La Liga Winter Update

Nick Jehamy | December 31st, 2019

The premier Spanish football league La Liga has gone into the winter break closer than it has been in the past few years with clubs ranked one through six all within nine points of each other. The back-to-back reigning champions Barcelona are currently on top of the table followed by Real Madrid and Sevilla.

Atletico Madrid rounds out the top four, with Real Sociedad and Getafe CF in the five and six spots that would give them a chance in the Europa League. With much of the season left to go this can drastically change. Let’s take a look at the six clubs currently in the cup qualifying positions and those with the best chance to take the La Liga title. The top four clubs at the end of the season qualify for the Champions League, fifth place qualifies for the Europa League group stage and the sixth place club qualifies for the Europa League Qualifiers.

Top Six in the Table

FC Barcelona (1st Place, 39 Points)

Barcelona has won the league title two years running and is in the top position halfway through this season as well. That lead though is a slim one with Real Madrid only two points behind them, and numerous other clubs still within striking range. Already with three losses on the season compared to Real Madrid’s one, Barcelona has held on to the lead by their offensive power, having few draws so far this season with only three, their number one scoring offense in La Liga has been able to produce goals in crucial moments to give them the win.

Led by the veteran offensive prowess of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, Barcelona have scored 47 goals through 18 matches this season, which is 14 more than the second most by Real Madrid. A majority of this scoring comes from the two strikers mentioned. Messi is leading La Liga with 13 goals on the season and Suarez is third in the league with 10. Both Barcelona players also have six assists which is tied for first place in the league as well. The club is still looking for Antoine Griezmann to find his place on the team as he has slowly been adjusting to the play styles of his superstar counterparts, but even in this adjusting stage, Griezmann has still produced seven goals and four assists for his new club.

Things aren’t all well though for the leading La Liga club. Arturo Vidal is suing the club for two million euros over unpaid bonus payments. Vidal has been unhappy with his playing time in Barcelona and many believe that the timing of this lawsuit is to push a transfer in which Vidal wants to head to Internazionale Milan in the Italian league Serie A. Barcelona may be on top of the table but they are tied for seventh in goals against, this can be an even bigger issue with rumors of goaltender Marc Andre Ter Stegen gaining interest from Juventus, Bayern Munich, and Paris Saint-Germain trying to lure the keeper away from them.

Barcelona’s first game back in La Liga will be against Espanyol on January 4th. They continue their Champions League play as well on February 25th in the first leg against Italian club Napoli.

Real Madrid (2nd Place, 37 Points)

Real Madrid hasn’t placed outside of the top three in La Liga since the 2004 season and has won twice within the last decade, taking two of the three Barcelona hasn’t won. That being said, Real Madrid has won the Champions League four times within the decade including three in a row from 2016 to 2018. Only two points out of first place, Real Madrid is looking to jump Barcelona and win their second La Liga title in the last four years.

Real Madrid is one of the most well-rounded clubs in La Liga, second in both goals scored and in goals against this season. Their offense has always been solid and near the top of the league but their defensive league play is the best it has been in a long time. Thibaut Courtois is third in clean sheets with eight on the season so far, Courtois is a big part of the reason Madrid has only given up 12 goals in 18 matches so far this season. The Spanish defense of captain Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal has been excellent so far this season even without Marcelo who has been injured for much of the season so far, a healthy Marcelo can help propel this club ahead of their rival.

Offensively Real Madrid just did themselves a favor by extending the contract of Karim Benzema until the 2022 season. Benzema is Real Madrid’s leading goal scorer with 12 goals in league play, only behind Messi in La Liga. Benzema is only one assist behind the lead as well with five on the season, Carvajal and Luka Modric each have four assists so far on the season as well. There have been rumors of Madrid transferring James Rodriguez but those seem to be subsiding, the real question for the transfer window is will they part ways with forward Gareth Bale.

Real Madrid continues league play January 4th against Getafe, a team we will be talking about a bit later. Also, make sure to watch Real Madrid in the round of 16 of the Champions League February 26th in their first leg against Manchester City.

Sevilla FC (3rd Place, 34 Points)

Sevilla may not be known as well as the two already mentioned clubs, but they are have consistently been near the top of the table year after year. Over the last decade, they have placed in the top six on six different occasions and have participated in either the Champions League or Europa League in all but one of those years as well. Sevilla is only three points behind Real Madrid and five points off of the lead with a lot of the season left to go. Can they hold their ground in the second half though?

