La Liga is back with a bang, after a great weekend’s football. Real and Villarreal turned out to be a cracker, and elsewhere Sevilla continued their recent revival, while normal service resumed as Barcelona won big again. Back Page Football’s man in Spain, Joseph Sexton, is here to tell us all about it.
First of all, I’d like to apologise for the absence of a round-up of last week’s action on Back Page Football. Circumstances beyond my control conspired against the piece, but now we’re back and what a splendid weekend of action there is to report.
It seems only right that we should began with Sunday night’s encounter between Real and Villarreal at Bernabéu. This was clearly the standout fixture of jornada 18, and it didn’t disappoint. Villarreal’s coach Juan Carlos Garrido had said during the week that he had no plans of changing his side’s usual attack-minded approach, and he was true to his word.
Last season, he’d taken his team to this same ground to face Real, then under the custodianship of his predecessor at the Madrigal, Manuel Pellegrini. The end result was a 5-2 victory for the hosts, which -to those who missed the game- might have appeared to have been a proper hiding; it was anything but. Villarreal caused Real serious problems for 60 minutes, went ahead before being pegged back twice and it was only in the back quarter that the scoreline took on the misleading appearance of a rout.
Back in November, he took his side to the Camp Nou where their approach was similarly fearless; Barcelona ran out 3-1 winners in the end but, again, another goal at the death gave the scoreline a look that did little justice to the visitors’ endeavour.
Last night, he started with his preferred doble pivot in the centre and- with Real initially not pressing high up the field- they ran the midfield for the opening 45 minutes. They opened the scoring on 7 minutes, cutting through the heart of the home defence, with Cani providing the assist for Giuseppe Rossi to slot home cooly with the outside of his right boot; the first time in his tenure that Mourinho has found his charges fall behind on home soil.
But Cristiano Ronaldo, who had yet another one of those nights where he is just simply unplayable, popped up two minutes later to score an undeserved equaliser. Villarreal defended manfully for the most part throughout the the first half, so leaving the Portuguese predator completely free at the far post to tap in Ozil’s cross was a shocking lapse in concentration.
Villarreal remained in complete control of the game and hit the front once more on 18 minutes through the impressive Marco Ruben, covering again for Villarreal’s top scorer, the still-injured Nilmar. And that’s how it should have stayed. Real were struggling to get any kind of hold on the game; and as José Mourinho admittedly candidly after the game, had Villarreal gone in leading 3-1 at the break it would have by no means flattered the visitors. But- who else- Ronaldo, Cristiano de Oro as Marca dubbed him this morning, again leveled matters right on the stroke of half time. This time, he was one of three home players unmarked as Xabi Alonso floated in a free-kick from deep; yet another unforgivable lapse.
The second half was another matter entirely. Mourinho altered the positions of his starting line-up, and Real exerted ever-increasing pressure. Over the course of the half, he removed Lass for Sami Khedira, moved Sergio Ramos to the centre of the defence, and introduced Kaká. With Khedira playing more or less at right back, and Xabi Alonso as the sole holding midfielder, that left Real with an attacking five of Ronaldo, Ozil, Angel di Maria and the returning Brazilian playing off Karim Benzema. Marcelo, meanwhile, bombed forward from left back at will.
Now it was Villarreal who found themselves simply unable to play, overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers and attacking quality. It is to their great credit that they held out as long as they did, but eventually they buckled. With ten minutes remaing, two monents decided the match. First, Ronaldo secured the match ball, and then two minutes later provided the pass for Kaká to seal the deal. It had been hard-fought. They had rode their luck at times, but in the end they just had too much for the visitors and shaded what had been an incredibly enjoyable game of football. Though Mourinho’s celebrations in front of the Villarreal bench after the fourth were unecessarily disrespectful, with tempers flaring mometarily before matters cooled, he was very frank and fair in his post match assessment.
“Cristiano is a blessing for Madridismo. We wouldn’t trade him for anyone. He always appears when we need him.” said Jorge Valdano last night. Well, there are those who will, justifiably, point to his failures against Barcelona. And while this is undeniable, these have also been team failures, cases of one very good side being utterly unable to get to grips with a truly stellar one.
But in his 18 months with Madrid he has dragged this team out of more holes than anyone cares to count. A record of 50 goals in 48 La Liga games could be blamed on an unequal league; but 65 in 63 in all competitons is not to be sniffed at.
On Saturday, Barcelona ran out 4-0 winners at the Riazor against Deportivo La Coruña. David Villa opened the scoring midway through the first half, with Lionel Messi extending the margin shortly after the interval with a peach of an effort. Two rapid goals on the 80 minute mark, from Iniesta followed by Pedro, provided the gloss.
Maybe- just maybe- we can pronounce the crisis at Sevilla to be at an end. In an exciting encounter, they overcame Real Sociedad in the Basque country. Okay; some of the familiar frailties were still on show. Their defence remains more rickety than Shaking Stevens with Parkinson’s disease at times, and they fell behind twice. But goals, two from Frederic Kanouté and significantly, from Luis Fabiano, saw them clinch a deserved 3-2 win. Given the tight nature of this season’s league, this second win on the bounce moves them up to 10th; a point off the Euopa league places, and 8 behind fourth placed Valencia.
