Tougher tests await for Madrid and Barca in race for La Liga
Real Madrid and Barcelona will have tougher tests to come but emphatic victories on their return to action at the weekend suggest there may not be much margin for error in what is left of La Liga's title race.
Leaders Barca hammered Real Mallorca 4-0 on Saturday before second-placed Madrid swept Eibar aside 3-1 a day later, having led 3-0 at the end of the first half, only to ease off in the second.
Both performances erased fears that had arisen during the three-month suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic, which saw La Liga go without competitive matches for 93 days.
Madrid looked comfortable in their new home at the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium -- part of their training complex -- while Lionel Messi looked fit, with no sign of the tightness in his thigh that was bothering him earlier this month.
Two assists, a goal and 90 minutes played suggested Barcelona's captain is in good shape.
"There were many uncertainties," said coach Quique Setien. "Nobody was clear what was going to happen. We had some bad touches but we will improve with more contact with the ball over time.
"Overcoming this match like this gives us confidence and momentum with the advantage we already had."
Mallorca and Eibar, sitting 18th and 16th respectively, were always going to represent relatively kind reintroductions for La Liga's title contenders.
Barcelona are at home on Tuesday to Leganes, who increasingly look the most likely side to finish bottom after they lost at home on Saturday to Real Valladolid.
But games away at Sevilla and home to Athletic Bilbao then follow, when perhaps the fitness and form of Setien's side will be better tested.
For Madrid, the challenge intensifies immediately with a home game on Thursday against Valencia, who can ill-afford another stumble after a draw with Levante on Friday left them four points adrift of the top four.
- Conditions favour top sides -
Yet the early indications are that without fans and with key players fit again, Barcelona and Real Madrid may be set for a more consistent finish to the season.
Without supporters at San Moix to rattle Barca or invigorate Mallorca, all that was left was for the superior technical ability and squad depth of the defending champions to prove decisive.
That will be the case again when they face Sevilla at the usually bouncing Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on Friday while Madrid will likewise avoid the roar of the crowd when they go to Bilbao's San Mames in a few weeks.
With five substitutions permitted, even when Eibar pulled a goal back in the second half, Real coach Zinedine Zidane was able instantly to bring on three players. By the end he had introduced Gareth Bale, Ferland Mendy, Eder Militao, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde.
The total cost of those five players was close to 250 million euros ($281m) while the five Eibar brought on were worth five million euros, three of them free transfers.
The cost of the 10 players Barcelona and Madrid brought on combined over the weekend was almost 400 million euros while Eibar and Mallorca's 10 cost just over seven million euros.
It means the conditions are more in favour of the top teams finding greater consistency over the remaining games and any mistakes that are made may also prove more costly.
"We know the situation is a bit strange," said Zidane, whose side are two points off top spot, on Sunday.
"But the players are all champions and they can adapt to the situation. We have to get our heads around it, which is what we're going to do until the end of the season."
Sevilla will try to strengthen their hold on third place by beating Levante on Monday. Getafe are at home to struggling Espanyol on Tuesday, Atletico Madrid visit Osasuna on Wednesday while on Thursday, Real Sociedad -- currently fourth -- travel to Alaves.
La Liga midweek fixtures (times GMT)
Levante v Sevilla (1730), Real Betis v Granada (2000)
Getafe v Espanyol, Villarreal v Mallorca (both 1730), Barcelona v Leganes (2000)
Eibar v Athletic Bilbao, Real Valladolid v Celta Vigo (both 1730), Osasuna v Atletico Madrid (2000)
Alaves v Real Sociedad (1730), Real Madrid v Valencia (2000)
© 2020 AFP