“We are two points behind and we have 11 finals left,” said Zinedine Zidane the day before Real Madrid resumed their season against Eibar last weekend. Amid the excitement of La Liga’s return, along with the match being his 200th in charge of Real Madrid, Zidane reminded his side of the immediacy of a title race against Barcelona. Their last match before the suspension in play in March was a 2-1 loss to Real Betis, capped by a former Barcelona youth player Cristian Tello scoring a goal off a wayward pass from Karim Benzema. Looking back, the loss is most notable for the anachronism of supporters at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium spurring Betis towards the upset. <
Then again, Toni Kroos scored four minutes into Real Madrid’s 3-1 win against Eibar. Barcelona topped that by scoring 65 seconds into their match against Mallorca, easily winning 4-0. The quick starts were a reality check for both teams’ world class, match-changing quality, with or without live supporters. Even with the 93 days between matches and the unfamiliarity of empty stadiums, the usual La Liga structures prevailed.
There were other tangible, though lighter changes reflecting the past three months. If this were a movie, Lionel Messi’s shaved beard would be a symbol of a newly recharged character. Indeed, he had two assists and a goal against Mallorca while becoming the first player in league history to score 20 goals in 12 consecutive seasons. Messi admitted that he was re-inspired by the time away from the game and saw the game as “a gift” to “create joy for others.” Sergio Ramos showed up with a beard and promptly scored a goal off an assist from Eden Hazard, who was supposed to miss the rest of the season with a fractured ankle. That Zidane could rely upon a now fully fit Hazard showed how the layoff between matches was not evenly distributed among teams. Hazard admitted he was out of shape to start the season after scoring just 1 goal in 11 matches. He reportedly “worked like an animal” under lockdown and returned to the club looking “like an airplane.”
The stoppage gave several stars a chance to recover mentally and physically to salvage their disappointing seasons. The timing also allowed the likes of Quique Setien to further implement his possession style after taking over from Ernesto Valverde in January. It was the first time he was able to work with Barcelona’s squad without the pressure of matches, and the results were immediate: Marc-Andre ter Stegen completed the most passes by a keeper in a match since 2005. In fact, Setien may have benefitted the most from the suspension in play. Setien oversaw the emergency purchase of Martin Braithwaite to replace the injured Luis Suarez, who was to not only miss the remainder of the season, but also leave the club. And now, the Uruguayan striker also returned for the squad under the unexpected circumstances.
“He has been spectacular,” said Setien of Suarez and of the fortune of having a player of that quality fall into their lap out of nowhere. But those are the advantages of Barcelona’s resources.
Diego Costa and Joao Felix’s seasons were also slowed down by injury prior to the March suspension. Costa scored in Atletico Madrid’s return match, but this final stretch run is especially significant for Felix in justifying his $141 million transfer fee. The 20-year-old Portuguese attacker, who had two goals in his prior 19 matches, doubled his season tally in a 5-0 win over Osasuna. There was other changes within Diego Simeone’s side: longtime assistant manager Mono Burgos, whose imposing figure was once described as the “Atletico’s raging bull,” announced that he would be leaving the club after the season to pursue a top position. Former club captain Gabi is rumored as his replacement.
The Bundesliga’s month-long head start gave us an idea of what to expect within the ghost game environment. Without the gamesmanship egged on by supporters, the ball spent more time in play. Just 21.7% of home teams won their matches, down from 43.3% with supporters. Whereas once we may have believed that the newness of the environment could be an equalizer for smaller sides, the five substitution rule further entrenched the more skilled sides. Emboldened by a 3-0 halftime lead against Eibar, Zidane subbed on the following players: Eder Militao, Gareth Bale, Fede Valverde, Ferland Mendy, and Vinicius Junior. The total transfer fee of those five players - $273 million - is almost five times the valuation of Eibar’s entire roster of $58 million.
And while the Bundesliga introduced artificial crowd noise for television audiences, La Liga not only hired EA Sports to soundtrack their matches with over 800 sound clips, but also created “virtual fans” to populate the stadium. If the pandemic is truly responsible for speeding up the future, that decision further blends augmented reality and a screen in an attempt to create an indistinguishable sporting experience. Yet is the goal to replicate the realness of a packed stadium to fool viewers, or should television acknowledge the artifice of the situation? EA Sports noted that they would use noise recorded from each specific stadium, thereby adding authenticity in mimicking how they believe a home crowd would react to a given moment.
Even those conversations of virtual fans may be outdated soon. La Liga president Javier Tebas suggested that supporters could return by the end of this season. Tebas said that bringing supporters back to stadiums, even at 10%-15% capacity, would be “a sign that we are getting back to some form of normality.” Las Palmas claimed that they were ready to play with supporters now. Though Tebas brought levity to the optimism of live stadiums, saying that the true celebration would come when the top two divisions are able to completely finish their seasons.
The matches swiftly continued after the opening weekend. The season will finish with a sprint of 32 consecutive match days into July, with a brief break before the final two matches. Reiterating a common theme throughout the pandemic, Tebas placed societal responsibility on players to remain safe and be able to close out the season.
The rapid-fire schedule inevitably lead to discussions of sporting fairness. Analysts claimed that even Real Madrid were at a disadvantage as they had to finish their opening four matches at midnight as opposed to Barcelona’s more reasonable game times. Sevilla got an extra day to rest before their 1-1 draw against Levante on Monday. But what is fairness anyway, considering the past three months? Closing out this season is part logistics in deciding European and relegation places, part fulfilling a television contract. The aesthetics and the meaning of it all will come in the offseason. And regardless of whether there are 32 straight days of matches in empty stadiums, or the slow drip of a season played out over nine months, the fundamental truths remain, of how clubs with the most resources somehow always find their way to the top.