Latest From La Liga: Barcelona Is In Shambles, The Title Race is Just About Over, And Villarreal is on a Roll

Posted By Tyler Everett on July 2, 2020

Matchday 33 is almost in the books. We still have Thursday’s MD 33 match-ups between Real Sociedad and Espanyol (1:30 p.m. Eastern), Eibar and Osasuna (1:30 p.m.) and Real Madrid and Getafe (4 p.m.), but we’re suddenly past the halfway point of the post-pandemic portion of the ’19-20 season.

Unfortunately – unless you’re a Madridista – the races for both first place and the top four, as well as the battle to avoid relegation, are all but decided.

Technically, the title race is alive, as Real Madrid is just four points clear of second-place Barcelona (assuming RM handles Getafe). But after watching them sputter to three draws and a difficult win in their last four, it’s really difficult (I’d say impossible if I had a backbone) to imagine the Catalans running the table. Vegas agrees, as RM is -835 to win the league, while Barcelona is +500.

As for Spain’s spots in next year’s Champions League, Real Madrid (71 points, with a game in hand) and Barcelona (70) are in, while Atleti (59) is in an extremely comfortable spot in that race, followed closely by Sevilla (57). Two other teams that at least have a chance to join the UCL next year are Villarreal (54) and Getafe (52). More to come on Villarreal!

As for the relegation (or survival) race, we currently have Mallorca (29), Leganes (25) and Espanyol (24) a long way from safety. 17th-place Celta Vigo (34), 16th-place Eibar (35) and 15th-place Alavés (35) appear safe barring a torrid run by Mallorca. Despite a dominant 5-1 win over Celta Vigo on Tuesday, Mallorca would still need a hell of a finish.

Barcelona’s Uphill Climb

On the surface – and by that I mean if you didn’t watch it – a 2-2 draw vs. Atleti doesn’t sound like the worst performance in the world. It’s even more understandable when you consider that Diego Simeone’s team has not lost since February 1 vs. Los Blancos. That’s 13 games! (including two UCL battles vs. Liverpool).

But anyone who watched Tuesday’s slog knows what I mean about the title race feeling like a formality. Yes, Barcelona scored two goals against a tough defensive team, but one of them was an early own-goal by Atleti’s Diego Costa on a corner by Messi. The Goat scored again on a PK in the 50th after Nelson Semedo earned a ticky-tack penalty.

Never a team to be outdone when it comes to unorthodox ugly goals, Atleti netted penalties by Saúl Ñíguez in the 19th and 62nd. The first one was at least deserved (Arturo Vidal clearly fouled Atleti’s Yannick Carrasco), but Los Rojiblancos weren’t on the board until Costa’s PK was denied by Marc-Andre ter Stegen, only for Costa’s team to get another shot when VAR ruled that ter Stegen left his line early.

Struggling To Find The Right Formula

Barcelona has a number of problems right now, especially as an organization. For this piece, though, let’s talk about the offensive stagnation since the return from the pandemic. Manager Quique Setién’s inability to press the right buttons personnel-wise has been a factor, and the Atleti match was no exception.

Barcelona is the easily the highest-scoring team in La Liga with 74 goals, but they’ve managed just five in their last four. That’s not good enough for this roster, regardless of how they’ve scored them. And it’s even worse when you remember that four of those five (Costa’s own-goal on the corner and the two PKs vs. Atleti plus a free kick vs. Celta Vigo) came via set pieces or penalties.

More importantly, Setién does not know which combination of attacking players gives him the best chance of breaking down opposing defenses.

No Love For Griezmann

Obviously, Messi is a good start. But Setién’s recent lack of faith in Antoine Griezmann is officially baffling, and this story is just getting started*. The Frenchman (29) offers a lot more pace than Luis Suárez (33), but has started just three of six games since the break. He did come in as a sub vs. Sevilla, Celta Vigo and Atleti, logging not quite 25 minutes total. Suárez showed with two goals vs. Celta Vigo last weekend why he’s still an asset, but against Atlético he reminded us he’s lost a step or two. Apparently, the solution was to give an established star approximately two (that’s not a typo) minutes of action against a major rival where he spent his prime. For some reason, that doesn’t strike me as the ideal move.

Between Suárez and teenager Ansu Fati, Setién has some intriguing non-Griezmann options alongside Messi. Those two, however, do not for one second justify not even bringing in Griezmann off the bench when his team needs goals. At the very least, the player this club bought for 120 million euros last summer should be getting a legitimate chance to make an impact.

A Hell Of An Explanation

*With headlines like this one (“Griezmann’s brother to Setien: Two minutes… I want to cry”) all over the Spanish press, Setién is setting the  foundation for a Zinedine Zidane-Gareth Bale-esque relationship. Setién’s explanation for Tuesday’s decision, per Reuters?

“It’s true that bringing him on for such little time is tough for a player of his level but the circumstances obliged me to do that. The other option was not to bring him on at all. The players on the pitch were playing well and it wasn’t easy to find a place for him without destabilising the team.”

The Silver Lining? Riqui Puig Looks Like The Real Deal

If there’s one bright spot for this team right now, it’s that the young midfielder looks legit. After sparking a late breakthrough vs. Athletic Bilbao last week, he was one of his team’s best players against an imposing Atleti midfield on Tuesday. While playing 90 minutes and earning an impressive 7.75 from WhoScored, the 20-year-old Puig turned heads with his creativity.

As promised, the (brief) rundown on Villarreal

A few reasons to acquaint yourself with this team over the final five games of the season.

  • They’re red-hot. Having captured 16 of 18 possible points in the six games since play resumed, this is a team no one in Spain wants to see right now.
  • Their offense is the best outside Real Madrid and Barcelona. With 53 goals through 33 games, they score a ton of goals.
  • They have several measuring-stick games ahead. It starts with a home match vs. Barcelona on July 5 – the underdogs are +375 at home to Barcelona’s -150 (#worthaflier) — followed by clashes with Getafe (July 8), Real Sociedad (July 13) and Real Madrid (July 15).
  • Fourth-place Sevilla appears unlikely to pull away. Three Sevilla draws in the last four (including a 1-1 result vs. 14th-place Valladolid on June 26) mean Villarreal should be able to make it interesting down the stretch.
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