Why Barcelona's reliance on MSN makes Madrid title favourites

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Zinedine Zidane's side have returned to first place and the stats suggest their extra quality in reserve could see them claim the title in May


Real Madrid are back on top of La Liga. And although Los Blancos needed a late winner from Sergio Ramos to win all three points at home to Betis on Sunday, the stats show their extra strength in depth could see them claim the title as Barcelona continue to rely upon Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.

With Neymar out injured, Barca lost 2-1 away to Deportivo La Coruna at Riazor on Sunday and Madrid's win at home to Betis by the same scoreline later in the day means Zinedine Zidane's side are now two points clear of the Catalans in first place, and still with a game in hand.

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Messi has 23 goals for Barca in La Liga in 2016-17, with Suarez on 21 and Neymar eight. Ivan Rakitic has five, but of the players who are not usually first choice for Luis Enrique's side, only Rafinha (six) is a regular scorer. Arda Turan has netted three times in the Primera Division, summer signing Paco Alcacer only twice, Denis Suarez once and Andre Gomes not at all.

For Madrid, the goals are much more spread out. Cristiano Ronaldo leads the scoring charts in La Liga for Los Blancos with 19, while Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale have seven apiece, along with Ramos. But of the players who are not considered first choice, Alvaro Morata has eight, Isco six, Marco Asensio three and James Rodriguez two.

Marco Asensio Alvaro Morata Real Madrid Deportivo LaLiga Santander

So even though Barca's MSN trident has scored more than Madrid's BBC strikeforce in the current campaign, that is also partly due to injuries for the Real trio and in any case, Opta's Expected Goals (xG) model suggests that Zidane's men have superior strength in reserve than their fierce rivals - which was also clear at the weekend as some of the Catalans' second string struggled at Riazor.

The xG model assigns a value on every shot between 0 and 1 that reflects how likely a player is to score that given chance, based on the distance to the goal, angle to the goal and various other factors. A player’s xG per 90 minutes is the average xG that a player generates adjusted for 90 minutes played - so that they are comparable across different players with varying minutes played.

Ronaldo has the best ratio, with an xG p90 at 0.91 - almost a goal per game. Messi (0.71) and Suarez (0.67) are Barca's best in that respect, the latter level with Morata (also 0.67) - even though the Madrid man has obviously started far fewer matches.

Benzema (with an XG p90 of 0.61) and Bale (0.51) are the only other players with a number above 0.5 (which is exactly what Alcacer has despite only scoring two league goals this term), with Neymar down on 0.43.

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In terms of assists, Barca's are unsurprisingly dominated by Messi (seven), Suarez (nine) and Neymar (eight). And of the fringe forwards and midfielders, Arda has three, Rafinha and Denis Suarez two each, with Alcacer and Gomes on one. Again, Madrid's are much more spread out here and in fact, it is the players who are not considered starters that excel in this area.

Sergio Ramos Lucas Vazquez Real Madrid Sevilla UEFA Super Cup 08092016

While Benzema has four, Ronaldo three and Bale two, Madrid's most prolific players in terms of assists are Isco and James (with five apiece), followed by Lucas Vazquez (four) and Morata (two).

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A look at Opta's xA p90 (expected assists per 90 minutes played) is interesting because Lucas has the best ratio of any player of either of the two teams (with 0.52). The Madrid man is followed by Messi (0.45), James (0.43), Neymar (0.37), Arda (0.3) Bale (0.29), Isco (0.23) and Ronaldo (0.22).

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So while Barcelona rely heavily - and understandably - on their MSN trident to succeed in attack, Madrid can count on a number of other players to freshen up their forward line in terms of both goals and assists. And with both teams likely to rotate with games coming thick and fast in Europe and at home in the coming weeks, Real's strength in reserve could give them the edge in the race for La Liga.