Barcelona and Atletico Madrid grab wins while Zinedine Zidane took risks
Five thoughts from the midweek round of action as Real Madrid rotated and won, while Barcelona and Atletico Madrid look in ominous form ahead of huge games to come.
1. Madrid squad depth came to the fore
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane made nine changes to his starting XI for Wednesday's visit to suburban neighbours Leganes, resting many big names including Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale amid a heavy fixture list on two fronts.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly when Madrid were 3-0 up after 22 minutes thanks to a Marco Asensio run and James Rodriguez finish, and neatly taken Alvaro Morata double. But on a huge night for their club, Leganes shocked everyone by getting it back to 3-2 by half-time with Brazilian pair Gabriel Jesus and Luciano Nieves netting.
Morata's goal early in the second half gave Madrid more breathing space, and they saw out the game to remain two points clear of Barcelona at the top, with a game in hand.
Afterwards Zidane denied he had taken too big a risk -- "For you it might seem brave, but for me it is normal," the Frenchman said. "I have a very good squad." It is hard to argue with that sentiment -- especially given the outstanding performance from Marco Asensio in a very rare La Liga start on the left wing.
The 21-year-old already looks a more effective and dynamic player than either James Rodriguez or Isco, and if he jumps up the pecking order could well make a difference in looming clashes with Atletico Madrid, Barca and Bayern Munich.
2. Barca attack looking ominous
Barcelona smoothly despatched Sevilla on Wednesday evening at the Camp Nou -- with Luis Enrique's side purring into a 3-0 lead with three goals in eight minutes midway through the first half. The quality of the goals was as impressive as their quantity -- Luis Suarez scored a superb bicycle kick and Lionel Messi two pinpoint finishes after excellent team moves.
Nothing much happened in the second half, but the game had already been decided by a Barca team playing very, very well. Things appear to have clicked back into place following their historic Champions League comeback against Paris Saint-Germain last month.
Their MSN front line were all firing, Ivan Rakitic looked back to his athletic best and Andres Iniesta has been picking up match sharpness. It all looked very familiar to around this time in the 2014-15 season, although there is still a long way to go before another Treble.
Meanwhile all has changed too at Sevilla -- who have now not won any of last six in La Liga -- and what had looked like secure Champions League qualification is suddenly appearing under threat.
3. Atletico have sealed up at the back again
The result was never in doubt once Filipe Luis had put Atletico Madrid 1-0 up at home to Real Sociedad on Tuesday night. Fernando Torres, Yannick Carrasco and Angel Correa all missed chances to add to that lead, but there was no feeling inside the stadium that an injury-hit La Real would ever come back into it.
Atletico now conceded just one goal in their last six games all comps -- and that was at 3-0 up vs. Sevilla. There is a stark contrast to the previous six outings, when they conceded nine times and looked far from their old selves. But just as the business end of the season has arrived they have refound their old solidity and they look more than ready for Real Madrid on Saturday and then Leicester in the Champions League.
The Calderon was rocking near the end on Tuesday night, with Simeone off the bench gesturing to the crowd to make more noise. "We've been playing much better, a much more balanced team, more consistent in our play," the Argentine said at the postmatch news conference. "What our kids are doing is still extraordinary, we were nine points below Sevilla, and the team kept working, just looking forward. Now we will see about what is left."
4. Very Basque flavour to the Europa League race
It still all looks very tight in the Europa League spots -- with three Basque teams in the running just behind Villarreal, who are now fifth on 51 points after their 1-0 win at Real Betis on Tuesday, secured with Adrian Lopez's first goal for the club following his arrival on loan from Porto in January.
Athletic Bilbao look the in-form team of the bunch, after two Aritz Aduriz goals gave them a 2-0 win over Espanyol at San Mames on Tuesday night. Four wins from their last five games have Los Leones up to sixth on 50 points, and looking the most likely to catch Sevilla (58) should they continue to freefall.
Real Sociedad's defeat at the Calderon means they have taken only one point from the last 12, and they remain on 49, but are now seventh. Surprise package Eibar are also well in the mix, and can move to 47 points should they win at home to a woefully out of form Las Palmas on Thursday evening.
5. Sandro settles Malaga nerves
Malaga went to Sporting Gijon on Wednesday evening really, really needing a win. Already onto their third coach of the season in ex-Madrid legend and Sevilla coach Michel, they had not won any of their last 18 games in any competition, all the way back to November.
But the return to fitness of Boquerones top scorer Sandro Ramirez was well timed, and the former Barcelona youngster gave his side the lead late in the first half at Sporting Gijon. Malaga goalkeeper Carlos Kameni then made some crucial saves to secure a win which puts them now eight points clear of Sporting, who remain in 18th spot and still very likely to go down.
Elsewhere in the drop zone Granada got a point in a 0-0 draw at Deportivo La Coruna, and Osasuna only a second win of the season by winning 1-0 at neighbours Alaves. But both are still doomed barring a huge turnaround over the last eight games.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan