Finally, La Liga returns! With the long wait finally over, it is worth noting which games will be the most fun to watch in matchday 28 of La Liga.
The wait has been long enough. Nobody could survive life without football anymore. Worse, nobody could maintain life without La Liga anymore. This league means so much more than a few balls kicked around a pitch. Every game, twenty-two devoted actors search for a spectacle of incredibly aesthetic football. Entertainment is the main focus of every player in Spain. It comes from their hunger to play football the right way.
Of course, not every team plays slow and methodical tiki-taka, but even the ones who play a more wild game usually entertain and maintain incredible defensive stats. No team in La Liga has conceded more than 50 goals. Germany, on the other hand, has nine teams who have conceded this outstanding amount of goals. Football in Spain is balanced. Only a few squads play truly uninspiring football, and the others often steamroll the defensive coaches.
Getafe, for instance, are seen as a dirty team that plays football for results and not beauty, but who could blame them when three years ago they were in the Second Division? Today, José Bordalás’ side is applauded for its style and will to fight all around Spain, and their tie against Ajax in the Europa League was a real yin and yang fight that they topped.
All these mixes of styles make a league where anybody can beat anybody. Whether it is Granada stunning the champions Barcelona at home or Real Betis ending a poor run of form with a 2–1 victory against Madrid, La Liga teams are some of the fiercest in the whole world. With its return, we are in for a treat as virtually every day; there will be a significant and exciting game. These are the few games earmarked for greatness in the 28th matchday in La Liga beginning this Thursday.
Sevilla vs Real Betis | Thursday 11th of June
El Derbi Sevillano is more often than not the highlight of a matchday. It’s usually the late Sunday kickoff, and there is always some kind of action. Fantastic goals, thrilling games and legendary players are often the outcomes of this past La Liga game. The usual electric intensity of this game makes the fan roar, no matter the venue because both the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán and the Benito Villamarín are two of the most beautiful stadiums in Spain.
Lucas Ocampos, one of Sevilla’s standout performers this term, already scored in the 1–2 win at the Benito Villamarín in the Seville Derby from earlier this season | Photo by Cristina Quicler / AFP via Getty Images
Unfortunately, the fans won’t be able to travel for this majestic encounter. However, La Liga fans could not have asked a better matchup to begin with. Sevilla is on course to qualify for Europe, and winning this game would do a world of good to their qualification bid. The Sevillans have had a great campaign under Julen Lopetegui and will want to consolidate their third place.
On the other hand, Betis still have an outside shot at Europe and winning a Sevilla derby to propel themselves to Europe will add extra incentive to this special day. With veterans of the Spanish game such as Joaquín and Jesús Navas in both sides, La Liga supporters will have no complaints with this opening post-pandemic clash.
Valencia vs Levante | Friday 12th of June
Another day, another derby. Sure, the Valencia derby isn’t as pleasing as the Derbi Sevillano, but this game will be exciting for anxious football fans. La Liga’s mid-table is so compact that teams in European places are only separated from the bottom half of the table squads by a few points. Levante have had an indifferent season, but they could stun more than one as they demonstrated against Real Madrid. José Luis Morales is the player to watch for Levante.
It’s time for the silent derbies | Photo by UEFA – Handout via Getty Images
Valencia’s season isn’t as exciting as their last, and the bats are languishing in seventh place and are out of both the Champions League and their Copa del Rey, only a year after Marcelino’s side beat Barça in the Cup final. Marcelino now jobless, Albert Celades tried to steady the sinking ship but couldn’t. Still, they are only five points away from third place and will want to secure a Champions League spot. Beating Levante could save their season and maybe give confidence to some players. A game to watch as the two teams will battle it out from the first minute.
Celta de Vigo vs Villarreal | Saturday 13th of June
The Celta de Vigo vs Villarreal is perhaps the game with the most meaning for both sides. On the one hand, Celta have had another grim campaign. The Galicians are in a precarious position as even Iago Aspas seems powerless in their bid to stay up after carrying them last year. Struggling to get points, they have to beat the Yellow Submarine to give themselves some breathing room.
Javi Calleja’s side is in a healthier position but wants to get to Europe this term. Four points behind Valencia, they have to win at Balaídos to dream about it, though. Some key performers will have to be on their best form for both teams to wish for something. First, Rubén Blanco will have to carry his pre-quarantine form to keep a clean sheet against dangerous forwards like Gerard Moreno. Santi Cazorla will back Gerard Moreno as his revival has been a breath of fresh air for La Liga purists.
Also, without Balaídos’ afouteza, Iago Aspas will have to elevate his teammates more than ever before. This match will be more about individuals than squads, but it is a six-pointer for both sides.
Mallorca vs Barcelona | Saturday 13th of June
Probably the least exciting of the five fixtures for neutral fans, but undoubtedly one that implies many impressive outcomes. RCD Mallorca are only a point behind Celta in La Liga and find themselves in the red zone. Los Bermellones suffered a damaging 5–2 loss at the Camp Nou in October and will look to make amends with their past demons.
