It has been over three months of enforced stoppage due to the coronavirus outbreak but football returns to Spain on Thursday with the resumption of La Liga.
There are 11 rounds left to play in the current season in which everything from the title, to who will play in Europe next season and who goes up and down, will be decided.
In the league table, FC Barcelona hold a slender two point lead over Real Madrid and the two biggest clubs in Spain look destined to duel it out between them, with Sevilla their nearest rivals, nine points behind Madrid.
Sevilla have the honor of getting the ball rolling again on Thursday night when they face local rivals Betis and that is what will be the first indication of what the ‘new normality’ will be in the Spanish game until the end of the season.
The Seville derby is usually one of the most passionate matches in Spain, with much of the passion provided by the fans, but with empty stands in the Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium, it will be the players who have to provide that spark, despite La Liga’s initiative to offer a virtual atmosphere from the FIFA video game as an option for TV viewers.
The last matches in Spain were played on March 8 and sides were unable to return to training for almost two weeks due to the strict lockdown imposed by the Spanish government to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
When players did eventually get back, they did so first on an individual basis, then in groups of 10, progressing to groups of 14 and it was only on June 1 that clubs were able to work with their entire squads.
Bearing in mind that the enforced break due to COVID-19 was longer than most players’ summer holidays and that the ‘pre-season’ has been a lot shorter and no teams have had the chance to play preparation games, it would be no surprise if the first two or three matches of the return see games with ‘the handbrake on’ as players test their match fitness.
The general feeling is that the lack of preparation coupled with the intense schedule of a game every three or four days, with matches played in a Spanish summer is going to produce a lot of muscle injuries, despite La Liga authorizing the use of five substitutes in games to try and limit the workload.
FC Barcelona have already seen players such as Nelson Semedo, Leo Messi, Ansu Fati and Samuel Umtiti suffer problems in the return to training, while Gareth Bale and Nacho Fernandez at Real Madrid have also had injuries.
Perhaps the lack of fitness will favor the most technical sides in Spain, with those who rely on a passing game having an advantage over those who base their game on organization and work-rate.
If so, that could be good news for Barca and less positive for sides such as Atletico Madrid, although Real Madrid (who will play in their Valdebebas training ground rather than the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium) may think their deeper squad could give them the edge in the run into the end of the season when squad rotations will be vital.
The return to football in Germany has shown that the lack of supporters has taken away home advantage with home sides winning just over one in five matches and that is another factor to bear in mind.
But for the moment everything is speculation: all that is sure at the moment is that after three months of lockdown, Spaniards (and viewers around the world) will be able to watch football on their TV once again and that is a small sign that after months of sacrifice, things are slowly returning to normal.
Perhaps for this season at least, that is more important than who eventually wins the title.