LaLiga Season 2020-21: just two points cover Atlético, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona

Real Madrid’s victory in El Clásico and Atlético Madrid’s draw mean it’s so tight at the top of the standings, with just eight rounds to go to determine who’ll be champion. Sevilla FC, fourth ranked, also joined the race for the title 

The 2020/21 LaLiga Santander title race is red hot. There are just eight matchdays remaining until the end of the season and the fight to take the title is so tightly contested. Atlético Madrid (67 points), Real Madrid (66) and FC Barcelona (65) lead the way at the summit and there are just two points between first and third. Sevilla FC are also making a case to join the race with their tally of 61 points. Teams are battling to their limits every matchday and anything can happen from here to the end of the season. The fanbases and the players are feeling the tension and passion of these final matches in what has been a spectacular LaLiga Santander campaign.  

The results of the most recent matchday, with Real Madrid winning El Clásico 2-1 and with Atlético drawing 1-1 with Real Betis, are the latest example of how open and exciting this season has been.  

The situation, with so many candidates for the title so late in the season, is practically unparalleled when looking at the last few Spanish football seasons. However, it’s also unique when comparing this Spanish season with the other major leagues across Europe. In England’s Premier League, Manchester City have been in control for some time and are 11 points ahead of Manchester United, who are themselves seven above third-placed Leicester City. In the Bundesliga in Germany, Bayern Munich are on their way to a ninth title in a row as they hold a five-point advantage over RB Leipzig. In Italy’s Serie A, meanwhile, Inter are on the verge of knocking off Juventus after their nine consecutive titles as they have 11 points more than second-placed AC Milan and 12 more than the Old Lady. Only in Ligue 1 in France is the title race tighter, although Lille do have a three-point lead over PSG with just six rounds remaining. No other top league, therefore, can boast the excitement and competitiveness that there has been in LaLiga Santander this term.  

There are still many blockbuster matches to take place in Spain’s top flight over the final eight matchdays, fixtures that will have fans around the world glued to their screens to see who will become champion of Spain. Athletic vs Atlético, Atlético vs Real Sociedad, Athletic vs Real Madrid, Real Madrid vs Villarreal CF, Valencia CF vs FC Barcelona and Villarreal CF vs FC Barcelona are all still to come, in addition to what will be an epic Super Matchday 35. That weekend, the top four will face off among each other, with FC Barcelona vs Atlético and Real Madrid vs Sevilla FC.  

This situation, with so much equality, is a sign of the constant evolution that has been taking place in LaLiga Santander over the past few years, where competitiveness has become one of the identifying traits of the competition. The distance between all of the teams isn’t as large as it used to be, as there aren’t massive thrashings or league champions who manage to reach 100 points. Instead, every team is capable of beating every other team at any point of the season. This is the result of the more equal distribution of prize money and clubs’ financial stability, two initiatives that LaLiga has been behind for several years now through the league’s economic control initiatives and the centralised sale of audiovisual rights. The CIES Football Observatory recently published a study that had LaLiga Santander as the most competitive of Europe’s top five leagues and this is clear to see. Thanks to this, fans will be able to really enjoy the final eight rounds of action.  

Excitement in the race for Europe and the relegation battle  

The competitiveness of LaLiga Santander isn’t just at the very top of the standings, but it’s something that is present throughout the table. For example, in the contest to make it into the last two European qualification spots, Real Sociedad (47 points), Real Betis (47) and Villarreal CF (46) are so evenly matched, with just one point from fifth to seventh.  

Equally, when it comes to the tussle at the bottom as teams aim to stay outside the last three positions to avoid relegation to LaLiga SmartBank, it looks like there are going to be six teams in this fight. They are Getafe CF (30 points), SD Huesca (27), Real Valladolid (27), Elche CF (26), Deportivo Alavés (24) and SD Eibar (23), with just seven points between 15th and 20th.  

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The European semi-finals have a Spanish presence for the 16th year in a row

Real Madrid and Villarreal CF have qualified for the Champions League and Europa League semi-finals respectively. 

The business end of the European football season has arrived, with fans looking forward to the Champions League and Europa League semi-finals. These fixtures will take place in the final week of April and first week of May and they’ll feature Spanish clubs once again given that Real Madrid have made the Champions League’s final four and Villarreal CF have done so in the Europa League.  

This means that there will be at least one LaLiga Santander club in a European semi-final for the 16th season in a row. Not since 2004/05 has there been no Spanish representative in either the Champions League or Europa League – or, previously, the UEFA Cup – semis.  