And speaking of Valencia; they made the short journey across town to Levante in the late kick-off on Sunday. Little Levante like nothing better than putting manners on their glamorous neighbours, and the result was an ugly game, littered with fouls, some very nasty indeed. Juan Mata missed a penalty in the first half, but made amends 7 minutes from time to secure the narrowest of victories from an offside position.
Elsewhere, Espanyol thumped an abject Zaragoza 4-0 at Cornella; Mallorca won by a 4-1 margin against Almería, moving level on points with 7th placed Getafe. Manuel Pellegrini’s Málaga picked up a point at home to Athletic Bilbao, but were denied all three by a last minute Javí Martínez strike; and lowly Osasuna picked up a uesful point at home against Getafe.
Naturally the papers- at least those based in Catalonia- were dominated by speculation and opinion on tonight’s Ballon d’Or awards. The first time ever that three players from the same club have been nominated; Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi. With the announcement imminent, it seems facile to dwell on this issue right now, and this piece will be updated later after the announcement from FIFA HQ. But there was strong prior consensus within Spain, amongst fans and media, that Xavi should win it, but Iniesta probably will; a sentiment this writer concurs with. Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport broke the news of the final shortlist a day before its official announcement, and also claimed Iniesta was already ordained the overall winner.
So, shortly after this piece was published it was confirmed. Andrés Iniesta did not win the Ballon d’Or. No Spaniard did (unless you count his second passport). It’s now been more than 50 years since the last Spanaird, Luis Suarez, took the gong. Once again, the little wizard from Rosario, Lionel Messi scooped the award. He claimed to be ‘surprised’, but happy to celebrate with his two close friends and team-mates. Should we be surprised? Well maybe. But, no; not really.
It’s taken as a given that in a World Cup year, the FIFA showpiece plays a deciding role. That’s certainly been true as long as the memory serves; a one-two of Fabio Cannavaro and Gigi Buffon in 2006. Cannavaro had an super-human world cup, defying his already-ravaged legs, and had his moments at Real that year (most notably in the 2-0 win over Barcelona in the opening clásico of the season). But he hardly covered himself at glory with club level with Real or indeed Juve (the Arsenal defeat in the Champions League that spring being a particular case in point, but far from an isolated one) Ronaldo scored more goals than any player since Just Fontaine in the 2002 World Cup but started less than 20 matches all year; surely, the man who won more, Roberto Carlos, and the man who won nothing, Michael Ballack, had better cases. Going back further, Zinedine Zidane in 1998 and Lothar Matthaus in 1990 were at least pretty much nailed-on choices.
But in truth, we should see this as refreshing. Messi has had a phenomenal year. And he did not have as bad a world cup as many would claim. Yes, he didn’t score; despite having more shots on goal than any other player in the tournament who failed to find the net. Bad tactics and just plain old bad luck played their parts here. Argentina have no Xavi, and no Dani Alves either; both of those players are key to the freedom afforded to permit Messi to do what he does best at Barca. But by any other measure, it’s hard to argue that this should be a ‘shock’. 60 goals in 64 competitive starts for club and country tells its own story. His four goal haul against Arsenal back in the spring might rank as the best individual attacking performance of any given year, except that it wasn’t even his best of this year. In truth there was little between Messi and Xavi this year, and it seems right that both ranked ahead of Andrés Iniesta. His time will come. For Xavi, one must feel that if he didn’t win it off the back of this year, he might well never do so.
Back to the Liga, where the week was rounded off in Alicante. Oh dear. Atlético did what they do best- blow up just as things had started to appear to be going swimmingly for them. No-one can deny that Hércules have been having a fine season in the top flight. They’ve produced several staggering results so far, most notably that opening day victory over Barcelona. But if grit and fight have been their calling cards, goals most certainly haven’t; going in tonight’s game, they’d scored 18 in 17 matches. But this is Atlético we’re speaking about. Four first half goals from Tote, Valdez, Thomert and Trezeguet had sealed long-since Atléti’s humiliation. A fine consolation strike from José Antonio Reyes in the 89th minute will have been anything but in reality. But on the back of their recent upturn, they are still well placed; still in 6th spot, albeit now level on points with Getafe and Mallorca. Ahead, the gap widens to 4 and 7 points respectively set against Espanyol and Valencia. Who knows how this season will end for the capital’s second club, but if history- and tonight- has taught us anything, it’s sure going to be an exciting ride.
Malaga 1 Athletic Bilbao 1
Real Sociedad 2 Sevilla 3
Deportivo La Coruña 0 Barcelona 4
Espanyol 4 Real Zaragoza 0
Mallorca 4 Almería 1
Osasuna 0 Getafe 0
Racing Santander 1 Sporting Gijon 1
Real Madrid 4 Villarreal 2
Levante 0 Valencia 1
Hércules 4 Atlético 0
Joseph is BackPageFootball.com’s Spanish expert, reporting directly from Barcelona, and you can follow him on Twitter.