As another round of matches awaits La Liga fans in matchday 32, let’s delve into it with its best games and players to watch.
A day after Betis closed the 31st matchday in La Liga, their arch-nemesis Sevilla open number 32 and excitement will set foot, again, in La Liga. As we edge closer than ever to the final sprint for the title, European places and relegation places, it will be nice to see the players’ reactions at this stressful period. Without further ado, let’s get into the three most exciting games of the weekend.
Celta de Vigo vs Barcelona
Saturday 27th of June
Barcelona are second in the league and want to retain their crown for the third year in a row. However, against Celta de Vigo, it won’t be easy. The Catalans haven’t won in their last five meetings in Galicia and will have to reverse the curse for once if they want to stay competitive in the league. Celta have found form for the first time in a while, with a thumping 6–0 win at Balaídos on Sunday and seeing off Real Sociedad at Anoeta on Wednesday.
With the connections some of the Celta players have with Barça, such as Denis Suárez, Rafinha Alântara, Jeison Murillo and Nolito, it will be pleasant to see familiar faces in the opposition’s line-up. And let’s not forget, before last week, Celta were one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league and wins against two out-of-form sides do not mean that they can rest on their laurels.
Barcelona have to improve from their last outing, and the imminent transfer of Arthur Melo to Juventus means Riqui Puig will see more game time, especially when the kid had a great game against Athletic Club. Iván Rakitić will surely deserve a place in the eleven too after his game-winning goal on Tuesday and with Sergio Busquets suspended.
Villarreal vs Valencia
Sunday 28th of June
After hosting and drawing against Sevilla in midweek, Villarreal have another tough opponent at home in Valencia. The Yellow Submarine is in fine form, and they deserved to win in midweek after leading twice. Valencia come off a poor run of form, with one win out of five in the league. The two sides are chasing Europe and can’t afford to lose points at this point of the season.
More than a thousand days after his last game, Bruno Soriano re-appeared with Villarreal against Sevilla | Photo by David Aliaga via Imago
Villarreal, the more in-form side, have a slight advantage going into the game and will try to utilise their power to the maximum. Everyone affiliated with Spanish football will scrutinise Bruno Soriano’s second game since a three-year injury as well as Santi Cazorla replicating his magic against an equally fierce adversary.
Valencia should be up for the fight and will try and offer their best to win finally and get into the European places as they will be hoping for yet another slip-up from Real Sociedad. For Valencia, the likes of Dani Parejo, Rodrigo Moreno and Gonçalo Guedes will have the spotlight on them as they will need to pull off an excellent performance to win.
Espanyol vs Real Madrid
Sunday 28th of June
The title race hots up at Cornellà, as leaders Real Madrid visit the worst team in the league. Espanyol are in lousy form, and Madrid have had a banging return from lockdown, winning every game, even the hardest ones. At the RCDE Stadium, they will need to win to stay in the driving seat for the next matchday, at least. On the other hand, the Periquitos have to win to stay in the fight against relegation. After the wins of Eibar and Celta in midweek, Espanyol are in a precarious position and look like going down.
Real Madrid beat Espanyol by 2–0 in the reverse fixture of this La Liga season | Photo by Imago
For Madrid, Vinícius Júnior will have to perform at the outstanding level he usually does, and the team will be raring to go to keep their advantage on Barça. Also, this game will be open as Espanyol do try to play at times, and Madrid play with confidence right now.
What are the possible outcomes for Barça?
As mentioned, Barcelona have to win if they want to stay competitive. Nevertheless, if they draw at Balaídos and Madrid lose, they will be first. If they win and Madrid slip-up, they will be first. If Madrid win, they will finish the matchday in the second position of the table regardless of their own result. If they match Los Blancos‘ result, they are also second.
Players to watch
After some extraordinary midweek performances, it’s time for the stars to replicate their form. For Barça, the two main talking points will be Riqui Puig and Iván Rakitić, as their performances against Athletic were superb. For Atlético de Madrid, original defensive midfielder Marcos Llorente is inexplicably carrying the attack, and he will terrify Deportivo Alavés on the weekend.
Real Madrid’s Vinícius is another hot topic right now, and his form has been insane lately. Celta’s Iago Aspas will also have to do as well as last week to beat the holders. Sergio Canales will have to continue to play at this impressive level for Betis for a long time and, hopefully for La Liga fans, he does against Levante in matchday 32.