Since then, the number of Spanish sides taking part in UEFA competition this late in the season has been three teams in 2005/06, three in 2006/07, one in 2007/08, one in 2008/09, two in 2009/10, three in 2010/11, five in 2011/12, two in 2012/13, four in 2013/14, three in 2014/15, four in 2015/16, three in 2016/17, two in 2017/18, two in 2018/19, one in 2019/20 and now two in 2020/21. 

This level of consistency is unmatched when looking at clubs from other nations. The Bundesliga has no semi-final representative in either competition this very season, for example. Then, the last time there was no club from Serie A or from Ligue 1 in either the Champions League semi-finals or Europa League semi-finals was 2018/19. The last time it happened for the Premier League was 2014/15. In other words, the other four major European leagues have been on the outside looking in at the semi-finals of both UEFA’s main competitions much more recently than when it last happened for LaLiga Santander back in 2004/05.   

There has been variety too, as there are 10 different Spanish clubs who have played a UEFA semi-final since that 2004/05 season, namely Real Madrid, Villarreal CF, FC Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Sevilla FC, Valencia CF, RC Celta Vigo, Athletic Club, RCD Espanyol and CA Osasuna. 

It’s not just that Spanish clubs have frequently reached the final four, as they’ve often gone on to turn their runs into silverware. LaLiga Santander was recently crowned as the world’s strongest league for the 2011 to 2020 decade by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS), based on the fact that, over those 10 years, the Champions League was won by a LaLiga Santander side on six occasions and the Europa League was also won by a team from Spain six times. 

This year, Real Madrid will be aiming to achieve further success in the Champions League. Already they have lifted a record 13 European Cups, four of them in the past decade, and they will meet Chelsea in the semi-finals after overcoming another English opponent in the form of Liverpool in the quarter-finals. With Zinedine Zidane having won the Champions League once as a player, once as an assistant coach and three times as head coach, he certainly knows what it takes, as do his players.  

Villarreal CF, meanwhile, will be looking to reach their first ever European final as they take on Arsenal in the Europa League semis. They have reached four continental semi-finals before, one in the Champions League and three in the UEFA Cup or Europa League, but they’ve fallen at this hurdle each time. Now, though, they have a three-time Europa League winning coach in Unai Emery and he is hoping to make history with the Yellow Submarine, which would mean knocking out his former club as he was Arsenal boss between 2018 and 2019. That promises to be an enthralling tie as well.  

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Eight top-flight fixtures on one Super Sunday!

Just eight rounds of the LaLiga Santander season remain and it could hardly be tighter at the top of the table, with Atlético Madrid on 67 points, Real Madrid on 66, FC Barcelona on 65 and Sevilla FC on 61. The drama will continue this weekend, with Matchday 33 having been brought forward and with eight fixtures taking place on a very intense Sunday April 18th. Not all LaLiga Santander teams will play this weekend, due to Saturday night’s Copa del Rey final between Athletic Club and FC Barcelona, but Spanish football fans are in for a treat on this action-packed Sunday.  

There are four different time slots of matches on Sunday and, in the first at 14:00 CEST, CA Osasuna will take on Elche CF at the same time as Real Sociedad meet Sevilla FC. While CA Osasuna have moved towards mid-table safety, Elche CF have slipped back into the relegation zone and need every point they can muster. Then, in Real Sociedad vs Sevilla FC, this is a battle between the team currently fifth and the team currently fourth. If La Real have any hope of making the Andalusian side sweat over their Champions League status then they need to collect all three points.  

At 16:15 CEST there are two more matches and they have immense implications for the title race and the relegation battle. Leaders Atlético Madrid will welcome bottom-placed SD Eibar to the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, where they have drawn twice and lost once from three visits. Atleti have been struggling with injuries of late and have just one victory from their past four league matches, so need a positive result against the Basque side.  

Just one point above SD Eibar are Deportivo Alavés, who this weekend’s host 16th placed SD Huesca, a team only three points away. It really is tight at the bottom and that makes this a crucial six-pointer, one that Deportivo Alavés will hope their new coach Javi Calleja can win.  

Both matches in Sunday’s 18:30 CEST time slot take place in Andalusia, as Real Betis host Valencia CF for a fixture that has been a lot of fun in recent years. Not only have there been last-minute winners and great goals, but there have been 27 total goals over their past nine meetings for an average of three per game.  

Meanwhile, Cádiz CF take on RC Celta Vigo at home and will be looking for revenge for the 4-0 thrashing they suffered when they visited Galicia earlier in the season. Now, it’s Celta Vigo’s turn to make the trip to the other side of the country and they do so after finishing on the losing side in a 4-3 Monday night thriller against Sevilla FC.  