Out of the top seven clubs, Sevilla has the smallest goal differential at +6. Their defense has been solid enough to give up the fourth least number of goals in the league, but offensively they cannot get things moving having only scored 23 goals so far on the season. Their three top center forwards combine to have only scored three goals this season in La Liga play, their defense can only keep them on top for so long, thankfully Sevilla’s goalkeeper has been playing solid as well, Tomas Vacklic is tied for third in clean sheets this season.

Sadly it looks as if Sevilla will be losing some of its key players to the winter transfer market. Rumors of Diego Carlos and Lucas Ocampos among others gaining interest from other European clubs can drastically affect Sevilla going forward this season, we will see in due time.

Sevilla comes back to play on January 3rd against the seventh team in the table Athletic Bilbao. They will also be competing in the first leg against CFR Cluj in the Round of 32 Europa League on February 20th.

Atletico Madrid (4th Place, 32 Points)

Atletico Madrid is in fourth place currently, if the league were to end today this would be the first time since the 2011-2012 season that the top three teams were not the combination of Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid. With half the season still to go it can still very likely end with those three on top again, only two points behind Sevilla and five behind Real Madrid. 

Atletico Madrid has had what can only be described as a mediocre start to the season. Honestly, they should be in a deeper hole than they are already in. Their defense has saved the day as they have given up the least amount of goals in all of La Liga so far, 11 goals in 18 matches. We just talked about Sevilla’s offensive troubles… well Atletico is doing even worse. In the top thirteen clubs, Atletico Madrid has the second least amount of goals scored, only scoring 20 so far on the season. Every game has been a nailbiter as they currently have just as many draws as they do wins (eight). They have a chance to move up into the top three depending on what happens with Sevilla during the transfer market, but there are multiple clubs behind them that can push them out of the top four in which we would not be seeing them in next year’s Champions League.

Like Sevilla though, the winter transfer window can be the difference-maker, but unlike Sevilla, Atletico Madrid is on the buyers’ side of the market. Some of the big names on Atletico’s list they are going after; Krzysztof Piatek, Edinson Cavani, and Cedric Bakambu, all of which fit the needs of the club perfectly.

Atletico Madrid plays next on January 4th against Levante in league play. Then check out their tough matchup against the reigning Champions League winners, Liverpool. Atletico plays the first leg against Liverpool on February 18th in the round of 16 of the Champions League.

Real Sociedad (5th Place, 31 Points)

Sociedad has only had one cup qualifying finish in the last five years when they finished sixth in 2017. Last year Sociedad finished in ninth but has been playing exceptionally well so far, unlike the last two teams talked about Sociedad has been reliant on their offense over their defense, with the third most goals scored this season but the most goals given up out of the top six.

Martin Odegaard has been a godsend for the Sociedad club while he is on loan from Real Madrid. Odegaard has been very flexible for Sociedad playing central midfield, attacking midfield, and the winger position while scoring four goals and five assists for the Spanish club. His play at Sociedad has caught the attention of Real Madrid who will most likely recall him from his loan this summer, in which they will need to either need to pay 3.4 million euros or replace him with another footballer such as Takefusa Kubo.

On top of Odegaard, they have benefited from the offensive play of forwards Willian Jose and Mikel Oyarzabel who each have seven goals scored on the season. It will be tough for Real Sociedad to move up or even just maintain their top-six finish, they will need to keep producing goals at a higher rate than expected as well as fix their backline and its vulnerability to counterattacks, finding a way to give up fewer goals.

Real Sociedad matches next against Villarreal on January 5th.

Getafe CF (6th Place, 30 Points)

After being promoted up from the second division, Getafe has been rising their way up the table placing eighth and fifth in the past two years respectively. Getafe is now in sixth place only one point out of fifth and two away from fourth. Going forward Getafe will show their true colors with matches against clubs at the top of the table back to back to back, along with a strong Europa League competition.

Getafe has no shiny young star players or special strategic gameplan that makes them stand out from the rest, they just play solid soccer and their statistics show it, sixth in goals for and fifth in goals against, placing them exactly in the position they are in right now. Two players to keep an eye on for Getafe are goaltender David Soria who has six clean sheets on the season, as well as forward Angel Rodriguez who is tied for fourth in La Liga with eight goals so far on the season.

Getafe CF comes back from winter break to face off against Real Madrid on January 4th. Then on February 20th, they take on a tough matchup against last year’s surprise team in the Champions League Ajax, who lost in the group stage this year and will be playing in the round of 32 of the Europa League.

