Atletico Madrid vs Villarreal among our picks from the La Liga weekend

With an action-packed weekend of La Liga football coming up, Colin Millar picks out three matches to keep an eye on.

After nine games have been played in La Liga, it will surprise very few people to see Barcelona in the top spot. Below that, though, things become a little more interesting. Rather than Real Madrid chasing hard at their heels in second place, Blaugrana’s closest challenger as things stand is blast-from-the-past Valencia who were the last team apart from Barcelona, Real and Atletico Madrid to win the highest division in Spanish football.

It is not just the small teams who are snubbing their noses at the received wisdom of La Liga football. Some of the bigger teams are struggling to hold their own in this new world order prompted by a more egalitarian division of the television revenues in Spain. Both Sevilla and Atletico Madrid have failed to arrive at the sorts of heights that their potential seemed to suggest they would.

All this has made La Liga more exciting than it has been for years. Colin Millar looks through the weekend’s fixtures and picks out three of the best for you to keep an eye on.

  1. 1 Atletico Madrid vs Villarreal

    Two of La Liga’s top six go head-to-head as Villarreal make their first trip to the Wanda Metropolitano in Saturday’s early evening kick-off. This fixture is particularly intriguing for two reasons: firstly, both suffered unexpected midweek stumbles against sides from Spain’s third tier. Wednesday night’s Copa del Rey action produced damning performances and results for each side. Villarreal crashed to a 1-0 defeat at Ponferradina – the first loss of manager Javier Calleja’s spell at the club – while Atletico were held to a 1-1 draw at Segunda B side Elche.

    Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the Yellow Submarine’s recent record in this fixture is astonishing. In the past six meetings between the sides, Diego Simeone’s team has managed just one goal and none in the last four. Villarreal’s last three trips to the Vicente Calderon (the stadium Atleti vacated this summer) saw two 1-0 victories and three clean sheets. Furthermore, the 3-0 victory they inflicted on Atletico in December was the last time the Madrid-side have suffered a domestic defeat away from home.

    Atletico sit fourth in the table and are only two points off second-placed Valencia. But whilst they are yet to taste a domestic defeat this season, only five wins from 13 in all competitions is a damning statistic. They will be desperate to return to form against a side who have a history of causing them problems.

  2. 2 Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona

    Ernesto Valverde returns to the San Mames for the first time after swapping Athletic Bilbao for Barcelona this summer. The 53-year-old admitted earlier this week that the game would be ‘emotional’ for him: after all, he spent 15 years with the Basque giants across his playing and coaching spells, which included two stints as manager.

    His new side are in a rich vein of form in terms of results, if not necessarily performances. They have won 12 of their last 13 outings in all competitions, although so far have only played two teams in La Liga’s top half. That stat isn't going to change on Saturday as Athletic – traditionally a strong European contender – have suffered a tough start to the season under new boss Jose Angel Ziganda, and currently sit 11th in the standings.

    A 1-0 home win over Sevilla was Athletic’s only victory in their last ten games in all competitions despite a reasonably modest list of opponents. The midweek draw at Formentera was another massively underwhelming result to add to a growing list. Losses against Leganes, Las Palmas and Zorya have all been low points, alongside being held by Malaga and Swedish club Ostersunds. Ziganda is already under pressure but a result in this game will alleviate it, for the time being.

    All focus will be on Valverde though as he seeks to build on Barca’s strong start to the campaign against a side whom the Catalans have won seven of their last eight meetings with.

  3. 3 Girona vs Real Madrid

    This game has been thrown into the spotlight in advance for reasons which had nothing to do with football. In the wake of the Catalan government’s decision to declare independence from Spain, doubts over whether or not the game would be played due to security issues dominated the headlines. It has overshadowed what should have been a magnificent occasion for the newly-promoted Catalan club – their first ever match against the Spanish and European champions.

    Madrid have already declared they would not use their official team bus whilst Spanish media outlets have cast doubts over whether or not authorities would call a halt to the match. No problems are expected around the stadium itself, but the political instability in the region has caused concern.

    Both clubs will be keen for the game to go ahead. For Girona, it is a huge occasion and another landmark day in their history. They’ve already held Atletico Madrid and given Barcelona again, while Zinedine Zidane’s side are far from top form and have injury concerns. 

    However, Madrid are five points off league leaders Barcelona already and are desperate to make up lost ground and fixture postponements will not help. They have won four league games in a row – although the recent fixture list has been favourable – and they will see another three points on Sunday as vital to stay in the thick of the leading pack.

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