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La Liga returns to action as Atletico, Real & Barca face sub-par rivals

After a seven-week hiatus, La Liga returns to action on Thursday, with out-of-sorts Atletico Madrid embarking on the daunting task of reinstating themselves in the top four.

Diego Simeone’s men headed into the World Cup break winless in three straight league matches against bottom-half opposition (D1, L2) and are no longer in the title picture.

However, they’ll hope to get back to winning ways after the restart as basement boys Elche arrive at the Metropolitano Stadium, providing Los Colchoneros with a perfect chance to launch a new winning run.

Defending champions Real Madrid will make their La Liga return on Friday away to mid-table Real Valladolid, keen to bridge a two-point deficit on table-topping Barcelona.

Los Blancos blew hot and cold across their three top-flight fixtures on the eve of the mid-season break (W1, D1, L1), but with Karim Benzema back to full fitness, they are optimistic about regaining consistency. 

Last but not least, leaders Barcelona will host city rivals Espanyol at the Spotify Camp Nou on Saturday, aiming to pick up where they left off in November. 

The break was possibly poorly-timed for Xavi Hernandez’s men as they were on an eye-catching five-match winning streak in La Liga, racking up four victories ‘to nil’ in that span. 

Atletico Madrid vs Elche – Thursday, 29/12/2022

Atletico’s final La Liga outing in 2022 should be plain sailing for Simeone’s side. But if Los Colchoneros’ performances in the young league season are anything to go by, they cannot take anything for granted.

They spent the World Cup break in fifth, albeit level on points with fourth-placed Athletic Bilbao, yet after drawing their last two home league games, they must beat Elche at all costs.

Pinned to the bottom of the standings as the only La Liga team yet to pick up a single win this term (D4, L10), the visitors look like a doomed outfit before the kick-off.

However, Elche performed a managerial change in November, appointing Pablo Machin as their new chief of staff in the club’s last-ditch attempt to haul back an eight-point deficit on safety.

Though Machin marked his touchline debut with a 3-0 humbling of CD Guadalajara in Copa del Rey, his underwhelming five-match H2H record against Atletico (D3, L2) tells a different story.

Real Valladolid vs Real Madrid – Friday, 30/12/2022

Forced to play catch-up on Barcelona following a shocking 3-2 defeat at Rayo Vallecano on their most recent La Liga travel, Madrid will be looking to rectify that mistake at the Estadio Jose Zorrilla. 

Despite losing their last two competitive away matches via an identical 3-2 scoreline, they can draw confidence from winning three consecutive top-flight away H2Hs against Valladolid by an aggregate score of 6-1.

Los Merengues should not underestimate their hosts based on their recent H2H fortunes, especially considering Los Pucelanos’ home form before the break.

Pacheta’s men were enjoying a sublime three-match winning league streak on home turf before the seven-week hiatus curtailed their momentum, suggesting they’ll likely give Madrid a run for their money.

Barcelona vs Espanyol – Saturday, 31/12/2022

Barcelona may have suffered back-to-back group-stage eliminations for only the second time in the club’s history, but they’ve been nothing short of impressive in domestic proceedings. 

Except for a 3-1 El Clasico defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu, the Catalan giants have gone unbeaten in all 13 remaining fixtures in La Liga this term (W12, D1) to seize the top spot heading to New Year’s Day.

To stay there, though, Barca will have to overcome the absence of standout striker Robert Lewandowski, who will miss the next three league matches due to suspension. 

Without the man responsible for 18 goals in 19 appearances in his debut season in Spain, Xavi will have to turn to others to deliver the goods against relegation-battling Espanyol.

Los Periquitos embraced the mid-season break with their arms wide open after a disappointing five-game winless La Liga run (D3, L2) condemned them to a scary-looking 16th place, one point clear of the danger zone.

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