The last two of the eight Sunday fixtures are being held at 21:00 CEST and Getafe CF vs Real Madrid really stands out given its importance in the title race. Real Madrid are in great form as they’ve won their past four in LaLiga Santander, including last weekend’s ElClásico. Now they make the short trip to Getafe CF, but they’ll do so with some fatigue after their midweek trip to Anfield and they’ll do so with several players out due to suspension and injury. It won’t be easy against the Azulones, who have already taken points off Atlético Madrid and off FC Barcelona at the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez in 2020/21.  

Also at 21:00 CEST, there is a derby match in the Valencian Community between Levante UD and Villarreal CF. This should be a very interesting watch between two teams who know each other well and two teams who play attacking football. Villarreal CF got the better of their regional neighbours earlier this season in LaLiga Santander, but Levante UD gained revenge by knocking the Yellow Submarine out of the Copa del Rey. It’ll be fascinating to see who wins the battle this time around.  

The other two fixtures of Matchday 33 are Athletic Club vs Real Valladolid and FC Barcelona vs Granada CF, but these will take place later in the season due to the two home teams’ participation in the Copa del Rey final. With eight fixtures in the same day, though, there will still be more than enough drama and excitement in Spain’s top division this weekend.  

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LaLiga rising star Ronald Araujo

Barcelona’s new young centre-back Ronald Araujo did not even start out thinking he would be a defender – but the tall and confident Uruguayan has settled superbly well into the blaugrana back line this season. 

Araujo’s great physical presence, impressive reading of the game, power in the air and speed across the ground have brought back memories of former Barça captain Carles Puyol. In fact, Araujo has said that growing up as a kid in Uruguay, Puyol was one of his heroes. 

Born in the northern Uruguayan city of Rivera, Araujo moved to the country’s capital of Montevideo as a teenager to further his chances of a professional career, first playing for Club Atletico Rentistas, then in 2017 joining top flight club Boston River.  

In summer 2019 he came to the Catalan capital, initially to play for the Barca’s youth team in Spain’s third tier. By then Araujo was already captain of Uruguay’s under-20 side, and his fellow countryman Luis Suarez was on hand to help him settle into life in his new city. 

Until 17 years old he had played as a forward for his youth teams, something he also shares with Puyol, who was a winger growing up. Araujo’s nose for goal was shown as he scored six times in his 42 games for Barcelona B, while also getting introduced to the defensive systems and patterns of play used by all teams within the La Masia structure. 

Unfortunate to be shown a red card just minutes into his LaLiga Santander debut against Sevilla in October 2019, Araujo’s first start in the competition came after last year’s COVID-19 lockdown, when coach Quique Setien started him in a 4-0 victory at RCD Mallorca in mid-July.  

3-02 Granada CF-FC Barcelona correspondiente al partido de ida de los cuartos de final de la Copa de SM El Rey disputado en el Estadio Nuevo los Carmenes. En la imagen

Injuries to senior centre-backs Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti opened up further opportunities as the 2020-21 campaign has progressed, and Araujo has improved rapidly to become a firm fan favourite already. His physical gifts and anticipation mean he is very rarely dribbled past. In interviews with the local press, he has joked that since he faces Barça captain Lionel Messi every day in training, opposition forwards are not such a big test! His past as a striker was recalled when he scored his first LaLiga Santander goal with an acrobatic strike against Valencia last December, which was voted ahead of some special Messi efforts as Barça’s official goal of the month.  

A quiet character and devout Christian, Araujo is a fan of traditional ‘cumbia’ music and plays the keyboards and organ. He has been eager to soak up all the learning experiences he can this season and spends some of his free time watching videos prepared by Koeman and his staff which show areas of his game to improve. A particular objective has been to improve his passing out from the back – such an important element for any blaugrana defender whether they play a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 tactical shape. 

An unfortunate ankle injury picked up in February put a temporary brake on Araujo’s progress, but he has since returned to fitness and strong form and was picked by Koeman to start his first career LaLiga ElClasico in this month’s dramatic visit to Real Madrid. 

It is still early yet to say whether Araujo can emulate his hero Puyol by winning six LaLiga titles, or even his coach Koeman’s tally of four. However, the Uruguayan has already established himself as a key member of Barça’s defence, and undoubtedly as one of the most promising LaLiga rising stars of the moment. 

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Levante and Villarreal: two clubs with youth traditions

When discussing the nurturing of footballing talent, it’s worth taking a look at Valencian football. The region in the east of Spain is one where people live and breathe football and have done for as long as can be remembered, and while Valencia may be the most well-known side from the region, Levante UD and Villarreal CF are two clubs with a long-standing tradition and, crucially, a thriving youth development porgramme.  

As the two prepare to face off in a local LaLiga Santander derby this Sunday at 9pm CET, let’s take a look at just how successful they’ve been in developing the stars of tomorrow.  