Who Else Can Contend?

Outside of the top six I only see one club making a move to shake things up, and that club is Valencia CF. Valencia is currently in eighth place with 28 points, behind Athletic Bilbao. Athletic Bilbao is tied for the second least goals against but is the only club in the top 13 who has not scored at least 20 goals. With the winter transfer window opening up, Bilbao is expected to lose star defender Unai Nunez in rumors of interest from multiple clubs such as Manchester City and West Ham, who already agreed to pay the release clause for the player, with that I do not see them making a run forward and falling behind Valencia early on.

Valencia CF has placed fourth in La Liga three of the last five years, right now being in eighth is somewhat of a shock to a club that has been playing top-notch in international play. Currently, in the round of 16 of the Champions League where they are favorite to win their matchup against Italian club Atalanta in February, they may not be heading back to the Champions League next year if they cannot step up their domestic league play. The captain and vice-captain Daniel Parejo and Rodrigo are holding up the offensive front for Valencia, as a buyer during this transfer market, they need to look for someone to assist in this fight. Elbar is their first opponent of the new year on January 4th and Atalanta will be their opponent in February as they try to advance through the Champions League.

Fear of Relegation

After last season Osasuna, Granada, and RCD Mallorca were all promoted up into the top Spanish division of soccer La Liga. Granada and Osasuna are in the middle of the table, six points away from the number six spot and ten points ahead of relegation. RCD Mallorca though is one point out of relegation currently and in jeopardy of being relegated back down.

Currently in the relegation position is Celta Vigo, Leganes, and Espanyol. At the bottom of the table is Espanyol who only has ten points on the season. This comes at a shock being that they placed seventh last year in La Liga and are currently in the round of 32 in the Europa League. Celta Vigo and Leganes have very similar numbers so far on the season. Offensively Vigo is leaning on one-man, Iago Aspas, who has half of the club’s goals, whereas Leganes is more well rounded with multiple forwards that have four or more goals on the season. It’s a four-team race at the bottom, and I wouldn’t count Elbar out of the running yet as well, all of these clubs must find a way to step up their game and rise out of the place of relegation.

League Leaders

Messi, Benzema, and Suarez are the top three goal scorers in La Liga and barring injury they will most likely end as the top three as well. There are a dozen though within three goals of Suarez though looking to make their mark and propel their clubs up in the standings.

Unai Simon of Athletic Bilbao is statistically the best goalkeeper in La Liga going into the winter break. Simon is tied with Jan Oblak for most clean sheets in the league, as well as the leading goalkeeper in save percentage saving 83.1% of shots on goal. Levante is currently in ninth place and it is mainly due to their goalkeeper Aitor Fernandez who leads the league with 78 saves due to a league-leading 106 shots on goal against him, even with a defense giving him no help the goalkeeper has the third-best save percentage in the league and is the reason Levante has a chance to jump into the top six.

Raul Albiol is one of the best defenders in the league as of late, with 92 total clearances on the season for Villarreal CF which leads the league. Casemiro of Real Madrid may be the highest-rated defender though in La Liga this season. Casemiro leads the league in tackles per game as well as interceptions per game at 3.8 and 2.2 respectively.

Predictions for the New Year

Atletico Madrid will make at least one big signing within the next few days that will impact their La Liga run, the top three of La Liga will end the same as they have with Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid, it may not stay in that order but I believe that it will and Barcelona will take their third La Liga title in a row. As for the number four spot, Sevilla can hold it off but if they lose some of their big names to the transfer market it may be tough to hold off Getafe or even a run from Valencia who should not be counted out of reclaiming a top-four spot. The two of those three aforementioned clubs that do not take the fourth spot will most likely take five and six, knocking off Real Sociedad out of their cup qualification placement.

RCD Mallorca will fall into a relegation position and head back down next season, but which of the current three in that position will rise up and hold onto a spot in La Liga for the next season? Celta Vigo barely squeaked by last year and I do not believe they will do so again, so that leaves Leganes and Espanyol, one of which will just edge out the bottom three this season and keep their spot in La Liga? Based on recent play, Leganes will be the one left standing, there is a chance for both though as I wouldn’t count out a fall off from Elbar who is only five points out of the relegated bottom three.

Tune in to start of the second half of the La Liga season starting January 3rd with Valladolid vs Leganes.

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