Real Madrid head into critical weekend if 'hay Liga' hopes remain
"Hay Liga" is a phrase wheeled out a few times a year by the Spanish press when a set of results on any given weekend opens up the fresh possibility that a team seemingly running away with the league leadership are pegged back. It translates along the lines of "the title race is on."
Hay Liga this season, but not one currently involving Real Madrid. The early pace has been set by Barcelona and Valencia, who sit in first and second on 34 and 30 points, respectively. Zinedine Zidane's side are a full 10 points adrift of the eternal rival and being kept company by Atletico, who although one of only three unbeaten teams have been cast into the role of also-rans on the back of six draws from 12 games.
Barca's Ernesto Valverde and Los Che boss Marcelino have fashioned free-scoring sides who have knocked in 33 and 32 already this season, double figures more than Madrid who have managed just 11 at home and 11 away. They also meet this weekend in Mestalla, where Barca face their stiffest test of the campaign. Against an under-par Atletico, Barca dropped points for the only time yet in 2017-18. A Sevilla side failing to match the standard set last season -- at least until Tuesday evening when Eduardo Berizzo's poignant half-time speech spurred an equally heartfelt revival from his players against Liverpool -- were seen off 2-1 at Camp Nou before the international break.
The pro-Madrid press noted sombrely when Zidane's side slipped eight points shy of Barcelona that no side in Liga history had ever overturned a deficit of that size to claim the title. Many have come close, not least Zidane in his debut half-season in 2015-16, when he chased down a 12-point Barca lead in the final 10 games of the campaign to leapfrog Atletico and come within a point of the eventual champions' 91.
That run included Real beating Barca 2-1 in the Camp Nou Clasico in week 31 with Valencia repeating that score line two fixtures later on the same turf. Hay Liga front pages abounded.
If Marcelino can mastermind victory in Mestalla on Sunday, they will be dusted off anew. Eight points may have never been made up in La Liga, but the gap will be seven if Real see off Malaga at the Bernabeu, an altogether simpler assignment, at least on paper.
Both Barcelona and Real will not assume to go unbeaten all season after this weekend: La Liga is more competitive than it is given credit for and in any case, they still have to play each other twice. One Real victory and hay Liga. One Barca triumph and the opposite will be true. "Exabrupto" is not a word you'll often see in the sports tabloids, but knees jerk as willingly among headline writers in Spain as anywhere else.
It also worth remembering that the head-to-head system means a crushing Clasico victory is essentially worth an extra point: Had Zidane won his debut showpiece 3-0 in Camp Nou and pulled level in the course of that run-in, he'd still have fallen short courtesy of Barca riding roughshod over his predecessor Rafa Benitez in the Bernabeu.
In 2006-07 it worked the other way. Real and Barca finished level on 76 points but despite Barca's superior goal difference of plus-19, Raul's third-minute strike in the Bernabeu was the only one that mattered.
As yet, Valencia remain an unknown quantity. Marcelino enjoys a deserved reputation as one of La Liga's craftiest tacticians but a lack of squad depth and growing interest in some of his high-flying young players at a selling club could yet derail his side's early season promise. In the short-term, Valencia are quite capable of inflicting a first defeat of the season on Barcelona and handing Zidane a timely boost.
The Real boss received a more tangible one this week with news that Gareth Bale, Mateo Kovacic and Keylor Navas will return to full training Thursday, giving Zidane's squad an all-too-rare full bill of health. With tough games against Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla on the horizon before a Club World Cup jaunt and the Christmas Clasico, the Frenchman's mantra that he needs all of his players has never rung so true.
But before Madrid can get too far ahead of themselves, the collective performance in the 6-0 drubbing of Apoel has to be transferred back to La Liga. Former Real midfielder Michel is still in a job courtesy of two wins in three, but Malaga's away form is appalling: six defeats and no goals scored. With a day separating the Bernabeu and Mestalla fixtures, Madrid can move to within seven points of Barcelona before Valverde's side take to the pitch in Valencia. If the gap remains the same on Monday morning, hay Liga, with Zidane's side back in the equation. Another slip-up at home combined with a Barca win and the bold print will be merciless.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.