Tim Stannard looks ahead to the weekend in La Liga, as Luis Enrique's side seek to make amends...
It's not just the case of absence making the heart grow fonder, but La Liga Loca has a feeling from its feet to its upper follicles that the weekend ahead is going to be a belter. It will end up with Real Madrid being one point behind Barcelona, and Valencia showing themselves to be title challengers. Alternatively, all the top four will win and we'll end the weekend as we started. Could go either way.
Can Welsh win reset Bale’s Real Madrid button?
Many, many years ago – too many – Catatonia declared that every day when they wake up, they thank the lord they're Welsh. Fine sentiments. Gareth Bale probably does too, as the footballer got to return to a football team where he's the Top Dog, the Main Man and the No.1.
It's the complete opposite to being a player at his club, where he brings the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo for free-kicks just so the Portuguese pouter can fire it into the stands. Again.
Like an OXO cube in rehab, Bale’s stock was rock bottom going into the international break post-Clásico. Fortunately, a sprightly performance in a win against Israel didn't go unnoticed by a good-news-seeking Madrid press that see his reputation now rising again.
A midday date with Granada should be a chance for Bale to turn some doubters at the Santiago Bernabéu into hollering cheerleaders, although the Andalusian side have demonstrated an ability to not so much stop Real Madrid in their tracks as slow them down a little in recent encounters.
Real Madrid vs Granada: Sunday 12.00 CEST
Can Valencia show leadership qualities?
LLL has put rather a lot of faith in Valencia – indeed, it even has an actual bet for real money against a doubter that the east coast club finishes five points from the top of the table when all is done and dusted.
The blog even has a sneaky feeling that the team could finish second for the good reason that it has absolutely nothing to do in midweek except have pampering spa days and prepare for the weekend.
This is in very stark contrast to the more gruelling couple of months that await Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Champions League. Indeed, two more Clásicos could even see Valencia sneaking in and winning the whole shebang.
A more relaxed footballing calendar has seen Valencia blast through La Primera’s middle order by picking up 11 wins from 14. But a true test of the team’s gumption lies ahead on Sunday with the visit of Villarreal, a team that can either be very good or very flaky.
Valencia vs Villarreal: Sunday 17.00 CEST
Will Barça undo Clásico work against Celta?
A flutter-mad LLL has done it again with the betting, even for the Barcelona game, with an actual milkshake up for grabs if the Catalans drop points against Celta Vigo. Which they will.
Leo Messi has spent two weeks hanging about in New Jersey in Bruce Springsteen fashion, unable to play for Argentina due to a foot knock – healed as soon as he returned to Barcelona apparently.
Neymar faced a good kicking from Gary Medel and a tough test against France, while the rest of the squad went about their business in various qualifiers and friendlies around the globe.
A post-Clásico lull may also come into play as well as the fact that, on their day, Celta Vigo are a fine team, as shown with a stunning win at the Camp Nou earlier this season. Beware Barca. Here be dragons.
Celta Vigo vs Barcelona: Sunday 21.00 CEST
Should Sevilla save future by self-destructing?
In the US of A, there is a tradition for teams in most sports with a draft system to deliberately tank at the end of the season so as to qualify for the better draft picks. The idea is that the worst team gets the best players in order to keep the competition frosty and fresh.
Sevilla may want to tweak this notion by flopping a touch at the tail end of the season. At least in La Liga, anyway. AS is reporting that Milan aren't just after Unai Emery but nearly half the starting line-up, with five players (including Carlos Bacca) being targeted by the suffering Serie A side.
Making the campaign look a little worse starts with the visit of Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, a team that has Aritz Aduriz back in action and therefore the chance of a real-life striker scoring a real-life goal in the game.
Sevilla vs Athletic Bilbao: Saturday 16.00 CEST
A Friday night pluck fest in the Basque Country
Friday sees a battle between a plucky, loveable, battling, against-all-odds, take-a-look-at-me-now, people hanging out of the windows of neighbouring flats to see the pitch from the north of Spain club, against a plucky, loveable, battling, against-all-odds, take-a-look-at-me-now, people hanging out of the windows of neighbouring flats to see the pitch from Capital City club. It’s Eibar against Rayo.
The clash won’t really be about whether Eibar can grab a win to thrust the side away from the relegation zone, or if Rayo can edge towards a safe mid-table spot after picking up three precious points.
It’s all about which team is the most cuddly and has the biggest pat-on-the-head factor. It’s going to be a Friday night whimsy explosion. Not to be missed.
Eibar vs Rayo Vallecano: Friday 20.45 CEST
How long will Elche’s vow of silence last?
The original plan at this point was to give a full account of the effulgent Elche players, delighted that La Liga was back and ready to kick off a spirited campaign to save their Primera skins from a relegation fight.
But on Wednesday, the Elche players announced – silently, LLL assumes – that they would not be fulfilling any media or institutional commitments until further notice.
That notice is when the club’s footballers are paid March and April’s wages, and the bonuses due for Elche staying up last season. The players are in a 'money is on the way' situation which went so well at Parma.
Of course, Elche’s proud players now have a chance to let their football do the talking against Espanyol on Monday. Or simply, think 'stuff this' and turn up for an inevitable 3-0 defeat.
Espanyol vs Elche: Monday 20.00 CEST
Will Córdoba end up in Atlético’s Riktatorship?
“We are not as dead as people think,” was the warning from Córdoba goalkeeper Juan Carlos ahead of the visit of Atlético Madrid, a club built for zombie-slaying if ever there was one.
Indeed, it looks quite likely that the Rojiblancos will be going all Rick Grimes on a team that's bottom of the table with just three league wins in 28. Could be messy.
Córdoba vs Atletico Madrid: Saturday 18.00 CEST