Saturday, March 17, 2007

La Liga title race: state of affairs

A little while ago I said that rounds 23-26 could be decisive for La Liga's title race this season. Now that's gone by, let's review.

Round 23: Valencia v Barca (could be decisive in whether Valencia stays in the title race), Sevilla v Atletico (do Atletico have what it takes? Are Sevilla out of steam?)

Valencia 2 - 1 Barca: Valencia wins resoundingly, keeping them in the race
Sevilla 3 - 1 Atletico: I think it's safe to say that Atletico do not have what it takes to make an assault on the CL places by themselves. At this point, Sevilla were still going strong.

(Champions League Round of 16 first leg: Barca v Liverpool, Inter v Valencia, Real v Bayern)

Round 24: Atletico v Real (Can Atletico finally win a Madrid derby?)

Atletico 1 - 1 Real: No. Even though they only have themselves to blame.

(Champions League Round of 16 second leg)

Round 25: Sevilla v Barca (potential title decider, if both sides are still in it by then)

Sevilla 2 - 1 Barca: both sides were still very much in it, and the result is a significant one, not only points-wise but also in that Barca have a favourable head to head result against Sevilla courtesy of their 3-1 victory at the Camp Nou.

Round 26: El Gran Clasico (always a big game, no matter what the occasion, and also a potential title decider this time)

Barca 3 - 3 Real: the Clasico weekend finished up with Barca back on top thanks to Leo Messi and Sevilla exhibiting vertigo syndrome, but Real are still in it too with 12 games to go.

looking ahead

Barca have played the other top 4 teams both home and away (with mostly bad results, it has to be said), which would seem to give them an advantage in the run-in. Exactly half of their remaining fixtures are home games. Considering their home record (unbeaten), the most tricky fixtures would seem to be Recreativo, Atletico and Zaragoza away.

Real are hard to predict because they have the best away form in the league but can be rather fragile at home. The visit of both Sevilla and Valencia loom large on their calendar, as does the always tricky trip to Zaragoza and to new boys Recre. For what it's worth, 7 of their remaining 12 games are at home.

Sevilla have yet to play Real at the Bernabeu or Valencia at the Mestalla, although 7 of their 12 games are at home, where they've only lost once. It remains to be seen whether they have the mental strength to keep up their title challenge, especially with a distracting but important UEFA Cup campaign on the side. Away to Osasuna (because of their home strength) would seem to be their toughest fixture, aside from the two mentioned above.

Valencia need to worry about the Champions League, unlike Barca and Real, which would be the one thing I can see standing between them and a push for the title. Like all the other sides except for Barca, they have 7 home games left at the Mestalla, where they've only lost once this season. They do have tricky visitors in the form of Sevilla, Zaragoza and Recre, though. Away to Real will also pose a tough challenge.

So here's how the next few rounds shape up:

Round 27: Zaragoza v Atletico (important in terms of CL or UEFA Cup positions)
Round 28: Osasuna v Sevilla (tough ground to visit for the top teams)

(Champions League quarterfinals: Chelsea v Valencia, UEFA Cup quarterfinals: Sevilla v Spurs)

Round 29: Zaragoza v Barca (tough ground, good team, a fixture with some history)

(Champions League quarterfinals: Valencia v Chelsea, UEFA Cup quarterfinals: Spurs v Sevilla)

Round 30: Valencia v Sevilla (Valencia need to win this if they want a shot at the title. Ditto for Sevilla, although I suspect they might be happy with a point by this time.)
Round 31: Real v Valencia (Real need to win all their games to have a shot at title, but this is also important if they're not going to be left behind in terms of CL positions.)

I suddenly feel really bad for Valencia. They're not going to have a good time for the first half of April, are they?

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