For Barcelona, however, it’s game time. The wait is over. After Quique Setién took over in January, the team had little to play together and suffered some bad losses such as in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals to Athletic Club or in El Clásico back in March. They find themselves at the top of the table with a two-point difference over Real Madrid and have a nearly fully-fit squad. It’s fair to say the break has benefitted them a lot and having Luis Suárez back to full fitness is encouraging for them. Culés seek their third consecutive title and will look to strengthen their position in Mallorca.
Athletic Club vs Atlético de Madrid | Sunday 14th of June
Two historical Spanish sides for an exciting game, that’s what La Liga supporters love to see. Athletic Club’s season had been great at times but not perfect enough overall, but they could redeem themselves in the Copa del Rey. Without their lion in Aritz Aduriz, who had to retire due to a hip injury, the Lions will be eager to avenge the fallen giant. Lying at tenth position in the league, they still could make Europe and a win against Atleti could be a testament of their intents post-quarantine.
Eliminating Liverpool in the Champions League round of 32 has created a wave of optimism in Atlético de Madrid | Photo by Laurence Griffiths via Getty Images
Atlético de Madrid, on the other hand, are flying high. Los Rojiblancos come from an emphatic elimination of Liverpool in Europe before lockdown and want Champions League football next year. With them being a firm favourite for the Champions League title, they have two routes to qualify for the coveted competition. Nevertheless, they will undoubtedly want to win in Basque territory to beat the other Basque giants in Real Sociedad to fourth place.
Diego Simeone’s passion is enough to replace the fans, and his team will look to play an intense game, as always. Athletic Club is another defensive force in Spain and especially under Gaizka Garitano. They have faced the fewest shots in La Liga and lie third in Europe in terms of attempts faced in the meantime. Their defensive game is backed up with rapid counter-attacking beasts such as Iker Muniain and Iñaki Williams. In a game that will inevitably need some sparks, both the offensive prowess of Athletic and Atlético will produce a great game, and it will be superb to see El Cholo back in action.
Full schedule of matchday 28 in La Liga
Sevilla FC vs Real Betis | Thursday 11 June | 22:00 CET
Granada CF vs Getafe CF | Friday 12 June | 19:30 CET
Valencia CF vs Levante UD | Friday 12 June | 22:00 CET
RCD Espanyol vs Deportivo Alavés | Saturday 13 June | 14:00 CET
RC Celta de Vigo vs Villarreal CF | Saturday 13 June | 17:00 CET
CD Leganés vs Real Valladolid | Saturday 13 June | 19:30 CET
RCD Mallorca vs FC Barcelona | Saturday 13 June | 22:00 CET
Athletic Club de Bilbao vs Atlético de Madrid | Sunday 14 June | 14:00 CET
Real Madrid vs SD Eibar | Sunday 14 June | 19:30 CET
Real Sociedad vs CA Osasuna | Sunday 14 June | 22:00 CET
Ronald Koeman starts to find the pieces to Barça’s jigsaw
While the whole Europe has started or is approaching to start their respective national campaigns, Ronald Koeman is trying to find the right system to display his force as soon as the La Liga season starts for Barça in about a week. But with the Nàstic and Girona friendlies already on the Dutch manager’s stomach, has he already found the right men to do the job?
As Barcelona’s start of the season finally approach, after the team had more rest days due to the late Champions League ending, it is fair to underline how its newest manager, new coach Ronald Koeman is still trying to find the right notes to complete the symphony. A symphony that is yet to be completed and to be refined, but certainly one that has been quickly asserting the right tracks under its belly.
This year’s preseason has been an unknown for all professional sports out there, with many having to occur in faster, soarer training sessions than usual. While the fitness aspect of it all will probably be the main cause of differences this season, as fitness coaches had to reduce the workloads and increase speed sessions to keep the players fresh and ready, the managers’ job will be much harder in terms of creating the right harmony and cohesion in a short period of time. There is no enough time to practice the desired movements, tactical systems and other structural aspects of a team’s in-pitch organisation.
Barça, apart from an athletic routine that hasn’t much been under scrutiny in recent history due to the club’s different values, had a few more problems to cope with. Lionel Messi‘s transfer saga, the motion of no confidence against president Josep Maria Bartomeu, a new manager, a strange signings strategy – both in and out of the club –, and more. In all the chaos that Barcelona is right now, Koeman’s job has been much harder than what it could have been under normal circumstances. Still, the Dutchman is slowly finding his rhythm with the team.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona is taking shape | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
One of the biggest tactical unknowns of Koeman’s appointment was whether he was going to keep Barça’s vintage 4–3–3 system, or if he was going to change it in a 4–2–3–1, due to his own preferences and the team’s characteristics. After very much debating between fans and pundits, the first two friendlies of Barça’s short preseason gave the environment the answer it was looking for: 4–2–3–1.
While the tactical system is different from the culés‘ traditional one, Koeman’s mentality and footballing ideas are far from being the opposite of Barça’s. Offensive, intense and vertical football are a must for Barcelona’s expectations as much as Koeman’s interpretations. There is a perfect binomial conduction between the club and its new employee.
