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Barcelona hope Suarez return will boost title chase

FOOTBALL By BBC Online | June 12th 2020
Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (2L) argues with Real Madrid's Spanish defender Sergio Ramos during the Spanish league football match between Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on March 2, 2019. [Photo by CURTO DE LA TORRE / AFP]

LaLiga returned to action yesterday and there is plenty at stake with the title race, European places and the battle to avoid relegation all wide open.

Games will be played behind closed doors every single day so the pace will be frantic, and with a host of compelling storylines to cover here is your guide to the remainder of the Spanish season.

Suarez’s return to boost Barca?

A tight title race is in store, with Barcelona two points ahead of Real Madrid.

But neither team has convinced. Barca have particularly struggled away from home, dropping points on 11 occasions on their travels in all competitions. Financial problems are forcing coach Quique Setien, appointed in January, to work with a threadbare squad containing only 18 senior professionals (excluding Ousmane Dembele, who is out indefinitely through injury).

Setien’s resources are especially stretched in defence. With Clement Lenglet suspended and Samuel Umtiti returning from the latest of many injuries, Gerard Pique could be the only available central defender for tomorrow’s trip to Real Mallorca.

Young Uruguayan Ronald Araujo, who was sent off 14 minutes into his only previous first-team appearance, could be thrown in at the deep end.

Barca’s strength, of course, lies at the other end of the field. Lionel Messi is once again the league’s leading scorer (19 goals in 22 appearances), and a huge bonus is the return of Luis Suarez, who was set to miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury before the pause in action allowed him to recover.

But it will take more than the magical Messi-Suarez combination to secure the title, and Barca were looking disjointed and disconnected both on and off the pitch before the break.

Repeated speculation over the futures of midfielders Arthur, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal will hardly help restore unity, and guiding a small, ageing and dissatisfied squad through a hectic schedule (there is already concern over Messi after he picked up a knock in training) will be a severe challenge for Setien, who has never won a major trophy.

Can Real find consistency?

There is no such shortage of options for Zinedine Zidane, especially as the Real Madrid boss can now call upon Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio after their returns from injury.

The question, however, is which of the many front men at Zidane’s disposal can hit the target. Other than Karim Benzema, who netted 12 of his 14 league goals before January, Real’s seven forwards - including Hazard, Gareth Bale and Luka Jovic - have scored a measly 12 league goals between them all season.

Real had lost three of their four games before the interruption and, although their overall play has generally been more convincing than Barcelona’s, their lack of penalty-box precision could cost a title that should be there for the taking.

One potentially significant factor is Real’s temporary move away from the Bernabeu, which is undergoing reconstruction work. Instead, Zidane’s men will host games at the 6,000 capacity Alfredo di Stefano Stadium, located within the club’s training complex and normally used by the reserve team. (Mid-table Levante, based in Valencia, will similarly stage their home games nearly 100 miles away, near Alicante).

Playing within the confines of their training ground, Zidane’s players are obviously familiar with their temporary matchday surroundings. But the prospect of visiting a humble 6,000-seater rather than the vast Bernabeu is a far less daunting proposition for opponents and that lack of home-field advantage could be telling.

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