Barcelona’s failure to generate any offense in a 0-0 draw at Sevilla, combined with Real Madrid getting three points on the road at Real Sociedad, means the Catalans would finish second if the season ended “today.”
*Technically, as of Wednesday morning, Barcelona is back in first after beating Athletic Bilbao 1-0 on Tuesday. With all due respect to 18th-place Mallorca, though, both teams should be level on 68 points after Real Madrid-Mallorca Wednesday afternoon.
We’ll look closer at Barcelona’s performances since the break later, but for now, let’s focus on the title race.
Real Madrid in the driver’s seat
Considering a lot of soccer (seven full matchdays) remains this season, I probably shouldn’t call Real Madrid’s “lead” insurmountable. I phrased it that way because both teams have 68 points — assuming Real Madrid (-715) handles Mallorca (+1,700) — but RM got the best of their rivals in this year’s Clasicos, so they’re the leaders at the moment.
The combination of Los Blancos’ league-best defense, depth and remaining opponents makes them a great bet to protect their “lead” and end Barcelona’s reign atop La Liga, even at -167.
Barcelona looking vulnerable
I like Real Madrid to win La Liga not only because of Zinedine Zidane’s team’s current form, especially against Valencia last week but because of Barcelona’s uninspiring last three matches.
At hardly any no point against relegation candidate Leganés (2-0 win on June 16), third-place Sevilla (0-0 draw on June 19) or Athletic Bilbao (1-0 win on June 23) did Barcelona look like a juggernaut.
After handling Leganés, but not exactly making a statement in the process, Barcelona’s first difficult match-up since their return from the break proved as tough as advertised.
They not only failed to score vs. Sevilla last Friday, they failed to generate many meaningful chances (three shots on goal). Third-place Sevilla won the xG battle .82-.74 and their physicality – they committed 19 (!) fouls – seemed to bother Barcelona. Lionel Messi was even frustrated enough to push a Sevilla player just before halftime!
Another slog vs. Athletic Bilbao
On Tuesday vs. Athletic, the Catalans again struggled to create much until late, with young subs Ansu Fati (on for Antoine Griezmann in the 65th) and Riqui Puig (on for Arthur in the 56th) providing a much-needed jolt of energy. Ivan Rakitic then scored in the 71st to make sure his team got all three points.
While the defense this month has been excellent – yesterday made it four clean sheets in a row for Marc-André ter Stegen – the sight of Barcelona dominating possession but failing to threaten the opposing keeper is getting way too familiar. The xG of 1.84 vs. Athletic was solid, but Barcelona is going to be extremely susceptible to teams that pack it in until something changes offensively. Based on what we saw Tuesday, bigger roles for Puig and Fati seem like an obvious start. Speaking of young legs, Tuesday’s news about 23-year-old Arthur does not bode well for this squad’s collective athletic ability.
Potential stumbling blocks
Neither RM nor Barcelona have brutal remaining schedules.
Barcelona’s home match-up with Atleti next Tuesday, June 30 at 4 p.m. Eastern will be no cakewalk. In fact, it looks even more intriguing now than it did when we highlighted it here. And Villarreal — who is unbeaten since the break, including a draw vs. Sevilla on Monday that moved them into sixth place — will pose another challenge on July 5 . Otherwise, it’s a lot of games against teams that should be thoroughly outmatched.
Real Madrid faces Getafe, who is suddenly completely unimposing (they’re winless, with all of three goals, in four games in June) on July 2. Their matchday 37 clash with Villarreal appears to be their only other tough match-up.
Atleti, Sevilla seemingly lock up Champions League places
So much for a thrilling four- or five-team battle for spots in next year’s Champions League. It now seems like a certainty that usual suspects Atleti and Sevilla will join Real Madrid and Barcelona. Diego Simeone’s team has captured 10 of 12 possible points from four matches and is in third with 55 points. Sevilla, with three straight draws – and just six of 12 possible points — has not blown anyone away but is comfortably in fourth with 53 points.
But the real news is that both Getafe (49 points, fifth place) and Real Sociedad (47, seventh place) have been awful. Martin Odegaard and Co. have a draw and two losses in their last three going into Wednesday’s battle with Celta Vigo. I’ll admit “the race is over” seems like an overreaction to three or four games, but FiveThirtyEight backs me up: the analytics site says Atleti has a 90% chance to finish top-four, followed by Sevilla (81%), Getafe (9%) and Real Sociedad (12%). At least the title race is alive and well!