Barca, Real renew title rivalry as Spanish League set to return - GulfToday

Barca, Real renew title rivalry as Spanish League set to return


Lionel Messi trained again on Monday to give Barcelona a massive boost ahead of their Spanish League return against Mallorca on Saturday. File / Reuters

Barcelona and Real Madrid resume one of the tightest title races in recent memory when La Liga kicks back into action this week in empty stadiums, after a three-month pause due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Just before the season was postponed on March 10, former Real great Jorge Valdano had likened the two teams’ inconsistent form to a race between two limping men, but both sides are set to be refreshed and stronger after the long break.

Lionel Messi trained again with his team-mates on Monday to give Barcelona a massive boost ahead of their La Liga return against Mallorca on Saturday.

Messi has been suffering from tightness in his right thigh and had not trained fully since last Tuesday. He sat out sessions on Wednesday and Friday before working alone at Camp Nou on Saturday.

But Barcelona said in a statement their captain has re-joined “the rest of the team in the week of the return to competition in the Spanish league”.

Barca are also boosted by the return of Luis Suarez from a knee injury that looked set to rule him out for the season, and his aggression and power should help them ease their problems in breaking down sides.

Real will again enjoy the services of Eden Hazard after he was sidelined with a fractured ankle in February. Also back is Spain forward Marcos Asensio, who should ease the burden on Karim Benzema, their runaway leading scorer with 14 strikes.

Barca, targeting a third consecutive Spanish title, led Real by two points when the season was postponed.

Emptiest stadium:  “I’ve missed this place,” Lionel Messi said after stepping onto the Camp Nou grass for the first time in three months but when Barcelona return to action he knows it will not be the same.

Instead, La Liga’s frenzied title race will take another step into the unknown as Barca run out into the biggest and now emptiest stadium in Europe after Real Madrid switch to a different home altogether.

Two points separate Spain’s greatest rivals ahead of the return to top-flight games on Thursday, when the derby between Sevilla and Real Betis will end a 93-day hiatus and launch a five-week sprint to the finish.

When games were suspended on March 12, Real had handed first place back to Barcelona, just after beating them at the Santiago Bernabeu, a seemingly significant shift in momentum that lasted exactly a week.

Given the many frailties of the two teams, few could predict who will emerge the stronger from the final 11 games of the season but a fresh factor will be who adapts better to strange surroundings.  

Instead of their 81,000-capacity stadium in the city-centre, under renovation this summer, Real will play at the 6,000-seater Alfredo di Stefano Stadium, usually the home of the club’s reserve and under-18 teams, at their training ground in the northern suburbs.

Barcelona, meanwhile, will trade the advantage of Europe’s largest home crowd for the challenge of its most empty arena, where the absence of fans will, in numerical terms at least, feel starker than anywhere else.

For Zidane, the setting is familiar because he led Madrid’s reserve side, Castilla, for 28 games there before taking charge of the first team. He even made his last appearance there in a Real Madrid shirt, to open the stadium in 2006.

Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Casemiro, Fede Valverde, Vinicius Junior, Lucas Vazquez and Rodrygo all came through the ranks playing on the Alfredo di Stefano grass.

Yet six home games against Eibar, Valencia, Mallorca, Getafe, Alaves and Villarreal offer no guarantees and, unlike Barcelona’s opponents, those teams will not even feel an historic anxiety.

For them, the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium might feel more like a neutral venue.

“Personally, I would prefer to play at the Bernabeu,” said Ramos.

Agence France-Presse

Related articles