Welcome back to La Liga!
The best part of the international break, aside from your team of choice possibly qualifying for a tournament, is that Barcelona’s players did not suffer any injuries or setbacks (save for Neymar, which seems minor at worst). This is going to be a truncated version of the Liga preview, as silly things like work and family eat up the amount of time it takes to cover each match and squad in-depth. We’ll give priority to the biggest teams and best matchups. Let's get started.
(All times BST)
Levante vs. Sevilla (Friday, 11 September 2015, 19:30)
Sevilla will look to rebound from a big 0-3 home loss against Atletico Madrid in Jornada 2. It will likely shake their confidence a bit, but the season is young, Sevilla are still juggling injuries, and Atletico’s win was not as comprehensive as it looked on paper.
Levante has scored all of one goal so far this season, drawing 0-0 to Las Palmas in the last round of matches. Simao, given a straight red in the defeat to Celta, will miss this match. Due to this, they will likely stick with the 3-5-2 lineup for this match. A lot of hope will be placed on Deyverson and Ghilas to link up as the attacking duo.
Sevilla still has several injury woes, particularly in the defense, as news came out that center back Adil Rami will be out for about 6 weeks. Krychowiak will likely have to do his best impression of a central defender with Krohn-Dehli taking his place in midfield. Steven N’Zonzi will be back from suspension to help out.
While Sevilla is obviously a better team than Levante, both have struggled early on in the year, with each only holding one point to their name. Levante has only scored once so far, but Sevilla has not scored at all. I don’t want to attribute it all to Carlos Bacca leaving, especially with the small sample size, but it seems the lack of finishing ability is hampering the team. Sevilla has gotten off the second most shots in La Liga, though a low rate of those shots are on target. They are only behind Madrid and Barcelona for key passes, so service has been there. Some combination of Llorente, Gameiro, and Immobile will have to figure it out. Reyes and Vitolo will be expected to be wide playmakers, but there is a lot of promise for Konoplyanka, too, so I expect Sevilla to figure it out eventually.
I’m going to pick Sevilla again based on their talent, hope that the defensive injuries don’t turn into more problems, and belief that the forwards will figure it out this week.
Espanyol v. Real Madrid (Saturday, 12 September 2015, 15:00)
After a dreary 0-0 draw against Gijon in the opener, Madrid stormed back with five goals against Real Betis, and get to take another dip in the minnow pond against Espanyol. Playing two newly promoted clubs and then a middling mid-table squad means that all of the pressure will be on Madrid. They obliged with some pretty play against Betis, who had given up well before the game ended. Ronaldo’s goal drought continued, though he did produce otherwise, and James provided a couple of golazos. Bale was also very effective from the 10 and looks energized for a better season. It can be said that Betis’ defense was shambolic, but Madrid’s movement in the final third was key to breaking their shape.
Meanwhile, Espanyol has had a solid start to the season despite losing away to Villareal (no shame there), however they rank near last in shots and key passes, so they’ve yet to be much of a threat going forward. This does not bode well for them against a club like Madrid, but at the least very few of their players were on international break and they should be fresh for the challenge. Loanees Burgui and Asensio will not be available as their loan agreements stipulate that they cannot play against parent club Real Madrid. They will likely play a very compact 4-4-2 and will do their best not to lose shape as Kroos and Modric try to drag them around the pitch.
Madrid should have a similar lineup to last match, except Danilo and James are definitely out after some knocks received in the international friendlies. Carjaval is a more than capable backup for RB, but it will be seen if Isco or Kovavcic will play. Regardless, Bale will be in the 10 spot again, where he and Rafa seem to prefer. Otherwise, Benzema should be back to full fitness, which is good news for Madrid as he seems to be the cog that allows freedom of movement between the playmakers and wingers with his excellent hold up play.
Although playing away to a very well rested squad, Madrid will likely dominate this match and grab the points. Espanyol doesn’t really look a threat to score and Los Blancos will be looking to build off their last win.
Sporting Gijón vs. Valencia (Saturday, 12 September, 17:15)
Gijon will be on the minds of Barcelona fans keen to follow loanee Alen Halilovic. Otherwise, Valencia will look to overwhelm the small Asturian club. Gijon have started well, drawing with Madrid and Real Sociedad, so they haven’t lost, which is great, but they haven’t scored a single goal either, which is bad. Valencia have also been rather grim, with a 0-0 draw with Rayo and a 1-1 draw with Deportivo, two clubs they would normally be expected to beat.
