The matchups would be better if every team in Spain – and throughout Europe – wasn’t shorthanded due to COVID plus the demanding indefensible schedule the last month or two, but Matchday 10 in La Liga is nevertheless the most intriguing one of the season.
That’s partly because this is the first time we’ve had more than one legitimately compelling match-up in a weekend. It’s also due to the fact that Atleti-Barcelona and Real Madrid-Villarreal both appear to be evenly-matched clashes between high-profile (with the exception of not-quite-as-high-profile Villarreal) clubs.
The lines back me up on both games: *Real Madrid (+155) travels to Villarreal (+165) on Saturday at 10:15 a.m. Eastern, while Barcelona (+150) is the slight favorite on the road against red-hot (domestically) Atleti (+180) on Saturday at 3 p.m.
**First-place Real Sociedad (-120) also has a good test: a trip to promoted – but sixth-place (!) – side Cádiz (+325) on Sunday at 10:15 a.m.
As for Spain’s fourth Champions League team this year, Sevilla (-148) hosts Celta Vigo (+430) on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in a game that Manager Julen Lopetegui’s team needs badly. They beat Osasuna 1-0 last time out in Spain, but with just 10 points through seven games, these guys need to start scoring – and winning – in domestic play if they want to be in the UCL again in ’21-22.
* This line was RM (+140) – Villarreal (+175) yesterday.
** This line was Real Sociedad (-105) – Cádiz (+325) yesterday.
Is Atleti for real?
This isn’t the first time we’ve asked this question this year, and it won’t be the last, but what a start for Diego Simeone’s team. Their Champions League play has left a little to be desired, as they’ve captured just four points in three games vs. Bayern Munich (4-0 loss), Red Bull Salzburg (3-2 win) and Lokomotiv Moscow (1-1 draw).
But we’re more worried about domestic play in this particular piece, and through seven games in La Liga this season, they’ve captured 17 of 21 possible points. Their excellent form in Spain is a continuation of their play down the stretch last campaign, as they’ve now piled up 23 matches in a row without a loss. Their last L in La Liga? You have to go back to February 1, when they fell to Real Madrid.
The good news – for both Atleti fans and neutrals who have long wished this team’s offense would just be decent – is that this team is not getting points the way it typically has under Simeone. With 17 goals through seven games, led by João Félix (five goals and two assists), you would call these guys downright potent if you didn’t know any better. And I’m not the only one struggling to think of a player who’s been better so far this season than Félix.
Expect an aggressive Atleti XI
Unfortunately, former Barcelona striker Luis Suárez (five goals, in less than 400 minutes played) will miss this one after testing positive for COVID. Félix, however, should have enough help from better-than-you-realize wingers Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente to threaten the Catalans’ back line.
Speaking of which, Marca claims Simeone will start assist machine Ángel Correa (four assists in league play) as well as Félix, Carrasco and Llorente. That’s not exactly “Jurgen Klopp starting Diogo Jota, Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane” vs. Man City a few weeks ago, but it’s the Simeone version of that.
I’m gonna go way out on a limb here and predict that Atleti scores multiple goals and gets the W. Let’s go with a 2-1 win for Los Rojiblancos. I might have definitely already made this clear by now, but Atleti at +190 is great value here.
Who steps up for Ansu Fati?
While we’re looking at this game mostly from the Atleti perspective, there’s plenty of intrigue around what to expect from Barcelona as well. Ronald Koeman’s team will be missing its most productive scorer this season, injured teenage star Ansu Fati, but should have Lionel Messi at full strength.
This team’s attack was lacking/inconsistent – at least by Barcelona standards — even with Messi and Fati, though, so Koeman’s lineup and formation for this one are anybody’s guess. Barcelona is still waiting for Antoine Griezmann to look like the player they thought they were signing a couple summers ago, and this will be Philippe Coutinho’s first game back from an injury. Regardless of who (Griezmann? Coutinho? Ousmane Dembélé? Pedri?) joins Messi up top, Barcelona is going to have to be sharp to crack an Atleti back line that has conceded just two goals in domestic play this season.
Can Real Madrid bounce back?
Los Blancos have a tough opponent in their first game since a disastrous 4-1 loss to Valencia before the international break. Villarreal is in second place with 18 points in 27 games. Unai Emery’s team piled up nine goals in its last three games (including a 4-0 Europa League win over Maccabi Tel Aviv) before the break.
They will test a Real Madrid defense that has recently looked hapless – and that might be generous — when Sergio Ramos and/or Raphael Varane are out of the lineup. With Ramos out the next couple weeks (though Varane is expected to start), Real is extremely vulnerable here, and that’s an understatement considering what I’m about to say.
To name a few, the following will also be absent: Casemiro, Fede Valverde, Karim Benzema and Luka Jovic. Now would be a great time for Eden Hazard to turn in a couple dominant performances, especially with another pivotal UCL clash with a desperate Inter Milan team looming on Wednesday.
Villarreal at +165 is an even better bet than Atleti at +180.