La Liga Matchday 26 Preview: Atleti, Real Madrid Meet In Crucial Derby

Posted By Tyler Everett on March 5, 2021

Considering its implications, Atleti-Real Madrid alone alone constitutes a solid slate. Other than that, we don’t have a ton to highlight this weekend in Spain.

  • Elche (+600) vs. Sevilla (-167) Saturday, 10:15 a.m. Eastern
  • Osasuna (+460) vs. Barcelona (-177) Saturday, 3 p.m.
  • Atlético Madrid (+165) vs. Real Madrid (+175) Sunday, 10:15 a.m.
  • Real Sociedad (-205) vs. Levante (+600) Sunday, 12:30 p.m.

Sevilla and Barcelona, however, could both struggle simply due to fatigue from Wednesday’s Copa del Rey thriller.

We’ll get into the Madrid derby shortly, but how about … Real Sociedad-Levante?

Can Real Sociedad Close In On Sevilla For Fourth Place?

Seriously, fifth-place Real Sociedad has not lost in La Liga since January 9. With three wins and two draws in their last five (including a game they nearly won against Real Madrid on Monday), surely they’re pushing Sevilla for a place in the top four, right?

Unfortunately, not so much. Sevilla has won 4 of 5 in La Liga and is six points ahead, with a game in hand on La Real. Sevilla could be vulnerable against Elche, though. I say that because if that Copa loss to Barcelona this week doesn’t scream “disappointing follow-up ahead,” I don’t know what does.

If Sevilla does drop points and Real Sociedad beats Levante this weekend, La Real (currently +400 to qualify for next year’s Champions League) would have reason to believe a top-4 push is still possible.

Barcelona Pulls Out Another Copa Thriller

Ronald Koeman’s team is almost certainly on its way out of the Champions League. It also remains a big underdog (+275) to win La Liga*. And yet the performance they turned in Wednesday – not to mention their 2-0 win over Sevilla last weekend – has me wondering whether they might have a shot to take home a couple trophies this season after all.

Prior to last weekend, Barcelona had mostly enjoyed a strong 2021. The only blips dating back to January 3 came against PSG in the Champions League, Athletic Club in the Supercopa final and Cádiz in La Liga on February 21. The issue was that all the wins came at the expense of mediocre or worse opponents, while the likes of Sevilla (which beat Barcelona 2-0 in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal) and PSG exposed the team’s apparent inability to hang with elite competition.

But over Barcelona’s last 180 minutes, they just controlled a league match vs. Sevilla for a comfortable 2-0 win last weekend, then posted an impressive 3-0 win in the second leg of the Copa semifinal vs. Sevilla.

Below is a taste of what you missed: probably the best game of the season in Spain so far.

*An Atleti loss this weekend plus a Barcelona win would put the Catalans in second place, tied with Real Madrid with 56 points and just two behind Atlético (whose game in hand is next Wednesday vs. Athletic Club).

A New Barcelona?

That turnaround, capped off by goals by Gerard Piqué (in the 94th) and Martin Braithwaite’s winner a few minutes later, was the latest example of ’20-21 Barcelona’s sudden resilience. Between this week’s comeback (they advanced despite losing the first leg 2-0) and the way they beat Granada in the Copa quarterfinal, these guys have now shown – on multiple occasions! – a toughness and composure they sorely lacked the last few seasons.

A couple more reasons for optimism:

  • Lionel Messi is A) anything but checked out, if his postgame confrontation with Sevilla’s Monchi is any indication and B) he might have some help?? He was not directly involved in any of Barcelona’s three goals on Wednesday.
  • The 3-5-2 that Ronald Koeman first went with last weekend – and again on Wednesday — could be a keeper, as it has produced arguably Ousmane Dembele’s best two performances of the season. You also can’t argue with a combined score of 5-0 in two matches against a solid Sevilla club.

Before moving on, it is worth noting that the news Piqué will be out multiple weeks with a knee injury is a huge blow for any hopes of a UCL miracle vs. PSG.

Can Atleti Pad Their First-Place Cushion?

First of all, the line – it hardly gets more even than +165 vs. +175 – tells you how tight this one should be. Naturally, that makes betting on the draw (+225) a better idea than usual.

If there’s two things we know about Real Madrid at the moment (and I admittedly struggle to understand this club), the first is that they don’t have the firepower to score more than a goal or two against a good team. The second is that they are too good defensively – lately, that’s with or without Sergio Ramos – to let anyone pull away from them.

Will We See The Attacking Atleti?

RM-Atleti this weekend would be plenty interesting if we were only going to see the key pieces that have stood out for both teams all year (Thibaut Courtois, Raphael Varane and the entire midfield for Real Madrid; Luis Suárez and Marcos Llorente, among others, for Atleti). But because we’ll also see the return of right back Kieran Trippier and winger Yannick Carrasco for Diego Simeone’s team, as well as recently recovered RM midfielder Fede Valverde, this one looks that much more intriguing.

With no Karim Benzema (barring a major surprise) or Mariano, who is also injured, Zinedine Zidane is going to hope for the best, again. This time, he’ll turn to some combination of Isco, Marco Asensio, Rodrygo and Vinicius.

Atleti has fallen into old habits its last two matches, reverting back to the conservative approach that was largely abandoned as they piled up 50 points through 19 games this season. While it didn’t work against Chelsea in the Champions League, it did generate a 2-0 win over Villarreal (with just 36% possession!) last weekend. It will be fascinating — both this weekend and in next Wednesday’s postponed match vs. Athletic Club — to see which version of Atleti shows up.

Either way, Los Rojiblancos seem like the pick here. Hopefully, it’s because having Trippier and Carrasco back allows them to possess the ball and generate some scoring opportunities. But considering RM’s lack of firepower, an ugly 1-0 Atleti win also seems likely.

I should add, though, that Real Madrid has owned this rivalry recently – Atleti’s last win over RM in La Liga was more than five years ago, on February 27, 2016.

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