Atlético to continue their stunning 2023 form
Goals to be had in Pacheta's Villarreal bow
Sevilla to (finally) spark into life
Rodrygo to step up in Vinícius Júnior's absence
It feels like a while ago now, but this will be Atlético's first game in La Liga since winning 7-0 against Rayo Vallecano at the back end of August. On that night at Vallecas, Simeone's side recorded the biggest win by an away side in the Spanish top-flight since April 2016, when a Barcelona side spearheaded by Messi, Suárez and Neymar won 8-0 at Deportivo.
Essentially, it was the performance we had been waiting for. After a solid - if unspectacular - first two matches to begin the season, their win at Rayo Vallecano showed us that their top gear is still very much attainable, and that this is a team who can still hit the high notes they hit on the other side of the summer. Indeed, only Barcelona (60) have won more points than Atlético (57) in La Liga in 2023, while the Colchoneros have scored more goals than any other team (57).
For Valencia, meanwhile, their manager Rubén Baraja has made it quite clear that he's not satisfied with the state of their squad. Even after two wins from two to open the season, where their raft of recent first team promotions played their part, Baraja remained insistent that further strengthening to La Liga's youngest team needed to be done. After two defeats in their last two, and key positions left short following the deadline, the consequences are already beginning to arrive at their doorstep.
While those off-field troubles will continue to hamper Valencia and threaten the harmony that Baraja is desperately trying to maintain, Atlético will arrive on the east coast with nothing but business on their mind. I'll take the Colchoneros to build on the 7-0 win from their last away trip.
First things first, Villarreal have a new manager. After a tenure which - despite producing some very good football - suffered from constantly strained relationships between the board, coach and players, Quique Setién has gone. The new man? One of La Liga's most idiosyncratic characters, Pacheta.
The 55-year-old now stands before the opportunity of his coaching career, with a job that marks a significant change of objectives from his previous ones with Huesca and Real Valladolid. What hasn't changed is that Villarreal still have a very talented group of footballers, and it's not to say they've played particularly badly this season either. Setién's departure was widely reported to have been rooted in problems on a personal level and a struggle to align himself with his colleagues, more so than it was a team wildly underperforming.
Villarreal have the attacking talent, and Pacheta is a brave coach. Between those two factors, I expect them to be typically expressive in their quest for goals, but early on in his tenure, still a little prone to conceding poor ones themselves. You might recall the classic that was Villarreal 3-4 Barcelona played out at La Ceramica just a few weeks back, and those types of games never feel too far away with this side.
As for Almería, their games have been packed with goalmouth action too. Only Real Madrid's matches have seen more combined shots (121) than Almería's (120) this term, while only Granada (9.5) have a higher xG against total than them (7.2) so far. Vicente Moreno's side haven't always had the luck on their side, granted, but in pursuit of points their matches have tended to stray into the chaotic. And that's where Villarreal are happy to entertain you.
Make no mistake, this is close to a must-win for Sevilla and José Luis Mendilibar. With three defeats from three games to begin their league campaign and newly-promoted Las Palmas up next for them, anything less than three points would set the alarm bells ringing.
The home side had a busy end to the transfer market, bringing in attacking reinforcements in the form of Dodi Lukébakio from Hertha Berlin and Mariano Díaz from Real Madrid. The biggest news of all, however, was the homecoming of Sergio Ramos; a player who debuted for Sevilla in La Liga almost two decades ago now.
The return of the 37-year-old represents much more than his potential contribution on the pitch, and it taps into the emotion that Mendilibar's Sevilla need to generate to achieve their most effective form. On the other side of the international break, the presence of Sergio Ramos and all that he represents (enough to bring out more than 20,000 fans to his unveiling) might well be a factor that helps to return a sense of vitality to the club.
For visitors Las Palmas, their return to La Liga hasn't started overly well. They've taken two points from their first 12 available, and their only goal so far came from the penalty spot. In fact, they're the side with the lowest non-penalty xG per game (0.66) so far, despite only Real Barcelona (70%) and Real Madrid (62%) averaging more possession than the Amarillos (59%). Finding purpose to pair with their possession has been a struggle.
Sevilla won't be worried by the fact that Las Palmas could have more of the ball here. If anything, Mendilibar's side will be primed and ready for their opportunities to steal the ball and secure the resulting opportunities in transition. The quicker they play, the better they function under the 62-year-old. And for that reason, I'll take Sevilla to return with a renewed zest following the international break.
La Liga's game of the weekend, at least speaking before the fact, looks likely to come at the Santiago Bernabéu on Sunday night. Two of last season's top four sides will square off in the capital, in a game that represents the start of a demanding week for both given their involvement in the Champions League.
The name on everyone's lips with respect to Real Madrid at the moment is, of course, Jude Bellingham. La Liga's top scorer has netted in all five of his appearances for the club so far, with three of those five goals being the decisive one of the game. The question now is, given all the ways in which he affects the game, how long can he continue to directly influence results at the same time?
If they weren't already, then opposition sides will be making it a priority as to how exactly they can slow down the express train that is Bellingham. In the absence of Vinícius Júnior, Real Sociedad know that the Englishman is the player they need to stop. But this is Real Madrid, after all. When you can manage to close one door, another one opens.
That's why I fancy Rodrygo to get on the scoresheet on Sunday night. With his compatriot Vinícius Júnior injured and the spotlight squarely on Jude Bellingham, the Brazilian is their next best option to make the difference on an individual level, and in what promises to be a tough game where star talent will have to come to the fore.
Rodrygo has had more shots than any other player in La Liga this season (17), and has the fourth-highest xG in the competition since the start of last term (15.2). If it proves to be a tight game and Real Sociedad manage to limit spaces to attack, he's precisely the player who can manufacture something out of nothing.
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