Real Madrid look ominous on La Liga return, Barca fail to fire vs. Villarreal
Five thoughts from the weekend's action as Real Madrid strengthened their lead in the La Liga title race, with Barcelona slipping up again.
1. Madrid physically flying after winter break
Any fears that Real Madrid might suffer a similar fate to 2015, when they returned after the winter break as world champions and promptly lost their first two games of the new year, were misplaced.
Zinedine Zidane's side have begun 2017 in a whirlwind of intensity, with Saturday's 5-0 demolition of Granada being their second super focused showing of the new year. Isco's opening goal came after his forward players pressed high up the pitch to regain the ball and then struck quickly and lethally. This followed a similar forcing of a mistake which was ruthlessly punished by James Rodriguez in the midweek 3-0 Copa del Rey victory over Sevilla.
After Madrid had equalled the all-time Spanish club record of 39 unbeaten consecutive games, senior squad members Luka Modric and Marcelo both said the winter break had been used for a "mini preseason" with fitness coach Antonio Pintus, and the clear La Liga leaders were the earliest of all sides to return to work after Christmas.
"The most important thing [for the high press] is the physical work we've put in," Zidane confirmed at his postgame news conference.
"Having a week for a mini preseason has been very good for us to start the year this way. Now we must just continue like this."
2. Messi saves Barca but still two points dropped
Lionel Messi's perfect 90th minute free kick saved Barcelona's blushes in Sunday evening's 1-1 draw at Villarreal, but this was still two points dropped by Luis Enrique's side at the newly renamed Estadio de la Ceramica.
Barca were enraged by the referee missing a clear handball in the area soon after Nicola Sansone had made it 1-0 by finishing a super counter-attack lead by Alexandre Pato, but Villarreal also had an equally clear call for a penalty as the game stretched late on.
Anyway Blaugrana fans, pundits and players would be better off forgetting the conspiracy theories and looking at how -- Messi aside -- badly out of form their team are at the moment.
Luis Enrique's strange decision to leave an apparently fit Ivan Rakitic out of his match squad, and keep faith in the struggling Andre Gomes in midfield, looked even more baffling by full-time. Meanwhile Neymar has now gone 11 games without scoring, and the bench lacks reliable attacking cover.
All this left Barca in third place, five points behind leaders Madrid, who have a game in hand. Without Messi's six goals in his last six league games they would be even further back. With him they still have a chance to make up the deficit.
3. Sevilla make a statement
Sevilla's thumping 4-0 victory at Real Sociedad on Saturday night was certainly a startling result, especially considering La Real had been unbeaten at home since August.
After their limp 3-0 Copa defeat at the Bernabeu midweek, coach Jorge Sampaoli returned to his usual three man defence and Sevilla overwhelmed Real Sociedad, who started confidently enough but were forced into mistakes and soundly beaten by the end.
Wissam Ben Yedder got a deserved hat trick and assisted the other for substitute Pablo Sarabia. All three finishes from the €9 million summer signing from Toulouse were impressively assured, and after a slow start the 26-year-old now has a goal every 94 minutes of action in La Liga this term.
Sampaoli's side are back up in second spot, and they can move to within a point of Madrid by defeating the leaders at the Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan next Sunday evening.
4. Atletico need Griezmann back scoring regularly
Atletico Madrid got a welcome three points at Eibar on Saturday afternoon as they came through a tough battle thanks to a Saul Niguez (offside) header and Antoine Griezmann's first strike in La Liga since October.
When Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro were firing early in the season Atletico were top of the table at one point, while coach Diego Simeone then lamented missed chances from his players as the team dropped points through November and December.
The Argentine said on Saturday evening that this game had not been so different from many others recently, but it was vital for his side that their hard work at the back was then complemented by strikers making the most of their opportunities.
"We depend a lot on Griezmann's form to complete the work of the team," Simeone said. "The same as Fernando [Torres] and [Kevin] Gameiro."
The result pushed Atletico back up into fourth spot and the impression was further strengthened that they need their forwards to return to regular goalscoring form and quickly.
5. Alaves keep away run going
Although Athletic Bilbao's 0-0 draw with Alaves on Sunday lunchtime was not the most spectacular 90 minutes of the weekend, it again showed just how good Mauricio Pellegrino's men are away from home.
Athletic dominated possession and forced 13 corners to four, but were unable to find a way through a resolute Alaves defence. The visitors might even have won all three points, as Victor Camarasa hit the woodwork in a one-on-one with Los Leones keeper Gorka Iraizoz well beaten.
This was far from a once-off as Alaves have now added San Mames to the Estadio Vicente Calderon, Camp Nou and El Madrigal in difficult grounds where they've picked up points. Their away record is now won three, drawn three and lost three, conceding just nine times in nine games.
It's a quite phenomenal achievement for a newly promoted team, and a real credit to the training ground work of coach Pellegrino.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan