La Liga title race in the balance but Madrid seize momentum

by Thomas ALLNUTT
Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema has been on top form since the return of La Liga

Real Madrid and Barcelona are neck-and-neck in the closest title race in Europe as La Liga's top two have enjoyed an almost faultless return since Spanish football resumed two weeks ago.

But Barca's performances have been less convincing than their results and a draw away at Sevilla has allowed Madrid to clear a two-point deficit and reclaim first place due to a superior head-to-head.

Beneath them, Atletico Madrid have surged into third, their concerns of missing out on Champions League qualification evaporating almost entirely as their top-four rivals have crumbled around them.

The three-month suspension has also had varying effects at the bottom, where Celta Vigo and Eibar have managed to pull away, leaving Real Mallorca, Leganes and Espanyol with a mountain to climb.

Here, AFP Sport draws five conclusions from the first two weeks since La Liga resumed.

Benzema puts Madrid in charge

When Real Madrid restarted, many wondered whether the recovery of Eden Hazard might propel them ahead of Barcelona down the final straight.

But Karim Benzema has been the catalyst for four wins out of four, the Frenchman coming back at his sharp, confident and clinical best.

Benzema's touch and volley against Valencia may be goal of the season while his link-up with Hazard could finally offer an answer to the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo.

Hazard's fitness is still a worry. The Belgian came off after an hour against Mallorca on Wednesday as Zinedine Zidane appears keen to manage his minutes.

But the defence has been rock solid again, with Thibaut Courtois making a crucial save against Valencia that might yet prove a pivotal moment. That steel, and Benzema, makes Madrid favourites.

Ponderous Barca clinging on

Barcelona have taken 10 points out of 12 and even a draw away at Sevilla hardly deserves to be called a slip-up.

Yet their performances have left the unavoidable sense that they will drop more points during the run-in and perhaps against difficult opponents coming up.

They play away at a resurgent Celta Vigo on Saturday before hosting in-form Atletico Madrid three days later. They then visit Villarreal, who have shot up into contention for the top four.

On form, Barca would be confident against all three but Quique Setien's side have looked ponderous, with even Lionel Messi seeming frustrated in a 1-0 win over Athleic Bilbao on Tuesday.

Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati have injected some much-needed energy off the bench and it might be that Setien has to trust in youth if Barcelona are to keep pace. For now, they are clinging on.

Atletico surge into top four

Atletico Madrid were sixth, one point outside the top four before Spanish football returned. Two weeks later, they are third, with a six-point cushion ahead of fifth.

Concerns about the club missing out on the Champions League were very real, particularly as Atletico have been one of the clubs worst-affected financially by the coronavirus pandemic.

But three wins and a draw make them favourites to finish third, let alone fourth, with Marcos Llorente key in his new, more advanced role of second striker.

Atletico's resurgence has been even more effective as their rivals have floundered. Real Sociedad and Getafe have failed to muster a single victory between them since coming back while Valencia and Sevilla have managed only one win each. Atletico are in the driving seat.

Bottom three cast further adrift

Any hopes the suspension would reinvigorate La Liga's bottom three have so far come to nothing as Espanyol failed to consolidate after beating Alaves while Mallorca and Leganes have slid further from safety.

Instead, those just outside have pulled away as Celta Vigo stormed to consecutive victories, one of them a 6-0 hammering of Alaves, while Eibar outplayed Valencia on Thursday to make it three games unbeaten.

Alaves, whose have lost the advantage of their passionate home support, and Real Betis, who sacked their coach Rubi, are both out of form, but would appear to have just enough of a gap to stay safe.

Innovations increase craving for fans

La Liga's promise to complete the season looks almost certain to be fulfilled but its innovations have been unable to remove the hollowness of games without fans.

Fake crowd noise has given only an impression of normality while the virtual supporters in the stands are a pale imitation of the real thing.

On the pitch, cooling breaks are increasingly being turned into teamtalks by coaches and the five substitutions per team has often deflated second halves, when multiple changes make it hard for viewers to keep up.

Adaptation was inevitable but supporters will be relieved when normality is eventually restored.

Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema has been on top form since the return of La Liga