A weird, up-and-down year for La Liga continued this week with an eventful slate of Champions League and Europa League action.
It started with Villarreal drawing Juventus in the UCL on Tuesday. A day later, Atletico Madrid also got a draw, against Manchester United.
But on Thursday, those very respectable showings – Atleti largely dominated ManU, and Villarreal earned a draw despite going down 1-0 very early and playing without Gerard Moreno – were arguably overshadowed by Barcelona.
The Catalans continued to look unrecognizable compared to what we saw from them under Ronald Koeman during the first half of the season, as they picked Napoli apart 4-2 in the Europa League. I probably definitely shouldn’t overreact to anything in Europe’s second-tier competition, especially not before we’ve even reached the quarterfinals. But holy shit Xavi’s team looked good. And don’t just take my word for it. What Barcelona did Thursday stood out even more considering Napoli has a legit shot (currently +450) to win Serie A.
“Holy shit” has been a common refrain all season among those watching Barcelona. But since Ferran Torres, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Adama Traore joined the club in January, that phrase has been used in a very different tone than it was back in October. At this point, it’s difficult to watch these guys without wondering whether Xavi and the club’s January signings are as good (or way better) than even the most optimistic Barcelona fans felt when they arrived. With 15 goals in their last five games (three in La Liga and two against UEL foe Napoli) and a record of 3-2-0 in that span, Barcelona currently look as impressive – and entertaining – as anyone in Spain.
In addition to Barcelona, Sevilla and Real Betis reached the UEL Round of 16, while Real Sociedad bowed out against RB Leipzig.
La Liga Matchday 26 Preview
Though Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid are all heavy favorites this weekend, La Liga Matchday 26 looks compelling for a couple reasons. It starts with Sevilla-Real Betis. Those teams’ underrated rivalry deserves fans’ attention, no matter where they are in the standings.
But this weekend, with Sevilla in second place and Real Betis in third, the clash between the Seville rivals promises to even more spirited than usual. If you saw what happened the last time these teams met, back in January in the Copa del Rey Round of 16, you know what I mean by “spirited.”
Real Betis and Sevilla’s Copa del Rey match was stopped after a Sevilla player was hit with an object during Betis’ goal celebration. pic.twitter.com/Z7yVQUJwoo
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 15, 2022
In addition to the enticing Seville derby, Atleti hardly feels like a lock against Celta Vigo if you’ve watched them this year. I also expect Barcelona to get a challenge from Athletic Club. I say that not to disrespect red-hot Barca. We just have to remember that in various competitions the last two months, Athletic Club has beaten Atleti (Supercopa semifinal, January 16), Barcelona (Copa del Rey Round of 16, January 20) and Real Madrid (Copa del Rey quarterfinal, February 3). They’re also coming off a big La Liga win last weekend over rival Real Sociedad, by a score of 4-0.
- Rayo Vallecano (+390) vs. Real Madrid (-145) Saturday, 12:30 p.m. Eastern
- Atlético Madrid (-160) vs. Celta Vigo (+475) Saturday, 3 p.m.
- Sevilla (+120) vs. Real Betis (+250) Sunday, 10:15 a.m.
- Barcelona (-175) vs. Athletic Club (+475) Sunday, 3 p.m.
La Liga Matchday 26 Odds & Ends
We’ve seen more “good Atleti” than “bad Atleti” in their last two performances. Coming off an emotional Champions League match, however, they appear susceptible enough to justify Double Chance – Tie or Celta Vigo (+140).
Based on what happened between these clubs a month ago, a red card feels like a distinct possibility. Did I mention that Copa fiasco in January? Some Real Betis personnel — players and execs, not fans!! — responded to Sevilla midfielder Joan Jordan being hit by something thrown by a Betis fan by accusing Jordan of … flopping?! No, I’m not making this up. I digress, but with that said, doesn’t Over .5 Red Cards (+205) feel like a good play?
Given Sevilla’s gotten one win and four draws from its last five in La Liga, while Real Betis has won four of five, Real Betis +250 looks incredibly tempting. So tempting that I almost don’t trust it. I have to go with Betis, though. Sevilla has, after all, recently struggled with teams significantly worse than their opponent this weekend.
One last thing: I don’t quite suggest betting on a red card and a draw in the same match. A small bet, maybe a half-unit, on the Draw (+225) strikes me as a smart play, though.
As much as I love what I’ve seen from Barcelona lately, I don’t love the price on the Catalans here. That’s a credit to how well Marcelino has prepared Athletic Club for its biggest games this year. And Marcelino’s track record of leading undermanned sides to big upsets predates his Athletic Club tenure. If you want to play it safe, I like Over 2.5 (-115) a lot. In fact, four of Barcelona’s last five games have featured at least four goals. Over 4.5 cashed in three of them. So Over 3.5 (+220) is another good idea. To close with one last safer play, Both Teams to Score – Yes (-115) also seems like a winner.