Villarreal CF’s indisputable backing of youth 

Villarreal boast one of the best youth academies in Spanish and European football, bringing through the likes of Santi Cazorla and Bruno Soriano. Soriano recently hung up his boots, leaving homegrown centre-back Pau Torres, one of the most in-demand defenders in the world, to pick up the baton for the Villarreal academy graduates.  

Right now, there are eight homegrown players in the Villarreal first team in addition to Torres. They have promising players like Yeremi Pino, Fer Niño, Samuel Chukwueze as well as already-established ones such as Alfonso Pedraza, Manu Trigueros and Moi Gómez. Add in Gerard Moreno, the top Spanish scorer in LaLiga Santander this season and a veteran of the club’s youth team set-up, and you’ve got an undeniable recipe for success. In the past, the likes of Héctor Font, César Arzo and Xisco Nadal were given opportunities there too, which goes to show that a good youth development plan can be the base for one of the most solid projects in LaLiga Santander.  

The sporting complex at Villarreal (opened in 2002, but constantly evolving) is at the heart of all the Yellow Submarine’s activities and is a reference for the world of football. The facilities extend across 80,000 square metres, and boast nine football pitches, sporting equipment for all needs, a residency for around one hundred youth teamers and club offices. What this means is that all areas of the club are together in the same space, supporting each other constantly. There’s even a space for a travel agency at the complex. There’s also a second sporting complex, called the Ciudad Deportivo Pamesa, that is used by CD Roda, a relevant local club that has a collaboration agreement with Villarreal. By backing youth football so thoroughly and decisively, Villarreal have recently enjoyed successes such as winning the juvenil level Copa de Campeones (2015) and the juvenil level Copa del Rey (2019).  

Levante UD envy nobody 

They also know what they’re doing at Levante. The Granotas are yet another Valencian Community club to have backed youth coaching and to have made this a fundamental pillar of their project. They have a success story in the form of José Luis Morales, the current captain and top scorer of the first team. Others are coming through, though, such as goalkeeper Dani Cárdenas, who earned nationwide praise this season for his excellent performance against Atlético de Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. This season, Georgian youth graduate Giorgi Kochorashvili has also made his debut, doing so in December against Real Betis and even playing all 90 minutes of a senior Copa del Rey match at Portugalete. 

Perhaps, though, the clearest link between the Levante first team and their academy is seen through their coach Paco López. He was promoted to his current role after previously coaching the B team and he has now cemented his status as a club icon with the Granotas’ senior side by making them one of the toughest teams in all of LaLiga Santander.  

There are various Levante academy graduates, meanwhile, who have gone on to star at other clubs in LaLiga Santander such as the now-retired Juanfran García, Sergio Ballesteros and current Villarreal midfielder Vicente Iborra.  

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Iago Aspas “Born To Score”

A native of Moaña, a small town just cross the bay from RC Celta’s home city of Vigo, Aspas is perennially one of LaLiga Santander’s most prolific goal scorers and has this season participated in 22 of his team’s goals.   

Iago Aspas has, as always, been a fixture in the team coached by Eduardo Coudet this season. He has started 26 games, picking up 2,277 minutes, and hasn’t disappointed. He has scored 12 goals and has participated in another ten with assists.  

Of his 12 goals to date, he’s scored braces on two occasions. The first of them, on matchday two against Valencia CF at ABANCA Balaídos, handed his side the three points. The second brace came just this month in a dramatic 4-3 loss to Sevilla FC, his heroics coming up just short in the search for the win. Aspas is actually the player with most all-time braces for the club in LaLiga Santander, with 23.  

Aspas has also provided two assists in a single game twice this season, on Matchday 13 vs Cadiz CF and then again against D. Alaves on Matchday 29. Coincidentally, he also scored in both games. Talk about an all-round contribution! 

Not just a goal scorer, Aspas lays chances on a plate for his teammates. He takes players on, he recovers possession, and is daring. The top scorer and top assist provider for Celta this season, he’s also the team’s top dribbler, with 53 take-ons and the player with the most shots on goal. And, on top of that, he’s almost ever-present. Just three players have played more minutes than him this season.   

Playing for Celta was Iago’s childhood dream, growing up in the heart of the Ria de Vigo, the bay which surround the city on Spain’s north-western coast. He made his Celta debut in the 2007/08 season, coming off the bench to score twice and instantly endearing himself to the fans. Fast forward over a decade, and he’s an institution at the club.   

He has character, and he fights for what he wants. He has won 122 LaLiga matches and has regained 94 possessions. In addition, he combines well with teammates, making 967 passes with an impressive 75% success rate. 

Aspas is known as the ‘Magician of Moaña.’ He’s the boy who dreamed of wearing the Celta shirt and who made it. With eight matchdays of the season left, don’t rule out more Aspas-inspired fireworks in Vigo! 

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