LaLiga: Why next month will define both Real Madrid and Barcelona's seasons

Andrew Gaffney

The most competitive LaLiga in recent times?

It’s been a strange season over in Spain as the added competition has seen so many teams swap places in the battle for the title, the Champions League and Europa League places as well as the fight to avoid the drop. Every side has dropped points and that has seen the pressure cranked up on them. Admittedly some have dealt with it better than others.

Real Madrid lead the way, and have done for the majority of the season, but Barcelona and Sevilla have also had brief stays at the top. It’s usually only because they’ve played a game or two more than those around them but either way it’s proven to be exciting. Even when Los Blancos’ long unbeaten streak came to an end they hadn’t really pulled away from the chasing pack.

Atletico Madrid are well off the pace when it comes to challenging for the title but you must admire their intention to find a ‘Plan B’, or a new ‘Plan A’. It didn’t work out as intended but since Christmas they’ve returned to that tough-to-break down, lethal on the counterattack style and it’s served them well. It now appears as that fourth place is theirs to lose, which wasn’t the case a couple of months ago, and they’ll probably be confident of overtaking Sevilla for that automatic Champions League place too.

Real Sociedad, Villarreal, Athletic Club and perhaps Eibar can all still dream of playing in Europe next season but La Real will no doubt rue missed chances as they could – and perhaps should – have been dreaming of making the Champions League instead. It’s important they remain focused however as there’s only a four-point gap back to 7th-placed Athletic, nor can you really rule out Eibar seeing as they love to upset the odds.

In the relegation fight a few teams have found form in the past month or two and escaped the pressure cooker down at the bottom but there’s no doubt now that Osasuna will be relegated. Granada and Sporting Gijon look set to join them but as Valencia, Real Betis and Deportivo de La Coruña have shown it only takes a good run of results to appear safe. Leganes, Malaga and the aforementioned Deportivo won’t be counting their chickens just yet.

Title race hots up in April, no easy games

No doubt the most important battle for neutrals and casual viewers, not ignoring fans of either side of course, will be that to determine the winners of LaLiga. Barcelona produced a fine comeback against PSG which many felt would spur them on to greater success in the league but a loss to struggling Deportivo followed by a sloppy victory over 10-man Valencia has seen questions asked of this team once again.

The loss against Deportivo handed the initiative back to rivals Real Madrid who sit two points ahead with a game in hand. It still feels a little strange to consider Madrid favourites when for large parts of the season, despite very good results, they’ve looked far from unbeatable. Following three tough matches against Valencia, Villarreal and Las Palmas where they only picked up four points they’ve since won three on the bounce and hold all the cards.

Next month will prove to be pivotal in deciding where the title goes and not just because it includes the second El Clasico of the season. Real Madrid face Copa del Rey finalists Alaves first, who we all know are capable of causing a surprise or two. They also have fixtures against sides fighting for their lives which won’t be easy. Leganes, Sporting Gijon and Deportivo are all likely to have a lot to play for and can’t be underestimated. Madrid also welcome Atletico Madrid to the Bernabeu, the last team to beat them at home in the league, they also face Valencia who we all know up their game against the bigger teams.

Barcelona only have one fixture against a side with literally nothing to play for [Osasuna] but otherwise also have a potentially tricky run of games. Sevilla visit the Camp Nou, looking to respond after a drop in form, perhaps aided by an international break for their key men to recharge their batteries. Granada, Malaga and and Espanyol will all prove to be testing away trips while a home game against Real Sociedad, despite a very good record against Eusebio’s team, won’t be easy either.

You need to factor in the Champions League ties into that month as well. For Real Madrid they host Atletico before facing Bayern Munich, with Sporting Gijon sandwiched in between, they then host Bayern and Barca in El Clasico.

Barcelona have it equally as tough in that period as the Real Sociedad game comes between the two matches against Juventus, then they travel to the Bernabeu to face Real Madrid.

Squad depth key as rotations will be needed

Rotations will be needed and when Luis Enrique has opted for that second string, it’s often failed to get the job done. If he sticks with his first choice team then there’s a danger of them running out of steam which happened at this same stage last season. Or instead of wholesale changes maybe he’ll need to keep certain members in the team whilst giving others, who struggle with fitness, a rest whenever possible. It’s a fine balancing act but this is why coaches at the highest level earn huge salaries.

For Real Madrid they’ll be much of the same issues. Zidane will need to rotate his team as well, although he’s generally got better results from his back up brigade than Luis Enrique has his, but with all members of the BBC available it’ll be interesting to see when he decides to give one or two of those a rest – if at all. In previous campaigns the general impression was that Europe was the priority. This season, maybe, it’s the league. Can Zidane afford to play anything but his first choice side against Bayern though?

Ironically if Barcelona had gone out of Europe against PSG then they would probably be favourites for the league title. Success is a double-edged sword and should one – but potentially both – go out and the other remain, it’d add in another two big matches for next month. Although I can’t see either side throwing away a chance of European glory to focus on the league, regardless of where their priorities might lie.

One coach will be hailed as ‘king’, the other dubbed a ‘fraud’

It’s a huge moment for Zidane as he looks to prove he’s the real deal as opposed to simply a calming voice amongst a dressing room of egos. To win a league title this season can’t be dismissed as lucky or carrying on from the work left by his predecessor. This would be entirely of his own doing and should he walk away with either the Champions League again, or Madrid’s first LaLiga title in five years, his legacy will be secured. To win neither though and his position would quickly come under question. We all know how trigger happy Florentino can be. Surely not, no? After Carlo Ancelotti, I wouldn’t rule out anything.

Luis Enrique’s situation is completely different but don’t underestimate his desire to leave with as many titles as possible, if only to stick a finger up at those who doubt him and his achievements. It’s about squeezing the maximum out of the squad at his disposal and leaving on a high which is what he deserves. Similar to Zidane, to finish without either of the main trophies – a potential Copa del Rey alone isn’t really enough – would leave him open to criticism. The decision of whether to stay or go has already been made for Luis Enrique though.

I think it’s safe to say that whoever finishes April in first place in the league is a huge favourite to claim the title – and they’ll have earned it, considering the respective fixture lists.

May the best team win.

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