Detailed Analysis: Elche CF 0-2 FC Barcelona
Coming into this match, Barcelona were in good form statistically with only one loss and two draws in the last 12 games. Elche, a team with a sub-par record to say the least against Barcelona, had only two wins in the last 10 games. Barcelona were the favourites, but despite this, the performance wasn’t without hiccups for the Catalans.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 4-3-3 as expected. The game plan remained the same as always; maintaining possession, attacking consistently, and playing a game that emphasized passing and hence, bringing out the best in a team that was technically much superior to the opposition was the philosophy. The full-backs were key to this. Jordi Alba and Oscar Mingueza would regularly move up the field.
To facilitate this, Sergio Busquets would stay back on the attack, and a very high defensive line was employed. The wingers would stay wide, with Antoine Griezmann down the middle. The Frenchman would be seen dropping back to even out the numbers in midfield, while linking-up the play.
When building up, Busquets would often drop back to receive the ball. Considering Elche’s system, playing centrally was a problem. Hence, the ball would often be passed to the wings. The alternative included a staggering of midfield. Staggering is especially effective when the players are marked very tightly by the opposition.
Here, we have an example of the same. As the ball is with Samuel Umtiti, the Elche midfielder would appropriately step forward and prevent the centre-back from progressing with the ball. This would create a small window of opportunity when another midfielder would be moving to mark Pedri, seen in the circle on the far side, and space would be formed between the defensive lines. Frenkie De Jong is closer to Busquets as we see, which complemented his dynamic ball-progression. However, both interiors would regularly try to get into the box as seen in the 4-3-3 employed by Koeman this season, which led to both of Barcelona’s goals.
Jorge Almiron’s Elche side lined up in a 4-5-1. Their aim was to defend with organization, prevent Barcelona from finding space centrally, and attack through quick combinations and long-balls. The four-man defence was the core of Elche’s setup. As we see in the image below, the team was in a well defined 4-5-1. Lucas Boye, the sole striker, would look to press Barcelona’s defenders depending on who had the ball. However, with a major numerical superiority in the build-up phase, the Catalans had few problems getting the ball to midfield.
Another aspect of the team that we can see from the image above is the structure of the midfield line. Victor Rodriguez and Ivan Marcone are man-marking Frenkie De Jong and Sergio Busquets here. The middle-three of the five midfielders had an important job. Depending on Barcelona’s players, they would have to change the player they were marking while making sure not to give space through central areas.
When building up from the back, Elche would have one player very close to the goalkeeper. The central-defenders would stay in the box with the full-backs occupying the field higher up as the image below shows us. The midfield would completely split during this phase. Firstly, Marcone would drop back into defence. Secondly, the wide-midfielders, Emiliano Rigoni and Josan would move further up the field and look to occupy Barcelona’s full-backs. Raul Guti and Victor Rodriguez would be the two players remaining in midfield as we see here.
Almiron’s side should theoretically have done much better in progressing the ball. Once the ball was launched over to the full-backs, they would form triangles on either side with the wide-midfielders up the field, and the central midfielders laterally. The problem was of technical quality. Many times, the intention behind the combinational play was admirable, but the execution would go haywire.
When Elche had the ball, Barcelona would immediately counter-press. Due to this, there were times when Elche lost the ball in Barcelona’s half with many players committed forward. Following this, Barcelona would find a lot of space to progress. As we see in the image below, Barcelona have just won possession in their own half. Elche have five players in the opposition’s half, and Barcelona have five, including Busquets, ready to attack. This was a recurring theme.
The problem with this was Elche’s full-backs failing to fall back in time. As we can see, Ousmane Dembele is completely free to make a run behind the defence. Though organized when without the ball, Elche’s defensive line was chaotic when caught on the counter. This led to Barcelona getting many chances on the counter. However, a combination of individual errors from Barcelona’s players and Elche’s willingness to absorb pressure, the Catalans lacked the final, decisive pass.
In the image below, we see another important aspect of Elche’s game plan. They would always look to force Barcelona wide and attempt nullifying the threat. Forcing a technically astute side to play down the wings can often be a good way to cope with them, but Elche failed to be solid enough in defence as both the goals showed.
Barcelona look to be finding their rhythm, after a slow start to the season. This victory was a step in the right direction for the Catalans, while Miguel Almiron’s side was a model example of a team’s technical limitations hindering the tactics. Elche have much work to do as this matchup clearly reinforced. However, this matchup could have easily gone the other way if not for a great save by Ter Stegen to keep Barcelona 0-1 up. Either way, an important three points, and a crucial first goal for Riqui Puig.
The Blaugrana are on their way to becoming greater than the sum of their parts but are yet to prove themselves against stronger opposition.