Football in preseason is as much a test for all the players in a team’s roaster as a training to keep the legs rolling and the lungs filling the air. So were the recent friendlies against Nàstic de Tarragona and Girona. As expected, Koeman literally played eleven different players per half in both games, with a few changes in the last one. And as the coach was varying things and changing the pieces of the puzzle, you could already see the ideas, the movements, the principles that he wanted to give to the team.
As many distressed fans have already noticed, the defence that suffered eight goals against Bayern Munich has not changed a bit. While it may seem discouraging for some, having such individual qualities at the back paired with some solid and correct defensive training may end up being the best signing Barça could do to improve its backline.
With Marc-André ter Stegen on its way back to recovery after surgery, Neto will be the only difference in Barcelona’s defence this season, with lack of competition from the bench arising. At least, as long as Manchester City keeps its firm stand on the Eric García situation and Sergiño Dest doesn’t move to the Camp Nou.
With a proven-to-be two-man midfield in Barça’s new squad, a Koeman favourite will certainly find his place game in, game out: Frenkie de Jong. As the same manager told upon his arrival, it is a shame to watch players like De Jong – and Antoine Griezmann – in unusual positions, as they will not perform at the levels they are expected to.
“The plan is to start playing Frenkie de Jong in the position that he plays with the national team as well. I remember attending a Barcelona game and I saw him play a position where I wouldn’t play him as a coach. You’ve spent a lot of money on a young player. You should then play him in his own position, where he can perform in a way you’d expect from him. He has shown at Ajax and with the Dutch national team which position suits him best and that is where he will be playing at Barcelona as well”Ronald Koeman
With De Jong‘s place not being threatened by anyone else except himself, it is expected from Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá to provide that support quality and solutions from the bench or, in some cases, to perform in an eventual three-man midfield, with Puig being hierarchically higher than the former Real Betis loanee.
Next to De Jong is a position that is going to be fought for the whole length of the season: Sergio Busquets’ intelligence or Miralem Pjanić‘s quality? With an ageing Busquets, it will be the first time in twelve years that his place will be under severe scrutiny by the club, as years go by and fresher legs come in place. But while the Bosnian’s quality will be very much needed throughout the entire season, Busquets’ tactical awareness is going to be a solid piece of refinery yet again.
Slowly approaching Barça’s biggest guns, it is no secret that the Catalan’s team offensive overbooking is going to keep several doors open throughout the whole season. Having the freedom of two players per position is a manager’s dream, but while it may be a benefit, it is also a challenge to keep the team balanced and the moods paced.
With the signings of two youngsters such as Francisco Trincão and Pedri, both incredibly bright against Nàstic and Girona, Barcelona’s wide game takes a big jump in terms of volume, youth and creativity. But with Luis Suárez’s mysterious future under supervision, the seniority of Barça’s main man upfront will take its advantage overall. At least initially.
“I liked Trincão positionally, sometimes coming inside and sometimes going outside. He has the quality and has to adapt to the speed and rhythm. He’s a great signing”Ronald Koeman, on Francisco Trincão after the 3–1 win over Nàstic last Saturday
Apart from Ansu Fati, who is already considered a senior throughout the whole footballing world, Messi and Antoine Griezmann seem to be Koeman’s main men for the central roles up top: as much as they will both exchange their positions, the Argentinian is destined to take the playmaking role, while the French World Cup winner will move around him and try to create spaces and finish chances for the team.
Besides Barça’s business, Philippe Coutinho is another player to have returned to the blaugrana headquarters. Full of determination, he will look to prove himself once and for all where he wanted to be ever since his Liverpool days. With similar motives to the Brazilian’s, but with different sources, Ousmane Dembélé is approaching the start of a defining season for him: either he proves to be world-class or he goes home. And with the explosion of Ansu Fati and the incredible talent he brings to the field, those three may feature in most of Barça’s games in this start of the season. Ansu Fati’s injury permitting, of course. However, Trincão and Pedri’s talents may change many’s minds, Koeman’s included.
“He [Pedri] is a great talent. He’s 17 and such an important signing for our future. He has trained with us and has the quality to play, so we’ll see how much he can take part”RONALD KOEMAN, AFTER beating NÀSTIC LAST SATURDAY
Ronald Koeman is slowly finding the pieces to solve this incredibly difficult puzzle that Barça appears to be. It is going to take more than just a few friendlies and a few good performances to overturn the season’s predictions around Barcelona’s offices. That is why players are tools for a team to perform. You can have better or worse ones. But the mentality and the identity of a team’s way of playing are principles much more important for a club’s success in the pitch.
It is no surprise that, perhaps, the most positive aspect of the new Barça’s performances over the course of the first two friendlies has not been a single player, a chance created or a defensive movement. Instead, it has been the intensity of the team’s ball movement mixed with those two, maximum three, touches per player.
The path to Barcelona’s native brilliance is long and hard, but having the right mindset to attack this jigsaw is the best strategy that the Dutch manager could employ. One idea, 4–2–3–1, eleven optimal choices and the highest intensity possible. Step by step, game after game, Koeman’s Barça will surface. With patience. And, as in microeconomics when supply meets demand, in football, when principles meet practicality, the puzzle is solved.