La Liga Preview Matchday 18: Spanish football returns after winter hiatus

La Liga

After a short break for the festive season, Spanish football returns this weekend and there’s plenty to look forward to in the remainder of the season. Whilst Barcelona are running away with the title, there’s still plenty to be decided.

The battle for European football, particularly in the hunt for Europa League places, is wide open and the fight to avoid relegation to the Segunda involves a vast amount of teams- many of whom wouldn’t have expected to find themselves in this position.

We’re also heading into a transfer period that’s likely to be busy and could see the likes of Diego Costa and Ousmane Dembele feature for the first time in the coming weeks, having sealed their transfers in the summer but missing out due to a Atletico’s transfer ban and injury respectively.

Atletico Madrid v Getafe (Saturday, 12:00 GMT)

Following a surprise loss to Espanyol before Christmas, Atletico Madrid missed the chance to potentially claw themselves into the La Liga title race and Diego Simeone’s side saw their unbeaten run of 16 matches in the league this season come to an end.

They’ll be favourites here but Getafe are one of the many sides who have hopes of making the Europa League next season and a victory for them would lift them up to seventh. Atletico have dropped a lot of points this season, particularly with draws, so it may be closer than many would think.

Valencia v Girona (Saturday, 15:15 GMT)

After a stellar start to the campaign, where Valencia were Barcelona’s closest competitors for a while, the club have seen things drop significantly in the past month. Two consecutive losses prior to the mid-season break mean Valencia are just three points ahead of Real Madrid- who still have a game in hand.

La Liga newcomers Girona, meanwhile, are punching above their weight. Entering this game sat in mid-table, the minnows have an eight-point advantage over the relegation zone. Inconsistency has been their downfall this season though and it’s difficult to see anything other than a home win.

Las Palmas v Eibar (Saturday, 17:30 GMT)

Rooted to the bottom of the league, Las Palmas are four points from safety before a ball has been kicked this weekend and face a difficult challenge against an Eibar side who have stunned many this season, entering this match in seventh spot.

The Canary Islands side face an extremely difficult run over the coming weeks, with games against Girona, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao right around the corner before a crucial clash with Malaga. They need to ensure they’re within touching distance of their relegation rivals by the time that game comes around and they need to take points here.

Sevilla v Real Betis (Saturday, 19:45 GMT)

Likely set for a head-to-head showdown with Valencia for the final Champions League spot, Sevilla have work to do to reduce the gap on their top-four rivals as they return to action five points behind- and that could be extended to eight points before Saturday night’s game.

Real Betis’ position shows just how wide open the La Liga table is though as they enter this match sat 14th in the table, six points off the relegation spots and just three points behind seventh-placed Eibar. That means there’s a lot to play for in this weekend’s Seville derby and it’s difficult to call.

Leganes v Real Sociedad (Sunday, 11:30 GMT)

Two sides who find themselves in the mid-table positions, still in the hunt for Europa League football, the showdown between Leganes and Real Sociedad on Sunday morning will be a stern test for both- and a win for either side would hand their European aspirations a big boost.

Sociedad, sat ninth, have a two-point advantage over 12th placed Leganes and can give themselves some breathing room with a win. For the hosts, a defeat would see them slip behind and could lead to them looking over their shoulder as they’re just six points above the relegation zone.

Barcelona v Levante (Sunday, 15:15 GMT)

La Liga’s runaway leaders will be expected to continue their dominance this weekend and extend their unbeaten run in the league to 18 matches on Sunday afternoon, when they host a Levante side who are just three points from safety.

An expected defeat for the visitors risks dragging them into the relegation battle further, as Alaves and Deportivo below them could pull level on points later in the afternoon if they win their respective games. Unfortunately, it’s likely they won’t bolster their standing this weekend.

Athletic Bilbao v Alaves (Sunday, 17:30 GMT)

After a slow start to the season, Athletic Bilbao have started to turn things around by advancing in the Europa League and rising to 12th in the table. Now just three points behind seventh place, the Basque side will hope to spark a run of form that puts them back in the hunt for European football next season.

Alaves, meanwhile, are in real danger. Currently above the relegation zone on only goal difference and three points behind Levante ahead of them, they need to get points on the board swiftly. A crucial win before Christmas over relegation rivals Malaga has provided a boost but there’s still work to do.

Villarreal v Deportivo (Sunday, 17:30 GMT)

Currently sixth, Villarreal will hope to pull themselves into a battle for a top-four spot in the second-half of the season and the hosting of relegation threatened Deportivo this weekend is the perfect opportunity for the Yellow Submarines to make a statement.

They can expect a fight though from a Deportivo side who currently sit in the bottom three, trailing Alaves on goal difference, and three points behind Levante. With the latter club facing Barcelona this weekend, it’s chance for the visitors to spark their revival charge but it won’t be an easy game.

Celta Vigo v Real Madrid (Sunday, 19:45 GMT)

After a slow start to the season, Real Madrid have no room to slip as their position in the top-four isn’t yet secured- though they do still have a game in hand. A trip to Vigo should give them the opportunity for a victory but Zinedine Zidane’s side have been unpredictable this season.

Celta Vigo, meanwhile, will hope for a victory that will bolster their position in the race for Europa League football and will look to make a statement of intent. Currently sat 11th, a win would see them rise up the table whereas a loss, which is expected, could leave them just three points above the relegation spots if results elsewhere go against them.

Malaga v Espanyol (Monday, 20:00 GMT)

The final clash of the La Liga week sees relegation threatened Malaga host an Espanyol side who risk being sucked into the battle at the drop. Heading into the game, the hosts trail their opponents by nine points and a defeat here would provide a huge blow.

Victory, however, could be the start of a revival on the Costa Del Sol. Espanyol secured a crucial victory before Christmas though by bringing an end to Atletico Madrid’s unbeaten run and a win for them would provide a crucial cushion above the relegation zone.