiago Bernabéu.
After the top three teams did what they were expected to last week, Barcelona (49 points) remains comfortably atop the La Liga table ahead of Atlético Madrid (44 points) and Real Madrid (39 points). Those teams’ positions are unlikely to change this weekend, as all three are substantial favorites.
The real marquee match-up is set for Matchday 23, when Real Madrid travels to Atlético on February 9. For this weekend, we’ll focus on Real Madrid vs. Alavés, then quickly look at Barcelona vs. Valencia.
Real Madrid vs. Alavés Preview
|Real Madrid-460||Draw +500||Valencia +950|
Real Madrid will host Alavés, a vastly improved team sitting fifth in La Liga after finishing the ’17-18 season in 14th place, Sunday at the Santiago Bernabéu at 2:45 p.m. EST. Real is coming off a dominant performance against Espanyol in which it scored in the 4th and 15th en route to a 3-1 halftime lead and eventual 4-2 victory. Alavés heads to Madrid on the heels of a disappointing 1-0 loss to 17th-place Rayo Vallecano.
The star of the Espanyol game was Karim Benzema, who finished with a brace. The 31-year-old Frenchman showed how dangerous he can be in another performance that showcased how he’s a better player now that he’s out of Cristiano Ronaldo’s sizable preening shadow. In addition to his scoring, his passing was instrumental throughout the match. Though he did not tally any assists, he helped set up Gareth Bale for the team’s final goal of the night (listen to the announcer ecstatically tout Benzema) and orchestrated the attack throughout the game.
Another bright spot in recent weeks for Real Madrid has been 18-year-old Vinicius Jr., who’s beginning to make an impact at a club where few players his age see much success. Against Espanyol, the Brazilian set up one of Benzema’s goals with a deft backheel touch.
Benzema now has 15 goals in 33 games this season, including nine in La Liga. If he can prove consistent throughout the rest of the campaign — and it’s a big if, considering his history — Real Madrid has a chance to make yet another run in the Champions League. The problem for Los Blancos is that in their domestic league, they’re going to need Barcelona to slip up several times to have a chance to close the gap.
In the first match-up of the season between Real Madrid and Alavés, then-Manager Julen Lopetegui’s team was dealt a stunning 1-0 loss on October 6. Alavés’ game-winning goal came on a last-second header by Manu García off a corner kick in the 95th. That defeat capped a stretch in which Real Madrid won just once in five La Liga matches as the club started the season missing Ronaldo even more than anyone could have expected. It was one of a number of disappointing performances that led to Lopetegui being sacked in late October after a 5-1 drubbing by Barcelona left the club in ninth place in the league.
Real Madrid’s recent form, and the fact they’ll be seeking to avenge what happened the last time these teams met, make them a safe bet to avoid another upset.
Barcelona vs. Valencia Preview
|Barcelona -350||Draw +500||Valencia +700|
Saturday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern at Camp Nou, Barcelona will be expected to keep rolling against seventh-place Valencia. The Catalan club has won its last four La Liga matches by a combined score of 10-2 and its last loss in league play came on Nov. 11.
It’s worth noting that Barcelona needed a tremendous goal from Lionel Messi in the 23rd (seen in the below vid) to come away with a draw at Valencia on Oct. 7. In that match, the hosts’ Ezequiel Garay provided an early lead when he found the net thanks to Barcelona’s poor defense of a corner in the 2nd. Messi equalized 20 minutes later on a one-two with Luis Suárez, ripping a perfect low shot past Valencia keeper Neto.
Valencia enters this weekend having won three of its last five in La Liga, including a 3-0 victory over Villarreal in its last game, but it’s hard to imagine them pulling the upset at Camp Nou.
With La Liga leader Barcelona five points clear of second-place Atlético Madrid and 10 points clear of third-place Real Madrid, neither of the sides from the Spanish capital can afford anything less than three points this weekend.
The quality of Barcelona’s next three La Liga foes – Girona, Valencia and Athletic Bilbao do not scream murderer’s row, as they’re all currently ninth in the table or lower – makes it that much harder to imagine the Catalan club slipping up anytime soon.
So let’s preview Atlético-Getafe as this weekend’s most important La Liga fixture.
Atlético Madrid vs. Getafe Odds and Analysis
Tomorrow’s 10:15 a.m. ET game sees Atlético -180 to win. Despite placed a respectable 6th in the table, Getafe is a heavy away underdog at +600. The fixture is priced at +250 for a draw.
The first two things most of us associate with Atlético are toughness and defense, which have been Atleti staples since the breakout run in the ’13-14 Champions League. That year, the club took Europe by storm before falling to Real Madrid in the CL final. Ever since, thanks largely to its defense, Atlético has been one of the strongest teams in Spain, if not the continent.
The formula for success this season has not changed much, as Simeone’s side has – surprise, surprise – given up just 13 goals through 20 matches, the fewest in La Liga. Having been scored on just 16 times, Getafe is another defensive-minded club, and boast the second-stingiest defense in the Spanish league. For those looking forward to seeing Antoine Griezmann do his Take the L dance, you might want to tune in another week.
Atlético won the first match-up of the season between the two teams 2-0 back in September thanks to a brace from Thomas Lemar, one in the 14th and one in the 60th. Getafe had to finish that match with 10 men after Iván Alejo was sent off in the 67th minute. Atlético had possession for 59% of the game and converted two of its five shots on goal, while limiting Getafe’s looks, as Atleti keeper Jan Oblak had to make just two saves.
Antoine Griezmann and Co. have been hot lately, outscoring their last five league opponents 9-3 while notching four wins and a draw. Getafe has also played well of late, with three wins, a draw and a 2-1 loss to Barcelona in its last five.
The question on Saturday at Wanda Metropolitano will be whether Getafe Manager José Bordalás‘ team can generate enough scoring chances on the road to make the rematch more compelling down the stretch than the teams’ first meeting. It’s hard to imagine the visitors pulling off the upset, especially on the road. My (admittedly far from bold) prediction for this one is another game where a goal or two is more than enough for Atlético.
This is nevertheless a match-up worth watching. Getafe are currently in the middle of a cluster of teams from fourth through seventh in the table (between 29 and 33 points), and they can move closer to contention for a spot in European competition next season with an inspired performance.