The season is early, but these are the types of matches where Valencia would have liked to earn points. It is disconcerting for fans of Los Che, as well, because their main issue last year was not scoring enough goals, which so far seems unchanged. They are still searching for the answer at center forward, and it seems the more experienced Negredo will get the nod over the younger Alcacer. Fortunately, their backline is still strong, led by Mustafi and flanked by Gaya and Cancelo. New signing and former Monaco player Aymen Abdennour will join the back line and should immediately help. Unfortunately, talented keeper Diego Alves is injured, as is his backup. That means third choice Yoel is slated to go.
Bernardo and Luis Hernandez will likely return, bolstering the Gijon backline. Most interesting for Cules will be whether or not Halilovic earns a start, but he’s had solid competition from Carlos Carmona. Another former Barca prospect, Tony Sanabria, should get a chance to lead the attack. Otherwise, this match could absolutely end as a 0-0 draw. I don’t see Gijon being able to break down Valencia (maybe a Halilovic golazo?), but Valencia’s attack has been so anemic that it may not matter.
Atlético Madrid v. Barcelona (Saturday, 12 September, 19:30)
This is without a doubt the most exciting matchup in the early season, as we will be treated to two world-class clubs who both intend on winning La Liga this year.
Atletico is still under the radar compared to Real Madrid and Barcelona, but many pundits are picking them as Liga winners this season. This is due in no small part to their retention of key players like Koke and Griezmann (who other teams were interested in), as well as returning players like Correa and Oliver, and some excellent summer signings. On paper it all looks great, but we will have to wait and see where it goes. They’ve started off the season well, gaining all six points, though their 1-0 win at home over Las Palmas was not very convincing at all given their opponents had not played in La Liga for about ten years. Beating Sevilla away 0-3 is quite impressive in theory, but the score line was definitely flattering and Sevilla have not looked as good as they can be so far this season. Regardless, this will definitely be a very challenging match for the Blaugrana.
As much as Atletico are flattered by their win at Sevilla, Barcelona were better than the disappointing 1-0 against Malaga, which had more to do with the officiating and a great performance by Malaga ‘keeper Kameni then Barca's deficiencies. Still, there are some obvious causes for concern. The squad does still look a little sluggish coming off the summer break, travel, huge amount of games, etc. More concerning is the injury and suspension list which now stands at Dani Alves, Douglas, and Claudio Bravo, for sure, and possibly Sergi Roberto (which essentially leaves Bartra as the best suited to play the position). Pique’s appeal was upheld and he will miss the match, though his press conference regarding that issue will go down as one of his best off the field moments as a Cule. On the other hand, Vermaelen has been excellent this season in place of Pique, ter Stegen is still very good, and Sergi looks like he will probably make the game. Much like Ronaldo, Messi will be keen to get on the score sheet.
Atletico will likely lineup as they have so far this season, though they will likely miss Tiago to injury. Otherwise, the great defense will be there, Koke and Oliver will be playing wide midfield very well, and Griezmann will be his usual, terrifying self. Torres has gotten the nod over Jackson Martinez so far, but I think the Columbian striker will take the spot this time out. Martinez is a great presser for a forward, something he showed when Porto shockingly dismantled Bayern in the first leg of their UCL tie. Simeone often uses a forward to harass Busquets, which I could see Martinez being tasked to do in the same way he overwhelmed Xabi Alonso in that UCL match. It’s a strategy, however, that Barcelona will be expecting (and Busi is quite better than Xabi at this point, especially physically).
We have a pretty good idea how this matchup will play out, and I’m sure some individual piece of skill or a set piece goal will win it, but it should be very tight and tense throughout. It will be one of the toughest games Barca plays all year, even when not considering the early season issues, but I think they will be able to grab a draw at the Vincente Calderon, no small feat.
Real Betis v. Real Sociedad (Saturday, 21:00)
Granada v. Villareal (Sunday 11:00)
Athletic Club v. Getafe (Sunday, 15:00)
Celta Vigo v. Las Palmas (Sunday 17:15)
Malaga v. Eibar (Sunday 19:30)
Visca El Barca! Visca L’Espectacle!